Professor Longhair - No Buts, No Maybes (Specialty 549)
No Buts, No Maybes
Goin' Back To New Orleans
HENRY ROELAND BYRDYes, it's that time of year again, folks. As we gear up here for the annual pilgrimage to the Crescent City, I figured we'd check in with the man behind the curtain, the progenitor... the guy Allen Toussaint refers to as "The Bach of Rock" - the one and only Professor Longhair.
'Roy' Byrd came up on the streets of New Orleans in the twenties and thirties. Nicknamed 'Whirlwind' as a kid, his incredible tap-dancing moves helped him pick up the nickels on the streets. It was the time of the 'barrelhouse' piano players, and Roy was fascinated by the sounds he heard coming from the cat-houses and second-story joints that were all around him. Before long, he was smuggling himself inside, and watching the likes of Sullivan Rock, Kid Stormy Weather and Tuts Washington work their popular 'stride' style of boogie-woogie. Byrd would develop his own unique left-hand 'roll', and was soon playing for tips himself at any place that would have him.
According to Jeff Hannusch, Byrd landed his first real gig at the Cotton Club on Rampart Street working with Champion Jack Dupree. He goes on to say that "the relationship of Dupree and Longhair has for the most part been overlooked. Dupree, though eight years older, learned to play from Longhair in exchange for singing lessons..." Although I can't imagine anybody actually teaching Fess to sing like that, it must have been something to watch! Times were hard, and Byrd joined up with the Civilian Conservation Corps for a while to try and make ends meet, then was drafted into the Army in 1942. After being sidelined by health issues, he ended up back on Rampart Street, where he and a friend opened up a restaurant called 'Jimmy Hicks Barbecue Pit'. When he wasn't busy in the kitchen, Roy kept up his chops on the beat-up piano in the front room.
When the post-war R&B explosion started to hit big there in New Orleans, he was ready. Dave Bartholomew's band was holding down a regular gig at the Caldonia Inn, and when his piano man Salvatore Doucette took a break one night, Byrd asked if he could 'sit in'. As legend has it, no-one had ever heard anything quite like what he was doing before, and people started pouring in off the streets. Mike Tessitore, the owner of the club, liked that idea and supposedly fired Bartholomew so he could install Byrd as the leader of the new house band. It was Tessitore that came up with the name 'Professor Longhair', and his 'Four-Hairs Combo' at that point included Walter 'Papoose' Nelson, the guitarist who would later join Fats Domino's outfit. It was at the Caldonia that he first met Robert Parker, who would become his regular sax player after joining him on a few gigs across the river.
It was at places like Kohlmen's Tavern in Algiers and The Pepper Pot in Gretna that he started to put together the repertoire that he worked for the rest of his life. Byrd started getting noticed, and signed with the Texas based Star Talent label in 1949. Credited to 'Professor Longhair and the Shuffling Hungarians', the two 78s they released on him contained seminal versions of Mardi Gras In New Orleans and She Ain't Got No Hair, but were soon withdrawn when the company went under. Mercury was next in line, and signed him to a contract. In the meantime, Byrd was also moonlighting with the rollicking George Miller & His Mid-Driffs, alternating piano duties with Alex 'Duke' Burrell.
What happened next was one of the late Ahmet Ertegun's favorite stories. He had heard about Longhair and, along with his partner Herb Abramson, made a 1949 journey to New Orleans to find him. After the white taxi driver refused to take them any further, they were let off in an empty field across the river in Algiers. Ertegun: "Far away we could see some lights... as we approached the village, we saw this house, which was bulging in and out... from far away it looked, actually, as if people were falling out the windows. The music was blaring, we thought 'My God, there's a fantastic band in there'... What I thought had been an R&B band turned out to be Professor Longhair by himself. He was sitting there with a microphone between his legs... he had a drum head attached to the piano. He would hit it with his right foot while he was playing... and he was playing the piano and singing full blast, and it really was the most incredible sounding thing I ever heard... and I said 'My God, no white person has ever seen this, man'" Imagine? Although he had signed with Mercury, they hadn't recorded him as yet, and Ertegun arranged a session at Cosimo Matassa's J&M studio on Rampart Street the next day, with members of the Mid-Driffs. Those first Atlantic sides were released in 1950 under three different names (apparently to avoid problems with Mercury) but didn't sell much.
Mercury finally got around to cutting Longhair in February of 1950, when they sent their A&R man Murray Nash down to Sugar Town to hold a marathon seven artist, two day session at National Recorders, where they apparently got a better deal than Cosimo was willing to give them. The band, once again, consisted of George Miller and his Mid-Driffs which now included a young sax sensation named Lee Allen. A reworking of his second Star Talent record, Mercury released Bald Head by 'Roy Byrd & His Blues Jumpers' that August. No doubt helped by Irv Green's connections with the guys on the jukebox routes, it just took off, climbing into the top 5 on Billboard's new 'Rhythm & Blues' chart. When the follow-up record, Hadacol Bounce, was withdrawn in the wake of an FTC crackdown on the 'patent medicine' market, Mercury replaced it with the rocking Oh Well. After some kind of disagreement with Byrd about royalties, Mercury apparently lost interest.
Longhair next signed with Federal, who would release two singles on him in 1951 under the moniker Roy "Bald Head" Byrd, in an attempt to cash in on his earlier success. It didn't work, and despite the quality of songs like Curly Haired Baby, nothing much was shaking, and they let him go. In 1952, he was part of a package tour that also featured Dave Bartholomew and Fats Domino, and he was recorded in St. Louis by the tiny Wasco label which released an abysmal single they credited to 'Roy Boyd'.
In November of 1953, Atlantic was back on the scene, and new partner Jerry Wexler brought Byrd back to J&M to record with the crack studio band that Cosimo had put together. At that point it consisted of Lee Allen, Red Tyler, Edgar Blanchard and Earl Palmer and the sides they cut at that session are among his absolute best. Tipitina b/w In The Night was released as a single in March of 1954, and although it did well locally, it didn't make the national charts. I'm not sure what happened at that point, but that would be his last single for Atlantic, who was about to hit it big with another artist they had recorded on that same trip, Ray Charles.
By most accounts, Byrd suffered a mild stroke in 1955, which affected his playing. Mac Rebennack, who met him right around this time hanging around J&M and Joe Assunto's 'One-Stop' record shop, tells it differently; "Fess had just gotten busted on a reefer charge during Mardi Gras. Fess, who loved reefer, gave a deck to this character named Beatnick who turned out to be a narc. The upshot of this piece of law 'n' order was that Fess couldn't work clubs in New Orleans for a while, because the club owners caught too much heat from narcotics agents... he turned to making a living at card games... He'd go play Piddy-Pat and Coon-Cane all night, and in the afternoon he'd work the One-Stop Record Shop, filling out the cards for the jukeboxes..." What a trip.
Like Papa Dip before him, Fess 'loved reefer', and I think it's important to understand the role marijuana played in the music. Rebennack: "Fess and his partners were into reefer, and not just for kicks, but as a sacred thing, part of their roots... He didn't smoke herb to get high. He said that he smoked herb to 'frolic' with the band... and when he wanted to frolic, he'd tear up a piece of a paper bag and roll a joint about ten inches long... When he came back into a joint after smoking one of those bomolatchees, you'd better watch out; He'd go into his 'over and unders', elaborate playing action with his hands. People ate it up... and that wasn't his only unorthodox maneuver. The club owner had to put a board up under the piano, because Fess kept time with his foot. If you didn't put the board up under one of those old uprights, Fess would kick a hole in it..." Wild, man.
In 1957, after Art Rupe had made a killing recording Specialty acts like Little Richard and Larry Williams at Cosimo's studio, he signed Longhair to the subsidiary label he had just created for his wife, Ebb. He brought him into Matassa's new Governor Nichols Street location to record with the studio band. This ultra-cool selection we have here today (re-issued as this Specialty B side sometime in the eighties, thank you very much) was only the second release on the label. After Earl Palmer left for the west coast earlier that year, the drummer's chair was taken by Charles 'Hungry' Williams, and I believe that's him kicking it up on here. After Fess starts things off with that familiar 'Bald Head' intro, Hungry keeps things focused, and things progress to the aforementioned frolic level. Yeah, baby! This one was a local hit around town (you can just hear it pumping out of the jukebox somewhere in the Bywater), and is one of Fess' most under-appreciated tunes. I love it, man. In any event, after Ebb released two more great singles on him that didn't sell that year, Byrd was back working at the One-Stop.
When Assunto's brother-in-law Joe Ruffino started up his own Ric and Ron labels in 1958, it was only natural that he sign Longhair along with his protegé, Rebennack. 'Max', as Roy called him, became the de-facto producer at the company, and together they came up with what may just be the ultimate New Orleans record, Go To The Mardi Gras. A remake of the song he had recorded years earlier for both Star Talent and Atlantic, this time they got it right. It still sells thousands of copies every year at Carnival Time, and is absolutely untouchable. The long arm of the law (which also notoriously has a long memory) caught up with Longhair in 1960, arresting him once more on drug possession charges during a performance on Mardi Gras day. Nice guys. In any event, when Ruffino died from a massive coronary in 1962, that was that.
Wardell Quezergue, who was beginning to come into his own as a sought after arranger, recorded him for the small Rip label later that year, but the record didn't amount to much and, once again, Fess was back at the One-Stop. When Assunto decided to start his own label with a local record distributor named Henry Hildebrand he, of course, signed Byrd. He was also astute enough to hire both Quezergue and Earl King as his producers and arrangers. Longhair recorded three singles for Watch, but the one that continues to make all the noise is the incredible Big Chief. Quezergue tells the story of how they had to tie Fess' left hand behind his back, so he wouldn't interfere with the big fat second-line bass thang they had goin' on. He apparently was also having trouble with the lyrics, and Assunto told King, "Earl, get your behind off the piano and get in the booth and sing the song, and we'll track Fess' voice later and put him on it." Only they never did, and it's King you hear on the record, both singing and whistling. Just an absolute monster of a song, it never fails to get things moving around here. Yet another Carnival classic, it probably gets more airplay now than when it was released in 1964.
Times were tough for New Orleans music in the latter part of the sixties, and many of the local labels went out of business. Fess had pretty much given up on music, and gone back to 'sweeping-out' the One-Stop and playing cards. When the organizers of the newly formed Jazz and Heritage Festival came looking for him in 1971, he was still there at the record store, waiting for them. Quint Davis said that when he played at that second ever Jazz Fest, "everything literally stopped. All the musicians and all of the people came over to the stage where Fess was playing..."
He still had it.
Professor Longhair would go on to become the very emblem of everything that was cool about New Orleans, and the central figure in the emerging Jazz Fest culture. As a partner with the "fabulous fo'teen" in Tipitina's, he laid the groundwork for the uptown music scene as it exists today in the 'sliver by the river'. Rather than go into the recordings he made during his revitalized 'second career', I'd like to leave you with these thoughts:
"When I heard Professor Longhair, good heavens... just wonderful. When I heard that, it was just a shock to my life because before that things were fairly mild. Boogie Woogie, you know, would get there and it would stay there, and everything had a different kind of order, but Professor Longhair was wild and untamed." - Allen Toussaint
"Professor Longhair was the guardian angel of the roots of New Orleans music. He was a one-of-a-kind musician and man, and he defined a certain style of rhumba-boogie funk that WAS New Orleans R&B from the late 1940s all the way through to his death in 1980. All New Orleans pianists today owe Fess. He was the guru, godfather and spiritual root doctor of all that came under him." - Mac Rebennack
No Buts, No Maybes.