Professor Longhair’s rumba-mambo-barrelhouse-boogie-blues piano set the stage for generations of New Orleans pianists.
Songwriter, pianist and producer Allen Toussaint, one of many famous fans of “Fess,” hailed him as “our Bach of rock.” Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John, dubbed him the “spiritual root doctor of all that came under him.” Paul McCartney also expressed his admiration for the endearingly idiosyncratic singer-pianist.
“He’s the greatest,” McCartney said. “I love him.”
Professor Longhair, born Henry Roeland Byrd in Bogalusa on Dec. 19, 1918, is the subject of “Me Got Fiyo: The Professor Longhair Centennial,” an exhibit at the Capitol Park Museum. Running through Aug. 6, it’s a condensed version of the exhibit that debuted in August 2018 at the New Orleans Jazz Museum.
“Fess is such a seminal figure,” said Jazz Museum music curator David Kunian. “Obviously in New Orleans music, but also in rock ’n’ roll. He doesn’t get the credit for being one of the forefathers of rock ’n’ roll, but lots of pianists have said that. His influence goes in all sorts of not necessarily expected ways.”
The “Me Got Fiyo” exhibit in Baton Rouge includes photos and concert posters alongside panels of text that survey Byrd’s life and career. There’s also film of him performing at the 1971 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and a reproduction of the bust of Byrd in Tipitina’s, the music venue his fans founded in 1977.
The late Michael P. Smith, a prolific chronicler of New Orleans music and culture, shot many of the exhibit’s photos. Smith’s images are among the most famous taken of Byrd, including the exhibit’s color shot of the piano professor in full stride at the 1977 Jazz Fest.
The exhibit’s text traces the ups and downs of a rough life that ended with Byrd’s unexpected death at 61 in 1980. He’d lived in New Orleans since his single mother moved from Bogalusa when he was 2 months old. His mother, a professional entertainer who traveled with minstrel and vaudeville shows, taught her son how to dance and play the many instruments she played.
As a youngster, Professor Longhair danced in the French Quarter and performed with “spasm” bands featuring homemade instruments. A six-month hitch in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late 1930s exposed him to percussionists from the Caribbean. He blended their Latin rhythms with the influence of New Orleans pianists Sullivan Rock, Kid Stormy Weather and Tuts Washington.
“With music, you just got to feel it,” Byrd told journalist Peter Stone Brown in 1979. “I was hangin’ around a lot of churches, barrelhouses, speakeasies. I just mix my ideas up and call it a gumbo. There’s no certain thing at all. It’s just rockin’ rhythm.”
In 1949, Byrd began recording for various labels, including Mercury and Atlantic and the local labels Ron and Watch. He released only one national hit, 1950's “Bald Head.” In 1959, Ron Records released the definitive version of Byrd’s classic Carnival song “Go to the Mardi Gras.”
Elevated to musical sainthood in death, Longhair struggled in life.
“Really, no, I wasn’t making a living off of the music,” he told writer Tad Jones in 1976. “Other than sessions, I would play gigs sometimes with different fellows. Then after the gigs, if there wasn’t no gigs, well, I know where my spot was, and that was right back on the corner with those cards.”
The resurrection of Professor Longhair began in 1969, when artist and music fan Hudson Marquez, at the urging of Dick Allen at Tulane University, tracked the elusive Byrd to a Dryades Street barroom where he was dealing cards. Jazz Fest talent scouts Quint Davis and Allison Miner located him, too, leading to his festival debut in 1971.
Byrd’s career gradually rebounded. By the end of the decade, as the release of his “Crawfish Fiesta” album and completion of a documentary film loomed, he was poised for even bigger things. His death on Jan. 30, 1980, the day Chicago’s Alligator Records released “Crawfish Fiesta,” ended the greater success within his reach.
Dr. John — the friend and protégé credited as an “invaluable contributor” to “Crawfish Fiesta” — was among the bereaved.
“By making music the spontaneous way he did, Fess created something special,” Dr. John says in his autobiography. “His songs were deeply felt spirituals with a rumba-boogie beat, incantations to the jolla-malla-walla gods.”
'Me Got Fiyo: The Professor Longhair Centennial'
9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; on display through Aug. 6
Capitol Park Museum, 660 N. Fourth St.
$7, adults; $6, students, seniors, military