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Born Henry Roeland Byrd in Bogalusa, Louisiana, he lived in New Orleans from the age of two onward. As a child, he learned how to play on an old piano that had been left in an alley. He seriously began to master the instrument while working at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in 1937. After enlisting in the service during World War II, he returned to New Orleans and began playing at clubs like the Caledonia Bar just outside the French Quarter.
It was here that he was called Professor Longhair, the "professor" part being an honorary nickname bestowed on New Orleans piano greats. He first recorded in 1949 and scored his one and only R&B chart hit "Bald Head," released on Mercury Records. A year later, he was signed to Atlantic Records. As a vocalist, Professor Longhair was a classic blues shouter. As a pianist, he was a unique force of New Orleans.
It was a city whose sense of festivity he celebrated with such songs as "Tipitina" (now the name of the city's most fabled music club), "Mardi Gras in New Orleans," and "Big Chief." Longhair remained locally popular as a working musician from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, rarely venturing away from the city. He abandoned the music business in 1964 to work odd jobs and deal cards for a living. After languishing in obscurity, Professor Longhair was rediscovered and enlisted to play at the second New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1971.
His reappearance included tours of Europe and albums for major labels as a new generation discovered his inimitable "mambo-rumba-boogie" style. All the while he remained the patron saint of his city's Jazz-fest, closing out the final show each year until his death in 1980.
Heart & Soul
A Celebration of Black Music Style in America 1930-1975
by Merlis Davin Seay, Forward by Etta James
Copyright 2002, Billboard Books