Professor Longhair: The “Big Chief” of New Orleans Music

In preparation for Mardi Gras and on the anniversary of his death, let’s pause for a moment and talk Professor Longhair, or “Fess”.

Though he was born over 100 years ago, this musical icon still inspires modern musicians and fans today. JoJo Hermann, keyboardist for Widespread Panic, told me this morning that "Fess' music is my life, pretty much. Everything I play, think, and do each day is related in some way to the music and lyrics from his records." And if that isn't the definition of a legacy, I don't know what is.

Professor Longhair, born Henry Roeland Byrd on December 19, 1918, in Bogalusa, Louisiana, was a legendary pianist and singer known for his boogie-woogie and blues style. He was a major influence on the music of New Orleans, particularly R&B, rock & roll, and later, funk.

As a child, Professor Longhair was fascinated by the piano and began playing at an early age. His unique piano-playing style was born by learning to play on a piano that was actually missing some of its keys. By the 1940s, he had honed his skills and was performing in local clubs and bars in New Orleans. It was during this time that he began to develop his signature style, a blend of blues, boogie-woogie, and R&B. He was known for his fast, rolling keyboard playing and his distinctive, gravelly voice. Though he would ultimately be known just as "Fess", Byrd was given his stage name of "Professor Longhair" in the 40s by Mike Tessitore, owner of the Caldonia Club.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Professor Longhair recorded several notable songs, including "Mardi Gras in New Orleans", "Big Chief", and "Tipitina." These songs became staples of the New Orleans music scene and helped establish Professor Longhair as one of the most important figures in the city's musical history. Despite his popularity, he only achieved commercial success with "Bald Head", and he struggled with financial and personal issues throughout his career.

He left music entirely in 1964 and began to work odd jobs and gamble for his income.  In the 1970s, a pure stroke of luck brought Fess back to the entertainment world as an industry professional recognized him while Professor Longhair was loading boxes in the gentleman's car, just doing his duties at the music store in which he worked. Fortunately, Fess' music was brought back onto the world stage after this run-in. Professor Longhair's music then began to gain a wider audience, as musicians and fans around the world discovered the rich, soulful sound of New Orleans R&B and funk.

Professor Longhair died on this day, January 30, 1980, in New Orleans, but his music lives on as a testament to the rich cultural heritage of the city. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, and today, his music continues to be celebrated and influences musicians in a variety of genres. Whether you're a fan of blues, R&B, rock & roll, or funk, it's impossible not to be inspired by the talent and passion of Professor Longhair. His music is a reminder of the timeless power of great musicianship and the importance of preserving our musical heritage.If you're looking for a taste of the true soul of New Orleans, look no further than the music of Professor Longhair.

By: Erika Rasmussen