Marc On The Blues
Nine O'clock Blues: Professor Longhair
This week on The Nine O’clock Blues we’ll be hearing from distinctive pianist and vocalist Professor Longhair. What gave him his unique style?
I’ll get to that.
Blues singer and pianist Henry Roeland Byrd was born in 1918 and passed away in 1980. In between he had major influence on the music of New Orleans under the name Professor Longhair. He was also variously known as Roy Byrd and as Fess.
Unlike many Blues artists who often start at a very young age, Professor Longhair was basically a street hustler in his youth and didn’t really come to music as a profession until he was in his 30s. Once he did he stood out among New Orleans pianists with a very distinctive style that he developed out of necessity. He didn’t have a decent piano to practice on and he had to learn to work around missing keys.
Longhair had a 2 phase career, being active both in the early days of Rhythm and Blues and later during the re-emergence of Traditional Jazz popularity sparked by the founding of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970.
Professor Longhair had a rather odd sound with a rollicking rhumba influenced piano style and singing voice that sounded somewhat choked. That meant he lacked widespread appeal and never sold large numbers of recordings. Hence his real influence comes from his impact on the sound of people like Fats Domino, Huey "Piano" Smith, Allen Toussaint and Dr. John.
While most of Longhair’s career was spent in the clubs of New Orleans, he also made well received appearances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Newport Jazz Festival and the Montreux Jazz Festival.
After his death in 1980 Professor Longhair was inducted into both the Blues and Rock & Roll Halls of Fame. He also won a posthumous Grammy for a re-release of his early recordings on an album called House Party New Orleans Style.
Here's a bit of Blues trivia for you: Professor Longhair’s song “Tipitina” is used as the theme song for the radio show American Routes. Check it out for yourself, it's heard Saturday evenings at 7 right here on KUNC.
Also on this week’s Nine O’clock Blues we’ll hear from Johnny Shines, who played with Robert Johnson. Shines and Johnson traveled together on and off from 1935 to 1937. Shines also played regularly with Robert Johnson’s step-son, Robert Lockwood, Jr. more than 30 years later. We’ll hear a recording of throw-back tracks that excellently recapture the Country Blues sound of the late 1930s, appropriately called Back to the Country that Snooky Pryor joined Shines to record just a year before Johnny’s 1992 death.
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