Professor Longhair

TrackSingle / Album
Professor Longhair's BoogieStar Talent 808
Hey Now BabyMercury 8175
Her Mind Is GoneMercury 8184
Gone So LongFederal 12073
TipitinaAtlantic 1020
In The NightAtlantic 1020
Who's Been Fooling YouNew Orleans Piano
Go To The Mardi GrasRon 329
There Is Something On Your MindWatch 6338
Big ChiefWatch 45-1900

Professor Longhair photo 1



Fess playlist






Contributors: Dave Stephens – with Cal Taylor

There were many great New Orleans pianists, very many in fact … and there was Roy Byrd, also known as Professor Longhair or Fess to his friends.

“There’s Professor Longhair and then there’s the rest of us.”

Those were the words of Allen Toussaint as quoted by Amanda Petrusich writing in The New Yorker in May 2018.

In “RocknRoll” I talked about the importance of pianos (and brass instruments) in New Orleans music and noted the absence – in relative terms – of guitars which dominated white rock and roll and, of course, rockabilly in the mid fifties. I also mentioned “the strong strains of multiple ethnicities (in New Orleans) which were far more pronounced than in other US cities.” In the sleeve notes to Gettin’ Funky: The Birth Of New Orleans R&B, Joop Visser made much the same point but more colourfully:

“In New Orleans people sang British Folk songs, danced Spanish dances, played French dance and ballet music and marched to strains of brass bands based on Prussian and French models. In the many churches could be heard the hymns and chorales of Puritans and Catholics, Baptists and Methodists. Mingled with all these sounds were the “shouts” of the black street vendors and the black dances and rhythms. Deep into the 1880’s, blacks congregated periodically in Congo Square to perform voodoo rites – thus preserving a cult with origins in ancient, half-forgotten African traditions.”

While he was not the only Crescent City pianist to have taken on board some of those other musical cultures that Joop and I make reference to, particularly those from Latin America and the Caribbean, he was by far the most significant. An example from 1949, his first year of recording, shows how such strains were already well developed in his repertoire at this stage in his career. The song is Hey Now Baby, one that he would record again and again over the years – in that year alone he cut three versions, one of which featured riffing horns and the alternative title of Bye Bye Baby – and the desire to rerecord numbers wasn’t just limited to this song; it would occur with several numbers, some of which are now seen as signature statements.

Note the anchor 2/4 beat which is almost overwhelmed by the latin counter rhythm with the occasional more exotic flourish from the right hand. Note also the accompaniment – the sax player is likely to have been Robert Parker (see footnotes). Any reader who is only aware of Longhair via the Live On The Queen Mary album might be surprised to learn that the solo, or near solo, mode of operation wasn’t his usual style on record; usually he appeared with the backdrop of a smallish R&B band.

Which brings me to another quote. This one comes from Langdon Winner writing in “The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock & Roll”:

“Already evident in Longhair’s work is the essential substratum of all New Orleans rock and roll – a rugged rolling bass riff in which piano, string bass, and saxophone chug along together, powerful but completely carefree. If Sun Records created rock’s exciting treble, New Orleans provided its solid bass foundations.”

My example this time comes from a few years later; in release terms it was on the flip side of the much more famous Tipitina and, along with that song, was recorded in 1953. The saxes this time are in unison and are played by Lee Allen, tenor, and Red Tyler, baritone, with both stars of umpteen Domino & Richard records. Their contribution illustrates the Winner statement and positions Longhair in what I would call the mainstream of New Orleans R&B as exemplified by the great Mr Domino. And while I’m name-dropping I shouldn’t ignore the great Earl Palmer on drums; of all the drummers Longhair worked with, Palmer was arguably the best at capturing those elusive rhythm patterns.

Here’s In The Night:

Henry Roeland “Roy” Byrd was born on 19th December 1918 in Bogalusa, Louisiana, but his family moved into New Orleans when he was still a baby, probably as a result of the Bogalusa Massacre. An alternative suggestion – from the Jeff Hannusch Offbeat feature on Longhair – is that his father deserted the family and his mother moved them to New Orleans in order to find work. It was Mike Tessitore, owner of the Caldonia Inn (and Roy’s first regular employer as a singer/pianist) who gave him his stage name – “Professor” being a standard Big Easy honorific for such a club entertainer, and “Longhair” due to his habit of wearing his hair longer than the norm.

In his youth and early-to-late teens, Roy learnt two things: how to tap dance and pick up money for doing so, and how to play cards. The latter pursuit coupled with gambling on the results helped to give him and his family a living when other work wasn’t available; his specialty was the game coon-can. Early attempts to play guitar proved unsuccessful so he switched his attention to the piano, hanging out in clubs to watch and listen to the name players of the day, people like Robert Bertrand, Kid Stormy Weather, Little Brother Montgomery, Sullivan Rock and Tuts Washington. The last-named pair are the gentlemen who are usually cited as influences on the young Roy Byrd. According to Joop Visser, whose sleeve notes I’ve already made reference to and who supplied that list of names, it was Sullivan Rock who showed our would-be piano prodigy how to play Pinetop’s Boogie (or Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie to give the number its full name) from which point apparently he was able to add right hand decorative touches with ease. A listen to the 1929 original from its composer “Pine Top” Smith is instructive: there’s a clear linkage through to the Longhair style including the semi-spoken vocal approach which only appeared after the listener had settled down into assuming that he/she was listening to an instrumental, a habit that Longhair too sometimes deployed.

Around 1937, Roy spent a period working with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and while not working, entertained his colleagues on the piano. In the chapter, “Funkin’ With Bach: The Impact Of Professor Longhair On Rock ‘n’ Roll” in editor Tony Bolden’s “The Funk Era And Beyond”, the writer Cheryl L. Keyes states:

“Blues critic Robert Palmer further comments that the CCC offered an opportunity for Fess to develop his flair for Afro-Caribbean rhythms. Fess corroborates this fact in the following discussion with Palmer: “I played with a lot of West Indians, Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, Spanish boys, Hungarians . . . I just copied all their changes and beats and the one(s) I liked, I kept ‘em.””

After WWII, which was cut short for Longhair due to a hernia and a burst appendix, he started to take piano playing (and singing) seriously. He picked up that residency at the Caldonia Inn that I mentioned – and if you believe one report (see footnotes) the previous occupants of that spot were unceremoniously substituted – and extended his reach into other clubs. All of which got record label owners interested. After a false start, 1949 and ’50 turned out to be big years for our man in recording terms; he recorded for the Dallas-based Star Talent label, for Atlantic and for Mercury and later, the tiny Wasco (where he appeared as Robert Boyd) and Federal. Sessions for Atlantic and Mercury were held in parallel – or that was the appearance given – though in reality the only thing that happened that was at all dubious was that Atlantic made their approach while Longhair was still contracted to Mercury, in other respects everything was above board. In addition he recorded under different names: Professor Longhair And His New Orleans Boys for Atlantic, and Roy Byrd And His Blues Jumpers for Mercury. The false start was for Star Talent: the tracks were cut “in Joe Prop’s bar at the corner of St. Peter and Villere Streets” (according to Joop Visser) but had to be withdrawn due to Star Talent having been deemed to have held a non-union session.

Which is pretty confusing but needs to be said because the records he cut for those labels were of considerable interest, particularly those from the Star Talent session. It yielded four tracks which saw temporary release as Mardi Gras In New Orleans c/w Professor Longhair’s Boogie and She Ain’t Got No Hair c/w Bye Bye Baby. The last-named track I’ve already mentioned. It was the first take cum forerunner of Hey Now Baby depending on how you look at it and was one that Longhair would regularly return to. The song, Mardi Gras In New Orleans was to get treated in a very similar manner though if Longhair was, in part, aiming at the perfectionist approach, I can’t for the life of me see anything wrong with the first cut:

In the Cheryl L. Keyes article, she quotes Longhair as saying “Well the people was askin’ for carnival numbers. At the time they wanted a good carnival number. They had numbers about Christmas, they had New Year’s, most of all the holidays.” And you got the distinct impression that all of the songs (and arrangements) which formed his record debut – or “should have formed” to be technically correct – had been well worked on in the club environment and the ones that most pleased the audience, selected. Piano intro, stabbing horns and whistling of the melody prior to the appearance of the vocal, were all tropes that we would associate with Longhair in later years. I should emphasise that “later years”. In the fifties/early sixties those of us buying records in the UK hadn’t heard of the Prof and would associate this particular song with Fats Domino though intriguingly, he (and Dave Bartholomew) based their take on Longhair’s slightly later reading of the song for Atlantic (or at least that’s my reading of the takes). Which if nothing else, does illustrate the variation which could appear across multiple versions of a number by Longhair. Such variation is even more noticeable in the one I’ve selected for the ten: it was cut in ’59 for the Ron label and by now, the number had got itself a new name, Go To The Mardi Gras:

I reckon that I could have selected any of the takes of Mardi Gras In New Orleans / Go To The Mardi Gras and still been satisfied but I went for this one, firstly because it’s this particular recording of the number which gets the plays every February at Mardi Gras and secondly, for that marvellous farrago of notes which heralds the switch between first and second chord in the 12 bar sequence from the second verse onwards. It’s another of the Longhair tropes which first saw the light of day in the number Byrd’s Blues which was waxed in August 1949. (The cut also features a gloriously wandering sax and is that a rhumba or a mambo beat powering the whole thing? Blues?)

If any reader by now hasn’t twigged the fact that, with or without the fancy stuff, Longhair could rock like the proverbial clappers, the near instrumental Professor Longhair’s Boogie should cause an instant light bulb switch-on moment. Robert Parker on sax and an unnamed trumpeter do their damnedest to grab the attention both via unison riffing attack and “I can cap that” soloing. Put this one on and enjoy. You might also note that in terms of rock and roll history, this was cut five years before a young lad in Memphis recorded That’s Alright.

The last of the Star Talent foursome, She Ain’t Got No Hair has never quite tickled my tastebuds to the same extent as other Longhair tracks so didn’t quite make the ten. A relatively straight-ahead novelty number, it’s lacking in the keyboard athletics which usually decorate Longhair records. Mind you it appealed to some at the time. In another interpretation, for Mercury, only months later it would reach the #5 spot in the US R&B Chart making it Longhair’s one and only chart hit. The marginally later cut – it charted in August 1950 – also gained a fresh title, Bald Head.

As a couple of parting comments on the treasure chest of illegal Star Talent tracks, I would first put on record the fact that the full credit on those singles read “Professor Longhair And His Shuffling Hungarians”. I’d also remark that the records were selling like hot cakes in New Orleans prior to forced withdrawal; just cast your eyes down the middle (New Orleans) column in the Cashbox of 29th April 1950 (and “Talent” was the original name of Star Talent until they discovered that that name had been used).


Professor Longhair Cashbox


His first Mercury session was held on 19th August 1949 and, much like the Star Talent one, it was fruitful, producing the cut I’ve already discussed of Hey Now Baby, Bald Head plus Byrd’s Blues which has also had a mention. I’m particularly partial to one of the final pair of tracks from the session, Her Mind Is Gone on which the approach taken is almost the polar opposite of the rapid firing explosiveness of Professor Longhair’s Boogie. There’s a kind of slow motion effect about the whole thing, as if the sound is being heard through a muffle of molasses; much of the vocal is in sevenths, reinforcing the bluesy lyrics, although the attempts at musical braggadocio on the piano indicate that he’s attempting to keep his spirits up with only a guy on meandering sax to keep him company. Listen, too, to his vocal which I’ve not commented on so far; all over the place, cracked and warped, it’s all those things but is also the perfect instrument to utter words such as these:

If you got a woman
You don’t understand
Don’t have to call a doctor
Give her to another man
Cause her mind is gone
Yeah, her mind is gone
When a women does you wrong, she won’t do right no more

And there’s even more contrast. Take a listen to the same number on the posthumously released Crawfish Fiesta album. Yup, yet another glorious track (and candidate for Mardi Gras inclusion in my humble opinion) highlighting the versatility of the man.

There was a further Mercury session but I’m skipping across now to a couple held for Atlantic in late ’49. The first of the two was in Atlanta and had Robert Parker on alto sax, an unknown bass player plus John Woodrow on drums. The second took place in Cosimo Matassa’s famous J&M Studio and the team was complemented by Charles Burbank on tenor sax with Al Miller taking over the drum stool (source: Atlantic Records discography) . Hey Now Baby and Mardi Gras In New Orleans were rerecorded on both sessions with the second number from the New Orleans session chosen for release and probably being the one that inspired the Domino version as already noted, plus eight other tracks. Of the latter, She Walks Right In, a tribute to the “walkingest girl in town”, is a fine R&B cut with walking bass line and strutting sax. The instrumental Longhair’s Blues Rhumba is also a fine performance. You get the impression here that Ahmet Ertegun or someone sat Longhair down and said “show us what you can do”, and he did. The writer of the Wiki article includes a quote from Michael Campbell’s “Rock And Roll: An Introduction”:

“Professor Longhair blended Afro-Cuban rhythms with rhythm and blues. The most explicit is ‘Longhair’s Blues Rhumba,’ where he overlays a straightforward blues with a clave rhythm.”

The Atlantic team returned to New Orleans in 1953 and four more tracks were cut (though there’s a bonus track, an alternate take of Tipitina which appears on some versions of the New Orleans Piano set). This time the New Orleans A Team of session guys were laid on (and that’s with no disrespect to the players on the earlier session). I’ve already identified Lee Allen and Red Tyler (saxes) plus Earl Palmer (drums); the only name that didn’t get checked earlier was that of Edgar Blanchard on bass (who also happened to be a fine guitarist). However don’t worry about the session guys for the moment, I’m offering instead a live take of Longhair’s most famous number, and by that I mean Tipitina of course, from 1974 where he’s accompanied by the Meters – and that’s Art Neville, the Meters’ pianist in the foreground during some of the clip.

Now just tell me that didn’t get some part of your body twitching or thumping something in time with the beat

According to Wiki and at least one other source, the origins of Tipitina lie in Champion Jack Dupree’s Junker Blues and there is some resemblance, though Junker Blues actually predates Champion Jack in that it was written by an even earlier New Orleans blues and barrelhouse artist, Willie “Drive ’Em Down” Hall. My suspicion is that direct plagiarism wasn’t involved; it’s highly likely that Junker Blues just permeated the NOLA scene so thoroughly that it would have been in Longhair’s head, possibly subconsciously. Fats Domino also used Junker as the base for his 1949 hit, The Fat Man and the similarity is even stronger in this instance.

None of this detracts from the fact that Tipitina is a fabulous record in its own right, as near as dammit summing up the Professor’s contribution to rock and pop history in one record (and see also, the footnotes for further possible song connections). I’d comment too that, while I only very rarely remark upon drummers, Earl Palmer’s contribution here just cannot be ignored. It’s so right (and it’s slightly higher in the mix on the Spotify version from the album New Orleans Piano which compiles the Atlantic Longhair tracks in one set).

Three more observations/comments on Tipitina:

1. On the single, when it was paired with In The Night, Atlantic credited the group as “Professor Longhair And His Blues Scholars”.

2. According to contributor Laviolet in 45cat, the Billboard review of the track from the issue of 20th February 1954 stated “Interesting blues gets a convincing reading”, an understatement if ever I heard one!

3. And, I beg forgiveness for just a little bit of raving about this record. I know that my life would be just that teensie bit more miserable if it didn’t exist.

The other two tracks from the 1953 Atlantic session were a damn sight more than filler. Ball The Wall was a jump blues effort with Longhair sounding like Joe Turner and Pete Johnson rolled into one with added rhumba spice. Who’s Been Fooling You was even better, comprising arguably, the best attempt so far to integrate a band arrangement with Longhair’s piano work. Once again Palmer is superb and Lee Allen’s break is worth waiting for.

The performance puts me in mind of a quote from Longhair:

“I don’t play mostly for the audience. I can keep them happy, but I’ve got to give another musician something to analyse.” (Source: Robert Palmer feature in the ‘New York Times’, entitled “Blues Professor” and dated 2nd December 1977.)

While all this Atlantic stuff was going on, singles were continuing to appear from Roy Byrd on Mercury and other labels. Gone So Long was on Federal and actually appeared (in May ’52) before the final Atlantic single. It was on the flip of a not overly distinguished track called Rockin’ With Fes (which was a prototype for the far better Who’s Been Fooling You but did demonstrate that our man didn’t waste material). The A-side didn’t matter though; the first few notes from Roy’s left hand on Gone So Long told you that you were categorically in New Orleans and the first vocal stanza – “Well, I’ve been in love with you baby, before I learned to call your name” –confirmed that you were in blues land. What’s so gratifying about this otherwise modest track is that it demonstrated that Roy/Longhair could deliver a simple but expressive blues extremely well and his voice with cracks occurring mid syllable was eminently suitable for the purpose.

In the second half of the fifties. Longhair recorded – consecutively this time rather than concurrently – for two small labels, Ebb and Ron. Apart from Go To The Mardi Gras, the most interesting tracks for me from this period are Misery (June ’57) and Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand (November ’57 and released in the UK in ’65 on Sue UK). In part my interest stems from the fact that both these tracks seem to have some resemblance to the sound of Huey “Piano” Smith And His Clowns which group was in the process of formation that year, though Smith had made earlier similar sounding records. Mr Smith was a known disciple of Longhair so whether these two tracks had a sound that found its way into his (Smith’s) sonic vocabulary or whether Longhair was picking up a bit of the Smith sound, or whether this is merely my imagination, I don’t know.

Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand is of interest for another reason. It shares the same melody line and broad theme as the Animals’ first single, Baby Let Me Take You Home, released in 1964. For discussion on the song and the origins of the Animals’ single, see the footnotes. This is the Longhair track:

Longhair recorded for another couple of small labels, Rip and Watch in the early to mid sixties– he did seem to have a liking for single syllable labels –and at both he came under the musical mentorship of Wardell Quezergue. The results were mixed, ranging from a classic to a perhaps-he-shouldn’t-have-done-that. In between there was a perfectly fine blues ballad, I Believe I’m Gonna Leave on Rip and an even better rendition of the pre-soul warhorse, There Is Something On Your Mind on Watch. The song is one that seems to have almost the status of a standard in the US with versions from the likes of Etta James and B.B. King but is relatively little known in the UK – for more on it, see the footnotes. The Longhair version gives us a subtle variant on the riff, played – of course – on his piano, with horns providing a rumbling counterpoint from the second verse onwards. The percussion guy gives the whole thing a hint of latin. Vocally, Longhair is ruminative and conversational rather than overly worked up. Hypnotic is an adjective I’d use about the performance.

And the classic? The two parter, Big Chief, a highly ambitious production with an all-instrumental and heavily arranged Part 1 on which the only sound of a human voice is some whistling, but from Earl King not Longhair. The vocal part (again from King) does eventually appear but not until we’re well into Part 2. 45cat contributor Laviolet who’s already had one namecheck and whose description reads “Originally from New Orleans; fan of classic R&B from 1950s and ’60s” has given the world a neat little summary of the number in his initial Comment:

“”Big Chief” has been a Mardi Gras staple since its first release in 1965. The song was written by Earl King, credited under a pseudonym since he was still under contract to Motown (the deal didn’t come to anything, DS). Longhair was so intimidated by the large band (some 15 pieces) that King recorded what was intended as a guide vocal but ended up on the released record. In an interview with historian Tad Jones, King said the recording didn’t do justice to the way the band sounded in the studio. The double-time drum pattern gave Smokey Johnson blistered hands by the end of the session.”

The second half of the sixties was hard for Longhair. His music had fallen out of fashion and he rarely touched a piano. He had to fall back on his card playing ability to just about scrape by. The Blackcat Rockabilly piece on him reports the words of British blues writer Mike Leadbitter tracking him down in April 1970: “He was down and out, and very sad, as neglect, frustration and poor health had taken their toll. The man we met was no longer a big recording artist, but an old man forgotten by the recording industry.”

Another fine write-up on Longhair, from Jeff Hannusch for Offbeat informs us that two young New Orleans residents, Allison Miner Kaslow and Quint Davis (who was just beginning to produce the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival), between them managed what was effectively the resuscitation of Professor Longhair. Not that he didn’t still believe in himself. In the words of Davis:

“He was living in a little house without a pot to piss in and ready to start over with nothing for an unknown public. He really believed he could have a reincarnation. So I followed up and got him to play the Jazz Festival at Congo Square.”

It’s stated in a number of places that Longhair’s successful appearance at the 1971 Jazz & Heritage Festival, backed by Snooks Eaglin, was the turning point of his career. That’s true but it wasn’t all singing and dancing from then on. Quint Davis took over as manager circa ’72 but finding jobs wasn’t initially easy. A house that Davis had rented for Longhair burned down. Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, showed interest but that interest seemed to dissipate after an unsatisfactory session in Woodstock and insult was added to injury after Longhair’s death (see footnotes for an account of what happened).

But positive things happened too. In 1972, after the degree of interest raised by the Jazz Festival, Atlantic released an LP, New Orleans Piano, of all the tracks cut in the sessions in 1949 and 1953. Longhair appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1973 and Davis also managed to arrange a second European tour. A group of young fans put some money together and leased the old 501 Club in New Orleans and renamed it Tipitina’s in honour of Longhair. And in 1975, Paul McCartney arranged to have Longhair perform in a private party on the Queen Mary which was docked in Long Beach, California at the time. The results were recorded with an introduction from Hugh Laurie, another big fan.

Which brings me on to the subject of recordings made in what one might term the second part of Longhair’s career. While his “Queen Mary” LP was undoubtedly the most illustrious and well-known of the many live albums which were cut during this timeframe, they all suffer from the drawback that his live set didn’t tend to change all that much and his stylistic approach didn’t boast the variation of, say, Bob Dylan. Hence a high degree of effective repetition even though the venues and sound quality changed. Confusingly – well it was to me anyway (see below) – Albert Goldman, the man who was later responsible for controversial biographies of Presley and Lennon, arranged for dates featuring Longhair playing at Tipitina’s to be recorded with the tracks released under the title of The Last Mardi Gras in 1982, which is now only available for very large sums of money. My confusion arose due to the strong similarity of name with a certain Mr Grossman.

My personal favourites from Longhair’s second coming are the two studio sets, 1974’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Gumbo and 1980’s Crawfish Fiesta. The first came about as a result of the (uninsured) house fire mentioned a few paras ago. To quote Jeff Hannusch, “Realizing Longhair was in a jam, transplanted French producer Philippe Rault offered him $750 to cut a record with Gatemouth Brown on the Barclay label”. Crawfish Fiesta was cut in November 1979 with producers listed as Alison Kaslow, her husband Andy Kaslow (who led the then Longhair band) and Bruce Iglauer (founder of Alligator Records, the label on which the record was released).

From all reports Longhair was very happy with Crawfish Fiesta and couldn’t wait for its release. Jeff Hannusch (again) picks up the story:

“Sadly, he never saw it. On the night of January 30, 1980 (the LP was to be released two days later), as he often did, Longhair drove with his grandson and his crippled friend Richard to Picou’s, an all-night bakery, where they picked up coffee and a dozen twisters. Longhair came home without eating the twisters or drinking the coffee, complaining of heartburn. He laid down and never got up.”

Which might have been a good way to close, perhaps with some mention of the funeral. But that wouldn’t have done justice musically to the Longhair of the seventies. A Second Line in celebration to some of the joyfulness that can be found in Rock ‘N’ Roll Gumbo and Crawfish Fiesta is in order. From the old classics with a new coat of paint like Mardi Gras In New Orleans (RNRG) and Her Mind Is Gone (CF) through New Orleans staples like Stag-O-Lee (RNRG and it makes Lloyd Price sound like a slouch) and Huey Smith’s Rocking Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu (RNRG) on to new classics like You’re Driving Me Crazy (CF) and the instrumental Willie Fugal’s Blues (CF).

And if, by some form of magic which only comes into existence in the French Quarter, I was still left with two selections to make instead of none, then I’d plump for:

Mean Ol’ World from Gumbo

Chicago transplanted to New Orleans and a comment on a world that Fess had known only too well – “This is a mean old world / try to live it by yourself”

… and Solomon (and Bert’s) Cry To Me from Crawfish:

Demonstrating that no matter how tragic the world might look, if you approach it with a dancing beat and a dazzling right hand, all will look better (and remember how much Bert Berns loved his latin rhythms). And while you’re pondering about the sheer temerity/absurdity of leaving in that wildly off the note attempted falsetto, the horns come in, lift you up and take you to the city of Po-Boys, Beignets and Jambalaya, the city that Katrina didn’t succeed in destroying and the city that Fess exemplified better than anyone.




1. The opening song, Big Chief, although credited to (a someone) Gaines and Wardell Quezergue, was actually written by Earl King who also took the vocal (and the whistling) part(s) on record. Quezergue arranged and conducted the band. My clip, however, is a live one featuring Longhair. The uploader has attempted to reflect the Mardi Gras theme via visual images.

Me got fire, can’t put it out
Heap fire water gonna make me shout
I’m goin’ down an-a get my squaw
Me might buy a great big car
I’m gonna do ev’rything I could
Me Big Chief, I’m feeling good

2. Robert Parker, born (in 1930) and bred in New Orleans, started his musical career as a sax player. He played with Longhair in his early days, both on record and in the clubs, but went on to support many of New Orleans’ name stars on record including Fats Domino, Irma Thomas, Earl King and Huey Smith. In 1966, he took on a different musical role, that of vocalist (and composer) with the hit single Barefootin’ arranged by Wardell Quezergue. The record was a welcome reminder of the glory days of New Orleans rock and soul coming as it did when a new era of psychedelia was bursting upon us.

3. After being born in Pittsburg, Kansas in 1927, and raised in Denver, Lee Allen moved to New Orleans in 1943 with a music and athletics scholarship. He joined the Paul Gayton band in 1947 and then the Dave Bartholomew band and his sax playing soon became a fixture on the recording scene – he was on most of the records from Fats Domino, Little Richard, Lloyd Price and many more in the fifties and early sixties. He had a minor hit of his own with Walkin’ With Mr Lee in 1958. After playing in Domino’s touring band for a spell from 1961, he moved to L.A. in 1965. Initially, he worked in an aeronautics factory, playing music at night but he rejoined the Domino band in the mid seventies.

4. Earl Palmer was arguably the most famous drummer in the whole of fifties rock and roll, having played on countless great records from New Orleans from the late forties onwards followed up by a second career in California. He was born in the city in 1924 and raised in the Tremé district, starting his career as a tap dancer at the age of five. Wiki has an intriguing sentence about him: “His father is thought to have been the local pianist and bandleader Walter “Fats” Pichon”. He joined the Dave Bartholomew band in the late forties and his recording career followed in short order. He left New Orleans for Hollywood in 1957 and before too long became a member of the loose grouping of musicians known as “The Wrecking Crew”, providing studio support for a host of artists ranging from Frank Sinatra to the Beach Boys and from Sam Cooke to Tim Buckley.

5. The Bogalusa Saw Mill killings which took place on 22nd November 1919 in Thibodaux, Louisiana, was a racial attack which was mounted by a white paramilitary group called the Self-Preservation and Loyalty League (SPLL) backed by the owners of the mill, the Great Southern Lumber Company. The intention was to prevent union organisation and specifically to stop the merger of black and white unions. While blacks were largely the targets of the violence, four white union men were killed while defending Sol Dacus, the head of the black union. For more see Wiki under this heading.

6. Not a lot seems to have been documented about Sullivan Rock. In “The New Encyclopedia Of Southern Culture; Volume 12: Music”, Jason Berry writes “Another important influence (on Professor Longhair, DS) was Sullivan Rock, an obscure honky tonk pianist about whom little is known” which takes us back to where we started.

7. Clarence “Pine Top” Smith (sometimes Pinetop Smith) was born in Troy, Alabama in 1904 but started work as an entertainer in Pittsburgh, PA. The ‘entertainment’ included comedy, singing and piano playing. He was accompanist to Ma Rainey for a spell. In 1928 he moved to Chicago in order to commence recording (for Vocalion). He cut his famous Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie on 29th December 1928. Wiki claims that this was the first record to have ‘boogie woogie’ in the title. It’s worth letting the clip of the number in the main text play right through due to the presence of other phrases which have brightened up many a single over the years: “Everybody mess around”, “Say little girl, you, standin’ there with the red dress on”, and “When I say ‘Get it’, I want you to shake that thing”, and this was nearly 30 years before a certain gentleman from Ferriday, Louisiana, would stand on top of pianos bellowing that last phrase.

There were two further sessions held for Pine Top in January 1929. He was scheduled for another session in March that same year but died from a gunshot wound in a dance hall fight in Chicago the night before. The Wiki writer goes on to say “Sources differ as to whether he was the intended recipient of the bullet. ‘I saw Pinetop spit blood’ was the famous headline in Downbeat magazine”.

8. There’s a further quotation from Longhair himself in the Cheryl L. Keyes article which sheds more illumination on his piano style and attitude:

“Well some of it is my own, and like I told you this (Hungarian) kid that I built the band up around. I had to develop the calypso and the Spanish beat because he played a lot of off-beat Spanish beats, calypso downbeats … I was seekin’ for sound rather than just what I liked personally. That’s why I took up tryin’ to learn a variety of music other than just one individual style. Like I say, I like my own style, but my own style is completely different than rhythm & blues, or calypso or any of that. It’s just deep down funk.”

The Cheryl L. Keyes article on Professor Longhair makes reference both directly and indirectly to an another article on Longhair by Robert Palmer entitled “Professor Longhair: Blues Piano And The Barrelhouse Blues” which appeared in the book “Bluesland: Portraits Of Twelve Major American Blues Masters” edited by Pete Welding and Toby Byron.

9. This is the story as conveyed by Joop Visser, telling how Longhair got himself a job at the Caldonia Inn:

“One night he (Longhair, DS) stepped into the club where the local king, Dave Bartholomew and his orchestra, was playing. When Salvador Doucette, the group’s pianist, stepped down during intermission, Longhair got permission to sit in. The crowd went bananas over the new sound once Longhair started playing and the club filled up with extra customers. Noticing the extra business, club owner Mike Tessitore promptly sacked Dave Bartholomew and hired Professor Longhair on the spot.”

10. Star Talent (originally just ‘Talent’) which operated out of Dallas was an intriguing record label. Set up by Jesse Erickson in 1948 and continuing till 1951/52, it was essentially a hillbilly label; indeed, with an output of 80 plus issues it was the biggest label releasing Texan hillbilly until 1953 when Starday came on the scene (source: Discogs). However, what made the label different was that they also released black blues singers. Not only did they cut the good Professor, they also recorded the first single from Rufus Thomas, I’ll Be A Good Boy c/w I’m So Worried. There’s a fascinating account of how that record came about in the Dallas Observer entitled “Good Rockin’ Last Night” and I’m very grateful to Cal Taylor for digging this out for me.

11. I have a couple more ‘cousins’ of Junker Blues/Tipitina that deserve a little recognition. Smiley Lewis’ Tee Nah Nah from 1950 has similar wording in the first verse as Longhair’s Tipitina and the 12 bar melody line isn’t far from Junker Blues. In addition, there is Leadbelly’s song Alberta which shares at least a smidgeon of resemblance lyrically. These are the first few stanzas of Tipitina:

Tipitina tra la la la
Whoa la la la-ah tra la la

Tipitina, oola malla walla dalla [little mama wants a dollar]
Tra ma tra la la

Hey Loberta, oh poor Loberta
Girl you hear me calling you
Well you’re three times seven, baby
Knows what you want to do

12. Ebb Records was formed in L.A. in 1957 by Leonara “Lee” Rupe using the money she got from her divorce from Art Rupe, head of Specialty Records. One of the specialties of Specialty – pun totally intended – was recording artists from, and often ‘in’, New Orleans; their biggest name being Little Richard, with Lloyd Price and Guitar Slim coming up on the rails. Ebb, which only lasted until 1959, performed in a slightly similar fashion; their biggest hit was the homegrown Hollywood Flames with Buzz Buzz Buzz.

13. Ron Records along with sister label Ric Records were set up by Joe Ruffino in New Orleans in 1959. In addition to Longhair, Ron had other NOLA artists, most notably, Irma Thomas. Both labels ceased to exist after the death of Ruffino in 1962.

14. The main text suggests a switch to the footnotes for some thoughts on the origins of the Animals track, Baby Let Me Take You Home. I have commented elsewhere that although the popular assumption is that this production was a variant on the Eric Von Schmidt arranged Baby Let Me Follow You Down, which number appeared on the first Dylan album, it’s actually more likely to have come from the obscure US soul singer Hoagy Lands’ single, Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand which was produced by Bert Berns and released right at the start of ’64. However the full story could be even more complex. Berns had also produced a version of Baby Let Me Take You Home by a group called the Mustangs, which consisted largely of himself (and Animals fans please note that intro which just has to be from Bert’s 12 string guitar). In the book “Changing Times: Music And Politics In 1964”, writer Steve Millward attributes the Animals record to the Berns/Mustangs source and comments further: “However it (“it” being the Mustangs’ Baby Let Me Take You Home) actually dates back to at least 1957, as “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand” by Professor Longhair with subsequent variants by Snooks Eaglin in 1958 and Bob Dylan three years later.”

Pause for breath and a new paragraph. Wikipedia states, and I have no reason to disbelieve the writer, that the earliest known version of Von Schmidt’s Baby Let Me Follow You Down is (Baby) Don’t Tear My Clothes which was recorded by the State Street Boys, a group which included Jazz Gillum and Big Bill Broonzy, in 1935. The melody is the same and a “baby” appears on the first line prior to the title and that same “baby” also appears on several later versions by Broonzy himself, Lightnin’ Hopkins and others. However, I would suggest that Longhair assumed the number was traditional and happily put his name on it; Bert did the same thing several years later. It’s also worthy of comment that the Longhair version is the first rock/pop styling as opposed to earlier versions which appeared in varying shades of blues, folk or ragtime. As such it’s something that Bert Berns could well have heard and registered.

That was quite a lengthy mini-essay but I felt it was of interest since Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand was one of very few tracks released, but not written by, Longhair up until that date; I could only find one other and that was Hadacol Bounce on Mercury with composer listed as ‘Nettles’ (of Bill Nettles and His Dixie Blue Boys).

15. The RIP record label was formed by Rip Roberts in 1962 and lasted until 1964. During that time it released 13 records (acc. to 45cat). The only artist it recorded of real significance apart from Longhair was Eddie Bo. The Watch label was formed by Henry Hildebrand and Joe Assunto in late 1963 and continued until 1968. In addition to Longhair, its roster included Earl King, Johnny Adams and Benny Spellman. King together with Wardell Quezergue were heavily involved with the creative aspects. Both labels were New Orleans based.

16. The “perhaps-he-shouldn’t-have-done-that” reference was to Whole Lotta Twisting which was little more than a rip off of Fats Domino’s Whole Lotta Loving, only the gaps that Fats sometimes left instead of “Loving” somehow sound more suggestive in Longhair’s take – or is that just me? As the number progresses our man quits bothering about lyrics altogether and switches to a form of scat.

17. The song There Is (or alternatively “There’s”) Something On Your Mind was a minor hit twice in the US but didn’t register in the UK, possibly because the two artists concerned didn’t mean anything here. While remaining little known here as the years have gone by, in the US the song is regarded as something of a pre-soul classic and has been recorded by the likes of Albert King, B.B. King and Etta James.

The original version was cut in 1957 and on the label is credited to Big Jay McNeely (who is also listed as songwriter). This, however, is misleading since McNeely was the band leader (and sax player); the vocalist on the track was an obscure blues singer called Little Sonny Warner. Wiki informs us that the song was written by the Rivingtons’ vocalist John “Sonny” Harris who “had lifted much of it from a gospel song, “Something on My Mind” by the Highway QCs”. The McNeely/Warner record hit #2 in the R&B Chart and #42 in the Billboard Hot 100.

In 1960, the song was recorded by Bobby Marchan, ex female impersonator and lead vocalist with Huey Smith’s Clowns for a spell (he was on most of the major records associated with Smith). His version stretched to two parts and included spoken passages. The record hit the top spot in the R&B Chart and #31 in the Hot 100.

18. Herewith “the Albert Grossman story” as mentioned but not explained in the main text. My information comes from plus Chitlins, Catfish and Deep Southern Soul. In 1972, Longhair, Snooks Eaglin and Quint Davis went to Woodstock in order to cut tracks for Grossman’s Bearsville Records. The living conditions provided were primitive but, worse than that, the session men provided “were garden-variety rockers with no idea how to handle distinctive New Orleans rhythms.” In order to assist in getting the right sound, Davis arranged to have sent to him in Woodstock, master tapes of sessions held with Longhair in Baton Rouge in September 1971 and Memphis in 1972.

Feeling that they were getting nowhere, Longhair, Eaglin and Davis upped sticks and headed for New York in order to continue the Bearsville sessions there. Unfortunately they left the Baton Rouge/Memphis tapes behind. They assumed that the tapes would be listened to and then returned. The tapes didn’t get returned and Grossman, according to the first site above, ignored all requests for return. No release of any of the material recorded at Woodstock and New York was made.

After Grossman’s death in 1986, Bearsville licensed the Baton Rouge/Memphis tapes to Rounder. The label issued some of the material under the title House Party New Orleans Style (The Lost Sessions 1971-1972). Bearsville also licensed the tapes to Rhino Records which resulted in the 1990 album Mardi Gras In Baton Rouge. In August 1995, lawyers acting for the Longhair family sued Bearsville but the company claimed that the tapes were legitimately theirs as compensation for the aborted sessions and that they had effectively paid for the tapes with the advance given to Longhair. The judge sided with Bearsville.

The album House Party won a Grammy in 1987. However, all Longhair’s heirs have is the Grammy, no royalties. As a coda, I should add that Songbyrd, the legal outfit representing the Longhair family, have been successful elsewhere in obtaining otherwise lost royalties for the family.

19. The main text of this essay just grew and grew. I was planning to include some more quotations about Longhair but decided it might be more prudent to include them in here.

First, from Robert Palmer writing in the New York Times on 18th May 1979. Palmer isn’t that well known outside the US but, in the Village Voice, Robert Christgau offered the opinion: “No one wrote better about the music of rock and roll than Robert Palmer.”

“Even by himself, Professor Longhair is a master of polyrhythms; his major contribution to New Orleans music has been to combine Caribbean rhythms and the city’s rich African rhythmic heritage with the blues. But when he has a band to work with, he apportions the parts so that almost every instrument is playing a different contributing pattern. The horns pull against the steady chopping of the guitar, the drums embroider a syncopated bass part, and the Professor’s piano adds another layer of rhythmic tension. Like the playing of an African drum orchestra or the funk of James Brown, this is music capable of setting each part of one’s body moving to a different rhythm.”

And from Christgau himself in a review of the Rhino set, Fess: The Professor Longhair Anthology:

“Not blues and not jazz and not exactly rock and roll, not as simple as Fats Domino or as popwise as Allen Toussaint or as schooled as James Booker, Longhair supposedly learned to play on a junked piano with an octave or two of surviving keys, and for the rest of his life he made that compass an infinitely expanding universe. His Latin-tinged time was on a par with Monk’s, James Brown’s, anyone’s, and he was also a clown and a nut. If you’ve never heard him, you don’t know as much as you think you do. He’ll kick your funnybone and tickle your ass.”

And finally, one from Jerry Wexler of Atlantic (source: article in Everything2 which Cal found):

“His immortality is ensured not only by the records he made but by the few men who mastered his style, the apostles who carried the pianistic gospel according to Fess to the world: James Booker, Fats Domino, Huey Smith, Allen Toussaint, Art Neville, Mac Rebennack. Longhair is the Picasso of keyboard funk.”

20. I’m closing with another live take from the ’74 set. The number is Big Chief. The three-pronged keyboard attack comes from Longhair, Art Neville and Doctor John. Earl King is the initial vocalist but Fess takes over at approx 5:30.

Laissez les bon temps rouler.




Professor Longhair photo 2

Professor Longhair (1918–1980)


Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Professor Longhair

Excerpts from Fess Up, the feature-length interview with Professor Longhair shot in 1980, just two days before he died, for Stevenson J. Palfi’s 1982 musical documentary

Professor Longhair at 45cat

Professor Longhair biography (Apple Music)


Professor Longhair photo 3

Members of the New Orleans Civil Defense in 1978: Assistant Colonel Byrd is the cool dude, third from left, and his wife, Alice, is seated


Dave Stephens’ New Orleans scenes
#1 Fats Domino, #2 Chris Kenner, #3 Jessie Hill, #4 Barbara Lynn, #5 Benny Spellman, #6 Ernie K-Doe, #7 Irma Thomas, #8 Barbara George, #9 Earl King, #10 Smiley Lewis, #11 Professor Longhair, #12 Shirley & Lee, #13 Lloyd Price, #14 Dr. John, #15 Huey “Piano” Smith, #16 Roy Brown, #17 Johnny Adams, #18 Eddie Bo, #19 Guitar Slim, #20 Clarence “Frogman” Henry, #21 Bobby Mitchell


Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Cal Taylor has avidly collected records since the early 1960s, gravitating to deep soul and blues. As time went on he got more and more into studying pre-war blues and accumulated a vast record collection. Cal saw many such artists live in the sixties. He has written several posts for this site including Charley Patton, Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and Otis Redding.

The Stephens/Taylor toppermosts include Johnny Ace, Arthur Alexander, Ray Charles, Cyril Davies, The Falcons, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Alexis Korner, Little Walter, Johnny Otis, Junior Parker.

TopperPost #857


  1. David Lewis
    Apr 18, 2020

    All the great English rock pianists, who include, but aren’t limited to: Elton John, Rick Wakeman, Nicky Hopkins, Ian Stewart, Freddie Mercury, McCartney plus others, come, I think, out of Longhair, through Little Richard. When you think of the gulf between Longhair’s background and, say, Rick Wakeman’s, it’s an incredible distance easily bridged through music. An incredible legacy and an article that does that justice.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Apr 18, 2020

    When I want to remind myself of what a ridiculously brilliant musician ‘Fess’ was, I put on this video. As David says in his comment, this great piece does this master piano player – and much more besides – justice.

    • Randy Alexander
      Oct 18, 2020

      Fantastic clip, thx Fess forever

      • Shawn Walton
        Apr 20, 2021

        Professor Longhair (fess) is my grandfather. I followed my grandfather’s footsteps by learning how to play the clarinet. I marched for Woodson Jr. High and Alcee’ Fortier Senior High School (parades).. Zulu, Pegasus.. Please contact me.. I lived with my grandmother and grandfather Professor Longhair..
        Corporation shareholder..
        Shawn Walton

  3. Shawn Walton
    Apr 20, 2021

    Hi … my name is Shawn Walton, I am Barbara Walton’s oldest child. Alice Byrd is my grandmother and Professor Longhair (fess). I was raised by my grandmother Mrs. Alice Byrd
    ( Gram) @ 1738… in New Orleans.
    Jim petticoat, Coco, Allison just to name a few. I can remember going to the jess festival with my grandmother (gram) to sell T:shirts and posters… Please.. Have someone contact me.. The truth has yet to be told.

    • Dave Stephens
      Apr 21, 2021

      Shawn, thanks for your comments. The Editor has forwarded your email address and I’ve mailed you so that we can pursue the discussion on Professor Longhair via email.

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