Born on December 18, 1918, Henry Roeland (Roy) Byrd exhibited an innate talent for music at a young age. Although he received his initial training on the piano from his musically gifted mother, he gained his true musical education by frequenting the saloons on the infamous Rampart Street. Rampart Street served as a haven for barrelhouse piano players during that time. While there, he drew inspiration from Kid “Stormy” Weather, Tuts Washington, Champion Jack Dupree, and the enigmatic and unknown Sullivan Rock.
To pursue the life of a street entertainer, Byrd left school early. He spent several years performing as a one-man show, showcasing his talents as a dancer, singer, and self-made musician. During the early 1930s, he formed a small team of dancers and performed at several clubs in New Orleans. However, as the Depression set in, Byrd faced financial hardships and had to do whatever he could to make a living. For some time, he pursued a career as a skilled gambler and, as did his companion Jack Dupree, also dabbled in boxing. He even became a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps under the New Deal. Following the outbreak of WWII, Byrd enlisted in the Army and served until 1943.
In the latter half of the 1940s, he felt a strong desire to reenter the world of music. After forming a small combo, he searched for performance opportunities, landing at the Caledonia Club in the Tremé district of New Orleans in 1947. He obtained his stage name from the New Orleans tradition of "piano professors," which originated with the arrival of jazz music. According to legend, the club owner is believed to be the reason behind the nickname "Longhair" that he earned. Byrd succinctly explained that his moniker was "because we had long hair.". This handle stuck, and in 1949 he went on to produce his initial recordings for the Star Talent label.
Throughout his career, Byrd employed different aliases to evade discovery for infringing on exclusive recording agreements when he illicitly created albums for competing labels. During a time period when recording artists faced difficulties in obtaining their rightful royalties, this became a widespread occurrence. Hence, they would opt for different names while switching from one company to another to secure new initial investments. Thus, Longhair's discography appears to be a complex knot of pseudonyms and numerous versions of identical tracks, which may or may not share the same name.
Longhair's impact on New Orleans R&B pianists cannot be overlooked. He left behind a treasure trove of timeless songs, including "Mardi Gras in New Orleans," "Big Chief," "Tipitina," "Bald Head," "In the Night," and "Ball the Wall." Many pianists of the next generation, including Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Art Neville, and Huey "Piano" Smith, credit Longhair as a significant influence and hero. His recordings were crucial to shaping the sound of New Orleans R&B.
Despite the admiration and fondness he garnered, Professor Longhair earned minimal profits from his recordings and remained limited to performing within his region. In the 1960s, he sustained his livelihood primarily through gambling while playing cards. This led many individuals within the New Orleans music community to assume that he had either passed away or relocated elsewhere. In 1970, a group of young music enthusiasts, led by Quint Davis - one of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival co-founders - came across Longhair, who was working as a janitor in a record shop. Despite his physical and emotional struggles, his musical abilities remained robust.
Davis booked Professor Longhair for the 1971 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and subsequently managed him for a period of five years. Longhair made a new recording and had their debut performance in Europe and an expanded and improved tour across the United States. At the same time, a surge of admiration for its regional customs was overtaking New Orleans. As society became more enlightened, elderly and frequently neglected musicians were revered, with many finally receiving the acknowledgment they deserved. Tipitina's nightclub was founded in 1977 and named after a song by Professor Longhair. It served as the hub of the revival during this time period. The late Professor Longhair used to perform there regularly, and in honor of his legacy, a bust of him has been placed inside the entrance.
Longhair agreed to a recording deal with Alligator Records, based in Chicago, in 1979. This resulted in his first complete album, Crawfish Fiesta. He has only been able to produce a few songs during his sessions, releasing them sporadically as singles. Regrettably, Longhair passed away on January 30, 1980, only a day before the album's launch. After his death, he received several accolades, including a Grammy award in 1987 for an album reissue and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.
Professor Longhair performed at the Chicago Folk Festival in the beginning of 1976. A nearby radio station had recorded it, and Billy Gregory oversaw the mixing process. He held onto his version of the tape for around 35 years, giving it to Carlo Ditta at Orleans Records to hear. Ditta officially released the recording on his label in 2016.
Numerous authorized and unofficial recordings of Professor Longhair's live performances emerged after his unfortunate demise in 1980. However, this album provides undeniable proof of the potency and energy in the mid-1970s iteration of Professor Longhair's musical ensemble, where Billy Gregory's guitar playing played a significant role.