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Album Review

This exacting chronological survey of Professor Longhair's first recordings is a welcome alternative to the usual reissue practice of mingling some of these tracks with later material from the early '50s. As is often the case with the Classics Chronological series, a succession of historical sessions bolstered with all of the available discographical information tells a story that is vital to the development of a clear comprehension of the musician's life and creative accomplishments. In this case that means the saga of how Henry Roeland Byrd, born in Bogalusa, LA, in December of 1918, radically transformed the popular music of North America during the 1950s and '60s by making a handful of scruffy records in 1949 down in New Orleans. When Byrd's band replaced Dave Bartholomew's at the Caldonia Inn, the management decided to bill the group as Professor Longhair & the Four Hairs Combo, simply because of the fact that they wore their hair considerably longer than was the fashion at that time. Note that Lester Young, who also hailed from southern Louisiana, wore his hair uncommonly long. Byrd's band at this time consisted of alto saxophonist Robert "Barefootin'" Parker, Walter "Papoose" Nelson on the guitar, and a drummer known as Big Slick, later to be replaced by Al Miller, who could also play trumpet. Longhair's first recordings were made at the Hi Hat Club, where a rudimentary recording studio was set up. Four sides were issued on the tiny Star Talent label as by Professor Longhair & His Shuffling Hungarians. "She Ain't Got No Hair," later simply known as "Bald Head," would eventually become one of his most popular tunes. All the ingredients of Longhair's distinctive style are present on these wonderful recordings, in particular the bluesy rhumba rhythm that seemed to infiltrate nearly everything he played, most notably the boogie-woogie. On August 19, 1949, a second recording session occurred, this time at a Mercury studio on Canal Street. Longhair's funky Crescent City piano was punctuated with his delightfully deep and wild-edged voice, backed by Lee Allen and Leroy "Batman" Rankins on tenor saxophones. One more session for Mercury took place in September and then Professor Longhair's tenure as an Atlantic recording artist began in earnest with "Hey Now Baby" and a second and third version of his ultra-famous whistling rhumba, "Mardi Gras in New Orleans." The band was billed either as Professor Longhair's Blues Jumpers or Professor Longhair's Blues Scholars. The records sold tolerably well. Longhair would record for Federal in 1951, returning to the Atlantic studios in 1953. For valuable first-hand eye- and ear-witness perspectives on just who Professor Longhair really was, see also Dr. John's outstanding autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon, published in 1994 by St. Martin's Press.


Born: 19 December 1918 in Bogalusa, LA

Genre: Blues

Years Active: '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s

Justly worshipped a decade and a half after his death as a founding father of New Orleans R&B, Roy "Professor Longhair" Byrd was nevertheless so down-and-out at one point in his long career that he was reduced to sweeping the floors in a record shop that once could have moved his platters by the boxful. That Longhair made such a marvelous comeback testifies to the resiliency of this late legend, whose Latin-tinged rhumba-rocking piano style and croaking, yodeling vocals were as singular and spicy...
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