The legendary Professor Longhair – Roy Byrd – created the classic New Orleans piano style when he blended the traditional second-line back-beat with the rhumba and other exotic rhythms into a distinctive musical gumbo. His records for Atlantic Records in 1949, produced by label co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, form the basis of his sound as his fingers roll over the piano keys in support of his distinctive vocals.
Those records failed to connect with the buying public, as did subsequent releases on other labels. Longhair slid into obscurity, spending his time gambling when he wasn’t working as a janitor. Eventually he was “rediscovered,” leading to an appearance at the 1971 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival that jump-started his career revival and cemented his place at the top of the New Orleans piano pantheon.
This brief set was originally recorded by WFMT-FM radio at the 1976 Chicago Folk Festival. The backing band included Billy Gregory and Will Harvey on guitar, Julius Farmer on bass, and Earl Gordon on drums. Gregory, who did a four year stint in the San Francisco rock band It’s A Beautiful Day, helped mix the recording and kept it in his personal collection until now.
After a short introduction, the Professor plays the melody line for the instrumental “Doin’ It”. Gordon supplies the beat as the rest of the band joins in. Longhair’s fingers roll across the piano keyboard playing phrases that will be familiar to anyone who has spent time listening to other great New Orleans players like Dr. John and the late Allen Toussaint. Gregory uses his solo space to exhibit his fleet-fingered techniques. Longhair then calls for one of his memorable songs, “Big Chief,” full of rollicking piano. The leader switches from his hardy whistling to a boisterous vocal that leaves no doubt who is in charge.
Next comes a steady-rolling rendition of “Every Day I Have The Blues” followed by a song popularized by Ray Charles. The Professor gives his keyboard an spirited workout as the band follows his every move. He finally belts out a couple of verses before Gregory plays another rapid-fire solo. There is more robust whistling on another memorable Longhair original, “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” before the band delivers a blazing version of “Got My Mojo Working” that bristles with energy spurred on by the leader’s pounding piano action. An instrumental, “Fess’s Boogie,” brings the set to an end with Gregory getting the first solo slot. The Professor adds a few flourishes before the song comes to an abrupt conclusion.
Given how much the artistry of Professor Longhair has influenced modern music in untold ways, any recording of his has significant value. This release features him four years before his untimely passing, full of life and laying down beautiful music. Other recordings like Live On The Queen Mary and The Last Mardi Gras offer greater value for readers who aren’t familiar with Professor Longhair, due to extended run times. For those already under the Professor’s spell, this release will make a welcome addition to your Longhair collection.