Mardi Gras. Fat Tuesday. Call it what you wish, but this Tuesday marked the official end of the carnival season in New Orleans, followed by the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. All of the revelry that has marked the season for weeks culminated in one final blast on Tuesday in preparation for the fasting and other sacrifice that is associated with the Lenten season. Although the carnival season is observed all over the world, it’s fair to say that New Orleans is the capital city for the festivities.
Music is a critical part of Mardi Gras, and no performer is more closely linked to carnival than Professor Longhair. He was born in Bogalusa, LA in 1918 with the name Henry Roeland ‘Roy’ Byrd. He developed his unique style by learning to play on a piano that was missing some keys. It wasn’t until he was 30 years-old that he began his musical career, playing in a joint called the Caldonia Club in New Orleans. The club’s owner, Mike Tessitore, dubbed him Professor Longhair.
‘Fess, as he came to be known, made his first recordings in 1949 with a group called the Shuffling Hungarians. One of the four tracks that he recorded at the session was the original version of his classic “Mardi Gras in New Orleans.” The recordings were made for the Star Talent label, but there were union problems, and the songs were not released at the time. Professor Longhair recorded again that year, for Mercury Records, and this time the music was released, and found success.
In the 1950’s Professor Longhair recorded for Atlantic Records, Federal Records, and other local labels. He returned to his given name for his big hit “Bald Head” in 1950. The record was credited to Roy Byrd & His Blues Jumpers. During this time he also recorded classic tracks like “Tipitina,” and “Go to the Mardi Gras.” Although his records were popular among black audiences, he failed to find crossover success.
Although he was felled by a stroke in the late ’50s, Professor Longhair kept recording, creating tracks like “No Buts-No Maybes” in 1957, and a re-recording of “Go to the Mardi Gras” in 1959. In 1964 he teamed up with Earl King for “Big Chief,” but lack of success and a burgeoning gambling habit impacted Professor Longhair’s career to the point where he had to take a job as a janitor.
In the early ’70s there was a career revival when ‘Fess was invited to play the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1971, and the Newport Jazz Festival and the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1973.
It was while Professor Longhair was filming a documentary called Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together that he died of a heart attack in 1980. The following year Professor Longhair became a member of the Blues Hall of Fame. As the decade rolled on his albums became widely available to American fans as Alligator Records released Crawfish Fiesta, and Atlantic Records released New Orleans Piano.
In 1992 Professor Longhair was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.