Okay, children, sit up and pay attention. It’s music history time.
There are many who claim the title of the “King of Rock & Roll.” Carl Perkins, Elvis, Little Richard, but for those who really know the score, the “Real King of Rock & Roll” was Henry Roeland Byrd, more universally known as “Professor Longhair.”
Born December 19, 1918 in Bogalusa, Louisiana. You can hear the Fess’s piano influence in such piano players as Fats Domino, Little Richard, Doctor John, James Booker, Ann Rabson (Saffire, the Uppity Blues Women) and, of course, Marcia Ball who you’ve seen here previously. When Paul McCartney had his 40th birthday party aboard the Queen Mary his musical entertainment for the evening was provided by Professor Longhair. When asked to do a documentary about the Fess and play with him Allen Toussaint, noted songwriter (Java, Southern Nights among many) and no mean ivory tickler in his own right said, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly do that…when the Fess plays the only thing I can do is listen.”
Albert Goldman, Elvis’s biographer, said that “Professor Longhair gave Elvis Presley his blue suede shoes voice and the arrangements gave producer Sam Phillips the sound.”
It was one of Fess’s songs that gave the world-famous music club located on the corner of Napoleon and Tchoupitoulas Streets its name…Tipitina’s.
I spent many nights there completely entranced by his music and always tried to stand as close to the stage as possible to watch his hands in action. A good friend of mine, Curtis Arsenault, aka Coco Robicheaux, who lived upstairs from me, was one of the doormen at Tip’s and would often let me slip in for free. On the night of January 29th, 1980, my girlfriend at the time and I were driving past the club. I said that Curtis was on the door and asked if she’d like to stop in and catch a set. “No,” she said, “I’m exhausted. Let’s just go home and go to bed.” That night after his gig Henry Roeland Byrd went home and on the morning of January 30th died in his sleep. He was given a New Orleans Jazz Funeral in February on what turned out to be the coldest day of 1980.
My friend Curtis told me he was going to do a bronze bust of the Fess in his honor. Curtis was a good artist and cartoonist, but I had no idea that he was capable of doing a bronze sculpture. He did as you can see below.
There is a small park kitty-corner to Tip’s and the original plan was to rename the park after the Fess and mount the bust there, but doo-doo transpires, as they say, and it never happened, so for the next two years the Fess served as the door stop of Curtis’s apartment. Happily it now sits just inside the entrance of Tipitina’s.
Here, then, is the Fess, himself, playing his song, Tipitina…..