I’d never heard of Professor Longhair before going away to college. I mean really, who the hell growing up pretty much anyplace outside of New Orleans would have? But down there he was a living legend. Only not for long. The living part, that is. He died of a heart attack in 1980, less than a year after the arrival of my freshman class, and just three years after the birth of what became the most famous music club in the city, Tipitina’s, which had been established in his honor and was named after one of his best known songs (‘Tipitina’).
Tipitina’s sits near the bank of the Mississippi River at the corner of Napoleon Avenue and Tchoupitoulas Street (don’t bother checking, that’s how it’s spelled), in a building constructed in 1912 that formerly housed a gambling room, a gymnasium, and a brothel. In 1977 it opened as a music venue after a group of 14 Tulane alumni pooled their money and bought the building, creating it specifically as a venue for Professor Longhair to perform, which he did regularly until his death. An oversized portrait of him towers above the stage to this day.
Professor Longhair, the singer and pianist born Henry “Roy” Byrd (c’mon, you didn’t think ‘Professor Longhair’ was an actual name), or “Fess”, as he was most commonly known, was one of those one-of-a-kind artists, in both look and musical style. His music centered on R&B, blues and boogie-woogie and was articulated with a piano technique that’s been described as “combining rhumba, mambo, and calypso – and instantly recognizable.” Naturally Fess blended all that up, in the truest sense, into a musical New Orleans gumbo. He didn’t gain all that much fame or sell too many records while alive, but he was posthumously inducted into both the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, while being acknowledged as a musical father figure to such New Orleans piano-playing luminaries as Fats Domino, Huey “Piano” Smith, Allen Toussaint and Dr. John.
But here, I think, is perhaps his most noteworthy legacy. Fast-forward to graduation weekend and I was sitting around with a bunch of good friends reminiscing about the four years just passed and taking stock of our college experience. One, the legendary G-Man, went off on a loud rant about how, academically speaking, his time was completely forgettable. Though I wasn’t exactly the university’s most dedicated student, I suggested maybe he was being too harsh. “In four years, G-Man,” I began, “you’re telling me there was nothing? There must have been some book you found interesting, some class that resonated with you, some professor that you made a connection with…” At this point, G-Man jumped up to cut me off. “Shove it, man!,” he screamed at me indignantly, “The only professor I ever gave a shit about was Professor Longhair!”