Preserving The Home, And History, Of New Orleans' Piano Professor

Jan 4, 2013
Originally published on January 5, 2013 11:10 am

On the tough side of Terpsichore Street in New Orleans stands a duplex — a two-story, wood-framed building with wood floors, high ceilings and a nice fireplace. But this old house is empty: no furniture, no walls, no electricity, no toilet. Iron bars hide the windows; there's a lockbox on the door. The facade is three different shades of blecch, blurgh and blah. There's nothing compelling about Henry Roeland Byrd's house — that is, unless you've heard the music he made under his other name, Professor Longhair.

Through a career that began in the 1940s, Longhair's style of R&B piano helped create a new musical tradition in New Orleans: a modern postwar sound that reverberated up and down the national charts. If you've ever heard New Orleans piano greats like Fats Domino, Eddie Bo, James Booker or Dr. John, you've already met Professor Longhair in the ether. Allen Toussaint, a piano player who's written and produced music for more than 50 years, says the late musician's work defies comparison.

"I'm a disciple of Professor Longhair," Toussaint says. "There's Professor Longhair, and then there's the rest of us."

In an interview Longhair gave to the CBC shortly before his death in 1980, he came to a similar conclusion himself: "I imagine you can just about say every youngster in New Orleans had came by me in some form or fashion to either look, listen or show 'em something," he said.

The learning curve could be steep. Professor Longhair — whose friends called him "Fess" — sang in his own language. Writer Jason Berry, who co-authored Up From the Cradle of Jazz, a definitive book about New Orleans music, says Longhair's songs speak to life's divine comedy.

"They don't make songs like that much anymore," Berry says. "Fess was able to turn them into lyrical carousels."

And yet those lyrical carousels didn't pay the rent: Longhair's career died in the 1960s. But a decade later, with the help of a few tireless fans, he was back recording, performing and touring. And, at 57, Longhair married his longtime paramour, with whom he'd already raised six children. He later bought the duplex on Terpsichore for the family to live in; their daughter, Pat Walton Byrd, says a proper home was something her father had wanted for years.

"He just couldn't wait to put my mother in a house," Byrd says. "It was more of like, 'When we first started, I couldn't do this. But you were patient with me. You believed in me. And now it's my time to provide for you as a man. And even though our kids are grown, this is where our lives start, in our first home.' The '70s became his best years."

Then, in January 1980 — when he'd just released his most ambitious album and made plans to tour with The Clash — Professor Longhair died in his sleep. Alice, his wife, became severely disabled and died several years later. Pat Byrd was her mother's full-time caregiver, and were it not for damage from Hurricane Katrina, she would live in the house right now.

"Pat has been essentially homeless for seven years," says Steve Armbruster, who managed Longhair briefly and has now spearheaded the effort to get Byrd and her son back home.

"You know, she's been like a gypsy," Armbruster says. "She's had places to stay. ... She's rented apartments. But it's not the same as having your own house."

Like many homeowners after Katrina, Pat Walton Byrd fell prey to an unethical contractor, who reportedly fleeced her out of more than $100,000 and delivered almost nothing. Impoverished, Byrd went to the district attorney; the contractor would end up committing suicide.

Enter the Tipitina's Foundation, the United Way and a nonprofit building organization called Project Homecoming. Together, they're raising money to renovate the house and create a small museum dedicated to Professor Longhair. If all goes well, Byrd and her son will be able to move into their side of the duplex sometime next year.

"Part of the upstairs is going to be a rental," Project Homecoming operations director Kevin Krejci says. "A really good idea is to have a little bit of rental income for folks who are kind of struggling to get back on their feet, so there's some sustainable income there to help support the museum; to help support Byrd and her son, and those kinds of things."

The Tipitina's Foundation recently threw a benefit concert for the house, with Dr. John among the headliners. Nearly every other act playing around New Orleans that night owed something to Longhair, too. Reggie Scanlan, former bassist with the New Orleans rock band The Radiators, was making a live recording at a nearby club with his new band The New Orleans Suspects. He spent a year touring with Longhair.

"Louis Armstrong had his jazz and stuff, but as far as the R&B, Fess deserves to have a museum," Scanlan says. "He deserves to have a foundation. He deserves to have his music available for people to either learn or learn about. It's like anything else you wanna learn about: You gotta go to the source."

When the Professor Longhair museum is finished, Scanlan says he'll visit the house on Terpsichore Street. He's never been there before, but chances are he won't need directions; Longhair couldn't have chosen a better address. The street New Orleanians call "TERP-sih-kor" gets its name from the character in Greek mythology who pronounced her name "terp-SIH-kor-ee" — the muse of lyric poetry and dance.

Gwen Thompkins is the host of WWNO's Music Inside Out, a program about Louisiana music. You can hear a special edition on Professor Longhair at the show's website.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In New Orleans, music fans are rebuilding The Duplex once owned by Henry Roeland Byrd, otherwise known as Professor Longhair. It's hard to exaggerate the cultural debt the city owes to Professor Longhair, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and an inspiration to all modern-day New Orleans piano players. Gwen Thompkins, host of WWNO's Music Inside Out reports.

GWEN THOMPKINS, BYLINE: The Duplex is a two-story wood framed building on the tough side of Terpsichore Street in New Orleans. It has wood floors, high ceilings and a nice fireplace. But this old house is empty - no furniture, no walls, no electricity, no toilet. Iron bars hide the windows. There's a lockbox on the door. And the facade is three different shades of blech, blurgh and blah. So, let's face it - you're not going to care about Henry Roeland Byrd's house until you've heard Professor Longhair's music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THOMPKINS: That's a recording from 1970s. But Professor Longhair had been playing that way since 1940s. Longhair's style of piano helped create a new musical tradition new musical tradition in New Orleans - a post-World War II, modern sound that reverberated up and down the national charts. If you've ever heard New Orleans piano greats like Fats Domino, Eddie Bo, James Booker or Dr. John then you've already met Professor Longhair in the ether. Allen Toussaint is a piano player who's written and produced music for more than 50 years.

ALLEN TOUSSAINT: I am a disciple of Professor Longhair. There's Professor Longhair and then the rest of us.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPKINS: In a 1979 interview Longhair gave to the CBC shortly before his death, he came to a similar conclusion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

PROFESSOR LONGHAIR: Every youngster in New Orleans had came by me in some form or fashion to either look, listen or show them something. I can go back as far as Sugar Boy and Eddie Bo, Guitar Slim. Mac - well, y'all call him Dr. John - Mac Rebbenack is really his name - all those kids used to stand around the door, Fats and all of them. They was very small. They were so small they had to stand outside and do the same thing that I was doing when I was learning from Toots Washington and them. I couldn't go into the joints because they had alcohol in there, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THOMPKINS: The learning curve could be steep. Longhair, whose friends call him Fess, sang in his one language.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIPITINA")

LONGHAIR: (Singing)

JASON BERRY: They don't make songs like that much anymore.

THOMPKINS: Writer Jason Berry says Professor Longhair's songs speak to life's divine comedy. Berry co- wrote "Up From the Cradle of Jazz," a definitive book on modern New Orleans music.

BERRY: Fess was able to turn them into these lyrical carousels.

THOMPKINS: And yet, lyrical carousels don't pay the rent. Longhair's career died in the 1960s. But a decade later, with the help of a few tireless fans, he was back recording, performing and touring. And at the age of 57, Longhair married his longtime paramour, with whom he'd already raised six children. Later, he bought the duplex on Terpsichore Street. Pat Walton Byrd is their youngest daughter.

PAT WALTON BYRD: He just couldn't wait to put my mother in a house. It was more of like, when we first started I couldn't do this. But you were patient with me. You loved me. You believed in me. And now it's my time to provide for you as a man. And even though our kids are grown, this is where our life actually starts in our first home. The '70s became his best years.

THOMPKINS: But in January 1980, as his most ambitious album reached record stores and amid plans to tour with The Clash, Longhair died in his sleep. Alice, his wife, became severely disabled and died several years later. Pat Byrd was her mother's full-time caregiver. And were it not for the damage from Hurricane Katrina, she would be in the house right now.

STEVE ARMBRUSTER: Pat has been essentially homeless for seven years.

THOMPKINS: Steve Armbruster managed Longhair briefly and has spearheaded the effort to get Pat Byrd and her son back home.

ARMBRUSTER: She's had places to stay. Friends who would let her stay here or there, or she would rent apartments. But it's not the same as having your own house.

THOMPKINS: Like any number of homeowners following Katrina, Byrd fell prey to an unethical contractor who reportedly fleeced her of more than $100,000 and delivered almost nothing. An impoverished Byrd went to the district attorney and the contractor committed suicide.

KEVIN KRECIJE: Ready?

THOMPKINS: Um-hum. I'm ready.

KRECIJE: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

THOMPKINS: Enter the Tipitina's Foundation, the United Way and a non-profit building organization called Project Homecoming. Together, they're raising money to renovate the house and create a small museum dedicated to Longhair. If all goes well, Pat Byrd and her son will be able to move in to their side of the duplex sometime next year. Kevin Krecije is with Project Homecoming.

KRECIJE: And then part of the upstairs is going to be a rental because a really good idea is to have a little bit of rental income for folks who are kind of struggling to get back on their feet so that there is some sustainable income there to help support the museum, to help support Pat and her son.

THOMPKINS: And who wouldn't want to live in, like, Professor Longhair's house?

KRECIJE: Exactly, yeah. It's a great...

THOMPKINS: I mean, you could charge anything.

KRECIJE: You could, you could, yeah.

THOMPKINS: I mean, just the thrill of it. It's like moving into Graceland.

KRECIJE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think it'd better than moving into Graceland. Graceland's kitchen isn't that nice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

DR. JOHN: (Singing) If I had a million dollars...

THOMPKINS: Dr. John was among the headliners at a recent Tipitina's Foundation concert for the house.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

JOHN: (Singing) Give me the (unintelligible). Give me the ride, well, I need (unintelligible)...

THOMPKINS: And nearly every other act playing around New Orleans that night owed something to Longhair, too. Former Radiators bassist Reggie Scanlan was making a live recording at a nearby club. He spent a year touring with Longhair.

REGGIE SCANLAN: Louis Armstrong had his starting point with jazz and stuff, but as far as the R&B, Fess deserves to have a museum. He deserves to have his music available for people to either learn or learn about. It's like anything else that you want to learn about. You got to go to the source.

THOMPKINS: When the Professor Longhair Museum is finished, Scanlan says he'll visit the house on Terpsichore Street. He's never been there before. But chances are he won't need directions. Longhair couldn't have chosen a better address. Terpsichore is the New Orleans way of pronouncing Terp-SI-cho-ree, the muse of lyric poetry and dance. For NPR News, this is Gwen Thompkins in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

LONGHAIR: (Singing) Oh, little boys called me Dr. Professor Longhair, but the girls all call me a little ol' lovin' man. (unintelligible) babe, I got the remedies right here in my hand...

WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon returns next week. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.