No performer embodied the spirit of New Orleans more than Henry Roeland Byrd, better known as Professor Longhair. His lasting influence on the Crescent City scene belies the fact that he often struggled to make a living from music and had only one hit on the Billboard charts (‘Bald Head,’ 1949). His other works, especially ‘Tipitina,’ ‘Go to the Mardi Gras,’ and ‘Big Chief,’ however, rank as perennial favorites. Byrd, whose music seamlessly assimilated blues, boogie woogie, rumba, and the sounds of New Orleans’ second line and Mardi Gras Indian rhythms, was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, on Dec. 19, 1918. He danced on the street in New Orleans for tips as a youngster and learned piano, guitar, and drums, but his professional musical career did not take off until after World War II. For a time he was a popular act in local clubs and recorded for several national labels, but he turned to one of his other skills — card-playing — to support himself. Finally a new generation of fans and musicians — joined by others who remembered his glory days — anointed him as the guru of New Orleans piano in the 1970s, and he was able to perform and record again to international acclaim. The New Orleans landmark nightclub Tipitina’s was named for the song that became his signature tune. Longhair died on January 30, 1980, a day before the release of his Alligator album ‘Crawfish Fiesta.’

— Jim O’Neal