Professor Longhair originated one of the classic styles of rock & roll piano playing, a New Orleans potpourri —ragtime, jazz, Delta blues, zydeco, West Indian, and Afro-Cuban dances —distilled into boogie-woogie bass lines in the left hand and rolling arpeggios in the right. It was the style popularized by Fats Domino, Huey "Piano" Smith, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, and scores of others.
Henry Byrd first played piano when, as a boy, he discovered an abandoned upright in a New Orleans alley. Recalling everything he'd heard while dancing for tips outside nightclubs and behind parade bands, he taught himself to play. It was not until he was 30, however, that he began to work professionally as a musician; before then he'd had stints as a prizefighter, a gambler, and a vaudeville dancer. In 1949 he formed a quintet called Professor Longhair and His Shuffling Hungarians, which included Robert Parker on tenor sax, and recorded four songs —"She Ain't Got No Hair," "Mardi Gras in New Orleans," "Professor Longhair's Boogie," and "Bye Bye Baby" —on the Star Talent label.
The following year, the Professor was signed to Mercury and rerecorded "She Ain't Got No Hair," under the title "Baldhead," which reached #5 on Billboard's R&B chart. Longhair later recordedon over a dozen labels, while a combination of poor health and mismanagement kept his career from being established.He received virtually nothing for "Go to the Mardi Gras," his 1959 remake of his own "Mardi Gras in New Orleans," which became a theme song of the annual carnival. Although "Big Chief" was a modest hit in the Louisiana area for him and Earl King iin 1964, he soon after left the music business and took up maunal labor to support himself and his family.
In 1971 Longhair was rediscovered by talent scouts for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival; thereafter he performed at every New Orleans Festival until his death and appeared on the 1976 live Festival album. His comeback also took him to the Newport Folk Festival in 1973 and to several festivals in Europe. In the last decade of his life, Atlantic released a collection of his vintage recordings, and he put out three newly recorded albums. Shortly before his death from a heart attack, he was engaged to tour with the Clash. In 1991 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).