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Summit Insights | Professor Longhair

We Gonna Dance ‘Til Morning Come

It’s Mardi Gras time in New Orleans, and Summit Strategy Group wants to join the fun while saluting Black History Month and Native American culture all at once. For that, we’ll turn to the PhD of New Orleans piano, Professor Longhair.

Born Henry Roeland Byrd in Bogalusa, Louisiana in 1918, Professor Longhair grew up in New Orleans soaking in the rhythm of the streets. He began to acquire his piano prowess as a teenager on an instrument that had been left on the curb as trash. Pushed into an alley and repaired with scavenged parts, the junk piano demanded the young player develop a syncopated playing attack that would become his signature sound and inspire New Orleans piano stars such as Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint and Dr. John.

Longhair served in the US Army during World War II, and by the late 1940s had become a top New Orleans bandleader. A club owner gave the singing pianist his nickname, coupling commentary on the length of his hair with a title appropriate for his mastery of the keyboard.

In 1949, Professor Longhair recorded Mardi Gras in New Orleans: “When I get to New Orleans, I wanna see the Zulu King,” Longhair sang over a bubbling rhumba boogie, giving a shout out to the city’s African American led parade.

In 1964, Longhair recorded another Fat Tuesday classic with Big Chief, a tribute to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indians – Blacks who skirted the city’s segregation laws by dressing as American Indians and parading on Mardi Gras Day in “tribes” with names like the Wild Magnolias and the Yellow Pocahontas. “Me whole tribe is havin' fun,” Longhair declared in Big Chief. “We gonna dance 'til mornin’ come!”

Big Chief and Mardi Gras in New Orleans are now as much a part of the city’s Carnival as beads, floats, and marching bands. There are still more than 40 active Mardi Gras Indian tribes.

Professor Longhair quit music and worked as a janitor in the mid-60s before being rediscovered by young fans in 1971. With the right team behind him, the Professor moved back to the head of the class. By the mid-70s, Longhair was headlining the New Orleans Jazz Fest, playing parties for the likes of Paul McCartney, and had a regular gig at Tipitina’s, a venue created for him and named for one of his songs.

On January 30, 1980, with Mardi Gras getting underway, Professor Longhair’s newly recorded album was shipped to stores. Fans expected it to be his big break. That night, Professor Longhair died in his sleep at home. He was 61.

Over the next couple of weeks, Mardi Gras In New Orleans and Big Chief will be played all over the Crescent City. The music of the man Allen Toussaint dubbed “the Bach of Rock” lives on.


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