Interview with Professor Longhair (June 10th 1979), by Peter Stone Brown
Make no mistake about it, New Orleans R&B would not have been what it is without Professor Longhair, Henry Roeland Byrd, and there are some people who say rock and roll wouldn’t have happened without him. He had an amazing, original way of playing piano, that was intricate, rhythmic, funky and swinging all at once. Professor Longhair really wasn’t known outside of New Orleans until the late ’70s. And then just as things were starting to happen for him, he died. This interview took place in a van outside a fire hall in Levittown, PA, and unlikely place for a piano legend to be playing. But the Bucks County Blues Society, an enterprising group of people who loved blues and decided to present it were the only one’s to bring Professor Longhair anywhere near Philly. I remember that he seemed to be very old, much older than his actual age 61, and he wasn’t in good health.
When did you start playing?
My mother started me playing music early in my age, I was around 10, 11 years old.
Did you play at the church then?
No, I never played in churches, but I used to hang around a lot of churches and I got a lot of inspiration from sanctified music and spirituals.
Where did your music come from?
Well, most of the music that I’m puttin’ together now, that I enjoy most was speakeasy, barrelhouse, honky-tonk stuff and I was around a lot of honky-tonk musicians, barrelhouse musicians, blues musicians, and bebop musicians, jazz musicians. I just got a little bit from everybody and used it with what my mother taught me. She played a lot of ragtime music.
Was that it New Orleans.
Yeah. She brought me to New Orleans when I was around two-months-old and I consider New Orleans my home. Of course I was born in Bogalusa.
What do you think it is about New Orleans that gives its music this special kind of sound?
Well I believe the people in New Orleans are more serious, even in whatever they did, whether it was music or work. They had to be to keep a job, ’cause you didn’t last long in New Orleans in them days if you was a weak musician ’cause other musicians would come right around underneath you and take your job away from you. So you had to be strong. The blues come in your interpretation. You’re just tellin’ people what happened in your life, how you feel, and the pains and the aches that’s runnin’ through your mind. That made blues really serious. With music, you just got to feel it. Like I say, I was hangin’ around a lot of churches, barrelhouses, speakeasys, I just mix my ideas up and call it a gumbo. There’s no certain thing at all. It’s just rockin’ rhythm.
Can you recall the names of some of the piano players you listened to?
I listened to piano players like Rocky Sullivan. He was real blues, a real blues piano player. I listened to musicians like Stormy Weather, he was mostly a shuffle and rockin’ piano player. I learned a lot of boogie-woogie, basses and styles from Brother Montgomery, he’s still livin’. Sullivan Rocky and Stormy’s dead now. And I learned a lot from Father Washington. He’s got very strong fingers and he learned me never how to skip or miss keys, be perfect. He’s still livin’. He work with us at Tipitina’s today.
Did you know Jelly Roll Morton?
No, I really didn’t. But some of his stuff went into my stuff too. See. all of us, we’d just go around listen to one another sing and whatever we can create around it. We’d just take a little bit from here, a little bit from there.
Did you get in touch with other musicians from Mississippi or Texas when they’d come through town?
Like Sonny Boy Williams from some point in Mississippi, what point I really don’t know. And fellows like Memphis Slim, wherever he came from, I don’t really know. It wasn’t in Louisiana. But fellas like that just come with big soul. No matter where you come from, you can come with soul, like Muddy Waters. Now, he inspires me a lot. I enjoy Muddy Waters. If I have to go out and listen to something I would go listen to Muddy Waters if he’s in the city or town, or Ray Charles, or Bobby Blue Bland, or B.B. King. I’m speakin’ about people that issues out soul music with a beat.
Your current band, your 1979 All-stars has New York jazz tenor players and they get along with you really well. You like to keep up with the modern sounds as well?
I like anything that’s got feelings in it. And I think that this group that I have now is very professional. They’re very clever. They was almost playin’ blues in the wake of the bebop musicians, the majority of them, the horn players anyway. And when you can play bebop, you can play just any field you wanna play in. It’s just all in learnin’ the tunes. And the tunes that I do, I have to teach ’em what I want ’em to do and then we have to practice ’em, ’cause there’s no sheet music in what I’m doin’. You gotta remember all of this.
You have two records now which are currently available, one you did on Atlantic and the one you did which Paul McCartney produced on Harvest. Could you tell me about some of the other records you have that you’re waiting to get out?
Well, really we have four albums, that’s out, was out. We have an Atlantic album, a Harvest album and we have a Seasaint Mardi Gras album and we have a French, Barclay album. So we have four albums that’s floatin’ around. Why they can’t get ’em I don’t really know. I guess people just have to call in to the record stores and insist on orderin’ them if they want ’em. That’s about the best advice that I can give, because we got plenty of ’em when we was over in Sweden. We had more than we could actually count and I brought back a lot of ’em to New Orleans for people that wasn’t able to get ’em in New Orleans.
How much has the French culture in New Orleans and the Cajun country touched you?
Mmmmmmmmm, very nice! Fantastic really. I enjoy gettin’ way out of the city sometimes. Once I didn’t approve of it too much. But since I’ve been goin’, I like to go for about two or three weeks, or four weeks and then go back and relax and rest. We’ve been havin’ some nice times, very very nice times. We haven’t had a dull job yet.
It’s been a long tour hasn’t it?
It’s been a pretty good tour, this is the fourth week now.
Where else on the East Coast have you played?
Well, we started off around Washington, Baltimore, Maryland, Rhode Island, and worked our way on in to New York, then we went to Rochester, Toronto, then Ottawa I think, and Montreal and we come back through here, so this was the last job this tour. We ain’t acceptin’ no more.
How did it go in Canada?
Wonderful. Very nice people. I been to Canada two or three times before anyway.
Do you travel more now in the later part of your career?
Really. I didn’t have no reason to travel before ’cause I was mixin’ up with bad people and they wasn’t come up with no money so I’d have been stupid to go somewhere with them when I was gettin’ nothin’ at home.
How did Paul McCartney get interested in your music?
Ah, he just passed one night and we was workin’ at a little club up on Oak Street, 8301 Oak Street. it was Jed Palmer’s place and somebody steered him up to wherever we were workin’ and he came and listened and he enjoyed it. So he said, “Now that I’ve come listen to you, why don’t you come listen to me?” And I said, “Well, where are you?” and he was makin’ a recordin’ down by Seasaint. And the next thing I know he was sendin’ for us to come out and play the gig for him on the Queen Mary.
On a cruise? That must have been nice. How long did that last?
Oh, that was a wonderful job. I’m sure it lasted about a week. We didn’t know they was really recordin’ the stuff, or I guess I’d have got somethin’ better to go out there with than what I had. But he said, “C’mon,” so we left.