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

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.

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