Who was/is Roy Byrd & His Blues Jumpers ? - CDs, Vinyl LPs, DVD and more

Roy Byrd & His Blues Jumpers

After being virtually forgotten in the 1960s, Henry Roeland Byrd has been accorded a legendary status perhaps greater than any other blues pianist since his re-emergence in the 1970s and his death in 1980. What makes his 1950 Mercury sessions so unique is that they were the only ones to capture him with a slew of great songs, with top-notch musicians, and in a totally comfortable atmosphere when he was at the peak of his powers. Fess ((a fond nickname for the 'Professor')) shouts and plays with a joyful abandon that will astound even his longtime admirers. As the late R&B legend Louis Jordan would say, "If this don't move you, Jack, you dead."

Byrd and his group made their name in New Orleans at a dive of a club featuring female imitators called the 'Caldonia Inn.' The owner, Mike Tessitore, noted Byrd's unkempt hair and said, "We'll call you Professor Longhair and the Four Hairs combo."  From March 27, 1948 to July 22, 1949 the Four Hairs were an advertised fixture at the club.

On August 20, 1949, Dr. Daddy-O made the first real mention of 'Henry Long Hair' in the 'Louisiana Weekly,' congratulating him for drawing crowds at a club across the Mississippi River from New Orleans.

19-year-old Robert Parker (later of Barefootin' fame) began playing sax with Byrd around this time: "I happened to play the 'Caldonia Inn' ... Fess used to be playin' there by hisself. He told me, 'You like to play.' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Well, come on over by the 'Pepper Pot,' that's where my gig is. I just do this on Sunday evenings over here' ... So I found the 'Pepper Pot' across the river ... That's where the 'Mardi Gras in New Orleans' was born, right there at the 'Pepper Pot.'"

Longhair's Pepper Pot group included Parker, trumpeter Al Miller, and drummer Louis Joseph, who showed Byrd some of the unusual Latin rhythms that he began using. Jesse Erickson, a Texan who owned the Star Talent label, recorded them in a barroom, likely the Pepper Pot' itself. On November 19, Dr. Daddy-O announced "Prof. Henry Longhair will soon have a recording released."

It was perhaps with the local success of She Ain't Got No Hair that Longhair first began playing with George Miller & His Mid-Driffs. "We used to go and borrow instruments (from William Allen)"  recalled Byrd. "... mikes, speakers, P.A. systems, etc. – they were more familiar with him than I was. And they got him to record and this was how I got involved with him. The first check that I made was from Mercury." Apparently William Allen signed him to a contract, but had to wait for Nash, the Mercury representative to come to record him.

In the meantime the third recording inquiry in as many months came from Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic. "I heard he was looking for me when I was at the 'Caldonia Inn,'"  recounted Longhair, "so I left the 'Caldonia' and went back to the 'Pepper Pot.' I thought I was hid." 

Ertegun gave an amazing recollection of his quest in 'New Yorker' magazine. He and Herb Abramson inquired at the 'Caldonia' for the strangely named pianist, and then, following a tip, crossed the river, where a white taxi driver let them off in a big field.


"Far away we could see some lights … We tramped through this field in the pitch black, in the middle of the night. There was a bit of a moon out, so we could see our way. As we approached this village we saw this house, which was bulging in and out. All the windows were brightly lit … It was right in the town square, the main intersection, and from far away it looked, actually, as if people were falling out the windows … The music was just blaring. We thought … 'My God, there's a fantastic band in there.' … So we walked up into the place and we said, 'We're from 'Life' magazine' … And there was a row at the door. Some people ran out the back door … Thought we might be the sheriff or something, you know. After a few minutes talk, they let us come in and sit behind the piano… What I thought had been an R&B band turned out to be just Professor Longhair by himself. He was sitting there with a microphone between his legs. He used to play an upright piano, and he had… a drumhead… attached to the piano. He would hit it with his right foot while he was playing. He made a percussive sound. It was very loud. And he was playing the piano and singing full blast and it really was the most incredible sounding thing I ever heard…And I said 'My God, no white person has ever seen this man.' So as soon as he finished, Herb and I, very excited, said, 'Look, we have to tell you, we're just astounded by your playing,' you know, and shaking his hand. 'We want very much to record you.' He said, 'Oh, what a shame. I just signed with Mercury.'"


His Mercury contract notwithstanding, Longhair apparently recorded for Atlantic while he was waiting for Murray Nash. Lester Alexis claimed that he and the Mid-Driffs played on Longhair's first Atlantic session. Although it was recorded at Cosimo's studio, the recordings were still primitive, partly because of terrible sound balance and partly because, as Cosimo recalls, "He (Byrd) was always uncomfortable … He had trouble being completely at ease."  The first Atlantic 78 was released in January 1950, shortly before the presumed date of the Mercury session.

The first Mercury 78 was released on March 27 under the name Roy Byrd and His Blues Jumpers. On April 29, Dr. Daddy-O reported "Roland (sic) Byrd's Mercury recording 'Bald Head' is sweeping the city, but here's a tip… play the other side too… 'Hey, Now' is the title and it's groovy"  The same week William Allen took out an ad in the Weekly announcing his management of Longhair. 'LONG BYRD, the blues jumper, who plays the most unusual piano you have ever heard is open for engagements…"

The record was a far superior remake of the Star Talent 78. Bald Head  is a rollicking novelty Byrd wrote for "a little girl I used to have."  Hey Now Baby is the kind of one man tour-de-force that Ahmet and Herb must have heard as they crossed the field: Fess firing on all the keys like Chinese New Year, while kicking the bejesus out of the piano and wailing for joy. One can almost see the house shaking and people falling out as Fess rocks and rolls.

 On August 4, 1950 Bald Head belatedly entered 'Billboard's' R&B chart and reached #5.


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Various - Record Label Profiles
The Mercury New Orleans Sessions (2-CD)

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