Professor Longhair’s house on Terpsichore St. in New Orleans.
New Orleans bassist Reggie Scanlan describes the 1970s comeback of R&B piano legend Professor Longhair as “a convergence of a lot of happenstance things.” Professor Longhair had recorded a number of hits in the ‘40s and early ‘50s; his significant musical talent, however, couldn’t always pay the rent. But “Fess,” as he was affectionately known, was given a slot on the roster of the newly-minted New Orleans Jazz Festival in 1971, and was poised to do some of his best work to date.
“With the reemergence of Fess, we were all scrambling to find records,” says Scanlan, who was in his late teens at the time. “We had never heard anything like this.”
Longhair, whose given name was Henry Roeland Byrd, passed away in 1980, after releasing a new album and making plans to tour with The Clash. Restoration is currently underway on his dilapidated duplex on Terpsichore (TERP-sih-kor) Street in New Orleans, and the house’s comeback, once complete, may be just as impressive as when Fess took the stage in ’71.
“It’s in pretty bad shape,” says Kevin Krejci of Project Homecoming, one of three organizations involved in restoring the house and building a very small museum -- about 430 feet -- to educate tourists and locals about Longhair’s legacy. “Some of it is storm damage, some of it is age, some of it is disrepair since Katrina and shoddy contractor work.”
The New Orleans Office of Community Development is providing about a third of the funding for the restoration project, procured through a grant written by Project Homecoming. The local organization Tipitina’s Foundation, which restored Fats Domino’s historic home after Katrina, is also providing funds, along with the United Way. The majority of the construction work will be done by volunteers.
A bust of Professor Longhair sits in Tipitina’s, a New Orleans bar and music venue named after one of his songs.
The restored duplex will eventually be a home for Longhair’s daughter, Pat Byrd, who served as a caretaker for her mother in the house after her father’s passing. Byrd was originally the victim of an unethical contractor after Hurricane Katrina damaged the house, paying thousands for no major improvements. Project Homecoming’s mission is to help out people like Byrd, with a secondary focus on preserving historic homes and keeping them habitable.
Krejci says that Tipitina’s Foundation specifically hired a renowned historic restoration architect, Rick Fifield, for the project, and they’re working closely with the Historic District Landmarks Commission. The house will include an upstairs rental unit, which will serve as another source of income for Byrd.
“That’s a step above what we usually do,” Krejci says. “It’s a culturally significant person and house for the city of New Orleans. We’re really excited about it.” The restoration is expected to take around seven or eight months, after which Byrd and her son will be able to move in.
“I still miss him to this day,” says Scanlan, who spent a year touring with Longhair in the 1970s. He plans to visit the museum, once it’s open, to see if an old pistol of Fess’ will be showcased.
“When he died, there was a space that opened up in the music scene here, and you can still feel it,” he says.