Happy Birthday Professor Longhair: Watch New Orleans Legend’s Final Interview

Professor Longhair was born Henry Roeland Byrd in Bogalusa, Louisiana near New Orleans on this date in 1918. While today would have marked the highly influential pianist and composer’s 103rd birthday, Byrd died on January 30, 1980 after suffering a heart attack. He was just 61 years old.

At the time of his death, Professor Longhair, or Fess for short, was in the midst of filming a documentary with filmmaker Stevenson J. Palfi called Piano Players Rarely Play Together (later airing on PBS), which also featured Fess’s fellow NOLA legends Tuts Washington and Allen Toussaint. Palfi filmed his interview with Professor Longhair for Piano Players two days before his death, making it his last interview, which was later incorporated into the collection Fess Up, arriving in 2018 marking Byrd’s 100th birthday.

The interview is a fascinating and comprehensive document of the highly influential musician’s life. It begins with Fess explaining how he learned to play piano from his mother — who was a multi-talented musician — on a broken piano. He partly attributes his unique style to the piano missing some keys, which he learned to play around.

The discussion also touches on Fess’s innovative incorporation of Afro-Caribbean styles like rumba, mambo and calypso into his playing. Coupling boogie-woogie with rumba, Professor Longhair’s distinctive and now ubiquitous style of New Orleans blues was known locally as “rumba-boogie.”

Additionally, the extensive interview includes Fess ruminating on the ups and downs of his musical career, the state of the music he helped influence and more. But most importantly it’s the master imparting his vast knowledge and letting the world in on his unique way of looking at music just days before he died.

In honor of Professor Longhair, watch his final interview in 1980 below: