NEW ORLEANS -- His songs, like “Go to the Mardi Gras” and “Big Chief,” are a Mardi Gras staple and the music he may best be remembered for, but Professor Longhair, or Fess as he was called, was a virtuoso, a music pioneer and now a New Orleans icon.
He was born Henry Roeland Byrd in Bogalusa in 1918 and died here in New Orleans, the city he loved, in 1980 in a home on Terpsichore Street, the only house he ever owned.
Now more than three decades later, the Tipitina's Foundation, the United Way and Project Homecoming are working to restore this house for Professor Longhair’s family, and as a tribute to his legacy.
His daughter Patricia Walton says it was her and her late mom's last wish to keep this home in the family.
"It was a dream for me to keep the house and remember the dad, being so that this is the first home he ever owned," said Walton. "And for many, many years I've worked very diligently trying to save it."
For the Tipitina's Foundation this is a natural. After all, the now iconic Uptown club is named after one of Professor Longhair’s songs, “Tipitina.”
"There are very few people and places that are as inextricably linked as Professor Longhair and Tipitina's," said Mary Von Kurnatowski of the Tipitina's Foundation. "Spiritually, artistically, emotionally, historically, and we felt like it would just be a missed golden opportunity to make sure that his house was in place and people could go to it and visit it."
Steve Armbruster, one of the founding members of Tipitina's, is someone who called Professor Longhair a friend. But Armbruster and some of his buddies back in the ‘70s were also fans who used to rent venues so Fess would have a place to play and they could listen, including the building where Tips stands today, which in those days was called the 501 Club.
"And then when Gary said he wasn't going to renew the release for the 501 Club, we decided we'll start a music club, and we called it Tipitina's after his song," Armbruster said. "And we opened January 14, 1977."
Never in Steve's wildest dreams did he think Tipitina's would be around for more than three decades, or that Professor Longhair would die at the age of 61, three years after they opened the club. That's why he, the Tipitina's Foundation, the United Way and Project Homecoming all jumped on board to make the Professor Longhair house restoration happen.
"We thought it was important because not only, like I said, it helps a family return to a place they can call home, but also it's going to establish a place that people can go and appreciate New Orleans culture and what Professor Longhair has done not just for the music industry here, but across the world," said Michael Williamson of the United Way.
"This block that it's on really needs the love of restoration and our hope is that with the restoration of Professor Longhair's house, that one house on that block makes the rest of the block glow and really foster redevelopment," said Duncan Cheney of Project Homecoming.
And the plans for this house by architect Rick Fifield call for detailed restoration with a home for Fess's daughter and his grandson Ardell, who like his grandfather is a musician, and a museum on the first floor for fans to visit.
"Some of our wonderful, premiere jazz musicians, their history has kind of been demolished, and we wanted to make sure this didn't happen with Professor Longhair," Kurnatowski said.
And while that will never happen again, Professor Longhair’s legacy will be preserved, and his house a part of the history of New Orleans will be a monument to his incredible life.
For more information on the restoration project, visit the Tipitina's Foundation web site.