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CHESS 1471; JULY 1951



Two years ago one of the delightful arrivals on the early rock scene was vocalist and songwriter Erline Harris, a slightly older, squared jawed spitfire who delivered a handful of records that were full of the kind of raucous enthusiasm that made this music so vital from the start.

Her recording career however was rather spotty, caught in a tug-of-war between the Braun brothers and Syd Nathan when the former’s DeLuxe Records was forcibly taken over by the latter’s King Records empire and Harris found herself cutting the same songs for both companies.

The results though spoke for themselves and due to the lyrics and her billing as Erline “Rock ‘n’ Roll” Harris, her name and records – if little else about her – remained an early touchstone for those digging into the music’s nascent days on wax.

So with one last single on a new label being all we had left of her output remaining we looked forward to covering this somewhat rare and hard to get side, ready to ask ourselves how the industry could have given up on such a fiery vocalist who embodied the take no prisoners quality rock always thrived on?

Instead the question we have after hearing this is… What The FUCK?!?!


Mean As He Can Be
Let’s start by addressing the obvious… times change, hopefully for the better when it comes to what is and isn’t acceptable, and we’d like to think that things have gotten more enlightened with each successive generation.

Furthermore we’re always preaching the need to understand the context of the songs we’re covering and realizing that what passed muster in the middle of the Twentieth Century would not be permissible today.

But acknowledging this doesn’t give a free pass to wrongheaded beliefs, nor does it lessen the offensiveness of racial slurs or misogynistic views. The fact that people seventy years ago were too stupid or prejudiced to see the fallacy in their thinking doesn’t get them off the hook for thinking it in the first place. Wrong is wrong, then or now, and we don’t need to issue disclaimers before we rip them to pieces over it.

But Long Tall Papa is a little different because of who it is that’s in the wrong… at least on wax, for the true guilt lies with bandleader John Peek who further compounds his crimes by getting lead artist credit for doing little more than standing obliquely off to the side in the studio while Erline Harris does all the heavy lifting.

Then again maybe THAT’S why Harris didn’t demand to be the one whose name this record came out under… and maybe why she allowed it to be spelled Arline instead – and Arlene in the trade paper announcement of her signing (though surely that was Leonard Chess’s fault, but we can still hope she was in some way trying to backtrack on what she was singing here).

The fact is, that while HOW Harris sings this is as lusty and vibrant as ever, it’s WHAT she’s singing that is so bothersome and something that, no matter how much we like her, we can’t excuse.

A Fightin’ Man
Though personally I would push back against any song that advocates violence against women as being an appropriate topic for a record, I’m at least amenable to hearing why this theme is necessary for the larger idea to work.

If it’s a woman who had to endure this treatment before finally breaking free and finding happiness with someone who treats them right, that’s perfectly acceptable. Likewise if it’s a ground-eye view of a deplorable situation that passes no comment on the activities, but merely takes it all in as part of a larger state of affairs, that might also be tolerable.

But if a male songwriter – Peek – is putting lines like “he beats me every morning from 12 o’clock to 3” in the mouth of a female to sing with obvious relish on Long Tall Papa, and then has her excuse those actions in the very next line by saying “I know he’s awful mean, but I take that with a smile”… THAT’S where we draw the line.

In fact, though I’m pretty sure John Peek has been dead a few decades by now, if he somehow survived this long I think he might want to watch his back since I doubt he’d be able to put up much defense at his advanced age against any woman with an axe to grind for his Neanderthal views of what love entails.

The real question though is a simple enough one – what on earth would make him think to use THIS example to show the intensity of Harris’s relationship to her (hopefully fictitious) man?

One of the thing a lot of older listeners complain about today is the use of profanity in lyrics. I’ve seen some people who dismiss the inclusion of any vulgarity as reason enough not to even consider listening, as if a swear – or two dozen – are going to knock you off the moral high horse you’re on, but to each their own.

The fact is though that had THIS song replaced “beat” with “fuck” the song would’ve worked a helluva lot better. I mean if Erline was singing this enthusiastically about having her guy give it to her in the sack from 12-3 every night, well that’s a different story! Change a few other words – “mean” in the next line to “rough” – and you’d have a pretty damn good song with Long Tall Papa.

There’s a CHANCE that’s the case here, but it’s a small one and when she screams with pain at one point that chance sort of flies out the window no matter what links you want to find in this to other double entendre songs of the era from Dinah Washington’s Long John on down.

In other words, if you’re going to use “beat” as a coy stand-in for sex, you need to make that clear with other lines that are far more blatant – and humorous – about that alternative meaning, and without them there’s no choice but to say the real topic of the song was exactly what it states which is Harris likes this guy in spite of his abusing her, something that unfortunately is all too common in some relationships.

To then have her convey it in such a blasé manner, suggesting that an insecure man taking out his frustrations in life on the woman who loves him because he knows she won’t leave is just a normal part of your daily existence and nothing to get bothered by, is inexcusable in 1951 or today.


I Want That Understood
We could talk about the musical side of the equation, from the solid drums and piano to the the horns that are slightly behind the times early on and deliver a sax solo that tries its best to deliver without quite being able to clear the bar. We could also take more time to praise the vocal delivery of Harris who snarls and wails with authority and provides almost enough grit to convince us that she could take whatever this asshole is dishing out with his fists.

But why bother?

Why give a song like Long Tall Papa even that much respect? There’s no deeper story being told through this plot point, no three dimensional character being revealed thanks to this brutish attribute assigned to him, and even for those who could care less about song topics and lyrics, there’s no added benefit to be gotten by using those words to advance the song musically, rhythmically or phonetically.

In fact, if you like Erline Harris – as we clearly do here – and appreciate her vocal performance on the song and could even be persuaded to muster up the tolerance for Peek’s band trying to keep up with her, the words being used can’t help but sap the enjoyment from the song in a way that makes you feel nauseated for listening.

Maybe the best thing to remember about people in general is something elementally simple. Whenever someone attempts to show strength by attacking the weak – be it a man beating a woman in a relationship, or a politician targeting a marginalized segment of the population in order to court bigots to get them elected – what it actually reveals is just how weak the aggressor really is.

Peek rhymes with weak and that’s ultimately what you’ll remember about this one, even though Harris’s mighty pipes will be enough to spare it the ignominy of the grade the composition itself truly deserves.


(Visit the Artist page of Erline Harris for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)