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MERCURY 8175; MARCH 1950





When even the story of the sole national hit by an all-time legend is anything but simple and straightforward you know we have to be talking about Professor Longhair… excuse me, Roy Byrd… who once again requires extensive footnotes to make sense of the convoluted tale that seemingly goes with each release of his we encounter.

To put what follows in as concise a nutshell as possible – and to show the extent to which his narrative becomes so tangled – this song was cut by ‘Fess twice a few weeks apart on two different labels with two different titles released under two different artist names, both being the same guy.

Oh, and each of those records were legitimate hits.


Looka There!
A lot of times we start off reviews by pointing you back to previous records by that artist as a way to bring new readers up to speed (and to get our page views up!). When it comes to Professor Longhair it really should go without saying that this helpful suggestion is more of a mandatory requirement for readers because nothing about his career trajectory is easy to follow without extensive Cliff Notes.

His recording career had begun innocuously enough in the late summer of 1949 for the Dallas-based Star Time label who came to New Orleans in search of artists and recorded a handful of sides on ‘Fess in a makeshift studio located in a bar. For some inexplicable reason however they delayed in issuing three sides until the winter of 1950 which was their first mistake for in the meantime ‘Fess had signed contracts with two additional record companies, Atlantic and Mercury. Since he had a limited repertoire of songs he wound up cutting a few of the tunes for more than one label which was HIS big mistake… sort of.

When Star Time finally got around to putting out their sides they issued both singles at once in February, never a good idea in even normal circumstance but even worse when the other two companies then rushed out the same songs on records of their own, meaning Professor Longhair was now competing with himself for sales featuring different versions of the same material.

Star Talent had the slight head start on their rivals and so their product was in stores first around New Orleans where interest in ‘Fess was bound to be strongest and as a result those discs flew off the shelves. Atlantic raced to put out their own version of Mardi Gras In New Orleans which had originally been issued as Star Talent 808 and the two concurrent releases basically canceled each other out, preventing either one from charting, even within the Crescent City.

But it was Star Talent 809, She Ain’t Got No Hair, that had a few weeks to itself and as a result it soon hit the local Cash Box charts. That’s when Mercury, by far the strongest of the three companies, put out their version of the same song, albeit with a different title, Bald Head, and thanks to their superior muscle it pushed the Star Talent release aside in short order, claiming the hit as it spread nationally.

So this then is the review of both of those records rolled into one and whatever your thoughts on fairness or propriety when it comes to the record business and who was deserving of the credit and financial rewards from its overall popularity, let it be said in no uncertain terms that even though both versions are fantastic, the “better” record indeed won out in the end.


Some Other Night
In almost all walks of life experience and confidence are intertwined. The more you do something the more comfortable you get at it, which is the most logical explanation for the three disparate sounding sessions Professor Longhair cut over the span of a few months.

The first time he stepped into the studio with tapes rolling for Star Time he had to have been somewhat nervous, no matter how self-assured he was singing those same songs on a stage. The results of these renditions bear this out, as all of the Star Time versions have the rough appearance of glorified demos.

Now some of this may simply be that Star Time themselves were the least experienced of the three labels and so they were unable to offer any type of production skills beyond knowing when to hit the “record” button, whereas the other two companies very likely helped to smooth over some – though not all – of the rough edges in the band’s performances over multiple takes.

Yet of those Star Time versions She Ain’t Got No Hair is actually the closest in sound and structure to the “accepted” version he later did for Mercury. Though the title is different the song has already pretty much been completely worked out. The piano intro, the lyrics, the chanted chorus by the band, the shift between sung and spoken parts, all are familiar to anyone who’s heard the Mercury hit that came out a month later… it’s just that the Star Time take on it is a little more deliberately paced and as a result isn’t quite as smooth.

Maybe in the interim they honed it some more on stage, ironing out the cadence of the best line about making his friend’s hair-deprived wife stand out in the hall so he’s not trying to force fourteen syllables in a space meant for just twelve. They also figured out by shifting the placement of the backing chants they pack more of a wallop in the arrangement.

But even without the tweaks it’s easy to see why the Star Talent record was being met early on with such a good response. The story is funny, the melody is catchy as can be and the personality of Professor Longhair comes through loud and clear.

The Mercury record however definitely tightens things up, adding rim shots to a slightly more forceful and percussive piano intro by ‘Fess, the combination of which gives it an anticipatory vibe heading into the song that is hard to resist. Once ‘Fess appears his delivery is much the same but there’s a little more cocky swagger to Bald Head, as if he’s already basking in the response the song has gotten him on stage and thus he knows how to sell each line for maximum appeal.

And make no mistake about it, it’s those lines – clever and comedic – that are the main selling point here, retaining their ability to get you to crack a smile no matter how many times you’ve heard them sung.


How Come No Hair?
With all the intricate details of the recordings themselves taking up much of the review, what’s missing thus far is just how FUN this record is and what an indelible figure Longhair is shaping up to be as he spins this humorous yarn about a follicle deprived young lady.

‘Fess’s delivery alternates between the spoken and the sung which is more often than not a recipe for disaster in music, primarily because singers are rarely actors who can accurately and consistently nail a persona in the spoken parts in ways that don’t subsequently get upended by their singing. But ‘Fess manages to balance the two approaches brilliantly, especially on the Mercury version, where he comes across as conversational in an almost off-handed way, yet never loses the musicality while delivering this spoken patter.

Essentially he’s got to be able to convince us that this is a real person he’s speaking of and not some contrivance for the purpose of a mere song. In other words, it’s not just how he tells us about her, it’s how himself thinks about her AS he’s telling us which is what sells this and that’s where he earns his accolades because he paints her in such a lifelike manner that it becomes easy for our imaginations to take it from there.

The obvious jokes one would expect to hear in a song called Bald Head are for the most part not being made. Yes, the basic premise itself is what forms the bedrock humor, but it’s the details that are where the story comes alive starting with the fact that by taking on the role of a neutral observer rather than a direct participant he can both describe the action itself as well as make light of it. His friend is the one griping about having to stick with this smooth-plated lass and each punchline isn’t the kind to lose any wittiness with multiple spins, as if it were the surprise of the joke that made it funny.

Best of these lines is the one that finds him telling us about his friend having acquiesced to his wife’s desire for a night on the town before telling her she’s going to have to “stand out in the hall” when they’re AT the dance, which is not only a snide put-down of her looks, but is even more outlandish because the physical separation they’ll have to endure will make the actual dancing impossible. As a result it’s like a delayed reaction laugh on top of the more expected immediate laugh and one that in the Star Talent version was too cluttered to work as well. By the time they cut it again for Mercury the spacing had been fixed and it stands as the gaudiest jewel in an embarrassment of lyrical riches.

The band is sparse but effective behind him, the drummer keeping up a skittering beat as Longhair’s left hand provides the primary rhythm while his off-kilter yodels are the spice that basically take the place of horns. There’s no piano solo but that’s because the record is so densely packed even without it that there simply wouldn’t be room for one.

Clearly this was the song, even more than their Mardi Gras ode, that they felt strongest about at this point. The Star Talent version (8) is exceptional in its own right, while the slightly sped up Mercury hit smooths out the presentation and comes out as absolutely perfect in every way.


Every Day On The Job
It’s safe to say that no artist in early rock ‘n’ roll was as distinctive as Henry Roeland Byrd and it’s equally assured that no artist was as unprepared for true stardom as Professor Longhair.

There seemed to be no crass calculation in his business dealings, just a practical incentive born out of a rough life filled with low expectations where each opportunity was something to be cherished and receiving a little cash for his efforts remained the primary motivation.

Had he been more astute he might’ve parlayed the early interest shown in him by so many companies into a long term deal where it’d be in the company’s best interest to heavily promote him and judiciously plan each release for maximum impact. Yet if he had been more keenly aware of the tactical side of the music biz there’s a good chance the freewheeling spirit he embodied on record would’ve been more artificial or altogether lacking. He was who he was – on record and in life – and it was that combination of traits which made him utterly unique.

Bald Head was proof that his sound, as unconventional as it may have been, was commercial enough to make him a star. In fact it’d be hard to argue that his best records weren’t as warmly inviting to listeners as any that have graced jukeboxes over the past couple of years.

But while the record label machinations all but ensured he’d never be able to build and sustain any tangible career momentum (case in point, a listener from Cleveland who knew him on Mercury as Roy Byrd may have had no idea that he was also Professor Longhair on other labels), ultimately it helped to build his mysterious legend that has lived on to this day.

Whether ‘Fess would’ve traded that immortality for a more typical shorter-lived stardom during his lifetime is only speculative, but the fact that he’s still widely celebrated forty years after his death despite this being is his one and only hit record tells you that in the long run his reputation hardly suffered from the confusion.

The great ones somehow find ways to live on forever.


(Visit the Artist page of Professor Longhair for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)