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STAR TALENT 809; FEBRUARY, 1950

 
 

 

Part Two of what can most accurately be called the prelude to the main event of the career of one of rock’s most original characters.

Though Professor Longhair was never a star, even during his all-too brief commercial peak just around the bend, he’s become, oddly enough, the one rock artist to emerge from its early rise to be given some degree of modern recognition… even lasting praise and acclaim.

That his recording career was a tangled web of short-lived contracts with record companies large and small, often featuring overlapping releases cut for different companies at the same time followed by excruciatingly long sabbaticals from the recording studio which robbed the world of further examples of his genius in full-flower, is probably all too typical for the man born Henry Roeland Byrd.

For there’s one thing we know… if ever there was a star crossed figure in rock it was surely Professor Longhair.
 

 

Hello Again
We should get right into the inevitable re-cap of the – surely concurrently released – first entry in Professor Longhair’s catalog yesterday so we can try and tie up all of the loose ends before launching ourselves into his “proper” career right around the corner.

The thirty year old ‘Fess had first entered the studio in 1949 for Star Talent Records and cut a typical four song session for cash in a makeshift studio in a bar on the corner of St. Peter and Villere Streets. For some reason lost to time, they waited months before issuing the two singles that came from that and were delighted when they began to catch on in New Orleans.

But then the roof caved in as it turns out Professor Longhair had signed two OTHER contracts in the months following his Star Talent session, recording many of the same songs which now were being released to compete with the “originals”. Because of that confusion their records soon got either overwhelmed in the market by the more well-heeled labels Mercury and Atlantic or they in fact saw their records pulled from stores because Fess’s band weren’t members of the musician’s union who put up a stink, leading to lifelong conflicts between ‘Fess and the union which further hindered his career for years to come.

As a result the A-sides of both of his Star Talent releases would go on to be far more renown for their re-makes for those bigger labels and – just to reiterate what we said yesterday to make sure there’s no added confusion around here – that means we decided to follow suit and include our impressions of the “first drafts” of the songs on Star Talent in the later reviews for the bigger releases on those other labels.

But in the meantime we’re left with covering the B-sides of those initial records, the second of which, Bye Bye Baby, establishes his rather wobbling voice and herky-jerky piano accompaniment that would soon become his trademarks.
 
 


 

Hey Now, Honey Child
At first listen, at least to the uninitiated when it comes to Professor Longhair’s music, this probably sounds a bit like a late night performance by a slightly drunk amateur with a few years of piano lessons under his belt and enough liquid courage provided by the booze to open his mouth to sing in front of whatever party-goers haven’t left or passed out at two o’clock in the morning.

It’s not that anything he’s doing seems completely lacking in skill, but rather it all seems just a little off-balance… just like the kid at the piano stool after that party who polished off his eleventh beer of the night ten minutes earlier. It’s an even money bet as to whether the kid will topple off the stool onto the floor before he gets to the end of the song.

We don’t have to worry about ‘Fess doing that because he was stone cold sober, he just always sounded like he staggered out of a bar on Rampart Street, singing with a peculiar natural yodeling quality which made him seem half in the bag at 9 o’clock in the morning. Yet that voice, though far from being technically impressive, was never anything but expressive… the first two letters in those words making all of the difference as to how you should best respond to his singing.

If you focus on things like staying in tune while carrying a melody with a sure-handed grip then it’s best you look elsewhere. ‘Fess had a tendency to drift in and out of key and when in doubt he’d veer into another lane intentionally just to keep you from getting too comfortable.

But if you are less concerned with musical principles and more interested in simply listening to the voice for the access it provides into the singer’s own character and soul, then Professor Longhair will always be able to charm you.

On Bye Bye Baby he sets a deceptively lazy mood with his playing on the intro which is backed by the higher tones of the alto sax and trumpet. They too sound drunk but I assure you it’s not due to any spirits they consumed, even though the session DID take place in Joe Prop’s Bar, but rather the two youngsters were still a little uncertain of themselves. Robert Parker, playing alto sax, was celebrating his 17th birthday the month this was recorded so it’s only natural that he might feel nervous about being recorded for posterity.

The pace picks up after the initial chorus which was used to kick off the song and now ‘Fess comes across as oddly seductive as he calls to a girl who apparently wants no part of him. He doesn’t seem fazed by her dismissal of him, even when he goes to her house and is told by her landlord that she doesn’t live there anymore – which is delivered in an alluring rapid fire semi-spoken delivery to make it fit within the song’s structure – he just treats it like she’s playing hard to get.

Though generally speaking we usually don’t like seeing guys casting aside their pride and throwing themselves at the ladies like this, in ‘Fess’s case he doesn’t quite trade in his dignity in his pursuit of her. Somehow he manages to remain in full possession of his self-esteem and that goes a long way in making him – and the song – more appealing than it would be otherwise.
 


 

Followed You Over Town
But while we can’t fault his mindset, the same can’t quite be said for the song itself which has all the earmarks of the hastily arranged circumstances it was recorded under.

Though it’s a typical off-kilter song for ‘Fess, particularly in the irregular patterns he’s playing and the droning horns to act as a counterpoint, it’s got an amateurish makeshift quality to it as well that indicates this wasn’t one of the tunes he’d honed on the bandstand prior to going in to make his recording debut. As with other tunes he cut for Star Talent he’d refine it down the road – as Hey Now Baby – but at this juncture it’s decidedly lacking in its execution, coming across as ragged and a little sloppy… a practice run rather than a finished product.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some qualities in Bye Bye Baby to admire however, for even though it’s pretty standard stuff thematically – and pretty sparse musically – ‘Fess manages to introduce the two characters and the backstory as well as lead us more or less to a resolution in which, spurned in his advances, he tells her he’s no longer interested and moves on. There are some convincing details tossed in along the way but aside from the distinctive qualities of his voice there’s nothing all that notable in how its conveyed.

What does make this unusual in a sense – and probably contributes to it falling short as a composition – is that the chorus isn’t so much a proper chorus but rather he repeats the first line with more of a deliberate pace, though not changing things up quite enough to stand out. As a result it seems very condensed structurally, almost claustrophobic in a way. There’s no instrumental break to air things out, nor any vocal bridge to snap us out of the repetitiveness, which means everything falls back on whether or not they can put you in a trance.

The answer is: They can’t, at least not enough to turn the tide. If we were hearing Professor Longhair for the first time in early 1950 on this record we’d probably be underwhelmed – intrigued maybe, but let down all the same. The musical accompaniment is pretty simplistic, his piano playing is fine and features early evidence as to his percussive left hand that had more resonance than any other man, woman or child was able to draw from the keys, but he never really cuts loose otherwise to give this more character.

Meanwhile his vocals may indeed be atypical but they’re not familiar enough for us to call them quirky just yet, as that’s something that requires a little more understanding between artist and audience for people to become attuned to his style and embrace it without having to question it first. Lastly the song itself is too rudimentary to bother looking for deeper meanings or insight on human behavior, making it a sketch rather than a script, a first rehearsal as opposed to opening night playing to a packed house… but that would come soon enough, as we all know.
 

Be Mine
There’s still some irregularities in the timing of all this that we have yet to fully work out to everyone’s satisfaction… like why Star Talent held these records back until February to release when they had cut them months earlier and weren’t exactly overflowing with material from other artists that would justify keeping these on the shelf for so long.

But until some smoking gun can be found to tell us otherwise, we have to take at face value the limited information we have available – including the fact that Rufus Thomas, whose singles for the label came out just before these sequentially, didn’t record his sides until January 1950 – and be content to count these as mid-winter releases, common sense be damned.
 

 
I suppose that doesn’t matter TOO much when it comes to forgotten B-sides like Bye Bye Baby, an historically interesting but otherwise largely irrelevant early effort by a performer whose ensuing legend was just barely hinted at here… but when it comes to the A-side of both this and the preceding release of his that’s when the confusion becomes a much bigger issue to deal with.

All of which is to say now that you’ve been prepped for what awaits you in a few days time, the real story with all its intrigue, rumors and shadowy possibilities, hopefully becomes more eagerly anticipated for rock fans still wondering just how and when this oddly named Professor Longhair was going to truly make his mark.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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