No tags :(

Share it

FEDERAL 12061; MARCH 1952



Whenever there’s any kind of a dry spot in rock’s story during the early 1950’s, be it a short commercial draught, a temporary creative lull or just a stretch where the records are more or less following a predictable path with few if any surprises to uncover, we hold out hope that someone will come along to shake things up a little.

By “someone” we usually mean Henry Roeland Byrd… Professor Longhair himself.

It’s been two years since he scored his only national hit on Mercury Records, a major label only briefly interested in rock ‘n’ roll and while he then headed to the far more hospitable Atlantic Records he was unable to match that commercial success despite a string of great sides.

Now he’s making his debut for Federal Records, a label that was starting to put together an enviable roster of rock acts where he seemed to be the perfect candidate to both fit in and stand out. If ever there was a situation ideally suited to advance his career, this was surely it… funny that it didn’t turn out that way.


You Can’t Tell Me No Better
In the music business “success” is determined by sales… at least according to the companies hiring the artists that is.

With just one session for the label, Professor Longhair’s short stay at Federal was deemed a let down, and whether it was due to licensing issues or historical indifference, this stint was often left out of posthumous career retrospectives.

You might think this failure to produce anything lasting for the company must’ve meant that Ralph Bass had hauled him up to Cincinnati and paired him with session pros not used to his quirky style, but the fact is they were cut in New Orleans with handpicked local musicians.

So then you take a gander at the title and surmise that Curly Haired Baby was an act of creative desperation, seemingly trying to conjure up the magic of that lone hit on Mercury, Bald Head, as if the topic of a girl’s locks were solely responsible for the audience interest with Federal going so far as to attribute it to Roy “Bald Head” Byrd on the label.

But while that may have been the inspiration for the title, this is hardly a rip-off of his past work and there’s actually some musically inventive things within this that are sure to be overlooked by most. So while you might think the usually easy-going ‘Fess was feeling the pressure of coming up with something marketable, it’s clear he viewed his market as being primarily right in his own back yard.


Shine Just Like Gold
You rarely if ever hear Professor Longhair’s name associated with zydeco music, despite that style being indigenous to Louisiana where ‘Fess was born, raised and died in.

The rollicking rock styles of his music featuring his inimitable rolling piano boogies with a “Spanish tinge” seemed somewhat far removed from the more down home sound prevalent in zydeco.

Listening to this record however you can easily see the connection thanks to an arrangement that is unlike every other record he cut, telling you that maybe this was a unique circumstance… an experiment he discarded before zydeco took off in the mid-1950’s with Clifton Chenier.

The primary instrumental facets of zydeco music are found in the washboard percussion played on a vest frottoir and the accordion giving that music its distinctive wheezing rhythmic bounce.

Neither of those instruments are present on Curly Haired Baby but with ‘Fess’s left hand playing an up and down boogie riff which is mirrored by Charles Burbank’s tenor sax playing the same riff it effectively replicates an accordion, cleverly deconstructing that instrument and reproducing it with what they had on hand.

The drummer Charles Otis meanwhile is using brushes on his parts which not surprisingly is giving it the washboard feel of zydeco. All of this is really inventive and speaks to their musicianship and natural feel for a music they all had to have been casually exposed to living in Louisiana. Add to this a syncopated guitar mini-solo by Papoose Nelson and some ringing tones he delivers while backing Burbank’s sax solo, the musical side of the equation never fails to hold your attention.

Unfortunately the rest of the song, while perfectly suitable, doesn’t jump out at you vocally or lyrically as so many of Longhair’s best sides do. The story is more a snapshot than a scene as ‘Fess is singing the praises of a girl without using more than broad references and vague insinuations, never creating a vivid image of her, forcing his own enthusiasm to paint the picture his lyrics refuse to do.

Since ‘Fess also goes rather easy on his usual off-kilter yodeling and other bizarre wild-eyed vocal techniques, the song – while certainly easily identifiable as coming from him – doesn’t revel in its idiosyncrasies nearly as much as his standard fare, lessening its impact in the process.

Still enjoyable and subtly innovative, but not quite transcendent.


Deserves The Best Of Everything
One of the perceived problems with Professor Longhair breaking through to a mass audience was the fact that his music was so quirky and unusual compared to the rest of rock ‘n’ roll that it sometimes seemed as if it came from another planet.

Yet here the problem could be that it deviates just a little too much from that quirky and unusual prototype of his that caused it to not be as well received at the time and apparently not as highly thought of by fans of his in the years since.

Even ‘Fess himself appeared to dismiss Curly Haired Baby, never again revisiting this, either in the studio where he was known to recycle songs endlessly, nor did he ever play it on stage in the years after his rediscovery in the 1970’s.

With those facts on the table it’d be kind of hard to claim this was much more than an interesting failure, but around here sometimes the interesting failures are more… well… interesting than the same ol’ boring successes and this is one of those cases.

No, it’s not a missing gem by any means, but if you’re looking for an unheralded record that provides a tenuous, but clear-cut, link between rock subgenres, look no further than this hirsute single from the wilderness period of Henry Roeland Byrd… Roy Byrd… ‘Fess to you and me.


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