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ATLANTIC 947; SEPTEMBER 1951

 
 

 

Sometimes it’s the ones you never see coming that have the most impact.

In rock ‘n’ roll in 1951 that saying might apply to a bunch of different songs, depending on just what you want to focus on.

As this was shaping up to be the year of the vocal group it might refer to The Dominoes’ smash that ruled the charts for months on end, doing so well that it actually crossed into the pop listings – presumably because everyone had to see for themselves what the fuss was about. But then again, off-color songs always DID have a natural allure, so maybe you could see that one coming after all.

The same couldn’t be said for this song however… or “these songs” plural as it were… that kicked off in mid-summer with the revival of a three and a half year old original rock tune that nobody had noticed much at the time but which was now being done by everyone under the sun.
 

 

Sure Looks Fine To Me
Though it’s the reconfigured versions of this song that have thus far attracted the attention of the music world starting with Billy Wright’s misspelled Heh Little Girl on Savoy which came out in July and which was followed in short order by a succession of artists which alerted those in the industry not inclined to peruse the listings of the songs scoring big in Black communities that this might be one of those cuts poised to spread like wildfire.

Chess Records had jumped on Wright’s version with the John Godfrey Trio as soon it came out and tried passing it off as their own original idea, charting in their native Chicago along with nearby Milwaukee and Indiana. The Larks followed suit and quickly covered it as well and considering how hot they’d been recently it’s surprising theirs didn’t catch on, but even so just their attempt at getting another version noticed created a hornet’s nest buzz which tipped off other companies that this was a song worth taking a shot on.

As for Wright who was credited with writing his own version (and admittedly did change things around from its source), he probably came across the song touring the south where chances are he ran into its creator, Paul Gayten, the bandleader from New Orleans who’d been a major presence on the rock scene since its inception in 1947, and perhaps hearing him do it on stage liked it enough to re-craft it for his own purposes, in the process getting the one and only national hit out of it, and just barely at one week at the #10 spot on the Charts.

But what about Gayten? Well, as good – and as quirky – as his 1948 single had been, it hadn’t created a ripple back then, although now DeLuxe, the label he’d been with back in ’48 but which was now owned by Syd Nathan, re-issued it this month to take advantage of the furor surrounding the composition, in whatever form it had taken.

Today we find the inimitable Professor Longhair calling out Hey Little Girl across the increasingly crowded room to try and catch the eye of this alluring vixen. Luckily nobody has to ask where ‘Fess met her, as this was cut in New Orleans in 1949 where he’d known her ever since Gayten started hitting on her around town.

Unlike the other versions using Wright’s re-working of the idea as their foundation, ‘Fess obviously is sticking to the original as those later tweaks hadn’t even been conceived yet and in the process outdoing them all as only he can.
 


 
 

That Ain’t All… Listen!
Though other songs in Professor Longhair’s catalog are surely more recognizably connected to his musical image, there may not be a song he ever did which is both an indelible performance that shows you all of what makes ‘Fess so unique, but also one which is as (reasonably) accessible to the non-convert to his magical charms as this one.

For that we have to credit Gayten whose original may have been structurally off-the-wall for his usual fare but which seemingly provided Longhair with the basic tenets of his entire style… the showy piano flourishes, the funky percussion provided by finger snapping or an instrumental equivalent and the relatively harmless vocal braggadocio which allows the singer to rather crassly proposition someone clearly not interested in them without crossing the line because you – and her – never take them all that seriously.

In Gayten’s capable hands it was something of a balancing act because he’s never acting completely outlandish in his presentation and is trying to make sure he’s more endearing than offensive by just vocal tone and maintaining a casual off-handed delivery.

But for Professor Longhair outlandish is the word best used to describe him in any circumstance when he’s behind the piano keys and so in his take on Hey Little Girl he can be much more assertive with his come-ons without it ever seeming crude.

The differences between Gayten and Longhair aren’t just centered around the respective images they create vocally, but also musically, as everything Paul did, ‘Fess does far more extravagantly. The opening glissando on the keys is so over-the-top it sets your mind at ease before you even hear him sing, for surely anything this exaggerated can’t pose a threat. When he starts playing in more “normal” fashion, the notes are so percussive that they ring out to the depth of their tone making it seem as if his hands were made of flexible stone, heavy as can be and yet still dexterous as they need to pull this funky rhythm off.

That’s the thing that stands out here, the herky jerky sound his playing produces which gets your head bobbing while his vocals take a different approach to contrast with that – bellowing at times, making a half-serious effort to croon at others, while most of the time he’s using a raspy semi-spoken melodic wail that is so infectious that it’s almost impossible to imagine any girl, no matter how beautiful and in demand she may be, turning down ‘Fess’s bizarre request for a date.

I don’t know where he’d take her but I’m anxious to find out, because at a certain point he decides his mouth can’t convey his destination for them better than those concrete hands and so he tells her to basically interpret the stuttering progressions, trills and riffs he comes up with on the keys he’s using to paint a fuller picture of the night he has in store for her and you know what… whatever place that suggests, be it in the middle of a public square or the dark corner of a private room, sounds pretty inviting to me.
 


 

How’s About A Kiss?
Though the “plot” of this song is pretty simplistic and one dimensional, we do get a surprising resolution to the story as after the extended piano break which shows off all of those signature moves he’s known for, ‘Fess comes back to thank her for “everything”.

Whatever you interpret that to mean it sounds as if they both had a genuinely good time because you can almost see the smile on his face as he no longer is singing in anxious anticipation as he was before, but rather in a relaxed contended fashion.

With Hey Little Girl being credited to Roy Byrd, his real name with which he’d scored his only national hit a year and a half ago with the similarly cockeyed and brilliant Bald Head, the “legend” of Professor Longhair still was slow to take hold. Despite the popularity of the song in question, this “version” with these lyrics and offbeat arrangement were not quite the same that current listeners were used to hearing in the other renditions and so it faded without much interest everywhere but New Orleans were it was a certifiable smash, residing in the Top Ten for weeks.

But in the end, no matter where you were from, this is the version that deserves to be remembered for eternity. Not only is it the most engagingly performed of all of the various takes on the subject, but it’s the one that is both truest to the original source and yet also completely distinctive when it comes to showcasing the artist’s personality and peculiar musical genius.

It may not be the defining record that Professor Longhair ever made but it’s arguably the most endearing overall performance and for someone of his stature, that’s a proposition nobody in their right mind can refuse.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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

 
Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
 
Paul Gayten (January, 1948)