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MERCURY 8175; MARCH 1950



We’re still not quite to the point where we get something by the mercurial Professor Longhair that exists entirely unto itself, for like most of his records we’ve covered so far he’s tackling a song he re-recorded for another label at roughly the same time, but at least here the “alternate” take is one that didn’t appear elsewhere as a contemporaneous single.

Oh well, we take what we can get with ‘Fess, knowing that it’s never JUST the song itself that’s the key to unlocking his persona, it’s the many varied ways he tackles them in his own inimitable style that makes each one worth revisiting all these years later.


Asked Me To Pass Your House
The word “idiosyncratic” may not have been originally coined to describe the musical style of Professor Longhair but it might just as well have been because he sings and plays like no other human being ever heard on this planet.

Such things as keys and meter seemed never to apply to ‘Fess which meant that you were all but assured of encountering something unusual when you hit play on one of his records. Yet that worked to his advantage because the very uniqueness of his approach made him stand out, even if at times hearing him might make you recoil at the strange sounds pouring out of the speaker.

Yet unlike future acts which seemed to take perverse pleasure in making something grating by nature… “experimental” was what guys like Lou Reed called it… where you were being asked to accept and admire the avant garde nature of their compositions and recording techniques, with Professor Longhair he never set out to be off-putting at all. It’s just that his mind didn’t quite adhere to typical musical groundrules.

Take singing… for most people singing is something they aren’t very comfortable doing, at least not in front of others. Few people walking down the street would be confident enough to belt out a song in public, afraid their voice wasn’t good enough, their technique wasn’t sound enough and their abilities not honed enough to pass muster.

They might WANT to sing well, they probably love music and will screech along to the radio if nobody is around, but they’re all too aware of their shortcomings to ever let the rest of civilization know they couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.

Professor Longhair at times seemed no better equipped to sing in public than most atonal people, but that didn’t stop ‘Fess. He wandered in and out of key like a drunk on a darkened street, yet he did so without any self-consciousness whatsoever. In fact he seemed to intentionally veer off course melodically as much as possible in order to give his songs “character”.

Often it worked to great effect, his cheerful musical obstinacy being a large part of his appeal rather than something viewed as a detriment… but at other times, such as on Hey Now Baby, it required a little more effort to fully get on board.


Every Word Is True
The piano that opens the record is typically good, as ‘Fess serves up what can only be described as “chunky” chords, a herky-jerky rhythmic concoction which is equal parts quirky and catchy and has you eagerly anticipating what’s to come next.

Yet what DOES come next largely off-sets that intriguing intro as the horns play a droning pattern that at times is perilously close to being off-key yet never crosses that line to descend entirely into chaos. Even so it’s quite not meshing well with the piano, almost as if each is under the impression that they’re playing a different song and it can’t be them who is wrong, but rather it must be the other musicians.

On first listen – especially if you haven’t had Professor Longhair in your musical rotation recently – this sounds like it’s going to be a train wreck the longer it goes on, but as we know ‘Fess has a way of pulling these things together somehow and sure enough if you listen to Hey Now Baby a couple of times the mismatched parts seem to fit together better somehow.

It’s still not SMOOTH by any stretch of the imagination but it’s not alarming either, especially once his vocals come in to balance things out a bit. Of course his voice is as cockeyed as everything else, cracking on the very first syllable he utters and then getting no more steady as he travels on.

As with most Longhair songs the story is more of an expressionist painting than a detailed portrait, a way for him to present his emotions over a simple theme that is easy to follow. Here that theme is basic love over a girl who wants little to do with him. He’s despondent – at least I think he is, though he sure doesn’t sound down in the dumps – pleading with her to reconsider, yet doing so in a way in which it makes it seem as though this all must just be a misunderstanding.

The best line, but also the one which is most in danger of falling apart, is his rapid-fire statement that she “left word with the lady upstairs to tell me you don’t live there no more”. Somehow he manages to scrunch those words together in a way that allows them to fit but it’s a tightrope act all the same.

But ‘Fess barrels on without concern, the band teetering behind him with cheery optimism that all is well. The sax even manages to toss in a couple of stray lines that are… let’s say slightly odd, but fairly engaging all the same.

None of this however makes much sense musically, nor does it ever fully pull together, even as if comes up short of falling apart. As is typical for ‘Fess he’s got one foot on a banana peel and the other hovering over an open manhole cover yet somehow he stays on his feet.

What More Can I Do
Mismatched parts can at times make for an interesting patchwork quilt of ideas of course… provided they’re somehow tied together using strong thread by a master seamstress of an arranger. But Mercury Records, an aspiring major label without much experience in rock ‘n’ roll in general and the colorful world of New Orleans more specifically, never seems quite capable of providing a steady guiding hand in the studio.

Left to his own devices over the course of his career Professor Longhair often seemed to be completely unaware, if not altogether unconcerned, that the goal was to make commercial records and Hey Now Baby is emblematic of that, even as it remained quintessential ‘Fess in most every way.

Just after cutting this single for Mercury he signed with Atlantic where he laid down another version which in time due to that label’s more historically minded re-issues has probably become the more familiar version of it, even though they held it back from release for decades until issuing it in the 1970’s on the New Orleans Piano piano album that was one of the key steps in reviving Longhair’s legend.

Just for the sake of comparison when studying the two versions side by side we’d expect that Atlantic might be able to tighten things up and true enough the piano opening is left to itself, the horns sitting out altogether, which makes it less complicated but in the process streamlining it means it doesn’t quite have that off-the-wall quality about it either.

Because he’s not working with horns on the Atlantic take on it we get a lot more examples of ‘Fess’s piano dexterity including a nice quirky solo, some wonderfully off-beat rhythmic wrinkles and endless melodic variations, all of which shows why he was so revered as a pianist. Yet as good as that is to hear it sounds even LESS like a proper record and more like an after hours run-through. The lyrics are condensed but no more clear in conveying additional insight, nor does he manage to work out the structure of the key stanza – it’s still a little too much fat being squeezed into not enough fabric. Because of this the Mercury version is in fact slightly better, even if it too is not quite all it could be.

But maybe this shows why all record companies, the large and the small, the musically astute as well as the musically perplexed, had so much trouble harnessing Longhair’s odd type of genius. He was never so much about laying down easily replicated performances, as most records were trying to do if only so they’d be better remembered by listeners, instead ‘Fess was all about conveying feeling in his music. If you were in tune with those feelings, particularly in a crowded room full of fellow rock ‘n’ rollers with a heavy buzz on, then you weren’t complaining about the asymmetrical parts.

Then again if you were out of step with it altogether you probably scratched your head and wondered why anyone would choose to record such a bizarre sounding artist in the first place.

I Followed You All Over Town
Of course the key with appreciating Longhair is never focusing too much on the pieces themselves, but rather assessing whether you’re hearing those pieces at a moment when they fully come together.

On Hey Now Baby they might not manage to do that neatly enough to make this something you’d recommend to a novice, but then again the more you hear it the less of a novice to his peculiar brand of music you’ll be and thus the more sense it’ll wind up making. Listen to it enough and you’ll find yourself actually appreciating the drunken horns, the oddball rhythms and the strange lilting vocals.

Still even the most avowed fan of Roy Byrd, as he was being billed by Mercury, would hardly say this was his best work, even if buried within were elements which defined his best work.

But that’s the rub with ‘Fess… the good and the bad, the highs and the lows, the crazed pieces and the (almost) sane alike always mixed together freely and eventually you either climbed out of this musical Mulligan’s stew and left it for someone else to make better sense of… or you got used to the taste and happily dove in for more.


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