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Though Professor Longhair’s musical repertoire on stage was actually pretty big and quite varied in terms of source material, like most recording artists regardless of style or era he still was prone to primarily recycling and refining his own material for the rest of his career in concerts.

This is one of those songs which would be improved upon over countless live renditions, many of which have been released on albums over the last forty years. As such if you’re at all familiar with those live cuts from the 1970’s it can make listening to and analyzing the original version of this song somewhat disconcerting.


A Doctor’s Son
So let’s start off by acknowledging the obvious and say that you can definitely see the building blocks of an interesting song here, even if by contrast to what would transpire in the ensuing decades on stage it never feels completely fleshed out when listening to the single release in front of us now.

Unlike most of ‘Fess’s songs where the musical half of the equation is the biggest draw, here it’s the lyrics because Professor Longhair’s Blues paints such an evocative picture of the artist himself… or at least an image of himself that he was trying to use as a way to elicit interest in him as a mysterious figure in a city that was all but overrun with them.

He starts off by introducing himself as Dr. Professor Longhair, before hinting at how he acquired that designation. Although what he tells us – or rather tells the ladies who happen to be in the listening vicinity and who might be seeking male companionship of some sort – certainly runs the risk of having him locked up for practicing “medicine” without a license, he’d probably get off those on those charges because it’s pretty clear that he’s not referring to traditional cures for physical ailments, but rather more carnal cures for different kinds of ailments that single women are presumably prone to suffer from.

All of this is… umm… “delivered” in a slowly hypnotizing cadence, rising and falling subtly like a heartbeat of a person at rest and completely at ease with his type of “examination”.

Yet in spite of this rather delicate situation the song is no less interesting or inviting to those who are most decidedly not seeking this treatment at all, but who just came to casually listen to some music, maybe grabbing a drink and a bite to eat while remaining celibate for the evening.


No Tonics Baby
Though the image of Professor Longhair is that of a flamboyant pianist he really wasn’t someone who played particularly fast. Unlike a lot of equally celebrated keyboardists of the 1950’s, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard most prominently, but also Huey “Piano” Smith, Fats Domino and Johnnie Johnson, all of whom could lay down riffs at breakneck speed, ‘Fess emphasized groove and rhythm and largely kept the flashy aspects of his work to the interlocking patterns that were his trademark.

That’s not to say he couldn’t accelerate the tempo when called for and do it very well, but he wasn’t often seeking to break the land-speed record like a lot of others of his era.

But on Professor Longhair’s Blues he doesn’t just take the song slow, he makes it practically stand still. The effect of this is almost to make you drowsy… not like you’re about to nod off out of boredom, but rather like you’ve been drugged. Your eyes droop, your breathing becomes slack, your focus wanders and because of that you’re more easily led wherever someone wants to take you.

‘Fess is just taking you around in circles however, coming out of the turns by ramping up his right hand before letting the left take over and lull you back into sonic acquiescence all while the horns faintly droning in the distance make it seem as if you’re already slipping into a semi-conscious state.

It’s definitely interesting to hear and to experience, making you feel sort of a weightlessness taking over your senses the less you resist, but if you can manage to keep your wits about you and really focus in on it the mystical allure of it sort of wears off.

What it really sounds like truthfully is a demo… a well produced demo maybe, perhaps thanks to the drums which are a faint but constant presence, but a dry run-through all the same. Yet it’s clearly a good idea, from the slightly off-color lyrical wit he shows to his determination to keep the pace at a crawl as well as the producer’s decision to not let him be overwhelmed with extraneous instruments all looking to make their presence known and in turn drawing your interest away from the spellbinding repetitiveness the song is built on.

Because there’s nothing here that can break that mood they’re successful in keeping your attention, but because it hasn’t quite been honed to perfection yet there’s a chance you’ll be able to slip from its grasp before it really has a chance to pull you under.

If You Can’t Get Your Prescription Filled
In essence quirky songs like this are not what big-time artists build their careers on, but rather serve as side dishes for fans, something designed to show off their versatility or their experimental nature and to keep their main output, which is usually far more predictable, from being all they’re known for.

But when you have someone like Professor Longhair whose primary work is so quirky and unusual then to shake things up he either has to try and conform to something that would qualify as predictable in the mainstream or he throws you yet another curveball, figuring that you’ve already come to expect it from him so you’ll be more likely to go for it.

That’s probably true enough and the fact that Professor Longhair’s Blues stayed in his set lists for the rest of his life attests to that, but it hadn’t been polished to perfection yet and so as a record, while still making for a pretty good listening experience, there’s the sense – even in 1950 I’m sure – that this wasn’t quite all it could be.


Until The Day Comes
In the future (yeah, we’ll address now that the single is out of the way) ‘Fess made the wise decision to not have the vocals and piano locked into the same rigid pattern, as if they had their feet shackled together. Instead while he maintains that creeping piano that sounds like an addict in search of a fix, he lets his vocals become more flexible, holding notes in the most unlikely of places, raising the volume and utilizing his strange “ability” to lose the key he’s singing in momentarily for dramatic effect before slipping back into the right note without breaking a sweat.

The result of those changes should be apparent for anyone with even a passing knowledge of music theory – by shifting your attention to the vocals, thus the lyrics as well, the music becomes even more subversive, working its way into your senses without you being fully conscious of it until you’re completely under its spell. In concert Professor Longhair’s Blues rarely failed to elicit that response, making it one of his more effective change of pace numbers.

But here on the single, while it’s still working off a pretty solid foundation you’re all TOO conscious of both of those aspects and so they have to work all that much harder to get you hooked. They might still do that by the end, but for a doctor of rock ‘n’ roll like ‘Fess it was only natural that he’d seek out a slightly more effective remedy before long.


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