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STAR TALENT 808; FEBRUARY, 1950

 
 

 

When assessing the careers of most rock legends the narratives are usually pretty straightforward. Their stories have been recounted so often through the years that the checklist of the steps they took along the way from obscurity to stardom often play like a greatest hits compilation.

From being discovered and cutting their first session to landing their initial hits and reveling in the national exposure that will soon make them a household name … it all sometimes seems as if it were merely following a predictable path.

A sense that destiny itself was at the reins.

…But then there’s Professor Longhair, a towering figure musically who despite his eventual hallowed spot in the pantheon of rockers encountered more twists and turns and ups and downs on his road to immortality than the rest of the rock immortals combined, which makes his ultimate destination all the more improbable at time… and all the more frustrating when trying to recount it now.
 

 

The Professor’s Class Is In Session
Roy Byrd, as he was largely known as to those not given to nicknames, was the epitome of New Orleans music, no matter the era. In fact arguably no musician was MORE New Orleans in style than ‘Fess. Not Jelly Roll Morton or Louis Armstrong, not Fats Domino, The Meters, or Lil’ Wayne.

Professor Longhair’s music was an amalgam of styles that could only have come from The Crescent City. He started with the piano boogies that dominated the town at every stop along the way, be it in jazz, blues or rock ‘n’ roll, and then gave it “a Spanish tinge” by pouring in generous – but hardly precise – elements of rhumba, mambo and calypso rhythms.

Because he’d initially learned to play on a broken down piano found discarded in an alley which was missing numerous keys, he simply worked around those obstacles and used those constraints to his advantage and then never bothered altering his approach much after getting a full 88 to bang away on.

As a result his style was utterly unique with a left hand like concrete and a right hand of pure joy. In the three quarters of a century of rock ‘n’ roll since he first appeared there’s no mistaking Longhair for anyone else. ‘Fess, with his distinctive rolls and percussive beats which made bass players and drummers superfluous, may not have been anyone’s idea of polished but as funky as he was there was always an undeniable grace to it all.

In mid-1949 Star Talent Records out of Dallas came to New Orleans, the birthplace and still the epicenter of rock ‘n’ roll, looking for talent and signed up ‘Fess… but they weren’t the only company at this time making that Southern trek which would wind up creating all sorts of problems for everyone involved in relatively short order.

The tangled web begins here with Professor Longhair’s Boogie, not a hit in case you were wondering, but on the back side of a record that DID make an impact even though we may not quite be covering that one in the usual fashion… though as you probably figured out by now when it comes to Professor Longhair that’s just par for the course since nothing in his life and career ever seemed to be done in the usual fashion.
 


 
 

No Mardi Gras Today
Let’s start off by saying what this review is NOT covering, which is the A-side “hit”, and a stone-cold rock classic, called Mardi Gras In New Orleans.

The reason for that is… well… complicated, convoluted and more than a little maddening.

You see, ‘Fess had a thing about signing contracts… that is, he signed them left and right, whoever put them down in front of him, without fully realizing what those contracts entailed. The companies paid him money to record his songs, so he took their money and sang his songs, then went somewhere else and took THEIR money and sang his songs again, often the same exact songs!

Record companies, not to mention record company lawyers, tend to take issue with this as it violates the exclusivity clause in those contracts. Within a few months time he wound up recording for three labels, Star Talent, Mercury and Atlantic, all of which would be issuing records of his almost on top of one another. Normally of course we review every rock record we can, especially popular songs by all time legends just starting their career.

But since two of those songs, both A-sides, both of which were regional hits on Star Talent, were ALSO recorded – almost simultaneously – by ‘Fess for Mercury and Atlantic and since those labels had greater distribution and promotional means, the Star Talent sides which initially scored in his hometown of New Orleans were quickly replaced on those charts, as well as more across the country, by the Mercury and Atlantic versions which in time have become the “definitive” releases of those songs under his name.

Since they’re so close in style and arrangement and since they’re literally about to follow the Star Talent releases onto the market in a matter of days, we had to ask ourselves if we should review the same songs twice with little or no change in their results, and in the process foul up search engines for eternity with two different reviews for each song… or could we combine those versions and start by simply covering the little-heard B-sides like Professor Longhair’s Boogie that came out on the back of those “hits” on the Star Talent label, even though by doing so we were kind of screwing that company over again seventy years after they were screwed over to begin with.

Well, get out your tool boxes because that’s exactly what we’re going to do.
 


 
 

Shuffling And Boogieing With Hairy Hungarians
Don’t feel too bad about Star Talent for getting the shaft again, as we had to use this initial Longhair review to detail all of that perplexing backstory and because this side of the record has comparatively little to talk about it could even be said we’re also screwing ‘Fess too because now his first review on these pages is for a throwaway instrumental.

See! Nobody wins around here, including us!

Okay, on with the record… which came out under the wonderfully improbable name Professor Longhair And His Shuffling Hungarians. We’ve talked at length about using song titles and artist names as selling points and I can’t imagine anyone seeing this group’s name and NOT wanting to hear what they’re laying down.

‘Fess opens with a mesmerizing, almost menacing, riff, his left hand pulling you under its spell immediately, highlighted by a deft hesitation move after which he repeats the pattern a second time before relief comes in the form of a horn section that seems to scatter like a flock of birds rousted from the grass.

For the most part it’s the horns which dominate Professor Longhair’s Boogie a generic title which was surely added after the fact since the music hardly seems as if it was worked out in advance beyond just the basics. Aside from Robert Parker on alto, who’d go on nearly twenty years down the road to score a huge vocal hit with Barefootin’, we don’t know the others, or rather “other”, as it’s just a trumpet alongside him apparently.

Normally those two horns are the bane of a rock song’s credibility around here, as the higher range they produce often conspire to remove much of the wild guttural atmosphere the tenor and baritone saxes have brought to the rock table over the past few years, but that’s hardly the case here. Though their tone does make it sound a little like they’d inhaled helium compared to what we’re accustomed to, their playing is anything but tight, orderly and disciplined which means they fit right in with the wild atmosphere ‘Fess brings to the table.

They start off at full speed, practically elbowing each other as they take off from the starting line, then get increasingly more rambunctious and freewheeling as they progress, trading off early on and bouncing off one another as they go, eventually careening off the walls, tripping over themselves, practically falling down in a heap when all is said and done yet never losing the energy that gives this its character. If horns can sound drunk then this qualifies and as such it does get a little TOO out of control for its own good after awhile, but you can’t fault their enthusiasm even if you can criticize their technical skills.
 

Bye For Now, But Not For Long
Throughout their manic display however Longhair remains steady as a rock beneath them, which is sure to come as a surprise to those familiar with his later work when he’s the one who can’t easily be reined in. But here he anchors the rhythm with that hypnotic left hand, its drive as steady and precise as a machine with his right hand tossing in a few licks when the horns start to lose their way two thirds of the way through, almost as if he were gently steadying two toddlers taking their first steps.

Though Professor Longhair’s Boogie is ostensibly an instrumental ‘Fess comes in vocally at the end with a sung farewell – ”Byyyyyyyye-bye. Byyyyyyyye-bye. Bye, bye, baby, bye” – which is a bit odd since one of the other songs he cut at this session, which will be the only other song from this date of his we cover in full, was dubbed Bye Bye Baby even though those exact words don’t appear in that song at all.

A labeling mishap? Probably not. As stated, it’s doubtful this impromptu performance had a title attached to it and because it’s fast-paced to the point of lunacy they spontaneously came up with a title to emphasize that and promote the artist in the process. Then perhaps taking the words from this thought up a title for the other cut which suits it well enough.
 

 
It doesn’t really matter what this is called though, what matters is hearing how ‘Fess hit the ground running. Though the horns get a little carried away and the structure is so basic as to be called simplistic, this is arguably the most polished of the four sides they recorded that day. Granted there’s not much to it but there almost doesn’t need to be if your only goal is to get moving. It’s as much a visceral experience as it is a musical one and you can see why they were such a draw around the city known for its non-stop musical revelry.

Since the session itself was held in the St. Prop’s Bar in New Orleans – although not with the club open for customers at the time – it’s as close to hearing ‘Fess in his natural environment as we’re likely to get in his prime.

So settle back and order up a hurricane and if you can just ignore the difficulty brought about by the associated release issues until we can tackle that dilemma properly, let this record serve as merely a tease of what was still to come.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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