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FEDERAL 12073; MAY 1952



Sometimes along the way we get bogged down with the negatives when it comes to the records being released.

Not that they’ve all been bad as of late, but many them have had rather notable side issues that took up a lot of our focus.

Obviously that’s a necessary facet of reviewing something as endlessly deep as rock history, but there are times when you want to put aside those speculative questions, tangled backstories and enigmatic debates on the appropriate stylistic direction companies were chasing for awhile and focus on nothing but the music pouring out of the speakers.

Who better to do that with than the mad musical genius of New Orleans who is back to serve up another round of his distinctive flavor of rock ‘n’ roll gumbo.


Where Did You Stay Last Night?
So far the man designated variously as Professor Longhair… (& His Shuffling Hungarians… & His New Orleans Boys… & His New Orleans Rhythm, depending on the day of the week) as well as Roy Byrd & His Blues Jumpers and now as Roy “Bald Head” Byrd has been on four record labels, three of which were stable operations, and yet despite this he has just one hit to show for it despite releasing three perfect records along the way as well as a half dozen other sides that were above average.

We’d be tempted to call him snake bit, but considering how unusual he can sound to unsuspecting ears maybe the better explanation for his lack of mainstream success was simply that he took some getting used to, and even then he could still be an acquired taste.

But once you DID find his peculiar blend of musical ingredients to your liking you couldn’t get enough of him and so, maybe in the hopes of providing a more accessible gateway to his brand of funky, spicy, quirky music, Federal Records graciously gives us Rockin’ With Fes, which is about as straightforward and traditional as Professor Longhair was likely to ever get.

Now of course it should be stated that unlike some artists who label-hopped and found themselves dealing with vastly different ideas when it came to arranging and material, nothing really changed with ‘Fess no matter where he landed.

He used New Orleans musicians because they were the only ones who understood his unusual approach and could compliment it rather than get in the way. As for the songs themselves, he was always the one who brought them to the session and whether they were originals or re-worked versions of someone else’s loose concept, they never failed to reflect who he was in the most vivid of ways.

For a subsidiary label to one of the greatest and most successful rock-based independents (King Records), and one that had started off with such promise, Federal Records was still sort of stuck where they’d been their first few months… one breakout act, one fading star and a bunch of promising hopefuls without much to show for it yet.

‘Fess at least had a national hit and a bunch of regional hits to his name and yet as much as the label could use a boost he could give them, he really needed the hit that the record label might be able to help him get just as much.

In this case both neither of them got what they wanted even though the fans who heard it wouldn’t be let down in the least.


You Don’t Pay Me No Mind
The question of how to make somebody who was known for being idiosyncratic more palatable to the average listener without diluting what made them special in the first place would never be an easy one to solve.

The approach that always seemed to work best though, even managing to get the notoriously off-putting Velvet Underground some casual listens in the mainstream for a 1970 single, was to go back to basics… which in rock ‘n’ roll usually meant crafting a streamlined track focused on moving your body with an infectious rhythm with lyrics that were centered on describing the music you were singing.

Well, on Rockin’ With Fes it certainly applies as this cuts back on the off-beat rhumba rhythms and the cracked vocals and off-key yodels that he’d become known for and instead lets him create a dramatic and catchy piano intro before the horns and rhythm section fall in with a simple approach that doesn’t let up.

Each instrument is laying down a singular part that stands out if you listen for it, yet none of them stick out unnecessarily if you merely want to take in the entire palette at once. There’s a real skill in that type of arranging and the blueprint is right here for you to study with how the guitar lines are distinctive, but not overwhelming, or how the bass seems to rise up when you focus on it, but recedes in the rest of the track when you look to horns which do the same thing.

Where it fails to an extent is in the solo where the sax draws too much attention to itself with the nursery rhyme intro that becomes distracting because it snaps you out of the deeper layered approach the song had ridden this far and even though it drops that after two bars it doesn’t do so quick enough not to be noticed.

That’s the ironic thing of course, the fact that the song on the whole works because its trying NOT to be noticed, which usually is the anthesis of Professor Longhair’s music. Yet here ‘Fess is blending in perfectly, singing in a way that is warmly inviting without grabbing you by the ears and yanking you forward.

If they’d gotten a better horn player, since Charles Burbank starts wandering at the end of the solo too, this would’ve been the ideal song with which to introduce a novice to Longhair’s charms even though – or maybe because – it doesn’t spin your head around like a lot of his records do. But while it may not come close to being the song of his you’d put in the time capsule, it’s perfectly suited for mainstream consumption within its time… that is, if anybody had gotten around to listening to it.


Bye, Bye, Baby, Bye
This remains the unanswerable question historically: Why was Federal Records so incapable of scoring hits in its first two years for anyone outside of The Dominoes?

They had King Records’ distribution power, they had the production experience of Ralph Bass, they had artists with either name recognition from past success (even here, using ‘Fess’s given name with his big hit as an added inducement on the label) or who’d score hits in the future, but for some reason they kept firing blanks, even with records like Rockin’ With Fes which seemed to have the commercial touch in the grooves.

Yet this too fell on deaf ears and would mark the end of Longhair’s stint with the label after just one session and two singles.

It’s far from the best record of his most creative stretch, it’s certainly not the most typical, but it might just be the best “missed” opportunity he had simply because it sounded very much in tune with the current landscape so that it’d fit in seamlessly while still allowing for just enough character to seep through to let you know – as if the title itself did not – just who was responsible for it.

What the record companies should’ve figured out somewhere along the way was that while ‘Fess might not get you any hits, he was always going to give you something the label could be proud of… and this is no exception.


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