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When Atlantic Records first encountered the mercurial Professor Longhair at an out of the way nightclub (a shack really) in the moonlit fields of rural Louisiana they couldn’t believe what they heard… or what they saw.

‘Fess was was creating what could only be called a byzantine collection of sounds which from a distance seemed like it must be an entire band playing but when they got inside they saw it was just him and him alone, using his foot to keep time by bashing the kick-plate on the battered upright piano while his hands churned out overlapping and interlocking patterns that made it all seem far more complex musically than it actually was at its core.

After they’d managed to sign him however they were faced with the question of how to capture that magical feeling he projected when playing alone in a sonically primitive environment and have it translate on a fully produced record cut with a full band in a modern studio.

With this song they didn’t even try, choosing instead to strip it down to the barest essentials in an effort to replicate the way they themselves first heard him and hoped that the reaction record buyers got from hearing it – without the accompanying visuals unfortunately – would somehow, someway, match their own initial enthusiastic response.


Looka Here
When you call an artist an acquired taste it’s sort of designed to couch someone else’s expectations… as well as to gird yourself for their uncertain response to – and possibly outright dismal of – what they’re about to hear.

Normally that means that the artist in question is never going to be appealing for more than just a dedicated few listeners, a fervent cult at best, but still a statistical minority out of all those who encounter this music.

But with Professor Longhair that might not be the most precise way to describe him. For while it’s still true that most casual listeners just “won’t get” him right away, there’s always the impression that the more familiar with ‘Fess you become the more that exposure breeds interest and ultimately results in overwhelming enjoyment in the majority of listeners.

The root appeal of Professor Longhair, no matter how unusual his technique may be, is the carefree joy he imparts in all of his songs and that’s a hard thing to resist, no matter how unpolished he sounds with his cracked off-key vocal trills and quirky rhythmic patterns. It’s a sound that given just enough patience to get used to, will almost surely win you over, or at least get you to be not be completely dismissive of him because of its off-the-wall nature.

The problem then of course if you were Atlantic Records was how to go about ensuring that record buyers and jukebox denizens DID give it a chance to hook them when on first listen it would sound positively alien to them.

Which sort of explains the bare bones approach of Walk Your Blues Away, something that didn’t try and hide ‘Fess’s unique charms in a fuller production where its quirkiness would stick out like a sore thumb to unsuspecting ears, but rather to make it the entire centerpiece of the record and take all of the other, more normal sounding, accompaniment away, save for the inclusion of proper drums… and even that decision was probably done just so ‘Fess didn’t have to provide the beat himself and kick a hole in their brand new piano on the studio floor.


These Are The Words I Say
When Atlantic President Ahmet Ertegun talked about ‘Fess years later one of the things he said was that ‘Fess was “a musical shaman who played in a style all his own” and it’s not hard to hear what he was referring to when listening to this record.

It starts with his heavy left hand giving the bass keys a throbbing sound which is buttressed by the dry snap of the drums at the end of each bar, a sparse prelude to a record that keeps that feeling of anticipation going throughout its run time, purposefully stringing out the tension without offering much in the way of a release.

As a result Walk Your Blues Away is a curious song in more ways than just its minimal accompaniment, as ‘Fess shows when he comes in speaking rather than singing, albeit in a somewhat melodic – and rhythmic – manner. That “shaman” styled delivery Ertegun spoke of was never more evident than it is here as he hypnotizes you like a musical soothsayer, getting you to fall under the spell of the sound of his voice more so than the words he speaks.

Yet those words themselves are still highly enjoyable and just as bizarre as he is at times, as he asks rhetorically “Who’s scared? Who’s scared?” for no apparent reason.

When does begin to sing it takes on a more familiar shape even though the musical backing remains rudimentary with just his piano laying down that infectious rhythm, now adding a few right hand flourishes to break things up before circling back with a memorable turnaround that provides the closest thing to a melody this record has.

Despite its apparent simplicity – at least in terms of its structure – there’s some definite lyrical insight to be found here as ‘Fess doubles as a relationship counselor, advising listeners to simply take a walk when trouble arises thereby avoiding arguments and potential retribution, eliminating any thoughts of compounding the original sin committed by your significant other with one of your own.

While the story doesn’t follow a predictable, or even sensible, progression, as it fluctuates between calm resignation and acceptance of his situation with lines that suggest more anguish and concern, the way they’re left up in the air as he goes out walking once again in each chorus gives you the sense that he’s merely using this technique to deal with ALL of those problems rather than it being one specific example that bounces between all these different internal reactions.

Besides, it’s not as if you’re listening to records for romantic advice, but rather you want to be pulled into a groove so that whatever real life issues you’re dealing with are swept away by the music and that’s what Professor Longhair specializes in, even in such stark surroundings as this.


Stay Where I Can See
It’s hard to explain the appeal of Longhair’s style without hearing it. There are 88 keys on a piano and he may use no more than a dozen of them in songs at times, yet he plays them with such calm assurance that there’s no need to ever do more.

Take that rhythm that’s the heart and soul of Walk Your Blues Away… it’s something that any first year piano student could pick out, just a walking bass repeated ad nauseum, but within that pattern lays a key to his appeal.

Earlier I referred to it as “throbbing”, which is descriptive of the way he makes that root note sound, exerting just enough added pressure and sustain to it as opposed to the rest of the notes to make it stand out. But while it definitely does stand out the real effect is to pull you in, to mesmerize you and put you in a trance.

It’s a simple gimmick really but arguably nobody has ever done so more effectively than Professor Longhair and as a result the repetitiveness doesn’t come off sounding like a detriment but rather a benefit. By keeping you locked in so firmly to that rhythm he’s able to make far greater use of the limited melody and vocal inflections than they’d have in a more diverse sounding track.

I’m tempted to say this hearkens back to early childhood, where parents soothe their infants using similar techniques – nursery rhymes and lullabies – because it allows little kids to keep their focus and gradually calms them the more it keeps repeating. But to suggest that might imply that ‘Fess’s music is somehow childish when it really isn’t.

So the better explanation might just be it taps into our collective need to be comforted by sounds in general. The more familiar those sounds are the better suited it is to achieve this effect and if ‘Fess is subconsciously recalling the manner in which most babies were settled down in times of stress then more power to him for figuring it out.

For this record at least there’s certainly not a more sensible reason to be found as to why it works so well, as aside from those intermittent and discreet drums there’s not another instrument to be heard – no saxes, no bass, no guitar. There’s no backing vocals or hand-claps either, making this one of the less cluttered tracks we’ve encountered.

In spite of that unencumbered arrangement it’s a record whose sound is so deep and reassuring that it envelops you all the same, wrapping your senses in a secure musical embrace, simple in theory but undeniably sturdy and built to last.

Sometimes I Will, Sometimes I Won’t
Incredibly enough Professor Longhair’s commercial impact had already peaked even though we’re barely a few months into his career. His earlier releases, both on Star Time and Mercury, were on the charts now, mostly in New Orleans, and so his star would seem to be on the rise but despite the quality of this and future releases, all of his subsequent records would fail to match those sales.

Yet in some ways, as good as his material would continue to be, his inability to break through and become a star isn’t much of a mystery for the reasons already laid out. In a market as widespread as rock ‘n’ roll was becoming someone as unique as Longhair was always going to struggle to connect… not with audiences specifically, but rather he wasn’t going to get access to being heard as readily as a more by-the-numbers performer.

The few radio outlets playing rock ‘n’ roll for an hour or two a day would go with something more immediately accessible, lest you change the station. A jukebox operator would be less likely to want to take up one of just twenty or twenty-five slots on somebody putting out such left field performances as Walk Your Blues Away which wasn’t designed for dancing or singing along to.

Since ‘Fess was reluctant to leave New Orleans to tour he further cut down on the means with which to spread his reputation and it wouldn’t be long before he faded into obscurity for years. But when listening to this now, long after his legend has been secured, it’s hard to fathom why those who HAD heard him didn’t turn their friends on to what they were missing.


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