November 15, 2004

Fessin' up (audio update)

"Curly Haired Baby"
Professor Longhair, Federal, 1951

Over and out

Whether or not you believe the hype that Professor Longhair was the "Bach of Rock", as I believe Allen Toussaint called him, this unique piano player has had a profound influence on succeeding generations of musicians in and out of New Orleans. Fess' style of somewhat latin and Caribbean tinged barrelhouse full of quirky, intricate right and left hand work set him apart from other piano greats (called "professors" down there) of his day such as Archibald and Tuts Washington. His experience as a street dancer and drummer in his early days no doubt contributed to the strong rhythmic elements of his playing. To some, his singing is an acquired taste; but it is a perfectly rough and ready adjunct to his keyboard attack. Maybe he was no Bach, but he composed such memorable staples of New Orleans blues/rhythm and blues as "Mardi Gras in New Orleans (Go To The Mardi Gras)" and "Tipitina" and contributed the amazing riff to Earl King's song, "Big Chief", that has long been associated with Fess.

"Curly Haired Baby" is an unusual Professor Longhair track for several reasons. For one thing, after recording it, he seemingly never performed or recorded another version, unlike so many of his other songs. Because he had a rather limited repertoire; he did numerous renditions of many of his songs over his career. Why this song was not revisited is a mystery. Also out of the ordinary, the guitar and sax are the dominant instruments in the mix with the piano in more of a support mode. So, you don't get much of his two-handed prowess on this one. But Fess' singing is strong; and the lyrics are good. I've always enjoyed this little proto-rock 'n roller.

Nighthawk Records had this rare 78 rpm transfer on a Fess compilation called Mardi Gras In New Orleans that came out on CD around 1990. It is apparently no longer available. There is another CD with the same name that doesn't seem to have all the tracks of the previous CD, leaving out this track among others. That's why I am posting it now. There are several good compilations of Professor Longhair music available on CD, along with live recordings and his final, and best, album on Alligator, Crawfish Fiesta. Hear for yourself what this legend of New Orleans music had to offer. This one goes out to my own curly haired baby, Jeanne.


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