Goin' To Night School
The recent passing of music mogul Ahmet Ertegun brought to mind some of his early forays into New Orleans that helped shape the rhythm and blues scene there and nationwide. In 1949, just a couple of years after he started Atlantic Records in New York City, Ertegun and his partner, Herb Abramson, came to the Deep South in search of talent to record for the growing R&B market. There they contacted one Roy Byrd, a/k/a Professor Longhair, an idiosyncratic pianist, vocalist and songwriter who gigged mainly at holes in the wall, but had recorded some sides for the Star Talent and Mercury labels. One of the Mercury sides, “Bald Head”, was even a brief national hit. Fess was acknowledged in his hometown as an eccentric innovator who had developed his own boisterous blues-rhumba style of playing. Ertegun did a session on the cheap with Longhair at Cosimo Matassa's first studio, J&M Recording Service, located in a back room of his record store, capturing just shy of a dozen original songs, from which two 78s were issued.
Although Longhair’s initial Atlantic material did not sell outside the region and he was reluctant to tour, the company gave him and the Crescent City another shot in 1953, when Ertegun returned with Jerry Wexler for another recording junket, doing sessions there on Fess, Tommy Ridgley, Joe Turner, and the young and soon to be gigantic Ray Charles, who had been working in and around New Orleans for some time. Without a doubt, Professor Longhair's second Atlantic sessions, consisting of four songs, the classic “Tipitina” and “In The Night” (the two sides of #1020), “Ball the Wall”, and Who’s Been Fooling You”, were far superior to the earlier work; but, his exemplary lone single, under the name of Professor Longhair & His Blues Scholars , sold well locally, and went no farther, ending his association with the label.
"In the Night" (R. Byrd)
Professor Longhair & His Blues Scholars, Atlantic 1020, 1953 (from New Orleans Piano, Atlantic, 1972)
I first heard Professor Longhair on the New Orleans Piano LP, which compiled the best of Longhair's 1949 and 1953 sessions (later issued on CD with all the out-takes); and, though I had heard much New Orleans music by then, plus all sorts of R&B and blues, it was a shocking revelation for me to finally listen to this man's music. Fess’ whole approach is so vital, raw, primal, and funky that it takes a while to assimilate it; but this track, among others, knocked me out from the first stylus drop.
Ertegun and Wexler wisely used most of the session players Dave Bartholomew regularly assembled for his hit making work with Fats and others at Cosimo's. So all the 1953 tracks had the mighty Earl Palmer on drums, Frank Field on bass, Edgar Blanchard on guitar, with Lee Allen and 'Red' Tyler on tenor and baritone saxes, respectively. As a result, "In The Night" flat cooks. I love the way the band plays with syncopations that follow Longhair's own quirky style of keyboard pounding. Palmer's unique patterns remarkably never sound cluttered or get in the way, and make perfect sense for the song. Brilliant accompaniment, no doubt, for that distinctive, gruff, yodeling vocal.
Though this song’s a mover, you can still feel Longhair’s flavorful mix of Caribbean and New Orleans second line that he brought forward to become an essential, signature element of much of the rhythm and blues and funk emanating from the city for the next half century. “In the Night” is a masters seminar by Ertegun and Byrd in the art of bringing high quality, low down, immortal music to the world. Study it well, scholars.