Graded on a Curve: Professor Longhair,
Rock ‘n’ Roll Gumbo

Where to start when talking about the music of Professor Longhair, given name Henry Roeland Byrd? His piano makes you want to do a crazy 3 a.m. strut down Bourbon Street. And his vocals–which quaver and wander willy-nilly off pitch–make you want to smile. A voice like his is one in a million; not so hot you think, until you find yourself knee-deep in glad.

Professor Longhair created the distinctive “New Orleans sound,” which Allen Toussaint called “that mambo-rhumba boogie thing.” Dr. John, who has made hay from the good Professor’s musical innovations, said Longhair “put funk into music… Longhair’s thing had a direct bearing on a large portion of the funk music that evolved in New Orleans.” But enough with the ethnomusicology; suffice it to say that Longhair was one of America’s great originals, with a distinctive style of playing piano developed, it’s worth noting, out of necessity–he learned how to play on a piano with missing keys.

But Professor Longhair is isn’t just a piano original. His vocals–sly, insinuating, and delivered with a wink–are ingratiating, that is when he doesn’t sound flat-out demented, as he does on the great “Tipitina.” Whether meandering off pitch like a drunk staggering down Bourbon Street at 4 a.m. on a Tuesday night or coming off like a deranged Elvis Presley, Professor Longhair’s singing will keep you on the edge of your seat–he’s the most unpredictable singer this side of Black Oak Arkansas’ wild pitch throwing Jim “Dandy” Mangrum.

Everything about Professor Longhair is improbable–he got his start with a band called the Shuffling Hungarians, for Christ’s sake. The toughest part of my job was choosing which album to review: 1972’s New Orleans Piano, which compiles music recorded by Atlantic Records between 1949 and 1953, and includes the original (and definitive) “Tipitina?” 1980’s Crawfish Fiesta, which is nothing less than the good Professor’s final LP and as great a Longhair album as any? Both are indispensable, but I went with 1972’s Rock ’n’ Roll Gumbo, because it includes a whole parcel of great songs including “Tipitina,” “Junco Partner,” “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” and “Mean Ol’ World.” To say nothing of a tasty version of “Jambalaya.” The damn LP does nothing less than swagger, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown is sitting in on guitar.

This is good time music, and as everybody knows when you’re in the Big Easy the good times never stop rolling. From the ebullient “Mardi Gras in New Orleans”–on which the rhythms percolate, the horns blurt, and the Professor whistles insouciantly–to “Junco Partner,” on which Fess serves up some irresistible boogie woogie, Rock ’n’ Roll Gumbo never lets up. “Meet Me Tomorrow Night” is rock ’n’ roll pure and simple; every bit as rock ’n’ roll, in fact, as anything recorded by the cats at Sun Studios in the 1950s. On it Gatemouth Brown serves up one hot slice of guitar, and Longhair plays the hell out of the piano. He does the same on the spritely and unstoppable “Doin’ It,” one of the great, straight-ahead instrumentals on the LP, all of which prove that the good Professor can knock your socks off without opening his mouth. (See also: “Mess Around” and the impossibly jaunty “Rum and Coke.”)

Just how great is Professor Longhair? He somehow manages to serve up a version of “Rockin’ Pneumonia” I love, and I didn’t think that possible. Piano and guitar are in lockstep, and Alfred “Uganda” Roberts does a great job of knocking the congas around. On what can only be called one of the most ingratiating versions of “Jambalaya” you’ll ever hear, Brown plays some captivating violin while Professor Longhair delivers–and boy does he deliver–on vocals. As tasty as the dish it’s named after, this one. “Mean Ol’ World” features some of the Professor’s weirdest vocals and some kick-ass guitar by Brown, with the latter punctuating the former at every opportunity. And both men play solos that are born on the bayou. “Stag-O-Lee” is as much fun as jumping on a float come Mardi Gras; the Professor warbles, Brown lets rip, and everybody staggers away happy, the sun beginning to rise on the cast-off beads and plastic hats littering the French Quarter.

“Tipitina” doesn’t quite measure up to the original, but it’s praline tasty nonetheless; the piano is jaunty, the vocals as twisted as can be. His vocal performance is “Ain’t Got No Home” strange, and never fails to make me smile; “Tipitina” is nothing less than one of the best songs ever committed to vinyl, and that goes for the 1953 take as well as this one. “Hey Now Baby” takes you farther back in time, but it’s every bit as cocksure; the piano is as New Orleans as the tomb of Marie Laveau, and when the Professor isn’t singing his heart out he’s talking out of the side of his mouth. “How Long Has That Train Been Gone” will have you doing the strut, but between the vocals and the piano you won’t know which direction you’re strutting in. And Brown’s turn on the axe is as awesome as it is understated. As for the wonderfully titled “(They Call Me) Dr. Professor Longhair,” it’s a shaggy dog of a blues that succeeds on the strength of sheer weirdness. It’s as stripped down as they come, with the Professor warbling and swaggering while the piano, obviously drunk, tries to stay upright.

Professor Longhair was simply too strange to become a household name; I think of him the way I think of Captain Beefheart, Sun Ra, and the Bonzo Dog Band. It took others to popularize his out of this world sound. But that isn’t to say you shouldn’t be listening to him. Professor Longhair makes an impression, and leaves a bruise, and once you’ve heard him you’ll never be the same. And best of all, he never sounds like that worst of all things, an “institution.” There’s nothing fossilized about these performances whatsoever. They still sound fresh and they always will. He ain’t no Dixieland, and you’ll never hear his music playing while the credits roll in a Woody Allen movie. And that’s a compliment. The man’s simply too far freaking out.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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