2020-04-23 13:06:45 UTC
Normally when discussing the most indelible song by a legendary rock artist there’s absolutely no confusion over its arrival… Whenever it appears in some sort of career overview or a song by song reassessment of rock history its sighting on the page practically screams: This is the one!… the record for which they’ll always be remembered.
But the word “normally” doesn’t often apply to Professor Longhair, a character who was only briefly a national name at the start of his career before fading into veritable obscurity only to be hauled out of mothballs decades later when he picked up seemingly right where he left off, his skills remaining undiminished with time and his quirky nature as an artist unchanged as well.
Yet for all of his high points over the years, both early and late in his career, this song’s enduring legacy is the reason why so many are able to discover the rest of it and while technically speaking it wasn’t a national hit, the record left a sizable dent in rock history and had a tendency to keep popping up under various guises so that we never completely forgot Professor Longhair even when he himself faded from sight for far too long.
When I See The Zulu King
A few records back in this stroll through rock history’s back pages, we covered the initial releases on Professor Longhair that came out on the tiny Star Talent label which was his formal introduction to the world at large.
In doing so we intentionally skipped the A-sides of BOTH singles, one of which was a legitimate regional hit in New Orleans and the other, this one, which is his most famous song ever. Except it’s not those versions that are widely remembered… which is one reason why we skipped over them, as painful as it was to do.
The OTHER reason we bypassed them though was because we knew we’d be meeting up with those same exact songs in their more recognizable form very soon and rather than add to the confusion by reviewing them twice we felt it’d make much more sense to combine them in one review focusing on the more historically relevant versions.
All of which means that rather than have an early take on his most enduring song be our first look at Henry Roeland Byrd – Professor Longhair to me and you – we’d ease you into his backstory before springing Mardi Gras In New Orleans on you to blow your mind.
This then, is the story of one song, done two ways, cut weeks apart but issued virtually at the same exact time to coincide with the New Orleans festival it was celebrating.
I Want To Go To New Orleans
Lots of rock artists over the years revisit their biggest hit for a later rendition, usually when they no longer have any hopes of interesting anyone – record label or record buyer alike – in something new. But Professor Longhair got a jump on things by doing this right out of the gate, simply because he didn’t know any better, nor would he have likely cared much if he had known it was frowned upon.
The reason for this discographical nightmare was that ‘Fess signed three recording contracts with three different labels within weeks of each other in the latter half of 1949 and since he certainly didn’t have an unlimited supply of fresh material to give each company songs meant exclusively for them, he made do with what he had. That meant re-cutting them at each stop which of course proved to be a problem when all three labels began issuing them at the same time in February 1950.
He first laid down four sides at a session for Star Talent Records sometime in late summer or early fall which included Mardi Gras In New Orleans, a natural subject for the New Orleans’ native to sing about and while it’s been a topic that a lot of local talent had used – and would continue to use in the future – nobody ever captured its indescribable atmosphere quite as perfectly as Longhair did… although not right away.
The Star Talent version sounds like a tentative… certainly interesting… but rather sloppy, demo where the parts and pacing aren’t fully worked out yet. Since we know what it would soon become we’re more apt to notice the shortcomings of this first rendition in which all of the pieces are present but not nearly as refined and powerful as they could be.
The intro in particular featuring ‘Fess’s heavy left hand laying down the piano riff sounds choppy and crude and rather than give you a jolt as soon as the needle drops, it sort of lurches forward, hesitant and unsure of itself which changes the overall feel, robbing it of a lot of its immediate impact.
Then we have to contend with his distinctive whistling refrain that is the song’s most memorable aspect but which appears much latter in the arrangement after the horns have picked up on the riff. This part of the Star Talent record works best, possibly because it’s the most familiar to our ears that have been weaned on the classic version, but its altered placement is a little disconcerting.
Worse though is ‘Fess himself on vocals. His voice is never going to win any singing contests, we know that, but usually his cockeyed confidence in spite of his technical limitations is a huge part of his appeal, yet in his first recorded performance of the song he clearly sounds unsure of himself and as a result the pace is slower and more deliberate and consequently less invigorating.
Now that version does have one redeeming quality that later versions fall short with a little, namely his trilling whistling bridge which on this take he manages to extend in ways that are is melodically whimsical to say the least. But if you were to simply judge the Star Talent single of Mardi Gras In Orleans you’d be hard pressed to give it anything above a (5), an average record for its time, even though its contents were so unusual sounding to virgin ears that they could hardly be called average.
Which is why the Atlantic single that followed immediately on its heels was so important in establishing his legacy, because this is where the song, as well as ‘Fess’s unusual persona, comes together.
What The Carnival’s For
The changes in the arrangement for this, the famed Atlantic version, may seem incidental at first glance but they’re crucial in tightening the song up.
For starters the piano intro is much more declarative, with ‘Fess emphasizing the bass to give it both gravity as well as a much more propulsive forward momentum. The pace is also quickened in the process and with it the confidence in what he’s playing soars. You trust this progression he’s laying out because it sounds as if HE trusts it and knows exactly where it’s going. It makes you bob your head as your shoulders rock to the groove and perfectly sets up the next alteration – the arrival of his whistling.
By flipping the placement of the whistling and the horns it serves to build anticipation and set up the rest of the song. His bird-like tweeting establishes the catchiness of Mardi Gras In New Orleans which means when he starts singing you don’t need to get oriented first, you already know what will follow even if you never heard the tune before because it’s the same melody only with words attached.
Delaying the horns for another few bars – after ‘Fess starts singing no less – also increases their impact when those instruments jump in, full of vigor and determination as their role is clarified in the process. Whereas for Star Talent they were the ones setting the initial melody, here they’re merely echoing it after each refrain, reminding you what the melody is and adding a more percussive edge to it with their clipped notes.
Throughout it all Longhair’s rhythmic sensibilities on piano carry this along, that heavy left hand making sure the root appeal – the one that hits you in the gut – never lets up. You’re locked into a trance because of this even if his famed right hand basically is just adding accent notes rather than making any elaborate runs of its own, but the song is so funky sounding that all of the gaps the arrangement might have upon closer scrutiny seem to be filled in thanks to your own imagination hearing things that aren’t even there.
If you want to learn how to make a sparse track sound full this is your masters thesis, as each element has a simple direct purpose and never deviates from it for a second.
Got My Ticket In My Hand
Of course as great as the music is it requires the vocals and story to color the scenery in and give it character. Though the tale itself is fairly rudimentary in theory it nevertheless packs a surprising amount of vivid detail into the few stanzas it contains.
Basically Mardi Gras In New Orleans is a colorful travelogue – the kind that existed back then that were shown between reels of double features in the theaters – but rather than being narrated by the oddly cheery tones of James A. Fitzpatrick as those movie shorts did, this one features the lopsided vocal tones of a crackpot Professor who has an intimate knowledge of the terrain he describes, from what street corners to stand on to get the best view of the parade to understanding the cultural importance of the festivities taking place.
On his first run-through of this on Star Talent, though the lyrics were the same his comfort level in delivering them was oddly missing, but now he’s got everything down pat and the results speak for themselves. If rock ‘n’ roll needed a pied piper to lead people to yet another alcohol soaked party, ‘Fess shows he’s more than up for that task here. With him at the helm the song rocks, rolls, sways and bounces without any uncertainty as to its destination.
Close your eyes and you can see the colorful sights he describes, from the wild costumes worn in the parade, the beautiful Mardi Gras Queen and her court, and the many exotic characters taking part right down to the sounds and even probably the smells that drift through the humid air as you jostle your way to the corner to get a better look as they all go by.
Though Mardi Gras is an event you really need to experience in person at least once in your life, if you can’t make it down to Nawlins then immersing yourself in this record is a pretty fair substitute all things considered.
Infectious, addicting, mysterious and irresistible, on the surface it may seem an unlikely song to serve as an artist’s career defining legacy, but nobody who’s fallen under its spell would dare to question its appeal or its importance.
I Want To Stay Right There
But as we stated at the beginning of this review, nothing with Professor Longhair is ever “normal” and so we need to address a few additional historical quirks that makes understanding and appreciating this a little more difficult.
Neither of the single versions we just got done reviewing (Star Talent or Atlantic) is probably the version you’ve heard over the years. The fact is ‘Fess laid down two takes of Mardi Gras In New Orleans at his Atlantic session in late 1949 and while they were far more similar sounding to each other than the Star Talent version was to either of them, they did feature two notable differences in the arrangement.
The second take features an off-beat percussive effect done on wood blocks which was only faintly heard on the first take of it. That added rhythmic emphasis would become one of the song’s most identifiable features in the future when it got released in 1972 on an Atlantic album of ‘Fess’s work called New Orleans Piano and that’s been the go-to version ever since and in case you were wondering is also the best, an unquestioned ★ 10 ★, one of the best songs we would have reviewed to date.
So why DIDN’T we get to hear it then in 1950? Who really knows, but the most likely reason it wasn’t chosen for the single was that despite that much appreciated addition of wood blocks AND a far more robust and sinewy sax solo to boot, there’s a slight hesitation in ‘Fess’s vocals during the section immediately following that interlude. It doesn’t ruin the song by any means but you can see why they might’ve thought it an unfortunate mistake.
Then again, the fact that the sax plays a more standard solo also takes away from some the sheer quirkiness the single version exhibited by contrast, so that might’ve factored in too. Of course we wont even get into the 1959 remake of this, under the title Go To The Mardi Gras which was actually the best selling version for ‘Fess through the years, but at least we’ll get to review that single down the road, unlike the superior album cut we can only mention in passing.
But whatever version you hear and whichever take on it you prefer, the inimitable joys of Professor Longhair’s music comes through loud and clear and in the winter of 1950 the record(s) gave the rest of America ample warning that the rock ‘n’ roll party in New Orleans was definitely worth the trip.
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT: 9/10