2020-04-24 13:01:49 UTC
It stands to reason that on a blog such as this attempting to cover virtually every record in rock’s now seventy-plus year history – the large and the small, the famous and the obscure alike – that it will be the enduring songs by certifiable legends that will attract the most attention.
Though this is often the only place you can find any serious analysis of the more rare tunes in rock’s story, whereas the most celebrated songs have had plenty written about them over the years, the fact remains that the sheer familiarity of the more recognizable tracks draws interest that other songs can’t compete with.
Knowing this to be the case a writer hopes that these tent pole reviews of the most acclaimed work by mythic artists will be more entertaining than pedantic, something that is a joy to read rather than agonizing to slog through… and most of all you want them to be informative and easy to grasp rather than confusing and frustrating.
So let me just say before starting this review that you have my sincerest apologies for failing to achieve any of those goals because this one is going to be in the weeds from start to finish and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
Up Is Down, In Is Out
In mid-1949 Professor Longhair signed his first professional recording contract with Star Talent Records and cut a single session in a New Orleans bar. Soon after that he signed his second professional recording contract with Mercury and then in short order he signed his THIRD professional recording contract with Atlantic a few weeks later.
Maybe this is where they coined the phrase: “Three’s a crowd”.
Not having an abundance of original material he recorded many of these songs at multiple stops and each label, thinking they had the exclusive rights to the work, released those records only to find they were competing with the same song by the same artist on a different label!
This led to confusion on the part of distributors, jukebox operators and record buyers at the time, all of whom were unsure which version was the preferred one, and has led to some highly subjective – although somewhat universally held – opinions in the future as to which take on these songs were definitive.
That was the case with Mardi Gras In New Orleans, which we covered yesterday, the original version coming out on Star Talent and the more famous version coming out the same week, or at most a week later, on Atlantic.
This will also be the case right around the bend when ‘Fess will score his only national hit with Bald Head, which was a reworking of She Ain’t Got No Hair, which we mentioned but did not review on our look at his second Star Talent release (rest assured, it will be covered extensively on the review of the Mercury cut).
But here we face a different problem with She Walks Right In, because ‘Fess only cut this for one label at the time, Atlantic. You’d think that’d make this review a lot simpler, but you’d of course be wrong. For the problem with this one is not only was it a cover record of his fellow New Orleans-based Star Talent signee, Cha Cha Hogan – who did it as My Walking Baby, which we reviewed in depth just a few days back – but then ‘Fess himself cut two very different takes on it while at his Atlantic session… one of which, the single, has taken a back seat to the alternate cut which has adorned greatest hits albums ever since.
Trying to make sense of this all is an exercise in futility, not to mention wreaking havoc with how we apply our scores, but since we have no choice it’s best to just dive in the deep end and hope we don’t drown in the process.
You Never Know Where That Gal’s About
One of the interesting aspects of Professor Longhair’s legacy is how his utter uniqueness as an artist often masked the fact his musical output was rather skimpy. His repertoire of original material, especially when you eliminate instrumentals, wasn’t all that deep. Though the best of the songs he wrote, such as Mardi Gras In New Orleans and, down the road a ways, Tipitina, were indelible classics, he really wasn’t that prolific a composer.
He WAS however an amazing interpreter and owing to his distinctive style it made many of those songs he tackled sound as if they had to spring from his creative mind. But that wasn’t the case, despite what a lot of the writing credits would attest, case in point She Walks Right In, a song that is forever linked to Longhair despite it originating with Cha Cha Hogan.
Once the proper credit is applied however it allows us to see just how ‘Fess adapted it for his own use and – just as importantly – it gives us the chance to try and piece together his activities over the most prodigious couple months of his career.
Hogan, like Longhair, was a New Orleans club act who got signed to Dallas’s Star Talent label when they came to The Crescent City on a scouting trip, both getting a few bucks to cut some sides in the makeshift studio in the off-hours at Joe Prop’s Bar on the corner of St. Peter and Villere Streets.
We speculated on whether ‘Fess might’ve sat in with vocalist Hogan on his cuts before dismissing it because the piano wasn’t played with any of ‘Fess’s quirks, nor was it played all that well in some cases, but while it’s doubtful he was behind the keyboard when Cha Cha sang, it’s more likely that he was in the studio watching him sing because a few months later Professor Longhair was singing the same song.
Now it COULD be of course that he wasn’t there and simply heard Cha Cha do it in clubs around town, or that they hung out together in their off-hours and talked music. Maybe ‘Fess even rode in the cab that Hogan drove for a living and heard him singing it to himself behind the wheel. But whatever the case, Professor Longhair re-crafted Hogan’s My Walking Baby and came up with one of his more memorable performances in the process… even though you’d have to wait twenty-two years to HEAR that performance!
Because there are three versions at play here – Hogan’s along with two by ‘Fess – we’ll focus on the differences to try and make some sense of things.
Hogan’s original was quite a good song that featured a subtle rhythm that grew on you the longer it went on and the record was highlighted by Cha Cha’s slightly demented repetitive vocal refrain down the stretch.
When Professor Longhair picked up the song not only does he focus his energies on emphasizing that aspect, but he (or Atlantic) also used it to rename the song She Walks Right In which has a more alluring sound to it if you’re scanning titles on the jukebox.
Unfortunately the first take ‘Fess laid down, the released single that is hard to find these days (it’s available on the Chronological Classics album pictured above), shows that he has yet to fully take ownership of the song. The pace is slower and while his piano playing features a very strong left hand it’s pretty unimaginative. He kicks off the vocals with a rather deranged yodel – and I say that as a big admirer of his off-kilter personality in most circumstances, and while not exactly off-putting, it’s not really something designed to draw you in either.
Once he starts singing actual words – the title line refrain that Hogan closed his with – the picture doesn’t become much clearer. There’s nothing to latch onto thematically other than that one line. No set-up, backstory, plot or even an explanation as to what the hell he’s talking about.
Don’t get me wrong, if listening to someone spout what is essentially gibberish can be enjoyable this definitely IS. You’d be hard pressed to find any Professor Longhair record that can’t be appreciated for its personality alone, and with some decent horns backing him on this that certainly is the case here as well. But this is almost the textbook definition of a B-side, something hardly designed to get many spins on its own, though somewhat surprisingly it was the second most played song on a radio station in Pennsylvania one week – check out the diversity in the playlist too: the top four songs are all rock, then a transitional record (Nat Cole and Nellie Lutcher covering a rock song by Larry Darnell), before the bottom half of the Top Ten becomes all pop and jazz… “WHOD – Music For Schizophrenics!”
But I disgrees.
You might think that with “Mardi Gras” being such a strong A-side sticking this on the flip was hardly the most egregious decision that Atlantic could’ve made. But the thing is, when you hear the OTHER version of this tune he cut at the same session you realize the song itself was something with more than enough going for it to be a viable top side in its own right.
Over Here, Over There
The version most of you came here to read about is NOT the single we just got done analyzing, but rather the LP cut which has become the accepted take on She Walks Right In over the years.
That’s because IT is much more of a proper song, complete with an actual story, sensible lyrics and plenty of character to remind you just who is responsible for all of this.
For starters ‘Fess largely dispenses with the wordless yodeling that marks the released version, choosing instead to tell us about Susan Brown, the girl he’s got a thing for. Now Susan is a girl of his own invention since she wasn’t mentioned by name in Hogan’s original, though clearly she’s the spiritual kin of his girl because they both elicit the same hormonal response in men.
The difference though is Cha Cha is blatantly horny as he sings about her, whereas ‘Fess is more measured in his reading, taking on the role of someone who is recounting this girl’s attributes while holding court at the corner bar to an amused circle of friends, smiling about her memory at a safe distance. That makes for a better constructed song probably but Hogan’s enthusiasm is probably worth just as much in the long run.
You’ll note that the actual single that Atlantic issued on Longhair comes in a distant third in the rankings, for while he does convey plenty of enthusiasm in that take you don’t have any idea what he’s braying about. Furthermore the horn solo which normally might be expected to at least fill in the blanks for us in the department and give us some sense of the eagerness that the song needs, is far too restrained to make up the difference. By contrast the LP cut has a really good sax solo, not wild or anything but certainly effective in its aims.
So the question of course is what the hell was Atlantic thinking by NOT issuing the better rendition of this song when they had the chance, waiting more than two decades before issuing this on the 1972 album New Orleans Piano which became most people’s introduction to the unique charms of Professor Longhair and which – due to its superior quality – has remained the version that everybody knows today.
She Doesn’t Care The Way I Feel
Ideally you need to hear all three takes on this song in chronological order – Hogan’s, ‘Fess’s single and the subsequent LP cut – to fully grasp the song’s evolution and to try and make sense of the decisions involved by Atlantic and even then you’re left with a few more questions than answers.
What can’t be questioned though is the intrinsic appeal of Professor Longhair’s music, for even when he was taking a song from somebody else there was no way he could possibly deliver it in any way other than his own.
That “his own way” included wildly varying renditions however is what proved to be the stumbling point for Atlantic in 1950 and for those attempting to sort through it all in the years since, making She Walks Right In both one of his most compelling songs and one of his more beguiling records, depending on which version you’re talking about.
So while the most famous version would’ve earned a strong (7), or perhaps even made a push for an (8), we can’t let that rendition affect our analysis of the record you would have heard in 1950… the single. That’s the one we’re obligated to focus on here and that means we’re grading a weaker constructed song and a lesser performance all around. Still good enough to be mildly recommended but not up to ‘Fess’s usual standards.
I guess it’s some consolation that in the long run the better cut wound up winning out, but once again this cockeyed Professor winds up turning our rock ‘n’ roll laboratory upside down in the process. It’s not the first time he’s done so and it sure won’t be the last either.
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT: 5/10