Wednesday, October 12, 2011

October 12: Professor Longhair, "Tipitina"

Artist: Professor Longhair
Song: "Tipitina"
Album: Tipitina (single)
Year: 1953

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As is the case with almost every genre of music, there are a number of different styles of approaching blues music, and yet some of the most uniquely enjoyable have been somewhat overlooked in the overall history of the genre.  While one can find countless "classics" of Delta and Chicago style blues, it is within the somewhat smaller, more localized tones of blues music where many of the finest recordings in the entire history of the genre can be found.  Perhaps the most passed over is that of New Orleans Blues, and this is likely due to the fact that it presents the opposite side of the blues; that being the more fast paced, almost upbeat approach, and yet there are few blues songs that can compare to the power found within the New Orleans sound.  Among the many great performers to rise from this blues theory, there are may be no other more vital to its existence and fame than that of the man called Professor Longhair.  Possessing one of the most distinctive voices and piano sounds, in many ways, it is Professor Longhair that defines the entire New Orleans sound, regardless of genre, and a number of his recordings stand today as nothing short of immortal.  Due to the massive amount of impact and influence he had all across the musical spectrum, it is difficult to point to a single track as his finest moment, and yet one would be hard pressed to find a better representation of everything that makes Professor Longhair such a legend than his brilliant 1953 release, "Tipitina."

From the opening notes of "Tipitina," Professor Longhair wastes no time in setting the tone and spirit of the song into motion, as the almost playful trio of piano runs serve as one of the most instantly recognizable introductions in all of music history.  The way that this drops into the song proper is nothing short of perfect, and once the entire band is playing, one can hear a wide range of influences within the music.  Perhaps the most noticeable element is the "classic" 1950's rockabilly sound that slowly bumps along underneath the arrangement.  In many ways, Professor Longhair's work here stands as one of the strongest and most clear examples of the link between blues and rock and roll, as later, more fast-paced recordings of the track are amazingly similar to the sounds of Chuck Berry among other musicians.  Though there is no question that "Tipitina" is firmly rooted in the blues, the song has a dance-like quality that is a far cry from almost any other blues style, and this is yet another unique link that one can hear on the song.  The way that Professor Longhair is able to make the tracks sway from side to side quickly transports the listener to the streets of New Orleans, and the atmosphere is wonderfully vivid, though he does not directly imply any of the "musical scenery" within the words.  This ability to create such brilliant imagery through little more than musical mood is the true gift of Professor Longhair, and it rarely sounded better than on "Tipitina."

Working in perfect musical harmony with the arrangement that he plays, there are few voices from anywhere in music history that come close to the almost amusingly distinctive sound of Professor Longhair.  In many ways embodying the free-spirited reputation of the New Orleans music scene, there is a completely raw and loose freedom within his voice, and it is this soaring, joyful sound that makes Professor Longhair impossible to forget.  Easily pushing his voice all across the vocal spectrum, one can hear "Tipitina" as one of the finest examples of the idea of letting a song dictate the inflection and pitch, as he has clearly given himself completely to the spirit of the song he is playing.  Yet it is also in this vocal performance where one can here the ideal balance between the somber soul of the blues and the more spirited approach of the r&b style, and there is no other recording in history that blends these two sounds in a similar manner.  In both the way he sings, as well as the words he brings, "Tipitina" provides a balance like no other, and it quickly becomes one of the most intriguing aspects of the entire song.  Though there is no question that much of the singing is a lament over the loss and perhaps improper actions of his women, there is always a bit of a spark underneath the words that gives them an almost tongue-in-cheek quality.  It is also within the way that Professor Longhair spins each line that gives every word a life onto itself, and "Tipitina" stands as one of the few songs that must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated.

As the decades have passed, "Tipitina" has become an iconic song in a way that few other recordings have ever even remotely achieved.  While there is no question that it stands as one of the most definitive songs in the entire history of New Orleans music, it has also become a reference point within many circles of music, and it has provided the name for one of the most well-known music clubs on the planet.  However, there are actually a number of different recordings of "Tipitina" that Professor Longhair made over the years, each taking a slightly different variation in terms of length and solo arrangements.  Yet each of them is able to retain the soul and spirit of the song, and many of the live versions one can find are easily the most exciting stage performances one can ever experience.  It is the way that Professor Longhair was able to balance the soul and allure of blues music with the almost carefree, yet raw sound of New Orleans that makes his sound so amazingly unique, and one can hear his influence all across a wide range of later artists.  It is due to this reality that many point to Professor Longhair as the "father" of the New Orleans r&b scene, and the unique bounce that he brings to many of his tracks remains just as enjoyable and intriguing today as it was nearly half a century ago.  Boasting one of the most amazing recorded catalogs in all of music history, there is simply no other song that can compare to Professor Longhair's monumental 1953 single, "Tipitina."

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