Huey Long

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Huey Long's surname is tailor-made to describe all manner of phenomena, but in the case of this jazz instrumentalist it sums up the most remarkable aspect of his career. In 2004, at the age of 100, he…
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Huey Long's surname is tailor-made to describe all manner of phenomena, but in the case of this jazz instrumentalist it sums up the most remarkable aspect of his career. In 2004, at the age of 100, he was still manning a black history exhibit in Houston at an antique cooperative, selling photos, tapes, and his own guitar course. R&B listeners will have heard Long on guitar with the Ink Spots; bebop hounds will have sniffed out his presence on sizzling Fats Navarro platters, doing innovative things with bebop guitar. His involvement in jazz shows him to be the master of a variety of genres, switching back and forth between banjo and guitar depending on stylistic requirements.

He is of course not to be confused with the governor and songwriter Huey P. Long; in some references the jazzman's initial is brought into play in order to distinguish the two: Huey C. Long. There was also a long list of musical relatives in the latter Long's family, including his three brothers, Jewell Long, Herbert Long, and Sam Long. Starting out on piano, Huey Long was within two years longing for something different, mainly a banjo. By the mid-'20s he was featured on such in Frank Davis' Louisiana Jazz Band and Dee Johnson's Merrymakers. Long moved to Chicago in 1926, beginning a freelance period in which he was involved with a long list of bandleaders, Willie Hightower and Mack Swain among them. Chicago was one musical scene in which a heavier rhythm section sound dictated a switch from banjo to guitar.

Long's recordings follow this pattern from the early '30s, continuing in the ensuing decade with better-known leaders such as Fletcher Henderson and Earl Hines. His company in the Hines outfit included some of the jazz genre's most noted dignitaries, including Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie. He was also involved with musicians who were more interested in rocking than swinging, playing in 1933 with Jesse Stone, who would later write the hit "Shake, Rattle and Roll." Mastering these diverse influences and polishing his formal musical skills, Long by the end of the decade was assistant arranger and conductor for concert bands as well as swing big bands.

He had his own three-piece combo together in 1944, enjoying a long residency at the Three Deuces Cafe on 52nd Street in New York City. This was where he was approached by Bill Kenny, on the prowl for a guitarist to replace Charlie Fuqua in the Ink Spots. Actually, since it was the Ink Spots, the history is actually a bit more complicated. Fuqua's parts in the arrangements were already being filled in by Ink Spot Bernie Mackey. Long was needed to do what Mackey was doing before he had to fill in for Fuqua. To hear just what that is, check out sides such as "I'm Gonna Turn Off the Teardrops" and "The Sweetest Dream." One night in 1945, Fuqua got out of the Army and simply returned to the Ink Spots on-stage in Kentucky, shorting Long.

This isn't the end of his involvement with the Ink Spots, however. Meanwhile, bebop was catching on and Long showed his mastery of the idiom, as far from the Ink Spots as a freshly dry-cleaned vest, in a studio session with trumpeter Navarro, tenor saxophonist Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, and a rhythm section consisting of Al Haig, Gene Ramey, and Denzil Best. Long was back as a sideman in the early '50s with Snub Mosley, the Ravens, and others. He briefly tried returning to college studies, freelanced in New York City, and wound up in one of many spinoffs of the Ink Spots, groups that included at least someone who had been in the Ink Spots at some point, or perhaps had waved at the Ink Spots from a passing car. Not official, these groups tended to hide out at venues where big music business types such as agents, managers, or lawyers would not notice them. Long apparently worked with one such Ink Spots at a lodge in California for more than two years.

Following another freelance period in New York City, the elderly Long moved back to Houston in the mid-'90s, seeking closer companionship with younger family members. One of the key individuals in this plan, the son he was going to live with, died unexpectedly soon thereafter. Long is a true marvel of black music. His haunt as of 2004 was the Heights Antique Co-op on 19th Street in Houston.