To be mentioned in association with a masterpiece by Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith is a banana split, to use one of classic blues diva Smith's most appealing metaphors. The whipped cream on top is to have accomplished this using weird instruments, reed organ or harmonium, for example, inspiring critics to describe the results with heartfelt wordplay, for example "wheezing" or, even better, "full throttle." Fred Longshaw's main instruments were piano and organ, to be sure, utilized on about 20 recording sessions in less than ten years beginning in 1924. Much larger numbers would result once reissues and compilation tracks are factored in, the names of Armstrong and Smith popping up repeatedly, although there is also a Longshaw presence in the recording career of fellow multi-instrumentalist Lonnie Johnson. While it is not exactly startling for odd instruments, even sound effects devices, to show up on vintage classic blues recordings from the '20s, Longshaw has established something of a mastery in this realm due to his participation in a version of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" that is without a doubt the Mona Lisa of blues recordings. It could just as easily be compared to a masterpiece of theater featuring only a tiny cast of three: Louis Armstrong with trumpet in hand, Bessie Smith deep in song, and last but not least, Fred Longshaw at the reed organ.
Someone who wheezes can be in charge, a fact demonstrated to a much more frightening extent by the psychopath character played by Ross Martin in the film Experiment in Terror. Longshaw indeed led Smith's vaudeville band without resulting to extortion. Fred Longshaw & His Birmingham Dance Orchestra was the full name of the outfit, also featuring fine instrumentalists such as trumpeter Shelton Hemphill. Songwriting also kept Longshaw busy, none of it sounding like it was done kneeling in front of a harmonium. Romantic intrigue, especially disappointments, are a thematic constant in this songwriting catalog, indicating that material was being concocted for the similarly obsessed classic blues market. The songs can be interpreted as reactions to each other, the "Poutin' Papa" having been told "Papa If You Can't Do Better (I'll Let Another Papa Move In)," the situation described in "I Used to Be Your Sweet Mama" a logical consequence when "I've Been Mistreated and I Don't Like It." Slightly more unusual song settings are "At the Christmas Ball" -- originally recorded by Smith, then covered by Dixieland outfits -- and "Nashville Woman Blues," yet another of the brilliant Smith and Armstrong sides. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi