Friday, August 31, 2007

Blue Yodel Number 9 - With Johnny Cash

Mr. Håkan Forsberg has written me with a request to do an entry on the Armstrong and Johnny Cash's version of "Blue Yodel Number 9" from Cash's 1970 TV show. I couldn't be happier to oblige so here is the video:

It's one of my favorite clips...and before YouTube exploded, it was one of the prized possessions of my Armstrong video collection. I own the entire episode and when I showed this clip at a lecture at the Institute of Jazz Studies, it was a hit as Armstrong historians such as Dan Morgenstern and Ed Berger said they hadn't seen it since it originally aired. Flash forward two months and there it was on YouTube! And as of today, it's had 110,632 views and as of September 18, thousands more will see it when it's released on a new DVD collection of "The Best of The Johnny Cash TV Show." So much for collector's items...

But it wouldn't be a blog entry without some backstory, so here goes. There are 190 comments on the YouTube video and most are from musically ignorant people who think it's cool to see the man in black from that Joaquin Phoenix movie sing with the goofy guy who sings "It's A Wonderful World" (yes, I spelled it wrong on many young fans of "What a Wonderful World" know that there's an actual standard titled "It's A Wonderful World"?). Reading through the comments is painful, though the great Phil Person of Berklee does his best to set the record straight. What most of the 110,000 probably don't grasp is the historical significance of this clip.

Okay, Armstrong Mythology 101: Louis Armstrong grew gravely ill in the late 60s and spent his final years unable to play the trumpet, relying only on his voice to entertain. His final albums are sad, commercial affairs and his final gig at the Waldorf-Astoria got bad reviews and still caused Arvell Shaw to weep at the mention of it 30 years later. Louis Armstrong died a few months later. The End.


I'll try to do this without a million more details (six more entries, and the book I'm working on will be worthless!), but here are the cold, hard facts. In September of 1968, Armstrong did finally start to break down. Excessive weight loss earlier that year led to extreme exhaustion at first. He was expected back on stage in March of 1969, but in February, kidney ailments and heart problems felled him again. Armstrong remained home in 1969 and often battled depression. A private tape of him at home with friends that year finds a subdued Armstrong reflecting, “Now all I got to do is scan my life back and see what I was doing wrong. Like I didn’t get enough rest. I was always afraid I was going to miss something.” He spent his days writing letters and listening to his own albums, secretly yearning to play trumpet again.

Well, as the year progressed, Armstrong gradually grew a tad bit stronger, but not strong enough to perform. Still, in the fall of 1969, he was approached to sing the title song of a new James Bond movie, On Her Majesty's Secret Service. A very frail Armstrong gave an emotional reading of the song, "We Have All The Time In The World," which would climb back on the UK music charts 25 years later after being used in a beer commercial. [A quick scan of a James Bond web site says this was the last song Armstrong ever recorded before he "died in 1970" - Armstrong mythology, still going strong!] Anyway, many people know about the Bond song and in one documentary, the song's composer, Hal David, talks about how sick Armstrong was and how they didn't think he'd get through the session and so on and so forth. It's a beautiful story but no one ever mentions the other song recorded at that October 28 session: Armstrong and Billy Kyle's composition "Pretty Little Missy." The first time I heard this track, I didn't know what to expect but Pops sounds very happy, if a little weak, singing over the medium-paced shuffle beat. But nothing prepared me for what happened at the 1:20 mark: Armstrong picks up his trumpet and blows a wonderful half-chorus solo! The tone is fragile in the beginning but it gradually swells and though he has a little trouble with a high note towards the end of the solo, it's a swinging outing, full of classic Armstrong ideas and phrases. The first time I heard it, I actually cheered! And when he reprises the vocal and sings the cute lyrics over surging strings, I welled up with tears. The track is a triumph and it marked the last time he would ever play the trumpet in the studio...but nobody ever mentions this hidden gem, which has never been on CD and has only been released on one German LP and a handful of 45s.

Moving on: by the beginning of 1970, Armstrong had obviously practiced enough trumpet to bring it out in public once again. I've described his bittersweet solo on "Someday You'll Be Sorry" from the Dick Cavett Show on January 13 of that year. Listening to Armstrong struggle to get into the upper register is tough going and he obviously knew he wasn't ready to return full-time to playing the trumpet just yet. So 1970 continues with Armstrong making many TV appearances, celebrating his 70th birthday at the Newport Jazz Festival and the Shrine Auditorium and recording two albums on which he played no trumpet. The first album is the erratic Louis Armstrong And His Friends, which literally features selections from the ridiculous (Armstrong intoning "Jesus! Jesus" on "His Father Wore Long Hair") to the sublime (touching versions of standards "Mood Indigo" and "My One and Only Love").

The other vocals-only album was Louis "Country & Western" Armstrong. The first time I played this album, I was expecting to hate it because it usually gets knocked whenever it gets mentioned but it actually has a lot of fun moments, even if it's not a Satch Plays Fats. The opening "Miller's Cave" literally features a laugh-out-loud moment at the end when Armstrong's echoing voice shouts a bunch of nonsensical jokes as if he's yelling from inside a cave ("Mr. Miller was a killer diller!"). The same thing happens on "Almost Persuaded," where Armstrong once again has to improvise over a closing vamp. What he comes up with is a gas: "Oh, I tell ya, those strange chops! Oh, I'd love to kiss them strange chops! Oh, they knock me out...crumb crushers! Oh, come here baby and buss me one!" Fun stuff.

The release of the album made Armstrong's appearance on Johnny Cash's TV show a logical stop to promote the record. What's not on YouTube (but is on my video...take that!) is Armstrong's first performance, a medley of "Crystal Chandeliers" and "Ramblin' Rose." Armstrong appears wearing a giant white cowboy hat, the same one he's shown wearing on the original album cover. Armstrong's never looked happier and the audience showers him with love, breaking into spontaneous applause at Armstrong's heartfelt coda on the latter song. It's a wonderful moment and if I knew how, I'd throw it on YouTube myself (it's not going to be on the aforementioned Cash DVD, either).

After a commercial break, Cash and Armstrong tell the story of the original recording of "Blue Yodel Number 9," where Armstrong and his wife Lil backed up the father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers. Rodgers showed his Armstrong pedigree by quoting liberally from Nolan Walsh's "The Bridwell Blues," which Armstrong also played trumpet on in 1926. The original "Blue Yodel Number 9" is a treat because it's fascinating to hear Armstrong cope with Rodgers's I'll-change-chords-whenever-I-feel-like-it style. Cash and pianist Bill Walker stick within the eight-bar blues structure without a problem but they're secondary players to the main event: Armstrong's trumpet playing. This was another one of those moments that when I first popped in the tape, I did not know what to expect. Even after watching it a hundred times, I still don't know how to explain it. Pops sounds INCREDIBLE...he plays as if it's 1924 all over again. Remember, Velma Middleton died in 1960 and Armstrong rarely played on Jewel Brown's features so it had been some time since he played a pure blues obbligato (I think you'd have to go back to the "Autobiography" sessions with Velma) but he demonstrates on the Cash clip that he hadn't lost his knack for accompaniment. And that trumpet solo - it's terrific! His tone is so pretty and golden and he has perfect command of the entire horn. And except for the scatting on the yodeling excursions, Pops plays for almost the entire four minutes, never running out of ideas or out of steam. It's one of most triumphant moments of Armstrong's later years.

But he wasn't done yet...12 days later he appeared on The Flip Wilson Show. Though he doesn't play the trumpet, he seems in good spirits on "Mack The Knife." However, Armstrong wore a blue sweatshirt and baseball cap during a final medley with Wilson and the attire does make him appear quite small and frail. But during the month of October, Armstrong reassembled the All Stars and did a long stand at the International Hotel in Las Vegas where he played trumpet nightly. And in February and March 1971, Armstrong appeared on the "David Frost Show," the "Dick Cavett Show" and the "Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. Each time out, he played trumpet and he never sounds in poor shape (though he does have a little trouble coping with "Ole Miss" on the Cavett show...nevertheless, just the fact that he called that number on national television says something!). The Carson appearance comes from the time of Armstrong's last engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria and on the show, Pops sounds full of life telling stories and on "Pretty Little Missy," he blows an even better trumpet solo than the one from the 1969 recording session! Also, the New York Times gave Armstrong a positive notice and clarinetist Joe Muranyi remembered Armstrong as being a little wobbly, but stressed that the Waldorf gig wasn't as sad as Arvell Shaw made it sound. In fact, on the last night, Armstrong called Muranyi aside and told him that he was checking himself into the hospital again but not to worry because "We're going to go around the world one more time." Well, Armstrong did check himself into the hospital and grew weaker still but even the day before he died in July, he was preparing to call the All Stars together for a rehearsal.

So hopefully these tales lend a little more significance to the video of Armstrong on the Johnny Cash show. Don't believe everything you hear about Armstrong's last couple of years. He was frail and had to overcome some pretty debilitating health problems but from October 1970 to March 1971, he was blowing again and as can be heard on "Blue Yodel Number 9," he still had some pretty potent ideas left in that horn.

(And to BrunoLeich44, who left a comment on the YouTube video, "This stinkt," all I have to say, Mr. Leich, is no, sir, you stinkt.)


Anonymous said...

Is there any way to find the recording of Crystal Chandeliers and Ramblin Rose from the Johnny Cash show?

Mr. Murphy said...

Hi Ricky,
Great Blog…I just found it and I am going through your old posts. I appreciate your love of Louis Armstrong as I have always enjoyed his trumpet playing. In fact he was one of my first favorites of the Jazz Genre. His tone, spirit and phrasing were what impressed me so. I still dig it.

I can’t agree with you %100 on his playing on this clip though. He looks much more to me like someone who is trying to do a decent job…and he does. It certainly falls short of “incredible” by his own lofty standards. The back story you give is helpful in understanding that he was coming off of some difficult health experiences. Still the Armstrong I know and respect should be able to play a solo like that in his sleep.

I also felt that Cash was probably trying to be respectful in the beginning but in the end Armstrong himself had manipulated the scene into a “laugh at the black man” fest. I will always be a fan of Armstrong but the “Uncle Tom” thing will always be a complex issue for his fans.

Please keep up the good work and I very much appreciate the effort you put into this blog and the subject matter.

Doug said...

Here's an updated YT link: