Louis Armstrong and The Commanders
Recorded October 22, 1953
Track Time 3:17
Written by Billy Reid
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Billy Butterfield, Andy Ferretti, Carl Poole, trumpets; Lou McGarity, Cutty Cutshall, Phil Giardina, Jack Satterfield, trombone; Hymie Schertzer, alto and baritone saxophones; Al Klink, tenor saxophone; Bernie Leighton, piano; Carmen Mastren, guitar; Sandy Block, bass; Ed Grady, drums; Toots Camarata, arranger, conductor
Originally released on Decca
Currently available on CD: Moments to Remember in the Ambassador series has it, as well as a few older Armstrong Decca compilations: Highlights From His Decca Years and Sings Back Through The Years. (Live versions will be discussed below)
Available on Itunes? Yes (studio and multiple live version)
Today’s entry will focus on a pop song that Louis Armstrong clearly loved. He recorded it in 1953 and played it almost every night for the next two years but eventually it disappeared, never to return again. But for the period it was in the band’s repertoire, it was a highlight of every live show that featured it. The song was Billy Reid’s “The Gypsy,” a sizeable hit in 1946 that Armstrong didn’t get around to recording until seven years later.
Originally, “The Gypsy” was introduced by its composer, Billy Reid, who led an orchestra in the United Kingdom. Reid’s version was sung by Dorothy Squires in 1945, but the song didn’t become a big hit in the United States until another female singer, Dinah Shore, recorded it in 1946. Amazingly, the same day Shore’s record hit number one in Billboard, another version by the Ink Spots did the same exact thing. The Ink Spots became synonymous with the song, though other popular versions were recorded that year by the likes of Sammy Kaye, Hal McIntyre and Hildegarde with Guy Lombardo (now there’s a pairing!). In the jazz world, the legendary alto saxophonist Charlie Parker recorded a version of “The Gypsy” on July 29, 1946, while the Ink Spots version was still hot on the charts. Unfortunately, Bird’s recording came during the infamous “breakdown” session on Dial, where Parker’s drug-fused lifestyle finally caught up with him, resulting in sometimes incoherent playing that’s difficult to listen to. However, though he sounds like he’s dying, Bird’s version of “The Gypsy” is very emotional and if you can get past a few stutter steps, there’s an awful lot of soul in that recording.
Now, Louis Armstrong had a very sizeable record collection so it’s not certain which version he liked best, but he was definitely aware of “The Gypsy.” How do we know? Because at the famous Town Hall concert of May 17, 1947, Armstrong quotes “The Gypsy” during his solo on “Save It Pretty Mama” at the 3:30 mark (this version was issued by Victor and is on numerous RCA compilations). So Armstrong was aware of it but didn’t have a chance to record it until an October 22, 1953 session. When he did get around to recording it, it was his pick, according to Milt Gabler. “Louis loved the song,” Gabler said. “He loved the lyric content, and he loved the tune of it, and he just loved to play it. And he came in; he said he wanted to record it. So we recorded it. That’s all.” This might sound a little odd as jazz critics at the time blasted Decca for “forcing” Armstrong to record pop tunes but Armstrong definitely had a say in what was recorded that October day in 1953. Besides two Christmas songs, Armstrong also rerecorded his own composition “Someday You’ll Be Sorry” as well as “I Can’t Afford To Miss This Dream,” a song written by Armstrong’s friend Gloria Friedlander. On New Year’s Eve 1952, the Armstrongs had a party at the house where Pops, as usual, had his tape recorder rolling. On the tape, which can be heard at the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College, Armstrong asks Friedlander numerous times to sing the song so he could memorize it. He even promises her to record it for Decca, which causes her to exclaim, “You really like it that much? I love you!” Thus, Armstrong obviously had enough clout to take this song (never recorded by anyone else to my knowledge) and have Toots Camarata make a fine arrangement of it for Decca. It should be no surprise, then, that he would also want to record a seven-year-old pop song in “The Gypsy.”
I’ve already discussed this session a bit in my entry on “Someday You’ll Be Sorry” but it bears repeating: this is one of the great sessions of Armstrong’s later years. Camarata’s arrangements swing like mad and the studio band is positively explosive (and vice versa). “The Gypsy” begins with the wonderful trombone section, including two of Eddie Condon’s favorites, Lou McGarity and Cutty Cutshall. Armstrong sings it like he had been singing it for a decade, throwing in “yeahs” wherever he pleases. Armstrong clearly had a thing for gypsys; a few months later, on “St. Louis Blues” from the W.C. Handy session, Armstrong sang the following blues lyrics:
I went to the gypsy, to get my fortune told
Yes, been to the gypsy, to get my fortune told
Because the gypsy knows, crazy about my jelly roll!
And when I went to the gypsy, she had fortunes all over the place
Yes, the gypsy had, fortunes all over the place
But when she looked in my hand, she slapped me right in the face!
Now what those lyrics had to do with St. Louis is anyone’s guess but Armstrong also had fun on “The Gypsy.” After singing the lyric, “But I’ll go there again cause I want to believe The Gypsy,” Armstrong adds as an aside, “Although I know she’s lying,” and giggles a bit. But the highlight of “The Gypsy” is undoubtedly one minute and 45 seconds of gorgeous Armstrong trumpet. It’s one of my favorite Armstrong solos because it might contain the most relaxed playing he ever did. For those who just think of Armstrong as a high note player, he doesn’t get way into his upper register until the end of the bridge. Until then, it’s a textbook example of how to improvise around a melody while still keeping the melody somewhat in the forefront. There’s a pattern to this solo: Armstrong plays a snatch of melody, improvises for a few bars, rests, then begins the next eight-bar section with the written melody, improvises for a few bars, rests, and so on. His playing is also remarkably slippery on “The Gypsy.” There are few better places to study Armstrong’s unique concept of rhythm. His phrases come in quick bursts and slower, legato segments. He plays obbligatos to his own lines, infuses it with the blues and comes up with a masterpiece. And transcribing this thing would be a bitch!
Triumphantly, Armstrong builds to a climax at the end of the bridge when he plays the melody in his upper register. But he still follows that with some incredibly nimble phrases before a beautiful, typical ending where Armstrong slows it down and plays the last four bars dramatically, his tone never sounding bigger. I love, love, love, love this record. It’s not one of his best known records but even Armstrong himself later said of “The Gypsy,” “Well, you know, that record I think is one of my finest.”
Though the song wasn’t a hit by any means, that didn’t stop Armstrong from performing it with the All Stars, which he began doing late in 1954. The earliest live version in the Armstrong discography is from an August 13, 1954 radio broadcast from the Basin Street nightclub in New York City. This must have not been the first time they played it, though, as everything sounds firmly in place, beginning with Billy Kyle’s piano introduction, which never changed. Pops plays a chorus of trumpet in the front, with sensitive support from Barney Bigard and Trummy Young. Though he sticks to the melody pretty closely, Armstrong takes some nice chances in the second eight bars. While improvising in the last A section, he quotes “I Cover the Waterfront,” one of his favorite quotes. Armstrong sings it much as he did on the record, with the same placement of “yeahs” and the same “Although I know she’s lying” line. The song also gave Armstrong some easy applause. He would usually end his vocal with a big emphasis on the final word “day” while Trummy Young would play a little phrase that made it sound like the song was ending. Armstrong would then usually mumble or shout with amusement while Billy Kyle would play a transitional piano solo to let Pops have time to get his horn up to his lips. Armstrong always got applause during the transition because most in the audience probably thought the song was going to end, but he would then play another half chorus of trumpet to take the song out. At Basin Street, the closing solo was very much in the spirit of the Decca record, with quick, short phrases peppered throughout, displaying that same wonderful sense of rhythm. The solo also has two more quotes that stand out: another placement of “I Cover the Waterfront” and the “Johnny Get Your Gun” line from the verse to “Over There.” Barrett Deems gives Pops a nice backbeat and he rides it right on through to the final cadenza.
I could probably go on for pages about the different versions of “The Gypsy” that followed but honestly, not much changed in the ensuing performances except for Armstrong’s trumpet playing. An especially great version was captured at the Crescendo Club for another Decca record, recorded live on January 21, 1955 (and available on Itunes and on C.D. on The California Concerts). By this point, Armstrong’s opening trumpet stuck to the melody a little closer and the “I Cover the Waterfront” quote was gone from the opening, saved for the concluding solo (he was obviously trying it out to see where it fit better at Basin Street). However, except for the two aforementioned quotes, Armstrong always managed a fresh approach to his final trumpet solo on “The Gypsy.” One of my favorite examples of this comes from a version from Stockholm in October 1955 (heard on volume 2 of Storyville’s Scandinavia series). Armstrong had a little descending phrase he liked to play in the beginning of the final chorus, but this night, he just works the motif over and over until it reaches its logical conclusion, ending it with a perfectly placed Armstrong lick. The phrase unfurls in slow motion and never ceases to catch me by surprise.
At a Gene Norman “Just Jazz” concert in Pasadena in January 1956, Armstrong is a little friskier in his opening chorus and works over the same descending phrase in the final solo, albeit in a different manner. By the time of a March 1956 one-nighter in Grand Rapids, Michigan, most of Armstrong’s playing on “The Gypsy” was settling into a “set” nature, though that final chorus always came out slightly different. At the famous “Chicago Concert” of June 1 of that year, “The Gypsy” is slower than ever, almost back at the original Decca tempo and Armstrong again throws some rhythmic curveballs in the last chorus. “The Gypsy” always drew big applause upon its conclusion but that evening, another song got a bigger hand at the mere mention of its name: “Mack the Knife.” Originally recorded in September 1955, “Mack” was a hit by the beginning of 1956 and Armstrong began featuring it around March of that year. With another popular number that now had to be performed at every show, something had to be cut out and that something turned out to be “The Gypsy.” Usually, Armstrong took “The Gypsy” at a slightly faster clip live than in the studio but with a generous chorus-and-a-half of trumpet, the performance usually ate up over four minutes of concert time (almost five minutes in Chicago). It makes its final appearance in Jos Willems’s definitive Armstrong discography, All of Me, at Norman Granz’s “Jazz At The Hollywood Bowl” concert in August of 1956 and that was it.
But though it only lasted for a few years, 1954 through 1956 is arguable the peak of the All Stars and it’s a welcome listen on the numerous live recordings of the band from this period. As Milt Gabler said, “It…was good for him wherever he worked, but it wasn’t a hit single record for him. And Louis liked to make hits because it makes anybody feel good when you get on stage and people yell for a song, you know. You know…you’ve done something. But he knew—he loved to sing and he loved to do ballads, and the sadder the song the better.” I already quoted what Armstrong had to say of “The Gypsy” and it should be mentioned that during a July 1968 trip to England, Armstrong appeared on the BBC-TV show “Be My Guest,” where he was allowed to bring some of his favorite records. He reached back to the King Oliver days for “Dippermouth Blues” and brought two of his more recent hits, “What a Wonderful World” and “Hello, Dolly,” as well as another song from the What a Wonderful World album, “The Sunshine Of Love.” But he also brought two pop songs he recorded for Decca in the early 50s and though the jazz historians don’t talk much about them, Armstrong clearly loved them: “That’s For Me” and “The Gypsy.” I love them, too. Have a great weekend and I’ll be back real soon with another YouTube video discussion.