Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded November 16, 1941
Track Time 3:02
Written by Albert Von Tilzer and Lew Brown
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, Frank Galbreath, Shelton Hemphill, Gene Prince, trumpets; George Washington, Norman Greene, Henderson Chambers, trombone; Rupert Cole, Carle Frye, alto saxophone; Prince Robinson, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone; Joe Garland, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lawrence Lucie, guitar; Hayes Alvis, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Decca 4106
Currently available on CD: Volume 8 of the Ambassador series
Available on Itunes? No
For today’s entry, I’m going to focus on one of my favorite examples of Louis Armstrong singing a pop tune…and it’s a record where he doesn’t even open his mouth. Confused? You won’t be after listening to Armstrong’s 1941 big band Decca record of “I Used to Love You.” It’s an oddity of sorts in the Armstrong discography: there’s no trumpet grandstanding, no dramatic cadenzas, no singing, no scatting, no comedy, no nothing except for the gorgeous sound of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet “singing” a melody almost straight at a relaxed ballad tempo suitable for dancing. In fact, my guess is that this one must have been pretty popular at dances so Armstrong decided to capture it on wax as part of a unique session where of the four songs recorded, three were instrumentals (the fourth was a remake of “You Rascal You”).
First up that day was a beautiful version of “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.” By this point, “Sleepy Time” was utilized solely as Armstrong’s opening and closing theme and except for a version done at the Nice jazz festival in 1948, Armstrong usually didn’t sing it—which is why he caused a stir when he sang the original word “darkies” on his 1951 Decca recording of the tune. Now that’s a story for another day (or at least for the book!) but in the 19 years between singing it for Victor in 1932 and Decca in 1951, there are some lovely instrumental versions of varying lengths. The Decca version is quite gorgeous and Armstrong’s closing bridge and final eight bars practically define the concepts of beauty and passion in music. After “Sleepy Time,” the band tackled another instrumental, “Leap Frog,” written by saxophonist Joe Garland, who joined Armstrong’s big band in 1939 and quickly supplanted Luis Russell as music director (though Russell stayed on as pianist for a number of years). It’s a harmless slice of the Swing Era, with a catchy riff head and a mostly uninteresting arrangement, with short solo spots for Prince Robinson’s clarinet and Garland’s tenor saxophone. There’s even a little false “fade out” action (remember Garland was credited as the composer of “In the Mood,” though the story of that tune’s genesis is too complicated to discuss here!). Finally, after a break by Garland’s bass saxophone (can’t believe anyone not named Rollini still owned one in 1941!), Armstrong’s trumpet enters with a few clarion calls that bring the record to its close. As I said, it’s a harmless riff tune and the band swings well but because Armstrong’s entire contribution to the record occurs in the final 18 seconds, it’s pretty forgettable. However, the tune must have been a favorite with dancers, as numerous radio broadcasts exist of the band performing it during this period. And also, it gave Pops a chance to rest his chops, which I’m sure he always welcomed.
“I Used To Love You (But It’s All Over Now” was the third tune recorded that day. It was originally written in 1920 by Albert Von Tilzer (the man behind the music to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”) and Lew Brown (part of a popular songwriting team with Buddy De Sylva and Ray Henderson). Over the years, many great artists would tackle the tune, including Bing Crosby, Jimmie Lunceford, Nat King Cole, Pee Wee Russell, Benny Carter, Dinah Washington and Fats Waller, who did the song as a romp. I was actually aware of Fats’s version before I heard Armstrong’s and for some time, I preferred Waller’s uproarious version to Armstrong’s rather somber reading of the tune. But as I’ve matured…I still prefer Waller’s version! BUT, there is something very beautiful about Armstrong’s recording of “I Used to Love You,” and I’m glad the ol’ Itunes shuffle landed on it.
“I Used to Love You” exists in two takes, both available on volume eight of the Ambassador series. Neither is available on Itunes but fortunately, the Red Hot Jazz archive has the originally issued “B” take and if you’d like, you can listen to it
There’s almost no difference between the two takes, except the slightly slower second take clocks in eight seconds longer. A slow chromatic run by Armstrong’s trumpet leads into the first note of the melody as the band enters simultaneously. I began this article by mentioning Armstrong’s “singing” on this track and if you don’t believe me, here are the original lyrics for the first 16 bars Armstrong plays at the start of the record:
I used to love you but it’s all over - all over now.
Now the word’s got around, that you threw me down
But you shouldn't let that kind of a story go around.
He sticks to the words almost freakishly close, but his subtle changes in certain pitches and rhythmic phrasing let the listener know that this is Louis Armstrong’s conception of this melody. Even the relatively simple ascending phrase that leads to the second eight bars bares the Armstrong stamp. It all sounds simple, especially the little repeated notes he plays for rhythmic emphasis but it works wonderfully. He creates a very somber mood—he used to love her and now it’s over and it hurts, so much that maybe he even stutters a bit when he accuses her of all the wrongs she’s done to him. At the halfway point of the first chorus, the band comes in with an arranged section for the next eight bars, the reeds answering the brass with some very pretty phrases. But then comes one of my favorite parts of the record: Armstrong’s given a one-bar break and he fills it with a fat concert Eb, adding a healthy dose of vibrato for dramatic effect (and make no mistake, it is dramatic and the effect is profound!). Here’s the next set of lyrics for the final eight bars Armstrong plays:
For there were things that you did, I used to forgive,
but you'll never change just as long as you live.
I used to love you but it's all over - all over now.
Lester Young once did a song in the fifties called “Slow Motion Blues,” a phrase that could apply to Armstrong’s playing at this point of the track. He plays the phrase “things that you did” with a slow motion feel that leaves me speechless. All he’s really doing is playing the melody but to add so many little creative touches and to still swing at such a slow tempo is quite a feat. As he plays the final line of the first chorus, he takes another one-bar break and fills it with maybe the most famous Armstrong trumpet lick of all time, the one that people hear and immediately say, “That’s Pops!” (It also ended every Louis Prima record after 1956!) All that’s missing is a nice “Oh yeah!” I wonder when he first played this phrase on a record? I have to look into that…
Anyway, at this point, we’re two minutes and five seconds into the record and the band’s only played one chorus! Thus, they cut to the bridge as a gloomy Garland plays the melody with some very nice, almost commercial-sounding fills from Luis Russell behind him (did somebody let Eddie Duchin into the studio?). Armstrong reenters to play the final eight bars, the band shouting with him simultaneously on the word “I” of the title phrase. As the band surges behind him, you can just feel Armstrong building up to the final high Ab and when he hits it, it really rings out.
Still, the Ab is under Armstrong’s usual above high-C climaxes, which makes “I Used to Love You” all the more of an anomaly, especially during the Decca period, where just about every record seemed to end with a slow coda where Armstrong would dramatically build to a final, piercing high note. But Armstrong didn’t need that on “I Used to Love You.” This performance is about a mood and any trumpet grandstanding would have ruined the ambiance of the record.
So why such a downer of a record? As I’ve already mentioned, the song had been popular for over 20 years and I’m sure Armstrong’s big band played it at dances when the dancers needed something slow to cling to. However, one must also be aware of the events in Armstrong’s life at this period. By the time of the November 16, 1942 recording date, Armstrong’s marriage to Alpha Smith was on the rocks. Armstrong knew Alpha was cheating on him with Charlie Barnet’s drummer, Cliff Leeman, and he even wrote Walter Winchell on January 19, 1942 to make the details public. Armstrong wrote to Winchell that Alpha proudly admitted her affair with Leeman, to which Armstrong could only say, “Thank God. If I could only see him and tell him how much I appreciate what he’s done for me by taking that chick away from me.” Clearly, Armstrong used to love her, but it was, indeed, all over now! Thus, staring at the sheet music, with those lines like “There were things that you did, I used to forgive,” I think that put him in a very melancholy, hurt state and it shows in his reflective, somber playing. Definitely an unsung record.
Flash forward now to 1951 and a January 26 concert at the Exhibition Gardens in Vancouver, Canada. Listening to this concert, whose many tracks have been issued on various releases over the years, it’s clear that there was a dancing portion of the evening. On many of the early tracks, the crowd is in a frenzy, paying attention to every joke every note and cheering, laughing and clapping with wild enthusiasm. But then there’s a number of tracks from the same show where the audience can barely be heard and on some of these songs (“Royal Garden Blues,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’”), you can hear Armstrong alerting the other musicians to shorten the performance length of these numbers. Also, he takes “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at a slower than usual tempo, more suitable for dancing. Thus, I think the crowd might have listened for the first set, then spent the rest of the evening on the dance floor. Armstrong always fielded his requests and on this occasion, he fulfilled one for “I Used to Love You,” taking it at the same crawling tempo as the 1941 record. Armstrong still remembered the melody as he plays it much the same as he did ten years earlier. Jack Teagarden and Barney Bigard compliment him perfectly throughout the opening chorus, though bassist Arvell Shaw sounds like he’s playing by ear, hitting some clams along the way (Cozy Cole covers him up at times, with heavy bass drum accents on one and three). Armstrong plays the entire first chorus this time, instilling it with a lot of feeling. Earl Hines solos and you can hear Armstrong tell the other musicians to be ready to come back after Hines plays 16 bars. Also, maybe to familiarize Shaw, Armstrong quietly sings a line, causing Bigard to chuckle a bit. Hines’s solo is actually quite creative. Of course, Hines was one of the most creative pianists in jazz history but his work with the All Stars was often uninspired. That’s not the case on “I Used to Love You,” though it’s more fun to crank up the volume and listen to Pops’s almost inaudible scatting, not too obtrusive, but softly conveying the tune’s harmonies in the background. However, the highlight of the performance lies in Armstrong’s final trumpet offering. Perhaps because his personal life was happier in 1951 than it was in 1941, Armstrong plays with more of his customary flash, digging into a four-note phrase (concert F-G-Ab-C), repeating it five times before sticking with the high C (higher than any note from the Decca record), before repeating the phrase once more for good measure and uncorking a masterful line that leads perfectly in the final eight bars. Armstrong goes out with more melody and finishes with a neat little chromatic run that ends with the very same Ab that ended the original. And that might have been the last time Louis Armstrong played “I Used to Love You (But It’s All Over Now).” Fortunately, this version is available on Itunes, one three different releases (it clocks in at four minutes and 40 seconds).
Thus, if you think Louis Armstrong was nothing but a high-note freak trumpeter (and if you think that, I feel sad for you), try out “I Used to Love You” for some beautifully subdued, passionate playing…and some great “singing,” too, trumpet-ly speaking!