Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween - Old Man Mose

Hello all. At the end of my last post, I promised a Halloween edition of the blog but the last two days completely got away from me so I have nothing prepared and it's already 9 p.m. But since I have the responsibility to leave a "treat" rather than a "trick," here are the Red Hot Jazz Archive links to two takes of "Old Man Mose" to keep you in Halloween spirit. Enjoy!

Here's the rarer take A, with a completly different arangement than the more famous issued take D. Click here.

And finally, here's the originally issued take.

I'll hopefully be back tomorrow to discuss the Armstrong-Zilner Randolph composition in more detail. Until then, have a Happy Halloween...and stay away from Old man Mose's!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded November 4, 1931
Track Time 3:39
Written by Harry Barris, Ted Koehler and Billy Moll
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Preston Jackson, trombone; Lester Boone, alto saxophone; George James, alto saxophone, clarinet; Albert Washington, tenor saxophone; Charlie Alexander, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; John Lindsay, bass; Tubby Hall, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41530
Currently available on CD: The Big Band Recordings, a two-volume set on the JSP label that collects Armstrong’s OKeh big band material from1930 to 1932
Available on Itunes? Yes

I haven’t had the opportunity to write about any of Armstrong’s early-30s big band recordings for OKeh but that all changed two minutes ago when I hit the “shuffle” button on my Itunes and “Wrap Your Trouble In Dreams (And Dream Your Troubles Away)” popped up. It’s one of the many songs that Armstrong helped turn into a jazz standard during this fertile, if somewhat neglected, period in his career. I’ve already made a passionate case for the reexamination of Armstrong’s Victor recordings of 1932 and 1933 but I don’t think I have to do the same about the OKeh big band sessions because some of them have become established, bona fide Louis Armstrong classics: “Lazy River,” “Star Dust,” “Memories of You,” “Sweethearts On Parade,” “When Your Lover Has Gone,” “Chinatown” and many others. However, because critics have targeted the dated arrangements, Guy Lombardo-saxophone moans and sometimes stiff and out-of-tune playing of the band itself, a lot of these records get swept under the rug. Sony/Legacy sure did a nice job with their Hot Fives and Sevens box about seven years ago but they currently don’t have a collection of Armstrong’s later OKeh big band recordings in print, which is a shame.

When Armstrong returned from California in early 1931, he began fronting a band assembled by the trumpeter Zilner Randolph. Like some later editions of the All Stars, this group didn’t have any big names or great talents but many in the group were from New Orleans, they gave their leader their all and later, Armstrong himself referred to them as his “happiest band.” Writing about this band to Robert Goffin, Armstrong remembered, “Now there’s a Band that really ‘deserved a whole lot of ‘Credit that they didn’t get.— They made some of my ‘finest recordings with me.” Armstrong goes on to list many of the OKeh records, including some of the lesser known ones, such as “Kickin the Gong Around” and today’s subject, “Wrap Your Trouble In Dreams.” He even takes pride in mentioning novelties such as “The Lonesome Road” and “Laughing Louie,” though that one was made for Victor, not OKeh.

But again, like the All Stars, though Armstrong loved the musicians in the band and though he fondly remembered the records, that wasn’t enough for the critics, who obviously know more about what’s good and what’s bad than the artists in question. Take our pal Gunther Schuller (BOOOOOOOOOOOOOO). In The Swing Era, Schuller does have some nice things to say about this period, such as when he writes about Armstrong’s January and March 1932 OKeh dates, “His playing on these particular recordings is beyond anything he had previously achieved.” But for the most part, Schuller can’t get past the band and their faults. Mike McKendrick is remembered for his “wildly out-of-tune playing,” Tubby Hall is referred to as a “thumpy-footed drummer” and the whole band is written off as “mediocre.” Even when he’s about to compliment a side, Schuller takes a swipe at the band, writing, “Yet, in the midst of this desert of divagation and mediocrity (the band’s), there would occasionally blossom a flower of superior beauty.”

Eventually, Schuller turns his attention to Armstrong himself, writing that, during this period, “Louis begins to weaken. His solos occasionally bog down; there are intonational slips, heretofore unknown with him; muffed notes; rehashings of earlier success (such as the West End Blues cadenza on Blue Again—but muffed at the end). There is also, very imperceptibly, less and less of Louis’s trumpet, and more and more of Louis’s vaudeville hokum and jive talk. And, above all, more and more of the grandstanding finales.” Though published in 1987, that paragraph serves as a perfect summation of the kinds of boneheaded criticism Armstrong had to wade through during the last 40 years of his life. Sure, Pops occasionally fluffed a note or two but to say he weakened in 1931 is absurd. I’ve written before about Armstrong maybe losing a mile or two off of his fastball in terms of rhythmic velocity, but in every other way, I don’t hear any signs of Armstrong weakening until at least 1966 and even then, he still contributed some beautiful moments in the ensuing years. And though this wasn’t a “great” big band in the sense of a Basie or Ellington group, who cares? Who is listening to Louis Armstrong records to hear saxophone solos? I know when the OKeh bands sounds like crap but does it stop me from enjoying Armstrong’s offerings? Never. Armstrong loved the musicians in this band (just try to listen to “Lonesome Road” and not smile) and they gave him the support and stress-free life he needed for over a year. Combine that with Armstrong in his prime and some of the best standards ever written and you have a recipe for some truly wonderful music.

Okay, soliloquy over, let’s move on to “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams.” The song’s lyrics were written by former “Rhythm Boy” Harry Barris, thus it made perfect sense that the song was introduced and made popular by that other former “Rhythm Boy,” Bing Crosby. Crosby was recording hit after hit during this period in his career and “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams” was a perfect anthem for a country already mired in a depression. Crosby and Armstrong already had a mutual appreciation society by this point (Armstrong had already recorded another Crosby hit, “I Surrender Dear,” in April 1931) so once Crosby’s version, recorded on March 2, 1931, became a hit, it made perfect sense to have Armstrong record a version of his own in November of that year. For the rest of his life, Armstrong would continually laud Crosby as one of his favorite musicians, telling Time in 1955, “Bing’s voice has a mellow quality that only Bing’s got. It’s like gold being poured out of a cup.” Armstrong’s voice might have sounded like crushed ice being poured out of a running blender, but in terms of phrasing and heart, the two men shared a bond.

Before Pops got around to putting his stamp on it, Bing sang it in a Mack Sennett short, One More Chance. Thanks to YouTube, we can enjoy Bing’s singing during this performance (bizarrely sang to a bunch of smitten Native Americans!)

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At the time of that film, Bing clearly had no idea how Armstrong would approach but you can hear some of Pops in Bing’s phrasing, namely in the way he goes up on the titular phrase 43 seconds in and sings it all on one pitch, which is very Pops. And in the bridge of his second chorus (the second eight bars of which are cut out), Bing takes more liberties with the melody, including that long pause between phrases, falling behind the beat, then rushing to catch up with it, a la Armstrong. But enough Bing, as great as he was. Let’s focus on Armstrong’s recording, which fortunately survives in two takes. The first take was a hair slower and resulted in a running time just shy of 3:40, which was really stretching the limit of a 78 (in fact, the Columbia 78 of this piece edits out the final coda). Care to listen along? Click here.

Armstrong takes the melody at the onset of the record, playing with a straight mute, the only kind he used. I like the loose swing of the rhythm section of Charlie Alexander, Mike McKendrick, John Lindsay and Tubby Hall. Lindsay’s bass is especially propulsive. Armstrong’s backed by the moaning reeds he loved so much, with George James’s clarinet added to the mix. It’s not the prettiest sound in the world but it’s melancholy feel lends a subdued, nostalgic atmosphere to Armstrong’s reading of the melody. And besides, listen to the backing on Crosby’s film version: a muted trumpet plays the melody and obbligato over some mewing reeds. So don’t blame Armstrong for keeping with the times. Jazz be damned; this was how popular music sounded in 1931 and Armstrong played good music. He loved the sound of those reeds and the sound was “in” so why wouldn’t he exploit it? He floats over those reeds with that time feel that was so special to his playing, answering his own phrase at 27 seconds in, leaving pauses, playing short double time bursts, getting downright legato on the bridge and finally building up to that final, pretty gliss, setting up the reeds to take the last eight bars of melody. I know, I know, it’s out-of-tune in spots but hey, if I wanted to hear amazing reed passages, I’d start a Benny Carter blog (not a bad idea!).

Pops slides into his vocal with a prolonged “Ohhhh,” but when he begins, he gets backing from a different type of moaning: the voices of the band members give him a glee club backdrop, an effect Pops already utilized on earlier recordings of “Basin Street Blues” and “Squeeze Me.” As it turns out, the other members of the band had intonation problems with their voices, as well as their instruments, but it’s all in good fun and I can picture Pops and the cats in the band smiling as they went about their business.

Pops’s vocal, while very sober and Crosby-esque at times (dig the “bay-bay-bay,” after the first eight bars, an Satchmofication of Crosby’s “boo-boo-boo”), is a tour de force of melodic rephrasing. The song’s melody is already heavy on repeating notes, a frequent motif of many Armstrong vocals, so it’s interesting to find Armstrong repeating notes different from the written ones. The song’s in the key of C and, as written, the melody begins with two repeated E’s. That’s not good enough for Pops, who begins his vocal with a pause followed by seven G’s, followed by a quick little turn of a A-B-A phrase, exactly as he played it on his trumpet during the melody chorus. He then sings the melody straight for a bit (or at least as straight as he could sing it) before another overhaul, going down for the “dream your troubles away” line, instead of keeping it high as it’s written. The second eight bars are filled with more one-note motives, one of them featuring another quick triplet lick, C-D-C, though he hums the C down to a low E, much as he might on his Selmer. On the bridge, the choir shifts from a steady hum to an incessant emphasis one the first and third beats of every measure, a familiar pattern in most Randolph arrangements, including “Star Dust,” the other song recorded that November day. Again, as he often did with his trumpet, Armstrong plays against the tension of the one-and-three and comes up with a bridge that’s probably a ninth cousin of the written one. As he approaches the final A section, he finally gives the melody a chance, beginning on the written low E, instead of the string of G’s, but he punctuates the line with a typical “babe” for good measure.

After the vocal, George James returns to his usual instrument, the alto sax, and plays a melodramatic four-bar transition that allows Pops to gather his chops. What follows is relaxation personified. He opens with four quarter-note C’s, each one swung beautifully before he trails off softly. Five beats pass before the next phrase, nothing majestic, but perfectly placed, complete with its own trumpet obbligato. He continues swinging on the beat, obviously digging the tempo and the wistful nature of the song. He doesn’t try to change the world on this one, instead focusing on his skills as a storyteller. As he hits his second eight, the story begins to grow more intense, Armstrong building to a high A, the highest note of the record up to this point. He then spins the most delicate phrases imaginable, gently tumbling down from the A to a low G before leaving more space. He continues with this beautiful, almost rhythmically abstract playing until he grows more forceful at the bridge. The reeds give him the one-and-three treatment, much as the voices did and Pops responds with some signifying, including some nice double-timing, an almost violent descending phrase at the halfway point, another aggressive run followed immediately by a gentle gliss from an E to a lower C#. He goes up for another high G, holding it for drama before he settles back into his wistful mood for the last eight bars. Tears literally are forming in my eyes as I try to comprehend the genius of a solo I’ve literally heard a hundred times. The word “conversational” keeps coming to mind and I think it fits perfectly. I love all forms of jazz but I’m a firm believer that there’s nothing quite as “modern” as Armstrong’s rhythmic concept in the late-20s and early-30s. I seriously cannot comprehend it but am quite thankful I get to experience it.

Towards the end of the last A section, Armstrong plays his calling card, a C-A-C-A-E-E-C phrase. The band slows it down and Armstrong plays a short coda consisting of the same exact phrase, played slower and ending on a G, the fifth, instead of a C. For the entire 64 bars of playing, Armstrong never plays a note higher than that A in the second eight bars. This is strange during a period when most Armstrong solos frequently climbed to high C and beyond. It’s not like his chops were down—listen to the wondrous “Star Dust” that followed. It’s just beautiful, conversational playing, the kind of solo to play for those who think Pops was all high notes and grandstanding (Schuller doesn’t even mention this solo—he probably couldn’t listen past the vocal choir behind Pops’s vocal!).

A second take exists of “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams,” though it has never been issued on an American C.D. I don’t even know when it was discovered but it must have been within the last ten years since older Columbia collections of this material, such as the old Portrait Stardust disc, included other alternate takes, but not this one. If you’d like to own it, however, it is on Itunes. Type “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams” in the search bar and when you look at the available Armstrong versions you’ll see one on a set titled The Best of Louis Armstrong, clocking in at a running time of 3:18. It’s from a three-disc box I originally ordered a year ago directly from Germany because it is the only C.D. issue of Pops’s Mercury and Brunswick material from the 30s—and bizarrely, the alternate of “Wrap Your Troubles”! If you don’t want to own it, however, I have some good news: the good people at the Red Hot Jazz Archive have it on their site! If you’ve never heard it before, please click here.

As already mentioned, the 3:39 running time was pushing it so I’m guessing the band took another crack at it at a brisker clip to insure that it would meet the qualifying running time, which it does at 3:18. The song follows the same pattern as the issued take, so there’s not much use for detailed analysis. Pops is still relaxed but his opening melody statement, though similar, isn’t as effective as the one on the issued take. The vocal is similar, but the “bay-bay-bay” is out. On this take, Armstrong has fun with the beat, slowing down phrases dramatically (the first “dream your troubles away” unfurls in slow motion), then quickly shooting out the next line at a much quicker rate, much like Crosby did in the Sennett short. Pops seems to have trouble for a second catching up to the faster tempo during the bridge, but he pauses and solves his problem with a slurred phrase that reminds me of a Louie Prima vocal line. The trumpet solo follows the pattern of the issued take (who knows if the band was already performing this live) as Pops opens with another string of quarter-note C’s, though, because of the added lilt to the tempo, he now comes across as a little more aggressive. His second phrase is played almost completely in a shuffle rhythm, two eighth-notes at a time. He relaxes a bit after that before hitting that high A, this time at the start of the second eight bars. There’s a different, but still aggressive, bridge, though he gets a little tongue-tied at the very end. Overall, it’s a fine solo but the extra few beats of tempo cause that sublime relaxed quality of the issued take to go out the window. Pops must have realized he was pushing a little too much thus, even with a solid running time, the longer take was selected for release.

That’ll conclude this trip back to “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams,” one of the string of memorable big band recordings Armstrong cut for OKeh in the early 30s. But as great as it is, it’s no “Star Dust,” which, as already mentioned, was recorded the same day. That is my number one favorite Armstrong record of all-time (there’s a topic for a future blog), wheezing saxophones and all. Gunther Schuller might be a brilliant man but don’t let his condemnation of post-1929 Armstrong records scare you away. Some of Armstrong’s finest music was recorded in front of creaky big bands and “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams” is no exception. As for me, I hope to be back tomorrow or Wednesday with a look at some “Halloween” themed songs in the Armstrong discography: “Old Man Mose,” “The Skeleton in the Closet” and “Spooks.” Til then!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Big Butter and Egg Man

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Recorded November 16, 1926
Track Time 3:01
Written by Percy Venable
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Hardin, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo;
Originally released on OKeh 8423
Currently available on CD: It’s on any of the various complete Hot Five box sets, as well as a number of compilations
Available on Itunes? Yes

Today’s entry is on “Big Butter and Egg Man,” a number that Louis Armstrong approached in a few different ways over the decades, but each time managed to create something memorable. But first: what exactly is a “butter and egg man”? Ah, thank God for the Internet, which makes such quests for useless knowledge as easy as typing in the word “Google.” Apparently, people began using the term “butter and egg man” in the late 1890s, but back then, it was used quite literally to describe someone who (wait for it) sold butter and eggs. However, nightclub performer Texas Guinan is usually credited with popularizing the phrase by giving it a slightly different meaning. To quote the Oxford English Dictionary, the slang term “butter and egg man” refers to “a wealthy, unsophisticated man who spends money freely.” Nothing about farm products in that definition!

After Guinan coined it in 1924, it became the title of a George S. Kaufman Broadway play in 1925. Thus, it was ripe material for song lyrics, which Percy Venable produced in 1926. Venable, the uncle of Lucky Millander, was the choreographer at the Sunset Café in Chicago, where Louis and Lil performed (he later became choreographer for Chicago’s Grand Terrace Ballroom). As a songwriter, Venable wrote four songs that Armstrong performed with the Hot Five: “Sunset Café Stomp,” “Irish Black Bottom,” “You Made Me Love You,” and of course, “Big Butter and Egg Man From The West,” which is how the title appeared on the original OKeh 78.

(Note: the great majority of books, web sites and even C.D. notes credit “Butter and Egg Man” to Venable and Armstrong. However, Jos Willems’s All of Me credits only Venable and since Gosta Hagglof helped with crediting the songwriters, I can’t dispute that team!)

Armstrong recorded “Butter and Egg Man” the same day he recorded Venable’s “Sunset Café Stomp.” Both tunes feature vocals by May Alix (Armstrong spelled her name “Mae,” as we’ll see in a minute). The Hot Five recording of “Butter and Egg Man” has been enjoyed by listeners for over 80 years but many fans of the record probably have no idea who Alix was or why she even appears on the record. I could stiffly answer this but I’d rather let Pops do it himself. Here he is writing in his unpublished memoir, “The Armstrong Story,” written in 1954 (and now available in Louis Armstrong In His Own Words). This story takes place when Armstrong and Lil were still part of King Oliver’s band, playing at the Lincoln Gardens and getting to know each other better every night:

“One night we were alone talking over different things and trying to think of some place to go. I told Lil there was something I wanted to ask her to do. Take me to see Ollie Powers, a tenor, swing singer, and Mae Alix. Ollie was a light [skinned] heavy built fellow. He had just come off the Road with Shelton Brooks, a comedian who reminded you of Burt Wiliams. Ollie was working at the Dreamland with Mae Alix. They were both young at that time, especially that Mae Alix—some vivacious. In all they were great in their field.”

After praising Powers for a paragraph, Armstrong goes into further detail on Alix, writing, “Mae Alix was an attractive, high yellow gal. She had a good voice herself, but she made most of her money in tips. All the big time Pimps, hustlers, and good time Charlies would visit the Dreamland. They would line up a big line of dollars across the floor and Mae would take a long running split and pick up all of those dollars. Sometimes she would have a whole basket of dollars. Those cats would keep her splitting. The dollars would come in so fast sometimes Mae would over look some of the money and the musicians would call her attention nwith the horn and show her all the money she had missed. I was on the edge to meet Ollie and Mae. So one night we got off early and Lil suggested we go over so I could meet them in person. This was a thrill.”

As Armstrong tells the story, when he and Lil met Powers and Alix, Armstrong gave power a dollar to sing a song and gave another dollar to Alix to do a split. “Gee, I thought I was somebody, sporting the up. Two dollars, boy, was I something.” Feeling like a big shot, Armstrong rushed back to tell Joe Oliver what he did. “When I told Joe Oliver, he looked at me and said ump, ump. As if he wanted to say, ‘Why you country so and so.’” Hmmm, what was that definition again of “butter and egg man”? “A wealthy, unsophisticated man who spends money freely.” Sounds like Pops might have had himself in mind when he recorded “Butter and Egg Man”!

Anyway, a few years passed and by November 1926, Armstrong was great friends with Alix and Powers. Thus, it was no surprise to see Alix on the Hot Five 78 coupling of “Big Butter and Egg Man From The West” and “Sunset Café Stomp.” As always, the Red Hot Jazz Archive makes life easier by providing a link to “Big Butter and Egg Man” on their website. Thus, if you’d like to listen along as I give it the blow-by-blow, click here.

Armstrong and the Hot Five start off “Butter and Egg Man” in joyous New Orleans fashion, jamming in ensemble fashion for a full 32-bar chorus. It’s textbook New Orleans: Ory tailgates, Dodds bubbles over the top and Pops sticks the melody as Lil and St. Cyr chug along merrily. Alix then sings a chorus, belting it out with a purely vaudeville, pre-microphone style (and hey, crank up that hi-fi and dig St. Cyr’s tasty banjo playing while you’re at it):

I want a Butter and Egg Man
From way out in the west,
Cause I’m getting tired of working all day,
I want somebody who wants me to play.
Pretty clothes have never been mine,
But if my dream comes true, the sun’s going to shine.
Cause I want, a Butter and Egg Man
Won’t some great Big Butter and Egg Man want me?

Alix’s vocal is harmless enough but can’t compare to Armstrong’s vocal offering, which follows immediately, announced by a down-home, “Here, here!”

Now mama, I’m your Big Butter and Egg Man,
But I’m different, honey, I’m from way down in the south.
Now listen baby—I’ll buy you all the pretty things that you think I need,
As long as I can keep this cornet up to my mouth.
Oh, I’ll play you a little a little minor in G,
And if you say it’s necessary baby, why I’ll even hit high C (ha ha ha ha)
Cause I’m your Big Butter and Egg Man—come here baby and kiss me,
Big Butter and Egg Man from way down south.

Armstrong’s vocal is a gas but it’s not the genius who later completely transformed casual pop tunes and film songs into standards of the Great American Songbook. It’s a vocal of a very vaudevillian nature and, as I’m not the first to point out, shows a great Al Jolson influence. It’s more proof that Armstrong had big ears. The Jazz Singer was still a year away and there’s no evidence that Armstrong ever saw Jolson perform live (though he very well might have in New York during his stay with the Fletcher Henderson band). Anyway, that “Come here baby and kiss me” is pure Jolson, as are the little laughs and spoken phrases. A fun vocal.

However, the trumpet solo that follows is pure Armstrong. Here we see jazz being transformed from an ensemble-oriented music into a soloist’s art: 32 bars of improvisation backed only by a piano and a banjo. Now, this is one of the seminal Armstrong solos of the 1920s and it has been analyzed for decades. Martin Williams selected it for the Smithsonian History of Classic Jazz and in his short write-up of it, he quotes Andre Hodeir (“It is impossible to imagine anything more sober and balanced”) and Gunther Schuller (“No composer, not even a Mozart or a Schubert, composed anything more natural and simply inspired”). So really, what more can I say about it? This is why I feel that writing about the classic Hot Five and Seven recordings in the 21st century is almost a futile project. Really, what else can be said about these wonderful, world-changing records? If I ever have to write about “West End Blues,” I’ll probably spend more time on the 1950s versions than the groundbreaking original!

But of course, I can’t completely shut up. Has there ever been a more perfect opening to a solo to the simple three-note motive Armstrong works over three times at the start of his “Butter and Egg Man” outing? So simple, so relaxed, so perfect. The repeated concert D’s at the start of the bridge are thrilling, starting out speedy and gradually puttering to a triplet pattern, sounding like a car about to run out of gas. And the darting in-and-out phrase that connects the end of the bridge to the last eight bars always catches me by surprise, a daring maneuver that sticks out in an otherwise superbly seamless solo. Alix then comes barreling back in for eight bars, making sure those in the back of the theater can hear her voice (did anyone tell her this was for a record?), and the ensemble takes it out for eight joyous bars. An infectious record from start to finish.

Flash forward 21 years. Though “Butter and Egg Man” was probably a regular staple of Armstrong’s Chicago performances of the mid-20s, it does not seem to have lasted into his big band leading days. There are no broadcasts of it, nor are there any mentions of his playing it live in the years that followed. But on May 17, 1947, Louis Armstrong found himself onstage at Town Hall, playing with a small group instead of a big band and focusing on “the golden OKeh days,” in the words of the evening’s emcee, Fred Robbins. Armstrong opened the evening back just by a rhythm section consisting of Dick Cary on piano, Bob Haggart, bass and Big Sid Catlett on drums. After burning through “Cornet Chop Suey” and “Our Monday Date” at the top of his game, Pops turned in a reflective “Dear Old Southland” before setting his sights on “Big Butter and Egg Man.” However, this performance produced an unintentional bit of comic relief as a possibly still nervous Armstrong waited for Cary’s introduction, picked up his trumpet and…forgot what song he was about to play! He played the first note of “Butter and Egg Man” but quickly turned it into the melody of “Our Monday Date,” which he had already played. Thankfully, Armstrong was surrounded by quick-witted musicians, who, after a beat of confusion, started comping the changes to “Monday Date,” even though Armstrong was now playing it in Ab (the first version was in Bb). Armstrong takes “Monday Date” all the way into the bridge when he finally realizes his mistake. He calls out “Butter and Egg Man” to the other musicians, who keep right on playing in the correct key. Armstrong runs up to the mike and says, “We’re going to swing into ‘Butter and Egg Man,’ folks,” getting a big laugh from the audience. Catlett sets him up and finally after almost a full minute, Armstrong launches into the correct “Butter and Egg Man.” In his insipid Armstrong biography, James Lincoln Collier tried pinning the confusion on pianist Cary playing the “wrong introduction” but that’s nonsense. Cary’s in the right key, Ab, but Armstrong had a simple brain fart and started playing the wrong song. Even geniuses can make mistakes!

However, Armstrong wasn’t through making mistakes on this version of “Butter and Egg Man,” though again, his second mistake results in more laughter. Since he hadn’t probably sang the song since the Sunset Café days, it’s clear that Armstrong didn’t remember the lyrics of the bridge. Like a trooper, Armstrong sings on, making up the words as he goes along:

Pretty clothes, hmmm, the pleasure is mine
Get some work, we’ll both have a time!

Armstrong cracks himself up with his quick thinking but he finishes the vocal and turns it over the Dick Cary, for a swinging solo. Ah, Dick Cary…I know it sounds sacrilegious, but I prefer Cary with the All Stars than Earl Hines. I prefer Hines as a pianist, but Hines didn’t fit the band as well, though he was an “All Star” name. Pops always played better with team players and that’s just what Cary was. He was a sensitive accompanist and a swinging soloist and I cherish all of Cary’s work from his very short stint in the band. Even when Hines joined, Pops played an engagement with Hines and Cary playing two pianos, but Armstrong’s road manager, Pierre Tallerie, known as “Frenchy” but better known as “that asshole Frenchy,” convinced Joe Glaser that Cary was a drug addict, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Cary was let go and Armstrong was forced to deal with Earl Hines headaches for the next four years. It’s another reason why the All Stars were always better with team players. I’m a Yankees fan (which will surely infuriate some of my Massachusetts friends!) and I daydream every day about the glorious, star-free teams of 1996 and 1998. For the last few years, we’ve had every star known to man, and we have nothing to show for it. Am I saying that Earl Hines is A-Rod? Hmmmmm……

After Cary’s full chorus (with great Catlett accents), Pops picks up his horn for two choruses that just knock me out. Okay, sacrilegious time, part two. I love, love, love, love the 1926 original “Butter and Egg Man” and that solo was one of Armstrong’s finest of the period. I’ll never disagree with the likes of Schuller and Hodier on that matter because it’s such a great solo. But—and stone me if I’m wrong—I prefer Armstrong’s Town Hall solo. I realize it’s not as “important” to Armstrong’s career as the original, which was positively revolutionary in 1926. Armstrong’s Town Hall concert came at the same time the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Fats Navarro were changing the way the trumpet was played forever so it’s not a historically important solo. And it wasn’t even released until 1983, so it’s not a track that historians and critics have been able to analyze for 50 years. I’m just saying I prefer it to the original. He opens with the same classic three-note motive, a nod back to his original solo. But once he gets past it, he creates something totally new and fresh. If you have a copy of the Town Hall Concert nearby, pop it in and just listen to the five seconds of trumpet playing from 2:55 to 3:04. It’s not a funny quote or a searing high note. It’s just some of the most rhythmically advanced playing I’ve ever heard. It begins as a simple Armstrong-esque phrase, but then there’s a quick smear downward and another “normal” phrase, followed by a quick tumble into the lowest region of his horn. He follows it with another slippery phrase with some interesting harmonic choices thrown in for good measure. It’s only eight bars and it’s not “West End Blues” but I think it’s some wonderfully creative playing. The bridge is very relaxed, as is the final eight bars, which feature a conspicuous lack of high notes…until wammo! A high Ab leads into a fierce final chorus as Armstrong sticks to the upper register, eating up the chord changes and swinging like a man possessed. He hits some high C’s in the bridge but everything builds to the climactic final eight bars. With Big Sid laying down his favorite backbeat, Armstrong takes the melody an octave higher, beginning on a high C, with a climb to a freakish high Eb, which smoothly glisses back down to a C before a quick, improvised ending. Again, I mean no disrespect to the 1926 version, but man, this is a smoking solo!

Armstrong next encountered “Big Butter and Egg Man” at a Decca recording date on February 6, 1951. The date was arranged by Gordon Jenkins, then one of the most popular arrangers in the country, having arranged four of the top six records in the country in July 1950. Jenkins, a life-long admirer of Armstrong, already gave Armstrong’s recording career a jumpstart by placing Pop’s sandpaper vocal chords over a heavenly sound of strings and voices. The combination produced “Blueberry Hill” and “That Lucky Old Sun” in 1949, Armstrong’s most popular record in years. Though he was a huge name at the time, Jenkins was in awe of Armstrong during that session. “I cracked up,” he remembered. “I walked into the studio, looked over there, saw Louis and broke down. Cried so hard I couldn’t even see him. Later that night I came home, and I was so excited I couldn’t eat my dinner. Then I started crying again. I took it pretty big.” Jenkins managed to arrange a number of Armstrong Decca sessions until 1954 and I enjoy all of their work together. Jenkins always presented lovely backdrops for Armstrong’s vocals, always peppering tem with patented Armstrong phrases. “All the stuff with the strings, I tried to take all of his old licks that he used—and which everybody has used since—and write ‘em for strings,” Jenkins said. “Paraphrase ‘em a little bit for his personal benefit. It broke him up. Broke a lot of people up.”

The February 1951 Jenkins date is an anomaly because it features absolutely zero strings. Instead, Jenkins arranges for a small big band, with friends of his such as Chris Griffin, trumpet, Charles LaVere, piano and Nick Fatool, drums. On the lovely “If,” one of my favorite Armstrong Decca records, Jenkins really indulges in some Pops licks in his arrangement. At the end of the three-tune session, Armstrong remade “Butter and Egg Man.” Jenkins didn’t have much to do on this one, writing a four-bar introduction and staying out of the way as Pops and Velma Middleton sing three choruses. Jenkins slows down the tempo from a jaunty jam to an almost Basie-ish medium groove (Allan Reuss’s guitar pumping along like Freddie Green).

Middleton was a natural fit for this song, namely since it had been introduced by a female in Alix. This brings up one of my pet theories: critics were very unkind to Velma in her nearly 20 years with Pops. They made fat jokes, criticized her singing, held their noses at her and Louie’s comedy routines and nearly threw up when she did her splits. Even Laurence Bergreen’s Armstrong biography from 1997 piled on, writing that it was Middleton who “pulled Louis into endless vaudeville routines.” Of course, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Armstrong loved Velma like he loved a family member. Besides, look at the entertainment Armstrong loved in the 1920s: he sang comic duets with Lil, he accompanied Butterbeans and Susie on another date and of course, invited Mae Alix to accompany him on “Butter and Egg Man.” Yes, the same Mae Alix who did splits! Armstrong clearly had a great love for female performers in every capacity: females who sang blues, females who sang ribald songs, females who engaged in vaudeville patter with men and females who embraced showmanship such as doing splits. And in Velma, Pops had all of that wrapped into one big, beautiful human being.

So Velma opens the 1951 remake by singing (not shouting a la Alix) the lyrics, with Pops playing a nice trumpet obbligato behind her. It’s a smooth outing but the fun stuff is still ahead. Much like the original from 25 years earlier, Pops take second chorus, opening with “Look here,” instead of “Here, here” and once again, he sells himself in a semi-spoken word style. Velma answers him (what chemistry these two had) and Gordon Jenkins, who always liked to write special lyrics, probably suggested some of the new lines Pops sings. He promises her all the jewelry that’s “Wool-worth” the money, a play on “well worth” and adds some hip slang such as this example:

Now I’ll buy you, a real sharp vine
Providing what you told me the other day, just don’t change your mind.

Pops and Velma laugh together, leading to a final chorus, where Velma sings straight while Pops scats around her, bringing to mind yet another female singer Pops accompanied in the 20s, Lillie Delk Christian, whom Pops steamrolled with some scintillating scat singing on “Too Busy.” What Armstrong does to the word “pretty” is something to marvel at. To close the record (which is available on Satchmo in Style), Jenkins borrows the ending the All Stars used on Velma’s feature on “I Cried for You.” Velma sang more standards in the early days of the All Stars than she later would but even after “I Cried for You” disappeared, it’s ending lived on in future versions of “Butter and Egg Man.” There are numerous live ones to discuss but I won’t give the detailed analysis of each one since the routine rarely changed. Gösta Hägglöf’s Ambassador label has a wonderful release, When You and I Were Young Maggie, that collects some rare performances from the early days of the All Stars, including a “Butter and Egg Man” from Chicago on July 5, 1951. The All Stars adapted Jenkins’s arrangement, speeding it up a hair and including a full chorus by the ensemble at the start, with Pops taking the lead. The routine then follows Jenkins’s as Velma takes the first chorus, Pops takes the second and the two duet in third chorus. Pops now has a new line in the second eight bars. In the 1926 original, he promises to buy all the pretty things as long as he can keep the cornet up to his mouth. On the Jenkins version, he promises her jewelry, “if you’ll just put your arms around me and sort of call me honey.” By the July broadcast, he promises her all the things that she “thinks” she’ll ever needs, “as long as I can keep this great big cigar in my mouth.” After their third chorus duet, Pops shouts, “Take it, Velma” (on the record, it’s “Take it, Gordon Jenkins!”) before Jack Teagarden takes a 16-bar trombone solo. Pops takes the bridge and Velma comes in for a reprise of the last eight bars, the horns playing the “I Cried for You” ending.

There aren’t many broadcasts of “Big Butter and Egg Man” from the succeeding few years but there’s at least four from the period between September 1954 and January 1955. Again, they’re all very similar so it’s not worth heavy analysis but there’s some new stuff. The “Wool-worth” line from the Jenkins record is back and included in every version. Instead of just being a “big fat cigar,” Pops now sings about a nickel “John Ruskin” model. And instead of being a “great big butter and egg man from the south,” Pops now proudly announces that he’s from “Galilee,” as he often referred to the south (and not the south of Israel). And after shouting “Take it, Velma,” the trombone doesn’t take it anymore. Instead, Pops plays lead for 24 bars, usually the highlight of the performance (he’s in scorchingly good form on a New Year’s Eve broadcast from the Down Beat club in San Francisco, available on the Storyville disc Louis Armstrong and His All Stars, available on Itunes), before Velma takes the final eight and they go out. There are some funny little asides that demonstrate the joy Louis and Velma had performing together. On a second broadcast version from the Basin Street nightclub, Pops picks up the horn during the last chorus, causing Velma to exclaim, “Come on home, fat boy!” And during swinging version from the Crescendo Club (available on The California Concerts), Pops eschews the “Galilee” reference, sings that he’s from the “south,” then verbally tells Velma, “Let it come out of your mouth.” I listened to all four versions in a row while preparing this entry and can attest that none of them are exactly the same, in terms of Armstrong and Middleton’s patter and even the closing trumpet lead. Also, after listening to these four versions in a row, I can also attest that I don’t want to hear them again until at least the end of the weekend!

But Pops wasn’t done yet, which means I’m not either. As the All Stars hit their popularity peak around 1956, 1957, Armstrong began playing more and more concerts and festivals, which usually only allowed Velma to sing three or four numbers a night. Thus, many of Velma’s early specialties, including “Butter and Egg Man,” disappeared, though they likely reappeared during longer nightclub engagements or dances. But in 1959, Armstrong recorded the Satchmo Plays King Oliver album with the All Stars for the Audio Fidelity label. I’ve written a little bit about this album’s stupid title before since only a handful of the album’s tracks have anything to do with Oliver. Nevertheless, all the material is fresh and Pops is at the top of his game. “Butter and Egg Man” survives in two takes of varying lengths. The originally issued take is 3:41 while a meatier alternate clocks in at 5:21. Both are great and it’s a pleasure to hear Pops tackle the song by himself and without the customary female assistance (Town Hall doesn’t count since he forgot the words!). Both takes open with a great Billy Kyle introduction before Pops leads the ensemble (with Trummy Young and Peanuts Hucko) for a full chorus, much like the live versions. After the first chorus, however, it breaks into a mini-jam session. Kyle takes eight bars, bassist Mort Herbert takes eight, followed by eight more from Trummy and a final eight by Peanuts, opening with a “My Sweetie Went Away” quote. Pops scats a break and sings the title phrase before Danny Barcelona takes a four-bar drum break. Pops never does sing a full chorus but the trading with the drums is exciting, especially how Pops usually sets up the drum fills with an exuberant scat lick. Hucko and Young riff nicely behind the vocal and after one more drum break Pops, leads the rideout with some brilliant playing. It’s been 12 years since Town Hall and he’s not quite as daring, but his tone is full and his upper register is in beautiful shape, with some strong high notes in the final eight bars (and a “Dixie” quote leading into the final drum solo in the bridge). And even though Velma’s not in the studio, the band plays the “I Cried For You” ending anyway, sounding tight.

It’s a fine version but kind of rushed, which is why the 5:21 alternate is my preferred one. It follows the same pattern as the issued but after the opening ensemble chorus, everyone stretches out a bit more, 16 bars each from Kyle and Herbert before the vocal. And this time, Pops sings the full chorus and it’s a delight. Hucko, not content to wait for his own solo, plays the “My Sweetie Went Away” quote behind Pops’s vocal. After Armstrong’s emphatic ending, Trummy takes a break and launches into a swinging 16-bar solo that highlights the Barcelona-Herbert rhythm team, which swung infectiously at tempos such as this. I don’t care what mood I’m in, it’s one of those things that as soon as I hear Trummy shouting over Herbert’s walking lines and Barcelona’s backbeat clicks on the snare rim, I’m immediately smiling and nodding my head. Peanuts also takes 16, repeating some of the motives he worked out on the issued take. And with everyone relaxed and swinging, Pops trades his fours with Barcelona, but instead of singing his lines, he scats every time, playing with the word “pretty” again and shouting out a triumphant “butter and egg man!” Barcelona excitedly builds up to a roar and Pops shows the way out with some more great lead playing.

“Butter and Egg Man” stayed in the repertoire until Velma’s death in February 1961 and then it was gone for good. But while it lasted it provided plenty of great moments in plenty of different settings: trailblazing Hot Five record, smoking live remake with just a rhythm section, an arrangement by Gordon Jenkins, live fun with Velma and finally, a jam session showcase for the All Stars. Anyway, you like it “Big Butter and Egg Man” is pretty entertaining, but then again, so is just about anything Louis Armstrong ever performed! And now, after five entries in five days, I think I need to take a few off. Have a great weekend and I’ll try to be back on Monday with more ruminations on all things Pops!

Five Pennies Saints

I failed in my efforts to have a new blog entry for every day of this week, as I got too carried away in an entry for “Big Butter and Egg Man.” I should have that one wrapped up later tonight but in the meantime, I decided to give the Itunes shuffle a quick spin to see if something would come up that wouldn’t require a dissertation and lo and behold, it chose the “Five Pennies Saints.” This was a comedic version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” performed by Armstrong and Danny Kaye in the movie The Five Pennies. The movie, which was loosely (and I mean loosely) based on trumpeter Red Nichols’s life is a harmless bit of sentimental fluff, with some melodrama and music numbers thrown in for good measure, but all of Armstrong’s scenes are worth watching, even though the filmmakers had to do their part to pigeonhole Armstrong’s music into the Dixieland category, something he never did in interviews. As Kaye heads up to the bandstand in an earlier scene and asks for an arrangement, Armstrong replies, “Arrangement? Man, nobody writes down Dixieland. You just let it happen.” When Kaye pulls out an arrangement of his own, Armstrong looks at it with a confused look on his face, even holding it upside down at one point, making it look as if he was completely ignorant when it came to reading music. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth as Armstrong had been reading music since his days with Fate Marable’s riverboat band when he was still a teenager. Just a year before filming The Five Pennies, Armstrong recorded the Autobiography sessions for Decca which required him to read transcriptions of solos he had played 25-35 years earlier. When confronted with the transcriptions, Armstrong said, “Is that what I played? I don’t want people to think I can’t read.”

Nevertheless, Kaye and Armstrong’s version of the “Saints” fits both men like a glove. They actually had rehearsed it and performed it on a USO Christmas TV show before filming even started (I have never seen this USO show, but someone on eBay has been selling it for about two years). As you’ll see in this YouTube clip, Armstrong and Kaye had great chemistry and it’s hard not to get swept away when both men start scatting as if their lives depended on it. Here’s the “Five Pennies Saints”:

And for good measure, here’s another scene from The Five Pennies where Kaye sings the lovely “Lullaby in Ragtime” (Harry Nilsson later did a beautiful version of this, arranged by Gordon Jenkins) while Armstrong really emotes on a charming “Goodnight, Sleep Tight.”

Okay, that’s good for now. I’ll be back with “Butter and Egg Man” later tonight!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

I Get Ideas (Adios Muchachos)

It’s YouTube time again, folks, and today I’ve chosen a song that many people associate with Louis Armstrong but it’s one that unfortunately never maintained a steady presence in his live shows with the All Stars: “I Get Ideas.” The song itself was originally an Argentinian tango titled “Adios Muchachos” and was written by Julio Cesar Sanders with Spanish lyrics by Cesar Felipe Verdini in 1927. The tune remained popular on the tango scene throughout the 30s and 40s but didn’t have English lyrics fitted to it until Dorchas Cochran wrote them in 1951. Tony Martin was the first to record the English lyrics in April of that year and by May, he had a hit that would stay on the charts for 30 weeks, peaking at number three according to Joel Whitburn’s somewhat dubious Pop Memories book. Peggy Lee was next, recording it for Capitol in May while Decca finally presented Armstrong with it on July 24, a seminal session that also produced the most famous version of “A Kiss To Build A Dream On.”

On the Decca record, Armstrong was backed by Sy Oliver studio group that included trombonist Cutty Cutshall and future All Star Billy Kyle. The record opens quietly with a lovely clarinet trio, even though discographies list Milt Yaner as the only clarinet play on the date. Clearly, at least one of the other reeds was doubling, at least to my ears. It’s a lovely introduction, very atmospheric, a feel that Pops keeps up with his tender, straight muted reading of eight bars of melody. Billy Kyle, about to embark on a few years of Broadway piano playing for Guys and Dolls, turns in a commercial-sounding transition leading to an absolutely charming vocal. Armstrong’s voice is almost completely without gravel and he approaches the lovely tenor sound of his 1930s Decca recordings. The bridge is tailor-made for Armstrong’s voice and when he reaches the final high C (vocally speaking), you can practically hear him smiling. Eddy Duchin, er, I mean, Kyle plays another transition and Pops takes off on his horn, the band backing him with some oomph after playing so politely for the first 2:20. I know I’ve written it before but it’s worth repeating: the Decca studio held some kind of magic spell over Armstrong’s horn. He never had a single bad day for Decca in the 50s and even on the silliest commercial trifle (which “I Get Ideas” was not), he always managed to turn in a peak solo. He does so again on “I Get Ideas,” not so much with super high notes, but rather with passionate held notes and typically slippery rhythmic phrasing. He reprises the last four bars, throwing in a classic “Babe” for good measure and can’t help laughing at the very end of the record. Again, according to Whitburn, Armstrong had a hit that lasted for 16 weeks on the Billboard charts and peaked at #13.

He soon performed it on Bing Crosby’s Chesterfield radio show in November (recently reissued on a Storyville two-C.D. set of Armstrong’s appearances on Crosby’s show from 1949-1951), selling certain lines with a winking tone to his voice, breaking up the audience every time. Remember, by this time audiences had been saturated with Tony Martin’s straight version so to hear Armstrong “Satch-urating” it with his own special gifts must have been quite a treat. A few weeks later, Armstrong reprised it at a concert at Pasadena’s Civic Auditorium, performing it with Les Brown’s big band backing him. Even Brown’s piano player plays Billy Kyle’s lines verbatim, so they might have been written into the arrangement. Some rowdy fans in the crowd yell out at the start the vocal but Armstrong gets through his vocal (sending a “Yeah, man” their way early on) and still gets his laughs with his slurred rendering of the title phrase. Armstrong’s trumpet is particularly fierce on this version, worth checking out on the Itunes release of Louis and His Friends.

Unfortunately, there are no versions of “I Get Ideas” with the All Stars during this period. It did crop up during a live broadcast in 1953, but otherwise, it seemed to disappear for quite some time, unlike it’s sessionmate, “A Kiss To Build a Dream On,” which became a staple of almost every show. However, in November 1957, Armstrong dusted off “I Get Ideas” at a very appropriate time: a tour of South America, broadcasting it from a series of concerts in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It then disappeared again, but it made one last stand during Armstrong’s long European tour of 1959. By this point, he was ending the song by singing the original title, “Adios Muchachos,” something that probably started during the Buenos Aires concerts. Numerous versions exist from the 1959 and they’re all terrific, including the one on volume three of Storyville’s In Scandinavia series.

On February 15, 1959, the All Stars recorded a high-octane short set at live concert in Stuttgart, Germany. The six songs were broadcast on the SDR network and thanks to the friendly online world, all six are available on YouTube. My favorite is “I Get Ideas,” which is listed on the original title card as “Adios Muchachos.” Here ‘tis:

The All Stars—with Trummy Young, Peanuts Hucko, Billy Kyle, Mort Herbert and Danny Barcelona—give Pops very sympathetic support. Young and Hucko harmonize nicely behind Pops and the rhythm section manages to swing very effectively at such a slow, slow tempo. Kyle’s tango-like piano flourishes are fun but it’s Pops’s show throughout. He sings the vocal with such affection and I think the trumpet solo is stronger than the one from the original 1951 record. I get the chills when he begins blowing, slowly striding away from the rest of the band as the camera cuts to that shot of Pops standing at the front of the stage, horn held high, dispensing that sound that has never been duplicated.

Alas, after Pops’s heart episode later that year, “I Get Ideas” became one of many All Stars numbers that did not survive into the 1950s, though according to Jos Willems’s All of Me, Pops did dust it off during another European concert in 1962, probably as a request. Thus, though we don’t have a hundred versions to choose from, the handful of “I Get Ideas” that do survive are all wonderful and the 1959 video especially gives a glimpse into the genius of Louis Armstrong’s later years. I’m still playing catch up, so if you haven’t checked in in awhile, this is my third entry in three days and I hope to have another one for tomorrow. Til then!

Monday, October 22, 2007

You've Got To Beat Me To Keep Me

Trixie Smith and Her Down Home Syncopators
Recorded mid-February, 1925
Track Time 3:02 (The version I have on C.D. is 3:13 but this is probably in the wrong key. Below is a link to the song that clocks in at 3:02 and is in the key of G. The recording I have is in F#, which cannot be right, so it’s more likely that the original record is 3:02)
Written by Porter Grainger
Recorded in New York City
Trixie Smith, vocal; Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Charlie Green, trombone; Buster Bailey, clarinet; Fletcher Henderson, piano; Charlie Dixon, banjo
Originally released on Paramount 12256
Currently available on CD: If you can find the old Affinity box, Louis Armstrong And The Blues Singers, start there. Otherwise, it’s currently on the volume two of Fremeaux & Associates’s complete Louis Armstrong series, Sugar Foot Stomp. I haven’t heard these, but rumor has it that they’re doing a nice job.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on Trixie Smith Volume 2

Masochists of the world unite! In the four months of writing this blog, I haven’t written about any of Armstrong’s 1920s sessions backing blues singers but that drought has come to an end today…and how! “You’ve Got To Beat Me To Keep Me” doesn’t feature an Armstrong solo so I’m probably not going to have too much to write about it but the lyrical content is something else. The song was recorded in mid-February 1925, when Armstrong was still in New York, living the life of a session musician by day and a member of Fletcher Henderson’s popular orchestra by night. In fact, the entire personnel of this session was made up of members of the Henderson band, including the leader himself on piano.

America was still experiencing something of a blues craze at the time of this session and Trixie Smith (no relation to any of the other famous blues singing Smiths, including Bessie, Mamie or Clara) was a popular figure on the TOBA vaudeville circuit. She was the first to record “My Daddy Rocks Me With One Steady Roll” and was a regular presence on Black Swan and Paramount records. “You’ve Got To Beat Me To Keep Me” was written by written by Porter Grainger, composer of the blues standard “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.” However, it’s safe to say the “You’ve Got To Beat Me To Keep Me” never exactly became a standard…in fact, I don’t think anyone else ever recorded it! And one glance at some of the lyrics should be enough to know why:

You’ve got to beat me to keep me, cause mama loves a hard boiled man
So don’t you let no man cheat me, if he’s got a good right hand.
Beat me up for breakfast, knock me down for tea,
Black my eye for supper, then you’re pleasing me.
You’ve got to beat me to keep me, cause mama loves a hard boiled man.

Mama don’t want no diamond rings and she don’t want no swell clothes
Wail me daddy til it stings across my mouth and nose.
I don’t want no hug and kiss, I don’t want no love and smile,
Beat me with your hand or fist, Papa like I was your child.

There’s more lyrics but I don’t want to misquote Trixie because some of it is hard to understand. Anyway, thanks to the Red Hot Jazz Archive, you listen to the song yourself by clicking

As already mentioned, Armstrong doesn’t have much to do on this recording but it’s always nice to hear a prime Pops obbligato. There’s the double-timed arpeggio phrase about 37 seconds in and that gloriously funky trilled note going into the last reprise of the chorus, 2:21 in, quickly followed by a nice rip up from a low G to another G an octave higher. The rest of the horns sound like mush thanks to the terrible recording quality of the day though future All Star Buster Bailey has plays some fine lines. Thus, there’s really not much more to say about this track but if you haven’t heard it, you won’t soon forget it!

Also, in an effort to catch up after a week off, I’m going to try to make more frequent posts this week. Thus, scroll down because you might miss something good if you don’t check in every day. Til tomorrow!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Pretty Little Missy

Louis Armstrong And The All Stars
Recorded April 25, 1955
Track Time 3:16
Written by Louis Armstrong and Billy Kyle
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Trummy Young, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Billy Kyle, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Barrett Deems, drums
Originally released on Decca
Currently available on CD: It’s on two out-of-print sets, a Verve compilation disc I Love Jazz and the Mosaic Records box set The Complete Decca Studio Recordings of Louis Armstrong And The All Stars.
Available on Itunes? Yes, as I Love Jazz is still available in MP3 form.

The ol’ Itunes shuffle landed on the original studio recording of “Pretty Little Missy,” a little song co-written by Louis Armstrong and Billy Kyle that never exactly caught on with the masses, though Pops pushed it for some time. Because “Pretty Little Missy” is a contrafact of Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol’s “Perdido,” I’d like to also include Armstrong’s other run-ins with that song in this entry, as well.

Armstrong first encountered “Perdido” with his big band as it was one of the many, many songs Armstrong performed live during the war years, but never recorded in a studio. The first version of “Perdido” in the Armstrong discography comes from an ABC Victory Parade Of Spotlight Bands broadcast from September of 1944 and is performed in front of an absolutely ecstatic crowd at Camp Reynolds in Pennsylvania. This version is available on a “Masters of Jazz” C.D. under Dexter Gordon’s name (Young Dex) because it’s taken from Dex’s short tenure in the band. The band swings out the first 16 bars of melody at the start but instead of going to the bridge, Armstrong enters back at the first A section. He swoops in with a string of F’s, each one placed directly on the beat, a la Harry “Sweets” Edison, something he repeats at the start of the bridge. It’s not one of my favorite Armstrong solos as his phrases appear a little disjointed, many of them placed a little too directly on the beat, though he impressively shoots up to his upper register in the final eight bars. A tenor follows and though Dexter was in the band, this solo has none of the Lester Young-qualites that invaded Gordon’s playing in this period (check him out on “Ain’t Misbehavin’” from the same day). Instead, the tenor solo must be from the band’s music director Teddy McRae and McRae shows he’d been listening to Illinois Jacquet as he delivers with a bombastic, driving solo. The band comes roaring back with the melody after the tenor spot, with Pops filling in the cracks with some nifty upper register work, sounding more relaxed than he did during his earlier solo. There’s an odd moment at the end when Pops struggles for a second to hit his final note. For that one second, you hear another trumpeter, almost definitely Fats Ford (aka Andres Meriguito), hit a high C, but then Pops appears, with that ultra-special tone, and ends with a slightly higher high D!

A year later, on Halloween 1945, Armstrong’s big band found themselves playing “Perdido” on another Victory Parade Of Spotlight Bands broadcast, this time on MBS and coming live from Geiger Field, Spokane, Washington. McRae and Gordon were out of the band, which was now being led by Joe Garland. Perhaps he was responsible for changing the “Perdido” arrangement a bit. This time around, the band actually plays a full chorus of melody with Pops taking the bridge. Then Pops plays a full-chorus solo, once again entering with the quarter notes before taking, what I feel, to be a much more flowing solo. Once more, Pops rides on top of the closing ensemble, shining on the bridge, as always and he hits the final high note without a problem. Check this one out on Itunes under Louis Armstrong Masters of Swing.

After the big band broke up and the All Stars formed, “Perdido” flashed its head during a February 1952 concert in Vancouver, Canada. I have never heard this recording but it’s in the Armstrong bible known as All of Me and that’s good enough for me! (Still don’t have this definitive work compiled by Jos Willems? What are you waiting for!? It’s on Amazon!) Willems lists this particular “Perdido” as a feature for Barney Bigard and bassist Dale Jones. Bigard and bassists commonly teamed up on Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” so perhaps they wanted to try something new to feature or perhaps it was a request. Either way, this was a transitional time for the All Stars and maybe they just wanted to try some new material (Bigard, trombonist Russ Phillips, pianist Joe Sullivan and bassist Dale Jones would all be gone by the end of the year, though Bigard and Jones would return).

Anyway, the story of “Perdido” really gets interesting when pianist Billy Kyle joined the band in the fall of 1953. Again, according to All of Me, Kyle didn’t begin featuring “Perdido” until the summer of 1954 but because it’s not possible to obtain recordings of every one of Armstrong’s live shows (I’ve had such dreams), it’s probably a safe bet that he had been playing it for some time before its debut broadcast from Ephrata, Pennsylvania in August of 1954. The first “Perdido” in my collection comes from a broadcast from the Basin Street nightclub from September 2, 1954 Because it was at the end of a broadcast, it’s a shortened version, weighing in at 1:53 (listening hard, I think I can hear Pops say “shorten it up” during Kyle’s introduction). Kyle takes it at a perfect medium tempo and after one chorus, goes right into the arranged chorus he would play every time he was ready to wrap it up. And that arranged chorus would become the basis for “Pretty Little Missy,” but at this point it was just another feature for a cat in the band. Kyle would usually play it for one whole chorus and then the band would enter for a final chorus, but with broadcast time running out, Pops enters during the final eight bars with the clarion-like F’s that would form an integral part of Kyle’s feature in the decade to come.

Fortunately, Kyle’s “Perdido” feature was recorded in full and in one of its greatest versions not long after as part of Decca’s evening of recording at Hollywood’s Crescendo Club in January of 1955. This version, nearly four-minutes long, might be my favorite “Perdido.” The tempo is remarkably perfect and the rhythm section of Arvell Shaw’s powerpacked bass lines and Barrett Deems’s smooth brushwork is unbeatable. Kyle’s improvisations rarely changed over the years but after hearing the perfect construction of his “Perdido” choruses, why would he bother changing anything? Every note he plays swings and I love hearing the other members of the band shout encouragement as Kyle builds up steam (“All right, Willie,” Trummy yells at one point). At the 2:15 mark, Kyle starts hitting his climax, as Deems discreetly switches to sticks. In the next chorus, Kyle basically plays “Pretty Little Missy” verbatim, even on the bridge, before he quotes the typical riff everyone usually played on “Perdido” back then (introduced by violinist Stuff Smith at a 1945 Town Hall concert). This perfectly sets up the entrance by Pops and the other horns, Kyle answering their every phrase and taking the bridge by himself. As far as All Stars features go, not many swing better than Kyle’s “Perdido.”

Now, in that last paragraph I wrote that Kyle basically played “Pretty Little Missy” at the climax of his solo. Of course, that was technically impossible since “Pretty Little Missy” didn’t even exist yet. I think Armstrong must have really liked Kyle’s line and probably thought there was enough to make a song out of it. Thus, I don’t know if Pops added anything to the song’s melody but I’m sure he had a hand in crafting the tune’s silly, if charming lyrics:

Pretty Little Missy, give me little kissy, baby
Sweetie little missy, give me little kissy, please
Honey baby, so far, I can really go for you, dear
Looking very kissy, little missy, have no fear.
Speedy up, speedy up, speedy up, speedy up, I can’t wait,
Pucker up, pucker up, pucker up, pucker up, baby, don’t be late.
So prissy little missy, give me little kissy, baby,
Give me little kiss, I’ll be your lovin’ kissing beau.

Not exactly Cole Porter, but it’s fun. On April 25, 1955, the All Stars had a date booked for Decca. It turned out to be a pretty nondescript session with three so-so songs being performed first, including one, “Mm-mm,” written by former All Stars pianist Marty Napoleon. But Armstrong and Kyle also had “Pretty Little Missy” ready to record and that’s just what they did on a recording that sounds very little like anything else in the All Stars discography. There’s almost no polyphonic jamming and for an All Stars date, there’s a lot of neat arranged touches. A neat idea is starting the record with Kyle playing eight bars completely ripped from his own “Perdido” feature as if they weren’t even trying to hide the inspiration for the number. Pops, Trummy Young and Barney Bigard then play the melody in harmonized unison, Pops using a straight mute. I love hearing Pops play the bridge for those two fat, flatted fifths alone. An especially effective idea has Trummy and Bigard playing Ellington background lines in unison behind Pops’s vocal (check out almost any Ellington 1950s version of “Perdido” for comparison). By this point in the history of the All Stars, Barney Bigard was beginning to sound very bored on the job and he often got lost next to the boisterous trombone playing of Young. Barrett Deems didn’t help this by always playing softly behind Bigard’s gentle lines and swinging more violently behind Trummy, something that happens in the 32-bars following the vocal. They must have liked the contrast in dynamics as on the very next day, April 26, 1955, the All Stars began recording Satch Plays Fats for Columbia, an album that featured this kind of quiet-clarinet-loud-trombone pattern on almost every cut. After Young’s solo on “Missy,” another arranged passage follows with the horns playing tight four-bar riffs with Kyle’s piano answering in the background. Pops then finally comes into his own for a heroic bridge, hitting and holding a high C before fashioning a strong statement around some favored licks and a couple of high D’s for good measure. Then its back to the head (how often can you use the phrase “head” on an All Stars recording?) and the record comes a tight ending.

The original Decca “Pretty Little Missy” is a neglected gem and though the record didn’t catch on, Pops tried mightily to popularize it with frequent live performances in the next year. According to All of Me, Armstrong broadcast it on three straight days in early July of 1955, once on television and twice on the radio, in addition to performing it on an NBC TV show hosted by Dave Garroway the previous week. In September 1955, Edmond Hall replaced Bigard and soon after, the All Stars embarked on a three-month tour of Europe. Many of the concerts from Sweden were recorded and, according to the Willems discography, almost every show featured “Pretty Little Missy,” including Pops playing it twice in one day on October 6! A version of “Missy” is available on the second volume of Storyville’s indispensable In Scandinavia series, prepared by the oracle of Pops, Gösta Hägglöf and also available on Itunes. After an introduction by Pops (written by Billy Kyle and himself for “the Decca”), you can immediately sense different, slower tempo than the record, which came in around 168 beats per minute. Now we’re in the 140s and I can only guess that maybe Pops liked the more relaxed tempo as a way of differentiating the song from Kyle’s feature of “Perdido,” which he still played, though now at a faster tempo. Either way, the band plays it almost exactly like the record, though Pops isn’t muted. This was one of Hall’s first gigs, but he follows like a pro, playing the entire head without a problem. The Ellington riffs still back Pops but the clarinet spot is now eliminated as Trummy gets to do his thing for 16 bars before the arranged last chorus, with wonderful drum fills by Deems. Pops turns in an even better bridge than he did on the Decca record, still starting out with a high C before descending almost an octave to a lower D before ending the bridge with 12 high D’s in triplet form. It’s a scorching performance, but though it received great applause, Pops must have sensed that it wasn’t catching on as he liked and it slowly began to fade out of the All Stars’s bandbook.

This isn’t to say it disappeared completely. I’ve written about Armstrong’s appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, recorded in glorious stereo sound by Columbia though it’s been languishing in a vault for almost 50 years. I haven’t heard it but according to All of Me, Pops dispersed with “Indiana” for one night, a true rarity, and instead followed “Sleepy Time” with “Pretty Little Missy.” And it still popped up at dances. Joe Darensbourg wrote that it was during long dances, and not so much concert settings, that Pops would start calling different, rarely played tunes and a radio broadcast from a dance at the Sunnybrook Ballroom in Pottstown, Pennsylvania from September 1961 captured the All Stars playing “Pretty Little Missy” and “Perdido” in the same set. An announcer sets it up and during Kyle’s introduction, you can hear Pops proudly tell the announcer that it was written by himself and Billy Kyle. The tempo’s back up to about 168 beats per minute but otherwise, the whole performance follows the 1955 pattern, including Pops’s climactic bridge solo. Joe Darnesbourg had just joined the band and he’s pretty inaudible during the Ellington riffs but he noodles quietly in the background at other points. And though the tempo’s up, it’s nothing compared to “Perdido,” which now clocked in around 192 beats per minute! That’s nothing, though…by 1965, “Perdido,” was being taken at almost double the speed, over 250 beats a minute, and clocking in at two minutes, half the time of the Crescendo Club version of ten years earlier. It wouldn’t make sense to give a blow-by-blow depiction of all the different “Perdidos” in those ten intervening years as Kyle didn’t change much of his features. He did add some new touches, including a “Hungarian Rhapsody” quote and on a lot of nights, Pops gave him an encore, which, too, developed into a set pattern. “Perdido” always managed to excite the audience, which would usually burst into applause during the same tricky passage each time out. And which tricky passage would that be? “Pretty Little Missy” at warp speed!

But by the time “Perdido” entered the space race of the 1960s, Pops dusted “Pretty Little Missy” off again for a Mercury recording session in 1964. Remember, it might not have become a hit but Armstrong did have a co-composer credit and did receive royalties, thus, it would pop up in something like the 1959 German film Auf Wiedersehn or various later television appearances. Armstrong’s first Mercury date took place in September 1964 and was his first time in a recording studio since the Hello, Dolly album sessions. Armstrong’s Mercury recordings are the definition of erratic; they all add a banjo and try to ape the success of “Hello, Dolly” with wildly varying results. However, Armstrong’s first Mercury session was arguably his best, even though it only yielded two songs. Talk about aping “Hello, Dolly”….the first song recorded that day was “So Long Dearie,” taken from the same score of the Broadway play! Armstrong doesn’t play any horn on that one, but his vocal is so infectious and the band swings so wonderfully, that it’s a hard performance to resist. “Pretty Little Missy” was up next and it’s interesting to hear what’s edited out of the usual routine to make it fit into a 2:17 timeframe. First off, Kyle’s introduction is gone as the record begins straight up with the horns playing the melody, Pops now backed by Russell “Big Chief” Moore on trombone and Eddie Shu on clarinet. Sadly, they only play a half chorus before the vocal begins so the bridge (and the flatted fifths are gone with it). In fact, even when Pops sings the bridge, he smooths out the flatted fifths, singing a G and an F instead of the usual Db and B natural. Moore and Shu split 16 bars before the familiar riff crops up again, leading to the highlight of the record, Pops’s closing bridge. He hadn’t changed it in nine years but he still hits that string of high D’s beautifully for a 63-year-old man. It’s a fine version of “Missy” but I don’t understand why it had to be shortened to such a brief running time.

Moving on, “Perdido” lasted until Kyle’s death on the road with the band in February 1966, but Pops wasn’t through with “Pretty Little Missy” yet. Though he didn’t seem to play it any more with the All Stars, it did show up during one of his most poignant recording sessions. After growing seriously ill in the fall of 1968, Armstrong took a year off from performing. However, on October 28, 1969, he took place in a recording session to sing Hal David’s theme for the latest James Bond picture, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The song, “We Have All The Time In The World,” became fairly well-known, especially after Armstrong died and it was used in a beer commercial. However, all people speak about is how frail Armstrong was when he recorded that song and how much emotion he put into it. Well, that’s all true, but what about the session’s other performance: a newly arranged version of “Pretty Little Missy” complete with a beautiful trumpet solo! I know I’ve written about it on this blog before, but it’s a wonderful performance and the few Armstrong nuts I’ve shared it with have agreed.

John Barry was the conductor that day and it’s possible he did the arrangement, which is completely different from any previous version of “Missy.” First off, the original 45 record I have of “Missy” is pitched in the key of B, instead of Bb, which is probably wrong, but nevertheless, the tempo is slower than Armstrong had ever taken it, with a nice, soft shuffle beat prevalent throughout. Heck, even the organ fills work! Armstrong’s voice, though charred a bit more than usual, radiates its usual warmth and joy, but the main even is a half-chorus of trumpet playing that proves that there was still some life in that old horn. If you allow me to quote myself from an older entry: “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 C.D. and has only been released on one German LP and a handful of 45s.”

Thus, the last trumpet solo Louis Armstrong ever took inside of a recording studio was on his own composition, “Pretty Little Missy.” However, he still wasn’t through with “Missy” yet. Just a few months later, in January 1970, Pops returned to performing on television, playing trumpet on the Today Show and the Dick Cavett Show on the same day. I’ve already written about Armstrong’s performance of “Someday You’ll be Sorry” on the Cavett show. It’s a sad moment, one where the spirit is more than willing but the chops aren’t quite prepared for such an extended solo. And unfortunately, Pops might have blew himself out when it came time to play “Missy,” a version issued on an old Italian C.D. on the Moon label (pitched in A now, so something’s amiss). The Cavett version borrows Barry’s studio arrangement and Pops still sings beautifully but the trumpet solo is a chore. It actually starts out strong but you can hear Pops’s lip start to give out, especially in the beginning of his second eight-bars, though he ends with some nice relaxed phrasing. It’s a sad moment but Pops still sings the song with gusto. If Dick Cavett ever gets around to releasing more DVDs of his old shows, I think a Louis Armstrong volume would be historically significant.

Armstrong, realizing he wasn’t ready to resume blowing on a full-time basis just yet, made numerous television appearances as a singer in 1970 and “Missy” popped up on a few of these shows. Remember, Armstrong received royalties for the song, so why wouldn’t he want to pocket some extra dough? In fact, on a return appearance to the Cavett program, Armstrong sang “Someday You’ll be Sorry.” He introduced it by saying, “This one I wrote myself. The boys want to see me pick up a little ASCAP change there.” Thus, Armstrong sang “Missy” on a Dial M For Music CBS show with Al Hall and Jo Jones sitting in with the All Stars (though Joe Glaser was dead, Associated Booking didn’t want to pay for west coasters Danny Barcelona and Buddy Catlett to fly to New York because Pops wasn’t regularly gigging yet). And though I’ve never heard it, Pops also sang “Missy” on another CBS tribute show from London at the end of 1970, this time backed by a symphony orchestra, probably playing Barry’s arrangement. (Does anybody have a video of this show, Boy From New Orleans—A Tribute to Louis Armstrong?).

But as I’ve mentioned before, Pops did have one last strong run as a trumpet player in late 1970 until early 1971. He proves that on the famous clip from the Johnny Cash Show and he also took a fabulous, new solo on “Hello, Dolly” from a National Press Club concert in January 1971 (thanks to Dave Whitney for letting me hear this terrific solo, complete with a quote from “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say”!). On March 1, 1971, Pops made his final television appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. The last song he would ever sing on TV was fittingly “Blueberry Hill.” But prior to climbing that hill, Pops also performed “Pretty Little Missy” one last time. Hopefully, one day we’ll be able to see video of this moment but thankfully, the audio exists at the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College. I listened to it about ten times during a visit last year and here are my notes: “Medium tempo, like the record, with the same chord change substitutions. Trumpet sounds the best yet of all the versions with a surprising high note run in the second eight bars. Really, really good.” I guess I’ll have to take my own word for it!

So there’s a little history of “Pretty Little Missy,” a tune that never really caught on but one that was the basis for some of Armstrong’s finest moments in his later years. Alas, I apologize for the week delay in getting this blog entry up and I’ll try harder to crank a few more out this week. As always, if you have any questions or comments, you can leave them right here on the blog or e-mail me at

Thursday, October 11, 2007

That Old Feeling

Recorded October 14, 1957
Track Time 2:47
Written by Sammy Fain and Lew Brown
Recorded in Los Angeles
Louis Armstrong, vocal; Oscar Peterson, piano; Herb Ellis, guitar; Ray Brown, bass; Louie Bellson, drums
Originally released on Verve
Currently available on CD: Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson
Available on Itunes? Yes

My Itunes shuffle must have had one eye on the calendar today as it picked a song from an album made almost 50 years ago to the day. The album is Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson and dare I say it, but I feel it to be the most underrated album in the Armstrong discography. I know some very well-respected people who were close to Armstrong and they’ve told me how they do not enjoy this album. Also, John A. Tynan of Down Beat only gave it two stars when it originally came out. And Oscar Peterson himself never wrote a single word about it in his own autobiography…heck, he never even mentions Armstrong’s name!

Why the lack of respect for the collaboration? I think some people just have it in for Peterson: too flashy, too busy, never lets the music breathe, unsuitable to Pops. And for those who love Peterson’s work, the pianist doesn’t take a single solo on the album. Also, there’s a lack of trumpet. Of the 12 tunes that made up the original album, Pops only plays on five of them. And for those who love the New Orleans repertoire, there just might be too many atypical standards for an Armstrong album.

All of this, naturally, adds up to nonsense for me! Full disclosure: I’m a pianist and I’m the type who marvels at Peterson’s virtuosity. Sure, he sometimes sounds like a machine but not on the Armstrong album. I think he’s a tremendous accompanist and often, his backing notes and phrases on albums with the likes of Billie Holiday, Roy Eldridge and Lester Young, stick in my mind as much as the offerings from the soloists. And I can’t deny it: I like music that swings. Hard. And the Peterson trio with Herb Ellis on guitar and Ray Brown on bass personifies swing. Throw in the great Louie Bellson and really, what’s there to complain about? The quartet is lush and subtle on “How Long Has This Been Going On,” they’re foot-pattin’ on “I Was Doing All Right” and they really push Armstrong’s trumpet to great heights on “Just One Of Those Things” and “Moon Song.” Hell, on that last song, Pops was so inspired, he took an extra, unexpected trumpet chorus so he must have enjoyed it! Of course, he was already familiar with the other musicians since they backed him up on the two collaborations with Ella Fitzgerald (Buddy Rich on drums the first time around). Those records, too, get a bad break from certain camps but I love them. Another time…

As for the Armstrong trumpet, he’s in great form, sounding much stronger than he did on his previous Verve dates with Russell Garcia’s orchestra. Three takes survive of “Let’s Fall In Love” (though the first two are only available on an out-of-print Verve Elite Edition compilation). On all three, Pops basically sticks to the melody but he phrases differently each time out and he sounds remarkably strong in the upper register (dig that bridge!). But on “You Go To My Head” and “Sweet Lorraine,” he turns in two of the best ballad performances of his career. Have you ever really sat down and listened intently to the trumpet solo on “Sweet Lorraine”? I’ll admit that for a while, I knew it was a great solo, but I never really gave it 100% concentration until taking a Jazz Historiography course with Lewis Porter at Rutgers. Dr. Porter played the solo as an example of Armstrong’s emotionally deep playing in his later years and it hit me hard. As he said when it was over, “He out-Mileses Miles on that one!” Real deep stuff…

And really, why would anyone complain about the choice of material? Granz had exquisite taste and in an era when Pops was getting crucified by the critics for playing the same songs every night, it’s refreshing to hear him tackle so many songs he had never played before (though his big band did broadcast “Blues In The Night” and he surely must have played “Sweet Lorraine” at some point in his younger days). So Armstrong sings more than he plays on the album. Who cares? I find his singing tremendously affecting on the Peterson album, especially on the two duets, “What’s New,” backed by Peterson’s piano, and “There’s No You,” backed only by Ellis’s guitar. At one of my Institute of Jazz Studies lectures on Armstrong’s later years, Phil Schaap made a comment that Armstrong never exuded 100% pure emotion in the vocals of his later years, always hiding behind a smile or a funny aside to keep things light whenever matters were becoming too serious. I disagree when listening to the Peterson collaboration. I think Pops sings the shit out of those two songs I just mentioned, without a hint of levity, and the same came be said for the tender caressing of “You Go to My Head” and “How Long Has this Been Going On.” What Dan Morgenstern once wrote about “There’s No You” applies to all the ballad vocals on this album: “If this doesn’t get you, please go away and don’t come back!”

So after such a big buildup, I now come to the song that’s the subject for today’s entry and honestly, there’s not too much to write about it! “That Old Feeling” is a great opening track, full of breezy swing and a charming vocal. The song was written by Sammy Fain and Lew Brown in 1937 and first appeared in the film Vogues of 1938. Many singers enjoyed singing it as a ballad, including Frank Sinatra, Billy Eckstine, Anita O’Day, Helen Humes and others, but Armstrong and the Petersons take it an ideal medium tempo, reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald’s earlier version. The Peterson trio takes a perfect introduction (you can hear Pops clear his throat) and Armstrong enters with the vocal over tasteful backing by Bellson’s brushes. Ellis sticks to Freddie Green comping while Ray Brown plays a lilting two-beat. Peterson stays out of the way, though every block chord he hits is quite beautiful. Pops sings the first chorus fairly straight and then a wonderful moment occurs: Brown kicks the bass into 4/4 time, Peterson plays a nice single-note line, Pops growls out a “Yeah,” and begins a second chorus in full swing. The change of momentum works beautifully, as it did my favorite version ever of “I Get a Kick Out Of You,” an Armstrong and rhythm section feature from Ella and Louis Again (included on the Verve C.D. reissue of the Peterson album). With the rhythm section now swinging lightly and politely, Armstrong loosens up a bit, changing the phrasing where he sees fit, throwing in a “Mama,” a “baby” and some neat scatting. Peterson’s accompaniment is note-perfect throughout and the little arranged coda is a nice touch. Pops comes back to repeat the final line and the album has officially begun with a track guaranteed to leave the listener smiling (in fact, this is one of my mother’s most-loved Armstrong tracks!).

Thus, there’s no need for a lot of detailed blow-by-blow description of “That Old Feeling.” It’s just the kind of track that doesn’t attempt to change the world, but does make you appreciate how effortless Louis Armstrong and the Oscar Peterson rhythm section make this music appear. And let’s give the Peterson trio some props. The Armstrong album was done in one day (Pops also completed his work on the Porgy and Bess album earlier in the day, turning in a spine-tingling vocal on “Bess, Oh, Where’s My Bess,” one of his most emotional vocal performances). Armstrong left the Los Angeles studio that day and probably played somewhere that evening but the Petersons were locked in Granz’s studio for a full week. Ever look at a Verve discography? Check out this week:

October 10, 1957 – The trio backed up Stan Getz on a classic album
October 11, 1957 – The trio with drummer Stan Levey backed up Roy Eldridge and Sonny Stitt. That same day, Eldridge recorded an album of ballads with Russ Garcia’s orchestra. Then Peterson sat out and Ellis recorded an album under his own leadership with Brown, Levey, Eldridge and Getz!
October 12, 1957 – Getz returned to record an album with Gerry Mulligan, backed by Ray Brown, Stan Levey and Lou Levy on piano.
October 13, 1957 – Day off!
October 14, 1957 - Pops
October 15, 1957 – Ella Fitzgerald opened the day with an album with Frank DeVol’s studio orchestra. Then the Peterson trio and Levey backed Ben Webster on one of my favorite albums, Soulville.
October 16, 1957 – The Peterson trio, with Alvin Stoller now on drums, recorded two more albums, one backing Coleman Hawkins and one with Hawkins “encountering” Webster.
October 17, 1957 – The Peterson trio and Stoller returned once more to record five tracks for Ella Fitzgerald’s Duke Ellington songbook album, with Ella, naturally, and one more appearance by Ben Webster.

What a week! And two days later, Granz lugged his recording equipment into Chicago’s Opera House to record album after album of classic liver performances by the likes of Roy, Hawkins, Ella, J.J. Johnson, Getz, the Modern Jazz Quartet, the Peterson trio and a Jazz at the Philharmonic jam session with Lester Young. In summary? God bless Norman Granz!

It’s a shame that the Oscar Peterson collaboration as Armstrong’s last album for Granz. For all their faults—loose routines, tired Pops, boring Garcia arrangements—Armstrong’s Verve recordings still contain some of his most challenging work on records. And if you’ve bypassed the Peterson date, give it another shot. Especially rewarding is the 1997 Verve reissue, which adds the Armstrong features from the second Ella Fitzgerald album plus, as a hidden bonus track, the first three breakdown takes of “Blues in the Night.” I’m not sure that it’s an essential album but there are some essential moments and I still feel that it’s the most underrated album in the entire Armstrong discography. Enjoy it!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Empress Hall 1956 - Satchmo the Great Clips

It’s back to YouTube for today’s entry, a film clip uploaded by Jim (aka kpjazz) just two days ago. It’s from Satchmo the Great, Edward R. Murrow’s documentary film about Armstrong’s European and African tours of 1955 and 1956. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the fact that Satchmo the Great has never been on video or DVD is a crime, now more than ever with the recent resurgence of interest in Murrow. Only Trio, a small cable network, showed it a few years ago so fortunately I have a copy from there, but it’s the kind of film that really should be available to anyone with a DVD player. One of my favorite clips from Satchmo the Great is a version of “The Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” featuring my favorite edition of the All Stars with Pops, Trummy Young and Edmond Hall holding forth in the front line. Here’s that clip (note: you’ll see a running time of about seven minutes, but the performance only lasts 2:40. The rest of the clip is some fast-forwarded footage and a blue screen so don’t waste your time!):

That performance was filmed at London’s Empress Hall in May 1956. From the same performance, Murrow included a clip of the All Stars doing “Mack the Knife.” Jim uploaded this one a few months ago and it’s a delight. Here ‘tis:

Great stuff, all the way. Instead of my usual background information on the songs, I’d rather talk about that particular tour instead. Pops arrived in London on May 3, 1956, greeted by two British bands playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Armstrong had last played London 21 years earlier and was welcomed like a hero. Ten shows were scheduled at Empress Hall with Armstrong sharing the bill with vocalist Ella Logan, one-legged tap dancer “Peg Leg” Bates and Vic Lewis and His Orchestra. Advertisements appeared in the London newspapers touting that “Louis Armstrong appears on the spectacular revolving stage with the new ‘Ultrasonic’ sound system.”

Harold Davison presented the group in London and as he later discussed, a couple of American promoters operating out of Australia “decided to build in the center, somewhat similar to a boxing ring, a revolving stage. Apparently this has been very successful [in] Australia, and they thought it would happen in London. And this massive hall, this six-piece orchestra, whole band, sitting on this little stage slowly revolving like a record, going around and around with a dismal sound, dismal vision. And it was ghastly, absolutely ghastly.” Davison added, “Unfortunately, it was far from successful. It was a failure financially and from Louis Armstrong’s point of view it was a dismal failure, and certainly from the audience point of view it was a failure.” Charles Hamblett wrote at the time, “For the past week or two Armstrong has been playing to British audiences, and, despite such difficulties as having to play against the acoustical impossibilities of the giant Empress Hall, has given virtuoso demonstrations of real New Orleans jazz-playing such as have not been heard, live, in this country for almost a quarter of a century.” British trumpeter and Armstrong disciple Nat Gonella attended some of the shows at Empress Hall and agreed. “On the roundabouts you’d hear Armstrong playing; and then he’d go away in the distance,” he said. “Then you’d have to wait till…they made the full circle again before you really heard him strong again.” Newspaper reports of the period refer to the problem with the acoustics but, except for the first performance, where the house was nearly empty, every other Empress Hall show was sold out.

In addition to the poor acoustics, the fans in attendance grew impatient with the opening acts. Ella Logan fared the worst as the Daily Mirror wrote of fans booing Logan’s seven-song set and chanting, “Where’s Louis?” As time went on, the opening acts lessened their sets and apparently the sound even improved, according to London newspapers. This engagement is also notable for an example of Armstrong listening to his critics. In the Evening Standard on May 5, 1956, Kenneth Allsop wrote a review with the headline “Genius is rationed.” “A great deal of wrapping had to be peeled off—introductory music by British Vic Lewiss’s band, a one-legged tap dancer and singer Ella Logan—before the pearl in the parcel was reached. And even then, although the Armstrong All-Stars played for an hour, there seemed to be more all-stars than Armstrong,” Allsop wrote. And traditional jazz expert James Asman wrote in the Record Mirror, “A young enthusiast near my seat was I could see out of the corner of my eye, gripping the side of his chair and muttering, ‘This isn’t New Orleans jazz! What’s happened to Louis?’”Asman concluded, “The magic of Louis remained, but it was the magic of a superb showman and personality rather than that of a top rank jazz musician.” But as an Associated Press story later reported, “A few of Britain’s highly informed jazz fans told him very plainly that he was coasting, that he was letting the rest of the band do too much playing, that the people were dishing out their shillings to hear him. ‘That did it,’ said Louis. ‘Them cats put it to me. I couldn’t let ‘em down. Maybe I’ll blow my teeth out, but I decided to blow more.’ At his next performance he included six old New Orleans classics which require a lot of effort and bruised his lips until they looked like beaten beef steak.”

All the major London newspapers had daily stories on Armstrong and many of them focused on Swiss Kriss, which was now becoming and indelible part of the Satchmo persona. But even then, the British papers could occasionally show a brand of racist reporting that echoed the American south. Elizabeth Frank of the News Chronicle quoted Armstrong talking about his diet in a horrid dialect: “Ah keep ma health up; ah tell ma physician what to tell me; ah’m ma own dietician (remember me in the 30s? Ah was a real gross man!) Ah go to bed and sleep; ah still got all ma teeth and that horn don’t hate me yet.” It was also in England where Pops first uttered what would become a somewhat well-known quote. Asked, “What do you think of folk music?” Armstrong replied, “Folk music. Why, Daddy, I don’t know no other kind of music but folk music—I ain’t never heard a hoss [ed. horse] sing a song.”

The most famous aspect of the Empress Hall run concerned the 25-year-old Princess Margaret, who attended one of the All Stars’s shows and consequently made headlines around the world. “Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong broke all rules of theatrical protocol before Princess Margaret tonight. And the princess apparently loved it,” Eddy Gilmore wrote in an Associated Press story picked up in many newspapers around the world. “‘We’ve got one of our special fans in the house,’ growled the gravel-voiced American trumpeter, ‘and we’re really gonna lay this one on for the princess.’ A gasp went over the huge audience in Empress Hall. Professional performers are not supposed to refer to members of the royal family when playing before them. ‘Yes, sir’ said Satchmo, as the princess grinned and hugged her knees, ‘we gonna blow ‘em down with one of those old good ones from New Orleans—“Mahogany Hall Stomp.”’ The princess applauded with marked enthusiasm.” Another AP story in the New York Times added, “Princess Margaret began applauding with the first tune, ‘Sleepy Time Down South.’ Then she started to beat her feet up and down in full view of hundreds when an old New Orleans clarinetist, Edmond Hall, began to improvise on ‘Clarinet Marmalade.’ She applauded enthusiastically and Mr. Hall played ‘High Society’ as an encore.” The Duke of Kent also attended a show at Empress Hall but only one unknown reporter noted the following: “At one point in his concert the unpredictable Satchmo announced with a mischievous grin, ‘We’ll drape this one on the Duke of Kent, one of our fans here tonight. Here it is—Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Seeing how that quote didn’t spread, I tend to believe this journalist made it up completely to cash in on the Princess Margaret stories but I guess we’ll never know.

Anyway, onto the music at hand, you’ll notice Jack Lesberg on bass on those YouTube clips. Lesberg joined the band at the end of March and stayed through May tours of Europe and Africa (his feature in the band was “Lullaby of the Leaves”). I love Arvell Shaw’s playing but be very wary of the Armstrong stories he told in later years. He would always be quick to discuss both All Stars visits to Africa, the Gold Coast visit in 1956 and the State Department sponsored tour of 1960. However, he wasn’t a part of either tour! Lesberg played in 1956 and Mort Herbert played during the 1960, facts corroborated by filmed footage of both tours. Thus, Arvell clearly had a lot of love for Pops, but sometimes he liked to insert himself into true stories that he was never a part of.

Regarding “Mack the Knife,” Armstrong had recorded it in September 1955, before another three-month tour of Europe. On that tour, his valet, Doc Pugh, didn’t bring the music, so Armstrong didn’t begin performing it live until January of 1956. Thus, this is pretty early in “Mack’s” tenure with the band and it’s interesting to hear the fast clip the band takes it at (which would remain until about 1961, after which Pops began slowing down many regular numbers). I love “The Bucket’s Got a Hole In It” but the sound quality of this performance is lacking as Lesberg’s bass and Billy Kyle’s piano are almost completely absent. Fortunately, the front line more than makes up for it. Edmond Hall looks very happy and I love seeing Pops strutting around, eyes closed, snapping his fingers and clearly enjoying the tune’s gutbucket groove.

As already hinted at, Armstrong received his fair share of criticism during his London performances, mainly from the New Orleans revival camps but also from those of the modern school who found him hopelessly out-of-date. For example, in a Sunday Times story titled “Jazz In Turmoil: The Flight from ‘Uncle Tom,’” Iain Lang wrote about how Armstrong’s impact had lessened over the previous 15 years on young jazz musicians in the states because of his Uncle Tom characteristics.

However, British trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton remained one of Pops’s staunches allies. During a May 13 performance, Lyttelton appeared on stage with a homemade crown, placing it on Armstrong and announcing, “On behalf of all British jazz musicians I would like to crown Louis Armstrong undisputed King of Jazz.” After leaving London, Armstrong continued traveling the area, performing in places such as Scotland, with Lyttelton’s band joining him for this leg of the tour. By May 24, the All Stars were in Africa and London was coming down from their case of Louis Armstrong fever. In a June 1 article for The Musical Express, Lyttelton summed up his feelings in a column titled “Satchmo Post-Mortems.” “I heard him at Nice in 1948 and in Paris last year,” Lyttelton wrote. “And, considering the time allotted to him, I thought he did us better in London than at either of the previous places. I do not comprehend the criticisms about showmanship. For years, our local critics, professional and armchair, have derided British bands for their stolidness, their stiff, inhibited behavior onstage. Along comes an American group with an entirely appropriate brand of showmanship and up go the noses in the air!”

“As I sat in the audience at Birmingham, I was never more ashamed at having been associated with the New Orleans Revival,” Lyttelton continued. “If all that we have done is to nurture a generation of jazz fns who are so ignorant as to dismiss the greatest jazz when it is laid on their doorsteps, then we deserve a heretic’s fate.”

Pretty strong words but after watching those YouTube clips, it’s hard to disagree with Lyttelton. 1956 was a prime year for the All Stars and thanks to Edward R. Murrow’s film crew and the glory of YouTube, we can get a little glimpse of what caused such a fuss at Empress Hall in May of that year.