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 Dippermouth@msn.com.