Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I've Got the World on a String

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded January 26, 1933
Track Time 3:16
Written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Keg Johnson, trombone; Scoville Browne, George Oldham, alto saxophone, clarinet; Budd Johnson, tenor saxophone; Teddy Wilson, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; Bill Oldham, tuba; Yank Porter, drums
Originally released on Victor 24245
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Today’s entry will focus on another one of Louis Armstrong’s wonderful Victor big band recordings. This is one of my favorite periods of Armstrong’s recording career because I feel his trumpet playing is at the peak of its powers during these 1932-1933 sessions. To read more about my feelings for Armstrong’s Victor work, look up my October entry for “There’s a Cabin in the Pines.” Otherwise, I’d like to focus solely on the song today and it’s a classic.

“I’ve Got the World on a String” was written by Howard Arlen and Ted Koeler for the “Cotton Club Parade of 1932” where it was introduced by Aida Ward. Cab Calloway was in the show, as well, and he’s credited with the first recording of the tune, done in late 1932. A standard was born and soon enough, many of the major stars were recording their own versions (in fact, Bing Crosby recorded his version the same day as the Armstrong one). Armstrong’s January 26, 1933 Victor date was the first he did for his new label with his touring band. His previous two sessions featured the Chick Webb orchestra and a Philadelphia theater band, but now he had his own men behind him and he sounds very happy throughout the session. Care to listen along? Click here.

“I’ve Got the World on a String” begins informally with Pops counting the band off. On the next song recorded that date, “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” (another Arlen tune, by the way), Armstrong opened up with a little monologue. He does this on a few more later Victor sides, as well. The label clearly wanted to showcase his entire personality and not just his musical side and I think it works. Even counting off, Louis swung!

Armstrong’s young pianist, Teddy Wilson, takes a typically sparkling introduction that could have easily been played by Earl Hines. As mentioned before, this was something of a raggedy band and you can hear guitarist Mike McKendrick hit one chord on his guitar before he stops, realizing he wasn’t supposed to come in until after the intro. When the band does enter, they swing with a hearty bounce courtesy of bassist Bill Oldham, a strong player who got stuck playing strictly tuba on some of Armstrong’s later Victor dates. The reeds simply play pads of harmony behind Armstrong, not offering anything fancy, but then again, that wasn’t their job.

Armstrong’s reading of the melody is dazzling. It’s kind of a wide-ranging melody, like “Lazy River” but the only time he plays the opening phrase as written is at the start of his first muted chorus. After a few bars, the variations begin, starting with some quiet little asides played in the cracks of the melody. By the second eight bars, he’s improvising around the melody, keeping it present but refracting through his floating rhythmic feel. The repeated Bb-C riff towards the end of the second A section is very soulful. The bridge to the tune is very wordy, though Armstrong combats that by reducing it to its essential pitches, relaxation personified. He climaxes it with a gliss to an A, which carries over to another, shorter gliss to begin the final eight bars. I always love the juxtaposition of Armstrong free-form rhythmic phrases followed immediately by swinging quarter-notes on the beat, which is what happens at the 58-second mark. Totally in control, he tosses off the final phrases of the melody in the upper register like it’s the easiest thing in the world to do.

Wilson plays an interlude to allow Pops to step up to the microphone and when he does, it’s even more magic. He dispenses with the complicated melody, singing the first four notes all on a single pitch. The melody does test the lowest ranges of Armstrong’s voice, but he passes with flying colors. When playing the melody on the trumpet, Armstrong began his second eight bars with a bluesy feel and he does same exact thing in the same exact place with his vocal. He then sings all of Koehler’s lyrics but their relation to Arlen’s written melody is fourth cousin at best. As already mentioned, the bridge is wordy but Arlen must have written it with Armstrong in mind. It consists of almost nothing but repeated notes and since that’s what Armstrong might have sung anyway, he feels no need to change a thing. Heading back to the final eight bars, Armstrong’s reading of “I’ve got” is, to me, the definition of swing. By the end of the vocal, he’s practically bubbling over with enthusiasm and, with all due apologies to Mr. Koehler, he makes mincemeat out of the final line, “What a world, what a life, I’m in love,” instead turning into a wonderful excursion into scat.

With the vocalizing accomplished, Wilson once again plays a bit to let him get his chops together. The band, probably playing a Zilner Randolph arrangement, rephrases the melody by playing it in two-note phrases almost like a shuffle (dotted eigth note-sixteenth note combinations), which sounds incessant compared to Armstrong’s calm, assured response that ends on a high C. As the band takes over for four more bars, you can hear Armstrong yelling in the background, clearly enjoying himself. For his next response, Armstrong works out the same Bb-C pairing he played in the first chorus, but now he does it an octave higher to thrilling effect. Again, he shouts during the bridge, which is played by the band (watch that intonation, saxophones!). He leads the way into the final chorus with a perfectly hit high C. He swings out the last few bars of melody, holding an A before glissing to a final high C. It’s wonderful playing but only a warmup to what would be one of the best days he would ever have in a recording studio—and that’s obviously saying a lot! He recorded six tracks that day and is in prime form for all of them but I personally adore, “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” “Sittin’ In the Dark” and “High Society.”

“World on a String” disappeared for years, but reappeared for Armstrong’s 1957 Verve collaboration with Russ Garcia’s orchestra, titled, of course I’ve Got The World On A String. I wrote about the Garcia dates for my very first blog entry on “We’ll Be Together Again” but it bears repeating that Armstrong’s chops were in rocky shape during these dates. He still contributed some beautiful moments on remakes of “When Your Lover Has Gone” and “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” and hearing him blow through the pain on “Stormy Weather” is masochism at its finest. But on a number of songs, Pops chose not to blow and alas, there is no horn on the remake of “World on a String.” However, this is Louis Armstrong we’re talking about and I’ll never argue about an Armstrong vocal. Verve’s C.D. reissue of the set contained false starts and a somewhat slower alternate take where Pops gets a little confused with the arrangement (and I think he says the tempo was “dragging,” which it is). On the master take, Pops sings the melody fairly straight for a while, even singing the “I’ve got the world” opening phrase as written, which he didn’t even approach in 1933. For a fine example of Armstrong’s maturing style, both vocally and with the horn, listen to how he sings “I’ve got” directly after the bridge. I already mentioned that it was the definition of swing in 1933, but here, at a more relaxed tempo, he puts more space in between the words, sounding more free, if less exciting but the end result still swings and that’s all that matters.

After the first relatively straight chorus, the band takes over for four bars, repeating the idea behind the 1933 arrangement. Again, I’m only guessing here, but I’m sure Granz and Garcia would have loved to have Pops play responses instead of singing them, but with the chops not there, he had no choice. Fortunately, here’s where he really deconstructs the melody, reshaping it in his own fashion, throwing in a “lookie here” and a “mama” and a snatch or two of scat. The extended coda ending is a joy and I love how Armstrong’s voice goes up to hit that “What a world” at the end. He gives his all and at the very end, can’t resist chuckling at his own efforts.

“I’ve Got the World on a String” still lingers today, 75 years after it was originally recorded. It’s a standard of standards and even modern crooners like Michael Buble have covered it on their albums. I have many favorite versions of the piece, but really, do you expect me to choose from any other besides the 1933 Victor record? Ain’t gonna happen!

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded May 18, 1936
Track Time 3:06
Written by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken, Louis Bacon, trumpet; Jimmy Archey, Snub Mosley, trombone; Henry James, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Bingie Madison, Greely Walton, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Originally released on Decca 866
Currently available on CD: Available on volume 2 of the Ambassador series. Check out www.classicjazz.se for more information.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on two different cheapie compilations, Historic Collection and Greatest Recordings

In honor of today being Thanksgiving, I think it’s only appropriate to discuss Armstrong’s 1936 record of “Thankful.” Of course, we should all be thankful for every note Louis Armstrong ever played but since he only recorded two songs with sentiment of “Thanks” in the title (the other being the great “Thanks a Million”), it’s fitting to write about one of them on this holiday. “Thankful” was written by the team of Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin, who contributed some wonderful songs for Armstrong to record for Decca with his big band, including “You’re Just a No Account,” “You’re a Lucky Guy” and “Shoe Shine Boy.”

“Thankful” was recorded at a legendary session that featured a staggering six recordings, including the first “Swing That Music.” And the session started with two wonderful Hoagy Carmichael compositions, “Lyin’ To Myself” and “Ev’ntide” before Pops tackled “Swing That Music.” I don’t care if the session only featured two songs, after that “Swing That Music,” Pops should applauded for recorded anything else, never mind three more songs. “Thankful” was up next and I think at that moment, the thing Pops was most thankful for was that chunks of his lip hadn’t come flying off during “Swing That Music.” But “Thankful” is a lovely record and you can listen along by clicking here:

Behind Pops Foster’s huge bass sound, the band staggers through a two-beat introduction, before Pops comes in with a beautiful vintage 1936 vocal. He’s in fine tenor voice without a hint of gravel. He sings with a lot of feeling and doesn’t feel the need to add much. After the bridge, he sings a nice deep-throated “baby” that almost sounds like half-scat with a neat little “Mm-mm” coming a few bars later. The vocal ends, the band modulates and looking at my C.D. player, there’s a solid 91 seconds of trumpet ready to brew. He starts with some pure melody, adjusting the phrasing to achieve a more relaxed swing at times. He bridges the two A sections with a perfect adjoining phrase before he starts opening up his solo for more improvising. He begins the next eight bars by playing the exact four-note phrase he sang as “Thankful, baby,” another example of the link between his singing and playing. He continues on in those eight bars with snatches of melody, followed by his own obbligato, always a winning combination.

The bridge is the main event of the song. The band goes into stop-time and Pops proves ready for the challenge with some nimble double-timing at the start. But why settle for just double-timing when you have a sense of rhythm unlike anyone else in jazz? All of a sudden the notes and phrases start almost stuttering along (I’d hate to transcribe this stuff), though he slightly cracks a couple of notes, probably leftover remnants of the strain of “Swing That Music.” However, he fights it off with a stirring gliss up to a high Bb. He then plays something that reminds me of Red Allen as he works out a tension-filled motif on a high Ab. In a series of two-note phrases, he plays an F# leading to the Ab, an F leading to the Ab, then an E natural leading to an F# before resolving on an Eb and moving on from there. It’s exciting stuff and a little “out” for a Louis Armstrong record of 1936.

But even after that daring bride, Pops proves he has more in the gas tank by going up for the last eight bars for a series of high Bb’s. He eventually comes back down to earth to stick to a little more melody as the band plays is in a stately fashion behind him. Cue up the patented Decca coda ending and what you have is a neat little record. And just think, he still wasn’t done yet as he still would contribute stirring solos on “Red Nose” and a remake of “Mahogany Hall Stomp.” I might be thankful for a lot of things but man, I’m thankful for Louis Armstrong’s music every day of the year.

(And I’m also thankful that his lip didn’t explode that May day in 1936.)

Happy Thanksgiving! And don’t forget the Swiss Kriss if you get built up with gas…

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

So Long Dearie

Louis Armstrong and The All Stars
Recorded September 3, 1954
Track Time 2:15
Written by Jerry Herman
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Russell “Big Chief” Moore, trombone; Eddie Shu, clarinet; Billy Kyle, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Danny Barcelona, drums
Originally released on Mercury 72338
Currently available on CD: On a difficult-to-find German box, The Best of Louis Armstrong, which fortunately is available on Itunes
Available on Itunes? Yes

When Louis Armstrong entered a New York recording studio on December 3, 1963 to record two Broadway showtunes, no one was expecting much. Armstrong was reportedly dejected by the quality of material, though his good friend Jack Bradley predicted that one of the songs, “A Lot Of Livin’ To Do,” could perhaps get some airplay with the right promotion. Of course, the other song recorded that day was “Hello, Dolly” and just a few months after its release, it was the number one record in the country, knocking the Beatles off the top of the charts at the height of their popularity.

The success of “Hello, Dolly” did wonders for Louis Armstrong’s performing career. He hadn’t stopped selling out shows for a minute but he had disappeared from the limelight a bit in 1962 and 1963, recording no albums whatsoever and making rare appearances on United States television. “Dolly” changed all of that. For the rest of his life, Armstrong was guaranteed bigger crowds than ever, all of them filled with new fans attending his shows for the first time. He was ubiquitous in films and on television and was the recipient of numerous profiles in magazines and newspapers. Only one aspect of his career suffered a bit: his studio recordings became more erratic than ever, though it was no fault of his own. Producers and A&R men saw the formula for the “Dolly” hit and decided to ape it for al lit was worth, hoping to catch lightening in a bottle once again. It never happened and because of that, Armstrong’s post-“Dolly” records are some of his least known (“What a Wonderful World” notwithstanding).

However, in my opinion, the best of the post-“Dolly” records was the very first one. After completing the album Hello, Dolly, and touring nonstop for a few months, Armstrong returned to the studio on September 3, 1964. Waiting for him was yet another song from the score of Hello, Dolly, “So Long Dearie,” another banjo player in the form of Everett Barksdale and another chance to sing the word “Louis.” It was Armstrong’s first session for Mercury Records, where Quincy Jones was an A&R man who worked a number of Armstrong sessions during this period. It’s not known if he was behind “So Long Dearie,” but whoever was sure wasn’t embarrassed about going to the “Dolly” well for a second time in such a blatant way.

Fortunately, “So Long Dearie” proved to be a highlight of Armstrong’s 1960s recording sessions, even though he doesn’t play one note of trumpet. What makes the record work is Armstrong’s enthusiastic singing, the intense swinging of the All Stars and a different song structure that allows for some exciting shifts in momentum. If you haven’t heard “So Long Dearie,” you’re in luck as someone in the YouTube world recently made a slideshow of the images of the original 45 record while the original recording plays in the background. It’s then followed by rare footage of Armstrong performing the tune live in the Prague. I’ll discuss both renditions in this entry but if you’d like to enjoy it before I go on, here ‘tis, courtesy of “Effacers”:

Right from the start it’s like listening to “Hello, Dolly – The Sequel” as Barksdale’s banjo plays a prominent role in the introduction. How interesting it is that Armstrong hadn’t played with a banjo since about 1928, but after “Dolly,” the majority of his succeeding records all featured that instrument? Hell, even when Armstrong recreated the Hot Fives and Sevens for the Autobiography, he used George Barnes on electric guitar rather than bring back a banjo. Regardless, used in tandem with Billy Kyle’s piano and the swinging rhythm team of Arvell Shaw and Danny Barcelona, it makes for an exciting introduction. Pops begins singing the first strain with arranged support from Russell “Big Chief” Moore and clarinetist Eddie Shu, who joined the band only two months prior to the session. Apparently, the session reels exist for this session and according to Jos Willems’s All of Me, the seventh take was used as the master. Thus, the band had some time to get used to the different structure and come up with some neat little arranging touches, most likely courtesy of Billy Kyle. Pops sounds effervescent, obviously digging the pretty chord changes that enter a minor territory on more than one occasion. And how could Pops resist a lyric that already had the phrase “you dog” built in?

For the first 32-bar strain, Shaw plays two-beat on the bass, which effectively sets up the swinging transition to the next strain. I personally this love the minor-keyed episode and a lot it has to do with the rhythm section’s will to swing. Shaw begins intensely alternating the root and the fifth, while Kyle hits some perfectly placed chords, echoing the “choo choo” Pops is singing about in the foreground. Barcelona steadily whacks the rim of his snare while Barksdale, a great guitarist, provides some nice, chunky rhythms. After 16 bars of dark swinging, the tune switches from major to minor and the band responds again, Shaw doubling up the notes of his bass line. And of course, though I’m spending my time extolling the virtues of the rhythm section, I don’t want to neglect Pops, who sounds like he’s having the time of his life, inserting the word “chick” and laughing heartily before the written-in two-bar interlude by Moore and Shu.

At this point, the structure of the song reverts back to the original chord changes, but now Armstrong leaves two-bar gaps for trombone and clarinet to fill in. Armstrong slyly says so long to “Dolly” this time around, but perhaps the climax of the record comes at the final bridge, which again goes back to a minor-key and allows Moore and Shu to ditch the arrangement and improvise polyphonically from the heart. As Pops builds up a nice head of steam himself, he sings in the final A section, “Wave your hand and whisper, So Long, Louis.” Clearly, referring to himself as “Louis” was a big part of “Dolly’s” charm so it couldn’t hurt to try it again. Overall, for a song with no Armstrong trumpet, “So Long Dearie” really is a home run for me.

Unfortunately for Mercury, it didn’t become the next “Dolly,” but it did make it up to #56 on the pop charts. Armstrong featured it for a while, including a performance on an Australian TV show from late 1964 that I have never seen. In March 1965, Armstrong made a historical tour of Prague and East Berlin, finally cracking a bit of the Iron Curtain. In Prague, Armstrong was filmed at what appears to be an informal rehearsal session. I don’t know when it was filmed or who was in the audience, but Pops looks relaxed without his tuxedo. Meanwhile, the session is an important one because Eddie Shu plays the tenor saxophone throughout, making it perhaps the only time a tenor appeared in the standard All Stars front line. Shu was a talented multi-instrumentalist (he also played trumpet) whose main horn was the tenor so it’s no wonder that he sounds so comfortable here. During the same session, Armstrong blows a tremendous version of “Back O’Town Blues,” so his chops were in sparkling form, but again, there’s no playing on “So Long Dearie.” If you scroll back up to that YouTube video, the second half of it contains the complete Prague performance of “Dearie.”

As can be heard from the start, the tempo in Prague is fairly slower than the studio record. It takes a second to get used to after hearing the hard-charging swing of the Mercury version, but nonetheless, it builds up a pretty nice head of steam. The banjo is gone, so one can really focus on Arvell Shaw’s bass lines, once again offering two-beat in the beginning. Shu and new All Stars trombonist Tyree Glenn perform the same arranged background riffs as heard on the record. Armstrong really sells the song with his facial expressions and hand movements, waving “so long” at the appropriate time. If you listen carefully, it sounds like Shaw yells “Go Pops,” before the piece kicks into swing time for that wonderful minor strain. Again, Kyle really digs in and Shu sounds great behind Pops, playing some faintly Jewish-sounding melodies (Shu, real name Shulman, he used to do this on “When The Saints Go Marching In,” as well).

After the verse interlude, things settle into a comfortably swinging groove and Shu and Glenn get downright raucous in their instrumental responses to the vocal. However, for me, the highlight comes in the bridge of the last chorus, which captures Armstrong at his most relaxed. “I’ll be all dressed up,” he sings before adding a perfect little aside: “Sharp as a tack.” Then, with absolutely perfect phrasing, he sings the line “Singing that song” all on one note. I love everything about that moment: the swing of it, the little pause, the funny aside. He swings out ‘til the ending, though he sings “So Long Dearie,” instead of “So Long Louis,” as he did on the record. He catches himself and immediately sings, “Louis should have said ‘so long’ so long ago.” Shu continues his tasty playing until the very end as Pops swings to a happy finish.

For me, it’s a toss-up as to which version of “Dearie” I prefer, but I can officially say that I wish I had some more to choose from! “Dearie” seems to have been phased out, though Armstrong did perform it on the Dean Martin Show at the end of 1965. I went out of my way to obtain one of those Dean Martin best-of DVDs because it mentioned Armstrong’s appearance, hoping to catch him doing “Dearie,” but alas, it only had a medley duet with Dean (hey, NBC, let’s get some full seasons of the Martin show!). Though it might have disappeared from the All Stars’s stage show, Pops did like to keep it for rehearsals and informal sessions like the one from Prague. Clarinetist Joe Muranyi joined the band in June 1967 and he was one of the lucky ones to have an actual rehearsal before his first gig with Pops. Here’s what he told me about it:

“I just did the best I could and by the end of the evening, Pops was smiling. And I remember ‘So Long Dearie.’ I said, ‘Well, I can get through the chorus but I don’t know the verse too well.’ So he blows his horn into my fucking face and plays it for me! It was wonderful! I was such a fan, I didn’t know what to do. I mean, I got to listen and try to learn and as it turns out, we never did ever play it, but he played it for me as to how it went which is marvelous.”

So Pops kept “Dearie” around and even blew trumpet on it when he needed something different to warm up with or to rehearse, but really, it remains a lesser known “Dolly” knock-off from Pops’s erratic Mercury sessions. Hopefully this entry and the above YouTube video (courtesy of Effacers via Skitdat) will give you more appreciation for this swinging little tune.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Velma’s Blues (aka Big Mama’s Back in Town; Big Daddy Blues; Blues; Blues-A-La-Hey Bob-a-Rebob; I Cried Last Night; Where Did You Stay Last Night, etc

Louis Armstrong and His All Stars
Recorded at numerous live concerts from 1947 to 1960
Track Time varies between 2:43 and 4:04
Written by Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton
Recorded around the world!
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Velma Middleton, vocal; and all the All Stars!
Currently available on CD: Yes, details to follow
Available on Itunes? Ditto

“And now, ladies and gentleman, it’s blues time and here’s our vocalist, Velma Middelton!”

For 13 years, Louis Armstrong uttered the above sentence almost nightly. For critics, it meant it was a good time to use the bathroom or get a soda. But for audiences around the world, it signaled one thing: Velma Middleton was on her way out to spread joy and get everybody feeling high and happy. She would always open with a blues and from her very first line, “Here’s news for you baby, mama’s back in town,” she would have the audience in the palm of her hand. For the next three minutes, she would recycle famous blues lyrics, indulge in some light-footed dancing and climax the whole performance with a split. I have nearly 20 versions of “Velma’s Blues” in my collection and you can hear audiences scream, shout and shriek with delight on every single one of them.

I’ve made my feelings about Velma clear in the past and I go into much greater detail on her in my Armstrong manuscript. Critics be damned; she loved Pops and he loved her and that love shone through in every one of their performances together. As I discussed in my “Butter and Egg Man” entry, Armstrong always had a thing for female foils in the 1920s and Velma was his Lil Hardin/Mae Alix/Susie Edwards all wrapped into one big, beautiful human being. She also sang the blues well, if not quite like the legends Armstrong accompanied in his early days such as Bessie Smith and Chippie Hill. She sang standards and pop songs, like Eva Taylor in the 20s and Ella Fitzgerald in the 40s and 50s. She sang R&B like Helen Humes, impersonated Satchmo and of course, of course, of course….the split. Yes, seeing an obese woman do a split in the middle of a jazz concert was usual the bane of most jazz snobs’s existence. I cannot even begin to count how many contemporary reviews of the period made fun of Velma’s weight and the split.

“His star singer was Velma Middleton, a 250-lb. lady named--by the Gagwriters Association--Miss Petite of 1946. She waddled through 'Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy' and then did a split which almost literally brought down the house.” – Time magazine, 1946

“This reviewer has yet to feel the humor that is apparently present when an obese person jumps around on a stage. However, the Opera House audience got their kicks when Velma jumped her vocals. Velma sells her songs by showmanship which is necessary as there isn't anything spectacular about her voice and phrasing.” - George Hoefer, Chicago Opera House review, 1947

“Louis’ voice, especially without the annoying duet presence of Velma Middleton—happily absent from this LP—is sandpaper joy.” – Down Beat review of Ambassador Satch

“…[T]he tasteless flouncing of Velma Middleton.” - John S. Wilson, 1956

“At any rate, Satchmo hardly qualifies as an expert on what contributes to the advancement of the colored race; if he did, he would long ago have divorced himself professionally from Velma Middleton, whose tasteless (nay, vulgar) performances with the Armstrong band rate as ‘handkerchief-head’ with progressives, and do anything but elevate the prestige of the Negro in our society.” – Unknown author, unidentified clipping from September 1957

Of course, Pops loved the splits and bragged about them. On one of his private tapes, he talks in a hotel room to some fans who are about to see the All Stars for the first time. Does Armstrong brag about his trumpet playing or the skills of the other members of the band? Nope. Here’s what he says: “Wait’ll you see Velma’s split. She sings and dances and makes a split just like tearing a piece of paper. Yes, indeed. I tried it once and stayed in the hospital the whole week.” In fact, for more proof that Pops loved the split, check out the Soundie film he made on April 20, just one month after Velma joined the big band:

Classic, isn’t it? She had just joined the band only weeks earlier and Pops already thought enough of her to feature her in one of his short films. Thus, Armstrong’s love of Velma knew no limits. We all know the story of the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival when Armstrong was told Velma wasn’t wanted because Ella Fitzgerald was planning on joining him. Ella Fitzgerald! The first lady of song! Who sang with Armstrong that night? Velma, of course. Pops even fought to try to get her in High Society. She’s on a number of his major 1950s projects: the Handy and Waller albums, as well as the Autobiography, and a number of singles. She was truly part of the family and regardless of what one thinks of her voice, her showmanship and, yes, the split, she should be respected as an integral part of Louis Armstrong’s career.

Okay, the with pontificating over, let’s have some fun with “Velma’s Blues.” Louis Armstrong’s All Stars made their official debut as a group at Billy Berg’s in August of 1947 but Velma Middleton was not present. In fact, Velma didn’t join the band probably until November, according to Jos Willems’s All of Me. Perhaps Armstrong or Glaser wanted to make sure this small group experiment was going to work before bringing aboard another member but, of course, it was a smash hit from the beginning. At both a Carnegie Hall concert on November 15, 1947 and the famous Symphony Hall concert of November 30, Velma did her blues number, but both versions remain unissued so I cannot comment on them. In fact, there are many unissued versions of “Velma’s Blues” from throughout the years, mainly because so many All Stars shows were privately recorded. Fortunately, it was a performance that didn’t change much over time, though it will still be fun to discuss the small changes that did occur. The first version of “Velma’s Blues” that I have comes from a Dixieland Jubilee concert in Pasadena, California from October 29, 1948. Velma had only been with the band for about a year, but her blues feature is already polished into a tight routine, one that would be followed closely in the decade to come.

After a long piano introduction, Armstrong begins the blues in Db with one of his patented blues solos, one that would serve as the song’s “melody” until the end. In the second chorus of this early version, Armstrong holds a high Db for three bars, resolving it a with a quick Bb-Ab phrase in unison with Jack Teagarden’s trombone and Barney Bigard’s clarinet, before improvising for the rest of the chorus. Armstrong also plays a phrase, Gb-Gb-Gb-Ab, that almost sounds like a quote from “Heebie Jeebies.” It’s another blues lick he favored, one that he usually used in change to the five chord in ninth bar of a 12-bar blues (it also crops up in “Ko Ko Mo,” a later feature for Armstrong and Middleton). Armstrong sets Velma up with a perfect concluding phrase, one he uses again a little later Velma then sings the lyrics she would use for about five years, lyrics that always drew cheers from the very first line:

Big daddy, big daddy, where did you stay last night?
Hey baby, where did you stay last night?
I got rocks in my bed and my pillow ain’t sleeping just right.

Say, I cried last night and I cried all the night before,
Yes, I cried last night, all the night before,
Come on home baby so I don’t have to cry no more.

Cause, I ain’t mad at you, pretty baby, I ain’t mad at you,
No, I ain’t mad at you, tell me what you want poor me to do,
I’ll steal, beg, borrow, do any ol’ thing for you.

Yes, I love that man, he’s built up from the ground,
He’s long and tall, stacked up from the ground.
Yes, I get so weak, wooo, whenever he comes to town.

Pops would usually begin his obbligato in the third chorus, but after that fourth chorus, Velma would go into her dance, usually sending audiences into a frenzy. For us listeners, Pops would lead two powerful ensemble choruses that would become more and more refined over the years. After setting up Velma’s entrance with the same phrase he played earlier, she comes back to sing a few more choruses, borrowing from Helen Humes and Sophie Tucker respectively:

Got a man over here, got a man over there, but the man over here,
Oo--oo-baba-re-bob, Oo—oo-baba-re-bob

Say, nobody loves a fat gal, but oh how a fat gal can love,
Nobody loves a fat gal, how a fat gal can love,
Yes, I love you baby, by the stars above.

Velma would then resume dancing as Pops would begin wailing, dropping in some of his favorite quotes, including “Isle of Capri,” “My Sweetie Went Away” and “Honeysuckle Rose.” With the band smoking, Velma would jump in for a quick four-bar statement:

I ain’t good looking, I ain’t built so fine,
But all the men like me cause I take my time!

The band then takes it out, using an ending that would be recycled a year later for another Middleton feature, “The Hucklebuck.” Pops sounds great from start to finish and everyone seems to be having a ball, from the audience to the band (Teagarden really can be heard shouting vocal encouragement and humorous answers in the background). And also, scanning the lyrics should make the title of this blog entry make more sense. There have been so many released versions that many record companies just pick a line and use it for the title!

That’s what happened with the version from a concert in Vancouver in January 1951. This version is commercially available as “Where Did You Stay Last Night,” a title that often leads to confusion since that was the name of a song Armstrong recorded with King Oliver in 1923! Thus, anyone hoping that Armstrong dug something out of the Creole Jazz Band songbook for that Vancouver date would be sorely disappointed to find it to be another version of “Velma’s Blues.” By this time, the band had begun tightening the arrangement a little bit. They now only play one chorus at the start and it ends with the held Db to the Bb-Ab phrase that used to begin the second chorus. Otherwise, matters remain fairly similar until the ensemble jamming after Velma’s fourth chorus. The band now plays the seven-note triplet phrase that every All Stars drummer used to end his solos with, obviously being performed to accompany a specific Middleton dance move.

Then, after the “Hey-baba-re-bob” chorus, Middleton drops the “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl” motif (to be stolen years later by Jim Croce) and tries out some new lyrics (well, new for her, Big Joe Turner sang them years earlier):

Hey baby, get your basket, let’s truck down to the woods,
Baby, go get your basket, truck down to the woods,
Say we may not pick no berries but we both sure will come back feeling good.

It’s a good bawdy line, though the audience reacts with a groan. However, if you have this version, listen for Pops’s obbligato, which is really dynamite. Pops then leads the ensembles with those quotes, though he has a new one after Velma brags about how she takes her time with “Moon Over Miami.” This is followed by a whole new bit of business as the band prepares for Velma’s split. First the play a series of two-note phrases, with big cymbal hits by drummer Cozy Cole, before breaking into an exotic reading of “All the girls in France do the hoochie-coochie dance.” Velma does her thing, the audience screams and Pops takes it out with a standard All Stars ending.

Just four days later, the band recorded “Velma’s Blues” at another Pasadena concert, this time for Decca. It’s faster than the Vancouver version and upon release, it was dubbed “Big Daddy Blues,” but otherwise, everything is pretty much status quo except for one major omission: the “get your basket” chorus is gone. Perhaps it was too explicit or perhaps Louie and Velma heard the groans and Vancouver and maybe thought it didn’t go over too well. Regardless, this is what was sung in Pasadena:

Say, I love that man, tell the world I do,
Yes, love that man, tell the world I do,
If you knew him, say, you’re bound to love him, too.

However, those lyrics must not have done it for Louis and Velma either. Almost two years later, at an October 1952 concert in Sweden, the chorus after the “Hey-baba-re-bob” is gone completely: no fat girls, no baskets, no telling the world she does—though that last one would reappear. Otherwise, the 1952 version, heard on volume two of Storyville’s In Scandinavia series, isn’t one of my favorites because it’s slower than usual and the band plays some of the arranged passages, such as the accents on one-and-three towards the end, too stiff and stately. Also, Pops abandons the “Moon Over Miami” quote in favor of a much bluesier lick.

However, here’s where the plot thickens. The All Stars were in tour in Europe from September through November of 1952. At the Sweden concert of October 4, Velma’s still singing the “Big Daddy Blues.” But by the time of an Italian concert on October 25, the whole song became overhauled and was now “Big Mama’s Back In Town.” It might seem funny to imagine why Louis and Velma would rewrite something that had worked for five years, in the middle of a European tour, no less, but that’s just what happened. The references to “big daddy” were gone as Velma now used her feature to spread the word that she’s the one in town:

Here’s news for you baby, Big Mama’s Back In Town
Here’s news for you baby, Mama’s Back In Town
So stop all your jiving, baby, and all your running around.

Yes, I’m back home baby, Mama’s home to stay,
Oo-oo, I’m back home baby, Velma’s home to stay,
Ain’t going to let those women, steal your lovin’ away.

After those two new opening choruses, it was back to the old routine, with Pops joining in for his obbligato on the third chorus as Velma shouted the “I ain’t mad at you” refrain. After that chorus, Velma now enthusiastically instructed the band to “Jump, jump, jump, jump” as she would go into her dance and let the All Stars jam for a chorus. Velma then reappears for the “Hey-baba-re-bob” chorus, the band vocally answering her, before she begins dancing. On this early Italian version, it seems to catch Pops by surprise, so he’s not prepared with his usual “Isle of Capri” and “My Sweetie Went Away” quotes. Thus, he begins improvising on the blues, though trombonist Trummy Young, clarinetist Bob McCracken and drummer Cozy Cole continue to play the same accents for Velma’s choreography. Velma jumps back in again to announce that “All the boys like me cause I take my time” before the rideout choruses. Pops’s chops weren’t in top form on this Italian date (he was also obese at the time) but he comes up with some good ideas, forgoing the “Moon Over Miami” quote as well. The band still plays the “Hoochie-Coochie Dance” for Velma’s split but Armstrong’s lip won’t let him get up to his usual high Db at the end. Instead, he hits a few lower Ab’s and ends with an almost inaudible Bb, ending on the sixth as he sometimes liked to do.

But even though there are a few shaky moments, the Italian version of “Velma’s Blues” pretty much set up the pattern that would be followed for the next few years. Still, there would be some slight changes. The held Db in the first chorus that would set up Velma’s entrance was discarded in favor for the perfect lick that Armstrong played on the earliest 1948 performance. And now, after the “Hey-Baba-Re-Bob” excursion, Velma reinserted the chorus she tried out in Pasadena in 1951:

Say, I love that man, tell the world I do,
Yes, love that man, tell the world I do,
If you knew him, bound to love him, too. What a guy! What a guy!

Trummy Young joined the band in 1952 and he proved to be the perfect foil for Armstrong. Since almost all of Armstrong’s playing on “Velma’s Blues” was fairly set, Young adeptly created harmony lines to play along with Armstrong’s lead, making the brass section of the All Stars sound more potent than ever before. Otherwise, “Velma’s Blues” was set and began getting announced as “Big Mama’s Back In Town.” That opening line proved to be a killer every time—even in Yokohama, Japan on New Year’s Eve 1953, the audience hooted and hollered during Velma’s vocal and especially screamed during her dancing.

Thus, I know the preceding analysis might look pretty confusing so here is the breakdown of a particularly smoking version of “Big Mama’s Back In Town” from the Crescendo Club concert of January 1955 (available on The California Concerts):

First chorus: After a four-bar intro from Billy Kyle, the band jams a chorus, Pops playing one of his standard blues licks for the first eight bars before holding a high Db and setting up Velma’s entrance with a perfect two-bar phrase, played in unison with Trummy Young.

Second chorus: Trummy riffs behind Velma as she sings:
Here’s news for you baby, Big Mama’s Back In Town
Here’s news for you baby, Mama’s Back In Town
So stop all your jiving, baby, and all your running around.

Third chorus: Trummy and Barney Bigard team up to tightly play a prototypical backing riff, one that’s been used a million times and I think harkens back to Count Basie. Midway through, Pops plays two notes. Velma sings:
Yes, I’m back home baby, Mama’s home to stay,
Oo-oo, I’m back home baby, Velma’s home to stay,
Ain’t going to let those women, steal your lovin’ away.

Fourth chorus: Pops takes over, with a powerful obbligato behind Velma:
Cause, I ain’t mad at you, pretty baby, I ain’t mad at you,
No, I ain’t mad at you, tell me what you want poor me to do,
I’ll steal, beg, borrow, do any ol’ thing for you.

Fifth and sixth choruses: As Velma admonishes the band to “Jump” and begins to dance, the band jams two. Pops plays that little “Heebie Jeebies”-type thing in the first chorus, while the second one features some arranged playing to suit Velma’s dancing, namely a harmonized playing of the first line of “Hesitating Blues” and the forceful drum-like triplets. Pops plays the same “Heebies”-ish line in the same spot and the horns harmonize on the same line they used in the first chorus to set up Velma’s reentrance. Phew!

Seventh chorus: Over stop-time backing, Velma sings:
Got a man over here, got a man over there, but the man over here, (Pops: “What about him?”)
Hey-baba-re-bob, (Hey-baba-re-bob ) Yeah, baba-re-bob (Hey-baba-re-bob)
Hey, baba-re-baba-re-baba-re-baba-re-bob.

Eighth chorus: Trummy gets funky with a mute in his trombone as he and Bigard continue to pump out more riffs. Also notice, Velma no longer sings about “him” but rather “Satch.”
Say, I love that man, tell the world I do,
Yes, love that man, tell the world I do,
If you knew old Satch, bound to love him, too. What a guy! What a guy!

Ninth chorus: Pops leads the way with “Isle of Capri” and “My Sweetie Went Away,” Trummy playing wonderful harmony to each. Another triplet excursion with drum accents by Barrett Deems obviously was used for Velma’s purposes. Feeling hot, Pops speeds up the triplet phrase before soldiering in to the….

Tenth chorus: Velma again must have done something specific here because on every version, Deems plays a cymbal accent on the third beat of the second bar, kind of an odd place. As they go on, there’s another arranged bit of business with Deems whacking away on one-and-three as Pops plays scorching two note riffs. Bigard chimes in with a humorous tremolo, sounding like a spaceship about to land. With all hell breaking loose (in a good way), Trummy leads the way to the…

Eleventh chorus: Trummy riffs for the first two bars before Pops joins in. Deems plays more accents for Velma on the beat before Pops leads the way out, ending on the high Db.

It’s a wonderfully exciting performance but as you can see, Velma doesn’t reenter to sing about “taking her time” and the band doesn’t play the “Hoochie-Coochie” segment. Otherwise, this was the pattern for the new and improved “Velma’s Blues.”

However, “Big Mama’s Back In Town” was soon to have competition. In the summer of 1954, the All Stars recorded their seminal tribute to W.C. Handy, an album on which Velma Middleton played a big part of. The opening track of that album was a raucous, legendary jam on “St. Louis Blues.” Armstrong featured himself on that song for about 20 years of his career, but after Earl Hines joined the band, it became a feature for the group’s pianists, including Hines, Marty Napoleon and Billy Kyle. In fact, Kyle was still playing it as a feature on March 3, 1955 but when the Handy album hit and created such a stir, Armstrong knew he had to include something from it in his live shows. By May 28, 1955, Armstrong and Middleton were now featuring “St. Louis Blues.” Because the record version was nearly nine minutes long, it took the All Stars some time to figure out how to edit it for live performances. The earliest surviving broadcast version is that May one from Basin Street and it’s severely edited to fit within the confines of the short broadcast (Pops doesn’t even sing on it). However, the tempo is almost identical to the original record. But by October 1955, the band was almost jumping it, as heard on volume three of the In Scandinavia series, just to come in around the six-minute mark. However, Pops eventually edited out some choruses and always managed to finish at the six to seven-minute mark at a perfect stomping medium tempo.

“St. Louis Blues,” though, had another important use in addition to being just another blues feature for Velma and Pops; it allowed Velma to take a break from the splits. By 1956, the countless nights of doing splits had begun taking its toll on Velma. She was only 39 years old and still very much overweight and now her dance interludes were beginning to have an effect on her. She usually followed “Big Mama’s Back In Town” with “That’s My Desire” during this period and on some versions, you can hear her just about gasping before starting “Desire.” Numerous versions of “Big Mama” survive from 1955 and 1956 and it’s interesting to note the one concession the band made to make things easier on Velma. All versions of “Big Mama” through January 20, 1956 are exactly as described earlier. However, by the time of a March 26 one-nighter in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Pops had chopped off almost the entire final chorus. Now Trummy would charge into it by himself but just two bars in, Pops would end it, making for an odd four-bar final chorus. It might have only been eight bars and maybe saved just a few seconds but it’s always been my guess that Velma was beginning to break down in those final seconds so to make things easier, Pops shortened the performance a bit. This is how “Big Mama” is heard at the Chicago concert of June 1 of that year, as well as the band’s set at Newport in July.

But then, “Big Mama’s Back In Town” disappears. Jos Willems’s All of Me discography lists many concert set lists, including a number from the European tour of 1959, and “Velma’s Blues” is nowhere to be found. However, a 1959 concert at Keesler Air Force Base contains a song titled “Nobody Loves A Fat Girl,” which, as mentioned earlier, was a stanza in the original versions of “Velma’s Blues,” so perhaps that was really “Velma’s Blues” in disguise (a review from another 1959 show also mentions “Nobody Loves A Fat Girl”). Thus, beginning in late 1956, the days of Velma’s splits were more or less over, a fact that led some mean-spirited critics to rejoice. Reviewing an All Stars concert in February 1958, Patrick Scott wrote, “Vocalist Velma Middleton did not do the splits (which was a bitter disappointment to me since I had hoped to see her break a leg).” “St. Louis Blues” and “Ko Ko Mo” were now the two big Middleton blues performances. The Live in 1959 Jazz Icons DVD of last year contains both songs and though they’re both tremendous and Velma sings with enthusiasm, her dancing isn’t as feathery light as it was in that 1942 clip. She smiles bravely and dances a lot, but it almost looks like she’s dancing in slow motion. However, the one time she really lets loose, on “Ko Ko M0,” the camera isn’t on her! All that can be heard is the audience shrieking in delight, but it’s such a short period of time, there’s no way she could have done the split. As always, though, I offer my usual reminder: the All Stars played over 300 dates a year so I cannot fully say that “Velma’s Blues” disappeared completely or that she never did a split after 1956 because I have never heard every show. But after studying the set lists and the reviews of the late 50s, it’s fairly certain that “Velma’s Blues” became much less conspicuous than it was in the first nine years of the All Stars.

Nevertheless, “Velma’s Blues” managed to turn up at least one more time, in what is the saddest version ever captured: her last recorded concert appearance with the All Stars. Velma never missed a show, but her health continued to decline until she eventually had a stroke before a performance in Freetown, Sierra Leone on January 25, 1961. She died on February 11 at the age of only 43. The band had resumed touring Africa on January 7 after taking five weeks off to allow Armstrong to film Paris Blues. Before the layoff, the band performed a State Department-sponsored tour of Africa that included a November concert at Elisabethstad, Katanga in the Belgian Congo. It’s a fine concert, but not a classic by any means, namely because the sound is subpar (most of the concert is available on C.D. and on Itune). However, listening to Velma sing on what became her final recorded performance makes for emotionally difficult moments. First off, it’s the odd concert where she performs both “St. Louis Blues” and one final go-around of “Velma’s Blues.” “St. Louis Blues” usually radiated warmth and good times but for one thing, Velma’s voice isn’t as strong on this version as it was at the Newport Jazz Festival just four months earlier. But also, one chorus of lyrics stands out like it never had previously:

I love my man, like a school boy loves his pie,
Louie Armstrong, blows so nice and high,
Gonna love that man, until the day I die.

It’s a perfect summation of Velma’s career and purpose in life but for the purpose of this entry, I’d like to focus on this last version of “Velma’s Blues.” This one begins like every other one, with Pops playing a chorus of trumpet as Velma steps up to the mike, but Pops prolongs the chorus to 14 awkward bars to allow Velma enough time to get into place. I’m guessing that she hadn’t performed this number in quite some time because the ultra-tight background riffs that Young and Bigard used to play are gone. Instead, it’s more or less a blues jam and Velma even trots out some new lyrics, including a chorus where she quotes Lloyd Price’s 1959 hit, “Personality.” She sings five choruses in a row up front, Pops playing his obbligato in the fifth chorus before he launches into a completely new solo as Velma claps along. In a nod back to 1947, Armstrong ends the second chorus of his solo by quoting “Honeysuckle Rose,” which he hadn’t done since the earliest performance of the tune. And then Velma sings two more choruses of new lyrics that make me want to cry, knowing the circumstances of the recording. Her health was failing, her voice sounds a little shaky and she would be dead in less than three months, making it difficult to listen to these stanzas without being affected emotionally:

I’m going to this song, ain’t going to sing no more,
Going to sing this song, I ain’t going to sing no more,
Come home baby, ‘fore your mama shuts the door.

Bye, baby, bye bye,
Bye, baby, bye bye,
Bye bye, don’t cry, baby come back home.

There’s no jamming at the end, no time for a split or anything. Like the trouper she was, she put everything into the song, even though her voice is very pitchy on those final “Bye’s,” and gets great applause for her efforts. Still, knowing what was lurking around the corner gives those last two choruses an eerie feeling. And like it had for so many years, Velma followed with “That’s My Desire,” an appropriate final recorded performance for Velma’s career. Every version of “That’s My Desire” makes me laugh out loud, but this one saddens me. I listen to that first chorus, where she sings about her desire to be with her man, as Pops plays a gorgeous obbligato, and, like that lyric in “St. Louis Blues,” it’s a perfect summation of what she lived for: to entertain audiences and serve Louis Armstrong night-after-night for almost 20 years. And of course, her final line says it all: “Though you’ve found someone new, I’ll always love you, that’s my desire.” It’s almost like she was saying goodbye to Pops and on this one occasion, Pops played her off the stage with one single chorus of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” which, again, sums everything up from his perspective as well. If they ever make the movie version of Armstrong’s life story, the Katanga concert would provide quite a dramatic setting for Velma’s goodbye.

Armstrong took Velma’s death very hard, though as drummer Danny Barcelona told me, he still went on with the show. The All Stars had to continue their tour without Velma though Louis made sure that Joe Glaser pulled strings to have her body sent back to the United States so her mother could pay her last respects. After some time, LaVern Baker was approached to replace Velma. According to those present, Armstrong and Baker demonstrated wonderful chemistry on “That’s My Desire” at an engagement they shared together in 1961, but Baker wanted too much money and already had a successful career on her own. Jewel Brown soon replaced Velma permanently, but she never reprised Armstrong’s duets with Velma. However, Armstrong believed in those routines and in the late 60s, would often perform “That’s My Desire” with trombonist Tyree Glenn in the role of Velma. In fact, on one of Armstrong’s last television appearances, Armstrong and Glenn performed “That’s My Desire” on the David Frost Show on February 10, 1971. The routine, which hadn’t really changed since 1947, gets huge laughs from the studio audience. Glenn tells the audience, “You should have seen Pops and Velma do that. They did it so Pops said, ‘Let’s do a take off on that.’” Armstrong responds, “We love her so well.”

So the next time you listen to “Velma’s Blues” and you hear the shrieks of delight emanating from the audience, smile and remember how much joy she brought to countless audiences. And remember that, critics be damned, Louis and Velma truly loved each other and you can hear it on every single recording they did together.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Poor Old Joe

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 18, 1939
Track Time 3:07
Written by Hoagy Carmichael
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Bernard Flood, Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, trumpet; Wilbur De Paris, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Rugert Col, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Joe Garland, Bingie Madison, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Decca 3011
Currently available on CD: Volume six of the indispensable Ambassador series
Available on Itunes? No

It’s back to the Decca big band days today for one of the few tracks in the Armstrong discography that required a “do over.” The song is “Poor Old Joe” and was written by Armstrong’s good friend, Hoagy Carmichael. Armstrong was no stranger to Carmichael’s tunes and during the Decca big band period, he recorded a number of them, including “Lying to Myself,” “Jubilee,” “Ev’ntide,” “Rockin’ Chair” and “Lazy Bones.” Decca must have liked the Armstrong-Carmichael connection, so they dug up an earlier Carmichael composition, “Poor Old Joe,” which was recorded by Fletcher Henderson in 1932, and had Armstrong record it on June 15, 1939. Unfortunately, “Poor Old Joe” came off somewhat sloppy sounding and would be remade later in the year, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to discuss both versions.

That June date caught Armstrong in peak form. He concludes “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” with about a minute and 20 seconds of pure, powerful improvising and on the nostalgic “Shanty Boat on the Mississippi,” he unfurls a supremely relaxed opus, starting out in his lower register and taking two wonderfully executed breaks before building to a spine-tingling climax, topped by a sickeningly high Eb, the type of note you see coming but you really don’t think he’s going to make it. When he does hit it right on the nose, with that angelic tone, it’s enough to cause the listener to cheer. Don’t believe me? Click here and listen to it for yourself.

Not bad, eh? Like any other Decca side not named “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Swing That Music,” “Jubilee” or “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” it’s another one of those Armstrong tracks that has flown under the radar for almost 70 years but I love it. But now that you’ve heard it, you can hear that Pops’s chops were in top form that day. But when you listen to the first attempt at “Poor Old Joe,” I think you’ll realize that something was lacking. Click here to listen.

The arrangement isn’t that great, beginning somewhat stiffly with some hokey alto saxophone lines over stomping trombone blasts. Pops comes right in with the lyrics, which weren’t exactly Carmichael’s shining hour. He sings them well, but it’s a pretty lackluster outing as Pops adds nothing new to what’s written. A tenor saxophone interlude is next over stop-time chords, though the rhythm sections continues swinging along (Joe Garland had taken over as music director in early 1939 and he plays tenor on the track but it sounds to my ears like the solo might emanate from the band’s other tenor player, Bingie Madison). After the tenor spot, Pops enters but again, it’s another lackluster outing, 16 bars of almost pure melody that never rises above the middle register. Of course, Armstrong was the master of interpreting melodies (see my last entry on “You’ll Never Walk Alone) but “Poor Old Joe” isn’t exactly “Stardust.” After brief trumpet solo, the reeds play a harmless unison passage before Armstrong reenters to sing another chorus with different lyrics. The lyrics are somewhat humorous, but again, Armstrong, after an exciting entrance, sounds like he’s reading the lyrics for the first time. In fact, he almost sounds confused when Carmichael’s first set of lyrics doesn’t rhyme. He manages to end with some enthusiasm but when the band reprises the record’s introduction, it’s time to start looking at the elapsed time: 2:20 has gone by and there’s nothing to show for this record! Perhaps sensing this, Armstrong’s favorite drummer, Big Sid Catlett, plays a furious fill, setting up Armstrong’s repeated note entrance. Big Sid’s at his finest, dropping backbeats on only the second beat of each of the first three bars before breaking up the time and dropping bombs like crazy.

(“Wait a minute, I thought that started with bebop and swing era drummers only kept time?” says the young modern jazz enthusiast. “Listen to Big Sid,” says I.)

Armstrong’s repeated notes are exciting, but when he begins to get hot and ratchet up the intensity of his playing, he falters a bit, cracking the one highish note in his run at the 2:29 mark. He then retreats back to the lower end of his horn, perhaps not sure of his upper register. But finally, heading into the last 16 bars, Armstrong hits his stride, hitting a high note that turns into an extended downward gliss. He begins to take the melody up an octave but when he gets to the highest note of his solo, a quick high D, he grazes it, not hitting it flush. He tries to recover with a quick gliss and a strong final three notes but overall, it’s kind of a sloppy offering. In fact, the first time I ever heard this take, I was driving somewhere and when it was over I thought, “Yikes, I’m surprised they even released that.” It truly sounds like a run-through that could have used a couple of more rehearsals. As it turned out, this take was only released in Argentina (how does that even happen?) as even Pops probably knew he could do better and he sure did on the remake session in December. You can listen to it here.

First off, because it was the originally released take, the master of “Poor Old Joe” survives in crystal clear sound so one can really appreciate Sid Catlett’s drumming on this record. The record starts off as almost an identical twin to the first attempt as even Pops sings the first chorus in a similar fashion. Even the tenor saxophone spot almost sounds exactly the same. But then Pops hurls himself into his 16-bar trumpet solo and it’s like he’s a new man. Instead of just playing the melody, he improvises from the start this time, opening with a string of exciting quarter-notes, backed by Catlett backbeats. He still sticks to the middle register but he sounds like he wants to keep going after the 16 bars, though he catches himself and let’s the reeds do their unison bit. But when Pops sings that second chorus, look out! I guess after perhaps a few months of performing it live, Armstrong got familiar with the lyrics and worked out some fun business for the remake, half-speaking some of the lines, guffawing after the lines about the devil and wine and women and offering an affirmative “yessir” after singing about “long, lean women.” Just those few asides and additions make the vocal on the master take come alive. And finally, the trumpet solo is much more poised. Catlett stops with the bombs and instead offers more powerhouse playing on two-and-four. Armstrong responds by coming out of the gate supercharged, working out a neat two-note motive for eight bars. And when climbs into the upper register, he sounds much stronger, hitting that high D clearly without it sounding like a squeak. He ends solidly, without any sloppiness or forced glisses and in the end, creates a very fine record.

It was just the beginning of a great day for Armstrong. He produced super-human efforts on “You’re a Lucky Guy” and “You’re Just A No Account” and on “Bye and Bye,” he turned another spiritual into a New Orleans jazz romp much as he did with “The Saints” the previous year. In fact, “Bye and Bye” was coupled with “Poor Old Joe,” a record that received a favorable review in Jazz Information. “In spite of some poor arranging, ‘Bye And Bye’ has some of the vigorous enthusiasm we expect from Louis' records with his large orchestras,” the reviewer stated. “Higginbotham and Catlett are featured in trombone and drum solos. ‘Poor Old Joe’ has even more of the same. These are Armstrong's best sides since his series of old-timer revivals last year.” Thus, “Poor Old Joe” might not be an Armstrong classic of classics but by comparing the two takes, it gives a terrific glimpse into how Armstrong could tighten up a performance and mold it into something much more effective after he became more familiar with the material. And as always….check out those big band Deccas! S’all for now…

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Tenderly/You'll Never Walk Alone

Louis Armstrong and The All Stars
Recorded September 1, 1954
Track Time 7:23
“Tenderly” Written by Walter Gross and Jack Lawrence; “You’ll Never Walk Alone” Written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Trummy Young, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Billy Kyle, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Barrett Deems, drums
Originally released on Decca (never on a 78)
Currently available on CD: The original studio recording can be found on Hip-O’s three-disc box Louis Armstrong: An American Icon, as well as the Verve Armstrong compilation, I Love Jazz.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on I Love Jazz

Today’s entry will focus on Louis Armstrong’s sentimental side by discussing his favored medley of “Tenderly” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Armstrong didn’t get around to recording the medley until 1954 but he had definitely been playing it for some time. On a radio interview from early 1952, Armstrong is asked about the type of music he plays from night to night. “We play all types of music,” he answered. “We’re libel to run into ‘Tenderly,’ it depends on what audience we have. Every time we play a university, you have to play ‘Tiger Rag’ or an old fox trot. Those tunes out there, they’re all sharp and in tuxedos and evening gowns and they don’t want to be jumping all over the place like adagio dancers or trying to keep up with the music or something. So we’ll play something pretty, something slow….And it turns out all right.” It sure did!

Much has been written about Armstrong’s love of Guy Lombardo’s band but I don’t think he was solely in love with Lombardo’s sound. I just think he had a deep spot in his heart for sweet, sentimental music that was aimed at the heart and not necessarily the head. Pops knew his reputation as a hot jazz musician and high-note trumpeter were too strong to ditch; he would never get away with leading a “sweet” band! But by combining “Tenderly” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” he got to indulge this side of his musical personality by rarely deviating from the two separate, but powerful melodies. During a 1965 show hosted by Humphrey Lyttleton, Armstrong reminisced about the music he played in New Orleans, mainly popular songs, but also a lot of comedy routines. Armstrong might have loved to include comedy in his stage shows but he also knew how to respect a melody. Speaking of the All Stars, he said on this 1965 broadcast, “Yeah, we used to play ‘Tenderly’ and all. You see, people get the wrong part of jazz. Like in the early days, they carried it so far til the trumpet player would throw his horn over to the trombone player and the piano player would throw the stool from under him and the drummer would do hand flips. I mean, where’s the lead? Where’s the song? They tried it all kinds of ways. That’s why I like Guy Lombardo cause they stand there [sings “Auld Lang Syne”]. And if we ever have a big banquet or something, everybody sings ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ what they doing? Would I say copying Guy Lombardo? Cause that’s what they do.” Thus, if the “Tenderly/You’ll Never Walk Alone” medley allowed Armstrong to “copy” Guy Lombardo, so be it, as it was always a beautiful highlight of any All Stars show that included it.

“Tenderly” was written in 1946 and was notably swung in the jazz world by the Oscar Peterson trio at a Carnegie Hall concert in 1952. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the 1945 musical Carousel and became a hit for Frank Sinatra. Armstrong treated both songs as slow waltzes, which always made for a nice change of pace in the All Stars’s consistently swinging stage show (and naturally, it was a perfect fit for dances). Armstrong finally got around to recording for Decca on September 1, 1954, while in the midst of an extended engagement at the Basins Street nightclub in New York City. The first tune of the day was a version of “Muskrat Ramble” that featured some dopey new lyrics. Pops probably had to perform it at Decca’s behest and maybe suggested “Tenderly/You’ll Never Walk Alone” as something of a trade. Though both songs were already popular standards, the original Decca medley weighed in at over seven minutes so it never had a chance to become a hit 78 record.

But what’s contained in those seven minutes and 23 seconds is quite emotional. A Billy Kyle arpeggio sets up Pops’s entrance, as he immediately begins with the pure melody. Drummer Barrett Deems offers some very clean rolls in the background, Arvell Shaw keeps his bass strings bowed and Trummy Young and Barney Bigard offer sympathetic support, with Bigard getting in some liquid runs in between Pops’s stately lead. After one chorus, Billy Kyle steps into the spotlight for some of his most elegant playing. There’s more than a trace of Erroll Garner in some of those lines. Kyle’s usually mentioned as a Hines follower, which he undoubtedly was, but he also had some Garner in him when he needed to showcase it (listen to his “Basin Street Blues” solo from his first Decca session in March 1954 for some guitar-like left-hand playing a la Garner). As Kyle emotes, you can carefully hear Pops talking in the background, which was somewhat odd for a studio record. This wasn’t a jam session, such as the W.C. Handy album, where some shouting and laughing can be heard, but Pops clearly had something that needed to be said without stopping the take.

Anyway, after Kyle’s beautiful chorus, he modulates up, setting the stage for Pops to enter with “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” This is a very ethereal moment. Pops had such a big strong, tone, but here, he plays so softly, yet stately. This is serious playing and you can feel him playing directly to the listener’s soul. Bigard and Young don’t have to do much more than hold backing notes, but they choose some lovely ones, surrounding Pops’s lead with some plush pillows of sound. When Pops gets to the first “Walk on” part of the lyrics, it’s hard to not get swept up by the atmosphere. And when he gets to the higher “Walk on,” building higher and higher to the climactic title phrase, it becomes one of those moments when the hair begins to rise on your neck. And when he gets to the third “Walk on” segment, well, good night, nurse, I’m through. Kyle starts pounding out a tremolo, Pops does his only improvising of the record with some well-calculated runs up to the high notes.

It’s a fitting climax to the record, but it’s not over yet. Shaw’s bowed bass modulates matters back down to the original key for one more go-around of “Tenderly.” Pops continues keeping the melody in the forefront for this final half-chorus, but he begins taking some liberties as he goes on, playing a pet lick at 6:29 that is killing me because I know he played that somewhere else and I can hear it in my head. Pops slows it down for a final coda on the last line of the song, with Deems holding a crisp roll while Pops, Barney and Trummy harmonize, Pops ending on sober low note. An absolutely beautiful record.

The medley never became a regular part of every show but it would be played when Pops was in the right mood. However, all other live versions end with “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the climactic high point, rather than going back to “Tenderly.” A wonderful rendition of the medley can be found on the Chicago Concert set, recorded June 1, 1956. Pops just finished riling the crowd up with “Mack the Knife” when, without an announcement, he begins playing the melody of “Tenderly.” On this live version, he takes a few more liberties with the melody, always keeping it in the forefront, but managing to improvise and rephrase it where he sees fit. Kyle still takes his beautiful full-chorus solo but the mood is lightened up a bit by Trummy Young yelling, “Oh, he plays so sexy!” Kyle gets a deserving round of applause before Pops begins “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” following the pattern of the Decca record to a tee. As Pops hits his final note, Young and Kyle each play the opening four notes of “Tenderly,” a neat way of tying the two songs together. And then it’s off to a Barrett Deems drum solo on “Stompin’ At The Savoy”!

It’s not worth the time to break down each recorded live version of “Tenderly/You’ll Never Walk Alone” because they’re all so similar, but of course, a few things could be said. By the time of an Orpheum Theater show in September 1957, Kyle’s solo had become fertile ground for more comedy. Young once again exclaims, “Man, you sure play sexy,” but this time, after continuing for a few bars, Kyle stops and responds, “You know, that makes me feel very self-conscious.” And for the concluding 40 seconds of Kyle’s solo, which gets progressively slower, the audience continues tittering at visuals we’ll never get to see. Fortunately, Pops puts an end to the shenanigans with another marvelous “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” By the time of the group’s 1959 European tour, the medley had been shortened some more. Now Pops played a half-chorus of melody followed by Kyle taking a half-chorus piano flowery solo (no “sexy” comments this time). Pops gives “You’ll Never Walk Alone” the full treatment but with the editing, the once 7:23 record is cut down to 4:36, which Pops probably felt was more suitable for a concert audience. But at a dance, anything went, as he famously told David Halberstam in 1957. While discussing rock-and-roll and how the younger generation doesn’t appreciate slow songs, Pops says, “They gotta have something to pop their eyes out. When we hit Savannah we played ‘I’ll Never Walk Alone’ and the whole house—all Negroes—started singing with us on their own. We ran through two choruses and they kept with us and then later they asked for it again. Most touching damn thing I ever saw. I almost started crying right there on the stage. We really hit something inside each person there.”

Thus, the “Tenderly/You’ll Never Walk Alone” medley stayed in the book for quite some time, but it does seem to have disappeared in the early 60s. But before I get ahead of myself, I should say a few words about Armstrong’s recording of “Tenderly” with Ella Fitzgerald. This was done for their first collaboration, an album I love dearly. It’s not my favorite track from that 1956 session (that would be “The Nearness Of You”), but it’s a very nice meeting of the different sectors of the jazz world. Pops opens with the melody in waltz-time with Oscar Peterson backing him beautifully. But after one chorus, Peterson modulates and takes it to the swinging medium tempo he originally performed the song at. With Buddy Rich using brushes, the rhythm section gives Ella peerless backing and Pops does his part with a brilliant obbligato. Then comes the real treat as Pops sings a chorus. He might have given the melody utmost respect when he performed it as a slow waltz, but in swingtime, he transforms it into something his own, singing the first line on one note, throwing in bits of scat and even coming up with some new lyrics at the end, singing, “You took my chops, ‘way from Pops, Tenderly.” The song then reverts back to waltz time as Pops plays the melody gorgeously, this time with Ella singing an obbligato around his horn. It’s very pretty stuff but Ella gets the last laugh by breaking into her patented Satchmo impression at the end. This recording, like all of Ella and Louis’s work together, is very easy to find and is highly recommended.

Okay, let’s move to the summer of 1967, a rough year for Pops. First, All Stars clarinetist Buster Bailey passed away and then Pops came down with a serious case of pneumonia that forced him to cancel about a month’s worth of gigs. When he reorganized the All Stars at the June of that year, Joe Muranyi was the new clarinetist. Pops quickly burnt himself out celebrating his birthday with a series of long shows and late nights in July, a period vividly captured in a long article by Larry King. At the end of July, Armstrong and the All Stars headed to Europe but the trip and father time were obviously catching up with Armstrong. On Storyville’s fourth In Scandinavia volume, a handful of tracks are included from a July 25 concert in Denmark. Pops gives his all, even calling encores on “Cabaret” but his chops sound tired, as he can’t get up to the higher points of his upper register on “Back O’Town Blues,” something he had done just the previous year for A Man Called Adam. In the next to days, Armstrong played two shows at Juan-Les-Pins, France, where he finally made some concession to age by cutting out his solos on “Indiana” and “Muskrat Ramble.” Video of these performances shows Pops to be looking very tired at times, especially as he smokes backstage while Jewel Brown sings. But the main reason I’m giving this backstory is because it was during this tour that Pops dusted off his “Tenderly/You’ll Never Walk Alone” medley. However, to save chops, he decided to now sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” introducing it as “a little message coming up for you, folks.” The Denmark version is heard on the aforementioned fourth volume of the Scandinavia series but it’s not a complete performance. According to Gösta Hägglöf, the man behind the Storyville discs, Armstrong opened it by playing “Tenderly” but this was no longer the Armstrong of 1955. Apparently, Armstrong played it like he was lost, missing notes and hitting completely wrong ones. The experience was “touching and disturbing” to Gösta, who wisely decided to edit it out and just include “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as the final track on the C.D.

However, Pops got his act together and played much better on the French Riviera, turning in a smoking “Cabaret” and even soloing on “Ole Miss.” When he called the “Tenderly/You’ll Never Walk Alone” medley, he was ready and this performance can be heard on the old Vanguard two-disc set (now available on Itunes), The Best of Louis Armstrong. Armstrong only plays eight bars of melody but he doesn’t falter, though his tone sounds brittle at times. He’s then followed by eight bars of Muranyi, eight bars of trombonist Tyree Glenn and a final eight from pianist Marty Napoleon, where Pops once again prepares the audience for the “message.” What he was referring to was the Vietnam war and Pops soon began dedicating the song to the soldiers overseas and their mothers at home. In fact, in one letter to a soldier, Pops quoted the song’s entire lyrics. The melody of the song is a little out of Pops’s vocal range, especially the lower notes, but once the song picks up, he really starts emoting (the lowest note he hits is a C and the highest is an F, an eleventh away!). As dramatic as the trumpet playing was, there’s something still spine-tingling hearing Pops infuse every ounce of emotion in the song’s lyrics, even asking everyone to sing. It’s another compensation to old age and old chops but thanks to his vocal genius, it’s quite affecting.

So affecting, in fact, that Pops decided to record it for his next Brunswick album in October 1967. In between the July concerts in Europe and the October recording session, Armstrong waxed the original version of “What a Wonderful World.” Though it probably hadn’t been released as of Armstrong’s first October session for Brunswick, word must have gotten out that Armstrong was now singing emotional, inspirational songs backed by strings and voices. Thus, Brunswick hired Dick “Schmuck” Jacobs (in the words of Joe Muranyi) to arrange a bunch of cloying showtunes for Pops, in addition to the rancid “I Believe” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It’s an album with few highlights but one of them definitely is “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Jacobs added veteran studio musician Ernie Hayes to play some church-style organ throughout, which really lends the song a nice gospel atmosphere. Guitarist Wally Richardson plucks out single-string arpeggios, a la “Wonderful World,” but it works, as does Jacobs’s usually headache-inducing choir, which sticks to providing rich harmonies behind Pops’s singing. In fact, the whole thing reminds me of a Ray Charles record from the sixties. And Armstrong sounds even better on the studio recording than he did during the previous live shows as he handles the lower notes better with a stronger voice. It’s emotional stuff and for me, at least, I get swept away by it pretty easy. Of course, it’s never been released on an American C.D. but you can find it on Itunes on the German Best of Louis Armstrong set. I’ve written about this one before because it’s pretty odd: the album cover has an orange banner on the left side and a picture of Pops but for some reason, Itunes lists the artist as Arthur Johnston! But volume two of the series has “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and trust me, it’s not Arthur Johnston’s, it’s Pops! And attention Hollywood producers: want to use some Armstrong in your next dramatic film but you’re sick of “What a Wonderful World?” Try this version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as I can easily picture it in the background of a movie.

As time wore on, Pops stopped playing “Tenderly” altogether, though the rhythm section would still play it while he introduced “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Fortunately BBC camera captured Armstrong performing it on a TV show in July 1968. It was one of Armstrong’s last hurrahs. He had lost a lot of weight and soon after, his health would crash and he would be forced to take a year off, but in the summer of 1968, he put on some great shows and played a good amount of trumpet. I wish I knew how to upload stuff onto YouTube because this version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” really should be seen (the version of “What a Wonderful World” from the same day has over one million views on YouTube!). Anyway, Pops introduces it by saying, “And now folks, in America, we always this dedicate this next number to all the mothers who have sons in Vietnam.” Armstrong sings it with tremendous dignity, smiling tenderly and radiating all kinds of warmth.

It’s not known if Armstrong performed “You’ll Never Walk Alone” anymore when he made his comeback in 1970 but regardless, for at least 14 years, Pops managed to create a lot of magic with his unabashedly emotional readings of two American standards, always creating a hush over crowds who wanted to shout and yell for “The Saints” or “Mack the Knife.” It might not be a side of Armstrong that most jazz purists are familiar with but it’s an important part of understanding the kinds of music Louis Armstrong loved to hear and play: music from the heart.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Armstrong Odds and Ends

Letters, I get letters…perhaps not sacks and sacks of letters, but enough to keep things interesting. Thus, for the weekend, I’d like to present something of an odds and ends column made up of bits of news about Louis Armstrong, bits of news about me and some of the interesting comments I receive in my e-mail inbox almost daily. Most of the comments have to do with my specific entries so I’ll take these one item at a time:

• In my “Pretty Little Missy” entry, I mention the unison riff played by the horns in the last chorus, right before Pops’s trumpet bridge. Thanks to trumpet man-extraordinaire Dave Whitney, I now know that that riff was copped from Ralph Flanagan’s “Hot Toddy,” which was originally recorded in 1953 so it must have been fairly fresh in Armstrong and Billy Kyle’s minds when they made the original record of “Missy” in 1955. Also, Dave was kind enough to share the clip of the All Stars performing “Pretty Little Missy” in the 1959 German film Auf Wiedersehen. The hideous editor obviously had no feel for music, chopping the performance down to about 90 seconds thanks to all sorts of abrupt jump cuts. Still, Pops wails and that’s all that matters!

• After my “Butter and Egg Man” entry, the great Armstrong collector from Sweden, Håkan Forsberg, made sure to point out Muggsy Spanier’s famous 1939 version of the tune, in which he copies Armstrong’s original 1926 solo note-for-note. I completely forgot to mention it in my original blog, but thanks to the Red Hot Jazz Archive, you can listen to it yourself by clicking here.

• Gösta Hägglöf is the oracle of Pops and the man behind the indiscernible Ambassador label as well as Storyville’s In Scandinavia set that I will never tire of discussing. After my “I Get Ideas” post, he wrote, “As I understand it, you really studied music, so perhaps you can tell me why the trumpet solo in I Get Ideas always make me think of Sunny Side of 1937. It's another tempo but still I feel there is a resemblance. Could you explain it?” I thought this was especially interesting so I decided to sit down at my piano and see if I can find any similarities. Well, both songs are in the key of C but more importantly, there’s some connections in the chord changes that I never thought of before. Here’s eight bars of each:

I Get Ideas:

C E7 / F / G7 /C G7

C Em / Dm G7/ Dm7 G7/ C

Sunny Side

C / E7 / F /Dm G7

Am / D7 / Dm G7 / C

As you can see, the key revolves around the first three chords, which are identical in both songs, even though the C and the E7 are used for different numbers of beats. Thus, presented with similar changes, Pops obviously had some similar ways of approaching them. Interestingly, on the 1937, “Sunny Side,” he plays what almost sounds like the title phrase at the end of his first eight bars. Thus, without anything being directly quoted in both solos, there are some similar note choices and even ideas, such as the ascending run that begins Pops’s second eight bars on “Sunny Side,” an idea he plays with higher notes on “I Get Ideas.” You can still watch the YouTube video of “I Get Ideas” in my blog entry on that song but if you’ve never heard the 1937 “Sunny Side,” click here.

• And speaking of Gösta, his new website is up and running and really should be checked out by all fans of Pops: www.classicjazz.se. On the site, you can read more about the wonderful Ambassador series, the only way to collect Armstrong’s complete big band output for Decca. It also includes a look at the Live at the Cotton Club disc on Ambassador which I feel to be the most important Armstrong release of the decade. And don’t forget to look up the recordings Gösta has produced featuring the marvelous trumpet player, Bent Persson. With Bent, Gösta has recreated Armstrong’s 50 Hot Choruses For Cornet on three terrific volumes and has also produced a new tribute to Pops that wonderfully recaptures those big band recordings of the late 20s and 1930s, For The Love of Satchmo. They can all be found under the “Kenneth Records” portion of the page.

• Finally, another ace trumpet man out of the Massachusetts area, Phil Person, sent me a link a YouTube video uploaded just yesterday by another one of my Internet Armstrong friends, Ingo Ruppert of Germany. The clip is from the 1959 German film Kisses In Der Nacht and features Armstrong and the All Stars performing the title track from that film. Filmed in glorious color, it features the edition of the band with Trummy Young, Peanuts Hucko, Billy Kyle, Mort Herbert and Danny Barcelona. In all, it lasts six minutes, features two different tempos and some wonderful trumpet playing by Pops. Sure, they turned the reverb up a little too much on the trumpet, but that doesn’t obscure the absolute wailing that goes on. In fact, it feels like a jam session after a while and it’s nice to hear Pops stretch out a bit. Pops looks like he’s having a ball and it’s always fun to hear him sing in a foreign language. Thus, courtesy of Ingo and caught immediately by Phil, here’s “Kisses In Der Nacht”:

• That takes care of the e-mail portion of this entry but never be afraid to write me at dippermouth@msn.com with some comments or questions or just leave a comment directly on the page.

• In Pops news, you might remember that a few months back I wrote about “Wolverine Blues” from Armstrong’s collaboration with the Dukes of Dixieland. At the end of the entry, I wrote about how it’s crime that the complete Dukes sessions aren’t on C.D. and that an outfit like Mosaic Records should take it on. Well, just last night, I went to www.worldsrecords.com, clicked on “Coming Soon” and read about an upcoming release on the “Essential Jazz Classics” label titled Louis Armstrong And The Dukes of Dixieland Complete! The description on the website says that it will include all of the master takes and all of the alternate takes released on Chiaroscuro LPs way back when. It’s going to be a three-disc set with a 16-page booklet. I don’t know anything else about it, including a United States release date, but after doing a little more searching, it appears the release is already available in the United Kingdom. Thus, until it comes to America, enjoy the cover art that I found on a British website currently selling it: Thus, when you couple this release with Fuel 2000’s Satchmo Plays King Oliver reissue, all of Armstrong’s Audio Fidelity recordings will be available on C.D. with the exception of alternates of “Panama Rag” and “Old Kentucky Home” from the Oliver album. I’m sure Mosaic could have done a beautiful job with this material but it didn’t sound like it was going to happen any time soon so I’m thrilled that the Essential Jazz Classics people (whoever you are) have finally stepped in to deliver this material on C.D.

• The TCB label has promised a new Armstrong release, Live in Zurich, Switzerland, 18.10.1949. However, after announcing it on their website, www.tcb.ch, last month, they haven’t mentioned it again since. I did a search for it on the Internet, though, and some European websites are listing it with a release date of November 12. Some websites (not TCB’s), even give this tracklist: When It’s Sleepy Time Down South. That’s A Plenty. Basin Street Blues. Royal Garden Blues. Struttin’ With Some Barbecue. Black And Blue. Velma’s Blues. Honeysuckle Rose. Fine And Dandy. Body And Soul. Back O’Town Blues. High Society. Do You Know What It Means. The Huckle-Buck. No American sites have any information on it yet, as most TCB releases take a few months to come to America, but until then, you can enjoy the humorous cover art:

• A quick plug for David Ostwald’s Gully Low Jazz Band which, as the Louis Armstrong Centennial Band, performs at Birdland in New York City every Wednesday evening from 5:30 to 7:15. I attended their performance this past Wednesday with my nephew and, as always, was completely blown away by the spirit and swing of the band, which featured Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, Anat Cohen on clarinet, Vincent Gardner on trombone, Howard Alden on banjo, Rob Garcia on drums and naturally, leader Ostwald on tuba. The material ran the gamut from “Indiana,” “The Bucket’s Got a Hole In It” and “”Rockin’ Chair” to “I Double Dare You,” “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me” and “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” the latter done with the verse a la Pops circa 1930. Every musician was wonderful and it was a joy to see the fun the band was having in trading each other’s phrases, developing spontaneous background riffs and inserting fun quotes such as Alden playing from Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse” on “Indiana” and Kellso seemingly surprising himself with a quote from “Johnny’s Theme” on “Swing That Music.” Birdland should be applauded for keeping the band a weekly tradition for seven years now and Ostwald himself should be applauded for keeping the spirit of Pops alive week in and week out.

• And finally, news of a personal note. On November 8, I was invited to do an interview with the wonderful Doug Doyle on WBGO, the world’s premier jazz radio station. The subject matter was Pops, of course. I was brought in to talk about my research, the ongoing writing of my book, my strong feelings for Armstrong’s later work and even this blog. It was about 20 minutes in all and in the next couple of weeks, they’re going to edit it and air a shortened version live on the radio, which can be heard at wbgo.org. I will post more information on the blog when I receive it. The good news, though, is that once it airs, WBGO will archive the entire 20-minute interview on their website, which I will link to the blog so anyone can listen to it whenever they’d wish (and I drop a lot of names in the course of the interview!). Until then, have a wonderful weekend and I’ll be back in a few days with a fresh entry on “Tenderly” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Old Man Mose

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded November 21, 1935
Track Time 2:30
Written by Louis Armstrong and Zilner Randolph
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken, Louis Bacon, trumpet; Harry White, Jimmy Archey, trombone; Henry James, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Bingie Madison, Greely Walton, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Originally released on Decca 622
Currently available on CD: All three 1935 takes are available on the first volume of the indispensable Ambassador series. Check out www.classicjazz.se for more information.
Available on Itunes? Yes

Last week, I wrote a teaser entry on “Old Man Mose” as a way of celebrating Halloween. I really thought I’d be able to write a full entry on the tune soon after, but it wasn’t meant to be. (One reason: my brother got married. And what song did the bride dance with her father? The 1956 “When You’re Smiling” from the Autobiography! My choice, of course….) Anyway, better late than never, I say, and here I am with some words on this very fun novelty tune, the kind that made the jazz purists shake their heads with disappointment. Not me, of course, as I think it’s quite hard to keep from smiling while listening to any of “Old Man Mose’s” many incarnations.

Louis Armstrong returned from his European sabbatical in February 1935. Joe Glaser had taken over his career and Armstrong soon began performing with a big band once again headed by trumpeter Zilner Randolph. It must have been during this period when Armstrong and Randolph teamed up to write “Old Man Mose” but, unfortunately for Randolph, he never got to record it with his boss. Most of the band was based in Chicago and when Armstrong got an offer to play an extended engagement at Connie’s Inn in New York, union rules made it just about impossible for them to transfer to another state. Thus, the band disbanded and when Armstrong hit New York, he began fronting the struggling Luis Russell band. This information comes courtesy of Jos Willems’s All of Me and I’d like to quote Willems, who writes about the Russell band’s quick hiring, “…[T]hat also explains why they sound so bad (aside from wonderful Pops) on the earliest Decca’s. They had to learn a whole new book and style. It’s a pity that the Chicago band never got to record.”

Armstrong began recording for Decca in October of 1935 and after tackling five straight pop tunes, Armstrong got to record “Old Man Mose” during his second Decca recording session. You can listen to how that first take of the tune went down by clicking Click here.

There’s a “spooky” introduction before the band plays the melody pretty statically. Armstrong’s trumpet is nowhere to be found but he sings the lyrics with enthusiasm. I always like copying the lyrics here so here goes (and in parentheses, I’ll include the band’s answers):

Once there lived an old man, with a very crooked nose
He lived in a log hut, and they called him Old Man Mose (Yeah!).
Early one morning, I knocked at his door,
And I didn’t hear a single sound, I ain’t goin’ do it no more.

‘Cause, I believe (Old Man), I believe (Old Man)
I believe (Old Man), that Old Man Mose is dead,
Tellin’ you, I believe (Old Man), I do believe (Old Man)
I believe (Old Man), that Old Man Mose is dead.

Now, (We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket, (We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket,
(We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket, we believe he’s dead.
(We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket, (We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket,
(We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket, we believe he’s dead.

Now lookee here!

I went around to the side, and I peeped through the crack,
I saw an old man laying flat on his back (Yeah!),
If Old Man Mose was dead asleep, I did not know,
Boy, after looking through that window—Mm—I ain’t goin’ do that no more.

‘Cause, I found out (Old Man), I found out (Old Man),
I found out (Old Man), that Old Man Mose is dead,
Yessir, I found out (Old Man), I found out (Old Man),
I found out (Old Man), that Old Man Mose.

Now, (We Found Out), Mose kicked the bucket, (We Found Out) Mose kicked the bucket,
(We Found Out), Mose kicked the bucket, we found out he’s dead,
(We Found Out), Mose kicked the bucket, (We Found Out) Mose kicked the bucket,
(We Found Out), Mose kicked the bucket, we found out he’s dead,

Old man……oh bay-beh, bah dah doz, zait….is dead!

It’s not Cole Porter, but I dare you to try and listen to it and not sing along with the “We believes” and “We found outs.” Anyway, it’s a fine version but Pops must have known something was wrong: the tempo drags a little bit, the arrangement is corny and the vocal doesn’t carry the maximum amount of oomph.

Here’s where it gets confusing: two more takes of “Mose” were released, takes D and E, with E being the master. However, they both feature completely different arrangements. The tempo’s now faster, Russell plays a great introduction and Pops takes a half-chorus on the trumpet, while the reeds simply play minor-tinged harmonies behind him. Some places, such as the Satchography website and Gösta Hägglöf’s 1935 Ambassador C.D., assume that the “Mose’s” come from two different days since “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed” also was attempted once and redone and issued in different sound. However, Jos Willems claims he obtained the original MCA files and there was only one date, November 21, 1935. It’s hard to argue with the files, but I think I side with those who argue for two different dates. To cut a take with one arrangement, scrap it, revise it, rehearse it and record two more takes suitable to be issued seems like a lot to be done in one day—especially when three other songs were recorded that day!

Anyway, I guess we’ll never know, but for your listening pleasure, here’s take D, courtesy of the Red Hot Jazz Archive. This was originally issued in Australia and it sometimes crops up on Armstrong compilations as the original master take, but it’s not (I, admittedly, named it the master take in my quick Halloween blog of last week). Anyway, you can listen to take D by clicking here.

Immediately, you can hear that someone had a very good idea by substituting Pops’s trumpet in the beginning instead of the stilted arrangement. Armstrong creatively sticks to one not for most of the outing and he creates some searing lines in the second half. The vocal, with more pronounced striding from pianist Russell, has more energy, as well. By the time of take E, the original master (and not available on the Red Hot Jazz site), the band had the song down pat. Armstrong’s trumpet is even more assured this time around and his storytelling abilities as a vocal really shine. And Armstrong always remembered the final note he sang on the record. When asked to discuss Billy Eckstine’s recording of “Goodbye” for a Leonard Feather blindfold test, Pops heard a note and exclaimed, “Ah, that thirteenth! That always sounds good…that’s the thing I hit on the end of ‘Ol’ Man Mose,’ remember?”

As I mentioned in the beginning, “Old Man Mose” is the kind of novelty that made the Hot Five and Seven devotees cringe but it became something of a hit and after the record’s release on December 16, 1935, it was already being covered by the likes of Armstrong disciple Wingy Manone the following month (Manone’s version can be heard on the excellent Mosaic Records Manone and Louis Prima box). Bob Crosby recorded a transcription of it a month after Manone (issued on a Storyville compilation) and others continued: Bunny Berigan, Nat Gonella, Ella Fitzgerald, the Ink Spots and many more. Comic singer Betty Hutton even sang it during a short that featured Vincent Lopez’s Orchestra in 1939:

Hutton even recorded a follow-up titled “Old Man Mose Ain’t Dead,” which is also available on YouTube. In fact, a search of “Old Man Mose” shows how far this song traveled from its original Armstrong origins. There’s a version by banjo player Lew Dite that begins with the heading, “Songs Skiffle Taught Me to Love.” There’s even a truly bizarre Gospel-Meets-Hippies version by the Les Humphries Singers of Germany from 1972. And a glance across the Internet shows 1950s versions by the likes of the late Teresa Brewer and Connie Francis…we’ve come a long way from St. Louis (Armstrong, that is)!

But Armstrong is the focus of this entry, so I’d like to continue with a few more of his forays into the world of “Old Man Mose.” Naturally, the song became a staple of Armstrong’s big band repertoire and some broadcast performances are available on C.D. On volume six of the Ambassador series, there’s a version taken from an ASCAP 25th anniversary Carnegie Hall concert from October 2, 1939. It’s a great version but the guy who steals the show is Sid Catlett, whose slashing hi-hat cymbals, bass drum accents and humorous “knocks” demonstrate why he was Armstrong’s favorite drummer. By this point, the band’s other comedian, trombonist George Washington, began adding some of his own shouted responses to Armstrong’s lyrics. In 1943, Armstrong broadcast “Mose” as part of a Jubilee broadcast, now issued on a Storyville C.D. It’s been eight years, but Luis Russell plays the exact same piano part. Pops’s trumpet solo isn’t really different, either, but the reed section sounds a little fatter behind him. Big Sid was gone by this point and Chick Morrison, though a fine drummer, doesn’t compare. Washington now interrupts Armstrong’s final scat coda, receiving a humorous “Shut up, boy” from the leader.

“Old Man Mose” never became a staple of the All Stars’s repertoire, but versions survive from the 40s, 50s and 60s so it’s possible that it was performed more often than it was recorded. It first shows up during an August 5, 1949 broadcast from the Click in Philadelphia, issued privately on a Crabapple Sound C.D. (available at crabapplesound.com). This version sounds like it was done as a request as you can hear Pops quickly blow part of his opening solo while the announcer is still introducing the song. Earl Hines and Cozy Cole begin at two different tempos but soon lock in and the band swings mightily for those 16 instrumental bars. Perhaps knowing that the other band members had never performed the number before, Armstrong kind of coaches them along, singing his part and their responses, such as the “Yeah” in the first stanza. The band’s with him for the “Old Man” repeats (Velma Middleton can be heard in the background) but Pops decides to tip them off to when it changes to “We believe” by singing that line himself! For the rest of the performance, the band has the routine straight except where there’s supposed to be a drum break, Earl Hines starts playing a solo. However, Pops probably signaled to Cole to take and Cozy steamrolls right over the “Fatha” with the drum break, though he begins going back into fast swing time when Pops begins his extended scat coda. Scared the band is going to come in too early, Pops manages to cleverly insert the word “Wait” into his scatting and turns to Teagarden and quickly asks him, “You got that chord?” The rest of the band comes in with the final “is dead” and the piece ends happily, even if it was a little shaky at times.

In January 1955, Decca recorded three long sets by the All Stars at the Crescendo Club in Hollywood. Armstrong, knowing Decca probably wanted some different items, reached into his deep bag of tricks and pulled out some different numbers, including “Old Man Mose.” Both of these versions are on the four-disc California Concerts and both are worth hearing. After Pops introduces the first version, pianist Billy Kyle begins comping an introduction at a too-slow tempo, causing Pops to says, “Pick it up a little.” He does and the tune settles into a nice groove. The band attacks the instrumental portion with gusto and, unlike the 1949 version, Pops doesn’t have to show the way. This time, that distinction belongs to Arvell Shaw, who had been playing it since his days in Armstrong’s final big band. A few times, you can hear Shaw’s lone voice shout the comeback line, followed by the rest of the band the next time around as if they were following his lead. And when Pops gets to the “We found out” part, someone in the band, sings “We found out,” while someone else correctly sings “Old Man.” It’s barely noticeable but it was enough for Pops to call a second version in the next set. He dedicates it to a party who requested it, but it’s possible he wanted to do it again to smooth out any rough spots. This time around, the band sings its part without a problem but now, Armstrong screws it up! Instead of singing “knocked on his door,” he sings “peeped through the crack.” Realize what he did, he immediately starts laughing in a hysterical high-pitched rasp. Ever the professional, he signals to the band to start from scratch and, ever the professionals, they do just that. The rest of the performance goes off without a hitch, right down to the scat ending, where the rest of the band provides some vocal harmony beneath Armstrong’s scatting. When the song ends, Armstrong must have said something because Trummy Young starts cracking up. Armstrong announces a request for “The Bucket’s Got a Hole In It” and while Billy Kyle plays the piano intro, Young says something about getting the Hall Johnson choir, causing other members of the band to break up. When originally issued on vinyl, Decca made a composite of both performances but you can hear all of the hilarity on the California Concerts C.D. issue.

That’s actually the last known recorded performance of the All Stars doing “Old Man Mose” in a live setting, but it wasn’t the last time they performed it. In October 1962, Betty Taylor wrote a story titled, “Rehearsal Session…With Louis ‘Pops’ Armstrong At Steinway Hall.” In it, she details a rare rehearsal the band had at Steinway Hall in preparation for an October 21 performance for President Kennedy. Only four people were in attendance: Jack Bradley, his wife at the time, Jeann Faillows, alto saxophonist Lem Davis, and Taylor. Taylor writes about some of the numbers being rehearsed, including “That’s a Plenty.” She also mentions “Old Man Mose, writing, “Jack Bradley had brought along some old collectors’ items on 78’s. Louie had him play a 1935 Blue Label Decca version of ‘Old Man Mose Is Dead.’ There was a lot of background vocal harmony on the record, so the fellows listened four or five times, and then they worked on it. ‘I believe, I do believe, that Old Man Mose is dead,’ sang Jazz’s Greatest, while the boys backed him up.” Thus, it was probably performed shortly after that rehearsal. We also know it was performed by the All Stars on an episode of the Mike Douglas Show in 1964. Thus, it’s safe to assume that “Old Man Mose” was never part of the regular All Stars shows in the 1950s and 1960s but Pops probably always had it ready in case anyone requested it and if it was a particularly long show or a dance, it might have been played. So, Halloween might be a week old, but I can enjoy listening to “Old Man Mose” 365 days of the year.