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.