Sunday, January 27, 2008

I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded January 26, 1933
Track Time 3:02
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 24233
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Ah, the Itunes shuffle works in mysterious ways. After my “When Your Lover Has Gone” entry of last week, I set out to write another one today, hit the shuffle button and came up with another Armstrong big band classic from the early 30s that he revisited for the same 1957 Russell Garcia-arranged album as he did “When Your Lover Has Gone.” The song is “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” (or “I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues” for those sensitive about the English language out there) and it’s an undisputed highlight of Armstrong’s wonderful Victor big band recordings of 1932 and 1933. This was recorded the same day as “I’ve Got the World on a String,” which I have already written about. Both songs were written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, but for different shows, “String” being utilized in a “Cotton Club Parade” while “Blues” debuted in “Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1932.” Ethel Merman seems to be first to record the latter, waxing a medley of Carroll’s Vanities songs (“Right to Sing the Blues” and “Anything Goes”) on September 29, 1932 with Nat Shilkret and His Orchestra.

Victor obviously wanted to push these songs and in November 1932, they had Cab Calloway record each of them, “String” on November 2 and “Blues” on November 30. Calloway introduced “World on a String” in the aforementioned “Cotton Club Parade,” but he later became associated with “Right to Sing the Blues” after singing it in the popular 1937 short “Hi De Ho.” As usual, this film is available on YouTube but the uploader has disabled embedding (booo!) so I can’t post it here. But thanks to the magic of links, you can click here and fast-forward to the 1:29 mark to enjoy this performance by another great showman of the era (though stay and watch the whole short if you have the time, because it’s a lot of fun).

And I couldn’t get through one of these blogs without illustrating how a non-Armstrong, “popular” version of a tune sounded, so here’s another YouTube capture of a 78 record of “I Gotta Right to Sing The Blues.” The YouTube video says it’s the Victor Young Orchestra but I have this one on a Mosaic Records Bunny Berigan box set and they say it’s the Dorsey Brothers band. Regardless, this is no ordinary hotel band with the likes of a Paul Small singing. We’ve got Bunny playing and the great Lee Wiley singing and though it was recorded in March 1933, two months after Armstrong, it’ll give a good illustration of how a popular dance band would have approached the song, complete with Wiley singing the verse. And for visuals, enjoy some photos of Greta Garbo (?) as the music plays:

Okay, with the preliminaries out of the way, let’s turn our attention to Pops. Armstrong’s January 26, 1933 session was the first one he did with his own big band for the Victor label, though he recorded two sessions for them the previous December, one with Chick Webb’s group and one with a Philadelphia theater orchestra. Armstrong’s previous recording session was a March 1932 one for OKeh, his last for that label. The summer of 1932 featured much fighting between OKeh and Victor over the rights to record Armstrong, as was pointed out in a Time magazine story on Armstrong from June 13 (thanks to fellow Armstrong biography Terry Teachout for pointing the way to this story). The article, titled “Black Rascal,” states, “In Depression not many phonograph artists are worth fighting over but Victor and Okeh are both aware that more than 100,000 Louis Armstrong records sold during the past year, that he is one of the few orchestra leaders whom radio has not overpopularized.” When the smoke cleared, Armstrong was a Victor recording artist.

I think I spent much of my “There’s a Cabin in the Pines” entry stating the case for Armstrong’s Victor period, so there’s no need to go over all that again since you can look it up in my November archives. But I might as well say it again: for whatever problems one might have with the sound of the Armstrong band during this period or with the repertoire Victor chose to have him record, there’s no denying the graphic strength of his trumpet playing during the five months he spent recording for that label. To me, it’s the height of his playing, the perfect transitional period between the daring, faster playing of the 1920s and the sure-footed, more dramatic, operatic style of his future years. Armstrong on Victor can execute just about anything he desires and that makes for some thrilling listening.

With the infomercial over, let’s turn to “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues.” You can listen along by clicking here. The January 26 date (hey, what a coincidence, that’s 75 years ago yesterday!) began with “World on a String,” which opened with Armstrong counting off for the band. Clearly, they saw Armstrong as more than just a trumpet player and they wanted to wanted to showcase every facet of his personality, including his speaking voice. Thus, “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” opens with this monologue:

“What’s the matter with you, boy? Don’t you know I gotta right to sing the blues? Listen at this…look out! One…two….”

And with that, we’re off. The horns play a simple intro, eliciting a mellow “Yeah” from their leader before young Teddy Wilson plays an Earl Hines-like interlude to allow Pops to get ready for his close-up. I don’t know if there are any specific quotes from Harold Arlen about Louis Armstrong but clearly, he must have loved Pops for many of his songs seem to be peppered with the Armstrong vocabulary. Armstrong had already recorded Arlen and Koehler’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” a relaxed melody that reeks of Armstrong, while “I’ve Got the World on a String” features a bridge steeped in Pops. “Right to Sing the Blues” might be the most Pops-ified (not a real word) of them all since it relies so much on repeated notes in its melody. Because of that, Armstrong doesn’t feel the need to take many creative liberties with the written tune. He sings it beautifully, making great use of his high tenor voice of the period, while the band swings lightly behind him, clarinetist Scoville Browne and tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson improvising polyphonically behind him. Armstrong throws in a “babe” early on, but with 16 bars down, it’s all Arlen.

That changes immediately after Arlen’s heroic stop-time bridge. Armstrong works himself up with the lyrics, “Babe, all I see for me is mis’ry,” but where he’s supposed to sing the title phrase, he instead substitutes a passionate “Oh” and the most mellifluous “Mm-mm,” I’ve ever heard, insinuating everything about the mood of the title phrase without actually using the English language. Feeling high and happy, Armstrong reverts back to Koehler’s lyrics but now takes some chances, singing the phrase “Moan and sigh,” before giving himself an obbligato of his own, re-singing “moan and sign” an octave lower, sounding like a character out of an old horror movie or something. In fact, the tune was a good one to demonstrate Armstrong’s range as he goes way down for the line, “Down around the river.” Approaching the last eight bar “C” section, Armstrong swings out a perfectly placed “Oh babe,” before singing the last eight bars with all those repeated notes Arlen must have written with Pops somewhere in the back of his mind.

After the vocal, the band swings out for awhile, Armstrong clearly enjoying their playing, growling out a “Yeah” when they begin. Teddy Wilson sounds especially good here, as does the entire band, propelled by Bill Oldham’s big-toned bass (when he switched to tuba for the April 1933 sessions, it was a step backward). It’s a long showcase for the band but fortunately, there’s 90 seconds of record left and Pops makes the most of it, opening with one of his all-time greatest entrances: a single held D (listen for one of the saxes goof up and hit a quick note under it). Perhaps the Armstrong of 1928 would have played something flashy and jaw-dropping in this two-bar break, but the Armstrong of 1933 had already matured greatly and he knew he could convey just as much drama and feeling with a perfectly placed held note. I mean, really, how do you make one held note swing? It’s all in the placement, my friends. Armstrong hits it a shade after the beat and the whole thing swings. Genius.

For his solo, Armstrong improvises quite a bit, alluding to Arlen’s melody here and there, but taking more chances than he did in his vocal. Another favorite part of mine is a quote Armstrong plays in the second eight bars, dropping in a snatch of Jack King and Dorothy Parker’s 1929 song, “How Am I To Know,” a song Armstrong is said to have featured himself on during live performances in the early 1930s. Anyone familiar with the song would be correct to assume that Armstrong was born to play Arlen’s rising stop-time episode in the second eight bars. However, genius that he is, Armstrong doesn’t play it as written but instead blasts out one high Bb after another while the band, in stop-time form, plays the melody as written. Each pulsating Bb glimmers with intensity before a soul-stirring glissando, starting around the southern tip of Florida and ending somewhere in Detroit…or low F to a freakishly high D for those keeping score at home. Armstrong played hundreds of glisses on record but this is one of the greatest.

After the gliss, Armstrong stays in the upper register, but he doesn’t feel the need to shoot off anymore fireworks. There’s not much more I can say than it swings relentlessly. And kudos to the rhythm section of Oldham, Wilson, guitarist Mike McKendrick and drummer Yank Porter who clearly give Armstrong the kind of pulse he thrived off of. And your honor, for example #201 of Armstrong trumpet player mirroring Armstrong the vocalist, listen at the 2:34 mark where Armstrong plays the “moan and sigh” part of the melody followed immediately by a lower, obbligato-ish paraphrase of the same line…JUST as he sang it a couple of minutes earlier.

There’s something so beautiful about the concept of Armstrong’s rhythm that I never get tired of. Listen to his attack at the 2:42 mark and how those he accents those G’s that pop in and out of his improvisation. Armstrong calms down for the final eight bars, sticking to the melody (where, here, almost naturally alludes to “How Am I To Know”) before ending on a high Bb. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a perfect record.

Now before I flash forward to Armstrong’s remake from 1957, I’d like to point out that “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” did turn up again frequently in the early years of the All Stars…but not as a feature for Pops. After Armstrong recorded it, trombonist Jack Teagarden later made a record of it and soon thereafter, it became his theme song. In fact, at the famous Esquire Metropolitan Opera House concert of 1944, Teagarden played it as his feature, with Armstrong backing him up on the trumpet, taking a wonderful solo in the process at a very relaxed tempo. Much has been written about Armstrong being in bad shape on that evening, but his work on “Right to Sing the Blues,” both in solo and obbligato, is quite gorgeous.

When Teagarden joined the All Stars, he was still associated with the song. Since Armstrong loved Teagarden like a brother and since Armstrong, maybe more than anyone else, knew the importance of having a theme song, Armstrong closed many live shows and broadcasts with Teagarden’s theme instead of his own. Beginning early on, “Right to Sing the Blues” was also used to allow Armstrong to announce intermissions. Thus, many versions of the tune survive from the early days of the All Stars of varying lengths. Teagarden would usually play the lead, though Pops occasionally usurped him with his responses, such as what he plays on a broadcast from Ciro’s on June 5, 1948, a version that the announcer introduces by asking Armstrong to play a “little of that very famous theme of yours.” At the Click in Philadelphia on September 11, 1948, Armstrong introduces the band during it and says, “We’re now into Teagarden’s theme song, ‘I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,’ which he’ll chirp a chorus right through here, folks.” Pops plays in the turnaround and combines with Barney Bigard on improvised obbligato behind Teagarden’s mellow drawl of a vocal, interrupted by an announcer who interestingly refers to the band as “Louis Armstrong and His Esquire All Stars.”

Otherwise, I have over a dozen more broadcasts of this tune during Teagarden’s stay with the band, ranging from 26 seconds to over two minutes, but there’s not really much worth discussing. The band always plays nicely, but to me, it’s a bit of a downer of an ending after the typically exuberant All Stars stage show that just preceded it. After Teagarden left the band in September 1951, he played a reunion concert of sorts with Armstrong and Bigard (and a California rhythm section) in Pasadena on December 7, 1951. Because Teagarden was going off on his own, Armstrong featured him heavily and for one more night, “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” was the closer. Soon after, it would be “Sleepy Time” and that’s how it would remain until later years when the “Saints” or a medley of the “Saints” and “Hello, Dolly” would send audiences home on a far happier note.

Anyway, it’s off 1957 for the Russell Garcia Verve albums I just wrote about in my last entry on “When Your Lover Has Gone,” which started off the same August 14 session that ended with “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues.” This session must rank as one of most painful of Armstrong’s career. He was gigging with the All Stars at night and he just didn’t have the full capacity of his chops for the Verve dates. However, without many high notes, he turned in a very expressive, beautifully fragile solo on “When Your Lover Has Gone” and on “We’ll Be Together Again,” he managed to squeeze out some high ones though at other times, he sounded like he needed a break (the latter was the subject of my very first blog). However, on “Stormy Weather,” Armstrong was almost overmatched. This was another Arlen-Koehler tune, though one that Armstrong had never recorded. Verve put out all the takes of this one on their C.D. reissue of the set, “I’ve Got The World On A String/Louis Under the Stars,” which is available on Itunes these days. Listening to the progression is pretty tough as there are time where you can hear Armstrong blow and nothing comes out. Garcia made amends by giving the bridge to pianist Paul Smith instead of Armstrong, which greatly helped the trumpeter who can be heard saying between takes, “That bridge—takes a whole lot of weight off me, man.” In the end, Armstrong turned in one of his bravest performances, one I absolutely love and cannot listen to without wanting to cry.

With three tracks in the can, it was time to tackle “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” and fortunately, all five takes were issued on the Verve reissue so one can really reconstruct how the date went down. Immediately before the start of the first take (hidden on the C.D. at the end of an alternate of “World on a String”), you can hear Armstrong play a couple of notes, warming up, making sure the strong feeling he had at the end of the last take of “Stormy Weather” was still with him. The first take is a false start as one of the trumpet players in the studio band botches the very first note, causing a little laughter. The remake is in Db, up from the Bb of the original. After the intro, Armstrong plays the melody almost as written, sounding fairly strong, if not perfect but he soon runs into trouble about six bars in as, after hitting a high Ab, Armstrong completely hits two wrongs notes, prompting producer Norman Granz to ask for a “time out, Russ.” The next take is even sadder as Armstrong plays the first phrase without a problem but then immediately cracks the first note of the third bar. It’s not a complete failure so Granz let’s the take continue. However, he should have stopped the fight when he had the chance. As Armstrong goes up to hit the high Ab he hit in the previous take, almost nothing comes out, just a little, timid toot of a note with a lot air mixed in. Hearing the great Armstrong’s chops fail him like that is a humbling experience, but a reminder of what he put himself through in his later years. If you listen closely, it sounds like Garcia asks Armstrong if he needs a break, but Pops confidently responds, “No, man.” He then proved it by playing a fine solo on take four. At times his tone sounds a little smaller than usual, but for the most part he does all right, sticking mostly to the melody but throwing in a quick hint of “How Am I To Know.” Somehow, his chops hold up for the stop-time B section, though it clearly hurts. As the band picks up the melody, Armstrong sticks to an obbligato, though he’s off-mike. There’s a fragile quality to his tone when he comes back to the forefront and he doesn’t quite pull off the last high Gb, but overall it’s an affecting solo.

A modulation to F sets up the Armstrong vocal, a good one, though he sounds like he’s having trouble with the lyrics early on, like he was reading too closely and not caring too much about the phrasing. He probably knew this take wasn’t going to be used anyway, but he at least needed to familiarize himself with the text. Armstrong ends with a scat vocal and it’s clear that he almost has it down. In fact, as soon it’s over, you can hear him say, “I’m ready. Got the hang of it.” He did have the hang of it and take five would be the master with no edits or inserts necessary.

After the string-and-brass-heavy introduction, Armstrong plays his best solo yet. His tone is still a little smaller than usual and more burnished—I should just refer to it as his “Verve Tone”—but like the remake of “When Your Lover Has Gone,” it adds a human quality to the proceedings that’s not evident in the superhuman original treatments of both numbers. Armstrong sounds particularly strong in the upper register on the master take and I like how alternately attacks the notes violently and seductively in the second eight bars. He nails the stop-time climb, ending on that high Ab, which is a concession to age and chops. In 1933, Armstrong pumped out a string of high Bb’s during this section, topping it off with that soaring gliss to a high D. In 1957 and in a lower key, he effectively builds up to only an Ab, but please, don’t start writing letters about Armstrong’s chops not being what they were in his early days. For the Autobiography project recorded just eight months prior, Armstrong tackled many of his early masterworks not only in the same keys as the originals but in many cases, actually hitting and holding higher notes than he did as a young man (check out the end of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”). Armstrong’s chops had a bad stretch in mid-August 1957 but he still had a lot of high notes left in him.

After the stop-time section, Armstrong plays a supremely relaxed obbligato that makes for an interesting contrast to the paint-removing playing of the melody by the brass section. The three-note motif Armstrong plays at the 1:10 was something he developed in the All Stars days, playing it against Teagarden’s lead. Verve got great sound on these dates and you can hear Armstrong flicking his valves as the band finishes his statement. Then, like his wonderful 1933 entrance, Armstrong hits and holds an F in the exact same spot, an effect that still works wonders. Armstrong closes out his final eight bars with that melody he clearly loves so much (no “How Am I To Know” in this version), sounding strong throughout.

With his strenuous blowing done for the day, Armstrong sings a chorus, clearly sounding like a man with the right to sing the blues. He actually doesn’t sound very happy; I mentioned parts where you can hear him smile on the remake of “When Your Lover Has Gone” but on this one, he maintains a pretty lowdown mood, perhaps burnt out by how much blowing he had to coax out of his chops that day. There are no “babe’s” or other inflections, just a lot of melody, but it’s such a good one, you really can’t complain. Only at the end, Armstrong throws in a “Mama” and after the long, flowing scat cadenza, he finally chuckles a bit during his last syllable. All in day’s works for the mighty Mr. Armstrong…

According to the discographies, Louis Armstrong never played “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” again after this recording, but between the grandstanding 1933 version, the superbly composed 1944 Opera House solo and the fragile 1957 studio remake, he said all that could possibly be said on Arlen and Koehler’s great tune. He did more than just sing the blues; he played the blues, scatted the blues, caressed the blues and laughed at the blues in its face and we the listeners are lucky for it.

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