Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Sincerely

Recorded January 18, 1955
Track Time 3:02
Written by Harvey Fuqua and Alan Freed
Recorded in Los Angeles
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Pete Candoli, trumpet; Trummmy Young, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Donald Ruffell, Check Gentry, Josh Cook Koch, saxes; Billy Kyle, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Barrett Deems, drums; Sonny Burke, conductor
Originally released on Decca 29421
Currently available on CD: Moments to Remember, a compilation on the Ambassador label (www.classicjazz.se for more info)
Available on Itunes? Yes, on a compilation, “The Magic of Music”

Here's the audio for Sincerely


Uh oh. It looks like ol’ Ricko won’t be getting much sleep tonight. This isn’t one of Louis Armstrong’s greatest records but it has a moment that, once it enters my brain, well, it might as well invest in an overnight parking space. The moment in question is Armstrong’s trumpet entrance during the bridge, which never fails to move me. However, the rest of the record isn’t the most interesting thing in the world, but it is a good example of the lengths at which Decca was going in the mid-50s to get Armstrong (well, really, Joe Glaser) a hit record.

Since Armstrong signed with Decca again in the late 40s, the sole goal of Joe Glaser was to get Louis Armstrong back on the charts. Decca producer Milt Gabler did his best by keeping a close ear on the popular trends in music, then squeezing Armstrong in wherever he saw fit. When Gordon Jenkins was ruling the pop music world with his lush strings and choir sound, Gabler got him to arrange “Blueberry Hill” for Pops and just like that, a hit was born. When Tony Bennett exploded onto the scene in 1950, Gabler paid attention and soon gave Armstrong two Bennett hits, “Cold, Cold Heart” and “Because of You.” Edith Piaf came over with “La Vie En Rose,” which, thanks to Gabler, soon became property of Pops. When Hank Williams had a hit with “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” Pops was cheatin’ right along with him. Of course, there are many other examples: “Kiss of Fire,” “I Get Ideas,” “It Takes Two To Tango,” “I’ll Walk Alone,” and more, all songs that were other people’s hits before Pops had his way with them. The fact that Armstrong made such wonderful records out of such pop tunes in the early 50s is a testament not only to Armstrong’s genius but to the sound of the popular music world of the era which, if not exactly producing works worthy of the Great American Songbook, at least put together enough pretty melodies and interesting chord changes to allow Pops to do what he had been doing for decades.

But by the mid-50s, the times, they were a-changin’. Rock and Roll was just about ready to explode, but in the meantime, the rhythm and blues charts were featuring a new vocal group sound that didn’t exactly sound like the Ink Spots. The sound was “Doo Wop” and it was slowly churning out hit records for groups like The Five Keys, the Flamingos and the Orioles. Enter Alan Freed, the famous disc jockey who began spreading the sounds of black Doo Wop groups to his white audiences. Freed sometimes gets credit with coining the phrase “Rock and Roll,” which is ridiculous; in fact, earlier today, I heard Red Allen sing it on the record “Get Rhythm In Your Feet,” from around 1935. Though he would later fall victim to the payola scandals of the late-50s, payola is exactly what put Freed on the map in the mid-50s. If you wanted Freed to play your records, you’d have to grease his palm a little bit, maybe even add his name to the song as a co-writer.

Of course, once the music started spreading to white audiences, it was only a matter of time before the time-honored tradition kicked in of white people stealing the music of blacks. Enter the McGuire Sisters. In 1954, a black group, The Moonglows, had a #1 R&B hit with a song called “Sincerely.” The song was written by the group’s founder, Harvey Fuqua, who would later become a successful producer for Motown and RCA Records. Websites claim that the Moonglows were “mentored” by Freed and Fuqua himself said that Freed was their first manager, but I highly doubt Freed did any of the actual pen-and-music-paper songwriting when it came to “Sincerely.” Regardless, the McGuire Sisters were a female vocal trio that landed on the music scene in 1952. Now, for those who are wondering if this still a Louis Armstrong blog, have no fear, as there’s an early connection. In 1954, the McGuire Sisters had a hit by singing the new, dopey lyrics to “Muskrat Ramble,” the same ones Pops recorded for Decca on September 1, 1954. The McGuire’s version hit the Billboard charts on October 23, 1954, reaching as high as number 11 (Pops’s went nowhere and he thankfully kept it as an instrumental in his live shows). Thanks to YouTube, here’s that McGuire Sisters version:



To tie everything up, while the Moonglows were seeing R&B success for “Sincerely,” the McGuires covered it at the end of 1954 and by February 12, 1955, had the number one hit in the country. It would remain number one for six weeks. For the nostalgia buffs in the crowd, here’s that hit single, again, courtesy of YouTube:



Thus, with this new sound floating through the charts, Decca thought it might have been time for Louis Armstrong to get a chance to put his mark on it. On January 18, 1955, Pops headed to Decca’s Los Angeles recording studios for one of the oddest four-song sessions of his career. For the date, the All Stars were augmented by the late Pete Candoli on trumpet and a three-man reed section. Seeing how “Muskrat Ramble” became rediscovered with some silly lyrics, the same thing was done to “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” Gary Crosy was brought in to duet with Pops and the result, to my ears, is a mess. Armstrong plays beautifully and he sounds like he’s having a fun time, but the lyrics are dreadful and Crosby is obnoxious with his terrible Satchmo impressions. The next song up fully embraced the Doo Wop sound: “Ko Ko Mo.” One day I hope to write a long blog on Pops’s many “Ko Ko Mo’s,” but to quickly sum up, it was originally recorded by Gene and Eunice (two of the song’s writers, Forest Gene Wilson and Eunice Levy; the third writer was Jake Porter). A version by The Crew-Cuts would reach the Billboard charts just 11 days after Armstrong’s Decca session so it was clearly a part of the early 1955 musical climate. For this track, Crosby does his best to sound hip, failing for the most part, and Jud Conlon’s Rhythmaires are brought in to give quasi-authenthic Doo Wop backings, consisting mainly of repeating the syllables “Hoo wah.” Pops again sounds like he’s having a ball, scatting an obbligato and harmonizing with Crosby’s lead. He also takes a roaring trumpet solo, though it’s a bit odd hearing the elegant Billy Kyle banging away at the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis at times. The record’s not exactly a classic, but I’m glad for all the many swinging Pops and Velma performed of it.

So with all that background information, I know come to “Sincerely,” a recording I can probably sum up in about a paragraph! The changes are beyond simple: 1-6-2-5 in Eb (that’s two bars each of Eb-Cm-F7-Bb) for the A sections and a lovely bridge that capitalizes on the major-to-minor harmonies of many 1950s R&B and early rock ballads. Like the McGuire Sisters record, Armstrong’s version, arranged by Sonny Burke, begins with almost the same simple sax riff (somewhere, Alvin and the Chipmunks are getting ready to sing). It’s not so much an introduction as a hook—we’re in the era of rock, my friends!

Fortunately, Armstrong sings the song, well, sincerely, receiving very nice muted trumpet work from Candoli behind him. He barely changes a line of melody or adds any scatting, but it’s pretty enough. The band sure hammers out that five chord after the first A section, huh? The bridge, though, is this song’s bread-and-butter and Pops sings it wonderfully, getting great support by Kyle and Trummy Young. It’s a fine vocal but the song takes so long to sing that one chorus almost takes up two minutes of the three-minute record.

But don’t worry, help is on the way! I cannot describe how much I love Armstrong’s bridge on this song. His entrance is the most relaxed thing I’ve ever heard and the padding the reeds give him is quite lush (Deems’s cymbals sound good, too). Pops feels the song and plays with that slippery phrasing that is the definition of rhythmic trickeration (though now dictionary probably has a definition for rhythmic trickeration). When the chords change to F7, he plays one of his famous licks ascending phrases, landing on a few G’s, the ninth of the F7, He ends his brief outing with a break whose of notes are utterly logical, all leading up to a giant gliss up to a high Bb. It’s only eight bars, but it makes the record, especially with that superb entrance that will now be stuck in my head for at least three or four hours (not a bad thing).

Pops, feeling the spirit, hits that Bb, quickly pulls the horn from his mouth and manages to make it back to the mike in time to shout out, “Lookee here, Sincerely,” all on one pitch, a high Eb. He opens his next line with a soulful “Oh” and in delivering the final lyric, he phrases it up high, much as he might have played it on his trumpet. The band plays a final chord but listen for Pops, yelling out the final word, “Mine,” one last time in the background of all the reeds and brass.

“Sincerely” is a harmless record with some lovely moments, but to me, it’s in the bottom half of Armstrong’s Decca pop songs. Still, it’s not as weak as the final offering from that January 1955 session, a cover of Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love,” complete with Billy Kyle playing what sounds like church bells. Once again, I’ll offer my usual reminder: these are not BAD records per se. Armstrong always makes them interesting and his tender vocal and quiet trumpet solo does exactly that on “Pledging My Love,” but otherwise nothing much happens and the arrangement is very dated.

Clearly, Decca was losing their grip on Armstrong’s studio recordings during this period, but they at least still had some good ideas for non-studio Armstrong records. Just three days after the “Sincerely” session, Decca recorded an entire evening of music from Hollywood’s Crescendo Club, gathering a lot of great material for LP release (available on “The California Concerts” box). But in the studio, Armstrong did three so-so sessions in a row for Decca from September 1954 to April 1955. Much of the music is good, but too often, Decca tried for the hit, with Armstrong singing all these covers (including “Muskrat Ramble,” which he claimed he wrote). The April 1955 Decca session gave Marty Napoleon some ASCAP royalties for his song, “Mm-Mm,” and allowed the All Stars to do their thing on “Tin Roof Blues” and the first recording of “Pretty Little Missy.” But the same session also offered up trite songs like “Yeh!” and “Baby, Your Sleep is Showing.”

Bookending those three Decca sessions were two of Armstrong’s finest, the W.C. Handy dates from July 1954 and the Fats Waller album from the end of April 1955. Both of these albums were made for Columbia, whose producer, George Avakian, loved Armstrong and knew him well, thus, knew he was above just being a simple hit-maker. Avakian let the All Stars stretch out on familiar material and the results were acclaimed albums that remain in print today. Meanwhile, nothing from the “Sincerely” session has ever been issued on an American C.D.

In September 1955, Decca gave it one more shot, having Armstrong cover the Platters’s “Only You” and the Four Freshmen’s “Moments to Remember,” both lovely records with Benny Carter arrangements that did nothing on the charts. The next day, Armstrong reunited with Gary Crosby on one fine standard, “Easy Street,” as well as digging up one unfortunate number that should have stayed in the cemetery, “Lazybones.” Three weeks later, Avakian landed the All Stars to do another quick session for Columbia. The result was “Mack the Knife,” and once again, Glaser had his hit. Armstrong was a recording free agent by this point and obviously liking their direction (and their price), Glaser kept Armstrong out of the Decca studio from September 1955 to December 1956. Avakian recorded European concerts, studio dates, the Chicago concert, a set at the Newport Jazz Festival and other odds and ends, all of which capture the All Stars at their peak, but didn’t offer any hit singles. For the time being, Glaser moved beyond his infatuation with singles and allowed Armstrong to make some high-profile albums, such as his first collaboration with Ella Fitzgerald from the summer of 1956. When Decca finally got back into the act, Gabler didn’t have any more pop covers but rather, the wonderful Autobiography project, followed by two concept albums, Louis and the Angels and Louis and the Good Book, from 1957 and 1958 respectively, albums that were marketed at mass audiences but again, didn’t provide any hit singles.

But by this point, Armstrong didn’t need them as he was more popular than ever. Thus, Glaser raised his price and everyone scurried. There were no more Columbia recordings after 1956, no more Verve dates after 1957 and nothing more for Decca after a four-tune session from October 1958. In fact, sessions done for the sole purpose of making hit records disappeared for the next few years. Armstrong recorded a King Oliver tribute in 1959, two Audio Fidelity albums with the Dukes of Dixieland in 1959 and 1960, a Capitol collaboration with Bing Crosby in 1960 and albums with Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck in 1961. After leaving Columbia’s studio after the last Real Ambassadors session of September 19, 1961, Armstrong would not step foot into another recording studio until December 3, 1963. And of course, that session would provide “Hello, Dolly.” As Glaser supposedly exclaimed when he first heard it, “It’s a fucking hit!” It was, indeed, and it allowed Armstrong to go on making erratic recording sessions until the day he died, once again with hopes of landing another hit.

And much like those mid-50s Decca sessions that aped the changing sounds of popular music, Armstrong had to do it all over again in the late 60s, covering the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream,” showtunes like “Mame” and “Cabaret,” country songs like “Get Together” and “Ramblin’ Rose,” movie hits like “Rose” and “Willkommen” and pure hit records like “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “Give Peace a Chance.” Most of these records aren’t very good, but I don’t regret their being made. As I’ve written before, my whole theory in my Armstrong research relates to the fact that there was only one Louis Armstrong, not this earlier artist and the later commercial clown. Armstrong performed and recorded popular music from his youth. What were the first two songs he learned to play on the trumpet? The blues and “Home Sweet Home,” the gutty roots of jazz and a popular song everyone knew. You know he played more with Fate Marable and Fletcher Henderson, his feature with Erskine Tate was Noel Coward’s “Poor Little Rich Girl” and once OKeh slipped him “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” he spent decades transforming popular songs into great jazz. Most jazz fans go along with Armstrong through all of that but when popular music began changing, that’s when the critical knocks get pretty rough for Armstrong. But don’t blame Pops. Popular music changed, not Armstrong. He just went along doing what he always did: music was music and if in 1970, he had one recording session with “Mood Indigo” and “My One and Only Love” one day and “The Creator Has A Master Plan” and “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the next, who cares, it was all music, it was all the same. And you know if Armstrong lived until 1981 instead of 1971, we would have had the Armstrong disco album! (Ever go to YouTube and check out Cab Calloway’s disco version of “Minnie the Moocher” from the late 70s? Here 'tis!



So as always, I’m off the topic of “Sincerely,” but hopefully this all gives a little perspective to what is a pretty nondescript record in the Armstrong discography. All of Armstrong’s Decca records from the 1950s are worth checking out, but it’s become harder and harder to do that in America. Fortunately, there’s the Ambassador label, which I’ll never tire of endorsing. Gösta Hägglöf produced three discs that comprise all of Armstrong’s Decca studio work from the 1950s except for the Autobiography. The discs are arranged by theme, but it’s the only way to get this stuff in complete form (the “Happy Fifties” box contains all three discs in one set). Go to www.classicjazz.se for more information and please Gösta, keep up the great work!

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