Louis Armstrong With Sy Oliver’s Orchestra
Recorded February 6, 1958
Track Time 2:58
Written by Richard Huey
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Trummy Young, trombone; Edmond Hall, clarinet; Nicky Tagg, organ; Billy Kyle, piano; Everett Barksdale, guitar; Mort Herbert, bass; Barett Deems, drums; Miriam Workman, Peggy Powers, Jerry Duane, Alan Sokoloff, Eugene Lowell, Edwin Lindstrom, Robert Spiro, Marilyn Palmer, Eugene Stock, Lillian Clark, vocals; Sy Oliver, arranger, conductor
Originally released on Decca
Currently available on CD: Louis and the Good Book
Available on Itunes? Yes
After the glorious Autobiography sessions of late 1956 and early 1957, Decca followed up with two of Armstrong’s most “commercial” albums of his career, Louis and the Angels from 1957 and Louis and the Good Book from 1958. Both albums were arranged by Sy Oliver, who had been arranging Decca records for Pops since 1949 (including the recently blogged about “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Oliver’s contribution to the Autobiography resulted in many of that set’s highlights, as a good number of his big band arrangements surpassed Armstrong’s original recordings of the same songs from the late 1920s and early 1930s. But the whole situation almost seemed like a trade: Decca knew the Autobiography would be a lavish set that would cater to hardened jazz fans, so to follow up, they would have Armstrong record two albums that would cater to white bread America (the word “bread” is not necessary), people who might hate jazz but liked the way this Armstrong fella smiled on the Ed Sullivan Show.
But as I’ve written time and again, I don’t equate “commercial” with “bad.” Armstrong was killed for recording numbers such as “I Get Ideas,” but after playing a video of it during my lecture at the Institute of Jazz Studies last week, I shook my head and said that the building should be renamed the “Institute of Commercial Music Studies” if THAT was commercial music. Gordon Jenkins had left the Decca stable and was now recording for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Nat Cole over at Capitol, otherwise, Louis and the Angels might have been a perfect project for him: Armstrong + strings + choir + pop songs. That was the Jenkins formula to a tee, but Oliver did a very nice job on that album (I won’t go into any more details because I’m sure I’ll end up blogging about something from those sessions in the future and I don’t want to repeat myself).
The Angels collaboration must have done quite well, because Armstrong’s next Decca offering would take the Angels concept one step closer to heaven. Instead of an album of tunes that centered on the word “angel,” Armstrong would now record an entire quasi-gospel album. The record was billed as being with Sy Oliver’s orchestra but in reality, it was just the All Stars augmented by an organ, a guitar and 10 voices. This was not new territory for Armstrong, who pioneered the jazz and gospel connection with his June 14, 1938 session backed by a rhythm section and “The Decca Mixed Chorus,” arranged and conducted by Lyn Murray (not Jan as I originally wrote...thanks Dave!). Sure, Armstrong had swung “When The Saints Go Marching In” just one month prior, but these records were different, with very little jazz content and a somewhat atypical straight-faced Armstrong at the helm. They must have proved popular because Armstrong found himself recreating two of the songs at a Carnegie Hall tribute to Paul Whiteman in December of 1938. Those two songs, “Shadack” and “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen” would continue to crop up in the years to come in Armstrong’s career, including remakes of both on Louis and the Good Book.
But today’s entry focuses on “Rock My Soul” and if I’ve been a little long-winded in getting to this point, it’s only because there’s not much to write about on this track, though I do love it. The song was written by Richard Huey, who also wrote the gospel standard “Hurry Sundown” and led vocal groups such as Richard Huey’s Jubileers and Richard Huey and His Sundown Singers. It was recorded at the second of three sessions for the Good Book. Oddly enough, for three sessions in four days, Oliver sure had a hard time with clarinet players, using three different ones: Dave McRae, Hank D’Amico and All Stars regular Edmond Hall. However, the horns didn’t matter on “Rock My Soul” which is a showcase for Armstrong and the choir. But unlike the lily white vocalizing of the backing singers on the squeaky clean “Angels” album, the singing on “Rock My Soul” is a little more soulful (though at times, they do remind me of Dean Martin’s record of “Memories Are Made Of This”).
The tempo is the key and on “Rock My Soul,” Oliver picked a beauty, putting the naturally bluesy song right down in the alley. Armstrong responds with one of the most passionate vocals of his career. My, my, my, he would have been something to see at a church! The pattern of the same doesn’t vary: Armstrong preaches a bit, then joins the choir for the “Rock My Soul” chorus. But those preaching bits are wonderful. In fact, they arguably contain the greatest blues singing Armstrong ever did on record and it’s not even a blues. I can’t hear any mugging or scatting or general horseplay. He’s singing like his soul depends on it and it’s hard to not get swept up by the atmosphere. You can listen along and swept up yourself by listening right here:
Pretty powerful stuff. And listening closer than ever, I realize that there’s absolutely no presence by the other horns, while the rhythm section couldn’t be placed any further in the background. No matter. Armstrong’s preaching makes the record….oh, how he sings, “I would not be a backbiter.” And listen to the inflection in his voice on the word “afraid.” If you like this track, please check out the rest of the album, which Sy Oliver called “the most satisfactory thing that I ever did with Louis.” However, look out for Verve’s trickeration. For years, there was a C.D. that combined both Louis and the Angels and Louis and the Good Book, but when Armstrong’s centennial rolled around, they reissued both on separate discs, with silly bonus tracks added to each. You can still find the single disc with both albums on Amazon, most copies going from between $10 and $12, a good price for two albums that would cost $20 to download both separately on Itunes. Don’t say ol’ Ricko doesn’t look out for ya….til next time!