Recorded April 26 or 27, 1950
Track Time 5:08
Written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstien
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Jack Teagarden, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Earl Hines, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Cozy Cole, drums
Originally released on Decca
Currently available on CD: On the Hip-O box set, An American Icon
Available on Itunes? Yes
Valentine’s Day is here and I wanted to celebrate it by discussing one of Louis Armstrong’s most romantic records, “That’s For Me.” There were plenty of songs to choose from—“Let’s Fall In Love,” “I Was Doing All Right,” “I Married An Angel,” “If I Could Be With You,” “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby,” “Fantastic, That’s You,” “Tiger Rag”—okay, well, not that last one. But for me, “That’s For Me” is one of Pops’s all-time greatest records, treasured by those who know it, but unknown to most of the world. I couldn’t believe when I just searched for it on Itunes and it only came up one time, on a wonderful box set on the Hip-O label that is now out-of-print on C.D. (though it’s available on Amazon). It was on the Mosaic collection of Armstrong’s Decca recordings with the All Stars, but that’s out-of-print, as well. But hopefully, by the end of this blog, you’ll have a new appreciation for this neglected gem.
The song “That’s For Me” was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the 1945 musical, State Fair. Dick Haymes sang it in the film and had a hit record of it, as did Jo Stafford. After listening to various versions of it on Itunes, it appears that it was originally conceived as a sort of snappy number, not fast and uptempo, but with a lilting beat that makes the singer sound pretty confidant that he knows what he likes and likes what he sees (substitute “she” if necessary).
I never understood how it got into Armstrong’s hands, but I’m glad it did. Armstrong was performing it live for at least a year before he recorded it. Now, this is some pretty sad audio quality, but please, have a listen to this early version from a broadcast from Philadelphia’s Click, August 7, 1949:
Again, the quality is atrocious (why does it sound like someone’s beating time with a coke bottle?). One thing’s for sure is that the band sounds like they have the routine down, meaning they had probably been performing it for some time. The tempo is swings in a relaxed medium groove, different from the versions from State Fair. Earl Hines sounds particularly good but the record obviously centers around Pops’s heartfelt vocal, which showcases his range, especially his beautiful tenor register. The tempo’s a shade too fast to allow him to feel completely at ease with the lyrics, but he does a beautiful job. Much like the later “Gypsy,” the song has a built in space for applause after the vocal, as Earl Hines repeats the last few bars to allow Pops to get his chops in his horn. And it’s a wonderfully poised trumpet solo, no high notes or real drama, just a lot of melodic flurries that stick with the listener long after the song has ended. Pops reprises his vocal at the bridge and continues on until the nice, slowed down ending. Even through the abysmal sound quality, Pops’s warmth shines through.
I didn’t want to spend too much time on the blow-by-blow of that version because the real main event comes with the Decca studio recording of 1950. Over two days in April of that year, the All Stars recorded ten of their finest concert numbers in a studio setting. Pops had already embarked on his string of pop records for Decca but for this occasion, producer Milt Gabler allowed Armstrong to record whatever they wanted from their live repertoire. Armstrong’s picks are interesting because instead of just featuring himself all day, he gave each of his sidemen one feature of their own choice. Like most sidemen features, Armstrong doesn’t exactly stay in the background, taking a series of stirring breaks on “Bugle Call Rag/Ole Miss,” singing a chorus on “I Surrender Dear” and stealing the show from Jack Teagarden with his trumpet solo on “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home.” For the other five numbers, Armstrong chose one romp the band had been playing since their inception, “Panama,” one stage set-piece, “New Orleans Function,” one comedy number, “Twelfth Street Rag,” and a lowdown blues song that was about to become a staple of almost every All Stars show, “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.”
For a tenth song, Armstrong could have chosen any of the All Stars’s great numbers from the period: “I’m Confessin’,” “Back O’Town Blues,” “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” “Basin Street Blues,” “King Porter Stomp,” “That’s A Plenty,” anything. But instead he chose “That’s For Me,” which he really must have loved to perform. So without any further ado, let’s listen to this classic, classic recording from April 1950.
Now, I’m sorry, but that’s the most beautiful piece of music you’re going to hear all day. As you don’t need me to tell you, the tempo is markedly slower than the 1949 broadcast version and it’s a great improvement, stripping Armstrong’s vocal from any confidant leanings and instead making it a charming, fragile ode from a man who truly cannot believe how lucky he is to be in love with the woman “that’s for him.” If you’re reading this on Valentine’s Day morning and still need an inscription for your card, you can’t go wrong with this offering from Oscar Hammerstein:
I saw you standing in the sun
And you were something to see.
I know what I like, and I liked what I saw
And I said to myself "That's for me."
"A lovely morning," I remarked,
And you were quick to agree.
You wanted to walk,
And I nodded my head
As I breathlessly said "That's for me."
I left you standing under stars,
The days adventures are through.
There's nothing for me but the dream in my heart,
And the dream in my heart, that's for you.
Oh, my darling, that's for you.
Doesn’t get much better than that. But listening to the record is a marvelous experience. The opening ensemble is perhaps the most tender one in All Stars history, clearly one that had been perfected on the bandstand. Bigard sticks to his low, chalameau register, playing the melody straight in the second half while Armstrong plays lead, opening with those gorgeous quarternotes, phrasing the melody where it feels best for him and sounds best for us. Teagarden plays quietly, but he later makes his presence felt with a lovely obbligato. Hines, maintaining the proper mood for a change, sets Armstrong’s vocal up with a perfect interlude and then we’re off to heaven.
Just listen to quality of Armstrong’s voice, brilliantly captured by Decca’s engineers. There’s barely a trace of gravel and though you can hear him struggle to sing those high notes, that all adds up to the charm of the record. He clearly loves the melody, not even infusing it with a single scat syllable or a even a “mama.” Tegarden’s obbligato is a highlight of the record, as he quotes liberally from the Armstrong vocabulary, especially the phrase he plays at 2:17 in. Hines again sets the stage for Armstrong’s lightly muted trumpet offering, which, repeats some of the phrases from the 1949 broadcast, but is much more effective at this gentle tempo. The double-timed opening phrase never fails to give me the chills as Bigard noodles around in the low register and the rhythm section begins swinging ever so lightly. The rhythms in this Armstrong solo are mind-boggling. Really, how many more times am I going to write this? I guess one more can’t hurt…I would hate to transcribe a solo like this one! It’s so flowing, so melodic, yet it’s also so unpredictable and quite daring. Armstrong goes into the upper register to bridge the two halves of his solo, but otherwise, he’s content to play circles around the melody, offering snippets of Rodgers’s original notes here and there as points of reference. Please, listen to this one 10 or 11 more times. It never ceases to surprise and it never ceases to move.
After the solo, you can hear Armstrong quietly clear the rubble out as Hines and Teagarden play a Satchmo-fied phrase (shades of Django’s “Nuages”?) Pops reenters with the “I left you standing under stars phrase,” which sounds like a bridge, but the melody reverts right back to that of the first two A sections (this is an oddly structured song, but it works). Teagarden plays that Pops phrase in obbligato once again at the 4:10 mark. Finally, though he’s made it this far, Armstrong sings a perfectly placed “Babe” before his final climb into the highest registers of his voices. I don’t think there’s a lovelier phrase in the history of Armstrong’s recorded vocals than that “Oh my darling,” leading to the sublime coda, with a little subdued scatting. You can hear Armstrong smiling as he hits the final “You,” Hines’s playing pretty descending runs behind him while Bigard and Teagarden harmonize. I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful ending to a more beautiful record.
In my research, I’ve come across a concert review from, I believe, 1951 that mentions a live performance of “That’s For Me,” but it soon after disappeared from the All Stars’s band book. That’s not to say he forgot about it completely. In a 1968 interview for the BBC radio program “Be My Guest,” Pops spoke about the inspiration for his recording that song: his fourth wife, Lucille.
“And I still got Madame Lucille. Can’t call her mademoiselle now cause it’s been 30 years since she was mademoiselle. I changed that when we was playing at the Cotton Club in New York. When she was mademoiselle dancing in that chorus and I’m blowing that trumpet right at them buns! I mean, you know, she was in the front line there. That was it. Every time I look at Lucille dancing, she had that little step where they’d raise their hand and hit about three steps in front and everything, that tune that I loved so well dawned on me. It’s on one of my records.”
And at the point, the 67-year-old Armstrong began singing “That’s For Me” completely a capella. He only sings a couple of lines, singing it lower than he did in 1950, but it’s still beautiful. When he finishes he says, “That was for Lucille.”
Ah, love. Pops had it for Lucille and it's safe to say, the world still has it for Pops. I hope you enjoyed "That's For Me" half as much as I did and I wish all of you a very Happy Valentine's Day!