Thursday, April 24, 2008

75 Years of Laughin' Louie

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded April 24, 1933
Track Time 3:30
Written by Clarence Gaskill
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Keg Johnson, trombone; Scoville Brown, George Oldham, alto saxophone; Budd Johnson, tenor saxophone; Charlie Beal, piano; Mike MicKendrick, guitar; Bill Oldham, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Bluebird B-5362
Currently available on CD: Available on The Complete RCA Victor Recordings of Louis Armstrong.
Available on Itunes? Yes,

Today marks the 75th anniversary of what I’ve always considered to be one of the quintessential Louis Armstrong records, “Laughin’ Louie.” Some in the crowd might think that’s blasphemy because to many ears, the vaudeville routines are difficult to stomach. “Surely,” some would say, “‘West End Blues,’ or ‘Potato Head Blues’ or ‘Cornet Chop Suey’ are more indicative of our hero.”

Not quite, says I. If you want to boil down the “Louis Armstrong Experience” to 210 seconds, then “Laughin’ Louie” gives you everything. It was recorded during Armstrong wondrous Victor big band days, when he was absolute control of his horn, yet was killing his chops with each passing session. “Laughin’ Louie,” might sound like a nothing tune but it was actually written by Clarence Gaskill, who had a hand in writing standards like “Minnie the Moocher,” “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me” and “Prisoner of Love. “Laughin’ Louie” is no great piece of writing, but I think the band knows that, which leads to a lot of the fun. Of course, marijuana also led to a lot of the fun. Tenor saxohponoist Budd Johnson later remembered, “We were floating when we made that ‘Laughin’ Louie’ and Louis played that trumpet like a bird.” Besides knowing that the band was high as a kite, the only other background information you might need to know is that after the vocal, “Laughin’ Louie” becomes a parody of the famous 1923 “Okeh Laughing Record,” one of the biggest-selling novelty records of all On it, a somber trumpet is heard at the start before you start hearing some giggling. As the record goes on, the trumpet playing grows worse and the laughing becomes uproarious. You can listen to the original online by clicking

With the preliminaries out of the way, let us listen to “Laughin’ Louie” in all its glory. I should say that an earlier take exists and even that can be heard on Itunes, but it’s very close to the issued one and I don’t have the time this morning to do the side-by-side comparison. Thus, you can listen to the original by clicking

The band attacks the corny introduction as if they’re sitting in a vaudeville pit before Pops steps up to the mike and introduces his vocal, announcing he’s going to play his Selmer trumpet (“bless its little heart) after he “chirps” the song. Everyone’s laughing and obviously feeling high and happy. Armstrong sets off his vocal with a neat little scat introduction before he delivers the inane lyrics:

Laughin’ Louie, I’m Laughin’ Louie
Yeah man, I’m Laughin’ Louie, yes sir,
Ain’t no phooey, Laughin’ Louie
Boy...ha ha ha
Look here! I wake up every morning and I have to laugh
Cause I look on the wall and see my photograph!
Yeah man, they call me Laughin’ Louie but you cats must play yourself because you won’t let me swing there.

Not exactly “Prisoner of Love” but Louie has a ball with it, laughing hysterically after almost every line. The Johnson brothers, the best improvisers in the group, split a swinging chorus before Pops comes up for another monologue, using the phrase “one of those old-time good ones,” a close relative to the “good old good ones” that would be in his vocabulary before the year was out. Armstrong then sounds like he moves 20 feet away and starts noodling on the trumpet, one sad note at a time. This is where Armstrong turns it into the “OKeh Laughing Record Parody,” and besides the laughter, some musicians in the band get to run up to the microphone and shout stuff like, “Mellow” and “Look out there, Pops!”

But at the 2:18 mark, Pops starts blowing and it’s more serious than your life. At 2:30, he plays a double-time break that sounds like pure proto-beboop to these ears. Not wanting to get too serious, everyone laughs at Pops’s ending and someone yells, “Change ‘em P-wops!” Pops breaks up but then announces, “Here comes the beautiful part.” He’s not kidding...

What follows is one of the most astounding Louis Armstrong trumpet solos ever recorded. I can’t do it justice in words but I’ll just say that the slow climb to that high concert F almost always brings a tear to my eye. Some notes hurt more than others but damn it he gets there. And throughout, he’s in complete control, throwing in small glisses and all his other tricks. Vince Giordano later discovered the song to be Minnie T. Wright’s “Love Scene,” something Pops probably played in his days accompanying silent movies. Whatever the backstory, it’s beautiful and though no one else is playing, you can hear the chord changes through Pops’s playing. And when he’s finished, the band hits a corny “ta-da” kind of static chord and the record’s over.

I played this record for my bass player a few months ago, describing it as the “quintessential Louis Armstrong” record and I stand by that. It’s the artist and the entertainer as one. He’s laughing, he’s mugging, he’s scatting and dropping all sorts of slang into his speaking. And then he picks up the horn and makes you cry. If one recording sums up everything that made Louis Armstrong such a great figure, then it has to be “Laughin’ Louie.” I hope you enjoyed the chance to celebrate it on its 75th anniversary (and if you chose to get high while listening, then I KNOW you really enjoyed it!).


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this satchmo-graphy but all the links in the laughing louie post don't work for me. What's wrong ?

Uwe from Germany

Anonymous said...

Today it works. Thank You.

Uwe from Germany

Rodney said...

The piece by Minnie T. Wright is actually "Love Song," and was fairly common in silent film music collections. There's a PDF of a piano-solo version on the web: