Louis Armstrong & The Mills Brothers
Recorded June 10, 1938
Track Time 2:59
Written by Slim Gaillard, Slam Stewart and Bud Green
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Harry, Herbert, Donald and John Mills, vocal; Norman Brown, guitar
Originally released on Decca 1876
Currently available on CD: On volume four of the Ambassador series, 1938. Check out www.classicjazz.se for more information (a live version is on volume five)
Available on Itunes? Yes, on various compilations
What happens when two of my musical idols collide in one single entry? Time will tell, but I think my head will probably explode. As I’ve alluded to in the past, Slim Gaillard is a hero of mine and “The Flat Foot Floogie” was the song that put him on the map. For those who don’t know much about Slim, he was a character from another planet, playing multiple instruments in eccentric ways, speaking his own “Vout” language and writing catchy, nonsensical tunes like “Cement Mixer” and “Yep Roc Heresy.” He spoke about a million languages, but was also fluent in gibberish and double-talk. Jazz historians tend to dismiss him, but he sure knew how to invite the big guns to his parties: Ben Webster, Chico Hamilton, Jimmy Rowles, Charlie Parker, Zutty Singleton, Dizzy Gillespie, Howard McGhee, Vic Dickinson, Marshall Royal, Buddy Tate, Jay McShann, Art Blakey, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Dodo Marmarosa, and so many others turned up at Slim’s record sessions and live dates, always ensuring a high level of musicianship to go along with Slim’s shenanigans.
I know, I know…for someone who worships at the feet at a true musical genius like Louis Armstrong, what am I doing slumming around with Slim Gaillard? Well, perhaps I’m not all I’m cracked to be. Before I officially decided to start writing my book on Armstrong’s later years, I began doing heavy research for a book I wanted to write about Slim. Pops has passed him up, but don’t worry, that day will come. And before I settled on this here all-Armstrong blog, I wanted to write one called “Jazz From The Cheap Seats.”
You see, I’m a big proponent of a lot of things that the jazz snobs frown on. I think many critics go to see a jazz concert for free, they sit in the front row and they usually think they know what’s best. Me, I pay for my seats and usually have to sit in the back, making me part of the dreaded “audience.” I don’t think I know what’s best, but I know what I like. I like cutting contests. I like honking and screaming saxophones. I like Louis Jordan. I love Fats Waller. I worship Louis Prima, especially the combo he led in Vegas with Sam Butera. I couldn’t live without Jazz at the Philharmonic records. I love New Orleans jazz bands who encourage the audience to clap along on the right beat. I like it when Lionel Hampton grunts. I go to Django Reinhardt festivals to worship the virtuosity of the guitarists and to be dazzled into laughter by accordion player Ludovic Beier. I’ll never get tired of listening to Texas Tenors like Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb and Buddy Tate. Leo Watson is my favorite scat singer. I smile at Duke Ellington’s “finger snapping bit.” I appreciate shuffle rhythms and backbeats. I dig plunger-muted trumpets. I laugh when Dizzy Gillespie scats with Joe Carroll on “Ool Ya Koo.” I don’t smoke, but I love a good song about marijuana. Red McKenzie’s “comb” playing really sends me and I listen to Cab Calloway records because I love Cab Calloway, not because I want to hear the solos (though God knows I love me some Jonah Jones and Chu Berry!).
Thus, maybe this explains why I so passionately defend Armstrong recordings like “Don’t Forget to Mess Around” and “Lonesome Road,” when the rest of the jazz world just wants to deal with “West End Blues.” And it’s why Slim Gaillard is a hero of mine. And trust me, when I’m feeling “cool,” I own enough Miles, Monk, Mingus, Coltrane, Ornette and so on to sink a ship. I have a ton of Blue Note stuff and I can never have enough Sonny Rollins. But you know what? I’ll never get tired of hearing Slim Gaillard sing about a “Dunkin’ Bagel.”
That clip was from 1946 and featured bassist Tiny “Bam” Brown and Scatman Crothers on drums (yes, THE Scatman Crothers of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Shining and Chico and the Man). Eight years earlier, Gaillard was a struggling musician on 52nd St. in New York who had recorded two sides as a vocalist with Frankie Newton, but hadn’t done much else. He soon formed a duo with bassist Leroy Stewart, renamed “Slam,” to fit better with “Slim.” Disc jockey Martin Block became a fan of the duo, recommending them to Vocalion records. In January, Vocalion cut a record of Slim & Slam (plus pianist Sam Allen and drummer Pompey “Guts” Dobson) doing their original song, “Flat Foot Floozy.” As the legend goes, no record company executive was dumb enough to let a record with that title hit the public, so it was changed to “Flat Foot Floogie” and was rerecorded on February 17, 1938 (“floozy” might not have made the cut but I’ve read that “floy floy,” the next lyric in the song, was slang for venereal disease!).
Martin Block soon helped push the record, but the “Floogie” craze really hit the big-time when Benny Goodman featured an arrangement of it on his radio show. The next thing you know, EVERYONE was singing about the “Flat Foot Floogie (With a Floy Floy).” In a matter of months, the likes of Django Reinhardt and Wingy Manone began recording covers while musicians like Fats Waller and Count Basie began performing it live (dig ‘em all; Fats has a ball with it and the Basie one, recorded at the Famous Door and available on Itunes, really swings with some prime Lester Young). Fats’s version, recorded with his “Continental Rhythm” in London in August 1939, is really hot. Click
here to listen for yourself.
The jazz historians tend to dismiss it as a silly novelty, but a lot of good music was made on its strains and the song itself has had a longer life than some of the jazz music recorded in that era (type it in on YouTube and you’ll hear a school choir singing it and an Indiana University dance team jitterbug to Slim and Slam’s original). Speaking of the original, I wasn’t able to find an easy link to it, but if you’ve never heard Slim and Slam’s first record of it, go
here to hear it.
How big did “Floogie” get? At the 1939 World’s Fair, the sheet music for the song was placed in a time capsule as a representation of American civilization, not to be opened for 5,000 years. Here’s an original newsreel about the time capsule that I dug up on YouTube. It doesn’t mention “The Flat Foot Floogie,” but trust me, it’s in there…along with Jean Sibelius’s “Finlandia” and Souza’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” So while you watch this and listen to the importance of this capsule, keep telling yourself after every sentence, “Slim & Slam’s ‘Flat Foot Floogie’ is in that capsule!”
So with the preliminaries out of the way, let’s move on to Armstrong’s run-in with “Flat Foot Floogie,” which occurred on a session shared with the Mills Brothers in 1938. Decca first teamed Armstrong with the Brothers Mills in 1937 for two sessions that resulted in four master takes (three alternates can be heard on the indispensable Ambassador series). The pairing worked so well that Decca made more records featuring Armstrong and the Mills’s in 1938 and 1940. “Floogie” was up first and here's how it turned out:
Armstrong and the Mills open with some good-natured interaction before the brothers take over. Honestly, I love all things-Floogie and all things-Mills Brothers, but I’ve never really cared for their rendering of the melody. It’s a little too static and with the bass voice singing harmony, it doesn’t really take off, even with the strumming rhythm guitar of Norman Brown. Finally Pops enters with the “Bang bang” chorus, getting tight responses from the Mills Brothers. Pops sounds like he’s having a great time, throwing in a “Lose that floozy,” which I guess wasn’t caught by the producer of the session. Instead of going to the bridge, the Mills’s take over for eight bars, echoing Pops but changing the “Bang” to a “Bom.” But as much fun as the vocalizing is, the heart of the record is Pops’s trumpet solo, played over swinging rhythm guitar with interjections from the Mills family (got tired of typing “brothers” and besides, the father of the family, John, had already taken over this point for the recently deceased John Jr.).
Something about appearing in such a stripped-down setting with the Mills Brothers always brought out Pops’s most relaxed side. Don’t look for high notes or daring feats of endurance in this solo. Pops is relaxed, playing his own version of the melody, making comments on it as he goes, and swinging the whole way. He really plays beautifully on the bridge, throwing in a quick allusion to “Honeysuckle Rose” and taking a wonderfully poised double-time break that always causes me to shake my head in admiration.
After the solo, Pops takes over the lead vocal, getting “instrumental” backing by the Mills’s, doing their always-fun instrument imitations. Lead tenor Donald Mills takes over the bridge, ending with an impressive scat break of his own. After Pops sings the final eight bars, Pops begins an extended ending that sounds like the introduction of a meeting for “Foot Fetishes Anonymous.” As the Mills give him dramatic backing with their singing of the words “Floogie” and “Flat Foot,” Pops goes on to list a bunch of other “Foots”: “Flat Foot, Slew Foot, Sugar Foot, Cush Foot, Wing Foot, Big Foot and Satchel Foot!” It’s a lot of fun and when “Floogie” was reprised on an episode of the “Saturday Night Swing Club” the following month, Pops’s closing “foot” spiel drew big laughs from the studio audience (this version can be heard on volume 5 of the Ambassador series). Anyway, I, of course, enjoy this track, but it’s not my favorite Floogie nor is it my favorite Armstrong and Mills Brothers recording (that distinction goes to “The Song Is Ended,” recorded three days later).
And that concludes our look at Armstrong rendezvous with “Flat Foot Floogie,” though according to Jos Willems’s All of Me, when Armstrong did an interview for Radio France in 1948 and was asked to sing a few bars of a song for the listeners, he launched into an a cappella rendition of “Flat Foot Floogie”! And as far as I know, I’ve never come across any mentions of Slim Gaillard and Armstrong on the same bill or even being seen together, though I’m sure they must have run-in to each other somewhere along the way. But “Floogie” lives on 70 years later, though I have to end with this bizarre clip courtesy of YouTube. This will answer the trivia question, what’s the only song to be performed by Louis Armstrong, Slim Gaillard, Benny Goodman, Django Reinhardt, Fats Waller AND Michael Jackson? Why, the “Flat Foot Floogie” of course! Here ‘tis, on the Jackson 5’s variety show from 1976…