Recorded October 9, 1967
Track Time 2:54
Written by John Kander and Fred Ebb
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Tyree Glenn, trombone; Joe Muranyi, clarinet; Marty Napoleon, piano; Ernie Hayes, organ; Art Ryerson, banjo, guitar; Wally Richardson, guitar; Everett Barksdale, electric bass; Buddy Catlett, bass; Grady Tate, drums; Dick Jacobs, conductor
Originally released on Brunswick BL 754136
Currently available on CD: On The Best of Louis Armstrong
Available on Itunes? Yes, on the same
Instead of giving the ol' Itunes shuffle a spin, I was inspired for today's entry by a recently uploaded YouTube clip of Louis Armstrong performing "Willkommen" on The Hollywood Palace in January 1968. The clip featured such a vibrant Satchmo and since it was made just a few months prior to the moving "When You Wish Upon A Star" that I discussed in my last outing, I figured to tackle this tune as well to demonstrate the Pops had a lot of vitality left in that magical year of 1968.
Armstrong first encountered the tune at a Brunswick recording session from October 9, 1967. This was a pretty bleak time for Louis Armstrong records as for every tune that broke through the mainstream, numerous copycats followed. After the success of "Hello, Dolly," Armstrong sessions began featuring other showtunes and the conspicuous presence of a banjo, an instrument Armstrong hadn't recorded with since the late 1920s. After "What a Wonderful World," he began recording inspirational "message" songs for Brunswick such as the touching "You'll Never Walk Alone" and the dreadful "I Believe." And after Armstrong's take on "Cabaret" became a staple of his live shows, it only made sense to feed Armstrong another song from Kander and Ebb's score to the Broadway musical of the same name.
Unfortunately, Armstrong's Brunswick records were overseen by a nice, but ultra-square arranger in Dick Jacobs (or Dick "Schmuck" Jacobs, as Joe Muranyi remembered him). Jacobs might have come up with Sy Oliver but by the late 1960s, he only knew how to arrange schlocky pop without a trace of jazz in it...not exactly the ideal fit for the man who revolutionized jazz and popular music in the 1920s! As for the song "Cabaret," Armstrong first tackled it for Columbia in 1966, backed with a tasteful arrangement consisting of light strings and the swinging sound of his All Stars. The original recording is harmless, but the tune really didn't take off until Armstrong began performing it at a brighter tempo in 1967. By the summer of '67, "Cabaret" was romping, often serving as the basis for some of Armstrong's finest blowing of that year. In August 1967, Armstrong even got the chance to record it again, swinging it straightly with the All Stars for the ABC label, the same day he recorded the original "What a Wonderful World."
Thus, seeing the success of "Cabaret," Brunswick records had Armstrong record that play's opening number, "Willkomen." The song was catchy but pretty gimmicky, consisting of lyrics that played with concept of welcoming someone in German, French and English. Armstrong always had fun with foreign languages, singing in Hawaiian in the 1930s for Decca and recording in Italian in the 1960s. So on paper, the combo worked: another catchy song from "Cabaret," Armstrong having fun in different languages and good chord changes to improvise over. What could go wrong? Listen for yourself:
Yikes. Jacobs augmented Armstrong's All Stars with Ernie Hayes on organ, Wally Richardson on guitar, Art Ryerson on banjo and guitar and Everett Barksdale on electric bass, while regular All Stars drummer Danny Barcelona was replaced by the versatile Grady Tate, who also backed Pops on the original "What a Wonderful World." The combination of all the guitars and electric bass, the plunker-do two-beat corny rhythm, the circus-like organ stabs, the lame, bland mixed chorus...man, it's the very definition of square and it's a shame that poor Pops had to be thrown in the middle of it. But as always, Armstrong gives 100%, sounding happy as ever and really selling those foreign language passages. After short spots for Tyree Glenn's trombone (Armstrong throws it to him with an off-mike “Take it!”) and Joe Muranyi's clarinet, Pops takes a trumpet solo, sounding a little weak but contributing some beautiful phrasing in his 15 bars (the longest solo he'd take on the resulting Brunswick LP). It’s further proof that the mind was still sharp as a tack even when the sound wasn’t quite what it used to be. For example, listen to the break at the 1:15 mark and how he works over those descending glisses. Still a master right to the end…
When he's finished, the chorus takes over the melody, with Armstrong shouting the translations in between them. Again, he sounds like he's having a ton fun and his spirit shines through. I know I always smile as Pops confidently belts out those foreign phrases. Even during the extended ending, he must have been giving out some pretty big smiles because you can hear one of the female voices sounding extra-happy. It occurs when the choir and Armstrong are supposed to take turns repeating the word “Cabaret,” but after the second one, Armstrong sings, “Cassoulet,” a tribute to the French sausage-and-bean-filled stew that Armstrong probably devoured on one of his European trips. As the band continues the corny vamp from the beginning of the record, Armstrong raps over it, first alerting us that “the joint is jumpin,” before saying a phrase that I never truly understood but one I hope one of you dear readers can help me with: "Y’all better come in ya house, Spec.” Now I know that’s wrong, but whatever it is, it was definitely part of Pops’s language because he says almost the exact same thing on the original 1950 Decca studio recording of “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.” I know I’ll feel like an idiot when it’s explained to me but please, if anyone knows exactly what it is, leave a comment or e-mail me at HYPERLINK "mailto:email@example.com" firstname.lastname@example.org. Anyway, after this line, Armstrong’s mind wanders back to food as he utters with utmost satisfaction, “Cassoulet is jumping…yes it is…mm!”
Thus, the record has it’s strong points and Pops sounds like he had a ball, but that Jacobs arrangement is a drag. Fortunately, Pops knew he had something to dig into and he soon began featuring “Willkomen” on live television appearances. And this is where I come full circle to the YouTube video that launched this entry, Armstrong performing “Willkommen” on The Hollywood Palace on January 11, 1968. You’ll notice that the clip isn’t complete as it edits out Armstrong’s first vocal chorus and the trombone and clarinet solos. Thus, it begins directly with the main event, Armstrong’s horn, sounding much stronger than on the studio record. Then stay tuned for Armstrong’s delightful singing—I notice him looking to the side a lot, so perhaps there were cue cards or a teleprompter with the words. Nevertheless, he looks happy and healthy, retaining the “Cassoulet” at the end and even throwing in a cute, “Oui oui, mama” and ending on a high note. Enjoy!
Just two weeks later, Armstrong appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, reprising “Willkommen” with the Tonight Show Orchestra, who made the Jacobs arrangement much more palatable by using a big band setting instead of voices and electric bass. Pops’s trumpet sounds strong again as he repeats some of lines he played on the Hollywood Palace version. However, after this version, the song disappears from the Armstrong discography. “Willkommen” will never go down as one of Armstrong’s greatest performances and that Jacobs arrangement is a dog, but Pops seemed to love singing it and as that YouTube clip demonstrates, he played some pretty strong trumpet on the tune’s changes. It’s nothing for the time capsule, but it provides some laughs…and any chance to hear Pops croon the word “Cassoulet” is always a welcome occasion for me!