Monday, June 30, 2008

I'll Keep The Lovelight Burning (In My Heart)

Louis Armstrong With Sy Oliver and His Orchestra
Recorded June 28, 1928
Track Time 3:02
Written by Bennie Bejamin and George David Weiss
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Buck Clayton, Ivor Lloyd, trumpet; Henderson Chambers, trombone; George Dorsey, Artie Baker, alto saxophone; Budd Johnson, Freddie Williams, tenor saxophone; Horace Henderson, piano; Everett Barksdale, guitar; Joe Benjamin, bass; Wallace Bishop, drums; Sy Oliver, conductor, arranger
Originally released on Decca 24751
Currently available on CD: It’s on volume 9 of the Ambassador series, as well as the CD reissue of Satchmo Serenades
Available on Itunes? Yes, Satchmo Serenades

After my marathon thesis on “West End Blues” the other day, it’s kind of nice to get back to a simple song that Armstrong only recorded once, one without much backstory. Of course, every song has to have SOME kind of backstory so here goes.

“I’ll Keep The Lovelight Burning” was recorded at Louis Armstrong’s first Decca session in 1949 after a three-year hiatus from recording for the label that had been his home from 1935 to 1946. Armstrong switched to Victor in 1946, recording sides with his big band, with musicians from the film New Orleans, with a new “Hot Seven” and with his permanent small group, the All Stars. Some very good music resulted from this tour of duty with Victor, but nothing was issued that remotely could have been considered a hit, always a no-no in Joe Glaser’s book.

After the famous Town Hall concert in May 1947, Armstrong led two small group dates for the label, one in June and one in October. The June session featured an old favorite (“Rockin’ Chair”), a new Armstrong composition (“Some Day”) and a couple of blues vocal duets with Jack Teagarden (“Jack-Armstrong Blues” and “Fifty Fifty Blues”). At the October date, Armstrong recorded the theme song to his latest movie (“A Song Was Born”), another blues vocal duet with Teagarden (“Please Stop Playing Those Blues, Boys”) and two songs probably recorded as favors for their composers, all friends of Armstrong’s: Joe Buskin and Johnny De vries’s “Lovely Weather We’re Having” and a tune co-written by Armstrong’s drummer Sid Cateltt, “Before Long.”

Again, the material recorded ranges from very good to outstanding, but all of it is firmly rooted in the jazz and/or blues world, not exactly the popular scene. Armstrong had one more chance to sneak in a Victor recording date at the end of 1947--before the record ban of 1948--but the session never got off the ground. Jos Willems’s All of Me discography reports the following quote from All Stars pianist Dick Cary, as told to Gosta Hagglof:

“On Christmas Eve we played Billy Berg’s again. At the rehearsal the same day a ‘man’--probably an important one--assisted the rehearsal and told Louis that he had the intention to record him and his All Stars before New Year’s Eve because of the upcoming recording ban of 1948. Louis was going to be free to do as many tunes as he wanted and might choose the songs himself. This was earlier reported in Down Beat. Then, on top of the stairs, before leaving the room, the Victor man turned and told Louis that his last recordings--made October 16th--were below all level and had to be remade. Louis got furiously mad and gave the man a piece of his mind. The Victor man waited until Louis finished and told him that he could scold Joe Glaser but not him. He turned around and slammed the door. No recordings were made.”

The AFM recording ban lasted 11 1/2 months, pretty much wiping out the entire year of 1948. But even with the ban lifted, Armstrong was in no rush to record. The All Stars were still in great demand, touring the country, appearing on television and broadcasting from New York and Philadelphia to Chicago and Hollywood. Armstrong even appeared on the cover of Time magazine in February 1949 without having made a record in 16 months. But naturally, Armstrong couldn’t stay out of the recording studios forever but when he was ready to make that move, it wouldn’t be for Victor. Armstrong was now back with the Decca label where his producer would be one of his good friends, Milt Gabler. Gabler had a great sensibility for what made a popular record and it was thus established that the formula to do this would be to have Louis Armstrong record other people’s popular hits. This was shrewd because for one, all the songs chosen were already established as popular so perhaps the record-buying public would be curious to hear what Armstrong could do with the songs they already loved and bought. Next, Gabler put the All Stars on hold. Even though they were a popular live attraction, their records for Victor didn’t make a dent in the charts. Armstrong would be backed by studio big bands or by strings, making his records more appealing to the sector of the population that didn’t exactly care for horns.

With the formula in place, Gabler asked Armstrong to three record dates in the month of September 1949. The first one would pair him with a small big band made up of old friends and conducted by fellow trumpeter Sy Oliver. The next date would find him backed by popular arranger Gordon Jenkins’s luscious strings and voices. The third date would be a collaborative date with fellow Decca star Billie Holiday. Each of the three session offered plenty of foreshadowing to the kinds of records Armstrong would make for Decca over the next decade.

For the first session, taking place on September 1, Gabler chose two songs recently recorded by Dick Haymes, “Maybe It’s Because” and “I’ll Keep the Lovelight Burning (In My Heart).” Haymes had a big hit with “Maybe It’s Because,” but “I’ll Keep the Lovelight Burning” was one of the biggest hits of the year as sung by Patti Page. “I’ll Keep The Lovelight Burning” was also the name of a 1942 Harry Tobias tune recorded by Kate Smith and Bob Crosby but the Page-Haymes song is a different one, as evidenced by the parenthetical “In My Heart,” (the hardly reliable Wikipedia gets this wrong). Anyway, I truly truly love Armstrong’s Decca “pop” period and it got off to a tremendous start with “I’ll Keep The Lovelight Burning (In My Heart).” Please listen along:

There’s a real happy atmosphere on this track and that to do with Armstrong’s rapport with members of Oliver’s studio band. Trumpeter Buck Clayton was a lifelong Armstrong admirer. Henderson Chambers was a member of Edmond Hall’s sextet, backing up Pops at the February 1947 Carnegie Hall concert (he would also fill in for a sick Jack Teagarden in the All Stars for a short period of time). Budd Johnson played with Armstrong’s big band in 1933 and pianist Horace Henderson was Fletcher’s brother. On bass was Joe Benjamin, who later remembered, “I always liked Louis Armstrong. You listen as a youngster and all of a sudden you’re an adult. And then one day you find yourself in a Decca recording studio with him and he’s one of the nicest people on this earth.” And, as written about on this blog before, Sy Oliver was a longtime Pops man, having even played in the Zack Whyte band that backed Armstrong up during a stop in Toledo, Ohio in the late 1920s. Oliver turned out to be a terrific arranger whose writing always seemed to fit Pops like a glove.

So, onto the music! Today’s track gets off to a helluva start as Armstrong’s trumpet opens with a series of scalding hot breaks...and to think that some people complained that Armstrong turned “commercial.” His rhythmic mastery is on display and each break shows off another facet of Armstrong’s genius: the sense of drama, the perfect balance of the opening two phrases, the gorgeous open tone, the crystal clear upper register, the nifty high chromatic’s all there. He then plays eight bars of melody, mainly sticking to the melody, but playing it up high and throwing in a dazzling descending run in between the fourth and fifth bars. He’s playing with some urgency here as if he knows he only has 30 seconds to make a statement, so uncorks everything in the arsenal.

Then it’s time for the vocal, which is quite lovely. The song isn’t much, but it has plenty of built-in space that Armstrong fills with a series of scat episodes that seem to pay homage to Papa Bing Crosby with their propensity of “buh buh boos.” As always, I have to point out my fondness for Armstrong’s New Orleans accent: “It will boin etoinally,” he sings at one point.

At the 1:12 mark, Armstrong takes quintessential break, the one every immediately associates with Armstrong: “Bobba doo doat dee mm de zit.” I guess I’ve heard Armstrong sing/play this lick so many thousands of times, I’ve never thought much of it but now I find myself wondering about the first time Armstrong ever did it on a record or broadcast. In my old entry on the 1941 Decca instrumental “I Used To Love You (But It’s All Over Now)” I pointed out that Armstrong plays it as a break and he does use at the end of “On a Little Bamboo Bridge” from 1937. Are those the first ones? Are there a lot of other examples between then and “Lovelight Burning”? I know the Armstrong historians out there might have some suggestions so please, leave a comment or send me an e-mail to so we can solve this mystery.

Back to the song. Armstrong righteously enters the bridge with three quarter notes, sounding quite happy and mellow as Everett Barksdale’s electric guitar plays an obbligato. Dig the end of the bridge: Armstrong rushes the last words of it as if he was playing it on the trumpet, filling in the resulting space with another classic scat break. He’s on fire but calms down for the last A section, singing lightly and politely as the band plays in quiet two-beat fashion (Armstrong’s deep-toned “Mm-mm” is a killer).

Armstrong then picks up his trumpet to play the bridge which must have seemed pretty familiar to him as it’s based on the bride to “I’m Confessin’” (and a million other tunes). Again, with only four bars and a break to work with, Armstrong plays with abandon, cramming in an incredible amount of ideas into such a short period of time. The high notes are wonderful as always (he sounds like he’s mad at that high concert Bb, hitting it with repeated fury) but the real story of the solo is Armstrong’s rhythm. I could not imagine transcribing something like that or even playing anything remotely that stunning. This solo reminds me that some of the greatest trumpet playing Armstrong would go on to do in the 1950s occurred on these Decca pop records; he never plays a bad note on any of them.

Armstrong then reprises the last A section, singing it sweetly before closing with a series of scat breaks. It’s piece of evidence number 728 about the similarities between Armstrong’s singing and playing. Just listen to the phrasing and the rhythm of those breaks; it almost completely echoes his earlier solo. Hell, he even scats a gliss at the 2:48 mark!

Armstrong gives it a standard “oh yeah” ending...but again, how standard was this? What was the first Armstrong record to end with an “oh yeah”? “Darling Nellie Grey” ends with an “Oh babe” and some 1940s versions of “Confessin’” do end with the “oh yeah,” but I wonder what the first studio record was to end that way. Again, if anyone knows out there, lay it on me!

“I’ll Keep The Lovelight Burning (In My Heart)” is an Armstrong tour de force but it did nothing on the charts and is mostly forgotten today. I don’t know why as Armstrong’s trumpet is pretty spectacular. At the time, perhaps it was TOO spectacular to appeal to the jazz haters. Five days after the session, Gabler told Armstrong to leave his trumpet at home, preferring to use only voice on top of Gordon Jenkins’s strings and choir. The songs chosen? “Blueberry Hill” and “That Lucky Old Sun.” Now THAT was a hit record! But that’s a story for another day. For now we’ll have to live with the wonderful playing and singing on “I’ll Keep the Lovelight Burning” and I don’t think anyone can complain about that! Til next time....

Saturday, June 28, 2008

80 Years of West End Blues

Louis Armstrong And His Hot Five
Recorded June 28, 1928
Track Time 3:11
Written by Joe “King” Oliver and Clarence Williams
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Fred Robinson, trombone; Jimmy Strong, clarinet; Earl Hines, piano; Mancy Carr, banjo; Zutty Singleton, hand-cymbals
Originally released on OKeh 8597
Currently available on CD: It’s on almost any Hot Five compilation, as well as hundreds of “Best-of” discs
Available on Itunes? Yes, on about 40 different albums, so take your pick!

80 years ago today, Louis Armstrong did this:

West End Blues

‘Nuff said.

Technically, that’s all I should have to write about the subject of today’s entry, “West End Blues.” Louis Armstrong’s 1928 performance of the tune has probably been the subject of more words and analysis than any other in the history of jazz. Gunther Schuller devoted page after page to it in 1967’s Early Jazz, writing, “The clarion call of “West End Blues’ served notice that jazz had the potential capacity to compete with the highest order of previously known musical expression.” Gary Giddins wrote that this tune “came to symbolize more than any other the ascendancy of a classic American music.” John Chilton called the introduction “a great moment in 20th century music.” Ken Burns devoted an entire segment to it and if you’d like to hear Artie Shaw, Wynton Marsalis and Gary Giddins expound on it, as well as hearing “West End Blues” in much better sound than heard in the above link, watch this YouTube eight-minute extravaganza:

Okay, so now we all know that this is one historic, pretty great recording. It would be senseless for me to come up with different ways of saying “West End Blues” in unbelievable so, with your kind permission, I’m going to take another route and look at the song itself: other versions, other attempts by Pops, tributes to Armstrong, anything and everything I can fine. So get ready for another interactive journey through the history of “West End Blues”....the greatest record ever made during the 20th century.

(Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

“West End Blues” was written by two very important figures in Louis Armstrong’s life. Joe “King” Oliver was perhaps the most important person to Armstrong in his early years, giving the younger man tips on playing the cornet in New Orleans and eventually hiring him to perform in Chicago with his band at the Lincoln Gardens. Armstrong cut his first records with Oliver and though he eventually left his mentor, the two enjoyed a warm friendship in Chicago, often sitting in with each other’s bands (as Hot Lips Page testified). The lyrics of “West End Blues” were co-written by pianist Clarence Williams, a musician who gave Armstrong a lot of studio work during his time in New York City with Fletcher Henderson’s band in 1924 and 1925. Williams wrote many jazz classics, including “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home,” “Royal Garden Blues” and a tune he apparently stole from Armstrong, “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate” (Armstrong wrote it as “Get Off Katie’s Head” in New Orleans; Williams heard it, cleaned it up and published it as his own, scoring a hit that is still being performed by New Orleans jazz bands today).

In 1925, Oliver organized a new, slightly bigger band, performing in Chicago and making fine records for Vocalion, including the popular “Snag It.” In 1928, Oliver tried his luck in New York, making one of the worst decisions in jazz history when he turned down an offer to play at the Cotton Club, an offer that ended up going to Duke Ellington.

On June 11, 1928, Oliver recorded one of his new compositions, “West End Blues,” a 32-bar, three-strain blues, with a band, the Dixie Syncopators, that included trombonist Jimmy Archey, Ernest Elliott and Arville Harris on reeds, Clarence WIlliams on piano, Leroy Harris on banjo and Cyrus St. Clair on tuba. Here is that first recorded of “West End Blues,” as originally conceived by its composer (by the way, Williams hadn’t written the lyrics yet, so the original record only credited Oliver).

King Oliver

Oliver’s first “West End Blues” does well in invoking a quiet, blues atmosphere, but there’s nothing remotely earth-shattering on that record. Oliver’s lead is pretty and stately; one can definitely hear traces of Armstrong in his phrasing, especially the mature, later Armstrong. After Oliver’s lead, the clarinets play a unison passage before a somber solo by trombonist Archey, who would go on to play in Armstrong’s big band in the 1930s. Archey’s followed by clarinetist Ernest Elliott, who really hams it up in his spot. So much for a pretty, stately, somber blues! Elliott’s all over the place, playing like he’s trying to impress his girlfriend, even throwing in a little rooster call for good measure (shades of ODJB!). Fortunately, Oliver swoops in to restore the dignity of the performance, enterting on a phrase that could have easily been played by Armstrong. The record ends and well, that’s all there is. Nice stuff, but pretty ho-hum.

Exactly 17 days later, in Chicago, Louis Armstrong prepared to record his own version of Oliver’s tune. He had been playing with Carroll Dickerson’s group at the Savoy Ballroom and had just resumed recording for OKeh after nearly a six month hiatus. Armstrong’s new recordings featured former Dickerson pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, one of Armstrong’s only contemporaries to demonstrate a genius very nearly on par with the trumpeter.

“West End Blues” was the second song recorded that June 28 day, the third OKeh session that took place in three consecutive days. The first song, “Don’t Jive Me” featured a very swinging Armstrong solo and rideout chorus, backed sublimely by Zutty Singleton’s relentless hand-cymbals. “Don’t Jive Me” is a good record, but nothing on it foreshadows what happened next. Again, for convenience, here’s the link for what exactly happened next:

West End Blues

Though only three minutes and 21 seconds, “West End Blues” feels like an epic film. The opening cadenza sets the mood, like a gripping action sequence that occurs before the credits (in this case, Armstrong’s reading of the melody would serve as the credits, I suppose). Some critics have discussed the cadenza as if it were completely spontaneous, as if Armstrong said, “Okay, boys, let’s cut Papa Joe’s tune. I’ll play a little intro and we’ll take it.” That cadenza is too damn perfect to be completely spontaneous, and besides, it contains fragments of ideas that Armstrong had already put into wax. The most famous example was originally spotted by one of my mentors, Lewis Porter, who wrote about in the liner notes of an LP set of Armstrong and Sidney Bechet recordings from their time in New York in 1924 and 1925. One of those recordings was “Changeable Daddy of Mine,” recorded by a Clarence Williams group with a vocal by Margaret Johnson. Pay particular attention to the double time bridge and the break Armstrong takes immediately after it at the 2:12 mark:

Changeable Daddy Of Mine

It’s not EXACTLY “West End Blues,” but it’s close, especially in those quick, little chromatic runs tossed around at the end of the break. Something similar can be heard in the breaks of the Hot Five record “Once in a While” from 1927, something that was pointed out by Joshua Berrett in his masterful “Louis Armstrong and Opera,” as published in the spring 1992 issue of “The Musician’s Quarterly.” For those looking for a nuts and bolts analysis of every bar of Armstrong’s cadenza, definitely look up Berrett’s article as he thoroughly deconstructs each of what he hears as the four main phrases that make up the cadenza.

For me personally, the “West End Blues” cadenza could have been issued as a record by itself, like the later Charlie Parker “Famous Alto Break.” It’s like listening to a song with all its different components and each time I hear it, something different knocks me out: the opening descending quarter notes that sound like an alarm clock; the dizzying arpeggios that build to the stirring high concert C; the history-of-jazz-encapsulated-in-one-bluesy-run descending blitz of notes that immediately follows the high C, foreshadowing where jazz is going, yet firmly rooted in where it’s been; and those scattered chromatic phrases, sounding so effortless in the hands (or chops) of an artist who is so completely in command of his horn. It’s 12 seconds of heaven. The rest of the record could have consisted of nothing but a yodeler warbling, “Stick out your can, here comes the garbage man,” and it would still be a classic just for that opening.

Fortunately, what follows is still pretty magical. Armstrong plays Oliver’s lead in harmony with Jimmy Strong’s clarinet as Fred Robinson’s trombone lends a foggy bottom to the proceedings. Armstrong maintains the dignified, somber feel of Oliver’s record, until he gets to bar seven, where his reading of the melody begins to grow more airy and ornate. At the 12-bar chorus, he spins another arpeggio up to a high concert Bb and then takes a breather, handing the ball over to Robinson to take a short solo. Robinson was no legend and on many of these 1928 sides, he doesn’t hold a candle to Armstrong, but even he seems inspired on this one, taking his time and moaning the essence of the blues on Oliver’s written second strain. He gets delicious backing by a Zutty Singleton shuffle beat with his hand cymbals and a steady, nearly 12-bar tremolo by Hines.

The feel of the record shifts in the third chorus, as Hines and banjoist Mancy Carr simply pound out the melody delicately over quarter notes behind clarinetist Strong’s chalumeau take on Oliver’s next strain. Every phrase Strong plays in answered by some of the most sober wordless vocalizing ever contributed by Armstrong. I hesitate to call it scatting because usually the word “scat” sounds happy and joyful and Armstrong is anything but that during “West End Blues.” There’s not a trace of gravel in his voice and he phrases up high, just like his trumpet, though it’s so relaxed, he sounds like he’s listening to the radio. There’s not a trace of a laugh or a grin; it’s just some very pretty singing.

On the Oliver record, the sober mood was broken by the ridiculous clarinet playing. On Armstrong’s version, the fragile nature of the Armstrong-Strong duet is temporary upset by Earl Hines’s dazzling piano solo. However, unlike the clarinet solo, this is not a bad thing. Hines was one of the most innovative pianists to ever sit behind a keyboard and his virtuosic display on “West End Blues” is one of the record’s most memorable features. Singleton and Carr drop out, leaving Hines all alone but he makes the most of it. His left hand is consistently shifting; part stride, part descending and ascending octaves and tenths, all mixed up the occasional jarring, off-the-beat accent. And that’s just the left hand! The right hand plays a lot of those “trumpet style” octaves, but there’s and a lot of single-note runs, too, leading to the solo being equal parts melodic and flashy. All of it is mesmerizing; just listen to the ascending chordal run he plays with both hands simultaneously for a second at the 2:28 mark for a short example of Hines’s brilliance.

With 51 seconds to go, there’s only enough room for one chorus and a coda. Again, this comes off so perfectly, I don’t think anyone could write it off as being completely spontaneous. Almost like an arrangement, Robinson and Strong harmonize, Strong holding one note while Robinson discreetly accents on the first beat of every bar, hitting a blue note in bar for. Meanwhile, Hines and Carr comp dramatically, surging together as the song begins to sweat. And on top of it all, the celestial being known as Louis Armstrong, holding the most dramatic, throbbing, high B in the history of recorded music. He holds it for four bars (12 seconds), with just the right amount of vibrato to send the hairs on one’s neck to rise to attention. It’s such a genius move, because he basically takes the original motif from Oliver’s melody, and inflates it into something much more bold and stunning than anything those original 12 bars suggest

But he’s not done yet! After four bars of the held note, Armstrong unleashes a furious series of descending runs off an Ab7 chord - Bb-Db-Gb-Eb, four notes repeated five times in five beats before Armstrong turns it inside out and hits a high C for a second. He continues onward, phrasing with a flair that does indeed suggest opera, especially with the upward, almost scalar, run he plays towards the very end of the chorus, as well as the little turn of a phrase that ends it.

Then it’s on to the coda, or the final resolution, to continue my movie analogy from earlier. I think if “West End Blues” had a cute little Lil Hardin ending, it might have taken some of the steam out of it. But instead, the actual ending, with Hines’s descending inversions and the final melancholy statement by the horns, delightfully maintains the mood of the entire record. In the noes to a Time-Life LP box set on Hines, the pianist remembered now the ending came about:

“Now how the ending was going to be we didn’t know. We got to the end of it and Louis looked at me and I thought of the first thing I could think of, a little bit of classic thing that I did a long time ago and I did it five times and after I finished that, I held the chord and Louis gave the downbeat with his head and everybody hit the chord at the end.”

Well, almost everybody. As everyone held their final chord, Zutty Singleton unleashed a somewhat strange “clop” from his cymbals. I’ve always liked this sound because, to me, it sounds like someone closing a time capsule on the amazing brilliance that just occurred in the previous 200 seconds. But Hines explained that Singleton had a little trouble with his simple duty: “Zutty had this little clop cymbal...and he clopped it wrong. So then we had to start all over again...We spent hours in there with the hot wax.” Thus, we can be fairly certain that “West End Blues” wasn’t a completely spontaneous performance. No alternate takes survive but I often do wonder that if they did, would each one of them contain the exact same cadenza?

The musicians were justifiably proud of their efforts, as Hines attested to. “When it first came out,” he said, “Louis and I stayed by that recording practically an hour and a half or two hours and we just knocked each other out because we had no idea it was gonna turn out as good as it did.” Armstrong would go on to list “West End Blues” as one of his favorite records, but he never seemed to speak or write too much about it. This is a shame, especially since Gunther Schuller published Early Jazz in 1967 when Armstrong was alive and well. Would it have hurt him or some other musicologist to actually ask the man himself about what was going through his head when he played that cadenza? Then again, to Armstrong it was probably just another session, a brief respite from his daily gig with the Dickerson band (though, of course, he had to know how special “West End Blues” was).

Armstrong’s song must have hit the jazz world like a meteor as other versions began popping up almost immediately. So for now, we’ll leave Pops and focus a little on some of these other recordings. First up, here’s Ethel Waters singing Clarence Williams’s new lyrics to the tune, recorded August 21, 1928, less than two months after Armstrong’s version.

Ethel Waters

Waters does a nice job, as always, singing Williams’s lyrics about the West End section of New Orleans in an appropriately bluesy manner, covering the different strains of Oliver’s tune with feeling. She also scats a bit in the manner of Armstrong (Clarence Williams, on piano, plays the same descending fun that Armstrong and Strong used to end their duet). Only the end is a little confusing as Williams completely misses Waters’s final note, a dominant seventh Db, creating a slight clash. Otherwise, a fine record.

Just one week later, Hazel Smith recorded the lyrics of “West End Blues,” once again with Clarence Williams on piano. This session, however, had one more special guest: the King himself, Joe Oliver on cornet. Give it a listen:

As can be heard almost immediately, Hazel Smith was no Ethel Waters. She definitely reminds me of a Lillie Delk Christian-type popular singer of the day, with a voice that’s entirely too shrill. But pay attention to Oliver, who clearly listened to his protege’s record. At the :35 second mark, Oliver quotes an arpeggiated phrase from Armstrong’s chorus, though Oliver’s tone is a little thin on the high notes. Also, Oliver’s obbligato doesn’t have the natural ease as the countless Armstrong played on records of the 1920s. Smith’s vocal is almost humorously bad, but it’s nice to hear Oliver playing at length.

Meanwhile, Clarence Williams continued to pass on his lyrics to anyone who entered one of his sessions. Next up was Katherine Henderson, who recorded it backed by Williams and his “orchestra,” which included Ed Allen on cornet. Unfortunately, there’s no solos as Henderson sings for the entire length of the record while the horns only get to play short arranged figures. There’s nothing spectacular here, but if you’d like to hear it, here’s the link:

Katherine Henderson

As the months passed, the influence of Armstrong’s version of “West End Blues” began creeping into other performances of songs that weren’t even the Oliver tune. For example, listen to this track recorded by Albert Wynn’s Creole Jazz Band on October 2, 1928. Wynn was a solid trombonist (check out his later Riverside recorded, produced by Chris Albertson for the “Chicago: The Living Legends” series in 1961) and his band included future Armstrong associates in reedman Lester Boone and drummer Sid Catlett. Alex Hill, a tremendous songwriter, plays piano while Armstrong disciple Punch Miller plays the trumpet and takes the vocal. At the 1:52 mark, Miller and Wynn do a scatting and trombone duet that is definitely influenced by Armstrong’s “West End Blues.” Take a listen:

Wynn’s Creole Jazz Band

Next up is Fred Hall’s Jazz Band, who interestingly play “West End Blues” as if they never heard the Armstrong version. Only the short call-and-response strain between the violin and the trumpet makes me think of the Armstrong record. Hall was a pianist and seemed to lead more of a dance band than a pure jazz band and it almost feels like he’s playing a basic stock arrangement of the Oliver tune. Here ‘tis:

Fred Hall’s Jazz Band

Okay, who’s still with me? I find all these other versions pretty interesting because each one palls besides Armstrong’s. But now we’ll turn to 1929 and the first outright tribute to the Hot Five “West End Blues,” recorded by none other than King Oliver and His Orchestra. This comes from January 16, 1929 and was recorded for the Victor label. Oliver sounded strong on the Hazel Smith session but his teeth had begun deteriorating to the point where he could no longer play anything remotely like Armstrong’s opening cadenza or the long, held high notes. He started keeping younger, stronger trumpet players in his bands--musicians such as Red Allen, Dave Nelson, Bubber Miley and Louis Metcalfe--who would do the heavy lifting, though Oliver still would take the occasional solo.

On “West End Blues,” the role of Armstrong went to the fine St. Louis trumpeter Louis Metcalfe. This whole record fascinates me because it’s basically a remake of the Armstrong version. This has to be one of the first jazz recordings to completely pay tribute to an earlier recording by recreating it in an almost note-for-note fashion. And remember, Armstrong’s recording was made only six months earlier. Oliver’s band had to notate every ounce of that record, practice it and get ready to record it. For the session Oliver basically led Luis Russell’s wonderful band with the likes of J.C. Higginbotham, Charlie Holmes and Paul Barbarin. Take a listen and be prepared for the recreation of the opening cadenza:

King Oliver 1929

Poor Metcalfe! And poor Oliver, who some writers attributed to the butchering of the opening cadenza. Metcalfe already has one strike against him when he starts on the wrong note, squealing it out like a mouse who just had his tail stepped on. Already in the hole, Metcalfe soldiers on and I do have to give him some credit. He gets most of it right with the occasional wrong note here and there but I always laugh at the pause before the high C. Armstrong hit it like it was second nature. Metcalfe? You can practically hear him sweat as he prepares to hit it...and he does so let’s give him that. He even continues it, hitting the chromatic runs pretty decently before he finally gets to settle down and play the melody. He’s not quite as free floating as Armstrong, but he does quote Armstrong’s classic ending to that first chorus.

Higginbotham is next and he leaves Fred Robinson in the dust, contributing a lusty solo before Charlie Holmes takes over for a new chorus on alto. Then it’s time for the next strain where Strong originally duetted with Armstrong’s scatting. This time Higgy plays the melody “calls,” while Oliver himself plays muted “responses,” evoking the Armstrong record in a tender way by playing all of Armstrong’s original scat lines as they were originally sung. He sounds quite good, by the way.

Then it’s time for one of the most fascinating parts of the record. Luis Russell was apparently no great improviser, but if you gave him time to learn something in advance, he could surprise you. And here, he does surprise as he does a very good job in recreating Hines’s superlative chorus. Russell’s left hand is a little stiffer, sticking mainly to a simple stride, but he nails Hines’s right hand octaves, tremolos and single note runs.

Because Oliver takes it at a slightly quicker tempo, there’s time for some new choruses. In addition to the earlier alto solo, the piano solo is followed by a somewhat sloppily played arranged chorus. But then it’s time for Metcalfe to step into the spotlight, jumping right in by holding the high Bb for four measures. So far, so good but when it comes time to play the intense descending arpeggios, Metcalfe begins on the wrong beat, only getting to play four instead of five, though he does hit the high C. He finishes well but it sounds like he’s trying too hard and his tone doesn’t hit one’s soul like Armstrong’s. Instead of recreating the mystical original ending, Metcalfe pays further tribute to Armstrong by playing the line Armstrong ended “You’re Next” and “Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa” with, two earlier Hot Fives. Overall, the Oliver record has its moments, but it really succeeds best in illustrating just how far ahead of the jazz world Louis Armstrong was during this period.

Still, other bands continued to record “West End Blues” as if Armstrong never recorded it. The song alsoo reached the territories, as evidenced by the February 11, 1929 recording of the tune by Zack Whyte and His Chocolate Beau Brummels in Richmond, Indiana. Whyte’s band included future jazz stars such as trumpeter Sy Oliver, pianist Herman Chittison and tenor saxophonist Al Sears. Whyte played banjo and is heard prominently on this pretty version. Still, all of these non-Armstrong versions sound dull to these ears; they’re all atmospheric, bluesy records but without something to grab one’s attention, like the Armstrong cadenza or his bravura climax, it’s all kind of dreary. Nevertheless, there’s some nice touches to the arrangement and if you have three minutes to kill, give it a listen:

Zack Whyte and His Chocolate Beau Brummels

Our look at “West End Blues” in the 1920s will end with the next recording, cut on July 31, 1929. Once again, Clarence Williams is on piano (did he ever get sick of recording this tune?) while the vocal is handled by longtime Williams cohort Eva “Cake Walking Babies From Home” Taylor. Taylor sang on so many of those mid-20s Williams sessions, always sounding alive and jaunty, with few of the shrill qualities that have dated so many of the other female singers of the period. I think she sounds magnificent on this recording. She sounds very mature and very sober, selling lines like “You’re gonna see some shooting like you’re never seen before” like she really means it. I like this one a lot:

And after such busy flurry of activity--all of the above discussed versions were cut between June 1928 and July 1929--“West End Blues” disappeared from the recording scene. Perhaps it was too old fashioned because goodness knows the likes of Oliver, Williams and Jelly Roll Morton soon found themselves on the outskirts of the jazz world. The Swing Era was getting started and musicians like Louis Armstrong and Luis Russell were hopping on board.

By the late 1930s, however, a segment of the jazz world finally put on the brakes
and for the first time, began looking backward. The music had been progressing for around 40 years but now it was progressing a little too much for those who enjoyed the old days of the New Orleans style. Thus, the jazz revival was born and all of a sudden, men such as Bunk Johnson, George Lewis, Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet had a new audience who were thrilled to hear jazz as it was originally played in New Orleans (poor King Oliver died broke in 1938, unable to play his horn or lead a band anymore).

Louis Armstrong wasn’t really inclined to look backward in the late 1930s and the revival sprung about. He had been leading a big band, recording pop songs and appearing in movies. He wasn’t about to give it all up to go back to playing in a traditional “Dixieland” set-up. At the same time, Armstrong had become such a big star in 1939 that his recording company, Decca, thought it might be a good time to look back at some of the songs Armstrong originally waxed in the late 1920s. Thus, Armstrong began recording new big band arrangements of tunes like “Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya,” “Save It Pretty Mama,” “Savoy Blues,” “Confessin’,” “Our Monday Date” and of course, “West End Blues.” Armstrong’s first remake of “West End” was recorded on April 5, 1939 and though it’s remarkably lesser known than the original, I think there’s still plenty to admire about it. Give it a listen and then we’ll discuss...

Louis Armstrong 1939

Yeah, man, that record gets better every time I hear it. Armstrong still has the chops to nail the cadenza, though not quite with the wild abandon of the 1928 one. His tone is more clearer than the earlier one but this one is slightly longer (14 seconds as opposed to 12) and during the little chromatic runs, Armstrong now throws in a short gliss, which is a nice touch.

Otherwise, it’s very interesting hear the big band behind Armstrong’s lead. Even the subtle swing of the rhythm section makes this version sound light years ahead of the original (only Pops sounds the same; everyone else had to catch up!). Whoever wrote the arrangement wrote some very pretty phrases for the reeds to play softly as Pops plays the melody as he did in 1928, editing a note or two out, but generally following the same patterns.

J. C. Higginbotham, no stranger to the tune, takes the next chorus, display his usual authority with the blues. Then a new touch: a four-bar guitar break by Lee Blair sets up the call-and-response strain. Pops, though his voice had grown more gravelly through the years, still scats with charming clarity. He swings a little more intensely on this version while the arrangement neatly features a clarinet trio playing Strong’s original part.

Then it’s time for Luis Russell’s piano solo. Perhaps Russell had forgotten how to play Hines’s original or perhaps he just wanted to go for himself but, while what he plays is harmless, it’s no Fatha Hines.

Next is a real treat: a brand new chorus of blues by Pops. It’s very low-down and fits the mood appropriately. Years later, Pops would play this solo about an octave higher during his rideout choruses on “St. Louis Blues,” but here, it works beautifully as played lower, prodded along by the slight nudge of Sid Catlett’s drums.

Next, of course, is the high Bb and Pops nails it, holding it for nine seconds. I really love the arranged countermelody; it doesn’t have the throbbing intensity of the original, but it swings more, again, with special thanks to Catlett’s backbeat. Armstrong’s descending arpeggios aren’t quite as visceral as the original as he only gets four out instead of five and doesn’t go for the split second high C. Instead, a few seconds later, he plays an impressive chromatic run up to a high Bb before discarding the original ending and phrasing a new one built around a giant gliss to a high C. This ending is perfectly suited to the Armstrong of 1939.

Because Armstrong’s Decca big band sessions are neglected in general, this remake of “West End Blues” has never received much attention. As I think I’ve made clear, it doesn’t quite have the spark or aura of the original, but there’s plenty to recommend: Pops’s gorgeous, more mature tone, the updated rhythm section, the furious scatting, the beautifully written arrangement, the brand new trumpet chorus and the updated ending. And I forget where I read this, but I know I read somewhere that a lot of younger jazz musicians were more familiar with this version than the original. This makes sense when one considers a musician who was born around 1920 or 1925 and would go on to great things in the 1940s. Those musicians would have probably been too young to appreciate the original and by the late 1930s, if you were a jazz fan or a Louis Armstrong fan, you were probably keeping up with his new Deccas and not fishing around for older records from the previous decade. And if you were a hip lindy-hopping dancer, the odds are that the swinging big band sound of the Decca would sound a lot more pleasing than the steady plunking of Mancy Carr’s banjo. Thus, don’t underestimate the influence of the 1939 version of “West End Blues” on a whole new generation of jazz musicians and fans.

If you’re still with me, it’s time to take one more brief, non-Pops break and focus on two more different takes on “West End Blues” from the ensuing years. The first one actually comes from later in 1939 (September 14, to be exact). Jelly Roll Morton was going through a resurgence in popularity and the Victor label decided to give him a second chance by letting him lead two sessions with groups made up of some of the finest New Orleans jazz players on the scene. For Morton’s second session, he recorded “West End Blues” with a group of Armstrong associates including one past member of his big band (Albert Nicholas) and one future member (guitarist Lawrence Lucie). The band also featured two musicians from the original 1928 Armstrong recording of the tune, trombonist Fred Robinson and drummer Zutty Singleton. The record had the makings of a classic but Morton, never the biggest Armstrong fan in the world, decided to record a version that couldn’t sound any more different from Armstrong’s OKeh original. Morton picked up the tempo a bit and more or less jammed the blues in New Orleans style, creating a perfectly fine record, but nothing special. You can listen along here:

Jelly Roll Morton

The opening breaks are a neat touch (dig trumpeter Sidney De Paris quoting “Tin Roof Blues”) but are executed a little sloppily. Otherwise, I do enjoy this tempo and Zutty really moves things along with his cymbal splashes. It’s interesting that the only part of the record that looks back at the Armstrong version is the recreation of Robinson’s reading over the second strain backed by Singleton’s shuffle-like rim playing. But even then, Morton adds Nicholas’s clarinet to the mix to change things just enough. Morton stays out of the way, executing a few tremolos in the background, until a simple chromatic ending. A good, but not fantastic record.

We’re now going to move to 1944 for another out-and-out tribute to Armstrong’s record of “West End Blues.” This one was recoded on October 17 of that year by Charlie Barnet’s popular big band, featuring the likes of trumpeter Peanuts Holland, trombonist Porky Coehn and pianist Dodo Marmarosa (this was a well-nicknamed band!). Barnet had already paid tributes to heroes such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington with “The Count’s Idea” and “The Duke’s Idea” and now it was time to pay tribute to Pops. Barnet had the genius of idea of taking Armstrong’s opening cadenza and scoring it for the entire band. At first it sounds a little ponderous, but when it gets to the double-timing and the chromatic runs, the effect is spell-binding. Thanks again to Fernando de Ortiz Urbina for sending this track along...enjoy!

As can be heard, the song turns into a string of solos after the cadenza, though Barnet’s opening alto solo references the cascading arpeggio’s of Armstrong’s closing chorus on the original.

Okay, good news folk! I like to reward my readers who stick with me for the entire long, long journey and from here on out, it’s going to be nothing but Armstrong, focusing on versions of “West End Blues” he played from 1946 through 1960. Some of these are common and others are unissued treats sent to me by the likes of Armstrong discographer Jos Willems and Swedish Armstrong expert Håkan Forsberg. I can never thank them enough for their generosity and I’m sure you’ll want to thank them, too, after hearing some of these treats.

During the war years, Armstrong continued touring with his big band but on all of the surviving broadcasts from this period (and there are lots), there are no surviving versions of “West End Blues.” The next time we encounter the song in the Armstrong discography is a version taken from the soundtrack of the 1946 film New Orleans. This film is pretty much a dog but it offered the novelty of Armstrong sans big band, jamming the old New Orleans classics with an all-star group that included trombonist Kid Ory, clarinetist Barney Bigard, pianist Charlie Beal, guitarist Bud Scott, bassist Red Callender and once again, Zutty Singleton on drums.

The group recorded a LOT of material for the soundtrack and sadly, not all of it was used (the film would have been better off if it was all music and no story!). One of the first songs recorded was “West End Blues,” of which only the cadenza was used in the finished film. But what a cadenza! This is a pretty incredible version, I think:

Isn’t that something else? Armstrong tears into the cadenza like it’s 1928 all over again. He nails every note of it, except for a slight hesitation on his way down after the high C. Still, it’s crazily impressive. The rest of the recording follows the OKeh to a tee, though Ory and Bigard bring more to the table than Robinson and Strong. Dig Armstrong’s scat duet with Bigard where he drops Zutty’s name early on. And I love that ending: “Oh take four bars.” Beal listens and plays only four bars, instead of a full solo. Armstrong kills the high Bb but he only plays three of the descending arpeggios instead of F and he omits the quick little rip up to the high C. He still makes the run up to the Bb but he might have run out of a little gas. Also, for the first time since 1928, we get to hear the original “classical” Hines ending, just as beautiful as ever. A pretty great version.

The success of the small band work in New Orleans, as well as some small group records and concert appearances in 1946 and 1947 led Armstrong to ditch the big band and begin a new small group, the All Stars. I’ve frequently read criticisms of later Armstrong that focus on the trumpeter’s showmanship and love of pop tunes and movie songs, lamenting the fact that the audiences who saw him clowning with the All Stars, never knew that this was the man who created “West End Blues,” an American masterpiece.

Well, hold your horses, Charlie. As I’ve argued at length before, there was only one Armstrong as that guy who played on the 1928 original indulged in quite a bit of showmanship (at the time of the recording, he did a bit with Zutty on stage where Singleton dressed in drag!). But please do not think “West End Blues” disappeared during the All Stars years. It wasn’t one of the tunes Armstrong called every night, but when he was in the mood or when he got a request for it, he still played it--beautifully. And to start, this should be the main event for most readers. If you want to call your friends and send a link to this posting through e-mail, I’ll wait.

Back yet?

Okay, good. Here it is: The Grand Reunion. Louis Armstrong. Earl “Fatha” Hines. “West Ed Blues. October 20, 1949:

Did you catch your breath yet? To me, that just might be the second greatest “West End Blues” after the original. It comes from a Netherlands broadcast and you can hear the momentary confusion in the beginning as host Netty Rosenfeld introduces “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” as Pops is just launching into the cadenza. He later straightens it out during Jack Teagarden’s trombone solo.

So we’ll start with the cadenza, which is a fine illustration of a nearly 50-year-old Louis Armstrong. Yes, there’s a slight hesitation in the first part but besides that, it’s paced almost more dramatically than the original. For starters, it’s 20 seconds long, as opposed to the 12 second original. The original makes the listener gasp because it happens so fast and is so damn incredible. Later Armstrong versions are a little slower and a little grander, especially in the high C. In 1928, Armstrong hit it. In 1949 (and later), Armstrong hits it...and HOLDS that mother. The effect is dazzling.

Though this is the first recorded version of the tune from the All Stars days, it’s a very tight performance, making me speculate that they have to had played it before this date. Teagarden plays a pretty harmony to Armstrong’s lead playing in the first chorus, while Bigard sounds quite good, too, harmonizing with Armstrong on the ascending arpeggio that ends the first 12 bars. The scat duet still works, though now, one can hear Armstrong smiling. Also, he has a new way to end it: “Oh yes I know,” which, I think works perfectly.

But now hold on to your seats. I’ve said it before that Earl Hines was not a perfect fit during his tour of duty with the All Stars. He was unhappy being a sideman, he often didn’t listen with his comping and he just plain wasn’t a team player. However, as a soloist, there are few greater pianists and his solo on this “West End Blues” knocks me out. It’s completely different from the original but--heresy alert--I think l like it more. It’s so original, with its jabbing left hand accents and the last four bars always catch me by surprise. Great stuff.

Then it’s on to Pops, who still had the breath control to hold that high Bb for all four measures (12 seconds). He gets in four descending arpeggios but most tellingly, he glisses up to the high C, which was just a quick jolt of lightening in the midst of a flurry of notes and phrases on the original. Again, it’s a sign of the mature Armstrong. The flurries are gone, but that high C now sticks out a bit more.

The original ending is also back, though it’s more drawn out than ever before, really creating a somber atmosphere. Nothing will ever replace the original, but this remake is pretty insane.

Interestingly, it was also in 1949 that Charlie Parker began peppering some of his solos with a quote of the “West End Blues” cadenza. 1949 was a bitter year in the Armstrong vs. bop war as I found numerous articles from that year alone of Armstrong hammering the boppers. When he called it “ju-jitsu” music, it made headlines and in a Leonard Feather “Blindfold Test,” Armstrong beat up records by Miles Davis and Lennie Tristano. Thus, I sometimes wonder if Bird quoting “West End Blues” was an act of tribute or an act of scorn, a way of saying, “Ha ha, old man, I can play this stuff in my sleep.” On the other hand, Bird had an appreciation of old school jazz, including his quoting of the famous “High Society” clarinet part on “Ko-Ko.” We may never know Bird’s motives, but here’s a link to an excerpt of Bird playing it on the tune “Cheryl,” recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1949 (courtesy of the website,

Charlie Parker Quote

The All Stars reprised “West End Blues” during a concert in France one month later and I’m sure they played it on and off during the next couple of years. The next time it was played in front of a microphone came on January 16, 1954 during a CBS broadcast from the Club Hangover in San Francisco. This was a great edition of the All stars with Bigard still on clarinet, Trummy Young on trombone, Billy Kyle on piano, Milt Hinton on bass and Kenny John on drums. The Club Hangover was a hot spot for New Orleans jazz, having housed musicians such as Kid Ory and George Lewis during the same period, so some knowledgeable jazz fan must have requested the tune beforehand. Armstrong just finished a furious version of “When The Saints Go Marchin In’” when, with the applause still ringing, he launched into the “West End Blues” cadenza. Here’s how it came out:

Once again, there’s a little hesitation in the beginning of the cadenza (in the same spot as the 1949 version), as Pops seems to need a little extra breath to get ready to make that climb to the high C. But make he does, really hitting it hard. Again, the descending portion seems to have gotten a little slower, but all the notes are there and I can only imagine the thrill of hearing it live. Armstrong’s opening notes of the melody are greeted with applause by the obviously knowledgeable crowd. Armstrong plays some new idea in the first chorus but, as always, all roads point to the Bb.

Trummy Young’s next and he gets bluesy, adding a real lowdown feeling to the proceedings (Milt Hinton’s bass lines are very nice behind him; he was such a natural fit). The scat once again ends with “Oh yes, you know” before Kyle takes a piano solo. Kyle was a classy, tasteful, urbane musician, but on “West End Blues,” he usually demonstrated his strong ability as a pianist. Also, listen carefully to hear Kyle singing along with his solo. He had just joined the band and in his early days, you can often hear him singing as he plays, purely improvising every note from scratch. Once his solos settled into “set” patterns, the singing stopped, but his solos always were not perfect while his band playing fit like a glove.

Armstrong then enters with the high Bb, but for the first time, age has caught up with him a bit. He can now only hold it for two measures (seven seconds) before holding it for one more (five seconds), taking a breath and finishing off the sequence (three more seconds). The note is still stunning but clearly, between 1949 and 1954, Armstrong lost a little bit of lung capacity. Fortunately for us, his chops were arguable stronger than ever, as he would demonstrate in the upcoming years.

He also demonstrates it immediately after the held Bb, playing the descending arpeggio six times, one more than the original! So he still was blowing beautifully, following it up with the gliss to the high C. The band was really pushing now, accenting the first beat of every bar and swinging mightily. The original Hines ending is gone, replaced by a bit more of Kyle playing the blues before Pops and the horns come back to play the final notes like its 1928. Though there are some imperfections, it’s still mighty impressive.

Almost two years later, on December 20, 1955, Armstrong and the All Stars found themselves in the middle of a long tour of Europe. With Edmond Hall, Arvell Shaw and Barrett Deems on board on clarinet, bass and drums respectively, the band was hitting a new peak in popularity. “Mack the Knife” was about to explode, Edward R. Murrow was filming a piece for Armstrong for See It Now and Columbia was recording parts of Armstrong’s tour to be eventually released on an album whose title would give Armstrong a new nickname: Ambassador Satch.

Ambassador Satch did indeed feature a few tracks that were recorded live on the tour but some of it was recorded in a Los Angeles studio with applause dubbed in later. However, four of the finest tracks were recorded in an Italian movie theater in Milan on December 20. Now, get this: an almost 55-year-old Armstrong played three shows that night. Not one. Not two. Three! Wouldn’t you think his chops would be dead? In fact, they were just getting warmed up. George Avakian met Armstrong, the band, some friends and local fans in the empty theater and decided to record some more material for the album. The group opened up with their usual opener, “Indiana,” (a version that wouldn’t be released until decades later) when Pops deemed his chops ready to tackle “West End Blues.” Thus, here is how it came out, at 5:00 in the morning after two shows, courtesy of a very nifty YouTube video which combines sheet music notation of the original solo with some very nice pictures of the band members:

Amazing, isn’t it? Especially knowing how much Armstrong had already blown that night and how much was to come: “The Faithful Hussur,” “Tiger Rag,” and “Royal Garden Blues” all followed, each one featuring hotter than hell trumpet playing. I’ve been fortunate enough to hear the session tapes from this date and can attest that Armstrong kept the strong blowing going into unissued tracks like “Someday You’ll Be Sorry,” “You Can Depend On Me” and “The Lonesome Road” before he finally started running out of gas a bit on “That’s a Plenty.” An Edmond Hall feature on “Dardanella,” featuring no trumpet, closed out the session as the mighty Armstrong, after so many hours of fierce blowing, could blow no more.

But back to the mighty “West End Blues.” Armstrong used to begin the cadenza with four fast quarter notes but now he announces his entrance with a soul-stirring G before he takes off. This time there’s no hesitation; he hits and holds the high C squarely and takes off from there, playing all the descending phrases and chromatic runs a little slower than the original, but with just as much authority. There is a little hesitation in the ascending arpeggio that ends the first chorus, but it’s slight and almost unnoticeable. Otherwise, the band--my favorite edition--and the sound quality makes this version one to rank up with the original and the 1949 reunion with Hines. The scatting is wonderful and Kyle’s solo is much better than his 1954 one, sounding like the love child of Otis Span and Avery Parrish.

But it’s Armstrong’s concluding solo that moves me to no end. Even though it’s the same one he had been playing for almost 30 years, there’s something about this particular version that gets me every time. Like the 1954 one, Armstrong’s breath control isn’t what it used to be; he again has to spread the Bb over three breaths. But now the band is much more emphatic in their accompaniment. Deems’s drum accents are played with authority, Kyle keeps a slight boogie feel going in the bass and Young fills Armstrong’s gaps with tremendous blue notes. The whole thing surges as Armstrong gets to the descending arpeggios, only getting three out, but hitting and holding the high with a ferocity not heard in any of the previous versions. In his liner notes, producer Avakian argued that this version deserves to be held up there with the original and I agree. It might not be as revolutionary as the original, but it’s quite a moving performance.

And Louis Armstrong would agree. Less than a year later, Armstrong found himself in the middle of his stretch of one-nighters, doing yet another interview. This one can be heard on one of Armstrong’s private tapes at Queens College and it’s telling because when the interviewer compliments Armstrong’s recent Decca album recorded live at the Crescendo Club, Armstrong responds, “Okay, but you can get a later album than that: Ambassador Satch. That I made in Milano, Italy, just coming out over here. It’s better than the Crescendo. Dig that. And we made that after the third concert in Milano. We did three concerts that day, with intermission included. And 1:00 that night, we begin to record that Ambassador Satch. And at 5:00 in the morning, we’re wailing ‘West End Blues.” After praising the version of “Tiger Rag” cut that same evening, Armstrong said about the session, “If you didn’t feel good, you couldn’t do that. You can’t force those things.”

So Louis Armstrong himself knew how he was feeling and how good that “West End Blues.” But if you read Lawrence Bergreen’s biography of Armstrong, you might have come off with a differing opinion. In late 1956, Armstrong embarked on his Autobiography project, recreating some of his earliest, most demanding performances for Decca. Here’s what Bergreen wrote after summing up those sessions: “One telling omission from the retrospective was ‘West End Blues,’ with its famous, bruising opening cadenza. In a recent live recording, he had mangled this sacred tune, but this exception was insignificant in the face of his overall accomplishment.” Mangled? Did that 1955 version sound mangled? Armstrong was proud of it. Avakian was proud of it. That above YouTube video has nearly 70,000 views and over 60 comments, almost all of them overwhelmingly positive.

I think Bergreen wanted to paint a picture of Armstrong not recording “West End Blues” for Decca because he had just mangled it and couldn’t do it anymore. I think he didn’t record it for Decca because it had just come out for Columbia. Armstrong’s previous three Columbia albums included many songs he had recorded in the 1920s and early 1930s, including “St. Louis Blues,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Black and Blue,” “Blue Turning Grey Over You,” “Squeeze Me,” “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” and “Tiger Rag.” None of those songs appeared on the Autobiography probably because Columbia already beat Decca to the bunch (Ambassador Satch also included “Muskrat Ramble” and Decca chose not to rerecord that one either, using a live version from 1947 instead). That’s the reason why “West End Blues” wasn’t included on the Ambassador, not because he mangled it.

Need more proof? On June 1, 1956, Armstrong played it at a concert in Chicago, playing it just as strongly as ever and even holding the Bb for a longer period of time than the Ambassador Satch version before getting off four arpeggios. Only the off-mike opening mars this otherwise gorgeous performance:

And here’s the final proof: from December 11 through December 14, 1956, Armstrong recorded four Decca sessions, three of which were devoted to the Autobiography. On December 18, Armstrong flew to England to perform for one-night only at a benefit concert with a group of British jazz musicians and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The closing song that evening? “West End Blues.” Armstrong then flew back to America and continued the Autobiography sessions.

Thus, Louis Armstrong was not afraid to play “West End Blues” in the 1950s and honestly, we’ll never know just how often he played it. But I do know that at least one more version exists it’s pretty spectacular. Armstrong’s heart episode in Spoleto, Italy in 1959 might have derailed him for a few weeks, but it had no immediate effects on his trumpet playing. In fact, 1960 has to go down as one of Armstrong’s strongest years when one listens to the album he made with the Dukes of Dixieland, as well as a number of wonderful live concert recordings made that year.

In July 1960, Armstrong performed at Ravinia Park in a suburb of Chicago. Anytime Armstrong played in or near Chicago, he always brought his A+ game (he always brought an A game, naturally). Who knows what musicians and characters from those old 1920s days were in the audience when Armstrong returned to Chicago? In fact, at a 1967 Ravinia concert, Armstrong introduced his second wife, Lil Hardin, from the audience. So, knowing he had to give them something special, Armstrong called “West End Blues.” Now, a warning: the sound quality on this track is pretty awful. I played it for Joe Muranyi, who remarked that it sounded like it was from a tape recorder whose batteries were dying. True enough, it does change keys a few time. But listen carefully, because Armstrong blows the hell out of the tune:

Pretty incredible, huh? The cadenza is pitched a half-step too sharp, but Armstrong’s brilliance still comes through, especially on that high C. If you’re expecting the 1928 version, listen to that one. This is nearly a 60-year-old man with a set of scarred chops that had been through the mill after almost 50 years of blowing at full force. That he could still do something as affecting as this is a testament to his skills and his everlasting genius. He still makes the Bb at the end of the first chorus, he holds the Bb in the last chorus for a longer period of time than the 1955 version, he gets in four arpeggios, he kills the high C, he plays the quasi-operatic run with great panache and he gently caresses the ending with the same fragile sensitivity of the original. Pure genius.

And also, listen to how tight the band is and how everyone knows the routine. Again, this was obviously something they had played before, not something that was being thrown together on stage. The Ravinia version is the last recorded one in existence, but Armstrong still continued to play it, as evidenced by a Dan Morgenstern article from the May 1962 issue of Jazz Journal. Titled “Pops in Perspective,” Morgenstern writes about seeing Armstrong the previous year at the Bronx amusement park Freedomland. After a rousing first set, Morgenstern visited Pops backstage as the trumpeter warmly greeted everyone there, “just as real and warm and strictly human as can be. And then it was time to go on again, and there was some more good music and then--then Louis Armstrong played ‘West End Blues.’ And that was one of those things: I had heard him play it before, and there is the record--three records, in fact. But I’d never heard it like this. And while Louis was playing, I stood transfixed--and there was just Louis and I and the music--and a presence I don’t very often feel was there too.”

So Armstrong’s “West End Blues” continued to transfix live audiences into at least 1961. Even if none of these later versions can match the brilliance and importance of the original, I think they’re all very important documents of a later, more mature Armstrong still delivering a heartfelt, virtuosic, operatic, soul-stirring, life-affirming exposition of the blues. And that’s something that can be celebrated today, 80 years after he first waxed that opening cadenza and it’s something that will always be celebrated as long as human beings have the capability to listen to music. Long live Pops...and long live “West End Blues”!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Skeleton in the Closet

Louis Armstrong With Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra
Recorded August 7, 1936
Track Time 3:11
Written by Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke
Recorded in Los Angeles, CA
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; George Thow, Toots Camarata, trupmet; Bobby Byrne, Joe Yukl, Don Mattison, trombone; Jimmy Dorsey, clarinet, alto saxophone, conductor; Jack Stacey, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone; Fud Livingston, Skeets Herfurt, tenor saxophone; Bobby Van Eps, piano; Roscoe Hillman, guitar; Jim Taft, bass; Ray McKinley, drums
Originally released on Decca 949
Currently available on CD: It’s the second volume (1936) of the indispensable Ambassador series. Go to for more information
Available on Itunes? Yes, on the Decca compilation Heart Full of Rhythm

Oh, the ol’ Itunes shuffle always knows how to keep a good thing going. After recent entries that focused on Bing Crosby and Louis as well as Lionel Hampton playing drums for Pops, today’s entry reunites all these major players as I’ll be taking a look at “The Skeleton In The Closet,” a song that’s responsible for one of Armstrong’s finest film moments.

The song comes from Pennies From Heaven, Armstrong’s first major studio picture. He was hired for the film at the insistence of its star, Bing Crosby, a lifelong student, friend, collaborator and admirer of Pops. When the film came out, Armstrong got his own credit during the main titles, making him the first African-American to get featured billing alongside white actors. So Pops was pioneering, though some critics have frowned upon the way Armstrong was used in the film. Playing a bandleader who is hired by Crosby to perform at his nightclub, Armstrong’s “role, as written, makes one cringe,” according to Lawrence Bergreen. Bergreen quotes an exchange between Armstrong and Crosby in the film, comedically playing on the ignorance of Armstrong’s character, who asks for seven percent instead of accepting Bing’s offering of ten percent because his is a seven-piece band, “And none of us knows how to divide ten percent up by seven.”

Bergreen writes that this banter dwells “on black inferiority and subservience” but what he doesn’t mention is that Pops legitimately loved this scene, quoting it in front of friends on one of his later private tapes. One of Armstrong’s last television appearances was made with Crosby on the David Frost Show from February 10, 1971. During the interview portion, Armstrong talks about how much fun they had making the film and though 35 years had gone by, Armstrong quotes the entire “percent” scene, line by line, as it originally appeared in the film. Thus, it’s easy for a white critic to “cringe” while watching Pennies From Heaven but for Pops, funny was funny and he cherished the gags he was asked to deliver (and besides, would one “cringe” if the same exact dialogue was delivered by Stan Laurel or Chico Marx?).

Armstrong gets one music number to himself in the film and it’s a great one. “The Skeleton in the Closet” was written by Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke, the same two men wrote the rest of the Pennies From Heaven score. Film in California, Armstrong was seen leading a contingent of some of the finest west coast jazzmen, including trumpeter (and Armstrong disciple) Teddy Buckner, saxophonist Caughey Roberts, future Nat Cole bassist Wesley Pince and as already advertised, the grand reunion of Armstrong and Lionel Hampton.

Hampton was in the midst of a steady engagement as a leader at the Paradise Nightclub in Los Angeles and was just about to explode. Pennies From Heaven was filmed in August 1936 and while out there, Armstrong asked Hampton to sit in on drums and vibes on two Hawaiian cuts made with “The Polynesians” on August 18. One week later, on August 24, Hampton took part in a Teddy Wilson session with Benny Goodman on clarinet and just a few months later, in November, Hampton joined Goodman’s Quartet and, well, you know the rest!

But for “Skeleton in the Closet,” Hamp sticks to the drums, wearing a mask to keep the whole “haunted house” motif going. This is Armstrong at his finest: storytelling, acting, singing, swinging and playing beautifully. Here’s the clip; meet back here in four minutes and we’ll discuss...

Does it get any better than that? Especially Armstrong acting in the beginning, which is so effective, right down to the hand wringing, that I don’t know what else to say about it. Armstrong’s whole body swings as he gets into it, which is always a delight. And like “Ding Dong Daddy,” listen for Hamp’s snare rolls and perfect accents. Because they’re miming to a pre-recorded track, Hamp shows off, spinning sticks in his best trick-drumming style. Armstrong’s trumpet solo is dynamite and the camera shots of him from the side with his horn in the air are pretty striking. This was a prime period for Armstrong and he sounds ike he can do anything, especially in the breaks (though one sounds edited). Hamp gets a little showcase with the skeleton before the extended ending with Pops going back and forth with the band (quoting an old Halloween chestnut I used to sing in elementary school music class, “We Are Here To Scare You”) before blowing the skeleton away with a scintillating high concert F.

Of course, a lot of the fun of “Skeleton in the Closet” comes from watching Pops in his prime, getting into the story, swinging the vocal and looking like a God as he hits those high notes. Thus, the Decca record of it, while pretty fantastic, loses something when compared to the film version. It was recorded on August 7, 1936 and featured Armstrong backed by Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra which included future Armstrong associates as trumpeter/arrange Toots Camarata and trombonist Joe Yukl, who would go on do the soundtrack playing alongside Pops for The Glenn Miller Story. The Dorsey session would result in five songs including hot remakes of “Swing That Music” and “Dippermouth Blues. The session kicked off with “The Skeleton in the Closet,” which can now be heard right here:

When listening to this record, I always find the “hip” chords in the beginning of the arrangement pretty interesting. The “spookiness” of the record gave the arranger the license to use all sorts of unusual harmonies and nonchord tones, things that would sound pretty modern ten years later, but just convey a haunted house spirit when used as they are on this record. Armstrong still gives his all to the spoken storytelling in the beginning (I like his pronunciation of “haunted” as “hanted”). Hamp’s not on drums anymore, but I have to give credit to the great Ray McKinely who really keeps the record jumping (and his punctuation after the word “shot” is nicely placed).

The band then takes 12 bars, sounding tight, before Armstrong enters with a string of concert A’s, setting the pace beautifully. As usual, the combination of Louis Armstrong + Breaks always equals great music and I always find it amazing how relaxed Armstrong sounds in his first break on this record. Four bars is not a long time but Pops doesn’t rush it, tossing off intricatel, yet logical phrases with the greatest of ease. When the band comes in after the bride, listen for Armstrong’s slippery little descending phrases, and pure Pops-ian line that leads into the bridge. Stellar stuff...

The band riffs and swings nicely behind Pops, who rides over of it before a short break that ends with a gliss to a high A. However, listen carefully at the 2:46 mark for that rarity of rarity: a Louis Armstrong clam. Yes, I guess he was human, but hell, even Babe Ruth struck out now and then. Besides, this little fluff happens on a low note so it’s barely noticeable and doesn’t detract from the rest of the record. Pops recovers without breaking a sweat, turning in a fairly typical for the period Decca ending...typical, but no less stunning, his tone on the final high C as clear and crystalline can be imagined. However, the ending of the film version, with the call and response between the trumpet and the band over the tom toms, is missed.

Ten days later, Armstrong and Pennies From Heaven co-stars Crosby and Frances Langford, along with the Dorsey band, cut a 10-inch record with one side containing an extended version of the title song and the other side containing a “Pennies From Heaven Medley. After Langford sings “Let’s Call a Heart a Heart” and duets with Bing on “So Do I,” Pops takes over for 66 seconds of “Skeleton in the Closet,” taken at a faster tempo than the other versions. It’s over before we know and Pops doesn’t play any horn, so if you don’t mind, I think I’ll pass on sharing this one, but it can be found on volume two of the Swedish Ambassador collection of Armstrong’s Decca records.

However, the second volume of the Ambassador series contains a treat that I do want to share: a live broadcast of “Skeleton in the Closet” from a “Norge Kitchen Committee” show from January 1937. The exact date of the broadcast is not known but what is known is that on January 14, 1937, Armstrong underwent a throat operation, spending the next two weeks in the hospital. Thus, this broadcast must have been from right before the surgery and clearly, Pops was having throat issues (perhaps polyps?) because he sounds a hundred times more raspy here than he did on the original “Skeleton” record of just a few months earlier. The surgery might have been a success but when he returned, Armstrong’s voice was still pretty raspy and well, that was pretty much it for that. The rasp turned to gravel over the years, resulting in the true Satchmo voice most of the human race associates with Armstrong.

Anyway, here’s the broadcast version....enjoy!

This is the first time we’ve heard Armstrong’s own band play this piece and they definitely sound pretty stiff during the opening section. Fortunately, Pops’s storytelling skills are just as gripping as usual. A nice touch is that Armstrong continues the spoken word style into the main section, really only singing during the bridge. Even then, Pops plays editor, changing the phrase “And they nearly dropped their broom sticks” to “And they nearly...broomsticks.” It doesn’t make sense but it swings! Pops also gets some scary laughing from one of the band members during the vocal, which is a neat touch.

The band finally comes into their own during the 12 bar interlude before Pops takes it, opening with the same string of high A’s as he did with Jimmy Dorsey. His breaks are completely different from the studio version and on his first one, he sounds even more relaxed--if that’s possible--than he did on the original Decca. Otherwise, it follows the pattern of that record (no clam) until the end where Armstrong really shows off, hitting high A’s, glissing and generally extending it to include a long unaccompanied cadenza ends with a slow motion gliss up to a high C. Bravo, Pops!

Armstrong always had a soft spot for the songs he introduced in films and sure enough, he continued to feature it until at least October 1938. After that, it disappeared but at least we have the fine Decca record, the exciting conclusion to the 1937 broadcast and more than anything else, that priceless film clip.

And that’s it, my friends. 99 entries in the bag, almost one year to the day when I started this thing. I’m going to take a few days off but please check back early on Saturday morning as my 100th post will celebrate the 80th anniversary of “West End Blues.” Since really nothing new can be said on Armstrong’s 1928 recording, I’ll go a few steps further and spend more time analyzing other versions of the tune (King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton), Armstrong tribute versions (Oliver’s remake, Charlie Barnet’s 1945 record) and Armstrong’s own later attempts, ranging from the 1939 Decca big band remake to a live Chicago concert with the All Stars in 1960. When I’m over, you’ll know and will have heard about as much of “West End Blues” as humanly possible...and that’s a good thing! Til then....

Sunday, June 22, 2008

I'm a Ding Dong Daddy (From Dumas)

Louis Armstrong and His Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra
Recorded July 21, 1930
Track Time 3:11
Written by Phil Baxter
Recorded in Los Angeles, CA
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leon Elkins, trumpet, conductor; Unknown, trumpet; Lawrence Brown, trombone; Leon Herriford, Willie Stark, alto saxophone; William Franz, trombone; L.Z. Cooper, piano; Ceele Burke, banjo; Reggie Jones, tuba; Lionel Hampton, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41442
Currently available on CD: It’s on the recently reissued JSP two-disc set The Big Band Sides, 1930-1932, as well as about a hundred other discs
Available on Itunes? Yes

Hello all. Before getting carried away with my next entry, I want to start out with a few notes and such. First off, after writing last week that I felt that this here blog was pretty much unknown outside of the loyal dozen or so readers who write me every week, I received a nice boost by the great Terry Teachout. In addition to being one of the country’s finest writers, Terry is also polishing the manuscript on his own Armstrong biography, Rhythm Man, due out in 2009. Terry and I have been trading e-mails for a while now and it was quite wonderful to see the little plug he gave me on his own blog, “About Last Night,” a site that is required reading for those who live in the blogosphere. Here’s is the link to Terry’s posting of June 16, which also includes a lengthy sample from his own Armstrong work, an excerpt on the legendary W.C. Handy tribute album Armstrong recorded in 1954. Terry’s way with words is second to none and all Armstrong fans should be eagerly anticipating his work. Thanks, Terry!

Also, while searching around the Internet, I came across a fantastic resource for Frank Sinatra fans at the blog Sinatra Club. I was completely unaware, but the person who runs that fine site gave me a nice plug last month, also. Thanks! And please check out that site because it really does for the Chairman what I try to do here for Pops.

I was also contacted the other day by Michael Steinman, who puts together the blog Jazz Lives at WordPress. I had no idea this site even existed, but I quickly became addicted to Michael’s writing about the New York swing/mainstream/traditional jazz scene with plenty of stories about the likes of Bob Wilber, Jon-Erik Kellso, Marty Grosz and other heroes of mine. A great site. (And don’t worry, one day I will include links to sites like this and the others I’ve mentioned!)

Finally, in my Father’s Day entry, I wrote that I knew I would miss something…and sure enough I did. The peerless Håkan Forsberg of Sweden wrote in to remind me of the Hot Five record, “Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa,” which I could not believe I missed since that same entry mentioned Clarence Babcock’s name! Babcock, of course, was a vaudeville performer who did the Jamaican dialect on “King of the Zulus” and called the square dance at the beginning of “Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa.” It’s a lesser Hot Five number, but does feature some fine ensemble choruses led by a discreetly muted Pops, who also takes a shouting, good-time vocal, even featuring the same “Hey hey” call from “Gut Bucket Blues.” And Pops’s closing phrase would is recycled from the end of an earlier Hot Five, “You’re Next.” You can listen along by clicking here.

And Dave Whitney of Massachusetts wrote in to remind me of “Papa Dip,” a tune recorded by the New Orleans Wanderers in 1926. This band was basically the Hot Five augmented by Baby Dodds on drums and Joe Clark on alto (or is it Stump Evans?) and with the solid cornet man George Mitchell replacing Pops. Armstrong doesn’t play on it, but his spirit presides over the session (hell, the tune is named for him!) and the band really tears through the tune in a peak example of New Orleans interplay. The sound is pretty brilliant on this YouTube clip…doesn’t get any more exciting!

Dave also wrote in to remind me that Pops’s final recording of “Rockin’ Chair” is actually from the live album he recorded at the National Press Club in January 29, 1971, an album that I still haven’t transferred from a cassette Dave sent me, thus it slipped my mind. One day, I’ll blog about “Rockin’ Chair” and the different jokes, routines and approaches of the many versions of the song in 50+ years it spent in Armstrong’s repertoire.

And finally, the great Fernando de Ortiz Urbina, answered my call about a superior sounding version of “Rocky Mountain Moon,” promptly sending me an MP3 of this one, apparently released on an EMI import under Bing’s name, Legends of the 20th Century, available on Amazon. Here’s a picture:

And here’s the updated, new and improved “Rocky Mountain Moon”…thanks Fernando!

So with all my thank-yous to my loyal readers out of the way, let me get started on today’s entry, as promised, a full appreciation of “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy (From Dumas),” one of my all-time favorite Armstrong records. Before I get to the song, let’s look at where Louis Armstrong was in his career when he recorded it that July day in 1930.

After conquering Chicago and New York City in the 1920s, Armstrong found himself giving California a shot in May 1930. His band broke up in New York in 1929, forcing Armstrong to begin working as a single. With the Depression hurting the music and entertainment scene, Armstrong headed off to California without any band of his own, just the hope of getting an opportunity to play. That opportunity came almost immediately when he was hired to front the band at Frank Sebastian’s Cotton Club in Culver City, a band that featured bright youngsters such as trombonist Lawrence Brown and drummer Lionel Hampton. Then again, EVERY band at Sebastian’s Cotton Club featured these two men because, as Brown later remembered, “Sebastian got the idea of handing out contracts instead of having some of the men run him out. Lionel Hampton and I were the two he contracted to the club and we stayed regardless of who came.”

This band was led by a trumpet player named Elkins, whose first name was either Vernon or Leon—I’ve seen both probably an equal amount of times (Stanley Dance even misheard Brown say it as “Vernon Nelson,” while Hampton, in two different works, wrote about “Vernon” in 1972 and “Leon” in 1989.) From the first time Armstrong visited the Cotton Club, he remembered, “…[W]hen I heard that band play, I almost jumped out of my skin.” Armstrong had nothing but fond memories of the Elkins band, as he would later write the following: “There was a band playing there at the time, was kinda mixed up. The leader was an elderly fellow who, I’m sure, was a fine trumpet man in his heydays. His last name was Elkins. He was surrounded by some of the finest musicians that I had witnessed playing music in my whole life. From New Orlenas to St. Louis—Chicago to New York. Through all of those own where I had already heard some of the greatest men on their instruments, yet, these boys sort of had a little something on the ball (musically) that I had not witnessed. Such as endurance—tones, perfect sense of phrasing, and the willingness and the spirit that the Eastern Musicians or the Southern Musicians used to have before they got to Broadway and became stinkers, looking for power and ego-tisms, the desire to do practically anything but enjoy their first love—which is their instrument.”

Here’s a wonderful picture of Armstrong around the time of his arrival, outside Sebastian’s Cotton Club, surrounded by members of the band (Hampton on the far left):

Hampton and Brown were equally excited to be paired with the trumpet star. “When Louis came to California in 1930 to play with us, it was such a happy day for me,” Hampton told Stanley Dance. “Playing with him was a revelation, and he always encouraged me….I had a ball playing behind him, and there’s where I really got my roots.”

Brown told Dance, “[Armstrong] was so terrific out there then, and he was really the only player that influenced me. He’d stand up all night and play, and sometimes broadcast for as long as three hours….He was the kind of musician you could sit there all night and listen to, and be amazed at the technique, the poise—and just everything! People used to come from ‘way up around Seattle to hear him. Every trumpet player at that time tried to play one of his choruses.”

So Armstrong was a hit and everyone in the band seemed to get along happily. The Hollywood crowd also became fixated on Pops, something that has always made me daydream. As I’ve written about in the past, I’m an old comedy buff with an undying love for anything that came out of Hal Roach’s Culver City studios. Knowing that Laurel and Hardy were filming Pardon Us and the “Our Gang” kids were shooting Shiver My Timbers in July 1930 in the same city where Louis Armstrong was making jaws drop nightly at Sebastian’s Cotton Club…well, if there’s a heaven, that’s it!

Within a few weeks of his California stay, Armstrong and Elkins band made their first records for OKeh. However, this wasn’t Armstrong’s first California session as just five days prior, on July 16, Armstrong provided some unbilled backing on a Jimmie Rodgers country tune, “Blue Yodel Number 9.” Thus, Armstrong had already just tried on a musical cowboy hat when he entered OKeh’s Los Angeles recording studio to record “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy (From Dumas),” a tune that would be subsequently embraced by both jazz and country artists in the years to come.

Segue time: onto the song! This, my friends, is Dumas, Texas:

Well, the red dot on that Texas map is Dumas, Texas. Here’s a better representation:

And here’s a picture of the Cowboy Church of Dumas:

Doing some quick research on Dumas for the purpose of this blog, I was delighted to see a link on the official Dumas website to an article titled, “Legend of the Ding Dong Daddy,” taken from a history of Dumas written by Jay B. Funk. Here’s a snippet:

“[Louis] Dumas, the town developer, stayed in the city with his name only a short time, but the name remains to this day. And, what began as a dusty crossroads on the prairie above the “big blues” north and west of Amarillo above the Canadian River began to grow. First, the town was given little chance to survive, but the pioneer-stock was hardy stuff and they stuck it out. The small village was only 571 souls in the 1920’s and late in that decade a man who was to become a moderately successful band leader and song writer, Phil Baxter, chanced upon Dumas. He spent a few weeks in Dumas getting acquainted and after he had a steak continued his journey. Les than a year later Baxter penned the words and tune to a song which he named “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas.”

The tune’s writer, Phil Baxter, was born in Navarro County, Texas and recorded twice, once in St. Louis in 1925 and once in Dallas in 1929. His band, Phil Baxter and His Texas Tommies, became the house band at the El Torreon Ballroom in Kansas City from 1927 until 1933. In addition to “Ding Dong Daddy,” Baxter also composed the popular Ted Weems novelty, “Piccolo Pete,” as well as “Have a Little Dream On Me,” a tune recorded by Fats Waller.

Unfortunately, the article doesn’t mention Pops once, instead only mentioning Phil Harris’s later version. But Pops wasn’t the first to record it either. According to the Red Hot Jazz Archive, Jay C. Flippen and His Gang recorded the tune for Brunswick on August 8, 1928. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to dig up the audio on this one but here’s another early version from March 1930, recorded for Brunswick in Minneapolis by the wonderfully named Slatz Randall and His Orchestra. It’s a typical dance band performance, complete with violin, but the lively vocal is taken by banjoist Joe Roberts while one of the trumpets is the great Yank Lawson. You can listen along by clicking
here. Roberts sings two choruses, complete with verse, but if you can’t make it out, here are the lyrics to the main strain:

I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas/ You ought to see me do my stuff
I’m a clean cut fellow from Homer’s Corner/ You ought to see me strut
I’m a caper cuttin’ cutie, Got a gal named Katie,
She’s little heavy laden, but I calls her baby,
I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas/ You ought to see me do my stuff.

The second time around, Roberts sings these lyrics:

I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas/ You ought to see me do my stuff
I’m a ping pong papa, from Pitchfork Prairie/ You ought to see me strut
I’m a Ding Dong Daddy, Got a whiz bang mama,
She’s a Bear Creek baby, and a whompous (Wabash?) kitty
I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas/ You ought to see me do my stuff.

The blowing strain is only 16 bars and is based on the “How Come You Do Me Like You Do” model—later utilized by Sonny Rollins on “Doxy”—and is perfectly suitable for soloing, with a four-bar break practically sewn into the middle of it. Thus, with enough backstory to bore you all to tears, let us finally listen to the main even, Louis Armstrong and His Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra and “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy (From Dumas)”.

The playing of the horns and reeds is no great shakes, but the rhythm section is very good, with a similar feel to that of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, a band Hampton said was very influential to the Elkins sound. The exciting intro sounds like the record starts almost in media res—really, could someone count off and just hit it on the nose like that? Doubtful. Lawrence Brown’s got the melody, phrasing like Armstrong and taking a nice break. The saxes then take over with prominent banjo in the ensemble, playing with a bouncy two beat that conjures up memories of Armstrong’s stint with Fletcher Henderson.

But throughout the entire record, Lionel Hampton is killing it on the drums: he drives the band with his cymbals, works over the snare with various rolls and places his accents perfectly, a one-man dynamo that puts the notion to rest that pre-bop drummers simply played time. Armstrong loved Hamp’s drumming and wrote about it to Robert Goffin: “And Lionel was so young and vivacious (still is) on those Drums. And he had taken to like me (personally) so well and I felt the same way about him. And he was one of the Swinginest Drummers I had ever seen and heard in my life….Lionel used to get so Enthused over my playing Trumet he would get ‘Soakened Wet.’ And Beat a whole gang of Drums, saying to me ‘WA—WA’WON’Mo’POPS.’—Meaning—‘One More Chorus,’ Especially on Tunes like ‘Tiger Rag’ and ‘Ding Dong Daddy.’ And me enthused over him being Enthused—would play, Chorus After Chorus—I went up to Forty one night. Well I was much younger in those days myself.”

Back to the record: after the saxes take over, the band goes into the verse, with Hamp’s cymbals really booting everyone along in bar nine as Brown again plays a short but hot spot.

Then it’s time for Pops’s vocal, a real “gassuh.” What he sings is almost unintelligible, but damn, it swings! The most famous part of the vocal is when he sings, “I done forgot the words,” which is debatable. Pops probably saw the tongue-tying middle section and thought that it might be funny to act like he forgot the words, much like the “Heebie Jeebies” story he would always tell. Of course, he indeed might have forgotten that middle part, but regardless, it’s a wonderful moment that always makes me laugh. In fact, here’s a translation of Pops:

I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas/ And, ought to see me do my stuff
I’m a clean cut fellow from the corner/ You ought to see me strut
Oh, ee-ba, ey-ba, oh, oot
And I done forgot the words and lo, doot
I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas/ Ought to see me do my stuff.

Pops slides down on “stuff” like a descending glissando and dives right into a second vocal chorus, which I’d like to call scatting, but really it’s not because he uses the words of the song instead of nonsense syllables. The rhythm of his vocal reminds me of the daring scat vocal he took on 1927’s “Hotter Than That.” Eventually, during the built-in break, he starts scatting, bubbling over with joy as the vocal comes to an end (Hamp catching him with a perfectly timed accent).

Alto sax takes the next chorus (it’s probably Leon Herriford) and it’s pretty corny but the final “jada jada jing jing jing” phrase is pure Pops. Man, this band was already listening and emulating their new front man after not even a month of backing him up.

But now it’s time for the hair on the back of my neck to stand up: Pops’s four-chorus rideout solo. 64-bars of sheer bliss. Armstrong states a motive immediately with the first three descending notes of his solo. He stays in the lower part of his horn, shooting out all sorts of nimble, yet melodic phrases. At the break, Pops keeps the double-time feeling with the second part of it reminding me of the “done forgot the words” break from the vocal. By the end of the chorus, he finally nails one high note but he’s still building so he heads back down to pace himself, ending the chorus with another Armstrong hallmark, two quarter-notes and two eight-notes. This is Storytelling 101….

Armstrong’s second chorus is a classic, pure joyousness personified. The three-note motive is now played higher and faster as Pops plays ping pong with two different sets of phrases, eventually slowing them down and stretching them out into another new motive that sounds like a quote from “Pretty Baby.” He then plays the phrase even slower and more emphatically, a textbook example of rhythmic mastery and how to get the most mileage out of as few different pitches as possible. It’s supremely singable, too. He then burtsts out of it with some double-timing, leading into his second great break, which opens with a scorching hot phrase before he settles into yet another motive of repeated D’s, sounding particularly ambivalent without the band playing beneath it. He then leaves a little space and hits a high G, the sixth of the tonic key of Bb, holding it into the start of the third chorus.

Now the band is cooking. Hamp switches from snare to cymbals and even banjoist Ceele Burke begins tearing it up on his instrument. The horns really only riff lightly the entire time Ops solos, but it’s swinging and Pops didn’t exactly require much more. Armstrong is now smokin’, beginning another swinging little motive at the 2:36 mark, happily descending in sing-song manner. Every note choice, every phrase, makes so much sense it’s mind-blowing. The next break opens up in a similar fashion as the “My Sweetie Went Away” quote Lester Young popularized on “Sometimes I’m Happy,” but Armstrong cuts it to make room for two hot rips, one up to a high G, the next a few seconds later hitting a high A, all building logically to the held high concert Bb that heralds the beginning of the fourth and final chorus.

Chorus four is yet another demonstration of pure genius as Pops simply works over three descending notes—Bb, A and G—playing them relaxed, than hurried, back and fourth, kind of similar to what he would play on “When Your Lover Has Gone” in 1931. He keeps it up for eight bars before the bridge, where he plays a phrase that Dizzy Gillespie would borrow for the his composition “Salt Peanuts.” Pops uses it as a springboard to a ridiculously high D, the highest note of the solo, hitting it again for good measure a few seconds later. The pure sound of it is positively freakish. Naturally, he wraps up his break with another perfectly logical conclusion and though the final few bars still swing mightily, it’s safe to say that the climax was that final break. Oh, what a solo!

OKeh mush have known that they had a pretty hot record on their hands as they decided to push it hard, complete with advertisements that featured Armstrong’s head on a cartoon of a cowboy’s body!
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Armstrong began featuring “Ding Dong Daddy” nightly at the Cotton Club, as Lionel Hampton fondly recalled. “We were on the air one night, and he said, ‘Look out, man, we’re gonna open up with ‘Dumas.’ I feel good tonight, and if I’m going well, Hamp, you sit on those cowbells with me, and I’ll play another chorus.’ Well, man, I was sitting on those cowbells, and Louis played about ninety-nine choruses on ‘I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas.’”

Armstrong stayed on in California until March 1931, cutting more great records with his “Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra.” Elkins grew ill in the late summer of 1930 and was eventually replaced as leader of the group by Les Hite. Many writers, including Gunther Schuller, write that it’s the Hite band that backs Armstrong on “Ding Dong Daddy” but Hite wasn’t involved in any Armstrong recording session until October 8, 1930. The move worked out for Hite who became a prominent presence on the Los Angeles jazz scene, appearing on many film soundtracks and even backing the likes of Fats Waller during his stay at Sebastian’s Cotton Club in 1935.

By the time of that October session, Lawrence Brown was out of the band, having gotten fired for not wanted to rehearse on Easter Sunday. But don’t cry for Brown; Duke Ellington signed him right up and the rest is history. And on Armstrong’s second October session with the Hite band, he suggested that drummer Hampton take the introduction to “Memories of You” on the vibraphone. And again, the rest is history. But though their time together was fairly short, Armstrong, Hampton and Brown always had wonderful things to say about each other. The three men reunited for this photo years later, taken from Stanley Dance’s World of Swing:
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Unfortunately, “Ding Dong Daddy” seems to have disappeared from the Armstrong repertoire after he left California. There are no surviving broadcasts of it, there are no mentions of it in contemporary reviews, he seems to have never played it with the All Stars and he didn’t even revive it for the Decca Autobiography project. Only in late 1970, on an episode of The Flip Wilson Show, did Armstrong sing a chorus of it with the host—reprising the “done forgot the words” line and earning big laughs for it.

But though Armstrong might have moved on from “Ding Dong Daddy,” the song itself was just starting to take off. As mentioned earlier, Phil Harris did become associated with it after singing it on The Jack Benny Program and recording it for Victor. Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys gave it the Western Swing treatment on this version, courtesy of YouTube:

The Benny Goodman Quartet—with Lionel Hampton—used to swing the hell out of it, as can be heard on their studio version and even more exciting live broadcasts from the late 1930s. Sidney Bechet recorded a hot version of it for Blue Note in 1953 with Jonah Jones referencing Pops in the outchoruses. And after it’s start in the jazz and country world, “Ding Dong Daddy” slowly began extending its reach over pop culture in general. On one of my favorite episodes of The Honeymooners, Ed Norton watches Ralph Kramden hysterically try to dance the Hucklebuck, telling him, “You ain’t exactly no Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas.” By the 1960s, it was being featured in four-part harmony by the Osmonds…

…and on the Lawrence Welk Show with a vocal from Larry Hooper:

In 1966, “Teen Titans,” a DC Comics comic book, featured a villain named the “Ding Dong Daddy,” who lasted exactly one appearance. The title has been “borrowed” for other songs such as the Sister Wynona Carr 1950’s R&B jump opus, “Ding Dong Daddy,” and the during the short-lived swing craze of the late 1990s, the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies wrote an original titled “Ding Dong Daddy of the D-Car Line.”

But we’re way off point now. For me, “Ding Dong Daddy (From Dumas)” begins and ends with that incredible Armstrong version. But to finish, I’d like to share one of my favorite YouTube discoveries: the New York Repertory Big Band, led by Dick Hyman, performing “Ding Dong Daddy” at the Nice Jazz Festival in 1977. The personnel of the band is mind-blowing: Zoot Sims, Bob Wilber, Budd Johnson, Kai Winding, Vic Dickenson, Eddie Barefield, Billy Mithcell, Pepper Adams, Bucky Pizzarelli, George Duvivier, Bobby Rosengarden, probably a few others (the picture is a little dark). This, to me, is what jazz repertory is all about. The swing it like it’s 1977, not trying too hard for a 1930 feel. Everyone solos with their own stuff, though Vic Dickenson quotes Lawrence Brown’s original and Bob Wilber plays a line or two of Pops. Joe Newman comes down and does his Armstrong impression—he was very good! Budd Johnson

But all of it builds up to the trumpets of Jimmy Maxwell, Pee Wee Erwin and Newmann stand up to play a harmonized version of Armstrong’s original four-chorus solo. The effect is electrifying and leads me to wish that more bands would transcribe Pops solos for sections to play (Joe Muranyi transcribed Armstrong’s 1955 “Christmas in New Orleans” solo to be played for trumpet, clarinet and tenor saxophone and again, the effect is really something else, with Armstrong’s rhythmic mastery really grabbing one’s attention when it’s spread over multiple instruments). One can only imagine the endurance needed to nail this solo as by the end, matters get a teeny tiny bit sloppy. But I’m not complaining…it’s exciting as hell! Enough from me…here’s the clip:

And that is, I think, all I can possibly say about “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy (From Dumas).” If you’re still with me, accept my apologies for going a week without a posting. Usually, I get something out, even a short YouTube clip but, as I’ve written about, my wife and I closed on a house last week and well, this week was a tough one. Painting, wall paper removal, furniture shopping, you name it. Plus, I had four gigs in four days so I’ve kind of forgotten about the invention of the computer. But still, I hope you enjoyed this one and don’t worry, I’ll be back with something shorter in a couple of days followed by the big “West End Blues” celebration next Saturday (I also have something on the Fleischmann Yeast Broadcasts and a survey of my top-ten favorite Armstrong records brewing in the next coming weeks). But that’s all for now…as always, leave a comment or send me an e-mail to and I hope to back with something fresh real soon.