Sunday, June 15, 2008

Celebrate Father's Day with Louis Armstrong!

Hello all and Happy Father’s Day to all you fathers our there (and as Yankee broadcaster Phil Rizzuto once said, “Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers”). Naturally, I always find a way to tie Louis Armstrong in to any and all major holidays (I was thisclose to doing a “Flag Day” entry showcasing Armstrong’s various versions of “The Star Spangled Banner”). But today is Father’s Day and I think that’s a pretty good one to the man known as Sweet Papa Dip and Pops.

Interestingly, Armstrong himself probably never got much joy out of the holiday, which has been celebrated since 1910, by the way. His father Willie abandoned him when he was an infant, so he probably didn’t receive many Hallmark cards before his death in 1922. On top of that, Pops never had any kids of his own, a tragedy given the man’s genuine rapport with children. Of course, there was Clarence, the son of one of Armstrong’s cousins who died while giving birth. Armstrong, then only 14 years old “adopted” Clarence and took care of him for the rest of his life. A nasty fall at a young age injured Clarence’s brain, leaving him mentally disabled. “That fall hindered Clarence all through his life,” Armstrong recalled. “I had some of the best doctors anyone could get examine him, and they all agreed that the fall had made him feeble minded.” Because of this, Armstrong took extra good care of Clarence, always making sure he had, as Michael Cogswell has written, “a place to live, clothes, pocket money, and even companionship.” There are some wonderful photos of Armstrong and Clarence in Cogswell’s book, The Offstage Story of Satchmo, an essential work for Armstrong fans.

In 1949, Armstrong appeared on many episodes of Eddie Condon’s television show. On one such occasion, Condon was sick in the hospital and couldn’t make the taping of his own program. Armstrong brought Clarence on the air to wish Condon well. Only the audio survives, but I think it’s a beautiful little moment that deserves to be shared here. This clip begins with a the end of “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” before Armstrong introduces Clarence:

I know, I know, that hot version of “Barbecue” fades out as that clip ends, but now that your musical appetite has been whet, let us begin a little tour of some of Armstrong’s most “fatherly” numbers. Now, I usually write small dissertations on individual Armstrong songs, but for the interest of time, I’ll keep my comments to a minimum so you’ll be able to get the maximum enjoyment out of these performances.

First up is the blues singer Margaret Johnson with “Papa, Mama’s All Alone.” This is from the 16th (!) session Armstrong did in the two-month stretch of October and November 1925. He was then taking the city of New York by storm with his nightly playing in Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra while at the same time, participating in more recording sessions than you can shake a stick at (if that’s your idea of a good time). You can listen along with “Papa, Mama’s All Alone” by clicking here.

Johnson’s vocal is pretty ho-hum, but the main event is Pops’s little spot in the middle. He only plays lead, backed by Aaron Thompson’s trombone, Clarence Williams’s piano and Buddy Christian’s banjo. Unfortunately, it’s too short to allow Pops to get a chance to take off, which he would do on the very next number recorded that day, “Changeable Daddy of Mine,” where Pops would take a break that prefigures the famous opening cadenza of “West End Blues.” That’s a matter I’ll spend more time on when I get to my massive “West End Blues” 80th anniversary celebration on June 28, but since “Changeable Daddy” fits the Father’s Day umbrella, give a listen by clicking

Still in New York, Armstrong took part in another Clarence Williams Blue Five session on March 4, 1925, backed by Charlie Irvis on trombone and the alto saxophone tandem of Buster Bailey and Don Redman. This song is “Papa De-Da-Da” and it’s one of my favorites from Armstrong’s early New York years. Eva Taylor has the vocal and though she’s a little more show business than some of the blues singers Armstrong accompanied during this period, she sells this song with all her might. But there’s a lot of Pops to cherish…dig that lip trill after the vocal and the sublimely bluesey break that follows (the quick, piercing high concert Bb never fails to surprise either). This is a good one…listen by clicking here.

Let us now move the year of 1926, a vintage one for Armstrong and father-related songs (there’s a sentence that Gunther Schuller never wrote!). Armstrong was now back in Chicago and already had his first Hot Five session in the can. In February 1926, Armstrong recorded seven sessions for OKeh in the span of nine days. Of the 22 songs recorded in that stretch, only seven were under the Hot Five banner, a further reminder that Armstrong did much more in those years than just revolutionize the music world with a series of dates under his own name. Anyway, the first session of this stretch, on February 22, yielded only one tune, “Come Back Sweet Papa.” This one was written by Paul Barbarin and Luis Russell, two men who would spend quite a bit of time in Armstrong’s band in the next decade. It features Johnny Dodds on the alto saxophone and for those in the crowd who are used to hearing the alto of Benny Carter or Johnny Hodges or Charlie Parker or Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, wait to you hear Dodds stiffly play the’ll go running back to Carter, Hodges, Parker and Vinson. Otherwise, it’s a pretty tight performance, with a cute opening and a number of breaks (perhaps they only got to record one tune that day because this one took a while to iron out). Like many songs of the 1920s, “Come Back Sweet Papa” features a couple of different strains, which, to me, always makes these performances seem longer than they are. This is a peppy little tune and Louis sounds great when he plays lead but unfortunately, that’s really all he gets to do. Lil has a long solo and then Pops takes a couple of breaks towards the end—nothing too daring, but effective, nonetheless—before a typically cute, had-to-be-Lil arranged ending. Here’s the link if you’d like to listen along.

Four days later, the next Hot Five session opened with “Georgia Grind,” a tune I blogged about in greater detail months ago. Feel free to dig it out of the archive, but I’ll include a mention of it here because Lil’s vocal opens with, “Papa, Papa/ Just look at sis/ Out in the backyard/Shaking like this!” I know, it’s a stretch, but who knows, maybe someone will sing it at some barbecue later today (and I live minutes away from Seaside Heights, NJ, where the “dirty Georgia Grind” is still being done at dingy clubs on a nightly basis). Click here to listen.

A few months later, Armstrong was churning out Hot Five numbers like crazy but, to me, these have always been kind of like the “lost episodes.” Armstrong was now getting more vocals, shouting out dance steps on “Don’t Forget to Mess Around,” getting interrupted by Clarence Babcock on “King of the Zulus,” backing up Butterbeans and Susie on “He Likes It Slow” and even playing slide whistle on “Who’sit.” If you like fun, good-time music with evidence that Louis Armstrong was always an entertainer, than you probably know and love these recordings already. However, if you think Louis in the 20s was a tortured artist, a revolutionary genius who later sold out to become a clown, well, you probably don’t know these records exist (Gunther Schuller dismissed them and the jazz world followed).

Anyway, in the middle of all these recordings, the Hot Five took a stab at Kid Ory’s “Sweet Little Papa.” This is one of those unsung Hot Fives that I absolutely adore, right from the start with Ory’s slightly exotic trombone. Pops’s first break outshines those of the other horns (though Dodds tears out nicely for his second one) but he then takes a backseat for a while as Lil and Ory solo (Ory’s solo is basically the introductory lesson in Tailgate Trombone 101). Finally, Pops gets a solo and the whole thing really comes alive. He punches it out in his early style, staying out of the upper register for the most part (though there is a quick, striking high concert A). In his breaks, Armstrong conjures up thoughts of “In the Mood” before arguably the most exciting rideout choruses of any Hot Five record. This is pure New Orleans excitement, folks. Most Hot Five records didn’t get two choruses of blowing at the end and it’s almost as if someone signaled to Pops that there was time to take another one, so he went for it, snarling out one of the most exciting lip trills ever caught on record. It really picks up the rest of the band as Ory and Dodds follow Armstrong’s lead and really pour it on. And by the way, Armstrong’s break in that last chorus was obviously something he liked to play as it ends the more famous “Potato Head Blues,” recorded slightly less than a year later. Enjoy the pure excitement of “Sweet Little Papa” by clicking

Of course, I couldn’t celebrate Father’s Day with Louis Armstrong without a quick nod to Earl “Fatha” Hines. Let us listen to Armstrong and Hines together on a song that was originally known simply as “No,” but is more commonly known as “No, Papa, No” (see that? I got my “Fatha” reference and met my “Papa” quotient all in the same track). I’ve always liked this track because it’s a pretty straightforward blues, with a couple of key changes thrown in for good measure. There are no mesmerizing, history-changing moments such as those that could be found on “Basin Street Blues,” recorded that same day, but I still like the atmosphere of the recording. Pops plays some strong lead in the middle but it's overshadowewd by a typically brilliant Hines solo. Armstrong then leads the way out, getting his favorite backbeat by Zutty Singleton, using a full set of drums for the first time on an Armstrong recording. A solid track, but again, I think Pops was saving something in reserve for “Basin Street,” a tune where he unleashes more ideas in three minutes than most trumpet players do in an entire evening. But for our purposes, here’s the link for “No, Papa, No.”

One year later, Armstrong was back in New York, recording popular songs backed by bands such as that of Luis Russell’s. In December 1929, Armstrong and his good friend Hoagy Carmichael teamed up for the very first recording of Carmichael’s composition, “Rockin’ Chair.” This tune would remain in the Armstrong repertoire until the end of his life, with the “father and son” routine on the vocal a mainstay from the very first recording until the very last (oddly enough, the last one I have in my collection was a reunion with Carmichael at a 1970 birthday tribute concert to Armstrong). I’ve always loved Armstrong’s later versions of it with Jack Teagarden and Trummy Young, but for now, let’s hear how Armstrong and “father” Carmichael first did it in 1929. Listen along

And now, the main event of the evening—and one of the great Armstrong records of all time (it might just be in my top ten)—“I’m a Ding Dong Daddy (From Dumas).” This is a track that I don’t have to go into too much detail because it’s already so damn well-known. Still, I love it so much, I would like to write a full-on blog about it in the near future. But for now, listen along by clicking here
to enjoy it all: Armstrong’s rhythmically daring vocal, “forgetting” the words by the end of it, the “vivacious” (as Pops once put it) drumming of 22-year-old Lionel Hampton, the exciting drive of Leon Elkins’s orchestra and finally, those outchoruses from Pops, each one more exciting than the one that preceded it, each featuring some positively scorching breaks (dig the “Salt Peanuts” foreshadowing, too). It’s all here, folks, so if this doesn’t make that bland tie your kids got you for Father’s Day more palpable, nothing will.

You would think I could go on all day, but after “Ding Dong Daddy,” the father/daddy/papa references in Armstrong’s work pretty much disappear. Of course, I could be wrong, so if you think of any more, just leave a comment or send me an e-mail to But otherwise, only a few smaller items stick out in my mind. In 1936’s “I Come From a Musical Family,” Armstrong sings about his entire family noting that “Pappy played bass.” I guess that kind of counts, but I'm not going too far with it. In 1948, Earl “Fatha” Hines returned to the All Stars. Two years later, the band recorded a piece for the movie The Strip called “Fatha’s Time,” which, coincidentally, might be the only number in the Armstrong discography that could be suitable for a strip club. And for 1970’s Louis Armstrong and Friends, Armstrong did “His Father Wore Long Hair,” which I’ve always considered to be the nadir of Armstrong’s recording career (though I have to give it to him for the conviction of his vocal, even if everything else about the song is pretty humiliating).

So I guess that concludes this look at Louis Armstrong’s “fatherly” output (as usual, big thanks to the Red Hot Jazz Archive for housing all of the above music on their site). Though to conclude, I’d like to turn away from Pops and give the last words to another one of my heroes, Groucho Marx (I already stole a line from Groucho earlier in this post). Here is Groucho’s studio recording of Harry Ruby’s “Father’s Day,” which, I believe, should be the official theme song of this holiday. Enjoy!

1 comment:

Michael Steinman said...

Dear Ricky,

I, too, celebrate all things Louis, with the exception of Swiss Kriss. I've added your site to my blogroll on my spiritually-kindred blog, Jazz Lives at WordPress. Now, tell me, is there any film footage of Big Sid, my hero, with the All-Stars? More to come, and yours in the name of Louis!

Michael Steinman (