Monday, June 9, 2008

Home

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded January 27, 1932
Track Time 3:04
Written by Harry Clarkson, Jeff Clarkson and Peter Van Steeden
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Preston Jackson, trombone; Lester Boone, George James, alto saxophone; Albert Washington, tenor saxophone; Charlie Alexander, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; John Lindsay, bass; Tubby Hall, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41552
Currently available on CD: The Big Band Recordings, a two-volume set on the JSP label that collects Armstrong’s OKeh big band material from 1930 to 1932
Available on Itunes? Yes

I can’t think of a more appropriate song to write about today considering the recent and upcoming events in my life. I wrote a few months back about the new townhouse my wife I purchased and I just found out 30 minutes before starting this entry that we’re officially “clear to close.” The official closing is this Thursday, June 12 and after that date, I’ll have an official piece of property to sing “That’s My Home” about. That tune also would have been appropriate but the ol’ Itunes shuffle landed on the slightly earlier recording of “Home” and that’s where I’ll spend my time today.

Armstrong’s recording of the tune came during those wonderful OKeh big band days of the early 1930s, when he was leading his own band made up mostly of New Orleans homeboys. Critics have never cared for the musical skill of this group, but Armstrong loved them, calling them his “happiest band” and complaining in writing that they never got the credit deserved.

Armstrong kicked off 1932 with a bang, cutting four terrific sides for OKeh over two sessions, two of the sides being all-time Armstrong masterpieces: “Between the Devil and Deep Blue Sea” and “All of Me.” Armstrong could do no wrong during this period, as his work on his final OKeh sessions prefigure the superb, peak-of-his-powers playing he would showcase on a series of Victor recordings beginning in late 1932. Armstrong demonstrated this prowess with some incredible double-timed muted playing on “All of Me,” the first tune up on that second January Chicago session, before it was time to record “Home.”

The song itself was written by the Dutch composer Peter Van Steeden along with (I’m supposing brothers) Harry and Jeff Clarkson. Van Steeden also led a dance band orchestra, becoming the first to wax his tune, recording it for Victor on November 25, 1931 in a lovely pop arrangement complete with a vocal by the always-busy singer, Dick Robertson. Fortunately, the record was uploaded onto YouTube so I’d like to share it right now. I have a soft spot for this stuff and I hope you do too:


Pretty charming, huh? But wait, there’s more. The song quickly became a hit and soon was being covered by the likes of Rudy Vallee. Vallee, as we know, was quite the Armstrong supporter, writing the forward to Armstrong’s first autobiography, Swing That Music, and asking Armstrong to take over as guest host for the Fleischmann’s Yeast radio program in 1937. Vallee recorded it as part of the “Hit of the Week” series, a short-lived (three Depression-fueled years) concept of one-sided lacquered cardboard discs of current pop songs. Here’s one YouTube video where the visual of a spinning record is pretty fascinating because it’s kind of amazing that a record like this could hold up 76 years later. Here’s Rudy:


Vallee’s record includes the beautiful verse, which will be discussed later in this article. Shall I keep going? Why not! I find this stuff fascinating and I think it gives added context to Armstrong’s music. You can listen to a disc of Armstrong all day or you could listen to just great jazz from this era, such as that by Duke Ellington, Red Allen, Luis Russell, Jack Teagarden and so many more. But when you listen to that stuff alongside of what was actually popular during the period, I think it makes the era come alive in a fuller fashion. You begin to appreciate the pop songs covered by jazz bands, the dance band touches in big band arrangements and the hot soloists in the popular, “straight” orchestras of the day. If you’re here for Armstrong and Armstrong only, scroll down a bit, but here’s a few more of my favorite versions of “Home,” all dating from sometime in 1932. Here’s a charming version by singing brothers Bob and Alf Pearson:


And finally, let us listen to our old pal Henry Hall and His Gleneagles Hotel Band, a popular British dance band that we originally encountered in my entry for “When Your Lover Has Gone.” This version might be my favorite of the pop related ones but it has a special meaning for horror movie buffs as it was used in the dream sequence in the 1980 classic, The Shining. Here ‘tis, sans Jack Nicholson…



All of the above are pretty popish, but “Home” had also infiltrated its way into jazzier hands by way of a Dorsey Brothers record from December 9, 1931, just two weeks after Van Steeden’s original, while Mildred Bailey recorded it with an orchestra led by Matty Malneck for a Bluebird record cut at the end of 1931. The Dorsey version isn’t available online, but here’s the always wonderful voice of Bailey:


Okay, you probably need a vacation after spending so much time “Home,” but don’t worry, the main event is here. Louis Armstrong, in his 1932 prime, tackling the sentimental tune. Click here to listen.

Now after all those strings and weepy 1930s singers, the opening of Armstrong’s record of “Home” must have come as a jolt. The record opens with the band swinging, in New Orleans polyphonic fashion, the John Howard Payne chestnut from 1823 (now THAT’S a standard!), “Home Sweet Home.” For those who know their Armstrong history, it was an important song to Pops as it was the first one he learned how to play on his cornet. As he told it in a 1970 document, “After blowing into it a while I realized that I could play ‘Home Sweet Home’—then here come the Blues. From then on, I was a mess and Tootin away.” Really, has their ever been a better short summary of Louis Armstrong’s career? A popular song and the blues and the rest is history. So it’s nice hearing Armstrong playing the old melody, tearing it up as the band sounds quite relaxed and comfortable, as if they could have jammed on it for the allotted three minutes.

A very pretty interlude by pianist Charlie Alexander sets up Pop’s heartfelt vocal. The saxophones croon out the melody behind him in their best Lombardo fashion, which helps illustrate Armstrong’s genius as he phrases the beautiful melody at his own pace, from the very opening phrase where he inserts a couple of extra beats between “when” and “shadows fall.” He immediately sings the following line—“trees whisper day is ending”—in a completely different fashion from how it’s written. A better fashion, I should say as that next line always sounds unusual when sung straight (Jack Teagarden was defeated by it during one take of a 1944 Coleman Hawkins record, but he managed to rephrase it a la Pops on the second take).

Armstrong puts a lot of feeling into the titular word, but even he can’t resist a little “oh babe.” The intonation of the saxes might not be to everyone’s liking but dig bassist John Lindsay’s popping bass in between the A sections. Armstrong continues his conversational pace by inserting a spoken “now” before singing the next line, “when crickets fall” almost on one pitch, his voice literally falling on the word “fall.” And just listen to the ridiculous place he inserts “my heart.” While analyzing this record for blogging purposes, I paused it right before Armstrong sings those two words. When I un-paused it and heard the placement of those two words, it immediately led me to think of his trumpet playing which always featured phrases floating all over the bar line.

Armstrong continues onward, singing “once more to be returning” one pitch before singing the title word again, filling up the built-in space after with a slightly humorous, “Mmmm, Home.” Van Steeden’s bridge is the gem of the song and Armstrong clearly digs the minor harmonies. Really listen to the saxes playing the melody during this section and just try to hear if Armstrong is singing anything that remotely resembles it. His first phrase follows the arc of the melody, but he begins it a few beats late and he practically bubbles over when he gets to the “one by one” line, repeating it much as he would if he was playing the trumpet.

Again, like a typical Armstrong trumpet solo, Armstrong hit a climax of sorts with that “one by one” so he can’t retreat now. Thus, he approaches the final A section by singing all high notes, continuing the longing mood of the bridge, and really wringing a lot feeling from the word “all.” He winds down for a very sweet ending to the totally heartfelt and moving vocal. One could probably guess that Armstrong was thinking of New Orleans while singing the tune and goodness knows, that was always a recipe for beautiful music.

Alexander’s piano modulates setting up Pops’s entrance over a foot-pattin’ New Orleans beat laid down by the rhythm section. Lindsay’s thumping bass locks in with McKendrick’s tenor guitar sound and, together with Tubby Hall’s simple but steady drumming, creates a loping feeling that might not exactly sound like Count Basie, but is nevertheless pretty irresistible. Pops rides it beautifully, starting high and simple before some nice double-timing in bars six and seven. Armstrong heralds the second A section with two giant quarter notes, always an effective trick, coming after some busy playing. At the 1:57 mark, Armstrong goes high where the written melody goes low, hitting a bluesy, passionate high note that somehow meshes perfectly with the same note being played by one of the alto saxes. It could have clashed but it’s such a perfectly chosen note, it just adds to the drama of the proceedings.

Armstrong continues playing around the melody, as stated by the saxophones, before hitting the bridge. Unfortunately, instead of digging into the minor changes, Armstrong passes the ball to a saxophonist (Lester Boone?) who takes us from pathos to bathos. The saxophonist is all over his horn, showing up some very fleet-fingering but it disrupts the mood and every time he holds a note, it’s so corny, it’s almost laughable.

But have no fear, Pops is here, trampling over the saxophonist with three high A’s, announcing his presence and pointing the way for very passionate final eight bars, reaching its climax with a gliss to another high A at the 2:35 mark. Armstrong then takes off on a spectacular cadenza with shades of 1927 stop-time playing before the band drops out and Armstrong concludes with an operatic conclusion that’s brimming with bravado. Bravo, Pops!

Like many pop songs of the period, “Home” gradually disappeared in the ensuing years. Save the aforementioned Coleman Hawkins disc and I can’t find any other versions of the tune until Nat King Cole tackled it in 1950. Seven years later, our hero found himself in Norman Granz’s Los Angeles studios, recording a number of standards backed by either strings or a big band, all of it arranged by Russell Garcia. I’ve written about these sessions many times, focusing on Pops’s chops trouble. If you ever want to hear Pops at his most human, dig out these albums (I’ve Got the World On a String and Louis Under the Stars). Armstrong was overworked and Granz didn’t have a lot of time so he did his best with a damaged Armstrong. Leave it to Pops, though, to make the best of his problems, turning in many soulful solos that demonstrate just how hard it was being Louis Armstrong in 1957. The skyrocketing high notes of that year’s Autobiography project are missing. All that’s left is the soul of the man and fortunately, that was more than enough to make some timeless music.

Armstrong recreated a number of his old hits for the Garcia sessions, including “I’ve Got the World On a String,” “I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues,” “When Your Lover Has Gone” and “Body and Soul.” Interestingly, Gösta Hägglöf, the Armstrong oracle from Sweden, had written a letter to Joe Glaser suggesting Armstrong record “Home,” as well as “Stormy Weather,” “You Turned the Tables on Me” and “Just One of Those Things” and others, all songs Armstrong would record for Verve in 1957. Did Glaser pass the suggestions to Armstrong or Granz? We might never know, but it is indeed quite a coincidence!

“Home” was recorded at Armstrong’s sixth consecutive Verve session in six days (the first three were made for his second album with Ella Fitzgerald). This session found Armstrong’s chops in better form than the previous two dates and he already had an incredibly emotional “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and a touching “Little Girl Blue” in the can before he got to “Home,” the fifth song of eight to be recorded on that grueling August 16 day.

The Garcia version utilizes strings and though Garcia wasn’t a writer on par with a Gordon Jenkins, his string arrangements generally succeed more than his big band work, in my opinion. Armstrong’s 1957 remake of “Home” lasts nearly six minutes and I think it’s a gem from note one. Please listen along:


Garcia already hits a home run right off the bat by having Armstrong sing the beautiful verse. He sings it in the upper register of voice and the effect is spine-tingling. When the rhythm section kicks in at such a relaxed tempo, the effect, with the strings, is heavenly. Armstrong, though 35 years older, sings it in the same key as the original, pushing his voice for the greater good, such as the beautiful way he sings the word “fall” the first time through. I don’t know if it was a Granz or Garcia suggestion by Armstrong sings the melody the first time through very close to how it’s written, which, obviously, is the polar opposite of the 1932 original. Granz’s mix is perfect as you can hear every little tic in Armstrong’s voice, such as the delightful little “Tch” he lets out in between phrases at the 0:57 mark. Paul Smith’s piano defines elegance and the whole feel of the performance is gorgeous and relaxed.

Immediately after Armstrong sings the final word, you can hear a quick “Pffft,” the sound of Armstrong getting his chops accustomed to his horn. Perhaps to make it easier for him, Garcia has the arrangement modulate from Eb down to C (the 1932 record modulated UP from Eb to F). Armstrong’s very first note isn’t exactly hit on the nose, causing a moment of suspense. Is he going to make it? Fortunately, Pops was no dummy. Knowing what he could do and what he couldn’t do, Armstrong decides to stick to his middle register for a very soulful solo. Armstrong got into this bag a lot during his Verve recordings, reminding me more of Miles Davis with his Verve work than anything he did for Columbia or Decca during this period. Armstrong’s sound is very human on this performance, giving the listener a wonderful glimpse of his low register. In between the two A sections, Armstrong goes up at the 2:47 mark, playing a patented phrase of F-A-D, though normal, he probably would have hit two D’s. However, the one high D he hits is a little shaky and he wisely opts to leave space, coming back a few seconds later, more poised, with a surprising little double-timed run. He continues rephrasing the melody as he goes on and the effect is simply mellow.

The strings take the melody of the bridge, but Pops pops his head in to fill in the cracks with some lovely obbligato work, ending the bridge with his highest notes of the solo to this point, three high E’s (and when I say high E, we’re still an octave lower than the REALLY high E’s Armstrong could, and often did, hit when feeling 100%). Armstrong then begins the final A section with the same double-timed descending arpeggio (C-G-E-C) he played in the ninth bar of the solo, though this time it’s slightly smeared. Feeling confident, he tip-toes a little higher into the upper register but another one of those E’s at the 3:41 sounds a little weak, so he heads back south. Still, he has one more powerful moment left: three quarter note C’s that remind me a bit of Harry “Sweets” Edison, but each one is played with a lot of depth before he turns it into a nifty little phrase, complete with a quick, bluesy little flurry that reminds me of the way he would sing the word “That” at the end of his vocal on “That’s My Desire.”

It’s pretty passionate playing from a pretty passionate person. So, how do you like your Armstrong? Do you like the dazzling cadenza of the 1932 original? Or the wise old storytelling of the remake? Well, you know my answer: it’s all Pops and I’m all happy…

Fortunately, there’s still a good two minutes left after the trumpet solo and it’s here where Pops really begins deconstructing the melody. This is what really makes me wonder if Granz told him to stick to the written notes the first time through because on this vocal reprise, Armstrong barely hints at what was written. He enters with a supremely righteous “Yeah” before embarking on his journey, singing a lot of the high notes his trumpet couldn’t hit. He totally turns it into a new song, mixing in pinches of scat for good measure wherever he sees fit, which is usually in the third bar of every A section. My favorite part has to be the bridge, where he sounds so fragile, creating a melody that’s more touching than the original, which was pretty damn good to begin with. All traces of fragility are shattered with Armstrong’s scatting after the bridge and his triumphant final A section, complete with a resounding “Whoaaaa,” that threatens to blow up your speakers. The delirious trumpet cadenza of the original is gone, replaced by some terrific scatting and a low-key reading of the final “Home.” You can hear him smile as he holds the final note, probably thinking about his humble abode that awaited him in Corona, Queens…whenever these damn sessions for Granz came to an end!

I don’t know if Pops is responsible, but all of a sudden, there was a little resurgence in “Home.” The Mills Brothers recorded it in 1960, the same year it was recorded by Sam Cooke on his legendary Ain’t That Good News album, a work that featured his seminal “A Change Is Going To Come” (as well as a cover of another tune Pops recorded, “Sittin’ in the Sun”). Since then, the jazz world has gradually embraced the tune with the likes of Gerry Mulligan and Bill Mays recording it, though it hasn’t exactly become a tired warhorse. And of course, the more traditional-minded jazz bands embraced it with a number of European versions showing up on YouTube (a particularly brilliant version was recorded by David Ostwald’s Gully Low Jazz Band, produced by George Avakian, featuring Randy Sandke and available on Itunes).

So, as usual, Pops carried yet another tune farther than the likes of Rudy Vallee and Henry Hall. Pops definitely had a flair for the melodramatic and songs like “Home” fit him like a glove. I don’t see how someone cannot be affected by either the 1932 or 1957 versions. But that’s all for now…it’s now been two-and-a-half hours since my wife and I were dubbed “clear to close,” so the big moment is right around the corner. But don’t worry, though the hubbub, I’ll still try to pump out one more blog this week on “Rocky Mountain Moon.” But if I disappear, you know where I’ll be…. “Home,” of course.

Ohhhh, when shadows fall…….

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A wonderful overview on the history of this pretty sentimental tune! Many thanks.

Concerning the years between Rudy Vallee and Nat King Cole the version you mentioned as Coleman Hawkins recording should not be overlooked - it is from 12/12/1944 by George Wettling's New Yorkers (in my opinion it is a bit too fast) and it features not only Teagarden's vocal, but some fine solos by Teagarden and pianist Herman Chittison (?), especially beautiful on the minor bars of the brigde.

And Sam Cooke's (one of the most wonderful voices ever) renditition is really pretty ... (but that's another era).

Concerning Armstrong'r recordings: I'll never be friend with the way Russell Garcia is orchestrating his strings. It is always too much and too complicated, too much audible effort to sound spohisticated. Gordon Jenkins is much more straight and efficient (and, okay okay, more sentimental and "popish"). I wish Gordon Jenkins had orchestrated instead of Garcia in the way he did brilliantly e.g. on 'Indian Love Call'...

Sebastian (from Berlin/Germany)