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 run...it’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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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....