Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Rocky Mountain Moon

Bing & Satchmo
Recorded June 30, 1960
Track Time 3:41
Written by Johnny Mercer
Recorded in Hollywood
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Bing Crosby, vocal; Dick Cathcart, Clarence F. Sherock, trumpet; Abe Lincoln, Elmer Moe Schneider, Pullman Pederson, trombone; Justin Gordon, Chuck Gentry, Matty Matlock, Wilbur Schwartz, saxes; Stan Wrightsman, piano; George Van Eps, guitar; Morty Corb, bass; Nick Fatool, drums; Billy May, arranger, conductor; Gil Mershon, Bernie Parks, Thomas D. Kenny, Joseph Pryor, Burton A. Dole, Jack Graberman, Paul Ely, vocals; Bill E. Thompson, conductor of the choir
Originally released on MGM E3882P
Currently available on CD: With so many heavy hitters present, one would think this work would have been reissued years ago. Somehow, it’s never been available in complete form in America, though an Australian disc of it on the Axis label is available sometimes on Ebay. Otherwise, various tunes from the album have appeared on separate Curb records compilations on Armstrong and Crosby. This particular track is available on the Curb disc, “All-Time Best of Bing Crosby.” (Currently available used for $1.07 on Amazon)
Available on Itunes? No (A tragedy!)

One of the best things about writing this blog for the past year has been the reassuring feeling that I’m not the only out-and-out Armstrong freak in the world. Sure, Armstrong has always remained a towering figure in the music and entertainment world, but I really started this thing to give his legacy the proper respect it has always deserved, yet rarely receives in the jazz world (one year and almost 100 entries, this blog has never been mentioned a single time on any of the other prominent jazz blogs or websites—not once—leading me to ask, is it me…or Pops?). Fortunately, the real Armstrong fans, American and European, young and old, fanatics and newbies, have found this little Armstrong haven, frequently writing, calling, sharing stories, photos, videos and rare recordings, all in the name of keeping Pops’s spirit alive.

I always love it when a personal favorite Armstrong recording of mine, usually not a very well known one, is mentioned as being a favorite from some other Louis nut out there. And that’s how we get to “Rocky Mountain Moon,” a song I’m writing about today not because my Itunes shuffle landed on it but because it seems like the kind of forgotten song that the die-hard Armstrong fanatics have a soft spot in their heart for. Representing America, the wonderful trumpet player from Massachusetts, Dave Whitney, one of my closest Armstrong buddies as we call each other at least twice a month just to talk about Pops (and our shared love of the Three Stooges, Louis Prima, Fats Waller, etc.). I know Dave and I have discussed “Rocky Mountain Moon” before, a favorite of ours. And representing Spain is the jazz historian Fernando Ortiz de Urbina (now living in London), who wrote me last October to offer kind words on the blog, making sure to write, “The coda of ‘Rocky Mountain Moon’ never fails to move me.”

And finally, representing Sweden and Armstrong enthusiasts from all around the world, Gösta Hägglöf ,wrote me just last week in reply to an e-mail I had sent him. His e-mail was interesting, as usual, but the title was a little baffling: “Rocky Mountain Moon – the trumpet solo and intro.” It was only baffling because in his entire three-paragraph e-mail, Reverend Gus failed to mention the track with which he titled his e-mail. However, I knew what he was saying, without even saying it: “Rocky Mountain Moon” is quite a performance. When Gus and I finally got to discussing it a few days later, he wrote, “I think that just the introduction is worth the price. Then I have always loved the way Louis plays in the lower register – Oh boy that tone of his really wets the eyes…And the discreet ‘noodling’ – small details.”

With that, Gus signed off, but I knew that I had to write something on this masterpiece…a masterpiece that cannot even be purchased for 99 cents on Itunes! How can this be? Well, let me discuss the album from where the track originally emanates, 1960’s Bing & Satchmo, released on M-G-M.

Now, I really shouldn’t have to detail Armstrong and Crosby’s long and storied relationship but it goes without saying that the two legends had quite a mutual appreciation society. Early Bing could swing like Pops, and Pops could “buh-buh-boo” like Bing on pieces like “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams.” By 1937, Crosby helped Armstrong get featured billing in the film Pennies From Heaven. In the late 40s and early 50s, Armstrong made numerous classic appearances on Crosby’s radio show, now collected on a two-disc set on the Storyville label. More movie appearances followed throughout the 1950s, followed by television, including a spot on Crosby’s Oldsmobile special that aired on ABC in September 1959. The two men’s love for one another can be heard on one of the private Armstrong tapes housed at Queen College. It’s from December 31, 1952, a New Year’s Eve party at the Armstrong house. Someone mentions seeing Crosby and Armstrong enthusiastically says, “Ah, give that buzzard my regards there! Shove him my regards, Daddy. That’s my boy, there. Oh, he treats us so well in his hometown.” When actor Slim Thompson says, “Bing loves you,” Armstrong warmly responds, “Yeah, that’s my boy.” And even when Thompson says, “ “He didn’t do much for Negroes,” Armstrong defends him, saying, “ “Well, he did as much as he could. You know, sometime there’s no opening for them ofays to do something for a spade, you know? He did something in his way. He kept colored help, a spade chauffer.”

Armstrong and Crosby recorded the seminal single, “Gone Fishin’” for Decca in 1951, but otherwise, Armstrong had made more recorded duets with Crosby’s son Gary than Bing himself. Thus, the 1960 MGM was a no-brainer and on paper, looked like it could not have failed.

Uh oh… “on paper?” “Looked like?” Hmm, that can’t be good…and it’s not. Bing and Satchmo must rank as one of the most disappointing records Armstrong ever appeared on. I’m not saying it’s terrible as the good moments are usually pretty fantastic: Armstrong, jamming on Horace Silver’s “Preacher” (relying on the similarity to “Ole Miss”), the cute, new scientific lyrics to “Sugar,” the about-to-be-discussed “Rocky Mountain Moon” and the very neat bit on “Lazy River” where the choir does a little vocalese on Pops’s original 1930 solo on that tune (though this track wasn’t released on the original LP).

However, the people involved didn’t seem to know just what a treasure they had in Pops and decided to focus on his perceived “old-fashioned” qualities. Of course, the “people” involved were all devout admirers of Pops: Bing, lyricist Johnny “Jeepers Creepers” Mercer and arranger Billy May, who got started in the business as a trumpeter. However, when given the chance to arrange a date around him and Bing, they dropped the ball by loading the date with such old-timey material. On top of that, Johnny Mercer was brought in to write new, “special” lyrics for almost every tune, most of which attempt to be humorous but come off as downright corny. Also, May assembled a wonderful studio band consisting of some of California’s finest jazz musicians, including trombonist Abe Lincoln, former All Star Marty Corb, drummer Nick Fatool, clarinetist Matty Matlock and future Lawrence Welk trumpeter Dick Cathcart, but never really let them blow. His arrangements are blasé compared to the work he was doing with Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole during this period. And added to the mix was a completely unnecessary choir intruding on every number, lending a commercial sheen to the proceedings that undermined any serious jazz sensibility.

Again, it’s all baffling because of the shared love of Armstrong by the main principals involved. I’ve already quoted Armstrong on Bing, but here’s Crosby speaking of Armstrong: “I never met anybody that didn’t love him that ever saw him work or ever has encountered him, had any connection or any business with him…. Any time I ever worked with Louis it was just a pleasure to be around. Lots of gags going all the time, you know, because he loved to laugh. He had an infectious laugh, too, about your singing or about his cornet playing or about a wardrobe or about music in general or anything.”

Billy May also had nothing but positive memories of the session:

“That was a labor of love for John [Mercer] because John loved Louis, and I know he’s a good friend of Bing’s. And so they called me and just—to make the orchestrations. This was 1960. It was a pleasant task, and I really enjoyed doing it. And of course, Louis was in the proper forum. Louis was fun to work with. He…he enjoyed life, and he enjoyed recording. He enjoyed singing. He enjoyed playing. And he enjoyed talking to the musicians. And it was old home week.… [A]lmost all the musicians that I had in the band had worked with and were former—had something to do with him before. And Bing of course enjoyed being around musicians. It was really a fun gig. I think we worked three days. John sat in on those sessions, too, and assisted in the production….[I]t was, all and all, it was a very pleasant series of dates.”

[Side note: May’s recollections are proof that Armstrong and Crosby recorded the album with the musicians present. This contradicts a July 23, 1960 New York Journal-American article by Ralph J. Gleason where Gleason writes, “Actually, Bing and Louis, though they sing together on the LP, didn’t record it together. Billy May made the arrangements and cut the accompaniment first and then, via the wonders of tape recording, Bing and Louis separately recorded their own parts.” When I originally encountered this clipping at the Institute of Jazz Studies, it came complete with Dan Morgenstern’s signature handwriting stating simply, “Not so!!”)

So with all the good love and talent in the room, the failure of the album ultimately resided in the corny song choices, cornier new lyrics and corniest of arrangements, vocally and instrumentally. There’s even a faint aroma of racism, though I don’t want to go too far since, again, everyone involved loved Louis. But Mercer was a southern man and some of his updated lyrics rely on southern stereotypes. He has Armstrong singing fondly about “minstrel men” in “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” and on “Muskrat Ramble,” Crosby sings the regretful lyrics, “Well, Mr. A, when you play, Gabriel says, ‘Who dat boy?’” And just look at that original cover art and try not to feel a little embarrassed for poor Pops. I mean, where they trying purposely for a demeaning "organ grinder and monkey" pose? (Plus, even on that Crosby television special in late 1959, he duetted with Armstrong on the old cringe-inducing Hoagy Carmichael song, “Lazybones.”)

Mercer also seemed to be obsessed with rockets and flying saucers, a tribute to the “Space Race” that now sounds horribly outdated and stupid. What this album could used was a Norman Granz: a producer who would have given Bing and Louis top-flight, timeless songs, expert backing and the respect to let them use their genius naturally, instead of forcing it onto contrived backdrops.

But enough complaints, the album did give us “Rocky Mountain Moon” and for that alone, it’s worth the price of admission. However, as already stated, the price of admission won’t get you very far as the track is something of a hassle to get a hold of, especially in the MP3 world. But don’t worry, Uncle Ricko’s got your back; thanks to Fernando de Ortiz Urbina, here's "Rocky Mountain Moon," in better sound than the original file I posted:

Okay, now I’m in a much better mood. After listening to it, can’t you see why a devout Armstrong admirer such as Gösta Hägglöf would send me an e-mail with the heading, “Rocky Mountain Moon – the trumpet solo and intro”? The song was an original composition of Mercer’s that, as far as I can tell, has only been recorded by one other person, Harry Connick SR., on a 1998 album. It deserves to have a better legacy…then again, maybe it doesn’t. The song is pretty old-fashioned and sentimental, not exactly one of Mercer’s greatest pieces of songwriting. However, it was tailor-made for Bing and Pops and for their performance of it alone, the song is immortal.

As Gus pointed out, the song immediately grabs the listener’s attention from the opening second, featuring Pops playing a melancholy introduction over the minor-tinged, somber choir. I can listen to those eight seconds over and over again and never get sick of it. Then it’s time for Bing, really investing a lot in the lyrics. I wouldn’t know a damn Rocky Mountain Moon if I saw it, but Bing’s lazy, fond recollection of one makes me long for one to arise in the Jersey sky. Pops enters for the bridge, singing it delicately, before Bing finishes the chorus, going up for the built-in dramatic ending. Man, Bing was some singer…

With Bing’s reading of the final word, “moon,” still lingering, Pops picks up his horn to blow 16-glorious bars that remind me a little bit of the 1957 “Home” solo I blogged about last time out. There’s no real high notes or crazy glisses; just pure emotional storytelling. Right down to the quarter notes near the end of it, this solo is a prime example in how to solo convincingly from the heart. (And I do apologize for the awful sound, which is how it is on the C.D. If anyone has a better sounding version, e-mail an MP3 of it to me at and I’ll gladly post it.)

Bing then takes the bridge, still in glorious voice. When they reach the last eight bars, their voices intertwine and the effect is dazzling. And as Fernando pointed out, the harmonizing of the last readings of the title phrase are simply magical. Some people frown on heavy sentiment in jazz, but those people have ice water in their veins. I love a good tug of the heartstring and Bing and Louis sure do some tuggin’ on “Rocky Mountain Moon,” the highlight track on a disappointing album that could have been so much better.


Jasper said...

Well written. I cannot think about or listen to this album without wishing that I could somehow change it, if only to remove that f'ing choir.

I'm glad we have it instead of nothing at all. There are enjoyable moments, but there is a special kind of torment in thinking about what could have been.

If I had my way it would have been two albums - Bing with Louis and his All Stars, and then an album more like the Louis & Ella stuff.

That cover always made me cringe too. WTF?

Nick Langston said...

Fantastic blog, Ricky - really enjoying reading it and thanks for giving such a great insight into so much of Louis Armsrong's work. Unfortunately I'm going to have to take issue with some of your comments about the Bing and Louis album.

Just to put my opinions into context, I'm a jazz singer who would probably not be a jazz singer without this particular album ( if you're interested).

At my first year at university I was probably more into the likes of INXS and Prince but I shared a house with a guy who had some vinyl records which included Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. I just hadn't been exposed to this kind of stuff before and it blew me away. However, I remember the first time I heard him playing his copy of the Bing and Louis album and I rushed into his room demanding to know what it was. It was quickly in my room being transferred to a cassette tape which I still have.

It is probably the most joyful recording I have - you can't help but smile all the way through it. Until your comments on your blog I hadn't really considered the use of the choir but without getting too pretentious in my analysis I think I had always subconciously heard them them as a juxtaposition to how damn cool Bing, Louis and the band were.

Muskrat Ramble is still one of the most exciting starts to any record. You have this safe, harmonious choir hanging out at the station and Bing asking them 'what's going on?' In their response even they know that what's happening is pretty big (even bigger than the President!). And then we get to that HUGE horn intro which still blows me away every time I hear it as it is then followed by Satch ... "oooohhh, look at them shuffling, shuffling down..." It just raises you up.

As for the 'Gabriel' reference. I'm a white guy from England so it's probably not for me to comment but I have only ever taken it as Gabriel has a horn but he's tremendously impressed by how good Satchmo is (and quite right too!).

I read your blog on 'Sugar' and again I just find the song so funny and so clever - they're playing around and if any two guys are allowed to do that it has to be Bing and Louis.

As for the rest of the album, I love 'Way down Yonder' and 'Brother Bill' is another great bit of fun - perhaps this is just how they wanted to pitch it.

Maybe an album closer to the work Satchmo did with Ella or in the style of Satch Plays Fats (another great album) would have been good; perhaps with some 'cooler' standards. I would have loved to have heard much more work by the two of them together. However, we shouldn't diminish the utter joy and quality of this album.

For information - the album appears to be as an MP3 on Amazon now:

And for interest, this is the cover of the vinyl album I eventually bought myself:

As for the long-term impact it has had on me. I moved from these guys to Ella, from Ella to Frank, from Frank to Harry Connick Jr (who remains my hero) and eventually to my own jazz 'career' as a singer and finally an album of my own. And whenever I sing live I always have the spirit of that first album with me.

All the best

Nick Langston

Weemus Studio said...

This MGM LP was first released in 1958. The best lineup of any album I've ever owned. Biily May's band, Bill E. Thompson's Chorus (which was backup for Eartha Kitt a few times), masterful additional lyrics by Mercer (who wrote the liner notes)and Bing and Satch at their best. Thanks for posting.