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 www.classicjazz.se 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....

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