Wednesday, July 23, 2008

40 Years Ago This Week...

It’s been over a week since my last posting, which is somewhat deliberate since I wanted to let my Fleischmann’s Yeast opus linger a little longer to allow the maximum amount of readers to learn about these marvelous, historical recordings (e-mails are still coming in about them, so the more people that know, the better!). But also, I’ve been busy preparing as I am giving three seminars next week at the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans. I have never been to Pops’s hometown before so to be able to make my first trip during a celebration of the man’s life, sharing the bill with heavy hitters like George Avakian, Dan Morgenstern, Michael Cogswell, Gary Giddins and Randy Sandke--well, that’s just plain living the dream!

But I had to come back with something, so I grabbed my copy of Jos Willems’s “All of Me” and noticed that 40 years ago this week, on July 23 and 24, 1968, Louis Armstrong recorded seven tracks for ABC-Paramount in Las Vegas. None of the songs can exactly be classified as an all-time, essential classic, but they’re all very sweet and besides, an anniversary is an anniversary, even if this one isn’t on par with the “West End Blues,” “Laughin’ Louie” and “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” anniversary posts of this year.

So the backstory: in 1967, Armstrong had been making almost nothing but “Hello, Dolly” rip-offs when producer Bob Thiele got the idea to have Pops record a ballad, backed by strings and voices. The concept wasn’t exactly new--hello, Gordon Jenkins--but it worked, namely because of the emotion Pops invested in Thiele’s song, “What a Wonderful World.” The story of why this song wasn’t a hit in America is too complex to relate here, but suffice to say, it did become a hit around the world, especially in England. Armstrong recorded for tunes for Thiele that day, two with the orchestra, two with the All Stars but now, with a hit record on the market, it was time to build a full album around it.

The August 1967 “What a Wonderful World” session introduced a revitalized Armstrong to his audience after a somewhat shaky European tour from July of that year. 1968 would prove to have many, many great Armstrong moments: “I Will Wait For You” for Brunswick, the version of “Willkommen”on “The Tonight Show,” the Disney songs album, his performance of Italian tunes, including a showstopper in Italy and a triumphant tour of England in early July. Pops was feeling his oats and even his horn sounded stronger for the most part than it had in most of 1966 and 1967. He lost a ton of weight, appeared healthy and seemed like he could go on forever. However, on September 17, 1968, Armstrong entered Beth Israel Hospital, not to return until November. A variety of ailments, namely kidney-related, kept him in and out of the hospital, resting at home and unable to perform live for all of 1969. Yes, the mighty Satchmo was finally showing some human side effects after driving himself like a madman for almost 55 years.

Thus, Armstrong’s two recording sessions for Thiele in July of that year would prove to be his last two before his health crisis. As always, Armstrong never had the luxury of being completely at rest during a recording session, as Thiele had to book it while the All Stars were playing in Vegas. Thiele booked two sessions, one on July 23 featuring Armstrong’s small group and one on July 24 featuring Pops, the All Stars and some strings. Seven tunes were finished, making up the rest of the “What a Wonderful World” album, one of Armstrong’s most popular, mainly due to the overwhelming popularity of the title track.

Full disclosure: I avoided this album like the plague (no specific one, any random everyday plague) for years, until I was deep into my Armstrong immersion. I had never read a single positive review of it in a jazz album guide and when I heard the weakened, low wattage trumpet solo on “Dream a Little Dream of Me” on a compilation, it scared me straight. I had only known Pops as Superman and now he sounded like a mortal. Eventually, as my appreciation of Armstrong jumped from “huge fan” to “idiot completist,” I realized I needed to make peace with this album. I bought it and was very pleasantly surprised. No, it’s not a great jazz album. But it’s a great Louis Armstrong album. Not every track is a winner, but the batting average is quite high; definitely higher than Armstrong’s Mercury and Brunswick work from the same period. Thiele gave Armstrong nothing but pretty songs and Pops responded, sounded like he truly loved every single word he sung for that album. I don’t listen to it that often, but every time I listen to “What a Wonderful World,” I feel it improves. You can’t go in expecting another W.C. Handy album. It’s late 60s pop music, the natural extension of what Armstrong did for Decca in the 50s and OKeh in the earl 30s.

I’ve even grown to appreciate the burnished solo on “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” He definitely sounds tired, but the straight, less glowing tone almost gives the solo a more “modern” touch (something Armstrong really nailed on “Chim Chim Cheree” from a few months earlier). The spirit is there and there’s a lot of wisdom in his phrasing, even if he sounds a little subdued. Surprisingly, he’d go on to play some stronger statements on the 1969 studio record of “Pretty Little Missy” as well as some of the last examples of him playing his horn in late 1970 and early 71. But he sings the hell out of it and sounds happy:

Next up was “I Guess I’ll Get the Papers and Go Home,” a 1946 hit for the Mills Brothers (and later associated with the great Doc Cheatham). This song sounds tailor-made for Pops; say what you want about Thiele but he had good taste. Armstrong’s trumpet reading of the melody is gorgeous, sounding a little stronger than on “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” His second vocal chorus, where he phrases it in the language of Satchmo, is as fine a vocal as he ever took on record. Give it a listen:

Next up was another lesser known standard, “There Must Be a Way,” recorded by the likes of Joni James, Dinah Washington, Perry Como and Charlie Spivak. This, to me, is the highlight of the session and one of Armstrong’s finest late recordings. The opening scat cadenza sets the mood and always makes me a smile. Thiele stripped away the 50s beat associated with James’s hit version of it (see YouTube) and instead just let Pops revel in the natural beauty hidden in the melody. It’s clear that Pops digs it, not seeing much need to phrase it differently. And the trumpet solo is quite lovely, though again, his chops seem to tire a little bit towards the very end. But it’s all soul. Such a pretty tune:

The session ended with kind of a throwaway, “Give Me Your Kisses,” a Thiele composition that seems to have been written with Pops in mind. The tempo is up and features the front line of Armstrong, Tyree Glenn and Joe Muranyi playing an arranged introduction. Again, Armstrong’s vocal is joy personified and there’s another fine, mellow trumpet solo, though its a little short. In fact, the whole thing goes by so fast, sometimes its over before I realized it even began! Pops’s horn leads the way out on his last studio record to feature this much horn (though, again, he did take 16 wonderful bars on “Pretty Little Missy” in 1969):

The following day, Armstrong returned to the Vegas studio, though this time he left his horn behind. Only three songs were tackled, pairing Armstrong and the All Stars with a studio orchestra conducted by Art Butler. First up was “Hello Brother,” a tune that would probably sound laughably corny and dated in the hands of any other vocalist from that period. Yet Pops sings it like it’s “Star Dust” and you have to be pretty cold to not be moved by his conviction. The song was composed by Thiele and fellow “What a Wonderful World” scribe George David Weiss. Armstrong’s vocal builds up to a crescendo on the line, “He wants a chance to give his kids a better life,” which, even as I type it, sound kind of saccharine. But again, Pops’s pure emotion sells it better than Weiss and Thiele ever probably could have imagined (then again, they did write it for Armstrong specifically, so I think they knew what they were doing). According to the album’s liner notes, it did make the charts for a bit at the time and seems to be quite popular today, judging by the comments on YouTube and elsewhere on the web, including a website,, named for the tune. I can see this being used in a film or commercial today and catching on all over again.

“What a Wonderful World” was credited to Weiss and George Douglas, though Douglas was a pseudonym for Thiele. Using the Douglas name again, they were the team behind the next tune recorded that July 24 day, “The Home Fire.” Joe Muranyi had fond memories of this session, telling me how much he enjoyed playing the introduction of this song. Louis Armstrong singing about homes was always a can’t miss equation (see “That’s My Home” and “Home”) but this one is extra special. Those earlier tunes are classics because they have great melodies and some outstanding trumpet playing. But “The Home Fire” is wonderful because Armstrong seems to be singing specifically about his Corona, Queens home. In fact, this tune should be the official anthem of the Louis Armstrong Home Museum. You can hear Armstrong smiling as he sings about his neighborhood, while the closing slow, scatted ending is a “gassuh.” It’s sadly ironic that illness would force him to spend much of the next year holed up in that home, but he always had a love affair with his modest digs and that love shines through on “The Home Fire.”

Finally, the last tune of the day, and again, it features an irresistible melody: “Fantastic, That’s You.” This tune was composed by Thiele (as George Douglas again), George Cates and Mort Greene and was originally recorded by Johnny Hodges in 1965 on an album that paired Hodges with the Lawrence Welk Orchestra (Cates was Welk’s musical director) . The following year, Hodges rerecorded it with a small group on the Verve label. Few could work over a melody like Rabbit; dig his version:

That same year, Thiele produced an Earl Hines album for Impulse, “Once Upon a Time.” Hines performed on the above Hodges rendition, so Thiele had him perform the tune here in a quartet setting with Jimmy Hamilton’s clarinet, Aaron Bell’s bass and Elvin Jones’s drums...yes, THE Elvin Jones. Here’s this beautiful recording:

Okay, with the preliminaries out of the way, let’s listen to Pops, sans trumpet, vocally caress the beauty out of the song. The arrangement is also pretty minimal and Tyree’s trombone spot on the bridge is a nice, sober statement. I know, I’m repeating myself too damn much, but really, how happy does Pops sound? He must have truly loved singing songs with such beautiful melodies, as opposed to silly, trite things like “I Like This Kind of Party” or “The Happy Time.” Here ‘tis:

And with that last, pretty fadeout, another chapter of Louis Armstrong’s recorded life came to a conclusion. He had one more last burst from October 1969 to October 1970, but for all intents and purposes, the July 1968 Bob Thiele Vegas sessions are the final portrait of Pops and the All Stars, in the middle of touring, business as usual, before Pops’s illness. Say what you want about them from a purely jazz perspective; from a musical perspective, they’re incredibly pretty songs, with a heavy dose of sentimentality and Pops, probably the only man who could make these songs work, sounds like he’s in love with the material. They might not be for everyone, but I have no trouble celebrating the 40th anniversary of these lovely performances.

Next up: I spun the ol’ Itunes shuffle and it landed on Erskine Tate’s version of “Static Strut.” Thus, I’m writing a blog on both that tune and “Stomp Off, Let’s Go” to be published on Friday.

Final note: I’ve mentioned the great Massachusetts Dave Whitney many times before as Dave is probably this blog’s biggest fan. Once a week, we usually call each other up to talk about our shared love of Louis Armstrong, the Three Stooges, Louis Prima, Fats Waller, Shemp Howard, the Marx Brothers, etc. Well, Dave has been bitten by the blog bug (no relation to the love bug) and he has decided to jump into the foray with the wonderfully titled “Pete Kelly’s Blog,” located at Dave has warned me that he’s just getting the site off the ground, but I think he’s off to a flying start with entries on both Pops and the Three Stooges. Please check out Dave’s blog as it’s a lot of fun and couldn’t have been written by a nicer guy. And besides, Dave is a wonderful trumpet player...don’t believe me? Well, allow me to tie it all in with Dave’s lovely 1982 recording of “Fantastic, That’s You.”

Four recordings of “Fantastic, That’s You” in one blog? Damn, I’m not going to be able to get this one out of my head until Labor Day!

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