In April 1937, the popular crooner Rudy Vallee decided to head to England for the coronation of King George VI. He planned for it to be an extended stay, which led to one problem: who would take over Vallee's popular NBC radio show, sponsored since 1929 by the good people at Fleischmann's Yeast? Vallee had a suggestion: Louis Armstrong. Once Vallee convinced his sponsor and the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency to go for it, Pops found himself in the pioneering role once again, becoming the first black entertainer to star on a commercially sponsored network radio show. For 71 years, the music world has always known about the importance of these broadcasts--Pops himself listed it as one of the most important events in his career in a 1941 letter to Leonard Feather--but except for a bootleg of "Dinah" (heard on one of the marvelous Ambassador CDs), none of the music has ever been heard by the public since their original broadcasts.
Fortunately, Armstrong himself kept 12-inch 78 records of many of the complete broadcasts in his home in Queens. They were discovered there after his death, having been obviously played frequently by Pops himself. After some restoration by Greg Squires and Doug Pomeroy, a solid chunk of the Armstrong material from the Fleischmann's Yeast broadcasts was released recently on the Jazz Heritage Society label. Now, that's all the history I'll give since the peerless Dan Morgenstern tells the story behind the broadcasts in his typically definitive liner notes. However, I would like to discuss some of the music and the issue of where to find this major release since I feel it to be the most important new Armstrong discovery in years.
For me, the broadcasts are important in a number of ways. Of course, there's Pops, who is in freakish form throughout. I've written before that I've always felt Armstrong's peak as a trumpet player to be around the time of his Victor recordings in 1932 and 1933. However, after listening to these broadcasts and combining that with what he was recording for Decca at the time, I might have to stretch that "prime" period a little longer. The years 1935-1942 now have to go down as perhaps Armstrong's greatest period of blowing, an arguable opinion since the man had about six prime periods, but the more I listen to the live material, the more stunned I am at his playing in the late 30s.
So of course, the shape of Pops's chops is always important. But then you have the actual material performed on the Fleischmann broadcasts, a tremendous mix of Armstrong hits ("Sunny Side of the Street," "You Rascal You), trumpet showpieces ("Tiger Rag," "Chinatown"), updated arrangements of OKeh recordings ("Memories of You," "After You've Gone"), a smattering of Victor and Decca classics ("Hustlin' and Bustlin' For Baby," "Shoe Shine Boy") and some songs that were never commercially recorded by Pops in this or any other era ("Ida," "The Love Bug Will Get You," "I Know That You Know"). The wide range of material paints a strong picture of the kinds of things Pops played on a day-to-day basis during this period.
But most importantly, the release of these recordings should finally exonerate the Luis Russell band from the devastating criticisms they have received for over seven decades. As the story goes, after his European exile in 1934 to rest his chops, Armstrong returned to America in 1935, hired Joe Glaser as his manager and asked his former trumpeter Zilner Randolph to form a new orchestra for him in Chicago. When union problems prevented Randolph’s band from coming to New York with Armstrong, the trumpeter had to come up with a speedy solution. The problem was solved by having Armstrong front the Panama-to-New Orleans pianist Luis Russell. Russell’s big band featured many New Orleans musicians and cut some tremendously exciting records in 1929 and 1930, featuring one of the first great recorded rhythm sections in jazz history, consisting of Russell, guitarist Lee Blair, bassist Pops Foster and drummer Paul Barbarin. The Russell band even backed Armstrong up on some wonderful OKeh sessions in 1929 and 1930. Thus, the two men had a positive history together and one would imagine that they would make a perfect fit during Armstrong’s 1935 comeback.
And here's where things get sticky. Armstrong was just getting his career back on track and it took him awhile to amass some new and exciting arrangements. The Russell band had to get accustomed to working full-time with their new leader and truthfully, on a bunch of those early Decca recordings, they sound pretty sad. And that's where the criticisms begin. To wit:
"The big failing in the initial stages of the reunion is the band's performance. Time and again Louis plays his heart out whilst the rest of the ensemble seems to be trundling its way through the parts. We hear brief solos from Charlie Holmes, Greely Walton, Bingie Madison and Jimmy Archey, but the excitement and intensity that were synonymous with Russell's earlier bands is missing." - John Chilton, "Louis"
"With Armstrong, however, the band counted for little, and only minimum attention was given to interesting arrangements polished in rehearsal. Thus, although Armstrong appeared to the general public to be part of the swing-band movement, he was not really playing typical swing-band music, so he was at a disadvantage. Judged on the basis of his arrangements, his groups were bound to suffer in comparison with the disciplined playing of the Goodman, Miller, Lunceford, and other bands." - James Lincoln Collier, "Louis Armstrong: An American Genius"
"Oddly enough though, despite such a generally splendid record of achievement, the Russell band had great trouble finding a style that fitted their renewed role as Armstrong's sidemen. Proof that it was Armstrong that sked for the Lombardo saxophone sound lies in the fact that it shows up immediately on the Rusell band's recordings with Louis, whereas in the band's own 1934 recordings, for example, it is absent. But how truly awful the band could sound, often dragging Armstrong down with it, one can hear on 'Red Sails in the Sunset,' 'Thanks a Million,' and 'On Treasure Island.'" - Gunther Schuller, "The Swing Era"
"Most [critics] said this was the worst band Louis Armstrong ever fronted and that his years with Luis Russell, which covered most of the thirties, represented the nadir of his career. They also complained that he ran out of fresh musical ideas and was content to recycle his virtuoso trumpet solos from the late 1920s, and that the musical value of what he was doing now was just about nil." - Laurence Bergreen, "Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life"
Pretty rough stuff, eh? And three of those examples are from Armstrong biographies, thus, leading any new Armstrong fan to come away with the opinion that the Russell band was a pretty terrible outfit in their time as Armstrong's backing band in the late 1930s. Schuller and Chilton at least go on to defend the band a bit more after some personnel changes in 1937, but still, the general consensus to this day has clearly been that Luis Russell's orchestra was a substandard, inferior fit for someone of Pops's genius, but it didn't matter because Armstrong's trumpet was the entire show and the shortcomings of the band didn't matter too much in the end.
Well, it's time to put the general consensus to rest. All of the above writers formed their opinions solely on the Decca studio records. None of them ever heard the Russell band back Armstrong up live in the late 1930s. None of them ever heard the Fleischmann broadcasts either. Goodness knows Bergreen hadn't but that didn't stop him from writing that though Armstrong's hosting of the show was a milestone, "what is often overlooked is that his exuberant radio broadcasts bombed."
Wow, that's harsh. How does Bergreen know? He quotes exactly one bad review of the Fleischmann broadcasts from “Variety," which described Armstrong and his orchestra as having "sounded like a boiler factory in swingtime, and, as such, could only be recommended to the most incurable addicts of Harlem stomp music in its most blatant pitch....Family tuner-inners, except swing-bitten youngsters, will be startled by the noise, even though the bandsmen are acknowledged experts in their particular field. Armstrong's throaty, almost unintelligible announcements do not help, either, and he should refrain from singing."
THAT'S the review Bergreen quotes from!?!?! How about a little context, Laurnece? Armstrong gets killed in his Decca years for recording "commercial" pop tunes and aiming at a wider audience, but here's a review that said Armstrong's live broadcasts catered to "swing-bitten youngsters." It's a review that worries for the safety of the eardrums of "family tuner-inners." It's a review that concludes that Louis Armstrong, jazz's greatest vocalist, "should refrain from singing." And that's the proof that the Fleischmann broadcasts bombed? To me, if anything, it indicates that Armstrong was playing some scorching hot jazz during his live performances and though some straight-laced “Variety” critic might have been scared off, maybe that's a good thing!
Well, now we know. 24 songs taken from six different broadcasts over the course of two months in the spring of 1937. At the time of the first Fleischmann broadcasts, Armstrong had made exactly eight sessions with the Russell band for Decca. So what do you trust? Eight studio recording dates featuring some underrehearsed arrangements, stilted playing and wobbly intonation? Or six broadcasts that captured what this band was capable of doing night after night during the same period? I love those Decca studio sides, but the Fleischmann's Yeast broadcasts now paint a much fuller, brighter picture of what Louis Armstrong and Luis Russell did on a nightly basis.
And what did they do? They swung their asses off! After those creaky arrangements on the earliest Decca sides, Armstrong began getting a slew of new arrangements from the great Chappie Willet, a man who also arranged for the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, Jimmie Lunceford and Gene Krupa. Besides, the Russell band benefitted greatly from some new personnel changes in early 1937: Red Allen joined on trumpet, J.C. Higginbotham joined on trombone and Albert Nicholas joined on clarinet and tenor saxophone, marking the reunion of three of the charter members of that wonderful late 20s Russell band. The original Russell-Blair-Foster-Barbarin rhythm section was still going strong after so many years and as already stated, Pops was in peak form. So, how can you go wrong?
The answer is, you can't. On this release, you'll hear the band absolutely nailing some killer Willet arrangements, swinging with a looseness not always heard on the Decca sessions. You'll also hear the great soloists in the band, especially Higgy's trombone, but also Nicholas's clarinet, Bingie Madison's tenor and Charlie Holmes's Johnny Hodges-inspired alto. The records might have been strictly Pops affairs (with some Madison clarinet solos to forget) but in live performances, the combination of songs, arrangements, swing, solos and Armstrong made for a pretty potent force in the big band world. Armstrong might not have had any major hits in the big band era and he might have fallen behind the likes of Basie, Goodman and Dorsey in popularity, but do not write off his big band as just some also-ran. The Fleischmann’s Yeast broadcasts more than illustrate what a potent force Armstrong and his big band was during the Swing Era.
(And as I’ve written before, don’t forget about the essential tenth volume of the Ambassador series, “At The Cotton Club,” which features a number of broadcasts from the late 30s and early 40s. That disc, combined with the Fleischmann set, paint a definitive portrait of the wonderful music Armstrong and Russell band combined for during those swinging years.)
But enough from me. The C.D. is 27 tracks long, though it also contains a neat original sign off, a commercial and one program introduction, featuring Pops soaring on "Sleepy Time," (remember, he didn't sing it regularly live until he recorded it for Decca in 1951). But otherwise, there's 70 minutes of history-changing music and every ounce of it is something to savor. I'm not going to share the whole thing here, but I have to play some of my favorites. First up is the very first track on the disc, and something I have been trying to wrap my head around ever since I first heard it. The tune is an Armstrong original, "(I've Got) A Heart Full of Rhythm," and though Armstrong introduces it as a "good ol' good one"--a phrase critics would kill him for in his later years--he hadn't even recorded it yet! Even stranger, when he would record it a little over two months later, he slowed the tempo down almost in half. I've always loved the Decca record for Pops's powerhouse extended trumpet solo at the end, but this live broadcast version is pretty insane for the heat it generates. Armstrong's floats over the the rhythm, propelled by Barbarin's exciting drumming and though I'll always love the Decca, this is some hot stuff:
Onto category two, here's Armstrong remaking "After You've Gone," a tune he originally recorded for OKeh in 1929. All one has to do is compare the dated arrangement of the original with Chappie Willet's killer-diller one and you'll know that Armstrong (and the Russell band) were more than ready for the Swing Era. Armstrong calls attention to the arrangement and to the "cats" in the band, setting up solos from Holmes and Higginbotham--dig Higgy's break! I can never listen to it without rewinding it to hear it again. But then Pops enters and well, stand back! Though Pops is killing it, so is the band, riffing like crazy behind him. Armstrong's break is sick...in a good way. Here 'tis:
If you still don't believe that Armstrong's band could cut it with the other heavyweights of the Swing Era, dig "Rhythm Jam," another Willet composition/ arrangement that was also recorded by Gene Krupa and the Mills Blue Rhythm Band. The arrangement is full of all sorts of Willet trademarks, including the descending marching trombone passage, but the band plays it with ease. Bingie Madison's tenor solo is better than a lot of what he played on records but the rhythm section really makes this thing dance. Armstrong plays two choruses of "I Got Rhythm" changes, dwarfing what he played on his original OKeh recording of the tune, especially, as Dan Morgenstern points out, on that second bridge. Barbarin really boots it, the band riffs merrily and Pops goes out on top. Who knows why Decca didnt record this one (maybe because there's no vocal?) but if they had, it would have already been an Armstrong classic. Well, it's never too late for that! Give it a listen:
Okay, I think that's enough heat for the time being. Here's another OKeh remake, a somewhat ominous Wilet updated arrangement on "Memories of You." Again, the original has a marvelous atmosphere, especially with the historical importance of Lionel Hampton's vibes, and I've always been a huge fan of the 1956 remake for the "Autobiography." But this one is quite special and it's nice to see that it was part of Armstrong's repertoire, even though he never recorded it during the period. A beautiful flight:
Next, let's visit a pop tune of the day that Armstrong never got to wax for Decca. The tune is "The Love Bug Will Bite You," written by Pinky Tomlin and recorded by the likes of the Jimmy Dorsey, Mills Brothers and Louis Prima (growing up, I always knew it as being sung by Darla Hood in "Our Gang Follies of 1938," backed by "Cab Buckwheat"!). This would have been a natural Decca record as it has the scat breaks built right into the tune. Listen carefully to Pops's last scat break: it's a lick he played towards the end of the 1927 Hot Five record of "Ory's Creole Trombone" and it's going to come back a little later on in this entry. As much fun as the scatting is, the trumpet still takes the cake, again, with the breaks (I love the ascending and descending chromatic one) before a typical-for-the-period ending. Great stuff:
Back to Chappie, now, for "I Know That You Know," an arrangement so good that world-renowned Willet expert John Wriggle told me he is currently transcribing the whole thing as we speak. Again, there's not much I have to add other than just read those above criticisms of the Russell band and listen carefully as they dig into this one. Also, there are some nice solos from trombonist Jimmy Archey, Russell, Holmes, and, as Morgenstern points out, "a trumpet that may be Red Allen." I know Allen often got featured in live performances with the band but I'm not sure if this solo is Red's as it doesn't contain any of his wonderful idiosyncrasies, thus, it could be the very fine Louis Bacon. Regardless, it's Pops who leads the charge to the finish line, something to behold as always...the band is cooking!
Speaking of Louis Bacon, here's "Rockin' Chair," with Bacon playing the role of the "father." This is the only live "Rockin' Chair" to have survived before a version done at Carnegie Hall in 1946 and it's a special one for the amount of trumpet contained in the arrangement. In later versions, comedy ruled the day, as Armstrong and his foil would sing two choruses, eventually eliminating the trumpet solo. But here, we get one vocal chorus with Pops simply repeating Bacon's lines before Armstrong picks up the horn and takes it out, stopping for some righteous "Hallelujahs" during the bridge. Dig it:
Next is a track that after my first hearing, took me about 30 seconds to pick my jaw up from the ground: "Bugle Blues." One again, we get a swinging band, a hot arrangement (great work from the sax section) and more great solos from Holmes, Albert Nicholas, Higgy and Red Allen and Pops can't contain his enthusiasm. Remember, Pops did say, "I enjoyed all the moments I spent with Luis and his band, maybe because the boys were mostly from my home. The warmth, the feelings, the beat--everything was there. They were all down to earth also in that band. I loved them regardless of what the critics said about it." So critics be damned...THIS is the Russell band that Armstrong knew and loved to play with every night. Just listen to his inspired playing at the end; remember the aforementioned "Ory's Creole Break"? There it is at the 1:42, leading into a ridiculous gliss up to a high concert Eb. You can hear someone in the band break up and I think Pops sounds pretty satisfied, too. After the band swings out for two choruses, Pops rejoins them for a final rideout, building up to the scary final high concert F. Stunning! And as Morgenstern's notes point out, Armstrong was in California on May 26, flew across county, stopped over in Pittsburgh and arrived in New York on the 27th. This was played on May 28...does that sound like a man who just traveled so much in such little time?
From the same broadcast, here's a remake of the Decca recording of "Shoe Shine Boy," a beautiful tune that was tailor-made for Armstrong and I agree with Morgenstern that Armstrong's trumpet on this version definitely surpasses the original recording. Armstrong scats a descending minor run in the bridge, a phrase that would later become a favorite, ending his 1957 version of "Summertime" with Ella, as well as 1968's "I Will Wait For You." But the trumpet solo is enough to make me cry, especially the passion on the bridge. Like I said, this was clearly a prime period for Pops's chops--here's another high concert F, a note he barely made at the end ofn 1930's "You're Lucky To Me," but now he holds it with bell-like clarity:
And finally, one more example of the Russell band swinging like mad, performing another tune never recorded by Pops, "Prelude to a Stomp." Morgenstern hears Armstrong say the title as "Will You Do A Stomp," which is how it appears in Jos Willems's Armstrong discography, but careful listening shows that Armstrong does indeed say "Prelude to a Stomp"...twice, as a matter of fact. This was yet another tune recorded by the Mills Blue Rhythm Band and Gene Krupa and as Morgenstern accurately writes, "It is an up-to-date big band swing piece solidly places Louis's band way ahead of its critical reputation." Indeed. Once again, the band sounds loose and swinging, nailing every note of Willet's arrangement before Pops enters at the 1:22 mark. Armstrong solos on a simple eight-bar "We Want Cantor" vamp (the tune has no bridge) and his build-up to the climactic ending is positively thrilling. Again, pay attention to Barbarin, giving Armstrong some Latin rhythms before settling into the backbeat Armstrong loved the most. Sid Catlett joined the band in 1939 and became Armstrong’s favorite drummer, but this release makes a pretty strong case for Barbarin’s excellence in backing up Pops. Here’s “Prelude to a Stomp”:
So there’s nine examples of the wonders of the Fleischmann’s Yeast Broadcasts. And just think, there’s 16 more tracks that I haven’t even touched yet!
But that’s not all...(I sound like an infomercial). Michael Cogswell, the man behind the Louis Armstrong House Museum and the Armstrong Archives at Queens College, hand-picked 66 minutes of highlights from Armstrong’s private tape collection. I have referenced this collection before as I have listened to countless tapes myself in doing research for my book on Armstrong’s later years and can attest to their priceless nature. Cogswell did a tremendous job with his selections; you truly feel like you’re spending an hour in Louis Armstrong’s company. He practices, he plays along with records, he sings along with records, he talks about other musicians, he tells a jokes, he defends his music, he talks to kids, he gives advice to other trumpeters, he tells stories about his life to Max Jones...it’s all priceless.
(One note: Morgenstern’s notes mention that Armstrong never performed “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” one of the bonus tracks. However, Armstrong did perform it on the “Milton Berle Show” in 1952 and that’s what he is rehearsing for on the private tape excerpt that appears on this release. You can hear Armstrong reading his name and “everybody” in the script, getting the routine straight before doing it on the air.)
Excerpts of this material have appeared on Satchmo.net, the official website of the Armstrong Archives, but I’d like to share my three favorite moments. First is Armstrong playing along with the 1923 King Oliver record of “Tears.” Armstrong plays the original record and “noodles along,” playing his original cornet part. It’s a fantastic find, especially during the time-warp moment when the older Armstrong sets up the breaks by his younger self. Armstrong then swings out, going up for a patented 1950s ending, which sounds a lot stronger than the original stop-on-a-dime ending. This is great stuff:
Next is something for the critics who bemoaned Armstrong “leaving” jazz for commercial music. Some of them tried putting the blame on record producers without stopping to think that maybe Louis Armstrong liked all kinds of music and not just hot jazz numbers. As proof, here he is at home playing along with “Luna,” a ballad sung in Italian by Ray Martino. The original record is about as far from “hot jazz” as you can get but Armstrong plays with passion, contributing a lovely obbligato and even taking a solo. Gorgeous playing:
And finally, the most mind-blowing 46 seconds you’ll spend all day: Louis Armstrong in a hotel room in the 1950s practicing with “Over the Rainbow,” playing it an octave higher than written, leading to some of the highest notes I’ve ever heard Armstrong play, right down to a dramatic closing cadenza that borrows a bit from his 1933 record of “Laughin’ Louie.” Unbelievable:
So now you’re probably salivating about when and where you can purchase this historic document. And that’s where things get a little complicated. You see, “Louis Armstrong: Fleischmann’s Yeast Show & Louis’ Home-Recorded Tapes,” is put out by the Jazz Heritage Society. I know that sounds good but here’s the bad news: this is a subscription-based site. To order anything from this site requires you to become a member, which means you have to order a bunch of things from the start. What’s worse, you can’t even view the official website (www.jazzheritage.com) unless you’re a member! And apparently, last month, they offered the set for $24.99, but it looks like the price has gone up to $35.96 plus $6 for shipping.
And that, my friends, is what is wrong with the world today. Recent years have seen some wonderful new discoveries come out on C.D. in the jazz world: Mingus at Cornell, Monk and Trane at Carnegie Hall, Bird and Diz at Town Hall, Miles box sets for Columbia, you name it, all of it wonderful, well-publicized and easy to find. But when it comes to poor Pops, he gets the short end of the stick: historic newly discovered recordings that should be the talk of the jazz world...only available on a subscription based site where viewers can’t even read about it unless they’re members! No eBay, no Amazon, no Itunes, no nothing. It’s a crime, I tell ya....
Fortunately, the good people at the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation realize that this is a problem. Cogswell, Morgenstern and Phoebe Jacobs have been pushing Jazz Heritage Society to release this material to a wider audience and it just might happen. Cogswell wrote to me just last week to tell me that JHS is trying to get it into Barnes and Noble and on Itunes and if that happens, it’ll be cause for celebration. So stay tuned to this site and as soon as I know something, I’ll let you guys know. Because this release, coupled with the aforementioned “Louis Armstrong at the Cotton Club” on the Ambassador label are essential discs that all of the jazz world should know about. These releases should be much wider known than they are because they easily dispute the terrible reputation critics have given Armstrong’s big band of that period. If only Pops got more respect in the jazz world, these releases would be discussed and listened to by thousands of jazz fans around the world, but instead, most go on not knowing anything about Armstrong’s big band period because those releases are hidden. And this is a crime because it’s about time that the reputation of Armstrong’s big band is finally set straight and that’s only going to happen if people go out and find the Ambassador series and the Fleischmann’s Yeast broadcasts, the most historic discoveries to hit the world of Louis Armstrong in a long, long time.
I hope you enjoyed this sneak peak at the Fleischmann’s Yeast broadcasts and don’t worry, as long as I know more about how to purchase them, I’ll post the information right here. Thanks for reading!
UPDATE: I forgot to mention that the Fleischmann's Yeast double-disc set is available in the gift shop of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens (as are the Ambassadors I always talk about). So if you live in the New York area, head out to the house (always a treat) and stock up!