Thursday, August 28, 2008

I Come From A Musical Family

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded April 28, 1936
Track Time 2:55
Written by Dave Franklin
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken, Louis Bacon, trumpets; Jimmy Archey, Snub Mosley, trombone; Henry Jones, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Bingie Madison, Greely Walton, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Originally released on Decca 797
Currently available on CD: Available on volume 2 of the Ambassador series. Check out for more information.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on Rhythm Saved The World

It’s been a while since I’ve examined one of Armstrong’s Decca big band records from the 30s and I really wish I could have had a better tune to discuss, but the Itunes shuffle hath spoken. “I Come From A Musical Family” was done at Armstrong’s seventh Decca session, six of which featured his new backup band, Luis Russell and His Orchestra. The 1935 sessions featured some bona fide great tunes: “Solitude,” “Red Sails In The Sunset,” “”Thanks a Million,” “I’m in the Mood For Love,” “You Are My Lucky Star” and others. Armstrong’s trumpet was in sparkling form, his voice was in its tenor prime and his personality remained a force of nature, especially on silly tunes like “La Cucaracha” and “Old Man Mose.”

Seeing that Armstrong could work wonders with just about any tune, producers at Decca practically began closing their eyes and picking music for Armstrong to record, regardless of the tune’s merit. In his previous recording session, Armstrong recorded a standard, Irving Berlin’s “I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket” (the subject of a blog of mine from March) as well as a lesser, but still fun, Kahn and Chaplin number, “Yes-Yes! My-My!”

But sometime after that session, Decca founder Jack Kapp must have lost a bet or something to composer Dave Franklin. Armstrong had already recorded one of Franklin’s best compositions, “I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music,” so Decca had Armstrong record two more in one day, “Somebody Stole My Break” and the subject of this entry, “I Come From A Musical Family.” Both have fun moments but are generally weak tunes about music. In doing some research, I haven’t found a single version of either one of these songs recorded by anyone else in the 1930s. Searching the ASCAP site for Franklin’s compositions, 164 titles came up. about 98% of which are unknown. Occasionally he hit the mark, as on “When My Dreamboat Comes Home” or “Anniversary Waltz” and he seems to have done some cartoon work for Warner Brothers, writing a song titled “Duck Dodgers and the Return of the 24 1/2 Century.” But mostly, he seemed to write unknown tunes with corny titles like “Charley Bop” and “Doggone I’ve Done It.” I love “Gabriel” and “Dreamboat,” but the two songs recorded by Armstrong that April day in 1936 definitely are on the lesser end of Franklin’s compositional talents.

And yet, and yet...

I’ve been killing “I Come From a Musical Family” since yesterday but man, Pops sure treats it like it’s Gershwin. He invests so much personality into the silly lyrics and in the end, picks up his horn for one of his finest solos of the period. Listen along and then I’ll give it a short analysis:

I Come From A Musical Family

From the opening notes, you can tell that this is one of those early Decca, nondescript arrangements, either a stock or something done by Luis Russell. This is before Chappie Willet started writing for the band, contributing some terrific arrangements along the way (many to be heard on the Fleischmann's set). Pops's Foster's bass pops nicely in the beginning, as well as in his breaks. Armstrong's voice is in its smooth tenor prime and he earnestly introduces the members of his musical family, singing with authority in the second half of the chorus. HIs scat break is a highlight, stating with a "splee" syllable that always remind me of later bop singers. All the breaks are pretty good, with tenor saxophonist Bingie Madison showing off a bit, and the other trumpeter (either Leonard Davis or Louis Bacon) sounds very nice.

The vocal concludes around the 1:40 mark and after a modulation, the band takes over for eight bars until--finally--Pops picks up his horn and the whole record comes alive. It's a crappy tune, but Pops gives it the gold treatment, opening very relaxed before getting bluesy in the second eight bars. He eventually heads into the upper register, playing with great command horn, but you ain't heard nothin' yet because the bridge is right around the corner.

Franklin's major-to-minor changes are the bridge are fairly attractive and they coax some very dramatic playing from Pops's horn. The whole bridge is a marvel, with much of it being improvised in triplet feel, a favorite device of Pops. He ends the bridge up high and it makes one wonder if he's going to go back down for the last eight and simply play the melody or if he's going to climb even higher and knock our socks off...

It's 1936 Pops, so what do you think!?

Pops ends the bridge with a high concert G and A but after taking a second off, opens the last eight bars with a gliss to a high C, holding it for dramatic effect. It's the kind of moment that still has the power to surprise me; and even when I know it's coming, it raises the hairs on my neck and makes me smile. Having hit the climax, Pops settles back down (how many trumpet players hit their climax and keep blowing on way past the point of no return?) with some lyrical, lower playing, setting up a patented Decca ending...well, sort of. Usually, Pops went up high for his endings, but here, he goes low, getting a bizarre, spooky, almost hollow tone to his trumpet. It's a lovely ending following such a dramatic trumpet solo, all performed on a pretty terrible piece of music. Pops could do it all...and often did!

S'all for now. I'm going to go back and show a YouTube video this weekend so until then, have a happy Labor Day weekend, hopefully finding time to celebrate with your family...musical or otherwise.

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