Tuesday, August 26, 2008

You're Driving Me Crazy

Louis Armstrong and His Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra
Recorded December 23, 1930
Track Time 3:11
Written by Walter Donaldson
Recorded in Los Angeles, CA
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; McClure Morris, Harold Scott, trumpet; Luther Craven, trombone; Les Hite, alto saxophone, conductor; Marvin Johnson, alto saxophone; Charlie Jones, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Henry Prince, piano; Bill Perkins, banjo; Joe Bailey, bass; Lionel Hampton, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41478
Currently available on CD: It’s on the recently reissued JSP two-disc set The Big Band Sides, 1930-1932. The alternate take in on an old Columbia disc Volume 7: You’re Driving Me Crazy.
Available on Itunes? Yes

The subject for today’s entry seems kind of appropriate since I’m sure I’ve driven some of my readers a little crazy by going nearly two weeks without a blog post. But that sermon on “Indiana” had a lot of meat in it and it really left me kind of spent, so I decided to let it linger a little while as I caught up on life. My agent called me two weeks ago and told me that an editor is finally very interested in my book on Armstrong’s later years. No deal has been made, but it’s the first blue cloud I’ve seen regarding the book in quite some time, so I’ve thrown myself back into that somewhat dormant project with gusto ever since I heard the news. Don’t start going to Amazon to pre-order copies, but if anything becomes official, I’ll announce it here.

I also had a quite a thrill last week when I participated in filming of a documentary about the life of Einar Swan, the composer of “When Your Lover Has Gone.” Swan was born in America but was of Finnish descent, something that raised the curiosity of Swedish jazz pianist Sven Bjerstedt. Sven, who also teaches at Lund University in Sweden, has been doing staggering research into Swan’s background for a few years, even writing a fascinating cover article for the January 2007 issue of “The Mississippi Rag.” Sven enlisted the help of Finland’s Benny Törnroos, an accomplished filmmaker and singer, to do a documentary not just on the life of Swan, but also the life of “When Your Lover Has Gone,” Swan’s one hit composition.

Last week, Sven, Benny and their assistant, Annika Brushane (a saxophonist with Finland’s “Ladies First” Big Band, playing everything from Glenn Miller to Gloria Gaynor - check ‘em out on YouTube!) visited New York City for a few days to do some filming, catching Vince Giordano at Sophia’s and even getting to interview Swan’s son Donald. I was honored when they contacted me to participate because of my marathon blog on “When Your Lover Has Gone” from earlier this year. We set it up to do my interview at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens. Naturally, I’ve been there many times but this time was different: because we were filming, we received permission to do some things that are not permitted on normal, everyday tours. The first part of the interview was done in the Armstrong’s living room, as Calvin Bailey’s famous Armstrong painting loomed over my shoulder:

But the biggest thrill of the day (and one of the biggest of my life) occurred during part two of the interview, when I was allowed to sit behind Pops’s desk in his den:

I wasn’t allowed to sit in Armstrong’s exact chair, as it’s understandably a historic artifact, but just being behind that desk, knowing the history of that room, was simply overwhelming. I’ve seen this photo of Louis and Lucille there a hundred times:

And now I was there, too, right smack dab in the middle of history:

The Louis Armstrong House Museum has become quite a tourist destination and it’s only going to get better when the new Visitor’s Center opens up across the street in 2010. If you’re heading to the City and you love Pops, do yourself a favor and make it to the Armstrong house...though be warned that you won’t be able to take flash photos, nor will you be able to sit behind Armstrong’s desk! Special thanks to Deslyn Dyer for making these dreams of mine come true, and for Sven, Benny and Annika for their generosity in letting me participate in their film. I don’t know if the film will ever come to America in some form, but it will be shown on Finnish television on December 29. I’ll post more details as I get them. Here’s one more photo of me and Sven outside the Armstrong House:

Now, before I dive into “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” one more quick bit of news: while in New Orleans, I mentioned that Michael Cogswell told me that the Historic Fleischmann’s Yeast set was finally available online here. Well, as of this week, it is now on Itunes and eMusic so for you MP3 aficionados out there, you may now commence downloading!

Now, onto the main event, “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” a Walter Donaldson composition from 1930 that has gone on to become an oft-recorded standard. Of course, Donaldson already had a bunch famous compositions to his credit: “Yes, Sir That’s My Baby,” “My Blue Heaven,” “Little White Lies,” “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” etc., so it should come as no surprise that “You’re Driving Me Crazy” is such a solid song, featuring a catchy melody, a terrific bridge, memorable words and suitable changes for improvising. A fine analysis of the song and Donaldson can be found by going to JazzStandards.com or by clicking here.

As Sandra Burlingame wrote in that online piece, the song was at first a hit for Guy Lombardo, with a vocal by Carmen Lombardo. Here it is:

Needless to say, it’s very much what you would expect: a crooning saxophone section plays the melody over a bouncy rhythmic feel (muted trumpets taking the bridge) before Guy’s brother, Carmen, does a bit of crooning himself. It’s pretty square from a jazz perspective but rhythmic bounce is suitable for dancing, the melody never leaves the foreground and the lyrics of the vocal are delivered earnestly by Carmen, utilizing clear diction. For a 1930 pop record, it’s pretty much everything one would expect...and everything the young Louis Armstrong loved to hear.

The fact that Armstrong loved Lombardo so much has sent jazz purists to consider suicide for decades, but he didn’t care what people like that thought. “They’re my inspirators,” he cheerily told Leonard Feather and anyone else who would listen. And when one sits down and really listens to those early Lombardo pop records, well, it’s almost exactly like listening to Armstrong’s big band OKeh records from the same period, give or take a musical genius. The swooning saxes, the two-beat rhythm, the pop songs; Armstrong ate the entire thing up, though he always made sure to “Satch-urate” the tunes with his mind-bending trumpet playing and enthusiastic vocalizing. I think if Armstrong could have physically fronted Lombardo’s band for his entire career, he would have been perfectly happy.

But when Armstrong recorded “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” he was fronting another band, that of alto saxophonist Les Hite’s. Armstrong waxed Donaldson’s tune during his lengthy California stay from July 1930 to June 1931. For more information how Armstrong got there, I’ll refer you to my June entry on “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy.”

Sloppy, lazy researchers usually condense Armstrong’s California story into something like this: Armstrong arrived at Frank Sebastian’s Cotton Club and began fronting Les Hite’s big band, featuring Lawrence Brown and Lionel Hampton. The end.

As I wrote about in the “Ding Dong Daddy” entry, Brown and Hampton (on drums) were contracted to play with any band that entered Sebastian’s Cotton Club in Culver City. When Armstrong arrived, they were playing with trumpeter Leon Elkins’s band and that’s the group, not Hite’s, that backed Armstrong on his classic summer of 1930 records such as “I’m Confessin,’” “Ding Dong Daddy” and “If I Could Be With You.” According to the California trumpeter George Orendorff (as reported in Jos Willems’s “All of Me”), Elkins grew ill after the summer sessions and gave up the band. Saxophonist Leon Herriford turned down the opportunity to take it over and soon, the band presumably fell apart.

That’s when Sebastian approached Les Hite to bring his band in to back Armstrong. Hite agreed, keeping Brown and Hampton on as per their contracts with the Cotton Club. However, soon after, Brown left the band when he refused to take part in a rehearsal to be held on a holiday on which he had already had plans to see his parents (Brown remembered it as Easter, which would be impossible, given the known chronology of events). Willems writes that Brown was “known for being in and out of the band” but the fact remains that on the rest of Armstrong’s California big band sessions with Hite, Luther Craven, and not Brown, plays trombone. Thus, the whole “Armstrong recorded with Hite, featuring Brown and Hampton” nonsense is just that...nonsense.

With the Hite band aboard, Armstrong kept churning out the hits, making each and every pop tune he was given into a bona fide jazz classic. There are no duds in the bunch: “Body and Soul,” “Memories of You,” “You’re Lucky To Me,” “Sweethearts on Parade,” “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” “The Peanut Vendor, “Just a Gigolo” and “Shine.” Those are the tunes Armstrong recorded with Hite from October 1930 through March 1931 and each and every one became fodder for many timeless jazz recordings.

By the time Armstrong got around to “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” it had already been recorded by a number of different artists. As usual, this is the part in the show where, if you’re strictly here for Armstrong, you can scroll down a bit. But I like hearing these other versions because it gives the tune some context, making Armstrong’s version sound that much more different and exciting.

We’ve already heard the Lombardo hit version and now, thanks to YouTube and the Red Hot Jazz Archive, here are some others. First up, Josephine Baker, with Johnny Dunn on trumpet. The Red Hot Jazz Archive claims it’s from July 1930, but that cannot be right since Lombardo had the hit with it and he didn’t get around to it until November 11. Of course, perhaps Baker did get to it first and just didn’t score with it, but I cannot say for certain. Donaldson’s tune had a great verse and Baker sings it in the middle of the record, a common practice in those days. Baker changes up the melody the second time around, not exactly swinging, but sort of half-speaking it, leading to some nice results. You can listen to it by clicking here.

November 1930 was the month “You’re Driving Me Crazy” exploded. The day after Lombardo recorded it, the Varsity Eight (another name for the California Ramblers) did a jazz version of it while just five days later, the great black band, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, recorded it with a vocal by Dave Wilbon, scatting away like a madman. This is some real hot stuff...dig the reharmonized “minor” version of the tune in the second chorus!
McKinney's Cotton Pickers

Yeah, man! That’s a damn good record, probably the finest pre-Armstrong version. But goodness knows, there were others. Nick Lucas, an incredibly popular crooner/guitarist, also recorded it in November 1930, scoring a sizeable hit with it. Lucas’s high-pitched vocal style is somewhat unintentionally hilarious, but hey, it was 1930 and this stuff was IT before Pops and Bing took over:
Nick Lucas

Lucas’s website claims that he was an influence on Eddie Lang but to my ears, at least judging by his short solo on this record, the only similarities between the two begins with the fact that they were Italian and ends with the fact that they played guitar. Lucas plays the melody in single notes, sounding like he’s reading it off the page. Not my favorite version, but definitely one of the most popular.

Also, in November, Lee Morse took a stab at it with her “Bluegrass Boys.” She, too, opens with the verse and sings in a style that isn’t quite as dated as some of the other stuff I’ve discussed, but her ending yodel-ish figures are kind of silly, though I believe they were her calling card. Give it a listen:
Lee Morse

On to YouTube, which has a few other versions of the tune presumably from the same period. Here’s one credited to “Lloyd Keating & His Music,” but is actually Columbia’s house band, the Ben Selvin Orchestra, with luminaries such as Benny Goodman, Mannie Klein, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang and Arthur Schutt in the band (Goodman sounds pretty hot in his short spots). The vocal is by Harold “Scrappy” Lambert and overall, it’s a pretty infectious dance version, complete with a modulation in the last chorus(once again, with the verse placed after the vocal). And please pay attention to the held notes in the final bridge, as well as the ending, two aspects that would be reprised in Armstrong’s record

Soon enough, the tune began spreading around the world. Here’s a very good, peppy version from the British bandleader Jack Payne and His BBC Dance Orchestra:

Here’s a French version from Mistinguett, the Queen of the French Music Hall, singing first in French before she makes her way through a chorus in English, backed by a male chorus that sounds like a leftover from an early Fats Waller record:

While still in France, dig this hot version by Ray Ventura and Son Orchestre, a nice Whiteman-esque combination of symphonic strings and swinging jazz. This is the first version I’ve encountered without a vocal and again, it features many touches included on the Armstrong record:

So, those are some foreign versions of the tune, which was still exploding in America in December 1930. The New York Twelve, a pseudonym for Harry Reser and His Orchestra, recorded this version for the “Hit of Week” label (the name says it all). It’s a pretty creative arrangement, too, completely different from all the others:

Aw hell, while I’m overdosing on the tune, check it out in the 1931 Bimbo cartoon “Silly Scandals,” another opus from the Max Fleischer studios. Some hot jazz studio musicians take a crack at it early on (who’s on the xylophone?) before the main performance of the tune, done by none other than Mae Questel as Betty Boop, still clinging slightly to her early “dog” phase:

And finally (finally? cue the applause!), let’s spin one last version, this one done by Rudy Vallee, giving us one final glimpse into the popular music world of late 1930, beginning with the string-heavy reading of the melody right down to Vallee’s charming, polite rendering of the lyrics:

Now, hopefully you all got that last one deeply stuck in your head...well, not too deep or otherwise you’d be sleeping right now. But it was pretty, calming and peaceful. Now, without another word, here’s Armstrong’s:

The whole damn thing shouts, “Wake up!!!” It’s a helluva fun record. Lionel Hampton’s on drums and he swings his ass off. I love his opening two tom hits, setting up Pops’s entrance, playing the pretty minor-keyed verse. Hampton goes nuts on his drums, prompting Pops to stop the record and indulge in a little hokum with the young legend. One can easily imagine routines like this one being performed on the Cotton Club stage:

Armstrong: “Hey, hey, what’s the matter with you cats? Don’t y’all know y’all are driving me crazy?”
Hampton: (Stuttering) “Uh-uh-uh-uh, Pops, we-we-we just muh-muh-muggin’ lightly.”
Armstrong: (Stutters badly) “Wuh-wuh-wuh, you, just, uh....oh, man, you got me talkin’ all that chop suey-like. Listen, you cats are all crazy. Why don’t you get your hand out the man’s pocket? Look out there, Satchelmouth! Step on it, now, let’s get together, watch it, boys, watch it! Look out, we’re gone...ONE! TWO!”

It’s a short bit, but it’s pretty funny. Hampton used to get so worked up playing drums behind Pops, that he would stutter, “Wo-wo-wo-wo-one more!” This was something that Armstrong always got a kick out of, impersonating it on the 1957 “Stompin’ At The Savoy” with Ella, as well as a 1970 appearance on “The Mike Douglas Show,” giving Hampton credit each time. So that was probably the genesis of the stuttering bit and it really shows off Pops’s comedic chops. His timing, his delivery, everything just demonstrates his natural talents as a comedian. And look at all that slang! Cats, muggin’ lightly, chop suey, Satchelmouth, we’re gone....basically teaching aspiring jazz musicians all across the country how to speak like a proper jazzman. Armstrong called Earl Hines “Pops” on the 1928 “Monday Date” record, but I think this has to be one of the first times Armstrong was referred to as “Pops” on one of his records.

With the comedic portion of the program out of the way, Hampton once again hits his tom twice, summoning Armstrong and the band to once again play the verse, this time with tremendous energy and authority, Hampton really kicking things along with his never-ending creative fills. The band takes over for the second half of the verse, getting Armstrong’s approval: “That’s more like it,” he intones in a proud voice. “Thatta boy...lightly, lightly, lightly.”

The “lightly’s” set up Armstrong vocal, which is a gas. He starts off fairly straight, changing the melody here and there but really not adding many Armstrong-isms...until the bridge. And what a bridge! Donaldson wrote a great one that’s kind of a tongue twister when sung at this tempo. Here are his lyrics:

How true, were the friends who were near me, to cheer me, believe me, they knew
But you, were the one who would hurt me, desert me when I needed you.

Here’s Armstrong’s bridge:

Oh baby! When you tell me bee-gee boot, bobby-doot, bolly-doot, buzzy, boy!
Mah-dee-dint, bahji-dat, bos-deeba-des (unintelligble) lay-oh-oh-uh!

Talk about a tongue twister! Armstrong just plows through it, not even alluding to the original lyrics, scatting in three-note clusters, all on one pitch, swinging like crazy. Feeling the spirit, he totally obliterates Donaldson’s written melody in the last eight bars, changing the notes dramatically, inserting a great “oh baby” and practically shouting the title phrase with a potent combination of insanity, menace and frivolity. When Rudy Vallee and Nick Lucas sung about being driven crazy, they sounded like push-overs, weakly and politely telling their respective girls that they don’t much appreciate how they were deserted. There’s nothing weak about Armstrong; he sounds alternately mad as hell at his girl, yet he’s practically exuberant to be singing about it in such a swinging setting.

And speaking of swinging, listen to Armstrong during Hite’s alto break: “Swing, swing,” he insists, somewhat ominously. This is December 1930, folks. Duke Ellington didn’t tell folks that it don’t meant a thing without any swing (I cleaned it up) until February 2, 1932. And sure, there were a couple of tunes from the 20s with “Swing” in the title, such as Jelly Roll Morton’s “Georgia Swing.” But this has to be the first concrete example on records of someone telling a soloist to swing, using the word as we use it today. And naturally it’s Pops, who members of the Fletcher Henderson band said practically invented the word when he came to New York in 1924. Also, during the famous 1933 clip of Armstrong in Denmark, he introduces “Tiger Rag” as one of the good ol’ “swing numbers.” Historians date the beginning of the Swing Era to Goodman at the Palomar in 1935, but Armstrong was already living in his own Swing Era for years prior...

Back to the record. Hite’s full-chorus solo is one of the happiest examples on an Armstrong record of this period of someone other than Pops taking such a long solo. Usually, that’s a signal to go out for coffee or to visit the bathroom, but you have to stick around for Hite’s solo because of Armstrong (naturally). He’s on fire, shouting the song’s title phrase, scatting, yelling out a terrific accent during the bridge and dropping phrases like “Oh you dog” and “Yessir!” He’s having the time of his life and wants to show it. This stuff would become commonplace on Fats Waller records (and even on Sidney Bechet’s early Victor recordings), but this has to be another early example of a recording artist breaking down the studio walls and treating the session like a live performance. Listening to Armstrong’s whoops and hollers is so exciting...and he hasn’t even picked up the horn yet!

He does with a modulating ascending break taken from the stock arrangement that I mentioned on a few of the earlier performances. He’s relaxed at first, in no hurry even though he only has one chorus to tell his story. In the second bar, he lets loose with some variations, floating over the swinging rhythm section. In the bridge, he holds a couple of high notes, something else taken from the stock, before a passionate final eight bars, featuring a slithering gliss. The band plays the short extended ending from the stock arrangement but Hampton’s drums give it a slightly exotic flavor, perhaps warming up for the next tune to be recorded that day, “The Peanut Vendor.”

Armstrong’s trumpet playing on “You’re Driving Me Crazy” is excellent but it’s not exactly groundbreaking. Earlier in the session, he recorded another tune made popular by the Lombardos, “Sweethearts on Parade,” and on that one, he blew a solo for the ages. But “You’re Driving Me Crazy” is a great illustration of the Armstrong personality in 1930 and I’m sure that was just as important to him and to his public as were the records that mainly featured his horn. I mean, it’s all there: the scatting, the slang, the singing, the trumpet, the shouting, “cats,” “oh you dog,” “Satchelmouth,” “lightly lightly lightly,” you name it. It’s Louis Armstrong the entertainer in all his glory and that’s something that cannot be denied.

Fortunately for us, a second take of “You’re Driving Me Crazy” managed to slip through the cracks, originally issued in Argentina. Give it a listen:

As you can hear, it’s very similar to the issued take, though the band sounds a little shakier in the opening reading of the verse. Armstrong and Hampton’s routine is similar but has some new twists, namely Armstrong using “Gatemouth” instead of “Satchelmouth” and referring to Hampton as “Gate” (Hamp would known as “Gates” for the rest of his life). Armstrong’s vocal follows the same pattern as the original but there are some new twists in the rhythms of the scatted bridge. Also, Armstrong doesn’t exude the same level of abandon as on the issued take, though he still has a ball behind Hite’s solo, once again commanding him to “swing” before going off on some scat journeys. Hite gets raunchy at times, growling a bit, but he also hits one or two slightly off notes. Armstrong’s trumpet solo is another gem, with some different chromatic runs, but overall, if I had to guess, it sounds like the alternate take was done first as Armstrong is just a bit more subdued throughout. Regardless, both versions are a joy.

And that was that for Louis Armstrong and “You’re Driving Me Crazy.” He isn’t known to have performed it again after the original versions (though it very well might have been part of the Cotton Club act until he left in March). Armstrong never even tackled “Moten Swing,” a “You’re Driving Me Crazy” contrafact recorded by Bennie Moten in 1932 and a standard in its own right. But at least we have these two takes, capturing the effervescent young Pops in all his glory, unable to contain his infectious enthusiasm, swinging like mad throughout. Great stuff.

That’s all for today and tomorrow, I’ll be spending the day at the Institute of Jazz Studies. But don’t fret, I won’t disappear for two weeks again. I’ve already written my next entry on “Sugar,” which I’ll post on Thursday and I should have something on “I Come From A Musical Family” by Friday or Saturday.

Oh, and this just in...fellow Armstrong nut Al Pomerantz was part of the Satchmo Summerfest gang in New Orleans (and he even made it to Birdland a few weeks ago to catch David Ostwald) and he e -mailed me the following photo from the last morning in New Orleans. From left to right, you’ll see Jon Pult, the man behind all the festival’s seminars (and the man who gave me a shot), George Avakian, Dan Morgenstern, Jon’s wife Molly, yours truly and my wife Margaret, pregnant in the photo...though we didn’t know it yet! ‘Twas a dream....

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