Monday, September 29, 2008

Autumn in New York

Ella and Louis Again
Recorded July 23, 1957
Track Time 5:58
Written by Vernon Duke
Recorded in Los Angeles, CA
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ella Fitzgerald, vocal; Oscar Peterson, piano; Herb Ellis, guitar; Ray Brown, bass; Louie Bellson, drums
Originally released on Verve EPV 5049
Currently available on CD: It’s on Ella and Louis Again and probably two dozen Verve compilations
Available on Itunes? Yes

I finally started doing the prep-work for my long-promised "Royal Garden Blues" entry, but I'm still not sure exactly when I'll have time to write it. However, not wanting to go too long with posting something, I thought the subject matter for today's entry was a no-brainer. Last week was the beginning of fall. New York City is the greatest place in the world. And I love Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald so much, my first kid is going share one of their names, depending on the gender. Throw in one of Vernon Duke's most enduring compositions with "Autumn in New York" and you can't lose.

It's the kind of recording even someone as wordy as me can't really say much about. Ella never sounded more beautiful, her voice shimmering with the sound of love. And Pops...well, what can I say? He sings a lesser-known verse and hits it out of the park with his phrasing. Then he picks up the horn and well, here come the waterworks. (And if you can't appreciate Oscar Peterson's backing, you're simply biased.) In the end, Ella's straight singing intertwines with Armstrong's wordless scatting and the results are sublime. Arranger Russ Garcia, who oversaw Ella and Louis's Porgy and Bess just one month later, recently told Marc Myers of JazzWax, "Louis annoyed her a little bit. When she was singing a beautiful passage, he'd come in with his growling. [laughs] She'd shoot him a sharp look and go on. It would throw her for a second. But it came off beautifully. Some people call that album 'Whipped Cream and Sandpaper.' [laughs]" Works for me!

Here's a YouTube video someone made featuring this performance over some beautiful pictures of the City (with some lazy repetition along the way...and how did Richard Gere get in there???). I haven't been to New York in five whole days and this makes me yearn for it badly. Enjoy...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

I'm In The Market For You

Louis Armstrong and His Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra
Recorded July 21, 1930
Track Time 3:19
Written by Joseph McCarthy and James F. Hanley
Recorded in Los Angeles, CA
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leon Elkins, trumpet, conductor; Unknown, trumpet; Lawrence Brown, trombone; Leon Herriford, Willie Stark, alto saxophone; William Franz, trombone; L.Z. Cooper, piano; Ceele Burke, steel guitar; Reggie Jones, tuba; Lionel Hampton, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41442
Currently available on CD: It’s on the recently reissued JSP two-disc set The Big Band Sides, 1930-1932, as well as about a hundred other discs
Available on Itunes? Yes

Today’s entry will be dedicated to Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, AIG, Lehman Brothers and all the other suspects involved in creating this economic crisis we’re currently suffering through: “I’m in the Market for You.”

I was going to spin the ol’ Itunes shuffle today and write about something fresh but while riding back from New York last night, this track came on my Ipod and I figured there would never be a better time to give this Armstrong classic an in-depth, Capitol Hill-like interrogation.

In 1929, the stock market was riding high and all of America was prospering. So Fox decided to make a film to capitalize on the Wall Street phenomenon in America. The film was High Society Blues and though I’ve never seen it, I did find this synopsis of it on the Turner Classic Movies website:

“After selling his business in Iowa, Eli Granger and his family move to an exclusive Scarsdale area in New York, where by chance he occupies a house adjacent to Horace Divine, a wealthy businessman with whom he made his business transaction. Although the Divines scorn their nouveaux riches neighbors, the children, Eleanor Divine and Eddie Granger, meet when Eleanor aspires to learn to play the ukelele under Eddie's tuition. Eleanor's mother is arranging to marry her to a foreign count, but she falls in love with Eddie; and while their fathers are warring on Wall Street, the children elope and in the end bring peace and prosperity to both families.”

Now doesn’t that sound like a happy film? Edwin M. Bradley described it as a “silly mix of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’” in his book The First Hollywood Musicals. Unfortunately, while filming it, Wall Street laid its famous egg in October 1929. Somehow, they continued onward with the filming, releasing it to mediocre reviews in March 1930. Star Janet Gaynor “hated” the film and let it be known that she couldn’t sing and didn’t want to appear in musicals. The film disappeared and has never been released on DVD or even VHS, as far as I can tell.

Because it was a musical, the film naturally featured a few new songs, everyone of which is forgotten except for “I’m in the Market for You,” which must go down as having one of the most ironic meaning changes in the history of music. The publishers of “I’m in the Market for You” deserved a helluva lot of money in their Christmas bonuses for even having the nerve to push this song and get it recorded by so many popular artists. But that’s just what happened in 1930. Sheet music was even published with the stars of the film, Gaynor and Charles Farrell, on the cover, as can be seen in this poor quality image:

From a recording standpoint, the biggest hit was done on Victor by George Olsen complete with a vocal by one of Olsen’s saxophonists, Fred McMurray! Dig it:

I’ll never look at Walter Neff the same way again! That’s some cheery stuff, a nice happy love song comparing found love to the recently-plummeted stock market. In case you couldn’t make them out, here are the original lyrics:

I'll have to see my broker
Find out what he can do.
'Cause I'm in the market for you.
There won't be any joker,
With margin I'm all through.
'Cause I want you outright it's true.
You're going up, up, up in my estimation.
I want a thousand shares of your caresses too.
We'll count the hugs and kisses,
When dividends are due,
'Cause I'm in the market for you.

Charming, huh? I don't even know if many in the population could even afford shares of caressing back then (I think they're still available on the NYSE, though, listed as CRS for about 86 cents a share). Olsen had the hit record but naturally he wasn’t the only one to take a crack at it. The song crossed the pond for this very nice version by the popular British dance band Ambrose and His Orchestra, featuring trumpet by Sylvester Ahola and clarinet by Danny Polo to keep the early jazz enthusiasts in the crowd enthused. According to the knowledgeable YouTube commentators, the tenor solo is by Joe Jeannette and Eric Siday plays the violin at the end of this hot Lew Stone arrangement. Enjoy!

I rather like that one myself (please pronounce “rather” in a terrible British accent to get the full effect). Here’s the Cunard Dance Band, which, according to the web, might be a pseudonym for the California Ramblers, though I can’t prove it. The trumpet/accordion dialogue is interesting. But for Armstrong purposes, please listen to the vocal, especially the touch of falsetto at the end. This is how we sang before Pops, people!

So with that out of the way, let’s turn to Pops. This was the second tune recorded on the same session with Vernon Elkins’s band that also begat “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy (From Dumas).” For the official particulars on the band and Armstrong himself during this California period, please check out that entry, posted in June. Hell, while you’re at it, listen to “Ding Dong Daddy” to see just what kind of shape he was in that summer day. And with the fireworks of that tune finally over, it was time for “I’m in the Market for You.”’ Listen along by clicking
As can be heard, the tempo is slower than any of the other previous versions, but it’s not quite a ballad, as some others later treated it (Earl Hines recorded a version that barely has a tempo). The very first sound of the record is a steel guitar--quick, someone get Gunther Schuller off that ledge! Ceele Burke, a California mainstay, is the plectrist in question and though he also played regular guitar and banjo (as he did on “Ding Dong Daddy”), he is best known in early jazz circles for the steel guitar contributions he made to various Armstrong records of the period as well as making a few sessions with the likes of Duke Ellington (“Lazy Man’s Shuffle”) and Fats Waller (“Am I in Another World?”) records in the 30s.

There’s a lot going on in the beginning of this record and though it might seem a little sloppy, the combination of the bouncy tuba, Lionel Hampton’s swinging drums, Burke’s steel guitar arpeggios and some static harmonies from the horns is very atmospheric. The melody is tailor-made for Armstrong and he dispenses with any formalities by playing it an octave higher right off the bat, nailing a high concert D before playing a singing high Eb, one of the highest notes of his range (he hit a high F at the end of “You’re Lucky to Me” in this period...but barely). After four bars of mystifying melody, he plays a favorite chromatic phrase of his that would be used for years by Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as a host of other trumpeters (Jon-Erik Kellso used it last night at Birdland).
The record is 14 seconds old and already, it’s a classic. To prove he was feeling good, Armstrong doesn’t change a note of the melody in the second eight bars, once again hitting the high D and Eb without any trouble. The bridge is beautifully played the by the young Lawrence Brown, his light, singing tone already something to marvel at. Maybe I’m nuts, but I like Burke’s guitar peaking through the cracks. The Elkins reed section takes the last eight and though it’s not exactly a Benny Carter group, they don’t hurt anyone.
After a short piano interlude, Armstrong contributes one of his most touching vocals of the period. Just minutes earlier, he was scatting like a madman on “Ding Dong Daddy” but he is much more sober here, even charming with his asides such as “oh, you sweet little you.” Again, go back and watch those YouTube videos. Those singers represented American popular singing before Bing and Pops got through with it. I mean, there’s nothing on those records that remotely sounds like anything Armstrong was doing. Just listen to how he rephrases the “Margin I’m all through line,” not even really finishing it, but still conveying all the necessary emotion. He physically forces the rhythm section to swing more just by the way he enters the bridge. And though there’s no sane reason to repeat “dividends are do,” he does just that and the effect is lovely. I think it says a lot that just a few short years later, there would be nothing on records that sounded remotely like those falsetto band singers.
Knowing that Brown was one of the strongpoints of the band, the trombonist, Brown follows the vocal with 16 bars of gorgeous improvising that, to my ears, are just as much a part of this song as the written melody. Every note is perfectly placed and there’s even a little tribute to Armstrong with Brown’s phrase at the end of his first eight bars. Then Burke comes up and gets his innings and I think it’s a winner. Yeah, it’s a novelty of sorts, but it would have fit into a country record just fine and clearly, Burke’s comfortable with the blues, too.

Armstrong enters on a perfectly poised break, taking it from the bridge and sounding very relaxed., though Hamp’s pushing him hard with those drum accents. Knowing a good thing when he’s got it, Armstrong spends the final 16 bars of the record once again playing the melody fairly straight, rephrasing it sparingly but absolutely killing the high D and Eb at the end. A very sweet record.

Armstrong never recorded the tune again, which is one of my biggest regrets. Could you imagine if he had tackled this one on the Autobiography session? He probably would have slowed it a tad and he would played the high notes even more dramatically, with more raw power than he did as a younger man. Oh well, at least we have the original and if there’s anything that can get us through the turmoil of this economic crisis, it’s Pops.


Birdland was a “gassuh” last night, as usual. David Ostwald’s band was tremendous as usual, with only two holdovers from the last time I was there two weeks ago: Jon-Erik Kellso and the stride monster Ahud Esherie (in addition to the leader on tuba, who naturally is always there). Dion Tucker was aboard on trombone, Kevin Dorn was on drums and the always scintillating Anat Cohen was on clarinet. Seriously, is there a finer clarinetist in the country today? She never makes a wrong move. Positively incredible playing, especially on her feature of “Shreveport Stomp.” Other tunes performed: “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby,” “Star Dust,” “Melancholy Blues,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Limehouse Blues” and others that I know I’m forgetting. In the audience, I finally got to meet my fellow Armstrong biographer Terry Teachout, who was a delight. George Avakian stopped by to congratulate me on the book deal, which was really very nice. Also, the great Michael Steinman of the “Jazz Lives” blog was in the house, as was
Armstrong nut Al Pomerantz, my good friend Mark Ipri and the man who made the whole book thing agent Tony Outhwaite! I’m sure I’ll be back in October but even if I’m not, please drop by at Birdland some Wednesday because the music is always great and at a $10 cover charge, it’s a bargain. And as Ostwald himself said, all of money goes to needy families: those of the band members.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Louis Armstrong...On HBO?

The great Terry Teachout sent me this link literally two minutes ago and I wanted to share it immediately:

Charles S. Dutton is Developing a 6 Hour Louis Armstrong Mini Series at HBO with Quincy Jones

Crazy, huh? I'm glad to hear it'll be six hours because as Dutton says, a two-hour movie would be superfluous unless it only focused one period of his life. And HBO will be a perfect fit, seeing how great their miniseries's have always been (John Adams just cleaned up at the Emmys). So between Terry's Armstrong book in 2009, mine in 2010 and this one probably airing in 2011, the future looks great for Pops (though I sure hope Dutton's screenwriter Jon Sayles wait's for Terry's book or even reads this blog because I don't want to see nothing based on flawed works like Collier or Bergreen!).

S'all for now.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Skokiaan (South African Song)

Louis Armstrong With Sy Oliver’s Orchestra
Recorded August 13, 1954
Track Time 4:59
Written by August Musarurwa
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Omer Simeon, soprano saxophone; Charlie Shavers, Taft Jordan, Abdul Salaam [William “Chiefie” Scott], trumpets; Al Cobbs Elmer Crumley, Paul Seiden, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Dave Martin, piano; Danny Barker, banjo; Arvell Shaw, bass; Barrett Deems, drums; Sy Oliver, arranger, conductor
Originally released on Decca 29256
Currently available on CD: Both parts, with the vocal, are available on Louis Armstrong: All-Time Greatest Hits. A shorter version, with the vocal edited out can be found on the compilation I Love Jazz.
Available on Itunes? Ditto.

It’s been one-week since I learned about my book deal with Pantheon and I still haven’t come off of cloud nine yet. Again, I hope you’ll understand if I go short bursts of time without posting something...and when I do post something they might very well be slightly shorter than the lengthy dissertations I’m known for. However, I’ll continue to go forward, hitting on a good one today with “Skokiian.” This is a perfect song to match the mood I’ve been in all week as it is one of the most infectiously joyous Armstrong records of any decade.

On a personal note, the first time I heard “Skokiaan” many moons ago, I was underwhelmed. Somehow, I managed to overlook Pops’s powerhouse trumpet playing and instead I focused on the silly vocal. This is pure novelty stuff and though Pops sounds like he’s having a good time, I can only imagine what was really going through his head as just one month to the day previously, he was laying down the tracks for the immortal Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy sessions for Columbia. That date was overseen by George Avakian, who was interested in making timeless recordings. Over at Decca, they were still obsessed with having Armstrong record the latest hits. Thus, while Columbia was working wonders by combing the talent of Armstrong with the songs of Handy and Fats Waller, Decca was having Armstrong covering the likes of “Skokiaan,” “Sincerely,” “Ko Ko Mo” and “Moments to Remember.” Pops managed to contribute something worthy to all these records but overall, Columbia was kicking Decca’s ass.

As far as the song itself, “Skokiaan” has remained tremendously popular to this day, especially in world music circles. The always-reliable Wikipedia has a lengthy entry on the history of the tune which is pretty interesting if it’s accurate (one mistake: it mentions that Johnny Hodges recorded it with Erroll Garner; Hodges did indeed record it but with Richard Powell on piano, not Garner!). It was written by Zimbabewean musician August Musarurwa and recorded in South Africa in 1954. Thanks to the glory of YouTube, here’s the original African version, released by the Bulawayo Sweet Rhythms Band, featuring Musarurwa on soprano saxophone:

So there it is. It is pretty irresistible, even if the trumpeter is kind of sad. Almost immediately, at least 18 different versions of the tune were cut in the United States, many becoming hits in the process (it was the number two most popular song of that year according to Cash Box). Again, thank you YouTube for the following...

Ralph Marterie apparently had a hit with this version, also done for Decca:

Bill Haley & The Comets, on top of the world with “Rock Around the Clock” (recorded for Decca), managed to find time to cut an instrumental of the tune:

Lyrics were soon written for the tune by an American named Tom Glazer. These lyrics drive me nuts (Richard Corliss described them as “ethnographic condescension”), but they provided a hit record for The Four Lads:

Naturally, I could go on but I’ll quit while I’m ahead and instead focus on Armstrong’s version. This must have been a fun session for Pops because, in addition to his regular All Stars (only Trummy Young and Billy Kyle weren’t present), Armstrong was surrounded by two of his greatest disciples, Charlie Shavers and Taft Jordan, as well as two New Orleans homeboys, Danny Barker and, playing the role of Musarurwa, Omer Simeon. Oliver’s arrangement stays very close to Musarurwa’s but Armstrong is quite an improvement over the African trumpet player on the original record. Oliver follows all the three-against-four tricky rhythmic patterns of the original and Armstrong burns through it all impressively. There are very few examples of Armstrong reading an arrangement in his later years but he absolutely nails the intricate rhythms of this one. And when he improvises, the amount of raw power in his playing is freakish.

Decca originally released the record as two parts, spread across one 78. The first part was instrumental while the second part modulated for the silly vocal and some more feats of trumpet playing strength at the end. Without further ado, here’s another YouTube video of a fella playing the Decca record on a 78 player, even taking time to switch sides as one must have had to do in 1954. Enjoy!

Yeah man, that always puts me in a good mood. Again, the vocal is kind of a waste of time but Christ, his trumpet is on fire, especially when drummer Barrett Deems enters his Gene Krupatron 2000 machine for some impassioned tom-tom playing. Almost like “The Peanut Vendor,” Armstrong is allowed to float over the repetitious chord changes, taking his time and completely swinging across the bar lines. So relaxed, yet it still manages to shake your soul.

I know the sound quality is a bit rough on that clip, but here’s some good news: Decca released an edited version without any vocal. THIS, to me, is a killer version of “Skokiaan” from start to finish. I’ve uploaded it here so give it a listen:

So yeah, maybe it’s no W.C. Handy album, but it’s a helluva lot of fun. What’s wrong with jazz that simply puts you in a good mood? Nothing, I say, and it’s hard to be in a bad mood after hearing Pops play “Skokiaan.”

I hope to back by the end of the week with another posting but as I wrote last week, I’ll be at Birdland this Wednesday to catch David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band. The music’s always great and I know a lot of people who will be there (including my agent who sealed the deal) so it’ll be a real happy atmosphere. If you’re in the New York area, stop by at 5:15 and say hello! Til next time...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

It's Official!

Well, as the title of this posting says, it's official! As of today, I have a book deal with Pantheon to publish my work on Louis Armstrong's later years! You could say I've been researching the book since I bought my first Armstrong disc at the age of 15. I've officially been writing it since it began as my thesis when I went for my Master's in Jazz History and Research at Rutgers a few years back and, with the help of my fearless agent Tony, we began sending proposals out two years ago. After a solid year of nothing but rejections, I grew pretty discouraged. Needing some outlet to get my thoughts on Pops out, I started this blog last summer. The blogging life doesn't exactly pay but that never stopped me from devoting hours to analyzing things like every surviving Armstrong version of "Indiana." Thus, instead of money, I was paid with new relationships and friendships with other Armstrong nuts from around the world. Their insights and generous offerings turned my book into something different and completely exciting and it always felt good to know how many people out there love Pops as I do.

Finally, though, I'll be able to get some of my research out in book form, a life-long goal. And the Pantheon people are terrific (hey, they put out Dan Morgenstern's book and that's good enough for me!). My finished manuscript is due in October 2009 and the final product should (hopefully) be out at the end of 2010. Of course, I'll continue the blog until then. I've never exactly been the greatest in terms of regular posting and that trend, alas, is probably going to remain unchanged. And of course, with the baby due in April...ay yi yi, it's going to be crazy. But I'll still continue to post frequently because I love the nature of the blog. It allows me to be silly, it allows me to go into graphic details on little things and it allows instant feedback from you, my loyal readers. The book is going to be pretty thorough, but obviously not as crazy with the details as the blog. Thus, even when the book comes out, I'll tie it in to the blog. Say I only have room to write one paragraph on a certain song in the book. I'll make sure to blog about such a song in a little more detail, complete with sound samples, so you can read the book and listen to the music on the blog for the ultimate Pops experience.

But that's obviously a long ways away. For now, it's back to celebrating with the wife and hopefully, I'll be able to get another post out by the end of the week (looks like "Skokiaan" but I also want to do something "Indiana"-like on "Royal Garden Blues"). Thanks, as always, for your interest and always feel free to write me at

And now, to celebrate, Pops, Edmond Hall and Trummy Young tearing "Muskrat Ramble" to pieces in 1958. Enjoy!

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Peanut Vendor

Louis Armstrong and His Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra
Recorded December 23, 1930
Track Time 3:35
Written by Moises Simon and Marion Sunshine
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, percussion; Bill Perkins, guitar; 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 ol’ Itunes shuffle must have a thing for Armstrong’s California recordings of 1930. After “Ding Dong Daddy” in June and “You’re Driving Me Crazy” in August, it landed on “The Peanut Vendor,” a song recorded the same day as “You’re Driving Me Crazy.” That session also led off with one of Armstrong’s most unbeatable recordings, “Sweethearts on Parade,” making it possible for some to have either forgotten or denigrated Armstrong’s other offerings of that day. True enough, “The Peanut Vendor” doesn’t hold a candle to “Sweethearts on Parade” if you’re looking for mind-bending trumpet playing that changed the course of musical history for good. But that’s not an excuse to crap all over “The Peanut Vendor,” which is what Gunther Schuller did in The Swing Era. I quote:

“But on ‘Peanut Vendor,’ recorded the same session [as ‘Sweethearts on Parade’], even Armstrong gives up. He evidently felt he could add nothing to this tune (which has no changes, being a one-chord G major piece) other than a muted theme statement, which almost anybody could have played, and a scatty vocal with pseudo-Mexican allusions (although he keeps saying ‘Spanish, Spanish’). It is an interminable song, and very likely there was no time for a full-fledged Armstrong solo; or else he felt he could not function against the background of sloppily, stiffly played castantets and horrendously out-of-tune guitar strumming.”

Yeah, that’s it. I can see it now...

“Hey, Pops, you going to take a solo on this one?” “No, Gates, I’m giving up. It’s only got one chord and I refuse to play my trumpet if Prince is going to beat them castanets so stiffly. Let me just say, ‘Spanish, Spanish’ for a few minutes and I’ll go back to my life as a tortured genius forced to record drivel. Oh how I've failed my talent. Ready, boys? 1..2...”

Before I get carried away, a word or two about the song, known as the first Cuban number to really become a popular hit in the United States. Already popular in Cuba as “El Manisero,” it had an English lyrics written for it and was recorded by a slew of bands, including the California Ramblers, in late 1930 and 1931. The hit version was done by Don Azpiazu and his Havana Casino Orchestra and soon enough, the song was even being performed in films such as 1931’s The Cuban Love Song. Sadly, the one website offering free streaming audio of Azpiazu’s version isn’t working and I couldn’t find any other significant early or The Red Hot Jazz Archive. But a little digging on YouTube turned up a couple of fascinating early filmed documents of the tune. First, a short film apparently done in Astoria in 1930 of Don Azpiazu’s band, showing how the music travelled from Cuba to Amera. Azpiazu does a number of songs, including “Adela” and “Siboney” but at the 3:06 mark you’ll hear (and see) the earliest, most popular interpretation of “The Peanut Vendor,” vocal by Antonio Machin:

Great stuff! And some very hot muted trumpet playing, too, by the unknown Cuban trumpeter. Machin sells the song well; in fact, there’s another YouTube video of him still singing it on what looks like a 1950s television show. And did you notice the credits? The official name of the short is “New Rhythm” with a subtitle that states “A New Influence In American Jazz.” It’s true that the Latin Jazz movement probably got its start right here with “The Peanut Vendor” (unless you count Jelly Roll’s “Spanish tinge”) and it only makes sense for Armstrong to be at the forefront of yet another historical movement.

But before we get there, here’s something for those who like their nightmares to come alive! Check out this experimental animation film from 1933, done by Len Lye, with an unknown version of the tune sung with its English lyrics:

Crazy, huh? So “The Peanut Vendor” was everywhere in the early 30s, meaning that like many of the tunes of the day, it had to end up at Armstrong’s doorstep eventually. I’ve written about Armstrong’s California sojourn at length before, including detailed explanations of the bands he played with (Leon Elkins’s and Les Hite’s). Armstrong was paired with Lionel Hampton’s drums on his California recordings and it was a match made in heaven. At the time of this December session, Armstrong was riding high out west, though he was derailed a bit in early December when he busted for smoking marijuana with the white drummer Vic Berton, a story that made national headlines in the black newspapers. But that must have been all behind him at the time of this session as he sounds as free-wheeling and vivacious as ever before.

So without further ado, you can listen to “The Peanut Vendor” by clicking here

There’s really not a lot to say about the record, but I don’t think it’s as bad as Schuller makes it. If you’re looking for something revolutionary, look elsewhere. But the band does okay with the Latin vamp and Pops imbues the melody with his special muted sound. He barely improvises a note, but his phrasing is very pure and pretty. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get to take off at all as alto saxophonist Hite, who already was featured on both “Sweethearts on Parade” and “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” takes the ball from Armstrong and holds it for a little too long. It would make a nice contrast on a typical dance band record but on an Armstrong disc, you can’t help but want a little more trumpet.

At the two-minute mark, Armstrong begins singing, though I think he sings “Marie” and instead of the original “Mani.” What’s a lot of fun is Armstrong more or less eschews the English lyrics, instead choosing to turn in some out-of-sight scatting. He gets a line or two in but really, he sounds like he’s having a ball with that stick-in-your-head main melody line. The funniest part is the one Schuller frowns upon, when Armstrong attempts to add a little Spanish flavor into his vocal by simply singing the word “Spanish!” It makes me laugh every time and I think that’s the point (as we’ll see in a minute).

The arguable highlight, though, is when Armstrong starts shouting “Spanish” in swingtime before some more daring scatting, tearing it up in such a way that years later, the New Orleans trumpet player DeDe Pierce would play Armstrong’s descending scat line as part of his trumpet solos in his many recordings of the piece. It’s a lot of fun but soon, Armstrong regains his composure and “Marie’s” his way out of the piece.

As already written, Schuller views “The Peanut Vendor” with contempt but clearly, it must have been a popular Armstrong record. How popular? Here it is again on a 1943 Jubilee broadcast, 13 years later but performed almost exactly like the original record. Listen for yourself:

Armstrong’s foil on the performance is trombonist George Washington and he gets in some good lines. The song remained popular in the 1930s (Cary Grant even sang it in 1939’s Only Angels Have Wings--check it out on YouTube) and I’m sure Pops enjoyed keeping it in the repertoire. The band is much better at the Latin feel than the original version, sounding very slick. Armstrong, again, chooses not to improvise but his way with the melody is quite beautiful. Instead of the lone figure of Les Hite, the entire reed section takes the next strain of the melody, though in the background, you can hear Pops and the audience whooping it up. Clearly someone in the band (possibly Washington) was doing some wild dancing as Pops says, “You can break your neck doing that, boy” when he approaches the microphone. Armstrong’s tenor voice sounds very appealing on the “Marie’s” and just as on the original, he gets a word or two of English in before going off on another scat-filled journey. The band sounds like they’re loving it and even Pops is having fun, alerting them to “Dig this” when he begins another strain.

Again, Pops utters a “Spanish,” which Schuller viewed as kind of dumb, but Washington plays it up with a bro
ad reaction, proving that all along, Armstrong knew he’d get laughs from it (musicologists are a tough crowd). Washington demands they return to Harlem and Pops responds with some hilariously scatting, reprising the spiraling scatting of the original. The audience cracks up and I always do the same. Armstrong’s final “Marie” is beautiful, before the band ends with a typical “cha-cha-cha” ending. Fun stuff.

So, with all apologies to Gunther Schuller, “The Peanut Vendor” is an important song in the Armstrong discography as it marked Pops’s stamp of approval on the burgeoning Latin Jazz movement. Yes, the trumpet playing is skimpy and the band is shaky but the vocal is a lot of fun and the record was obviously popular enough to stay in the repertoire into the 1940s. It’s still Pops, so you know it’s good!

That’s all for this one. In other news, Birdland was a trip last week as David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band tore it up with Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, Joe Muranyi on clarinet, Ehud Asherie on piano and Marion Felder on drums. In the second set, the great New Orleans clarinetist Evan Christopher sat in, generating some fierce heat on a version of “Atlanta Blues” that positively cooked. Ostwald and his crew won’t be at Birdland this week but they’ll be back on the 24th and I’ll be there once again. Til next time!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Terrible Blues

The Red Onion Jazz Babies
Recorded November 26, 1924
Track Time 2:43
Written By Clarence Williams
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, cornet; Aaron Thompson, trombone; Buster Bailey, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Buddy Christian, banjo
Originally released on Gennett 5607
Currently available on CD: It’s on the first volume of Integrale’s Complete Louis Armstrong series, as well as the old Milestone collection, Louis Armstrong and King Oliver (though it’s in the wrong key on that one)
Available on Itunes? Yes, on Louis Armstrong and King Oliver

Time to reach way back to 1924 for one of the many studio sessions Armstrong made while a member of the Fletch Henderson Orchestra in New York City. Many small group dates Armstrong participated in featured vocalists but for this November session, two instrumentals were waxed, the subject of today’s entry and “Santa Claus Blues.” The group was billed as the Red Onion Jazz Babies...oh, how I love early jazz band names! The Original Dixieland Jazz Band? Too self-explanatory. The Creole Band? Boring! But just a short while later, here comes records by Spike’s Seven Pods of Pepper, the Red Onion Jazz Babies, Jelly Roll’s Red Hot Peppers, Bechet’s New Orleans Feetwarmers...ah, those were the days (and in the case of the first three I listed, they actually make me kind of hungry). Would history have changed if the Beatles instead decided to call themselves The Liverpool Feetwarmers? The mind boggles....

Anyway, I digress (not the first time, won’t be the last). Armstrong made a few different sessions under the Red Onion Jazz Babies label, each with varying personnel, some discs pairing Armstrong with Sidney Bechet for some intense sparring. For “Terrible Blues,” Armstrong was joined by some regular associates in the Clarence Williams circle, having already made dates with trombonist Aaron Thompson and banjoist Buddy Christian. Buster Bailey, of course, was an Armstrong associate from the King Oliver days and was currently playing alongside Armstrong in the Henderson band at the time of the session. On piano, Armstrong’s recent wife Lil sat in. So now that you know the official particulars, you can listen to “Terrible Blues” by clicking here.

And there it is. Not exactly a classic of classics but a very good example of some jazzed-up blues circa 1924. After a melody statement by Armstrong, Bailey takes over, backed by intense pounding from Lil’s piano and Christian’s banjo. Then it’s back to the ensemble, Armstrong content to play stately lead, nothing too flashy.

But, ah! There it is, around the 1:25 mark. Armstrong takes a down-home solo that might sound familiar because it became one of favorites. Not one of his favorite licks or favorite quotes but a favorite solo. On the 1938 Martin Block broadcast with Fats Waller and Jack Teagarden, Armstrong played it verbatim on the improvised blues performed that day (sometimes known as “In the Crack”). And, more famously, on Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy--30 years later--Armstrong again played it in the same note-for-note fashion in the chorus after Velma Middleton’s first vocal on “St. Louis Blues.” Clearly, he worked on it and liked it to keep it afloat for a number of decades (and who knows how many times he performed it live and away from microphones?). It’s a terrific blues solo, the kind that makes you yell “Yeah” after Armstrong’s entrance.

Then it’s off to a little arranged passage, allowing Bailey to take a short break or two. They repeat this segment in the next chorus with Armstrong taking the breaks, again not offering anything revolutionary (which is why this track is probably not one of his best known) but his second break is steeped in the blues and brilliantly executed. And dig that pure-1920’s finish, ending a a 12-bar-blues in the key of G with a minor third Bb. And that’s that for “Terrible Blues”...nothing terrible about it, especially with that righteous Pops solo.

In other news, thanks to those who sent in their birthday greetings. I had a great number 28, receiving the two new Mosaic Records box sets (Lester Young with Count Basie and Oscar Peterson) and more gift certificates to Amazon and such than I know what to do with (though I quickly figured it out). I alluded the other day that a possible trip to Birdland could take place tonight and as I write this at 7:13 in the morning, I’m 95% on for that trip. However, with a pregnant wife at home, she can easily feel terrible and need me to stay so I can’t exactly promise anything, but as of now, I have her blessing. I spoke with David Ostwald last night and tonight will be a good one Jon-Erik Kellso playing trumpet, Vincent Gardner on trombone and the one and only Joe Muranyi on clarinet. $10 gets you in and the show starts at 5:30 (I’ll probably be there at five).

And also, yesterday I had a request to post audio of Armstrong’s 1967 version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” I had written about the performance in November so I reposted it, now new and improved with some audio clips. Since I did that one last night and I’m posting this one just 12 hours later, you might miss it. It should be directly below this post...enjoy!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Tenderly/You'll Never Walk Alone - Updated

Hello all and welcome to a repeat edition of this blog. Way back in November, I wrote about Armstrong's recordings of "Tenderly" and "You'll Never Walk Alone." Well, earlier today I received a request to upload Armstrong's 1967 version of "You'll Never Walk Alone" recorded on the Brunswick label. When I originally posted it, I was still a blog novice and had no idea how to upload music. Since that's no longer the case, I've decided to repost my original blog, but this time include the links to some of the music discussed. So here it is....take 2!

Louis Armstrong and The All Stars
Recorded September 1, 1954
Track Time 7:23
“Tenderly” Written by Walter Gross and Jack Lawrence; “You’ll Never Walk Alone” Written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Trummy Young, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Billy Kyle, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Barrett Deems, drums
Originally released on Decca (never on a 78)
Currently available on CD: The original studio recording can be found on Hip-O’s three-disc box Louis Armstrong: An American Icon, as well as the Verve Armstrong compilation, I Love Jazz.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on I Love Jazz

Today’s entry will focus on Louis Armstrong’s sentimental side by discussing his favored medley of “Tenderly” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Armstrong didn’t get around to recording the medley until 1954 but he had definitely been playing it for some time. On a radio interview from early 1952, Armstrong is asked about the type of music he plays from night to night. “We play all types of music,” he answered. “We’re liable to run into ‘Tenderly,’ it depends on what audience we have. Every time we play a university, you have to play ‘Tiger Rag’ or an old fox trot. Those tunes out there, they’re all sharp and in tuxedos and evening gowns and they don’t want to be jumping all over the place like adagio dancers or trying to keep up with the music or something. So we’ll play something pretty, something slow….And it turns out all right.” It sure did!

Much has been written about Armstrong’s love of Guy Lombardo’s band but I don’t think he was solely in love with Lombardo’s sound. I just think he had a deep spot in his heart for sweet, sentimental music that was aimed at the heart and not necessarily the head. Pops knew his reputation as a hot jazz musician and high-note trumpeter were too strong to ditch; he would never get away with leading a “sweet” band! But by combining “Tenderly” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” he got to indulge this side of his musical personality by rarely deviating from the two separate, but powerful melodies. During a 1965 show hosted by Humphrey Lyttleton, Armstrong reminisced about the music he played in New Orleans, mainly popular songs, but also a lot of comedy routines. Armstrong might have loved to include comedy in his stage shows but he also knew how to respect a melody. Speaking of the All Stars, he said on this 1965 broadcast, “Yeah, we used to play ‘Tenderly’ and all. You see, people get the wrong part of jazz. Like in the early days, they carried it so far til the trumpet player would throw his horn over to the trombone player and the piano player would throw the stool from under him and the drummer would do hand flips. I mean, where’s the lead? Where’s the song? They tried it all kinds of ways. That’s why I like Guy Lombardo cause they stand there [sings “Auld Lang Syne”]. And if we ever have a big banquet or something, everybody sings ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ what they doing? Would I say copying Guy Lombardo? Cause that’s what they do.” Thus, if the “Tenderly/You’ll Never Walk Alone” medley allowed Armstrong to “copy” Guy Lombardo, so be it, as it was always a beautiful highlight of any All Stars show that included it.

“Tenderly” was written in 1946 and was notably swung in the jazz world by the Oscar Peterson trio at a Carnegie Hall concert in 1952. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the 1945 musical Carousel and became a hit for Frank Sinatra. Armstrong treated both songs as slow waltzes, which always made for a nice change of pace in the All Stars’s consistently swinging stage show (and naturally, it was a perfect fit for dances). Armstrong finally got around to recording for Decca on September 1, 1954, while in the midst of an extended engagement at the Basins Street nightclub in New York City. The first tune of the day was a version of “Muskrat Ramble” that featured some dopey new lyrics. Pops probably had to perform it at Decca’s behest and maybe suggested “Tenderly/You’ll Never Walk Alone” as something of a trade. Though both songs were already popular standards, the original Decca medley weighed in at over seven minutes so it never had a chance to become a hit 78 record.

But what’s contained in those seven minutes and 23 seconds is quite emotional. You can now listen for yourself by clicking here:

A Billy Kyle arpeggio sets up Pops’s entrance, as he immediately begins with the pure melody. Drummer Barrett Deems offers some very clean rolls in the background, Arvell Shaw keeps his bass strings bowed and Trummy Young and Barney Bigard offer sympathetic support, with Bigard getting in some liquid runs in between Pops’s stately lead. After one chorus, Billy Kyle steps into the spotlight for some of his most elegant playing. There’s more than a trace of Erroll Garner in some of those lines. Kyle’s usually mentioned as a Hines follower, which he undoubtedly was, but he also had some Garner in him when he needed to showcase it (listen to his “Basin Street Blues” solo from his first Decca session in March 1954 for some guitar-like left-hand playing a la Garner). As Kyle emotes, you can carefully hear Pops talking in the background, which was somewhat odd for a studio record. This wasn’t a jam session, such as the W.C. Handy album, where some shouting and laughing can be heard, but Pops clearly had something that needed to be said without stopping the take.

Anyway, after Kyle’s beautiful chorus, he modulates up, setting the stage for Pops to enter with “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” This is a very ethereal moment. Pops had such a big strong, tone, but here, he plays so softly, yet stately. This is serious playing and you can feel him playing directly to the listener’s soul. Bigard and Young don’t have to do much more than hold backing notes, but they choose some lovely ones, surrounding Pops’s lead with some plush pillows of sound. When Pops gets to the first “Walk on” part of the lyrics, it’s hard to not get swept up by the atmosphere. And when he gets to the higher “Walk on,” building higher and higher to the climactic title phrase, it becomes one of those moments when the hair begins to rise on your neck. And when he gets to the third “Walk on” segment, well, good night, nurse, I’m through. Kyle starts pounding out a tremolo, Pops does his only improvising of the record with some well-calculated runs up to the high notes.

It’s a fitting climax to the record, but it’s not over yet. Shaw’s bowed bass modulates matters back down to the original key for one more go-around of “Tenderly.” Pops continues keeping the melody in the forefront for this final half-chorus, but he begins taking some liberties as he goes on, playing a pet lick at 6:29 that was always one of his favorites (Teargarden used a lot, too). Pops slows it down for a final coda on the last line of the song, with Deems holding a crisp roll while Pops, Barney and Trummy harmonize, Pops ending on sober low note. An absolutely beautiful record.

The medley never became a regular part of every show but it would be played when Pops was in the right mood. However, all other live versions end with “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the climactic high point, rather than going back to “Tenderly.” A wonderful rendition of the medley can be found on the Chicago Concert set, recorded June 1, 1956. Here's a link:

Pops just finished riling the crowd up with “Mack the Knife” when, without an announcement, he begins playing the melody of “Tenderly.” On this live version, he takes a few more liberties with the melody, always keeping it in the forefront, but managing to improvise and rephrase it where he sees fit. Kyle still takes his beautiful full-chorus solo but the mood is lightened up a bit by Trummy Young yelling, “Oh, he plays so sexy!” Kyle gets a deserving round of applause before Pops begins “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” following the pattern of the Decca record to a tee. As Pops hits his final note, Young and Kyle each play the opening four notes of “Tenderly,” a neat way of tying the two songs together. And then it’s off to a Barrett Deems drum solo on “Stompin’ At The Savoy”!

It’s not worth the time to break down each recorded live version of “Tenderly/You’ll Never Walk Alone” because they’re all so similar, but of course, a few things could be said. By the time of an Orpheum Theater show in September 1957, Kyle’s solo had become fertile ground for more comedy. Young once again exclaims, “Man, you sure play sexy,” but this time, after continuing for a few bars, Kyle stops and responds, “You know, that makes me feel very self-conscious.” And for the concluding 40 seconds of Kyle’s solo, which gets progressively slower, the audience continues tittering at visuals we’ll never get to see. Fortunately, Pops puts an end to the shenanigans with another marvelous “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” By the time of the group’s 1959 European tour, the medley had been shortened some more. Now Pops played a half-chorus of melody followed by Kyle taking a half-chorus piano flowery solo (no “sexy” comments this time). Pops gives “You’ll Never Walk Alone” the full treatment but with the editing, the once 7:23 record is cut down to 4:36, which Pops probably felt was more suitable for a concert audience. But at a dance, anything went, as he famously told David Halberstam in 1957. While discussing rock-and-roll and how the younger generation doesn’t appreciate slow songs, Pops says, “They gotta have something to pop their eyes out. When we hit Savannah we played ‘I’ll Never Walk Alone’ and the whole house—all Negroes—started singing with us on their own. We ran through two choruses and they kept with us and then later they asked for it again. Most touching damn thing I ever saw. I almost started crying right there on the stage. We really hit something inside each person there.”

Thus, the “Tenderly/You’ll Never Walk Alone” medley stayed in the book for quite some time, but it does seem to have disappeared in the early 60s. But before I get ahead of myself, I should say a few words about Armstrong’s recording of “Tenderly” with Ella Fitzgerald. This was done for their first collaboration, an album I love dearly. It’s not my favorite track from that 1956 session (that would be “The Nearness Of You”), but it’s a very nice meeting of the different sectors of the jazz world. Now you can finally listen along:

Pops opens with the melody in waltz-time with Oscar Peterson backing him beautifully. But after one chorus, Peterson modulates and takes it to the swinging medium tempo he originally performed the song at. With Buddy Rich using brushes, the rhythm section gives Ella peerless backing and Pops does his part with a brilliant obbligato. Then comes the real treat as Pops sings a chorus. He might have given the melody utmost respect when he performed it as a slow waltz, but in swingtime, he transforms it into something his own, singing the first line on one note, throwing in bits of scat and even coming up with some new lyrics at the end, singing, “You took my chops, ‘way from Pops, Tenderly.” The song then reverts back to waltz time as Pops plays the melody gorgeously, this time with Ella singing an obbligato around his horn. It’s very pretty stuff but Ella gets the last laugh by breaking into her patented Satchmo impression at the end. This recording, like all of Ella and Louis’s work together, is very easy to find and is highly recommended.

Okay, let’s move to the summer of 1967, a rough year for Pops. First, All Stars clarinetist Buster Bailey passed away and then Pops came down with a serious case of pneumonia that forced him to cancel about a month’s worth of gigs. When he reorganized the All Stars at the June of that year, Joe Muranyi was the new clarinetist. Pops quickly burnt himself out celebrating his birthday with a series of long shows and late nights in July, a period vividly captured in a long article by Larry King. At the end of July, Armstrong and the All Stars headed to Europe but the trip and father time were obviously catching up with Armstrong. On Storyville’s fourth In Scandinavia volume, a handful of tracks are included from a July 25 concert in Denmark. Pops gives his all, even calling encores on “Cabaret” but his chops sound tired, as he can’t get up to the higher points of his upper register on “Back O’Town Blues,” something he had done just the previous year for A Man Called Adam. In the next to days, Armstrong played two shows at Juan-Les-Pins, France, where he finally made some concession to age by cutting out his solos on “Indiana” and “Muskrat Ramble.” Video of these performances shows Pops to be looking very tired at times, especially as he smokes backstage while Jewel Brown sings. But the main reason I’m giving this backstory is because it was during this tour that Pops dusted off his “Tenderly/You’ll Never Walk Alone” medley. However, to save chops, he decided to now sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” introducing it as “a little message coming up for you, folks.” The Denmark version is heard on the aforementioned fourth volume of the Scandinavia series but it’s not a complete performance. According to Gösta Hägglöf, the man behind the Storyville discs, Armstrong opened it by playing “Tenderly” but this was no longer the Armstrong of 1955. Apparently, Armstrong played it like he was lost, missing notes and hitting completely wrong ones. The experience was “touching and disturbing” to Gösta, who wisely decided to edit it out and just include “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as the final track on the C.D.

However, Pops got his act together and played much better on the French Riviera, turning in a smoking “Cabaret” and even soloing on “Ole Miss.” When he called the “Tenderly/You’ll Never Walk Alone” medley, he was ready and this performance can be heard on the old Vanguard two-disc set (now available on Itunes), The Best of Louis Armstrong. Armstrong only plays eight bars of melody but he doesn’t falter, though his tone sounds brittle at times. He’s then followed by eight bars of Muranyi, eight bars of trombonist Tyree Glenn and a final eight from pianist Marty Napoleon, where Pops once again prepares the audience for the “message.” What he was referring to was the Vietnam war and Pops soon began dedicating the song to the soldiers overseas and their mothers at home. In fact, in one letter to a soldier, Pops quoted the song’s entire lyrics. The melody of the song is a little out of Pops’s vocal range, especially the lower notes, but once the song picks up, he really starts emoting (the lowest note he hits is a C and the highest is an F, an eleventh away!). As dramatic as the trumpet playing was, there’s something still spine-tingling hearing Pops infuse every ounce of emotion in the song’s lyrics, even asking everyone to sing. It’s another compensation to old age and old chops but thanks to his vocal genius, it’s quite affecting.

So affecting, in fact, that Pops decided to record it for his next Brunswick album in October 1967. In between the July concerts in Europe and the October recording session, Armstrong waxed the original version of “What a Wonderful World.” Though it probably hadn’t been released as of Armstrong’s first October session for Brunswick, word must have gotten out that Armstrong was now singing emotional, inspirational songs backed by strings and voices. Thus, Brunswick hired Dick “Schmuck” Jacobs (in the words of Joe Muranyi) to arrange a bunch of cloying showtunes for Pops, in addition to the rancid “I Believe” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It’s an album with few highlights but one of them definitely is “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

So here it is, all these months later...enjoy!

Jacobs added veteran studio musician Ernie Hayes to play some church-style organ throughout, which really lends the song a nice gospel atmosphere. Guitarist Wally Richardson plucks out single-string arpeggios, a la “Wonderful World,” but it works, as does Jacobs’s usually headache-inducing choir, which sticks to providing rich harmonies behind Pops’s singing. In fact, the whole thing reminds me of a Ray Charles record from the sixties. And Armstrong sounds even better on the studio recording than he did during the previous live shows as he handles the lower notes better with a stronger voice. It’s emotional stuff and for me, at least, I get swept away by it pretty easy. Of course, it’s never been released on an American C.D. but you can find it on Itunes on the German Best of Louis Armstrong set. I’ve written about this one before because it’s pretty odd: the album cover has an orange banner on the left side and a picture of Pops but for some reason, Itunes lists the artist as Arthur Johnston! But volume two of the series has “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and trust me, it’s not Arthur Johnston’s, it’s Pops! And attention Hollywood producers: want to use some Armstrong in your next dramatic film but you’re sick of “What a Wonderful World?” Try this version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as I can easily picture it in the background of a movie.

As time wore on, Pops stopped playing “Tenderly” altogether, though the rhythm section would still play it while he introduced “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Fortunately BBC camera captured Armstrong performing it on a TV show in July 1968. It was one of Armstrong’s last hurrahs. He had lost a lot of weight and soon after, his health would crash and he would be forced to take a year off, but in the summer of 1968, he put on some great shows and played a good amount of trumpet. I wish I knew how to upload stuff onto YouTube because this version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” really should be seen (the version of “What a Wonderful World” from the same day has over one million views on YouTube!). Anyway, Pops introduces it by saying, “And now folks, in America, we always this dedicate this next number to all the mothers who have sons in Vietnam.” Armstrong sings it with tremendous dignity, smiling tenderly and radiating all kinds of warmth.

It’s not known if Armstrong performed “You’ll Never Walk Alone” anymore when he made his comeback in 1970 but regardless, for at least 14 years, Pops managed to create a lot of magic with his unabashedly emotional readings of two American standards, always creating a hush over crowds who wanted to shout and yell for “The Saints” or “Mack the Knife.” It might not be a side of Armstrong that most jazz purists are familiar with but it’s an important part of understanding the kinds of music Louis Armstrong loved to hear and play: music from the heart.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Ampol Show

Today is my birthday--number 28 for those keeping score at home--so I don't have much time for a long entry. But the Internet continues giving gifts and I feel like sharing a terrific one this morning. "Sounds Like Shellac" is a terrific blog, whose description reads as follows: "78's old vinyl and the life on an unemployed Audio Engineer. Sick of bad transfers and the underwater sounds of bad restoration? come on over and see what a pair of good ears and 20 years of tinkering can do!" Last week, the fellow from Australian who runs the blog posted a priceless document of the All Stars in their prime.

In April 1956, the group did a tour of Australia, where they were received like heroes. While there, Armstrong took part in a broadcast of "The Ampol Show," hosted by Jack Davey. This, to me, represented the greatest edition of the All Stars with Armstrong, Trummy Young, Edmond Hall, Billy Kyle, Barrett Deems and bassist Jack Lesberg, who literally just joined the band days earlier. The band had just done the long "Ambassador Satch" tour of Europe at the end of 1955, they came back to America to find out "Mack the Knife" was a hit, they almost immediately started filming "High Society" and they went on a very successful tour of the States with Woody Herman's band. Following Australia would be Armstrong's return to Europe, the famous trip to Africa and the "Chicago Concert"...and just everything up to June 1 of that year!

But the music is the most important thing and no other version of the All Stars produced more exciting music. "The Ampol Show" starts off with "Sleepy Time,"a fierce "Indiana" and a swinging "Someday You'll Be Sorry" before Armstrong partakes in some very funny interplay with Davey, including singing a chorus of "Sweet Sue." Just listen to Armstrong's answers to Davey's quiz...hysterical! The rest of the show is devoted to the All Stars and if some in the audience frown at the lack of "different" material, just listen to how this group attacks "Ole Miss"'s positively scary. "Mack the Knife" was just released in Australia so naturally Pops had to do it, following it with a rocking "Bucket's Got a Hole In It," a song whose best versions always occurred with Hall in the band. Then Pops, always one to share the spotlight, featured Kyle on "Perdido," Hall on "Dardanella" and Trummy and himself on "Rockin' Chair" before taking things out with another smoking tune, "Royal Garden Blues."

To listen go the complete 48-minute show, click here and begin downloading. Or if that doesn't work, here's the full address:

And while you're there, don't hesitate to drop a small donation so "Sounds Like Shellac" can keep doing what it's doing.

As a gift from me, here's one more broadcast from the same trip. Six days later, the All Stars did a broadcast on "The Ford Show." It's only 15 minutes, but it features another ferocious "Ole Miss," a lovely "Kiss to Build a Dream On" and another "Mack." Just compare the two versions of "Ole Miss" to hear how much energy this band put into their performances and how they always made everything they played sound like it was being played for the very first time. You can listen to it here:

And speaking of Internet finds, here's a rare television interview of Pops that just appeared on YouTube five days ago. It's from just a couple of months later in 1956 with Armstrong talking about his recent trip to Europe:

And that's all for now. This week is nuts but I'll try to be back with some more entries real soon. Upcoming ones will focus on "Terrible Blues," "The Peanut Vendor" and another massive blowout on "Royal Garden Blues." Also, there's a small possibility I'll be at Birdland this Wednesday night to catch David Ostwald's Louis Armstrong Centennial Band. Til next time...

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Hollywood Palace - 1965

God Bless YouTube!

About a year-and-a-half ago, the missus and I went to the Museum of Radio and Television in New York City. I spent two hours watching rare clips of Pops (I think she watched something with Michael Jackson!), including an episode of the popular Hollywood Palace, hosted by Louis, filmed on Aprill 11 and aired on May 1, 1965. Armstrong had just returned from an unbelievably successful tour of Europe, knocking the down the Iron Curtain a bit by performing to standing ovations in places like Prage, East Berlin, Bucharest and more. As I've written before, that tour contained some of Armstrong's finest blowing of his later years. When he returned, he was asked to host the Hollywood Palace for an episode that would celebrate Armstrong's 50th year in show business. Since Armstrong never had an "official" debut into show business, it was the kind of event that was seemingly celebrated every year depending on the occasion (first gig in New Orleans, 1915, first gig in Chicago, 1922, first record, 1923, you pick it and it was celebrated!).

There's not much I have to say other than this is old-school show biz at its finest. Pops is joined by Jimmy Durante, in his element, and a number of tribute telegrams are read by the likes of Rowan and Martin (pre-Laugh In) and Edward G. Robinson. Robinson's emoting as the background music swells is the kind of acting one never sees anymore but he sure sells his point. Pops looks touched and even gets to perform some of his hits, playing some forceful trumpet on "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" (he usually didn't play on this number anymore during his live shows) and, even rarer, contributing a too short solo to "Blueberry Hill," which finds him basically quoting "Moonglow" verbatim.

I spent about a year trying to track it down until I finally found a collector in Switzerland earlier this summer who had a copied it for me (for a fee, naturally). It was a nice part of my "Rare Pops Footage" collection but now it's not so rare as YouTube user "denbobboy" uploaded the whole damn show in four parts! I couldn't be happier because really, what good is the show doing in my collection? I'd rather Pops fans all around the world get to see it and thanks to denbobboy, now you can. Enjoy!