Louis Armstrong and Gordon Jenkins and HIs Chorus and Orchestra
Recorded April 13, 1954
Written by Harold Carr and Matt Dubey
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Billy Butterfield, Yank Lawson, Chris Griffin, trumpet; Lou McGarity, Cliff Heather, trombone; Milt Yaner, clarinet; Tom Parshley, Jack Greenberg, alto saxophone; Abraham Richmond, George Berg, tenor saxophone; Bernie Leighton, piano; George Barnes, guitar; Jack Lesberg, bass; Harry Jaeger, drums; Tom Frost, Julie Schacter, Julie Shaier, Harry Melnikoff, Max Hollander, Morris Lefkowitz, Sam Rand, Sid Brecher, violins; Harry Coletta, viola; Harry Shapiro, cello; Miriam Workham, Lois Winter, Audry Marsh, Geraldine Viti, Elise Bretton, Lillian Clark, Ray Charles, Arthur Melvin, Jim Farmer, Eugene Lowell, vocals; Gordon Jenkins, arranger, conductor
Currently available on CD: It's on Satchmo in Style, a collection of Armstrong's work with Gordon Jenkins
Available on Itunes? No
Louis Armstrong two really great songs that are perfect for Halloween, "Old Man Mose" and "The Skeleton in the Closet." Unfortunately, in the first year of this blog, I wrote about both so they're off limits for today. You can still enjoy each of them by clicking these links:
Old Man Mose
Skeleton in the Closet
But there's one more bona fide Halloween item floating around in the Armstrong discography and unfortunately, it doesn't exactly hold up like the above two. It comes from Armstrong's final session with arranger Gordon Jenkins, with whom Armstrong had already made a wonderful series of records, including the big hit "Blueberry Hill," the gorgeous "If" and a swinging "Butter and Egg Man." However, this 1954 session is the definition of a mixed bag. First off, Armstrong himself was suffering. Producer Milt Gabler recalled the following story:
"I remember a session in ’54 with Gordon Jenkins, a normal call to do four songs with orchestra and chorus in three hours at our Pythian Temple studio in New York. Everyone was on time except no Louis Armstrong. Louis had never been late before, so we rehearsed the orchestra and chorus. We rehearsed all of the songs, and still no Louis. I called Joe Glaser, and he was out. Two and a half hours late and straight from the dentist, Louis comes to the studio, full of remorse and with jaws full of Novocain. He could hardly talk. I asked him if he could work the next day, but Pops had other commitments. I told Gordon to start running the songs down with Louis. Maybe his jaws would loosen up."
Not only did Armstrong’s jaws loosen up, but as Gabler said, “We finished the four sides with only an hour of overtime.” First up was "Bye and Bye," the old spiritual that Armstrong had already recorded for Decca in 1939. This version featured some ferocious trumpet playing, proof that the jaws did indeed loosen up, but also a chorus of special lyrics where the Jenkins's choir gleefully runs down a list of jazz musicians who died prematurely! It's kind of gruesome, but the trumpet makes up for it. It was then followed by Armstrong's singing of Joyce Kilmer's poem, "Trees," perhaps the dullest performance in the Armstrong discography, though he gives it his all, vocally.
Then it was time for "Spooks!," written by Matt Dubey and Harold Carr (sometimes spelled Karr), the team behind a 1956 broadway musical, Happy Hunting," more memorable for their fighting with star Ethel Merman rather than any of the actual music they wrote for it. It's not much of a tune and there's not much to recommend: no trumpet, a silly introduction featuring screams and sound effects, a showcase chorus for the lame choir and finally (the elephant in the room), the uncomfortable spectacle of Armstrong singing a word that also doubled as brutal racial slur for years. I'm sure the black press must have shaken their heads when they heard this record...
So for 364 days of the year, "Spooks!" is best left alone. Yet, today, on Halloween, as you're answering the door for trick or treaters, indulging in the occasional peanut butter cup or Kit Kat as you make the trek, give "Spooks!" a listen, put whatever racial overtones there are aside and listen to Pops do his thing, especially in the funny "I'm cuttin' out of here" ending, with the cute response by the choir. It's no masterpiece, but it works today. So have a safe and happy Halloween and do your best to enjoy "Spooks!"