Monday, November 10, 2008

Now, Do You Call That A Buddy

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven
Recorded April 11, 1941
Track Time 3:27
Written by Wesley “Kid” Wilson
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; George Washington, trombone; Prince Robinson, tenor saxophone, clarinet; Luis Russell, piano; Lawrence Lucie, guitar; Johnny Williams, bass; Sid Catlett
Originally released on Decca 3756 (Originally issued as “New Do You Call That a Buddy,” probably a typo)
Currently available on CD: It’s on the eighth volume (1941-1942) of the peerless Ambassador series
Available on Itunes? Yes, on two budget, no-name sets.

The ol’ Itunes shuffle picked out a winner tonight, though it’s one that I don’t have to spend TOO much time talking about. Instead, it features some of my favorite elements of classic Armstrong: a minor key, a dark-hued trumpet solo and two minutes straight of Louis Armstrong, Master Storyteller.

First, a little background. The song was written by Wesley “Kid” Wilson, someone Armstrong had a little history with. Wilson was a partner with Leola B. “Coot” Grant, a popular vaudeville duo and Armstrong backed them on four Paramount sides during his first stint in New York in 1925. Wilson returned the favor by later recording another original composition, “Toot It Brother Armstrong.” “Do You Call That a Buddy” is almost something of a funeral version of “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You.” The way it goes, the “buddy” in the title phrase, slept with the singer’s wife/girlfriend/lover, causing the somber vocalist to sing about how well he treated his old friend, only to see it blow up in his face, building up to a crescendo every time he thinks about seeking violent revenge.

According to some quick online research, Wilson himself persuaded a young Louis Jordan to record “Do You Call That a Buddy” for Decca in 1940. Jordan had been recording for the label since the end of 1938 and hadn’t cut anything that remotely resembled a hit. On September 29, 1940, Decca had Jordan record a vocal version of Charlie Barnet’s instrumental hit, “Pompton Turnpike,” while “Do You Call That a Buddy” (with “Dirty Cat” added a parenthetical subtitle) was relegated to “B” side status. According to John Chilton’s Jordan biography, Let the Good Times Roll, “Do You Call That a Buddy” proved to be the more popular of the two, not quite reaching the chart but still selling 62,000 copies and putting Jordan on the map. Jordan’s one of my heroes and I think it’s a good idea to take a few minutes to dig his somber take on Wilson’s tale of infidelity:

Great stuff, though Jordan doesn’t pick up his horn (Chilton writes of Jordan’s alto playing on the number but there is none). There’s traces of the signature Jordan humor as he gets worked up about what he’s going to do to his buddy, but really, it’s a pretty chilling vocal performance. Within a year, Jordan was singing about the same theme, this time threatening to move to the outskirts of town. That record was a smash and the rest is history...

Though Jordan’s “Do You Call That a Buddy” didn’t exactly top the charts, it was big enough to inspire a number of covers, including versions by Larry Clinton and the Andrews Sisters (it was at this point when Don Frye’s name magically appeared as a co-composer; Frye had written some of the Andrews’s biggest hits but I don’t think he had anything to do with this one). Naturally, it made perfect sense for Decca to pass along the tune to Jordan’s session-mate, Louis Armstrong. Armstrong was a major influence on the alto saxophonist, who played on an Armstrong session for Victor in December 1932 (the one with the “Medleys” of Armstrong hits).

Decca, ever restless of settings for their trumpet-playing superstar, had recently begun embracing the past. After years of recording pop songs, Armstrong began looking backwards a bit in 1939, remaking earlier OKeh recordings such as “Rockin’ Chair,” “Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya,” “Save It Pretty Mama,” “West End Blues,” “Savoy Blues,” “Confessin’” and “Our Monday Date.” In 1940, Armstrong reteamed with Sidney Bechet, his old recording partner from the 1920s, and even cut a remake of “Sweethearts on Parade.”

That same year, a young George Avakian discovered some unissued Armstrong sides from the 1920s in the OKeh vaults. He immediately had them reissued, something that would have made him sainted in the jazz community if he had done nothing else after (though thank God he did!). Avakian found some recordings by Armstrong’s “Hot Seven,” a famous name in jazz history. Perhaps aware of this, Decca decided to dust off the name for two sessions in March and April 1941.

The sessions yielded eight results but they are hardly known today and I think I know the reason why. People hear the phrase “Hot Seven” and immediately conjure up audible images of 1920s New Orleans small band classics like “Potato Head Blues” and “Weary Blues,” with an fat tuba bottom and a joyous cacophony in the ensembles. The 1941 Hot Seven sessions are the polar opposite. They sound like 1941, not 1927, and I think this is important.

Armstrong was always looking ahead. When he remade those earlier OKeh tunes he did so in souped up new, swinging arrangements. When he was placed in a deliberately old-fashioned setting, as in the Bechet date, he played like it was 1940, not 1924, proceeding to stubbornly blow over and through Bechet, creating something of a fractious atmosphere. And when he had to revive the old “Hot Seven,” he selected what was basically a New Orleans lineup, but made sure the horns had arranged parts to do. He also recorded some novelty numbers, many with band vocals, and even an old standard, “I Cover the Waterfront.” On “I’ll Get Mine Bye and Bye” he played a daring, almost strikingly modern solo. He sounds like he’s having a great time and the band is truly an ancestor to the All Stars with the finest cats from the Luis Russell band, including George Washington on trombone, Prince Washington on reeds and the entire Russell rhythm section anchored by the one and only Sid Catlett. Thus, it’s easy to dismiss these “Hot Seven” recordings if you’re only looking for the Armstrong of 1927. But if you want to give the Armstrong of 1941 a try, give ‘em a listen and I think you’ll be presently surprised.

So with the preamble out of the way, let’s get to the main event, Armstrong’s cover of “Do You Call That a Buddy.” You can listen along by clicking here.
Righteous. Isn’t that opening trumpet solo haunting? Armstrong loved minor keys and he really responds to the shadowy nature of the tune without resorting to high-note fireworks. He always loved that descending chromatic run when dealing with minor tunes (he even sang it on “Summertime” and “I Will Wait For You”). Robinson and Washington lay down a solid bed of harmonies over which Armstrong begins his preaching, backed by the soft, yet soul-shaking brushes of Catlett. I get the chills when the rest of the band drops out for a couple of bars and it’s just Armstrong’s horn and Catlett’s prodding brushes.

Armstrong’s trumpet, though he plays a lot of melody, also has some husky, modern touches in his note choices and the way he bends the hell out of a couple of them. The little flickers he adds to some of his phrases also always catch me by surprise.

But then it’s time for the vocal, Armstrong calling for everyone’s attention. I love Louis Jordan to death but I think I Armstrong’s personality outshines him on this one. After the opening “Look here, boy” and “I don’t dig you,” Armstrong keeps the hokum to a minimum, but you can definitely hear him smiling as he delivers some lines, especially the threats of violence. First he threatens to shoot him, then kill him, then finally, poison him, pronounced "pie-zin" in Pops's unique New Orleans-ese (thanks to the great Al Basile for setting me straight!).

It’s a remarkably chilling, yet fun vocal, and it’s hard not to start chiming in with the band’s “yes, yes,” “no, no,” responses. Notice, Armstrong sings some different lyrics--perhaps this is where Don Frye came in, even though he wasn’t mentioned on the label? Anyway, Armstrong’s in great voice, without much voice, and the little slice of scat in the coda is delicious.

(Also, Jordan must have enjoyed this record himself. At one point, trombonist Washington, yells out, “Shot him in the foot, boy, shot him in the foot!” Nine years later, when the stars aligned and Armstrong and Jordan teamed up for their only session, Jordan repeated the exact same thing, breaking Armstrong up on the greatest ever version of “You Rascal You.”)

“Do You Call That a Buddy” has lasted as a standard til this day, mainly adopted by blues bands. B.B. King recorded it in 1965 and YouTube features a couple of other blues bands doing effective live versions of the tune. Even Dr. John recorded it not so long ago. The song is pretty much can’t-miss if you have the personality to carry it off...and goodness knows Pops had that personality!

I hope you enjoyed this look at a forgotten Armstrong gem from 1941. It looks like the Itunes shuffle is enjoying this period as I just gave it a spin and it looks like I’ll be back later this week with “Among My Souvenirs” from well as some exciting personal news: will my wife be giving birth to little Louis or little Ella? We’ll know this week...stay tuned!

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