Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve - December 31, 1954

I couldn't resist...

Here, direct from the Down Beat in San Francisco 55 years ago today, are Louis Armstrong and His All Stars performing a 15 minute broadcast for CBS. This is peak mid-50s Pops surrounded by Barney Bigard on clarinet, Trummy Young on trombone, Billy Kyle on piano, Arvell Shaw on bass, Barrett Deems on drums and Velma Middleton on vocals. This is great little set, opening with the obligatory "Sleepy Time" before a ferocious "Indiana." Louis and Velma then romp on "Butter and Egg Man" before a swinging "High Society" is cut short to squeeze in a chorus of Armstrong playing "Auld Lang Syne" on his trumpet (it never sounded better). Dig it all and have a safe, happy New Year! Or as Pops sometimes signed his letters, "Merry Swiss Kriss and Happy Bis Ma Rex!"

Monday, December 28, 2009

End-Of-The-Year Odds and Ends

2009 is rapidly winding down meaning that this crazy blog of mine has survived another year. I don't quite know how it happened, with my daughter being born in April and the crazy daily commute I've endured since October. But here I am with blog number 118 for the year. And by the time you get to the bottom of this e-mail, you will have endured the 351st audio sample I have shared this year alone. Madness.

Of course, I'd have given up a long time ago without the support of my loyal readers. I receive e-mails almost daily from around the world and that's what fuels me to spend much of my free time keeping this blog going strong. Though I started it in July 2007, I never figured how out to track this site's traffic until this past March when I installed an invisible tracker. I was pleased with the initial returns in the spring but starting in September, my hits began going through the roof (don't get too excited; I'm not exactly breaking records here but for such a specialist's blog, I think I'm doing all right!). Since then, I've topped my previous high with each successive month and I sit here on Monday night 100 hits away from setting another personal high. So thank you, thank you, thank you to all of my readers, from the ones who have been with me from day one to the ones who are just finding this site for the first time.

I try to pack my posts with sometimes graphic amounts of information, hoping that when I hit the "publish post" button, I'll never have to revisit that topic again. Fortunately, I have generous readers who remind me of things I missed or sometimes just send me rare Armstrong material without my even asking. Thus, I've decided to re-open a few of my entires from throughout the year to share some things I missed the first time around.

Last January, I obsessed over what I called "The Tiger Rag to End All Tiger Rag's," a nearly 10-minute performance from January 21, 1959 in Copenhagen that found Armstrong taking four inhuman encores, hitting freakish high notes like he was a young man again. To read my original breathless account of that performance, click here. It wasn't long before my Swedish friend Peter Winberg wrote me to inform that he had a similar, four-encore performance of "Tiger Rag" FROM THE SAME DAY! (No wonder Pops had a heart attack that year.) Peter was kind enough to send me a copy of it, which I would like to share right now. Armstrong and the All Stars were doing two shows a day for most of the tour so this is the earlier version. It's not quite as poised as the evening version, but it's still exciting as hell, with a "Whispering" quote that always knocks me out. Here 'tis:

Pretty incredible, right? If you don't feel like immediately revisiting my older post and want to hear what Pops did with "Tiger Rag" later that evening, here's that audio again:

Back in September, I went through an Eddie Condon Floor Show phase, sharing the audio from four appearances Armstrong made on that pioneering television program. Once again, help arrived from Sweden in the form of the great Håkan Forsberg who sent me two discs of ALL the surviving Condon material with Armstrong including a bunch of tracks I missed the first time around. First up, two tracks from a November 23, 1948 broadcast, "King Porter Stomp" and "Where the Blues Were Born in New Orleans." Unfortunately, these are the only two songs to have survived, though we know that Armstrong and the All Stars performed others such as "Muskrat Ramble," "Don't Worry 'Bout Me" and "Small Fry." Hopefully those performances will turn up some day, but for now, enjoy these two stomping numbers. "King Porter" was one of the most exciting numbers of the early days of the All Stars so any surviving performances of it are welcome. Pinch hitting for the notoriously cheap Barney Bigard is clarinetist Peanuts Hucko (Bigard often turned down television appearances if the money wasn't right) while original All Stars pianist Dick Cary is onboard rather than Earl "Fatha" Hines. Here's "King Porter Stomp":

And from the motion picture New Orleans, here's the introduce-the-band number "Where the Blues Were Born in New Orleans":

On June 11, 1949, Armstrong turned in a performance on Condon's program that contained, in my opinion, some of the best trumpet playing of his entire career. But to demonstrate how those chops of steel could sometimes hit a rough spell, Armstrong returned to the show on July 30 completely unable to blow his horn, a real rarity for this point in his career. Instead, he led a Condon group with Hucko, Cary, Bobby Hackett and George Wettling, bringing along Earl Hines and Velma Middleton from his own All Stars. Armstrong did his best to lead the Condonites through his regular routines but clearly something's missing, though it's nice to hear "Brother Hackett" get a solo. Here's a medley of "Shadrack" and "When the Saints Go Marchin' In":

And here's "Velma's Blues." When the All Stars played this one, the routine was tight as a drum to correspond with Velma's dance choreography. Here, you can hear Pops probably trying his damndest to lead the musicians down the right path, but the overall result is a little sloppy though it fades out before anyone gets seriously hurt:

Now a real treat, courtesy of Mr. Forsberg. In my previous entries, I discussed Armstrong's performance of "Someday You'll Be Sorry" on the August 27, 1949 broadcast and "Going Back to Storyville" on the one from September 3. Well, earlier in the day on August 27, Armstrong rehearsed both of those numbers...and someone kept a tape recorder running! Thus, here's Louis Armstrong at work, going over keys and routines with vocalist Helen Cherell and the Swan-Tones on "Someday" and learning "Going Back to Storyville" with help from the tune's composer, pianist Joe Bushkin. Both rehearsals are incomplete, but offer fascinating glimpses in Armstrong's all-business rehearsal process. Here's the rehearsal for "Going Back to Storyville," done on August 27:

Clearly, they must have known it needed a little more work as the tune wasn't performed until the following week's broadcast. As I mentioned in my earlier entry, Pops still struggled a bit with his opening trumpet reading of the melody. On the rehearsal, he played it strongly but I think I know why. The rehearsal begins with Bushkin saying that they're going to play it in Db but first, they'll play it in the key it was written in for the trumpet, Bb. Armstrong plays it well but is thrown off for a moment when Bushkin modulates to Db for the vocal (for those with perfect pitch, the rehearsal is pitched a half-step too high). But when it came time to the actual broadcast, Bushkin played the whole thing in Db. Thus, you can hear Armstrong have a huge brain fart (official musicological term) as he takes a second or two to figure out what key he's in. Once settled, he shows his musicianship by playing it in the different key without a problem. Anyway, here's how it aired, complete with a wondrous Jack Teagarden solo:

The rehearsal for "Someday You'll Be Sorry" with Helen Cherrell and the Swan-Tones is just as fascinating. Armstrong starts off play playing it in his usual key until Cherrell mentions that she and the Swan-Tones have rehearsed their part in another key. No problem, as Pops modulates everything in his head to play it in Db on the trumpet before modulating to Bb for his vocal. These moments are priceless because they illustrate just how much of a professional musician Armstrong was. He could play just about anything in just about any key at the drop of a hat. Here's the rehearsal, which unfortunately is incomplete:

And here's how "Someday" sounded on the air later that day, with the proper modulation (and Earl Hines on piano instead of Bushkin):

We're going to leave the world of Eddie Condon and travel back to my home in "Indiana," a song that was the subject of a blowout entry for me back in 2008. I liked the way it came it out so I used it as the basis for a presentation I gave at the Louis Armstrong Symposium at the College of Staten Island in November. To mark the occasion, I updated my blog on the topic and thought that would be that. Well, literally a week or so after I published, here came another package in the mail from Mr. Forsberg in Sweden containing a version of "Indiana" from October 1954...WITH ANOTHER COMPLETELY DIFFERENT TRUMPET SOLO! First off, if you want to revisit the entire story of "Indiana" and Armstrong, click here. In my narrative, I discuss how Armstrong tinkered with that solo for about five years before all the pieces fell into place in 1956. By 1954, he had the final 16 bars pretty much set but was constantly looking for something solid for the first half. In May and August concerts from 1954, he was trying to work out a lick he originally played during the 1925 Bessie Smith recording of "St. Louis Blues" but it always came out a little awkward. I also shared versions from December 1954 and January 1955 that were completely different. And now thanks to Håkan, we can now hear an "Indiana" from around October 6, 1954. Here's the solo:

Isn't that terrific? He's really squeezing those blue notes. Here's the entire "Indiana," which unfortunately was butchered by whoever did the original recording (it was done for the U.S. Saving Bonds Division of the Treasury Department) with choruses missing and other odd edits. But it's still an exciting performance:

In November, I began a three-part expose on "On the Sunny Side of the Street," which you can revisit by clicking here. I opened it by mentioning that Armstrong must have been performing the song before he had the chance to record it because Chick Webb already recorded it with trumpeter Taft Jordan aping both Armstrong's singing and playing. I shared Webb's version from September 10, 1934 but a reader named Elliott wrote in to remind me that Webb recorded it on December 12, 1933 in a version that was slower and even more in an Armstrong bag than the one I used. He wasn't kidding; Jordan even closes by reprising the ending to Armstrong's 1929 record of "Black and Blue." Here's Webb's earlier version of "Sunny Side":

And I concluded my look at "Sunny Side of the Street" by writing that as far as I knew, Armstrong rarely played the tune with the All Stars after 1960. I still believe this is true but I forgot that on a 1970 NBC television special, "Sun City Scandals," he sang a wonderful version of the tune. In my second post on the subject, I shared a bit of editing I did linking together all the different scat breaks Armstrong utilized in his performances of the song. It's interesting that in his second chorus break, he perfectly reprises the one he was singing in the early-50s. (Hmm, does anyone else find that interesting?) Anyway, he swings beautifully and it's definitely worth a listen (and yes, that's Johnny Carson introducing him):

And finally, "Rockin' Chair," which I just wrote about a couple of weeks ago. One thing that looks like it will never get resolved is the "what cabin, joking/choking" line as I received written arguments for both sides. Desmond Polk wrote me to tell me that the Mills Brothers sang "what cabin, choking" on both of their 1930s recordings of the songs. And while listening to a broadcast of Armstrong singing "Accentuate the Positive" from the New Zanzibar in New York City in 1945, I was floored to hear Armsstrong sing during the bridge, "To illustrate, my last remark/ Jonah and the whale, Noah and the ark/ What did they do--CHOKING!--when everything seemed so dark?" The "choking" comes out of nowhere and it's clearly "choking" not "joking." On the vocal reprise, Armstrong elmininates "choking" and substitues "grabbin'" as an aside. "Grabbin'," too, was part of the "Rockin' Chair" routine. So I really think the only person who knows what Armstrong had in his mind with the whole "choking/joking" thing is Armstrong himself and unfortunately, it's too late to ask him!

I tried shaping my "Rockin' Chair" post to include only the essential versions but there are two from a Bing Crosby radio show from December 1950 that I wanted to share but didn't for the sake of time. Now, with a second chance, I'd like to lay 'em on ya. The first one is the standard Armstrong-and-Teagarden duet though it contains Armstrong's aside "you don't want no water, father," which he only did with Teagarden twice. Interestingly, they only sing one chorus before something rare occurs: Teagarden goes right to the bridge with his trombone with Armstrong providing quiet support behind him. Armstrong then steps in and passionately plays the last eight bars on the trumpet, the last time he ever did so. Here 'tis:

That episode of Crosby's show was dedicated to Bing's 20th anniversary as a solo performer. To mark the occasion, Armstrong, Teagarden, Dinah Shore and the Jud Conlon Rhythmaires stepped in to sing a parody version of "Rockin' Chair" that acted as a bit of a roast of Papa Bing. It's pretty funny but Louis's reading of the response, "Say, how long have you been blind?" always makes me laugh out loud. Give it a listen:

And that, I think, is that for my 2009 entries. Last year, I shared an Armstrong New Year's Eve broadcast on New Year's Eve and I still might do that but I think I might let this entry linger for a while because it would take about an hour to just get through the above audio samples. So again, I thank all of you for your interest, support and friendship and I look forward to another year of Armstrong crazienss in 2010 (especially with the book coming out in May!). Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Night Before Christmas

As promised, today is the day before Christmas, so what better way to celebrate than by listening to Louis Armstrong's reading of "The Night Before Christmas." This was Armstrong's final record, made February 26, 1971 in his home in Corona, just a few days before his last extended engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria, an engagement that pretty much sealed the fate of the frail trumpeter. He passed away on July 6, 1971.

But enough sadness! Louis Armstrong was the personification of joy and the man was terrific around children, two attributes that come to the forefront of this reading. When Brunswick originally issued it, they added some silly sound effects and background music. To hear that version, click here:

Fortunately, they also released it sans music so if you want to hear just the pure voice of Louis Armstrong reading a classic Christmas tale, enjoy this YouTube video and have a wonderful holiday!

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Very Satchmo Christmas - 2009 Edition!

Don't let the "2009" fool you, as this is pretty much the same exact thing I posted for each of the past two years. But I feel like the six Christmas songs Armstrong recorded for Decca in the 1950s are worth celebrating every year at this time so if you don't mind, let's do it one more once. Crank up the speakers, pour some egg nog and get ready to enjoy them all over again.

So, as already mentioned, this entry will focus on the six Christmas records Armstrong made for Decca in the 1950s. And when I say records, I don’t mean long-playing discs but rather, six three-minute singles. It might seem odd that someone who brought more joy to the world than Santa Claus would have so few yuletide classics in his discography, but alas that’s the case. In fact, Armstrong didn’t get around to recording his first Christmas song until 1952, unless, of course, you count Armstrong’s two versions of “Santa Claus Blues” from 1924 and 1925.

When Decca finally corralled Armstrong into the studio to record some Christmas cheer, they gave him first-class treatment by backing him with the lush arrangements of Gordon Jenkins. Jenkins’s sentimental string and voices sound revived Armstrong’s recording career with the 1949 hit “Blueberry Hill.” By the early 1950s, Jenkins was a veritable recording superstar. Anything with his name on it sold tremendously so it made sense for Decca to pair him with label stars like Peggy Lee and Armstrong. On September 22, 1952, Armstrong and Jenkins teamed up for their fourth session together. On one of their sessions, from February 6, 1951 Jenkins jettisoned his strings and turned in some very fine small-big band arrangements but for the 1952 session, the strings were the whole show on the Christmas number, though current All Stars Bob McCracken, Marty Napoleon, Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole were in the studio band that day (as was guitarist Art Ryerson, who would do many post-“Hello, Dolly” sessions with Pops in the 60s).

Both of the Jenkins Christmas numbers are unusually low-key. They feature no trumpet and no surges of emotion or anything. They’re very sober but the best word to describe them has to be “warm.” Pops is at his most tender, singing as if he’s whispering a loving lullaby to a small child. “White Christmas” is up first and, of course, was property of Armstrong’s friend and disciple, Bing Crosby. From the opening seconds, we know we’re in Gordon Jenkins country. “White Christmas” demonstrates that many of our best-loved Christmas songs feature quite a range of notes and you can hear Pops stretch here and there, but I always loved his tenor voice—as well as that basso profundo he would break out when necessary. Both are needed on “White Christmas,” which finds Pops reaching for a high D on “the ones” to the C an octave lower on “children.” On the final “be white,” Armstrong goes down to a low B on the coincidental word “be.” Where you’d expect a scat break or a “oh babe,” Pops lays out, leaving the gaps to be filled by Jenkins’s beautiful strings. After a brief string interlude, Armstrong reenters with the final eight bars, featuring, I think, some of his most touching singing. You can hear him smiling as he sings “and bright.” Again, he goes way down for that final “white,” holding it for an impressive amount of time. Very pretty stuff. Enough from me, enjoy it for yourself:

“Winter Wonderland” is up next and it’s more of the same. Though most performers do this one at an uptempo, Armstrong and Jenkins give it the same gentle ballad treatment as “White Christmas.” Again, Pops rarely deviates from the melody but he doesn’t have to, he’s singing it so sweetly. Am I weird for actually feeling warmed by the way Pops sings “as we dream by the fire”? Jenkins goes back to the bridge for another one of his trademark sounds. Marty Napoleon plays the melody in single notes an octave lower than you’d expect. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but hey, this was popular music in 1952 and it gave Jenkins an identity. Pops reenters for the final eight with a cute extended coda. Armstrong repeats the word “walking” while the pizzicato strings “walk” gingerly behind him. Finally, Armstrong unleashes a little bit of scat and the record comes to a mellow conclusion. Dig it:

Don’t worry, though. If Jenkins’s Christmas records make you a little sleepy and ready to curl up by the fire, here comes Toots Camarata’s Commanders to violently wake you up, visions of Ed Grady’s cymbals ringing in your head. I devoted an entire entry to this session in October 2008 because I believe it's one of the greatest dates Armstrong ever did in his entire career. The Commanders were a ferocious studio band co-led by arranger Camarata and drummer Grady. They were brass heavy—three trumpets, four trombones and only two reeds—and featured a peerless rhythm section propelled by Carmen Mastren’s rhythm guitar and Grady’s earth-shattering big band drumming. The October session began with two Christmas songs and both are a lot of fun. After trying out a few standards on the Jenkins sessions, Decca gave Armstrong a few novelties to cut up on and he does just that, infusing these two trite, silly songs with such enthusiasm that they’ve in turn had a shelf life of over 50 years of being listened to and enjoyed. First up: "Zat You Santa Claus?"

Right off the bat, you can hear that Decca gave their sound effects man some extra work on the date and the record starts off with howling winds and jingle bells. Grady’s drums “knock” on the door (how often did he have to change his snare head?), Pops asks the title question and we’re off, the reeds falling into a standard descending minor vamp. The lyrics are back in the “Old Man Mose” mold as Pops, frightened by the outside noises (cue the sound effects guy), hopes it’s Santa Claus making that racket and not someone sinister. The song does have a great bridge and the Commanders swing through it easily. The lyrics really are kind of goofy, but man, Pops sounds like he’s having a ball, which in turn, spreads to the listener. After one chorus, the band takes over, trading four bars with Pops and playing with such force, it threatens to become the most badass Christmas song ever recorded. Pops’s vocal on the trades grows more nervous and frantic, adding more fun to the proceedings. But perhaps the highlight of the record comes during the coda when a clearly petrified Armstrong pleads, “Please, a-please, a-pity my knees!” I love the way he sings that word “please.” The song ends with a big ending and after another “knock” from the drums, Pops yells, “That’s him all right,” while more sound effects take us out. It’s not “White Christmas,” but it’s very atmospheric and it’s easy to get swept away by Pops’s vocal.

Next up was “Cool Yule,” lyrics and music by comedian and television talk show pioneer Steve Allen. Due to its use in a few recent movies, “Cool Yule” has probably become Armstrong’s best-known Christmas recording. During my 50 trips to the mall this season, it’s sometimes hard to hear the piped in Christmas music, but man, that Armstrong horn during the bridge always manages to cut through the noise! (2009 update: it even cuts through the noise while running around a crowded Port Authority bus station in New York City in December.) Allen’s trademark sense of humor infuses the lyrics with all sorts of funny psuedo-hip references and Pops again, sounds like he’s having a ball. Here 'tis:

The song begins with more jingle bells before the band enters with a sprightly shuffle beat—wait a minute, is this Louie Prima or Louis Armstrong? The changes are fairly simple: “rhythm changes” for 16 bars, then a modulation for more “rhythm changes” in the bridge, kind of like Count Basie’s “Easy Does It.” Only the second half of the bridge doesn’t have “Rhythm,” as it’s punctuated by giant accents by the band on two and four. Again, Pops sings wonderfully but dig that band. Every drum hit, every brass punch, every note of the instrumental interlude…it’s so precise, so explosive, so swinging. I wish Armstrong made a dozen albums with the Commanders. After eight bars from the band, Armstrong picks up his horn for the first time during the session and it’s a preview of the tremendous blowing that was to be the hallmark of the date. Though the song has nothing to do with the blues, Pops instills his entire solo with more blue notes than you might expect. He gets downright funky with some of his note choices and I can never refrain from giving a “Yeah,” when he gets into that bridge. The highlight of the trumpet solo comes in the bridge when plays the melody phrase like a human being, then skyrockets an octave higher to play it again, ending it on a high concert D. After the vocal, Pops still has time to sing another entire chorus and he does so with even more enthusiasm than the first time, especially on the bridge (and listen to Grady on the final A section). Pops legitimately breaks himself up by yelling “Cool Yule” at the end and if you’re not smiling, you’re surname must be Scrooge. But as much fun as “Cool Yule” is, it’s also responsible for this:


Anyway, Decca wasn’t finished yet and two years later, on September 8, 1955, they brought Armstrong in to record two more Christmas songs, this time backed by a studio band arranged and conducted by the great Benny Carter. This has become one of those forgotten Decca sessions, never reissued on C.D. by the label itself but it is available on the Ambassador label’s Moments to Remember disc, which collects all of Armstrong’s Christmas work for the Decca, the entire Commanders session and other odds and ends that are hard to find on compact disc or Itunes. Carter wrote a great arrangement for Armstrong on The Platters’s “Only You” and Armstrong manages to sound quite tender on the Four Lads hit, “Moments to Remember.”

The first Christmas song that day was Dick Sherman and Joe Van Winkle’s “Christmas In New Orleans.” Here's the audio:

Carter’s arrangement begins with a hardened “Jingle Bells” quote that sounds like it belongs in an episode of Dragnet (remember, Carter was doing a lot of film work at the time). It soon settles into a gentle two-beat that really works for this song. The lyrics are almost a waste of time with their references to stuff like a “Dixieland Santa Claus,” but as always, Pops sounds like the happiest guy in the world. And how could he not? He loved Christmas and he loved New Orleans so any song that combined the two, even with dopey lyrics, was bound to inspire him. What’s truly inspired, though, is the trumpet solo. The tune starts off kind of like “Basin Street Blues” before it goes its own way but the changes obviously had enough meat for Armstrong to sink his chops into. This isn’t one of those grandiose high-note extravaganzas; however it is a good time to appreciate Armstrong’s rhythmic mastery. It’s one of those solos that I always enjoyed but never really devoted 100% attention to until an afternoon I spent in Joe Muranyi’s house. Muranyi recorded “Christmas In New Orleans” for his Jazzology C.D., Joe Muranyi With The New Orleans Real Low-Down. For the disc, he transcribed Armstrong’s solo to be played in unison by his clarinet, Duke Heitger’s trumpet and Tom Baker’s tenor sax. You get so used to hearing horns playing unison lines on bop heads and the like, but not on Armstrong solos and all of a sudden, this solo that I kind of took for granted, became a whole new thing. While listening to it with me, Muranyi said, “It’s tough to notate this part. I worked so hard on it. What you do is, I did it and then I put it away. I mean, I had done it maybe two or three years before this and when I took it out again and refined it, you keep finding little things. It’s not easy. It’s interesting to hear it in this context. It sounds more complex than when he plays it.” It really does. Here's Muranyi's performance:

For the final track on the date, Decca reached back and picked “Christmas Night In Harlem,” written by Mitchell Parish and Raymond Scott for the “Blackbirds of and 1934 and memorably recorded by Paul Whiteman with a vocal by Jack Teagarden and Johnny Mercer. Carter’s arrangement begins with another Christmas quote—Billy Kyle playing the beginning to “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”—before the horns punch out a descending line that reminds me of a Ray Charles record (I think I’m thinking of “Greenback Dollar Bill”). Armstrong sings the first chorus harmlessly—it’s a pretty repetitive melody and he does his best with it. Carter’s arrangement swings after the vocal and you can hear Barney Bigard holding a high note. (This was Bigard’s next-to-last session with the All Stars as he would be replaced by Edmond Hall in a matter of weeks.) Armstrong’s trumpet solo is curiously low-key. He more or less sticks to playing the melody in the middle register. Naturally, the Armstrong sound makes it worth listening to, but he doesn’t really blow with any force until the last eight bars. It’s a fine solo but I think that Pops could have maybe used one more take to wail a little more. After the low-key solo, Pops returns to sing the bridge, which features a very funny moment. Armstrong sings, “Everyone will be all lit up,” and laughs to himself, “lit up” clearly having a different meaning to him than most. He swings the lyric on the final A section, boiling it down to one note, but the arrangement is now too polite; where’s Ed Grady’s drums to wake things up? The highlight of the record is Pops’s eloquent scatting and singing as the record fades. A charming record, but not my favorite Louis Christmas song.

And that ends this tour of Louis Armstrong’s Christmas recordings for Decca. Of course, Armstrong wasn’t completely done recording yuletide music as in 1970, he performed “Here Is My Heart For Christmas” for RCA. And Armstrong’s very last recording is a reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” that is quite charming and is one I hope to share this Thursday. Til then...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm

Ella and Louis Again
Recorded August 13, 1957
Track Time 3:13
Written by Irving Berlin
Recorded in Los Angeles, California
Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, vocal; Oscar Peterson, piano; Herb Ellis, guitar; Ray Brown, bass; Louis Bellson, drums
Originally released on Verve V-4006-2
Currently available on CD: Available on Ella and Louis Again, which has been reissued around 700 times by the Verve/Universal people.
Available on Itunes? Yes

The snow is snowing
The wind is blowing
But I can weather the storm.
What do I care how much it may storm?
I've got my love to keep me warm.

You can't blame me for having those lyrics rolling around my head for the last day or so as my sleepy community of Toms River, NJ has been pelted with two feet of snow. No exaggeration. Two feet. We even made the CBS news the morning which, out all of the cities and towns in the Garden State, picked Toms River for a photographic representation of the havoc of this storm. Need proof? Here's the parking lot of my development, the family car on the left, my car on the right:

And here's a view of our back porch:

(The small pillar to the left used to be a table.)

Thus, in the middle of a weekend of cabin fever with the wife and baby (endless viewings of Dora the Explorer), Irving Berlin's lyrics to "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm" shot into my mind. It was definitely apropos; the snow was indeed snowing, I honestly could not remember a worse December and between duel combinations of Margaret and Ella and Louis and Ella, I had plenty of love to keep me warm and sane. So let's go back to Los Angeles in August of 1957 (not exactly a wintery) scene and listen to the magic conjured up by the unbeatable team of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, with swinging backing back Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, Ray Brown and Louis Bellson.

Now if that doesn't heat things up, I don't know what will. There's no trumpet playing (Armstrong's lip was going through a tough time and he didn't pick up the horn once on that August 13 date) but the sound of two of the greatest voices in jazz history more than makes up for its absence. Speaking of those voices, my eight-month-old baby daughter could tell you that they are quite different. On all their pairings, Ella and Louis usually found common ground when it came to keys but "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm" is a pretty wide-ranging outing, resulting in some quick switches. The song begins in Bb, with Pops reaching way down low to hit some of those notes. For his chorus in the sun, the group modulates up to C, but then back to Bb for Ella's reentrance. The piece stays in Bb until the end with Pops having no trouble with the bridge in that key and coming up with some nice harmonies in the final A section. The rhythm section is hot enough to melt all the snow in Jersey. Not exactly a historic performance but it's still incredibly enjoyable.

That's all for me. I hope to be back on Tuesday with my third annual "Very Satchmo Christmas" posting. I hope to have left the house by that point but you never know. My wife, a schoolteacher, has already had her high school closed for Monday. As for me, the Armstrong Archives will be wide open but my 2 1/2 hour commute could easily turn into 4 so don't be surprised if I take a one-day hiatus from the dream job. Thus, another day off with the wife and baby will insure plenty of love to keep all of us warm.

Now if only that love could dig out my car...

Friday, December 18, 2009

Baby, It's Cold Outside Revisited

Walking to work in 22 degree weather is never my idea good time, but that's the scenario I was in yesterday at 7 a.m. It was so freezing that I just bundled up, put my head down and started racing to the entrance of the Armstrong Archives. I was almost there when WHAP! Because of my head-down posture, I walked right into a tree branch, getting three minor cuts around my eye in the process. And the only thing going through my head was...?'s cold outside!

(Okay, elminate "Baby" and substitute the four-letter word of your choice.)

Anyway, I thought it was a good sign to officially revisit "Baby It's Cold Outside," one of Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton's most beloved numbers. Actually, this is going to be a very short visit. It's 4:28 a.m. and I have to leave for work in 12 minutes (22 degrees outside, in case anyone's wondering). The good news is, you can still check out my last blog on the subject by clicking here. Over there, you can get a brief history of the tune, listen to Louis and Velma's first, somewhat bland live broadcast of it and then hear one of my all-time favorite versions on the song, done in Canada in 1951.

But if you don't want to go through all that, stay here and enjoy this fantastic 1957 live version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" from the Orpheum Theater in Seattle, Washington. I think this is a terrific version; you can't help but laugh at Velma and Louis's antics and the audience sounds like they're having a ball, especially when Velma drops the line about "Jackson Street." As soon as the band would arrive at a gig, someone would ask a local for the name of the most dangerous part of town. Velma would drop it into "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and it always would get a huge laugh from the local fans. As Pops says, "Been in town two hours and done found out where Jackson street is!" Hilarious.

So here's "Baby, It's Cold Outside," something to give you a few laughs and warm up the insides. The outsides? You're on my own. As for me, I'm off to New York...and don't worry, this time I'll duck. Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

80 Years of Rockin' Chair

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 13, 1929
Track Time 3:19
Written by Hoagy Carmichael
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Henry "Red Allen, Otis Johnson, trumpet; J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Albert Nicholas, clarinet; Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Teddy Hill, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Will Johnson, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums, vibes; Hoagy Carmichael, vocal
Originally released on Okeh 8756
Currently available on CD: The JSP disc Hot Fives and Hot Sevens Volume 4 has both original takes. For the other 30 or so survivng versions, you're on your own!
Available on Itunes? Yes, on the above set

I know I promised a few more thoughts on Terry Teachout's "Pops" but that's going to have to wait a bit because I didn't want another Armstrong anniversary to pass me by. This past Sunday, December 13, marked the 80th anniverary of Armstrong's first recording of a tune he was to perform until the final year of his life, Hoagy Carmichael's "Rockin' Chair."

I've always wanted to do a blog on "Rockin' Chair" for a variety of reasons: the song is a classic and Armstrong's treatments over the years always contained some emotional trumpet playing and good laughter. But also, it's one of those songs where I really don't have to write a lot, I just have to let the different versions speak for themselves. And the way I've been going these days, that's just what I need. So grab a chair (it doesn't necessarily have to rock) and get ready to enjoy a little "Rockin' Chair."

The tune was written by Hoagy Carmichael, who was first bitten by the Armstrong bug when he heard Louis play with King Oliver at the Lincoln Gardens in 1922. I don't think the pair were best friends or anything but they definitely had a mutual appreciation society; an album of "Armstrong Plays Carmichael" would be guaranteed to feature nothing but winners.

"Rockin' Chair" was made during the stretch of sessions with Luis Russell's orchestra I discussed last week, beginning with "I Ain't Got Nobody" and "Dallas Blues" on December 10, then "St. Louis Blues" and "Rockin' Chair" on the 13th. For "Rockin' Chair," Armstrong apparently invited Carmichael himself to sing on the date, playing the role of the father while Armstrong would be the son. Early integrated jazz sessions are discussed frequently and of course we have the New Orleans Rhythm Kings with Jelly Roll Morton, the Eddie Condon "That's a Serious Thing" date, Armstrong's "Knockin' a Jug" and maybe a few more. But is "Rockin' Chair" the first time a black man and a white man sang a duet together on record? I can't think of any earlier instance, though please correct me if I'm wrong.

The original "Rockin' Chair" survives in two takes. The master is a classic, as will be heard in a minute. But if you really want to hear a fairly sloppy, warm-up, alternate take, listen to this one first:

Yikes! I guess they're mere mortals after all. The start is a mess as one of the second trumpet players (Red Allen or Otis Johnson) comes on a little too strong with his harmony part, causing Armstrong and the second trumpet player to stop abruptly. (You can hear them exchange glances.) Then it's off to the verse, which sounds like it's being read for the first time. Even Armstrong seems to be just noodling around, getting a feel for it. I wonder if they knew this was being recorded?

The vocal, though, is knocked out without any problems, Carmichael simply singing/half-talking his words with Armstrong simply repeating them, though the two add an extra order of ham in the last eight bars. Then after a simple vibes interlude (pre-dating Lionel Hampton), Armstrong comes in with his climactic trumpet solo, sounding strong as hell (good Pops Foster behind him). After Russell's crew takes the bridge, Armstrong takes it out with a series of searing high Ab's before a somewhat tentative closing cadenza. Not the worst performance in the world, but definitely room for improvement.

Fortunately, they nailed it two takes later. Here's the master:

Much better. Armstrong gets to play his lead uninterrupted in the first eight bars and he plays much more confidently during the verse. The vocal is very similar, with Armstrong providing all the responses. Carmichael's a little stiff but overall, you can sense the affection between the two legends. And if Carmichael was a little stiff, at least someone was present to take some notes for future use: trombonist Jack Teagarden, who didn't play on the date but according to Hoagy, was in attendence.

(Quick question: on this and every succeeding version of "Rockin' Chair," Armstrong always responds to the phrase "Can't get from this cabin" with something that sounds like "What cabin, choking, father." What is Pops saying and what does it mean? Will Friedwald once posed this question to a mailing-list of top jazz researcher's including the likes of Dan Morgenstern and George Avakian and no one could come up with a satisfactory answer. Anyone out there want to take a stab at it?)

After the vocal, Armstrong takes over, in blistering good form, those repeated high Ab's even more expressive, while the cadenza is perfectly poised. Ladies and gentlemen, a hit record was born...

Armstrong didn't waste any time putting it in his live repertoire. In fact, photos exist from Armstrong's 1933 European tour of Armstrong performing the tune with trombonist Henry Tyree, complete with Tyree wearing a hat and a fake beard in playing the role of the father. By 1937, Armstrong's career was officially taking off. He was once again fronting Luis Russell's orchestra in 1937 when he hired to host a series of radio broadcasts for the Fleischmann's Yeast company. I've written about these sessions time and again and I'll never tire of recommending the two-C.D. set released last year (makes a perfect stocking stuffer). On that package is version of "Rockin' Chair" featuring trumpeter Louis Bacon in the role of the father. Bacon's a little dry (there's a pun in there somewhere), but this version, to me, is more notable for the dynamic trumpet playing:

That version opened with no trumpet, just the Russell band playing an introduction. Armstrong sounds particularly exuberant in the vocal, really selling his responses. Once the vocal's finished, the reeds play the simple little break Paul Barbarin originally played on the vibes. Now, though, it sets up a real treat: 16 bars of peak-form Armstrong played over a new arrangement, complete with some chord substitions and a pounding bridge that's worthy of a strip club. He still hands it over to band for the bridge, adding a church-like atmosphere with some righteous "Hallelujahs," singing along with the group, feeling the spirit. He finally picks the horn back up to play something very similar to his original 1929 solo with those Ab's. However, by this point, almost every Armstrong record for Decca ended with an extended cadenza of some sort. This broadcast of "Rockin' Chair" features a 40 second ending with the band holding a single chord as Armstrong takes his time and drives home some powerhouse glisses. One of my favorite versions of the tune.

Two years later, it was back to the studio to record it for Decca with the popular Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra. This time, Armstrong shared vocal duties with trombonist Pee Wee Hunt (when I first heard this version, I was convinced it was Jack Teagarden and that my C.D. booklet was wrong! I was 16, what do you expect?). Here's the audio:

Once again, the vocal doesn't really interest me, though there's nothing wrong with it. The later Armstrong versions are so damn funny, these early ones just come off as kind of dry (though Pops's reponses are phrased beautifully). The main event in this version is Armstrong's plum-toned trumpet solo. What a sound he gets on this record. It's quiet, yet huge, deceptively high with no sense of strain. The Casa Loma band gives him a relaxed backing, different from the pounding tom-toms of Russell's group. The great Clarence Hutchenrider takes the bridge on alto before Pops ends it with some new playing, building up to the final high Eb.

Alas, "Rockin' Chair" seems to have disappeared during the war years as there are no versions of it on the dozens of surviving broadcasts from 1940-1946 (this doesn't mean that Armstrong didn't perform it, it's just that I have no concrete evidence of anything from those years). But on February 8, 1947, it made its comeback in a big way. That evening, Armstrong fronted Edmond Hall's sextet for half of a performance at Carnegie Hall. Utilizing a small group, Armstrong called many numbers he originally made famous in his OKeh days, including "Rockin' Chair." For this version, Hall's bassist Johnny Williams stepped into the role of the father. Now, I thought Hoagy and Louis Bacon were a bit dull? Williams sounds like he's having trouble staying awake, something that Pops picks up one when he says, "Yeah, boy, you're in bad shape," breaking up the audience in the process. But this is a historic for another reason: it's the first to feature Armstrong singing an entire chorus as the lead voice. Dig it:

For any Armstrong nuts familiar with Pops's later versions of the tune, it might be a bit stunning to see Armstrong's vocal chorus already cemented in stone. This is what makes me think he must have continued performing it during the war years. I mean every inflection, every phrase, even the fantastic ascending scat run in the middle of the bridge, it's all there. On top of that, Armstrong's trumpet is spectacular, though he's thrown for a loop for a second in his closing cadenza, perhaps worried that Jimmy Crawford was ending the piece too soon after the drummer's somewhat awkward accent. Pops pauses for half-a-second (again, you can hear him glance) before resuming on his way to a heroic finish. The only problem with the performance is Williams's boring father, offering nothing but a steady stream of "Mm-mm's" during Pops's chorus. Now if only Armstrong had an adequate partner for the song...

Well, that adequate partner was lurking right around the corner. And how! On May 17, 1947, Armstrong performed a similar concert at New York's Town Hall, fronting a small group for an evening of performances of Armstrong's early repertoire. On "Rockin' Chair," Armstrong called on trombonist Jack Teagarden to play the role of the father. Teagarden, whom Carmichael remembered as being at the original "Rockin' Chair" session, was more than up for the challenge. The mutual love and affection between these two musicians never shined brighter than on this performance. It's truly something special, pure magic, a lightening-in-a-bottle moment on an evening that had more than a few of them. Here is my all-time favorite version of "Rockin' Chair":

It seriously does not get any better than that. Teagarden's comebacks perfectly fit Armstrong's lead singing, and vice versa. The audience picks up on it, offering the kind of laughter that sounds positively giddy, the kind were you laugh in wonder of what you are watching, but consciously hold back a bit because you don't want to miss a word of it. They even break into spontaneous applause at one point, unable to contain their enthusiasm until the end. The two vocal choruses put me in such a happy state of mind that when Sid Catlett finally starts rattling his drums and Pops enters for the final trumpet solo, I can usually do nothing but cry. (Kudos to Bobby Hackett's second cornet part, too.) A magic moment.

The moment was so magical that it convinced Armstrong and Glaser to ditch the big band and start a small group, of which Teagarden would be the first man signed. Less than a month after the Town Hall concert, Armstrong brought many of that evening's stars into Victor's recording studios to cut four tracks, including "Rockin' Chair." It's a perfectly fine version but to squeeze it into three minutes of playing time, the tempo is a little too up, making the lazy interplay of molasses-slow pace of the Town Hall version sound a bit rushed. Thus, because I don't intend to share every version I own of "Rockin' Chair," I'm going to skip this studio version (if you really want to hear it, write in--or beg--and I'll make it happen). Instead, I'd like to offer something much, much rarer. By November 1947, Armstrong's All Stars were a raging success. Back at Carnegie Hall, Armstrong and Teagarden reprised "Rockin' Chair." This is an interesting version because it's completely unissued, it's in great sound quality and it offers a true rarity: Armstrong with a sore throat! I know it sounds hard to believe, but it's true; Armstrong's so scratchy at one point, he totally eschews his steamrolling scat break during the bridge of his chorus. Perhaps because of this or because he was just in a great mood, Teagarden is unusually feisty (I like his response to Armstrong's line, "But you ain't going nowhere": "I had 23 year years of one-nighters, I don't care to go no place!"). Once again, Armstrong's trumpet playing is stirring, though interestingly, he passes the ball to a seemingly unsuspecting Teagarden at the finish, though he swoops in for a typical high note ending. Give it a listen:

Armstrong and Teagarden had a bona-fide showstopper with "Rockin' Chair" and they performed it as often as possible. All in all, I have 12 versions of "Rockin' Chair" with Armstrong and Teagarden between the years 1947 and 1951, all of them wonderful but not really worth sharing. The routine pretty much remained the same, though little lines and jokes came and went (on one version from 1951, Armstrong sings, "But I ain't got no gin, father," causing Teagarden to respond, "Well, I guess I'll take a 7-Up then."). The most interesting thing about these "Rockin' Chairs" is the change in structure over the years:

1947 - Ensemble intro, Teagarden vocal lead, Armstrong vocal lead, Ensemble close
March and April 1949 - Ensemble intro, Teagarden vocal lead, Ensemble close - no Armstrong chorus
August 1949 - Ensemble intro, Teagaden vocal lead, Armstrong vocal lead -no closing ensemble
September 1949 - Teagarden vocal lead, Armstrong vocal lead - no opening or closing ensembles
December 1950 - Teagarden vocal lead, Teagarden instrumental bridge, closing ensemble
January 1951 - Ensemble intro, Teagarden vocal lead, Armstrong vocal lead - no closing ensemble

It took four years, but the structure of the January 1951 version would serve as the template for all future versions. The bad news? The glorious trumpet playing of the earlier "Rockin' Chairs" was now a thing of the past, which is a shame. The Town Hall trumpet lead, those cadenzas, those Ab's, they were all retired as of the beginning of 1951. Why? Because the Armstrong-Teagarden vocal was officially bringing down the house and couldn't be topped. The image of Armstrong and Teagarden ending the song with their arms around each other's shoulders, smiling broadly and singing the final line together, it was a perfect high note to end on. Thus, the days of the actual perfect high notes--speaking of the trumpet--were over, but even without them, "Rockin' Chair" always killed.

Unfortunately for Louis, Teagarden left the band in the summer of 1951. He returned for one more concert in Pasadena in 1951 but Teagarden proved a little rusty. In their All Stars days, Armstrong would sing, "Your cane laying there by your side," causing Teagarden to respond, "I use it as a trombone sometimes." At Pasadena, Armstrong sang his opening line, "Old Rockin' Chair's got you father," but Teagarden, not really paying attention, responded with the "Well, I use it as a trombone sometimes" line, getting zero lines (he had to repeat it awkwardly seconds later). Other than that snafu, it's a fine version and a fitting end--for now--to the great Armstrong-Teagarden partnership on "Rockin' Chair."

With Teagarden out of the band, it was time to hire a replacement. A lot of people assume Trummy Young jumped in at this point but in actuality, Teagarden was replaced by Russ Phillips, a musician out of Denver who once performed with the All Stars when Teagarden missed a Denver gig due to illness. Armstrong remembered his playing and suggested him as a replacement to Joe Glaser. Phillips was a good musician but to me, he was Jack Teagarden-lite. He even played one of Tea's features, "Baby Won't You Please Come Home" in a similar fashion but after Jack, it was awfully hard to hear anyone else perform that song with Armstrong. I think Armstrong wanted someone as similar to Teagarden as possible, which is why he personally sought out Phillips. But during Phillips's second month with the band, the All Stars visited Hawaii where Armstrong ran into his old pal Trummy Young. He immediately began asking Trummy to join the band and Trummy finally agreed, though not until he finished some prior commitments. He eventually joined in September 1952 as Phillips kept the trombone role warm during what was truly a rebuilding year for the All Stars.

Only a couple of hours of audio survives from Phillips's tenure with the band, but one broadcast from Boise in February captured an ultra-rare rendition of "Rockin' Chair." Let's hear how Phillips did:

Phillips is pretty good but he obviously learned Teagarden's lines pretty closely, right down to the "I use it for a trombone sometimes" line. It's fun and Pops sounds great, as usual, but really it's just a curiosity.

As mentioned, Trummy Young joined about six months later and it wasn't long before he was drafted into the role of the father on "Rockin' Chair." I have about ten versions of the tune with Trummy and they're all a lot of fun. Armstrong and Teagarden had a special bond but I think that Louis and Trummy were even closer, as Trummy spent years in the band as Louis's right-hand-man. Trummy's personality was more vivacious than Teagarden's and he could also ham it up and mug like mad when called to do so. Thus, Trummy's versions of "Rockin' Chair" lack some of the warmth of Teagarden's, but they're more energetic, a little hipper (Trummy peppered his responses with phrases like "so I could ooze alone" and "there's a gang of it") and arguably funnier.

Trummy's personality also must have inspired Armstrong two make two permenent changes to his responses in the first chorus. One change actually started during the Teagarden era. Jack always sang, "Fetch me my gin, son," to which Armstrong would reply "I ain't got no gin, father." But on an episode of Bing Crosby's radio show in 1950, Teagarden sang, "Fetch me a drink of water, son." Pops now replied, "You know you don't drink no water, father," getting a big laugh in the process. It was a good line, but they didn't use it every time after that, nor was it present on the Russ Phillips version. However, with Trummy, the line became a permenant part of the routine.

The other new change came after Trummy's next line, "Son, I'm gonna tan your hide." Armstrong's new response was "My hide's already tan!" I think it's hysterical and audiences always loved it but I'm sure it was lines like and routines such as "Rockin' Chair," with two black men mugging and cutting up onstage that drove the critics to their misery. I pity them.

Anyway, enough from me, let's listen to Louis and Trummy at the Crescendo Club in Hollywood, January 1955:

I find it amazing while listening to that version how fresh everything sounds. Armstrong is still putting everything into it and the laughter between the two sounds completely genuine, even though they had already been doing the routine for two years (well, in Armstrong's case, 26 years, but who's counting?).

There is one joke in there that I've never been able to fully make out. When Louis sings, "Looks like your cane laying there by your side," Trummy responds, "Oh man, I keeps it over there. That's my moral support!" Armstrong then mumbles something like, "You mean none support," which causes Trummy to admonish him, "Watch your language!" The two kept it in for a couple of years but by 1957, Armstrong stopped mumbling his little joke. But I have never heard it accurately and I don't even know what he's really saying. Any help out there?

Though Armstrong and Trummy nailed "Rockin' Chair," Trummy always stepped aside when Jack Teagarden was present. Teagarden guested with Louis on "Rockin' Chair" twice in high-profile situations in the late-50s. One appearance was at the Newport Jazz Festival, beautifully filmed by Bert Stern for "Jazz on a Summer's Day." You should be able to find that easily on YouTube but I'm going to skip it because it's edited. On December 30, 1957, they performed it at the first Timex All Star jazz show on NBC with Armstrong sitting in with a group of former and future All Stars associates: Bobby Hackett, Peanuts Hucko, Marty Napoleon, Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole. I thought about including this earlier with my discussion of Teagarden's versions, but Armstrong uses the lines from his duets with Trummy so I decided to keep it chronological. Either way, it's a magical television moment:

Armstrong and Trummy Young continued performing "Rockin' Chair" until Trummy's departure at the end of 1963. I'm not sure if his replacement, "Big Chief" Russell Moore, ever gave it a shot, but if he did, there are no surviving versions. Tyree Glenn joined the band in 1965 and but it took him some time to become Armstrong's foil. The two didn't begin performing "That's My Desire" until the summer of 1967. And regarding "Rockin' Chair," the first surviving version is from a BBC television show in July 1968, right before illness kept Armstrong off the stage for almost two years.

Fortunately, the 1968 version is a very good one, showing that routine still worked nearly 40 years later. Here's the audio:

I didn't want to spoil the surprise, but how about that opening trumpet bit??? Louis's chops were officially erratic during this period but when he was feeling good, stand back. He felt great on that July day and it shows at the beginning of "Rockin' Chair"; that might as well be a version from the 1950s, his tone sounds so strong and full. As for the routine, Tyree was also an energetic ham but sometimes he sounded like he was forcing it a bit and to me, I don't sense the same affection as on the versions with Teagarden and Young (the audience, too, doesn't seem to be laughing as much either, perhaps sensing that Tyree was just trying a bit too hard). Still, Pops sounds good and overall, it's a valuable version to have.

And finally, I've arrived at my final clip, which really brings us full circle: an a capella duet between Armstrong and Hoagy Carmichael from Armstrong's 1970 birthday bash at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Hoagy was the emcee that evening while Armstrong got to enjoy all of the different bands while seated onstage in a--you guessed it--rocking chair. After introductions and some jokes, Carmichael coaxed Armstrong into singing one chorus of the tune. Hoagy begins it fairly straight as he had in 1929 but Pops, after years and years of perfecting it, has all of his jokes in place, drawing huge laughs with the "my hide's already tan line." Hoagy responds by eventually hamming it up a bit himself, but it's Armstrong's show, right down to the touching harmonies and scat finish. This clip is six minutes long but "Rockin' Chair" only takes up the first two minutes. Enjoy:

That concludes my look at Armstrong's history with "Rockin' Chair." Phew. I'll be back in a couple of days with another look at "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and then I'll once again tackle Armstrong's Christmas recordings next week. Til then!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

San Francisco Chronicle Review of "Pops"

My review of Terry Teachout's new Armstrong biography, Pops, is now up on the Chronicle's web site. It's going to run in the actual newspaper on Sunday but you can enjoy it now by clicking here.

I'll be back in a couple of days with some further thoughts on Pops, a book that is positively exploding right now, creating quite a buzz around Louis, which I can never complain about (though reading some of these reviews have illustrated just how lost some people have been regarding him for all these years). So enjoy the review, enjoy Pops, if this is your first time to this blog, enjoy the madness and above all, enjoy Louis Armstrong. (And if Teachout's work awakens your curiosity in Armstrong, don't forget that my book on Armstrong later years is six months from being published...start saving those nickels!). Have a great weekend!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

80 Years of "I Ain't Got Nobody"

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 10, 1929
Track Time 2:44
Written by Spencer Williams, Dave Payton and Roger Graham
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Henry "Red Allen, Otis Johnson, trumpet; J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Albert Nicholas, clarinet; Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Teddy Hill, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Will Johnson, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Originally released on Okeh 8756
Currently available on CD: A Columbia disc from 1991, Louis Armstrong Volume 6: St. Louis Blues, was the first one to include both takes.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on the above set

"I Ain't Got Nobody" is probably the only Spencer Williams tune that still gets requested at weddings (though I'd love to be at one where the DJ plays "I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jelly Roll"). The reason for this is David Lee Roth's 1985 medley of "Just a Gigolo" and "I Ain't Got Nobody," which raped and pillaged Sam Butera's arrangement for Louis Prima right down to the saxophone solo (though Butera's "Witnesses" were replaced for the most part by a synthesizer...classy). Because Roth had a monster hit with the medley, "I Ain't Got Nobody" has become a song that even most people of my generation know and love. That's a good thing. The bad thing? Those same people often think Roth wrote the song. Yikes...

"I Ain't Got Nobody" was originally published in 1916 with lyrics by Roger Graham and music by the great Spencer Williams. (Interestingly, a 1914 copyright deposit of the tune as titled "I Ain't Got Nobody and Nobody Cares for Me" gives the credit to Chales Warfield, David Young and Marie Lucas. Make of that whatever you'd like...thanks Wikipedia!) It seems to have been a hit right from the start. Here's a copy of the original sheet music cover:

As the cover depicts, the song was obviously big in vaudeville, performed by blackface comedians and female singers alike. In the latter category, there's Marion Harris, who waxed one of the earliest versions of the tune in 1916. Thanks to YouTube, you can listen to it right now:

By the 1920s and 1930s, the song was still going strong, as can be heard in versions by Bessie Smith, Red Nichols, the Mills Brothers, Fats Waller (solo and with his Rhythm), Bing Crosby, Red McKenzie (check THAT one out on YouTube) and others. And 80 years ago today, Louis Armstrong recorded it, too.

One could argue that Armstrong was already somewhat familiar with the tune since he made two recordings in 1927 of "Melancholy," a song that's almost a clone of "I Ain't Got Nobody." But Armstrong's actual version of "Nobody" is special because it teamed him up with Luis Russell's orchestra, arguably the hottest big band in the country at that time. Armstrong and Russell weren't strangers, having played together briefly in early March 1929, an occasion commerorated by the recording of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" and "Mahogany Hall Stomp." After that session, Armstrong went back to Chicago before returning to New York in the summer to become a star with his rendition of "Ain't Misbehavin'" in Connie's Hot Chocolates (all of these 1929 specialties have blogged about by yours truly this year so feel free to go back and catch up on them...if you have a couple of free days to wade through it all).

Armstrong stayed in New York, recording a few times with Carroll Dickerson's orchestra, but eventually it was time for him to go out on his own. Instead of creating his own big band, Armstrong often toured and recorded as a single, fronting whatever orchestra he could hire for the occasion. And at the end of 1929, the combination of Armstrong and Russell's orchestra was an absolute no-brainer. The four tunes recorded in December of that year--"I Ain't Got Nobody," "Dallas Blues," "St. Louis Blues" and "Rockin' Chair"--are all pretty wonderful.

Beginning in the early 30s, Armstrong tended to (rightly) dominate his recording sessions. His backing bands often played erratically but it didn't matter as long as they provided a simple framework for Pops to play the melody, sing a chorus and take things out on top. But the Russell band was already at the peak of its powers, cutting one legendary record after another for OKeh. Armstrong wasn't about to get in their way which makes the 1929 sessions so special. Yes, Armstrong's the leader and is featured the most, but he also made room for solos by trombonist J.C. Higginbotham and alto saxophonist Charlie Holmes, as well as letting the band just do its thing: swing, swing and swing some more thanks to what I've always felt to be the first truly great swinging rhythm section of Russell's piano, Will Johnson's guitar, Pops Foster's bass and Paul Barbarin's drums.

But "I Ain't Got Nobody" is extra special because it allowed Armstrong to give a little bit of space to one of the Russell band's greatest acquisitions since that earlier March date, trumpet great Henry "Red" Allen. Allen and Armstrong knew one other from their New Orleans days and had a great deal of mutual respect for each other's playing. Allen cut a bunch of records in 1929, both with Russell and as a leader for Victor, who probably saw the opportunity to cast a new Armstrong. During this period, Armstong's influence on Allen was undeniable. As the years went on, Allen consciously tried breaking away from Pops's influence, leading to the daring tendencies that made him one of the first great "modern" jazz musicians ("Queer Notions" solo...nuff said).

But in 1929, Allen was so absorbed in Pops that sometimes it's hard to tell the two of them apart. And that's exactly what happens on "I Ain't Got Nobody." As you'll hear in a second, the record opens with the Russell band swinging through the verse before Armstrong enters with a vocal that starts off fairly subdued for the period, though it grows in both humor and intensity as it goes on. But then, after a brief transition, comes the main event: Armstrong and Allen trade fours for half a chorus. The incredible thing is that both men sound so alike, many writers have overlooked this and written about it as if it was just a single Armstrong solo (even Brian Peerless's notes for Columbia's 1991 issue of this music didn't mention it).

In 1994, Loren Schoenberg wrote, "For many years people have been intrigued by Red Allen's claim that he and Louis traded with each other so smoothly on one of these titles that it was impossible to spot." At the time, Loren assumed Allen was talking about a non-vocal take of "St. Louis Blues" but upon close listening, it has to be "I Ain't Got Nobody." The crazy part is, it seems like Armstrong and Allen are consciously trying to make it sound like one person's playing. They never overlap, but each one ends their four-bar stint right on the nose. The most telling evidence comes in the second four bars, when one of the trumpets resolves a phrase by working it into the lower register, immediately followed by another trumpeter swinging out in the upper register.

Now, you'll realize I'm using phrases like "another trumpet." That's because I'm not 100% sure who is who! If I had to guess, I think Armstrong leads, but I'm not sure. Maybe Allen takes 8, then Armstrong takes 8? I'd love to get some feedback from my readers on this one. After the 16 bars of trading, Armstrong and Allen team up to play an arranged passage on the bridge. Once finished, there's one more trade and this time, you can clearly hear another trumpet in the background. To quote Red Allen himself when playing one of these records years later, "My, my, those two trumpets do sounds alike, don't they?" Here's the master:

In 1991, a non-vocal version of "I Ain't Got Nobody" was discovered. It's a little slower and in place of the vocal, we get a chorus split by Higginbotham and Holmes. But we also get another trumpet trade and this time the evidence is concrete: there are times, sometimes only a second or two, when you can hear another trumpet playing something at the same time as the one soloing. (Does Armstrong pick up the ball at bar six?) Here's the alternate:

And naturally, I had to do some of my famous editing, so here are the two trading passages back to back:

Again, I'd love to hear what the experts--including Franz Hoffman, the world's foremost Red Allen expert and a reader of this blog--think. Let me know!

Armstrong never touched "I Ain't Got Nobody" again until the fall of 1959 when he recorded it for the album Satchmo Plays King Oliver on Audio Fidelity (yes, 1959, 50 years ago, making this a rare double-anniversary post!). Don't let the title fool you as I don't believe King Oliver ever touched this tune, which was the case with about half the numbers on the final album (which should have been titled "Satchmo Plays Some King Oliver Tunes, Some Tunes King Oliver Might Have Played and Some Songs in the Public Domain We Don't Have to Pay to Record"). I love the Luis Russell version but honestly, there's not a lot of Pops on it. The trading is fun and all but a lot of the record is given over to the band swinging through arrangement. Because of this, I think the 1959 "I Ain't Got Nobody" cuts the 1929 one to ribbons. Listen for yourself:

I don't know about you, but I think that performance is a classic, one of my favorites from Armstrong's final decades. Besides for Billy Kyle's bridge in the first chorus and Peanuts Hucko's bridge in the final chorus, it's Armstrong's show from start to finish...and what a show!

Backed by his All Stars--and fresh from a heart attack--Armstrong's first chorus demonstrates that even though he was recording tunes not associated with his mentor, he hadn't forgetten Oliver's advice on how to play lead, stating that melody perfectly, with just enough embellishment to keep it swinging. His vocal is simply wonderful. My goodness, the way he swings those quarter notes on "I'll sing my love song" at the bridge, it could move a mountain. The "hot mamas" references always makes me laugh and his phrasing of the final "nobody cares for me" is a righeous period to end a definitive statement.

The tempo's just slow enough that Armstrong doesn't have to pass the ball to anyone to get his chops together. He just lets the All Stars complete the turnaround and whammo, he's back and swinging. And just listen to the variations he comes up with in those 16 bars; this is mind-alterning stuff. It's free, it's operatic, it's daring, it's swinging, it's the complete package. Even his scattered runs, I listen to them and say, "Ahhh, so that's where Red Allen got that, too!" But as fantastic as those 16 bars are, it's just a warm-up for the final eight, where Pops simply goes for it and takes the melody up an octave higher than expected, nailing a high concert C for the titular "I" and topping it with a high D just seconds later. What a performance!

For the completists out there, Hank O'Neal discovered an alternate take of this tune years later and released it on his Chiaroscuro label. In fact O'Neal released an entire album of alternates and I've always found that he got a better sound out of these recordings than the audio geniuses at Audio Fidelity. It's a very similar performance, but I like the sound quality better and Armstrong trots out some different ideas in both the vocal and the trumpet solo, making it worth a listen:

I hope you enjoyed this look at Armstrong's recordings of "I Ain't Got Nobody." And please, feel free to leave a comment or send me an e-mail regarding the trading of Red and Pops. Thanks!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

On the Sunny Side of the Street: 1956-1970

Finally, the saga of Satchmo and "On the Sunny Side of the Street" concludes today (it's about time, I know). When we last left Pops, he was performing "Sunny Side" infrequently with the All Stars in the early-to-mid-50s. Yet every time he called it, he would change up the tempo or take a different trumpet break at the end or perhaps change his scatting or sing two choruses instead of one. There are no two versions quite the same during the All Stars years.

My last posting ended with Armstrong's fantastic "Chicago Concert" version of June 1956. Six months later, Armstrong cut a studio recording of "Sunny Side," the third such one of his career and the first one in almost 20 full years. The recording was made for Decca's Musical Autobiography project, which found Armstrong revisiting many of tunes he originally made famous in the 1920s and 1930s. If you've followed my blog for a while, then you know my feelings on the Autobiography: yeah, there's a couple of performances are so-so and the rhythm section is uncharacteristically plodding at times, but overall, it's the definitive statement of Armstrong's trumpet playing abilities in the 1950.

"Sunny Side" was tackled on the very first date, December 11, 1956. This was quite a period for Armstrong's chops and he knew it. Besides all the work he did on the Autobiography that month (arguably, the set's finest moments, including December 12th's "When You're Smiling"), Armstrong took the time to fly to London for a one-nighter charity concert that is quite possibly my all-time favorite live Armstrong document (I've shared "Lonesome Road" and "West End Blues" in best blogs). While in London, Armstrong bragged about how good he was feeling, his chops and about this edition of the All Stars (the Trummy Young-Edmond Hall band), saying they were his very finest. Definitely a prime period.

The December sessions attempted to recreate Armstrong's big band recordings of 1929-1934. To do this, Armstrong's standard All Stars were augmented by the reeds of George Dorsey, Dave McRae and Lucky Thompson, while Everett Barksdale's rhythm guitar enhanced the rhythm section. Sy Oliver was responsible for the arrangements, often using the simplicity of the originals as a foundation, but still managing to bring them up to date a bit.

For "Sunny Side," Oliver picked the exact same tempo as the 1934 Paris recording, but instead of letting the reeds drearily state the melody. he gave that chore to Armstrong and the All Stars, a welcome delegation. What happened next was pure magic. Get ready to be in a good mood for the rest of the day:

Ahhhh, did you feel the sunshine? My goodness, I don't think there's another recording in the history of recorded music that radiates such warmth. Truly, it's as close to basking in sunshine as you can get without leaving the house (and I'm writing this in the middle of a rainy/snowy evening in New Jersey).

Armstrong's introduction, though simple, serves as a clarion call, demanding you start paying attention NOW. After cameos from stalwarts Trummy Young and Billy Kyle, Armstrong embarks on a reading of the melody that's full of poise. Feeling stressed out? That melody reading should do the trick. And unlike "When You're Smiling," Armstrong strays from the melody enough to make it his own. It's technically a solo, there's so much rephrasing. But it's the relaxed atmosphere that gets me, especially the way he approaches the song's built-in high notes, hitting them almost gently, no need to get operatic so damn early in the record.

But as beautiful as that first chorus is, the real magic begins with the vocal. Oliver's writing for the reeds is particularly beautiful; they nothing but hold notes, but it sounds like a gang of angels, adding to the touching atmosphere at hand. And Armstrong, though he probably sung this song over a thousand times in 25 years, infuses every syllable with such meaning, it sounds like he's doing it for the first time.

After that first chorus, though, hold on to your seats. After being lulled into a state of peaceful bliss, Armstrong turns up the drama factor and begins preaching, much as he did on his original 1934 recording of the tune. The written melody is completely discarded as Armstrong boils each phrase to a series of single pitches, filling the gaps with scatting and putting his whole soul into those words. The scat break is pure perfection, too (and different from any others).

After ending with a triumphant reading of the song's title, Trummy Young swoops in for his eight-bar spot, keep the mood of the piece intact. Pops then enters with three descending repeated triplets, a dramatic entrance to a dramatic solo. As discussed in my last post, he began coming in eight bars earlier in late 1955 after years of coming in on the bridge. Eight bars doesn't sound like a whole lot, but Armstrong makes each one of them count, working over a motive like a baker kneads dough. Deems turns up the volume on his backbeat, Young and Hall continue their quietly conversational ensemble responses and Oliver's reeds still harmonize like angels.

If you've been with me since last week, the bridge will present no surprises: the "Faded Love" quote, the giant high concert B, the triplets and descending glisses, all of it in place as it had been in 1934. But there's something about the atmosphere, about everything that's preceded it, about the backing, the insistent riffs, the pure sound of Armstrong's all adds up to an unforgettable bridge.

The bridge is really the climax, but Armstrong keeps the drama high, storytelling in an operatic way by continually finding new ways and rhythms to approach an E, hammering it home right until the final slow ending, topped off by a high C.

I have always had a soft spot for this version of "On the Sunny Side of the Street." But about a year or two ago, my wife sent me out for ice cream. I had a Pops compilation in my car with this version and through it on. By that point, I had been enjoying this performance for well over a decade. But something hit me right in the gut on this occasion and I still don't know what it was. There was nothing serious going on in my life, no crisis, no breakdown. I was just overwhelmed the beauty of all six minutes of it. By the start of Armstrong's second vocal chorus, tears were streaming down my face. When he picked up the horn at the end for that entrance, every hair on my body stood at attention as I cheered him on, "Go, Pops!" It was such an emotional experience and though I've listened to it dozens of times since then and have never quite had that same experience again, it still moves me enough to be considered in my top five favorite Armstrong recordings of all time.

Well, after all of THAT, you might think I'm tapped out, but I still have a few versions to cover that I feel are worth giving a listen to. Almost a year after the Autobiography version was recorded, the All Stars found themselves in Buenos Aires, mobbed by fans and performing in front of adoring crowds. Only two radio broadcasts survive from this tour, both in far from ideal quality. Yet they capture the Armstrong-Young-Hall All Stars at their peak, tearing through numbers such as "Mahogany Hall Stomp," "I Get Ideas," "Tiger Rag" and "Ain't Misbehavin'." On of the broadcasts, Pops called "Sunny Side." He now found a tempo that suited him best, that walking medium pace that first showed up at the Chicago concert and continued in the above version. I'm not going to lie, there's not too much different in this performance from others I've shared so that combined with the poor quality warning practically guarantees that no one will listen to this sample. But if you have the time, click on it, wait for it to load and just start it about three minutes in. Armstrong's final trumpet solo is super-charged, featuring some new phrasing here and there. And I love hearing the crowd absolutely explode when Armstrong nails the trumpet break. Dig it:

Okay, it's video time! Five months later, on April 30, 1958, Armstrong performed "On the Sunny Side of the Street" on the second Timex jazz show. He still had his front line and he still had Billy Kyle but now Mort Herbert and Danny Barcelona rounded out the rhythm section. I've shared this video before on the blog and I've shown it in New Orleans. It was used in Gary Giddins's Satchmo documentary and Terry Teachout has been screening it nightly during his book tour. (Quick note: it might seem like I'm the last person in America to comment on Teachout's new Armstrong biography. The reason for this is I have reviewed it for the San Francisco Chronicle and I wanted to let that review run first before I dove into here. Hopefully, it'll run any day now...stay tuned.) But even if you've seen this clip a thousand times, I don't know how you could not watch it again. There's really no substitution for seeing Armstrong in action. Watching him sing, shaking his head and neck for vibrato purposes, closing his eyes, mugging a bit, he's a force of nature. And that trumpet solo...good God, with his eyes rolling back in his head and everything. What he put into a performance like this is indescribable and the fact that he did night after night, well, it's something to marvel at. So start marvelling:

I know I should really quit after that, but I'll quickly share a few more (if you want to leave now after watching that to go out and celebrate and just enjoy life, I'll understand; the audio isn't going anywhere!). In July 1958, Armstrong appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival, performing a set that I've ranted about for years because it's a travesty that Sony has never released it (thought with the website Wolfgang's Vault recently acquiring the Festival's catalog, there's finally hope). Before going on with the All Stars, Armstrong sat in for one number, "Sunny Side," with Marshall Brown's International Youth Band, a large group featuring jazz musicians from around the globe (including George Gruntz, Gabor Szabo and many others). This version really takes us back because not only does Armstrong get big band backing (and not just harmonized chords and riffs as in Sy Oliver's arrangement) but the tempo is way down again back in ballad territory. It's beautifully recorded and features perhaps the funniest scat break of Armstrong's entire career:

Armstrong plays the melody beautifully in the first chorus but there's a little tentativeness here and there, which explains his calling for a glass of water as soon as he starts singing (can't let the chops get too dry). The vocal is typically wondrous, with that pleading, emotional second chorus. But seriously, that scat break knocks me on my ass every time. You can hear his mind pause for a second, grasping for something--anything--to sing. And what was always on the tip of Armstrong's brain? Swiss Kriss, of course! I think "Swiss Kriss gets it Jack" is a better slogan than "Leave it all behind ya."

Like the old versions, Armstrong enters at the bridge instead of eight bars earlier but he postively soars over the band. Whitney Balliet was a critic who had no trouble criticizing Armstrong's vaudvillian nature in the 1950s but even he was emotionally blown away by seeing this performance live.

In January 1959, the All Stars embarked on a marathon tour of Europe, from which hours and hours of audio survives. Somewhere in Europe during that tour (it's literally not known where or when), the All Stars were recorded in terrific sound quality taking "Sunny Side" out for another spin, following their usual arrangement of one Armstrong vocal chorus (dig Trummy and clarinetist Peanuts Hucko's little riff behind the vocal, something that started cropping up during the Timex show period). Armstrong enters eight bars early and blows wonderfully until the close. No real surprises, but the sound quality is nice so if you want to hear how Armstrong was blowing this tune right before his heart attack, click here:

And if you want to hear how Louis was blowing on this tune right after his heart attack, then you've come to the right place. My final clip is from a concert given by the All Stars in the summer of 1960 in Highland Park, IL. Armstrong was feeling his oats that day, blowing the roof on numbers like "Bill Bailey," "The Faithful Hussar" and yes, "West End Blues." He had performed "Sunny Side" twice on television that year (one, a reunion with Herman Chittison, the pianist on the original 1934 recording, is something I would love to hear) so clearly he was enjoying playing it.

The Highland Park version exists in poor sound quality with the first half of it pitched too fast (you'll hear it slow down and get straightened out during the vocal). Still, you can pick up on the crowd digging it, clapping on the wrong beat throughout the first chorus. Everything is perfect, the melody chorus, the vocal, the trumpet entrance, the "Faded Love" quote...until the break. It's clear that he wants to do his triplets-and-glisses bit but he can't execute the triplets as fast as he'd like (as fast as he had the previous year). Instead, he plays three slower triplets and tops it off with a giant descending gliss. He hadn't lost his power and he nails the gliss, along with everything that follows. But the velocity was going and not being able to nail those rapid triplets must have killed him. Here's how it came out that day:

And that, my friends, was that for "On the Sunny Side of the Street," at least as far as surviving recordings go. I'm sure he continued to play it a bit longer; Jack Bradley remembered him ending a set with a stirring rendition of it at Freedomland in 1961, as a dedication to Armstrong's friend Slim Thompson. But there are other concert recordings from1 1960, some from 1961, a ton from 1962 and there are no "Sunny Sides." I think Pops knew it was time to put the tune out to pasture, though I'm sure if it was requested or if he was really feeling 100%, he'd still call it.

But what a run, huh? I hope you got some enjoyment out of this four-part examination of 27 year of Louis Armstrong playing "On the Sunny Side of the Street," one of the best combinations in jazz history.