Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Because of You Revisited

Recorded September 17, 1951
Track Time 3:17
Written by Arthur Hammerstein and Dudley Wilkerson
Recorded in New York City
Louis Arrmstrong, trumpet, vocal; Charlie Holmes, George Dorsey, alto saxophones; Harold Clark, tenor saxophone; Dave McRae, tenor saxophone, bariton saxophone; Don Abney, piano; Everett Barksdale, guitar; Frank Goodlette, bass; Jack Parker, drums; Sy Oliver, arranger, conductor
Currently on CD: Satcmo Serenades
Available on Itunes? Yes

Another good old, good one, if you don't mind, this was one of my very first blogs (to show you how old it is, it opens with a reference to a Kelly Clarkson pop hit of the same name, then quite popular but now, I'm guessing not so much). "Because of You" is still one of my all-time favorite Armstrong songs, one that I've used to demonstrate the greatness of Armstrong's pop records for Decca during my lectures at the Institute of Jazz Studies. I haven't added anything new except for the music likes and in the end, that's all that really matters. Dig it...

Sorry Kelly Clarkson fans, this "Because of You" is not the same song the American Idol superstar currently has a hit with. Written in 1940, this "Because of You" didn't explode until a young Tony Bennett recorded it in 1951, turing it into a number one hit for ten weeks. Enter Decca and Louis Armstrong. In 1949, Armstrong's producer at Decca, Milt Gabler, came up with the idea to team Armstrong's voice with Gordon Jenkins's lush strings to record a couple of pop tunes. The resulting 78 ("Blueberry Hill" backed by "That Lucky Old Sun") was a hit and Decca now had a formula: Armstrong + Pop Song + Studio Band = Hit.

Truth be told, the formula didn't exactly work as Armstrong's early fifties Decca records didn't produce as many hits as Gabler and Armstrong's manager, Joe Glaser, would have hoped for. Some broke through and continue to resonate on grocery store loudspeakers or during romantic comedy climaxes (such as "La Vie En Rose" and "A Kiss to Build a Dream On") but the rest became more or less forgotten. Few of the songs entered Armstrong's live repertoire with his sextet, the All Stars, and hardened jazz critics raised hell about the mere prospect of Armstrong recording pop songs. At the time of these Decca recordings, disc-jockey Frenchy Sartell wrote, “My blood is boiling, my ire is aroused. How dare they do it to my favourite jazz ‘great’? How dare they bury him in commercialism?” Of course, this is crazy talk. If Armstrong did indeed go commercial it wasn't in 1951, it was in 1929 when he started making standards out of pop tunes for Okeh. Or if you want to go back earlier, to when he was featured on Noel Coward's "Poor Little Rich Girl" while a member of the Vendome Orchestra. Armstrong always loved making great jazz out of pop songs, regardless of the quality, something that he shared with many other New Orleans musicians.

So with Tony Bennett tearing up the charts with his versions of "Because of You" and "Cold Cold Heart," Milt Gabler brought Armstrong into to the studio to record his own renditions of these two disparate songs. Veteran arranger Sy Oliver was brought in to arrange the two performances, placing Armstrong's voice and trumpet on top of a cushion of reeds, four to be exact. "Cold Cold Heart" is a harmless record, but "Because of You" is magic, right from the stirring notes of Armstrong's opening trumpet cadenza (how many crooners could play that?). It's only 10 seconds, but the gorgeous opening cadenza brings back reminders of such earlier Armstrong recordings as “West End Blues” and “You’ll Wish You’d Never Been Born.” The rhythm is locked in the two-beat feel but it’s in a more Jimmie Lunceford-style, bouncing instead of plodding. Enough from me, listen for yourself:

Armstrong’s vocal is lovely, delivering the pretty lyrics with contagious joy. Yet the most interesting aspect of the record is the trumpet obbligato behind the vocal delivered by none other than Armstrong himself! Two years later, George Avakian would have Armstrong overdub himself playing and scatting over his vocal on “Atlanta Blues” and this is usually credited as one of the earliest examples of the practice in the recording industry. But truthfully, Armstrong had done it first on “Because of You,” though even he admitted it wasn’t such an easy thing to do: “I did a gimmick bit for Decca with ‘Because of You,” he told Variety, “and let me tell you, Pops, I won’t go through that again."

Besides the overdubbing gimmick, the true highlight of the performance is Armstrong’s trumpet solo. Whatever the Decca studio brought out in him might never be known, but Armstrong did some of his best trumpet work on these pop sides from the early 50s and “Because of You” is one of his best. As he had done on his old version of “When You’re Smiling,” he plays the melody an octave higher then would be expected. It's the kind of song that once you realize what he's doing, you almost become worried, thinking, "Geez, this thing is going to get pretty high...I hope he makes it!" Of course he does, with a string of high concert Ab’s, topped off by very high concert Bb. He then delivers a stirring double-timed break, so logical in its choice of notes yet so perfectly executed it’s a marvel then the song didn’t become one of Armstrong’s best known. And listen carefully for his delayed vocal entrance after the trumpet solo. He's so far behind the beat, it almost sounds for a second that he forgot to resume singing. But, relaxed and asssured, he catches up. Then pausing to let the saxes play a bit of melody, he again catches up with a perfectly phrased reading of the lyric all reduced to one pitch. It's one of my favorite Armstrong vocal moments. Add in the scat coda and final, "That's the end" and you have a just plain wonderful record. If this is commercial music, then I'm proud to consider myself a fan of commercial music.

Unfortunately, "Because of You" did not become part of Armstrong's regular repertoire but he did perform it live with the Les Brown big band at a December 1951 concert in Pasadena. Fortunately, it's available on Itunes (and on a GNP-Crescendo CD) as part of "Louis and His Friends." It's definitely worth listening to for the differences in the opening trumpet cadenza and in the phrasing of the vocal. Here's the Pasadena version:

Hilariously, Armstrong forgets the lyric, "The moon and stars will say you're mine," substituting it with, "And Mama...made you mine," drawing some laughs from the other musicians in the band. Armstrong's scat break on the live version is particularly crackling. The trumpet solo follows the pattern of the studio recording to a tee, taking it up an octave higher and ending with a completely different but no less effective break. In the vocal reprise, the delayed, behind-the-beat reentrance is gone, replaced by a humorous, "I only live, mama, for your love and your kisses," laughing a bit at his own way of spinning the phrase. He then holds an "Mmmmm" just long enough until he finds the perfect spot to drop in the next part of the lyrics. What a genius. So don't worry about the commercial B.S. This is great music and it's truly one of my favorite Armstrong records...and it kicks the hell out of Kelly Clarkson!

1 comment:

Sebastian (Berlin/Germany) said...

The analysis is excellent as everything in this blog. But nonetheless: 'Because of you' never did really appeal to me - although I love the best of Armstrong's Decca "commercial recording". And my favourite one is the Gordon Jenkins arranged 'Indian Love Call' ... (IMO one of the most beautiful melodies ever written and a perfect vehicle for old Satchmo's way of making jazz out of schmaltz & pop)