Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Walkin' My Baby Back Home

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded April 28, 1931
Track Time 3:07
Written by Roy Turk and Fred E. Ahlert
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Preston Jackson, trombone; Lester Boone, alto saxophone; George James, alto saxophone, baritone saxophone; Albert Washington, tenor saxophone; Charlie Alexander, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; John Lindsay, bass; Tubby Hall, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41497
Currently available on CD: It’s on the JSP two-disc set The Big Band Sides, 1930-1932
Available on Itunes? Yes

For the second day in a row, the Itunes shuffle landed me in the same general period: the OKeh big band sides of the early 1930s. Unlike “Indian Cradle Song,” today’s subject is a bona fide standard, “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home.” I’ll spend the most time discussing the Armstrong version, but searching through the Internet I found a bunch of other renditions from the same period so, as usual, I’d like to share them to get a feel for the pop music scene of 1931 and how Armstrong sounded amongst everyone else. If you’re just here for Pops, scroll down a bit. But if you’re general fan of the tune, stand back...

“Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” was written in 1930 by the team of Roy Turk and Fred E. Ahlert (“I’ll Get By,” “Mean to Me,” “I Don’t Know Why,” “Love You Funny Thing”). The two earliest versions I found come from the year of its conception, though I don’t know much about the artists or the record dates. First, here’s Tom Barratt singing it:

And next, from November 1930, “The Foursome,” one of those male vocal groups that used to crowd up those Fats Waller small group sessions from the late 20s. Don’t expect Red Allen or Jack Teagarden to come barreling in but give it a chance to see what Armstrong was competing with (and how far we’ve come in 80 years!):
The Foursome: November 1930

Neither of those versions seemed to do much but a series of recordings of the tune in February 1931 seemed to cement its status as a standard. The Charleston Chasers (with Benny Goodman) were the first to tackle it with this peppy Glenn Miller arrangement (vocal by Scrappy Lambert) from February 9, 1931 (they also recorded “When Your Lover Has Gone” that day, another tune Armstrong recorded during the same time period as “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home”):

Did you hear the way the verse was arranged after the first vocal? Keep that in mind...

A week later, Ted Weems recorded a hot version that became a hit (charted number eight according to Joel Whitburn’s pretty unreliable Pop Memories). Click here
to listen to it.

Four days later, the tune got a feminine touch thanks to two different records made on the same day. You can hear Annette Hanshaw’s somewhat dull reading by clicking here. That same day, the still popular Lee Morse put her yodeling spin on the song. She yodels part of it, scats a little bit and in the end, reminds me how Margaret Dumont would have sounded if she performed the song. Here it is, courtesy of YouTube:

Along with Weems, the other big hit version was done by guitarist/vocalist (I think I have that mixed up) Nick Lucas. Lucas was still performing it as late as 1951, as some YouTube footage attests to, but here’s the 1931 original:

And just to skip ahead for a minute, Al Bowlly recorded it in London in June 1931. Armstrong did it in April but I’m including it here because he pretty much used the same stock arrangement as Armstrong, at least for the introduction:

Still with me? On to Pops! Where was Armstrong during all of this? He was still in California, making wonderful music with Les Hite’s group, cutting one timeless record after another, broadcasting on the radio...and getting arrested for marijuana possession, spending nine days in jail in March 1931. That was pretty much the end of Armstrong’s California stay. With his new manager, Johnny Collins, Armstrong headed back to Chicago where he finally formed his own group after fronting other big bands since coming to New York in 1929. This is generally known as the Zilner Randolph band, but according to Jos Willems’s All of Me, Randolph himself remembered that he didn’t join Armstrong until a Detroit engagement in May 1931, so the personnel was already set by then. Regardless, this was a group that many critics still consider committing suicide over, with their sometimes out-of-tune pitch problems and ragged quality. Armstrong didn’t care, telling anyone who would listen that this group, which included some New Orleans homeboys, was one of the happiest he ever led.

Back in Chicago, OKeh quickly scooped Armstrong up to record eight songs in three sessions over a period of nine days in late April. The very first tune tackled was “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home.” To hear it, click here.

Remember the Al Bowlly introduction? Compare the two if you have a second. Armstrong’s is more ragged (it’s easy to overuse that word when describing this band but it’s so accurate) with the somewhat sloppy overlap of Armstrong coming in over the trombone, but at least it’s got life compared to the stoic playing of The Alberta Dance Band. As I’ve demonstrated before, Armstrong’s groups borrowed heavily from many stock arrangements of the time, but usually just in small sections. When Armstrong blew, he usually liked it one way and one way only: with a strong emphasis from the reeds on the downbeat. Sometimes he liked it on one-and-three, but one always had to emphasized. Here, George James uses his baritone to give a heavy bottom to the harmonizing, which slightly accents the third beat but really lays heavily on the first while the rhythm section hammers away at all four beats underneath, not quite swinging, but providing a solid foundation for Armstrong to rhythmically float over.

And that’s just what Pops does. Surrounded by stiffness, he magically turns somewhat corny melody into something dazzling. I mean, just listen the descending, two-notes-at-a-time run he casually tosses off just eight bars into his melody statement. He barely touches the melody in his next eight, answering some of his louder phrases with lower, softer ones, akin to the “oh babe” asides that permeated his vocals. I don’t even know how to describe the bridge. It’s almost like the sheet music fell off the stand. There’s a hint of the melody in there, but really the whole thing is a masterpiece of phrasing. Listen to where he puts his accents (never expected), listen to the use of space, the almost vocal-like endings to his much to comprehend. He continues improvising throughout the final eight bars, swinging more concretely but still rhythmically free, leading up the signature “doddle-doddle-da-da” sign-off phrase he ended many of his trumpet solos with. That’s a lot of information in 32 short bars, folks. And just the first chorus! The rest of the record could have featured Mike McKendrick holding a trill on his guitar and I’d be satisfied.

Fortunately, there’s more good stuff. Like many records of early pop tunes, the verse follows the first melody statement, cribbed from the Charleston Chasers record with Armstrong playing the soft trumpet responses to the reeds’s reading of the melody (it’s no Benny Carter section, but damn, Armstrong’s reed sections always had an identifiable sound thanks to Lester Boone’s lead alto sound).

Then it’s vocal time, backed, like we heard on “Indian Cradle Song,” by a guitar solo. McKendrick seems to have trouble getting started but he plays some nice, bluesy ideas as he goes along. But the main event is Pops, who dives right in by adding the word “now” to the song’s first line. He actually gives the melody some respect for the first eight bars but after that, it’s time for a lesson in phraseology. He improvises a whole new melody until the bridge where he again reverts back to the melody, but starts with another telling “now” and throws in a quiet “baby,” much like those aforementioned trumpet asides. Armstrong can’t help but swinging like made in those last eight bars, ending the delightful vocal with a down-home reading of the title phrase.

Now the band picks up a bit, drummer Tubby Hall giving Armstrong another favorite device, backbeats on the cymbals. The reeds still kind of gargle and burble alone, still emphasizing the first strong beat, but now we have a new soloist, the shouting and strutting trombonist Preston Jackson of New Orleans. It turns out to be a trade and it’s a good one. Armstrong’s entry into the sweepstakes is so simple but so swinging; you can hear that the rhythm section is really driving him. Jackson responds with some funky playing on the first and third beats, neatly juxtaposed with Hall’s cymbal thwacks, before he begins stomping on all the beats (I think of Russell “Big Chief” Moore when I hear this passage). Armstrong responds with a tremendous gliss to a high concert Bb but descending in style, swinging both on the beat and around it.

Armstrong, happy to share the spotlight on this, his first OKeh recording with his new band, hands the entire bridge over to George James, now on alto. James has another unique sound but sounds pretty good, ending on a very bluesy phrase (though the main note of it doesn’t really come out). With the reeds once again resorting to harmonies on the first beat, Armstrong takes it out in style with Jackson by his side. This group is usually referred to as a “big band” but it only had one trombonist and one trumpeter (Armstrong). The two brassmen from New Orleans take it out with some collective improvisation, though Armstrong is in his own world, relying on dramatic three note phrase (Ab to F, back to Ab) to emphatically close the record, ending on a sky high concert Db. Wonderful stuff.

Armstrong never revisited “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” which is kind of a surprise since the tune had a whole new life in the 1950s after hit versions by Nat “King” Cole in 1951 and Johnny Ray in 1952. Since then it’s been covered by everyone: Dean Martin, Bing Crosby and Judy Garland, James Taylor, John Pizzarelli and even most recently, Natalie Cole and her dead father (ah, technology!). After King Cole, almost all the subsequent versions took on the pace of a leisurely stroll, making Armstrong’s incessantly pounding version perhaps sound slightly odd at first. But it only takes a couple of bars to realize that this is Louis Armstrong in his prime, beginning yet another series of classic OKeh recordings with his “happiest” band.

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