Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded April 28, 1931
Track Time 3:12
Written by Jule Styne and Ned Miller
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 41501
Currently available on CD: It’s on the JSP two-disc set The Big Band Sides, 1930-1932
Available on Itunes? Yes
When my Itunes shuffle landed on this tune, I initially hesitated; surely, the politically correct crowd would disapprove such a patronizing song complete with lyrics about a “kinky-headed baby” and “papa’s little colored sonny boy.“ Surely, the cringe-inducing tone of the lyrics, at least on a surface level, has led “Little Joe” to kind of become a “lost” Armstrong track from the wonderful OKeh big band days. I did an Itunes search for the song and found a one single, solitary release featuring the song, an old Columbia disc that chronologically featured Armstrong’s recordings of the era. Armstrong recorded “(I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead) You Rascal You” the same day as “Little Joe.” You don’t want to know how many versions I found of that tune on Itunes...
So “Little Joe” has kind of been pushed out of the spotlight though the years and honestly, I’ve never given it much of an in-depth listen either. But for the blog purposes, I threw it on and was immediately captivated. Three minutes and 12 seconds later, I knew I had the subject for my next entry. I’ve listen to it almost daily for about a week and I find something new to love about it every day. I’m not saying it’s a classic like “West End Blues” or “Star Dust,” but if you haven’t paid much attention to it because of the nature of the lyrics, you’ve missed out. (Consider this a second chance!)
Anyway, the song was written by the team of Jule Styne and Ned Miller, who already had one hit together in 1925 with the venerable standard “Sunday.”
As for Styne, yes, “Little Joe” was written by THE Jule Styne, the man behind “Just In Time,” “Make Someone Happy,” “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” “People” and “Let Me Entertain You.” It’s safe to say that I don’t think “Little Joe” has been performed at many Styne tributes.
According to one shady website, “Little Joe” was written specifically for Mildred Bailey but I have not been able to confirm this information anywhere else, so it’s probably not true. But Bailey herself did get around to recording it on March 23, 1937 with her husband Red Norvo’s orchestra, the same day she recorded a famous version of her signature tune “Rockin’ Chair.” Again, if you’re just listening on a surface level with a 2009 set of ears, the lyrics can be pretty offensive. But when you look at the songwriters involved and the performers involved, included Bailey, it becomes clear that it’s a pretty affectionate tune. Skipping into the future, here’s the great Mildred Bailey:
For posterity’s sake, here are the complete lyrics Bailey sung:
Little pickaninny, stars are in the sky
Time that you were in your bed.
Go to sleep while mammy, croons a lullaby
To her little curly head.
Little Joe, Little Joe
Though your color isn’t white, you’re mighty like a rose to me.
Little Joe, Litle Joe
Though your eyes are black as coal, your little soul is white as snow to me.
Kinky-headed baby, I will always love you til the judgement day.
Even though the white folks may think nothing of you, and they always chase you away.
Little Joe, Little Joe
You’re my little pride and joy, your mammy’s little colored sonny boy.
So there you have it. They ain’t pretty, but there’s an awful lot of love in those lyrics, something that really shines through with Mildred’s voice. However, I can’t say the same about the next recording I want to share of the tune, from February 19, 1931, recorded a couple of months before Armstrong recorded it. It’s from the popular Ted Weems orchestra and though I don’t know who is singing it, I don’t hear any of the affection present in Bailey’s version. It’s a typical tenor of the day and though he tries to put a lot of heartfelt emotion into it (dig the bridge), I almost feel that he is SO white, that we’re now in an offensive territory. Click here to listen.
(Of course, that same day, Weems recorded “Jig Time,” which part of me wants to believe has something to do with an Irish or country “jig” but with its lyrics about rhythm, the hot soloing from the band and tap dance interlude, makes me squirm at the thought that they used “Jig” in the most offensive way possible. But I don’t believe in hiding from history or pretending things like this never happened, so click here to hear “Jig Time" and judge for yourself.)
With that out of the way, let's get to the main event. Weems recorded "Little Joe" in February 1931 while Armstrong was in California. When he arrived back in Chicago and began a series of sessions for OKeh with his own big band, the record company had a number of pop tunes for him to record, such as "Little Joe." I went into some details on this period in my January entry on "Walkin' My Baby Back Home" but I want to repeat Zilner Randolph's assertion that he didn't join Armstrong's band as music director/second trumpet until the following month. Thus, I don't know who wrote the "Little Joe" arrangement but even if it's a stock, it's a good one.
Before including the link to the music, I just want to say that "Little Joe" is a good transitional recording in terms of Pops the trumpeter. As stated time and again on this here blog, there was only one Louis Armstrong and all attempts to separate the man into a young, serious artist who played dazzling trumpet and an older clown who couldn't play as well as he used to will be laughed at by the author. But stylistically speaking, Armstrong in the 1920s employed a lot more velocity in his phrases than he would in later years (and I'm not just talking when he was an old man, I mean the late 1930s, too). By the early 30s, Armstrong's dramatic, operatic style was really taking over, with its use of floating phrases, freakish high notes and tremendous feats of endurance.
"Little Joe" uses a device Armstrong used a few times in the 1930s: playing his first solo muted and returning at the end with powerful open horn playing (see "All of Me" or "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" for examples). Thus, when listening to "Little Joe," listen to how Armstrong still trots out some very fast fingering while muted and how he sits back and soars more dramatically in the end with his open horn, the two styles of Armstrong's trumpet playing merging together beautifully in the course of a little over three minutes.
Enough from me, listen to "Little Joe":
Now see, that didn't hurt a bit, right? I'm telling you, I dig this record more and more with each passing listen. The record opens with the muted Armstrong alluding to the song's verse in the four-bar introduction before he launches into a reading of the melody. His first playing of the three-note "Little Joe" phrase is strong but soon he's coming up with variations on it, much as he will on the vocal. The reeds take over the melody for a bit but leave breathing room for Pops to take a break that sounds an awful lot to me like the genesis of the immortal opening phrase of Lester Young's "Shoe Shine Boy" solo. It's not an exact match, but it's close enough!
Another thing I love about "Little Joe" is the way it shows how Pops sounded when playing on the beat and when he laid back a little behind it. During the whole muted opening, the rhythm section accents every quarter-note with a delicate wisp, almost marching, rather than swinging. With this static foundation, Armstrong breathes down the neck of the beat, sticking as tightly to it as the mute in his Selmer trumpet. He's pushing it, prodding it and practically sweating on top of it. It allows him to springboard off of it with the aforementioned fleet-fingered phrases, swinging mightily but not in a relaxed manner.
After the proto-"Shoe Shine Boy" break, Armstrong plays the titular phrase but cracks it a teeny bit, which sometimes happened in his muted playing, offering a rare fragile glimpse into a different facet of his trumpet sound. The second eight bars follows the pattern of the first, Armstrong taking another dizzying, dazzling break before the bridge. Here, Armstrong relaxes a hair for some of his customary floating, but there's still an urgent quality to the way he develops his motives, working over one at the start of the bridge and another in the midway point.
Armstrong gets lowdown with his melody reading the last time through but just when you brace yourself for one more devastating display of trumpet prowess, a chortling Preston Jackson takes over for a quick, woozy hint of melody on his trombone (do I hear another trumpet with Jackson? There's none listed in the discography but I'm not so sure). But it's with good reason as Pops has to step up to the mike to deliver his version of the vocal which I'd like to transcribe right here, right now:
Now Little Joe, oh hear me calling Little Joe,
Though your color isn't white, you're more than mighty like a rose to me.
Little Satchelmouth Joe, oh Little Joseph,
Though your eyes are black as coal, your little soul is white as snow to me.
Your kinky-headed baby, I'll always love you til the judgement day (bay-bi),
(Now babe) Even though the white folks, they think nothing of you, they always drive you away.
Little Gatemouth Joe! Oh Little Rivermouth Joe,
Son, you're my little pride and joy, your papa's little colored sonny boy.
That's more like it. If you have to sing "Little Joe," THAT'S the way to do it! Armstrong's good-natured affection and enthusiasm more than transcends any of the horribly dated aspects of the lyrics. Perhaps Armstrong was thinking of the "Little Joe's" he knew, including "Little Joe" Walker from his days playing at the Sunset Cafe and drummer Little Joe Lindsay, brother of Armstrong's bassist on the session and the man who co-formed the very first jazz band little Louis led while a teen in New Orleans.
But regardless, Pops already proved how proud he was of his race when he made the decision to record "Black and Blue" in 1929. "Little Joe" have included some poor choices of words in the lyrics, but in the end the message is clear, something Dan Morgenstern summed up in one sentence much better than I could do in an entire blog entry: "If that's not black-is-beautiful, I don't know what is."
With the vocal out of the way, there's still more than a minute left on the record, enough time for Pops to discard his mute and start wailing dramatically in his most grandiose style. Remember the slight cracking in his muted playing? It's nowhere to be found with his open horn. He plays that first "Little Joe" phrase and positively soars on that third note. He sticks close to the melody for a bit, but then gets damn blues throughout the second eight bars. He's relaxed and powerful, but still manages to throw in another double-timed phrase right before the bridge, another marvelous Armstrong creation that relies on little more than two pitches, but the way he plays them, he creates a song all his own (in fact, the vocal trio on Noble Sissle's "Characteristic Blues," including Sidney Bechet himself, turns this phrase into part of the routine in between Billy Banks's falsetto vocal).
The alto saxophone of either Lester Boone or George James takes over for half the bridge (all of Pops's reedmen in his early 30's big band had such distinct tones) before Armstrong swoops back in with a crackling clarion call to announce his presence, five notes, the last two repeated before he pauses for a beat. He takes the rest of the bridge in style, stretching a simple phrase like a baker kneads dough, playing it quickly a few times, then slowing it down until we're safely in the Louis Armstrong Universe of Time (where there's no such thing as gravity). He holds a high note into the final A section, milking the "Little Joe" phrase for all its worth and continuing to the keep the essence of the blues in each one of his phrases. What sounds like a clarinet trio finishes the melody but Armstrong gets to play a beautifully sweet concluding phrase, one that sticks with the listener long after the record has faded (and like the Pres "Shoe Shine Boy" lick, resembles an early proto-type to the closing phrase of Fats Waller's immortal "Jitterbug Waltz").
So that's that for "Little Joe." The dated, uncomfortable lyrics have relegated this tune to jazz purgatory but hopefully giving it a fresh listen today will prove that it's a very good record, with Armstrong playing and singing quite wonderfully (can't I say that about a thousand records?). Tomorrow is Valentine's Day and I'm going to revisit "That's For Me." Til then!