Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded Early 1943
Track Time 3:03
Written by Herman Hupfield
Recorded at an Unknown Location
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Frank Galbreath, Shelton Hemphill, Bernard Flood, trumpet; George Washington, James Whitney, Henderson Chambers, trombone; Rupert Cole, Joe Hayman, alto saxophone; Prince Robinson, Joe Garland, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lawrence Lusice, guitar; Ted Turgis, bas; Chick Morrison, drums
Currently available on CD: It's on the hard-to-find Ambassador disc At The Cotton Club
Available on Itunes? No
I wouldn't exactly call it common, but there's a misperception that exists that has resulted in some people believing Louis Armstrong recorded "As Time Goes By." It used to drive me nuts on YouTube, because sometimes I'd do my daily Pops search and would get a result "As Time Goes By - Louis Armstrong." Of course, when I'd click on the link, the soothing voice of Dooley Wilson would trickle out of my speakers. Dooley's great...but do people really think it's Louis Armstrong? (Apparently so; if you go to YouTube and just start typing the phrase "As Time Goes By," the site offers other popular searches with those words. Number four: "As Time Goes By Louis Armstrong." Number eight? "As Time Goes By Dooley Wilson.")
Let's get it out of the way once and for all: that's not Louis Armstrong in Casablanca, folks. If you've heard the famous version of the tune from said movie, that's not Louis Armstrong. Louis Armstrong recorded many, many standards in the studio and though "As Time Goes By" would have been an apt choice, it was never to be. Louis Armstrong never recorded tune.
There. I'm glad that's out of the way. Of course, I didn't say that Louis Armstrong never performed the tune...
It turns out that a single, solitary Armstrong performance of the Herman Hupfield classic has survived. The location? Unknown. The date? Unknown, probably early 1943. It was a broadcast but on what network? We'll never know. But we do have two patron saints of Pops to thank for its survival. First, Jack Bradley, a glorious human being and a supreme champion of Pops, who found an acetate of this recorded at a Cape Cod flea market! (Seriously, what are the odds? Jack's from Cape Cod! Of all the gin joints and flea markets in the world, how did this acetate end up in that one?) Once found, my dear departed friend Gösta Hägglöf issued it publicly on the very hard-to-find Ambassador disc At The Cotton Club. And now, because my Itunes shuffle landed on it, I'll be able to showcase it for the world to hear. I'll apologize for the sound quality but after the initial burst of static, it becomes fairly listenable. Enough from me, give it a listen:
Isn't that lovely? You might be thinking, "That was a great performance. Why didn't Armstrong record it?" Simple: American Federation of Musicians recording ban (hiss, boo) that didn't allow any union musicians to make records from August 1942 into 1944. In Louis Armstrong's case, he not only didn't record anything for Decca during the ban, but even when it was over, his one and only Decca session of 1944 was rejected by the label while the entire year of 1945 only saw one single Armstrong record hit the market.
Thus, it was lean times for Pops's recording career but his day-to-day life remained just as busy as ever, with constant touring, broadcasts and film appearances. Numerous broadcasts exist from this period and they find business-as-usual for Pops. Even without a record label breathing down his neck, Armstrong still kept up with the music world, performing arrangements of pop tunes like "I Couldn't Sleep a Wink Last Night" and "Blues in the Night," as well as other popular numbers like "Caldonia" and "Kalamazoo." "As Time Goes By" was as popular as they come and was a natural fit for Pops so an arrangement was made and who knows how often he featured it during the war years. (Interestingly, Casablanca was released during the ban so Dooley WIlson couldn't even record a single of it at the time either!). And that's the backstory...
Armstrong's performance of the song doesn't require a lot of verbiage. The announcer calls it "the old musical charmer with the great new success," which makes sense since the song hadn't made any impact until Casablanca, even though Hupfield wrote it in 1931 for the Broadway musical Everybody's Welcome. The tempo is faster than almost any other version of the song, but Armstrong thrives on it. Armstrong's in great voice, without a trace of gravel, while the melody allows him to show off his tenor range. He pays the melody a lot of respect--you can hear him smiling at the end of the bridge--though he indulges in a slight bit of scat near the end. The band modulates, allowing Pops to get his chops together for one of his patented one-chorus explorations. He phrases it much as he sang it, kind of in a slightly rushed manner probably due to the slightly accelerated tempo, saving any improvisations for the spaces in between the melody. One or two notes are a little bit cracked, more evidence that it wasn't easy being Louis Armstrong, but overall it's a very fluent solo. He ends the first half with a very relaxed phrases before something of a rarity: he holds a LOW note for a change and lets it ring with his trademark vibrato.
It would have been great to hear him play the bridge, but Armstrong passes the ball to the alto saxophone of I believe Rupert Cole, who plays it in something of a schmaltzy manner. A very neat moment occurs when Armstrong reenters as drummer Chick Morrison mirrors Armstrong phrase with a perfectly placed shuffle on the toms. Instead of immediately shooting out the lights, Armstrong continues his respectful treatment of the melody right up to and including the end of the chorus. The arrangement, however, calls for Armstrong to close by reprising the song's final eight bars and here Armstrong finally repeats a few high notes and ends on a very nice high Bb (Armstrong plays it in Eb, so Bb is the fifth. Usually, ending on a fifth doesn't quite sound resolved but Armstrong frequently did it and it always sounded great).
So there, finally, is Louis Armstrong performing "As Time Goes By." Nothing earth-shattering but I think it's a very nice performance to add to the pantheon of great versions of the song. So next time YouTube steers you wrongly to another Dooley-Wilson-Advertised-As-Louis-Armstrong performance, just come back here for the real thing.