Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Ain't Misbehavin': The 1940s Versions

As usual, I must begin with my usual apology for the graphic delay in between these posts. This has been by far one of the busiest months of my life, but all in a good way. My three Armstrong lectures in Harlem were a blast but now, in exactly 48 hours, I'll be touching down at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans for this year's Satchmo Summerfest. I'll be making three more presentations down there and talking non-stop Pops with heavy hitters like Dan Morgenstern, George Avakian, Robert O'Meally, Michael Cogswell and David Ostwald. It's going to be a ball and like last year, you can expect some live blogging, photos and other information as I live out what should be a glorious weekend (though I'll be away from the wife and baby and that's bumming me out). And while I'm down there, on August 1, I'm contractually obligated to hand in the manuscript of my Armstrong book to my editor at Pantheon. There's a long way to go there--editing, fact-checking, photo selection, so much more--but it still represents a major step.

With all of that looking me in the eye, I still wanted to make time to get another one of these "Ain't Misbehavin'" blogs out there. Today will focus on the 1940s, which was THE decade of "Ain't Misbehavin'" in Armstrong's career. I have over ten versions in my collection from this decade...and I'd be a nut to share all ten. But I'd at least like to pepper in four or five because this is probably going to me last "normal" blog until I get back from the Crescent City, so you can savor each version at your own pace over the coming days.

So let's jump right in with the first version I'd like to share, taken from a Jubilee radio broadcast down in the early spring of 1943. In my last post, I shared two broadcast versions (with Victor Young's orchestra and Benny Goodman's sextet) and the 1938 Decca studio version made up by a group of session musicians. Finally, for the first time since 1929's original recording, we'll hear how Armstrong's own big band tackled the timeless Fats Waller standard. Dig it:

The band stomps it off at a jumping medium tempo, driven by drummer Chick Morrison's accents and four-to-the-floor bass drum playing. After eight bars, Armstrong's trumpet enters to play eight bars of melody and the bridge, sticking fairly straight to the written music. The band swings out the final eight (Armstrong shouting his approval in the background) before Joe Garland tenor saxophone break sets up Armstrong's vocal, almost every syllable--English and scatted--perfectly in place (listen to what he does on one pitch in the final eight bars). I believe that's Garland's tenor following the vocal, while (again, a guess), Rupert Cole's alto handles the bridge. Then Armstrong enters with his signature spiraling downward breaks for a good run at his set solo (hello, "Rhapsody and Blue" quote, our old friend). Armstrong and the band wail towards the finish before Pops goes into a fun extended coda, urged on by the hand-claps and cheerleading of trombonist George Washington. Pops gets downright bluesy and the slow climb the top is a fun trip. Good stuff.

The following year, Armstrong appeared in a Republic film, Atlantic City, performing "Ain't Misbehavin'." Armstrong was set up by a young Dorothy Dandridge doing "Harlem on Parade," leading seamlessly to Armstrong's performance of today's featured number. It's a good version because the tempo is the slowest we've hard possibly since the original 1929 recording. Unfortunately, the only version of it uploaded online abruptly ends during Armstrong's trumpet solo. It's a shame because, as you can hear, Armstrong was full of all sorts of new ideas for the occasion. Still, it's a joy watching him sing it in the only surviving footage of Pops perform this number:

During 1944 and 1945, Armstrong performed "Ain't Misbehavin'" almost every time he appeared on the radio, perhaps because of the exposure from Atlantic City. We'd be hear for a month if I shared all of them so I've decided to pick my favorite one from an ABC Victory Parade of Spotlight Bands broadcast of September 12, 1944. This version has a lot to recommend besides Armstrong's terrific singing and playing. For one, there's the hilariously unhip announcer joyfully introducing it as "Ain't Misbelievin'"! But for the sake of jazz history, it's a great glimpse of young Dexter Gordon, who was personally hired by Pops after he heard the tenor legend at a Los Angeles jam session. Gordon's deep in his Lester Young bag here (save for a few Illinois Jacquet-type squeals) in his final eight and it's a kick hearing Pops intone, "Brother Dexter!" It's only a year after the Jubilee broadcast but the arrangement is different, eliminating Armstrong's opening reading of the melody as well as the extended coda. Enough from me, here's the audio:

We're now going to swing out all the way to 1947, usually known as the year of the famed Town Hall concert and the birth of Armstrong's small group, the All Stars. But before getting to Town Hall, Armstrong spent some time experimenting with small groups earlier that year. On February 7, he took part in a Carnegie Hall concert that found him fronting Edmond Hall's sextet for a set of good old good ones, mostly songs Armstrong probably hadn't played with regularity in years. The second half featured Armstrong's regular big band with special guests Billie Holiday and Big Sid Catlett but the next day, all anyone could talk about was hearing Armstrong in that small group setting during the first half. Honestly, the first half had its share of ragged moments but it cannot be denied that Armstrong definitely played with a sense of inspired abandon. The first half closed with this romp on "Ain't Misbehavin'":

With no big band and no arrangement, Armstrong was forced to jump headfirst into the opening ensemble with 24 bars of melody playing, handing the ball over to trumpeter Irving "Mouse" Randolph for the final eight. The vocal is a swinging one with great Hall backing before the spiky clarinetist takes a free-wheeling half-chorus, driven by Jimmy Crawford's drumming (that's Henderson Chamber's trombone on the bridge if you're keeping score at home). Then Pops enters with his patented break and tears into his established solo. The rest of the band doesn't quite know what to do behind him, some playing countermelodies, others holding harmony notes but finally, after the bridge everyone jumps in for a jammed ending, finding Armstrong taking some chances. It was a swinging way to end a pretty historic set.

Two months later, on April 26, 1947, Armstrong appeared on a WNEW broadcast of the Saturday Night Swing Show, hosted by Art Ford. One again, Pops was placed in a small group setting, joined by Jack Teagarden on trombone in the front line...and the accordion of Irving "Roy" Ross, whose contributions are perfectly suitable for the occasion. After the Town Hall version, this is my favorite one from the 1940s. Here 'tis:

The tempo is up again (dig Big Sid on drums) and Pops is incredibly inspired form, tearing through the opening ensemble and crafting one of the best vocals he ever took on this song. Just listen to those last eight bars, where he sings it all on almost one pitch, goes up for the word "radio"...and just holds it! Apologies to Andy Razaf for leaving out a chunk of his lyrics, but it's a terrific touch. Teagarden then takes 16 (Pops warming up quietly in the background) before a surprising half-chorus by Pops made up of entirely fresh ideas. The inspiration continues into the final chorus where, except for the patented breaks, Armstrong infuses his playing with a number of fresh ideas. One of my favorites.

Less than a month later, the historic Town Hall concert took place. I shouldn't have to go into too much detail on that evening other than to say that what started out as a one-time-only concert opened the door for the last 24 years of Armstrong's career as the leader of a small group. The concert was recorded but for decades, Victor only released the six sides they deemed to feature the best sound quality. All six are classics of classics but finally, when the rest of the concert surfaced, listeners could finally hear that the entire evening's performance, not just those elite six, were ones to remember. But "Ain't Misbehavin'" was one of the six originals to be released and has been granted legendary status for over 60 years. There's not much I can say other than please give this one a listen and be prepared to spend four of the best minutes you'll have all day!

Doesn't get any better, right from the opening ensemble. Armstrong's inspired from note one, getting tremendously creative backing by Sid Catlett, who should get a co-starring credit on this performance. The final eight bars of the opening chorus are handled by the evening's music director, cornetist Bobby Hackett, an Armstrong worshipper tried and true. Armstrong, as usual, sings the hell out of it, getting nice backing by Dick Cary's piano, Jack Teagarden's trombone, Peanuts Hucko's clarinet and Hackett. Armstrong sings more than just the "radio" line this time around but still edits out the final "for you" in order to bring Hucko up for a solo (I love Sid Catlett). Hackett then takes a typically lyrical 16 bars (I love Sid Catlett) before Teagarden takes a full chorus--a classic--getting some light riffs behind him at the start (I love Sid Catlett). And then it's time for Pops, who plays his set solo that we've heard now multiple times. But this time it seems different; there's the historic nature of the night, the empathetic playing of the other musicians on stage, the drumming of Sid Catlett (I love Sid Catlett), everything, all the stars aligned to create this truly timeless performance.

Well, as history goes, Town Hall showed Armstrong (and Joe Glaser) the road to take and by August of 1947, the All Stars were born. In February 1948, they headed to Europe for the first time to play Hughes Panassie's international jazz festival in Nice, France. A recording survives of the group tackling "Ain't Misbehavin'" there and after the fireworks of the Town Hall version, it makes for an interesting listen:

First off, you can hear the tempo is back down to a medium bounce, almost on the slow side, the slowest tempo we've encountered since the 1944 film clip. Also, it opens with the Armstrong vocal, which makes me wonder if this was an incomplete performance. You can hear Armstrong sweating and swinging on the uptempo versions but there's something equally gratifying at hearing him relax and indulge in a little more storytelling at this tempo (dig Sid Catlett giving him some stop-time accents during the bridge, though nobody else stops). The tempo is slow enough for Armstrong to immediately pick up his horn and go into his concluding solo. "Rhapsody" is there but otherwise, this is a relaxed, free-floating solo, in relation to the 1929 version in terms of approach. Catlett begins laying out the backbeats during the bridge and Pops rides them beautifully, right into the finish line. A nice, relaxed performance.

There aren't many surviving versions of "Ain't Misbehavin'" in the All Stars discography but there's at least one version from every year between 1947 and 1952; thus, if there's one version, you can probably multiply it by one hundred to get a grasp of how many times Armstrong played it each year. To close out this look at "Ain't Misbehavin'," here are the All Stars playing it at The Click in Philadelphia on August 5, 1949, with Cozy Cole replacing Catlett on drums. Here 'tis:

Well, I suppose I should apologize for the somewhat annoying sound quality early on, with a sound that I once described as sounding like someone tapping on a glass bottle for about half the performance. It's annoying, but don't let it detract you from the superb music. Once again, the tempo is up a bit, but not quite the quick pace of those 1947 versions. Armstrong's back to playing a chorus of melody up front. After the vocal, we hear from Jack Teagarden, opening with a quote from "Mean to Me." Clarinetist Barney Bigard takes the bridge, but unfortunately, Pops swoops in and takes eight exciting bars towards the finish and never plays his entire chorus. Were they running out of time? We'll never know for sure why Pops cut it short but still, it's a very nice version and Teagarden's playing gets me every time.

That concludes this look at "Ain't Misbehavin'" in the 1940s. I'll be back later in the week with updates from New Orleans before completing the "Ain't Misbehavin'" saga next week. S'all for now, I'm off to the land of the red beans!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

80 Years of Ain't Misbehavin': The 1930s Versions

Today I'm going to continue my four-part look at Louis Armstrong's long, storied history with "Ain't Misbehavin'" by focusing on some of the surviving versions from the 1930s. But before I get started, I just wanted to say a quick hello and thank the new friends I met at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem over the past three weeks. I was blessed to have great crowds each week, made up of dedicated people who trudged through rain (last night) and shine (last week) to hear the gospel of Pops. It was great meeting so many new people (including the great Morris Hodara...who was at Armstrong's Town Hall concert!) and almost all of them took my business card so if this is your first time checking out the blog...welcome! Don't be afraid of my in-depthness, either...it's all in good fun, and there's plenty of good music to be heard so stick around and bask in Pops a little long.

Anyway, onward and upward with "Ain't Misbehavin'." In my first post on the subject, I made my argument that "Ain't Misbehavin'" represented Armstrong's big "cross over" from just a jazz musician to a bona fide popular star (who played the greatest jazz ever heard). Fortunately, I have very intelligent readers and you can go back to that entry and read the enlightening contributions by readers Sebastian Claudius Semler of Germany and Dick Dienstag. Sebastian loves "Ain't Misbehavin'" but feels that "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" represents Armstrong true crossover moment. Naturally, I agree about the importance of Armstrong's recording of that tune (I wrote thousands of words on it back in March) but I don't think it propelled him into stardom as much as "Ain't Misbehavin'." To me, the pattern began developing in late 1928, with Armstrong's heartfelt vocal on the ballad "Save It Pretty Mama" and his swinging turn on "No One Else But You." Those vocals represented a different quality than the shouting, scatting rascal of the Hot Five sessions and I believe Tommy Rockwell's ears heard something worth exploring.

Flash forward to March 1929 and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love." That song was already established by the time Armstrong recorded it, having made its debut on Broadway in January 1928. Even Armstrong backed Lillie Delk Christian on her version of it that same year. Thus, it wasn't exactly brand new material, but there's no doubt that it was giving the pop song treatment, complete with, as Sebastian put it, a "schmaltzy" arrangement. It's a landmark Armstrong recording in terms of importance but when you look at Joel Whitburn's not-always-to-be-100%-trusted charts from the period, Armstrong's version doesn't even rank, beat out by Gene Austin, Ben Selvin and ever our pal Seger Ellis. But still, it was a huge step in the right direction.

The right direction led Armstrong to "Ain't Misbehavin'" and that, according to Whitburn, Armstrong's recording of it was the second most popular of the period, right behind Leo Reisman. Combine that with Armstrong's performances of it on Broadway and there can be no denying the exposure to an entirely new audience. All of a sudden, the New York Times is singling him out for attention and he becomes so popular, he's moved from the pit to the actual stage. It was a star-making performance and Armstrong himself admitted as much in that Swing That Music quote I used towards the end of my last blog. Thus, I'll never argue with anyone who champions Armstrong's "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" as his first crossover pop recording. But I still feel that "Ain't Misbehavin'" had a bigger impact and thus, truly made him a crossover star in an even bigger way.

And reader Dick Dienstag made a case for 1930's "Blue Yodel Number 9," Armstrong's classic backing of country pioneer Jimmie Rodgers as that record was marketed for fans of hillbilly music and race music. Again, I cannot deny the importance of this record and Dienstag makes a great point in that it introduced Armstrong's music to a new, entirely different audience. However, the only thing I will say is that Armstrong's name did not appear on the original label and for years--even decades--people argued about whether or not is was really him. Armstrong himself finally confirmed it I believe in the 1960s (and REALLY confirmed it by talking about it and playing it with Johnny Cash on their immortal 1970 television appearance). Thus, while a historic record, I don't know how many of the country music fans who originally bought the record knew that they were listening to Louis Armstrong.

As you can see, I love these little debates and discussions so as always, please hit me with comments and e-mails whenever you feel like it. I'll admit, since little Ella arrived, I've been terrible at responding to e-mails but I always appreciate them and do try to respond to them...usually between diaper changes and feedings!

But on to the 1930s! There are no surviving versions of Armstrong playing "Ain't Misbehavin'" until 1935. If you know the saga of Satchmo, then you know that 1935 was a major year. If you don't know it, I'll quickly sum it up by saying that Armstrong had pretty much hit rock bottom around this time. Beat to the chops, he rested in Europe for a while before returning to America without a band, without a recording contract, blacklisted from certain venues and still in a bit of trouble with the mob thanks to past managers. He hired Joe Glaser at this point and, say what you want about Glaser, he made all of Armstrong's troubles disappear. Not only did the mob stuff go away, but Armstrong soon had a new band organized by Zilner Randolph and a new recording contract with Decca. However, when a booking arose in New York, Armstrong couldn't take Randolph's Chicago-based band with him due to union troubles. He decided to front Luis Russell's New York orchestra, starting a partnetship that would last into the 1940s.

On October 3, 1935, Armstrong made his first Decca recordings with the Russell band (quick note: it took me some time, but I finally ordered Mosaic's new Armstrong Decca box set and I've been savoring it for a few weeks; look for my in-depth review sometime in August). Now, Russell had his own thing going on for years and now had to adapt to an entirely new book of arrangements. Thus, their performance on those early Deccas could be a little shaky, to say the least. But two days after the session, Armstrong appeared on the Shell Chateu Radio Show, hosted by none other than Walter Winchell. Instead of trying out any of the new material, Armstrong showcased two specialties, "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "Ain't Misbehavin'." If you haven't heard it in a couple of days, go back to my last blog and listen to a few seconds of that original 1929 recording. Now listen to how Pops was jumping it in 1935:

Immediately, you can hear that we're in a different stratosphere. The tempo is way up and Pops sounds like he's digging it, growling through the first eight bars as the band plays (apparently, this was a studio band led by Victor Young, sounding just as shaky as Russell's group at times). Armstrong's vocal is effervescent, complete with breaks that would be part of all of his future interpretations. Clearly, he had been singing it for years at this point, and had that vocal down pat. The tempo is so fast, he's forced to skip a few words (Jack Horner has been reduced to simply his surname) but the spirit is quite contagious. Armstrong's bubbles out of the bridge and contain himself from shouting a bit in the final A section. To get his chops together, another trumpeter takes eight-bars...what a daunting task!

Finally, Pops picks up his horn and starts his climactic solo, full of new ideas for the first eight bars, but once he gets to the spiraling downward break, he uses a lot from his 1929 vintage solo (why mess with perfection?) including the "Rhapsody in Blue" quote. He uses stop-time effectively during the bridge before working over a two-note clarion call in his final eight bars. The song is practically over...but we're only 90 seconds in! On the original record, Armstrong concluded with a short unaccompanied cadenza. But by 1935, he had turned this cadenza into a performance of its own. Backed only by some rumbling drums, Armstrong creates a dazzling, exotic, free-floating escapade, ending with a slow climb to the performance's final high note, the band cheering him along every step of the way. A very exciting performance (and for those of you familiar with the terrific version from 1955's Satch Plays Fats album, this one is a clear precursor to that gem).

By the time of Armstrong's next visit to "Ain't Misbehavin'" in 1938, his life had REALLY changed. The Decca records were a success, Armstrong's live shows broke box office records, he became a film star and also the host of a nationally-sponsored radio show, The Flesichmann's Yeast Hour. Not only was he a star, he was also a legend and what else is there to do with a legend other than have him revisit the things that made him legendary in the first place? Thus, beginning in 1938 and hitting its peak in 1939, Armstrong began remaking many of his best-loved OKeh numbers, including "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "West End Blues," "Confessin'," "Savoy Blues" and more. Naturally, "Ain't Misbehavin'" was placed on the remake docket and was waxed on June 24, 1938.

Unfortunately, the Russell band--which sounded great on the Fleischmann shows, as well as on some of the 1938 Deccas--was left home for the session. Instead, Armstrong was backed by a small group of white studio musicians. The musicians were very good but they were given some very bland arrangements to work with. Armstrong sounds lovely throughout the four-song session but it's never been one of my favorites due to the stilted nature of the charts. Anyway, here's how "Ain't Misbehavin'" came out:

See what I mean? Even the short introduction is kind of corny; it's almost cute in a certain bland way. Fortunately, Armstrong comes in with the vocal, sounding great as usual (he owned the tune). The breaks are omitted, forcing Armstrong to come up with some new variations on a song he had been singing for almost a decade. He still swings like mad in the final eight-bars before handing it over the band, for some written, quasi-Dixie playing, in trade with the fine trombonist Al Philburn (drummer Sam Weiss does sound very good throughout). Pianist Nat Jaffe takes fine eight-bar bridge but then something weird happens: the arrangement goes back to the beginning and Pops comes in for an entire chorus, meaning the band interlude only lasted an uncommon 24 bars...which, to me is about 24 bars too long.

But I can't complain once Pops enters. He starts off with the melody before going for himself. And notice, though many aspects of his playing on "Ain't Misbehavin'" were set, the man could still improvise with the best of them. Thus, the breaks are eliminated on this performance, meaning no downward spiral and, even more shocking, no "Rhapsody in Blue." Instead, it's an entirely new solo and a fine one at that. There's nothing exhibitionistic at all; it's lyrical from note one and as Dan Morgenstern writes, it "flows." At the conclusion, Armstrong gets into a little duet with Weiss's tom-toms, hinting at Armstrong's live routine but it doesn't last for very long. So, corny arrangement aside, it's a great record for Pops's vocal and completely fresh solo.

Our tour of Louis's 1930s "Ain't Misbehavin'" renditions ends with an October 14, 1939 broadcast on CBS's Saturday Night Camel Caravan. Of course, to Swing Era nuts, "Camel Caravan" only means one thing: Benny Goodman. For this broadcast, Armstrong decided to play the tune with Goodman's sextet. So in another jazz history dream matchup, you'll hear Louis Armstrong backed by Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Fletcher Henderson, Charlie Christian, Artie Bernsein and Nick Fatool...it's almost ridiculous! I've included Armstrong's introduction in this clip, as he came out unannounced by blowing a variation of his famous "West End Blues" cadenza (I didn't chop anything out, he opened with the gliss to the high note instead of the standard descending notes). An unintentionally hilarious moment occurs when the announcer refers to Pops as "Satch-o" (what was he, the lost Marx Brother?) before Armstrong and Goodman go into a dialogue. The two kings of swing didn't really get along well, even at this early juncture, which I think I'll save for the book (gotta save SOMETHING folks!). Anyway, here 'tis:

Isn't that great? I think that might be my favorite of the 1930s batch. The tempo is relaxed, almost back to 1929-style and similar to the 1938 Decca remake, but looser and more swinging (thanks to Charlie Christian chunk-chunk-chunking away). We're back to the set routine for this performance and as usual, it kills. Armstrong's vocal is a "gassuh" (he's less gravelly than on the Decca), getting enthusiastic backing from both Hampton and Goodman. After short breaks for vibes and clarinet, Armstrong picks up the horn and takes it out in strutting style, complete with breaks ("Rhapsody In Blue" up first, but no descending spiral, instead replaced by something new and exciting). During the bridge, the rest of Goodman's horns join in and Pops starts preaching (Hamp's riffing, too, playing a slight proto-type of what would become "Flying Home's" rideout riff). For the closing cadenza, Armstrong gets as close to the 1929 one as he ever would and it's terrific. A great slice of Swing Era magic.

S'all for now. I hope to be back in a couple of days to take you through the 1940s versions of the tune, including big band treatments (featuring Dexter Gordon!) and some classic small group takes on it (two words: Town Hall). Til then!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

80 Years of Ain't Misbehavin': The 1920s Versions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded July 19, 1929
Track Time 3:20
Written by Fats Waller, Andy Razaf and Harry Brooks
Recorded in New York, NY
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Homer Hobson, trumpet; Fred Robinson, trombone; Jimmy Strong, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Bert Curry, alto saxophone; Crawford Washington, alto saxophone; Carroll Dickerson, violin; Gene Anderson, piano, celeste; Mancy Carr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba; Zutty Singleton, drums
Originally released on OKeh 8714
Currently available on CD: Hot Fives and Hot Sevens Volume Four (as well as a thousand compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

80 years ago today, Louis Armstrong officially crossed over. That almost sounds ominous doesn’t it? Crossed over...to where? To the other side? Well, yes, in a way, if the hellacious “other side” refers to the world of popular music and that of being a popular entertainer. For it was on this day that Louis Armstrong waxed the number he had been slaying audiences with for weeks in New York City--uptown and downtown--”Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Music fans, theater-goers, vaudeville junkies, stuck-up writers...once confronted with the ebullient horn and jubilant voice of this natural, ferocious entertainer, there was no denying it: this man was a star.

Of course, to many jazz purists this the beginning of the end. “Why!?” they shriek. “Why did the world have to discover our hidden treasure!? They tainted him! They fed him pop tunes, made him smile a lot and made him forsake his jazz ways! Damn you, Connie’s Hot Chocolates!”

And of course, that’s nonsense, though some people still feel that way. The truth is Armstrong never changed a damn thing in those early days. He sang and entertained in New Orleans. He did preacher impressions with Fletcher Henderson in New York (Henderson rarely let him sing, though). He broke it up onstage in Chicago by scatting on “Heebie Jeebies,” impersonating Bert Williams and performing features on “Poor Little Rich Girl” and the “William Tell Overture.” In the recording studio, he made small group recordings and for every “West End Blues,” there’s an “Irish Black Bottom” and for every “Potato Head Blues,” there’s a “Don’t Forget to Mess Around.”

It was Tommy Rockwell of OKeh records who arguably was the first to spot something in Armstrong that could spread to the masses. In March 1929, Rockwell arranged for Armstrong to come to New York to perform and record with Luis Russell’s big band. Rockwell decided to sneak in a pop tune, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” The results (discussed in another blog of mine from this past March) were magical and signaled to Rockwell that Armstrong might be ready for bigger and better things in New York City.

What happened next has been recounted in countless Armstrong biographies so I won’t go into graphic detail on it right now (though I am excitedly waiting for Terry Teachout’s refreshing take on it when his Armstrong bio, Pops, hits shelves on December 2). To sum it up, Armstrong was still playing with Carroll Dickerson’s orchestra in Chicago when Rockwell booked Armstrong to perform in a Vincent Youmans production, “Great Day.” However, Armstrong was loyal to the Dickerson men and didn’t want to leave them. Without telling Rockwell, he decided to bring the entire Dickerson band to New York with him!

Naturally, Rockwell, having sent for only Armstrong, blew up but Armstrong calmly told him, “Just the same Mr. Rockwell, we’re here now--I just couldn’t leave my Boys ‘that’s all--I know you can Book us ‘Some place.” To make matters worse, “Great Day” was in shambles and Armstrong was cast out of the show before it even opened. The band scuffled for a while before Rockwell landed them a plum spot playing for the floor show at Connie’s Inn in Harlem.

The “Connie” in Connie’s Inn was Connie Immerman, who, along with his brother George, ran the popular Harlem nightspot, second only to the Cotton Club. Immerman had just introduced a new revue at his club, titled “Hot Chocolates” with music by Fats Waller and lyrics by Andy Razaf. The show was so popular that Immerman decided to try it out simultaneously on Broadway, opening at the Hudson Theater on 44th Street on June 19.

After the scuffling of the previous months, Armstrong now had more work than he could have dreamed of. He would begin his nights on Broadway, playing the show as a member of Clarence Black’s band. As soon as it was over, he’d race uptown to reprise the show, this time with Carroll Dickerson’s group. When that was over, he’d make his way and do a late, late show at Harlem’s Lafayette Theater.

With Armstrong aboard, he started getting featured on the show’s theme song, “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” The history of the song has always been shrouded in legend. Waller himself used to like to say that he wrote it while in jail for failure to pay alimony. Some biographers have taken this as fact, but Razaf himself cleared up the mess in a 1966 letter to Bob Kumm, writing, “There is no truth to the widely circulated erroneous story about ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ being written while Fats was in prison. The song was written by Fats and myself at his West 133rd. St. home in Harlem. The title and words are entirely mine. An hour after we wrote it we went to the 44th St. Theatre and demonstrated it for the show rehearsal. It was selected to be the theme song of the show. After Paul Bass and Margaret Simms sang it as a love duet, I suggested that Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong sing and play a chorus from the orchestra pit. When he did, it became a terrific hit.”

[Side note: “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and the rest of the “Hot Chocolates” score is also credited to Harry Brooks but no one quite knows how his name got there. The tunes were strictly Waller and Razaf’s.)

In addition to Sims and Bass, the song was also sung by Russell Wooding’s Hallelujah Singers. But once Pops put his imprint on it during the entre’act, the song became his for keeps. Armstrong liked the tune itself and later wrote in his first autobiography, “It was in ‘Hot Chocolates’ that I introduced the song, ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’, playing a trumpet solo in the high register. From the first time I heard it, that song used to ‘send’ me. I wood-shedded it until I could play all around it. It was like ‘Heebie-Jeebies’ and ‘Chinatown’ and ‘Treasure Island,’ one of those songs you could cut loose and swing with. When we opened, I was all ready with it and it would bring down the house, believe me!”

Indeed it did. A reporter in The New York Times took note, writing “A synthetic but entirely pleasant jazz ballad called ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ stands out and its rendition between the acts by an unnamed member of the orchestra was a highlight of the premier." Soon enough, those in the audience had no choice but to know the name of this "unnamed member of the orchestra": due to the popularity of the performance, Armstrong was moved from pit to the stage and given a featured billing. He was officially a Broadway star.

On July 19, almost a month to the day of his debut, Armstrong got the chance to wax his star-making performance for OKeh records. He wasn't exactly alone. Due to the popularity of the song, all the major record labels started issuing versions of the tune. I did some quick research online and here's a list I compiled:
July 9 - Leo Reisman - Victor
July 18 - Jimmie Noone - Vocalion
July 19 - Armstrong - OKeh
July 28 - The Charleston Chasers - Columbia
July 28 - Abe Lyman's California Ambassador Hotel Orchestra - Brunswick
July 30 - Gene Austin - Victor
August 2 - Fats Waller - Victor
August 20 - Ruth Etting - Columbia
August 22 - California Ramblers - Edison
August 23 - Seger Ellis - OKeh
September 4 - Irving Mills's Hotsy-Totsy Gang (vocal by Bill Robinson)
September 20 - Fess Williams and His Royal Flush Orchestra - Victor
According to Joel Whitburn's not-always-accurate system of rankings, Leo Reisman had the biggest hit with the song, possibly because he had the first crack at it. The good news: you can hear this peppy dance band version at YouTube. The bad news: embedding is disabled to I can't share it here. Instead, I can offer the link so click here, give it a listen, then come back for Pops.

I like Reisman's bouncy, harmless version, with a typically neutered vocal by Lew McDonald (more on him in a bit). It has all your 1920s tendencies, including going to the verse after playing a chorus of melody. It's a solid period performance...and perfectly compliments the daring virtuosity we're about to hear in Armstrong's record of it.

[Side note: if you have all the time in the world, you can hear all of the above records at either RedHotJazz.com or YouTube. You'll nead YouTube for Reisman, Austin and Ruth Etting but the rest are at the always valuable Red Hot Jazz site.]

A few notes about the Armstrong record before listening to it. We like to think of jazz as always being a completely spontaneous art but that's just not the case, especially when dealing with the early generations of jazz musicians, who used to work on solos until they were satisfied with the result, offering "set" solos that were guaranteed to work instead of trying something different every night. No one would doubt that Armstrong was a genius at improvising; but he also approached his solos like a great composer and often worked on them until they became somewhat set, something he got crucified for in his later years. Thus, when you listen to every perfect note of his "Ain't Misbehavin'" solo, remember the quote I shared earlier about him "woodshedding" [practicing] on it, then combine that with the fact that he played it at least two times a night for a full month. Thus, it's no wonder that every aspect of the recording works so well. Without further ado, here's Louis Armstrong's "Ain't Misbehavin'," recorded 80 years ago today:

Quite the classic record. The Dickerson band was a good one and could swing mightily when called upon (dig "That Rhythm Man" from three days later) but the "Ain't Misbehavin'" arrangement does them no favors. When you listen to Armstrong's recordings chronologically, "Ain't Misbehavin'" is usually preceded by the looser Luis Russell band driven by Pops Foster's walking bass on "Mahogany Hall Stomp," a fine ancestor to the Swing Era. But "Ain't Misbehavin'" sounds almost too old fashioned. The two-beat bounce is straight out of Reisman while the banjo and tuba combination makes for quite an outdated rhythm section compared to Russell's group. Dickerson's violin, backed by orchestra bells (or celeste?), also takes the jazz realm.

But really, everything I just listed makes Pops's contributions that much more remarkable. His muted reading of the melody is fairly straight, yet still conveys a cozy warmth. After Dickerson's interlude, the band swings a bit for eight bars (Gene Anderson's piano sounds good and bluesy in background) setting up time capsule moment number one, Armstrong's vocal. I know it's a cliche, but this is a tour de force, my friends. Armstrong barely touches the written melody. The closest he comes is his opening lines, but it's kind of barked out, rather than sung, so I don't know if that counts. Otherwise, he completely recasts the melody in a new light (maybe he should have gotten third co-composer credit instead of Harry Brooks), infusing it with the blues and leaving plenty of room for breaks. He double-times the first one, conjuring up thoughts of his trumpet playing while on his second break, he moans, "Oh baby, my love for you," practically inventing soul singing in the process. The bridge is quite ferocious, ending with one of his patented licks, "Doddle-doddle-doddy!" Also note that he controls the tempo in his breaks and at some point, the band re-enters at a slower gait; compare the start of the record to the midway point to see how the tempo drops.

After Pops's righteous final bars, a saxophone break sets up time capsule moment number two, the trumpet solo. Again, the solo is so beautifully constructed, so logical in its choice of notes, that it has to be the end result of weeks of tinkering and playing it over and over again. After a tension-filled opening, Armstrong plays one of his all-time great quotes from "Rhapsody in Blue" in his first break, melding it beautifully with the first note of the second A section. It's a rhythmically complex solo that daringly balances lyrical moments with surprising double-time escapades. And listen for the similarities to the vocal: Pops's double-time break mirrors his double-timed scat in a way and he closes the heroic bridge by playing the same "Doddle-doddle-doddy" lick he sang just seconds earlier.

Armstrong's final eight bars are a strutting good time, accenting his notes with the kind of feel and rhythmic placement that would be common in most Swing Era arrangements just a few short years later. The band is very muddy behind, but he rides over it beautifully, playing them no mind. The stop-time coda ending, with an exciting climb to the high note, would be a part of most succeeding Armstrong versions of the tune. Classic, classic stuff...and can't you see how audiences ate it up?

One month later on August 23, our pal Seger Ellis (see last month's posts on "S'posin'" and "To Be In Love") was given a crack at "Ain't Misbehavin'." Once again, Ellis was allowed to select the personnel and once again he demonstrated his good taste in musicians, bringing back Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey and Stan King from his earlier session and adding the likes of pianist ARthur Schutt and the timeless team of violinist Joe Venuti and guitarist Eddie Lang. Armstrong doesn't have too much to do on it other than playing the melody and taking a neat break in the middle but it's still worth a listen:

From the start, you can feel that this version is slightly slower than Armstrong's. Unlike Pops's take on it, Ellis sings the verse first, Armstrong playing an obbligato behind his polite vocalizing. I hammered Ellis's voice last month and there's no need to start throwing insults around again. It's pretty painful from a 21st century perspective but hey, this is how popular music sounded pre-Crosby and we should still absorb it. And besides, like my pal David Sager pointed out, Ellis, a pianist, had some innate musicality and managed to rephrase the melody a bit in his second chorus, even throwing in a few blue notes. And the doubled-timed ending, in long meter, is a nice touch (this is how David Ostwald usually performs the song).

But just listen to that first Ellis chorus again. Then listen to Pops. It's another world! Actually, let me make it easier for you. For my lecture at the National Jazz Museum last week, I made a mash-up of Armstrong and Ellis's vocals, juxtaposing eight bars of each man's singing. It broke up the crowd there and I think it's a terrific example to demonstrate just what Armstrong brought to the popular music world of the 1920s. This is a lot of fun. Here's "Ain't Misbehavin'," Armstrong vs. Ellis:

So that's the story of "Ain't Misbehavin'" in the 1920s. As Pops wrote, "I believe that great song, and the chance I got to play it, did a lot to make me better known all over the country.” Indeed, it gave Armstrong crossover appeal and nothing was really ever the same...only it was. Armstrong kept doing what he always did but now he had mass appeal, something that still continues to this day. This will be a multi-part look at Armstrong's relationship with the tune so be sure to come back in a day or two where we'll listen to three surviving versions from the 1930s, including two broadcasts. Til then!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Louis Armstrong on Be My Guest (Two-Year Anniversary Post!)

Today is the two-year anniversary of my "Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong" blog and I couldn't be more excited. When I started this endeavor in 2007, it was just a way to try to get Pops more coverage and respect on the Internet as many in the jazz world seemed to forget that he even existed. I know I was an Armstrong nut from way back but after two years of keeping this afloat--240 posts!--I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one. I have made so many friends from around the world that it's mind boggling. There was a week in May where I literally received e-mails from Armstrong lovers in Sweden, Japan, Spain, England, Germany, Mexico, Belgium and the United States (Boston to San Francisco to New York...and on and on and on). The spirit of Pops continues shine brightly and I'm just happy to do my bit to make sure it shines a little brighter every week.

On a personal note, starting this blog turned out to be one of the best ideas I ever had. This month, I'm struggling more than ever to keep posting something as I'm giving three lectures at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem (Louis in the 30s, Tuesday night at 7!), then traveling to New Orleans at the end of the month to give three more presentations at the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans. And in the middle of it all, I have to turn in my manuscript to my editor at Pantheon on August 1 so we can get that thing rolling and perhaps have my book on Armstrong's later years published later next year. Would these thing have happened without the blog. Maybe, maybe not...but as long as they're happening, you know I'm relishing my role as the Ambassador of Ambassador Satch...

Anyway, I wanted to do something special to celebrate the blog's anniversary. I toyed with tackling "Sleepy Time" or analyzing all of Armstrong's "Ko Ko Mo" solos (which I will do one day...I've been promising it for almost a year) but re-read that last paragraph again and add these words: wife, baby and gigs. So my time to do a massive project like that is just not there right now but I had to do something and I think I came up with a winner.

On July 2, 1968, Louis Armstrong was in London performing with the All Stars. With some free time, he appeared on a BBC-TV show "Be My Guest." I have never seen the footage, if it even exists, but I do have the audio thanks to the generosity of the great Armstrong discographer Jos Willems (and I should, on my anniversary, thank Jos, Håkan Forsberg, Dave Whitney, Phil Person, David Ostwald, George Avakian, Peter Winberg and especially the late, great Gösta Hägglöf, all of whom opened their collections to me, allowing me access to the rarest Armstrong performances imaginable...thanks all!). The "Be My Guest" appearance was 30 minutes long and featured Armstrong talking and telling stories, while six of his songs played almost in full. It was edited in such a way that you never hear the interviewer's voice, it's just Pops and music.

Because it's 2009 and everyone has short attention spans and precious little time to waste, I've decided to break the "Be My Guest" appearance into smaller segments instead of posting the whole 30 minute clip. Pops is terrific, often funny and very insightful throughout (I've used some of these quotes in my book). So without further ado, let's listen to the first segment, where Armstrong touchingly discusses his love for his latest hit (in England) "What a Wonderful World."

That segment ends with Armstrong talking about "That's For Me," a tune I've blogged about twice. The music quality on the original broadcast is pretty poor so I've decided to use my own C.D. copies of the music instead. Here's "That's For Me":
That's For Me:

In the next part, Armstrong goes back to New Orleans and talks about his early days as a musician, leading into a discussion of King Oliver:

And here's Oliver's 1923 OKeh recording of "Dipper Mouth Blues":

Armstrong followed by discussing "The Gypsy." I included this audio in my blog on that tune from a few months ago but it's fun and worth listening to again. Here's the discussion:

Followed by the audio of "The Gypsy" as played at the Newport Jazz Festival 1956 (an audio sample I did not include in that "Gypsy" blog so dig it):

Armstrong had just filmed his role in the film "Hello, Dolly" so here is discussing the tune, his record and the film work of Barbra Streisand:

And here's the original 1963 recording of "Dolly":

And finally--call your friends--Louis Armstrong, dietician, talks about his diet chart, losing, weight and Swiss Kriss that ends with a line that always makes me laugh out loud: "There's no hippie or no young cat or whatever you going to call them that's going to feel better than Satchmo!"

The original broadcast ended with the flip side of "What a Wonderful World," "The Sunshine of Love." It's a performance most Armstrong purists stop listening to immediately when they hear the syrupy introduction, complete with slurping saxophones and harpsichord. But Armstrong sounds as happy as ever and when the band starts swinging in the second chorus...stand back! He gives a master class in jazz singing, completely rephrasing the tune and swinging like mad (a nice touch is the arrangement features the strings playing the melody completely straight in the background, making Pops's remodeling of it that much more prevalent). "The Sunshine of Love" is guaranteed to make you smile and at the end of the day, that's what Louis Armstrong's all about. So I'm going to quit here and say thanks again to all my readers who inspire me to keep going on my (incredibly wordy) journeys through the "Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong" week in and week out. Here's "The Sunshine of Love":

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Only You (And You Alone)

Louis Armstrong and The All Stars
Recorded September 8, 1955
Track Time 3:12
Written by Buck Ram and Ande Rand
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; JManny Klein, Pete Candoli, Vito Mangano, trumpet; Trummy Young, Si Zentner, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Arthur Herfurt, Harry Kelee, alto saxophone; Babe Russin, Donald Ruffell, tenor saxophone; Billly yle, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Barrett Deems,d rums; Benny Carter, arranger, conductor.
Originally released on Decca 9-29694
Currently available on CD: It's only on a hard-to-find Ambassador disc, Moments to Remember, as well as on the soundtrack to a movie of the same name
Available on Itunes? On a cheapie compilation titled simply The Best of Louis Armstrong

Here's a forgotten Armstrong tune that really shouldn't be forgotten. It's Armstrong's cover of the 1955 Platters hit, "Only You," a song that was a natural fit for Pops, complete with a warm vocal, a stirring trumpet solo and a swinging arrangement by none other than Benny Carter. To me, it's ripe for rediscovery in a romantic comedy or a TV commercial or something.

Unfortunately, it's been cast to the Siberia reserved for Armstrong's mid-50s Decca recordings. Armstrong's early 50s pop covers are still in print and still quite popular ("La Vie En Rose," "Kiss To Build a Dream On," "I Get Ideas," etc.) but around 1954, Decca lost its way. It's not really the label's fault; popular music began making the shift towards rock and roll and Decca responded by having Armstrong cover a bunch of rock-ish material like "Sincerely," "Pleding My Love" and "Ko Ko Mo," the latter with requisite 1955 "ooh-wah" chorus. Meanwhile, across town at Columbia records, Armstrong was recording timeless masterpieces like Plays W. C. Handy and Satch Plays Fats.

And when you really think of it, those Columbia albums just about put a halt on Armstrong's pop cover recordings for a while. After a stint with Columbia, he began recording timeless standards for Norman Granz's Verve label in 1956 and 1957. When he went back to Decca, it was to re-record old hits for his Autobiography as well as concept albums of "angel" tunes and religious works. From there it was off to do ancient material for the Audio Fidelity label, Duke Ellington songs for his collaboration with Duke, more older songs on his album with Bing Crosby and material Dave Brubeck wrote for a show he wanted to put on Broadway...definitely not works destined to be number one on the pop charts.

(Of course, the irony of it all is the next time Armstrong did step foot to record two contemporary songs with hopes of maybe having a hit record, he did just that, landing in the #1 spot with "Hello, Dolly.")

But to go backwards, Decca tried a bunch of stuff out in 1954 and 1955 and though there's some lovely moments, they just about bombed in terms of sales. And for the last 55 or so years, it's like someone put a memo on these records in the Decca vault "PLEASE DO NOT REISSUE THESE SIDES." Universal has emptied out there vaults time and again for Armstrong compilations but they never, ever touch the mid-50s sessions, including the collaborations with Gary Crosby. And because of that, "Only You" has languished...(cue the dramatic music)...until now! (Applause applause applause)

Anyone born with a pair of working ears in the 20th century knows about "Only You." It was a big hit for The Platters, written by their manager Buck Ram and featuring the lead vocals of Tony WIlliams (not the drummer). It reached #3 on the charts and since then has become one of the truly timeless tunes of that period. Here's a YouTube video of it if you're somehow not familiar with it...or not quite sick of it, either (and it even has the lyrics on it so call Grandma over and start singing):

Isn't that charming? Well, "Only You" hit the charts on July 3, 1955...and Decca was hot on its trail, having Armstrong record it in Los Angeles on September 8, 1955. Armstrong didn't do many Los Angeles studio dates so it's nice seeing the names of familiar L.A. studio men like Pete Candoli, Manny Klein, Skeets Herfurt, Harry Klee and Si Zentner. Of course, the All Stars are mixed in as well (this would be Barney Bigard's next-to-last stand with the band as he left four days later). And give it up for Benny Carter! It's a shame Decca didn't utilize Carter more often on Armstrong's records as he really turned in some nice arrangements for this date. Alas, all we have are these four songs and the 1966 soundtrack to A Man Called Adam, which mostly featured the All Stars doing their thing without much input for King Carter.

Anyway, so there's your background. Here's how it came out that September day in 1955:

Now do you see what I mean? Isn't that ripe for rediscovery? It's a perfect little 1950s Pops Does Pop record. I'm always sucked right in by Carter's swaggering introduction before it gives way Pops tremendously affecting vocal. He clearly loves the song (you can hear him smiling). In the late 50s, he would sometimes praise rock and roll in the press as being "beautiful"; I think this is the kind of stuff he had in mind. The breaks are ripe for his righteous rephrasing, such as singing "Baby, Only You" all on one pitch in the first chorus. Carter's signature reed writing also gives Armstrong a plush carpet to sing on, before the powerful Los Angeles brass takes a short interlude to allow Pops to get his chops together. The brass drops out and the reeds take over for a few bars, setting up the stage for Pops's relaxed trumpet entrance.

It's a short solo but damn, there's a lot of information. There's a touch of melody, some rhythmic floating, a neat double-timed phrase, some powerhouse repeated notes and a terrific, descending break. As great as the trumpet solo is, I love hearing Armstrong off-mike singing that resounding "Ohhhh, Only You" immediately after pulling the horn from his mouth. Clearly he stepped back for his solo...and he couldn't wait to rush back to resume his vocal. He sings beautifully (dig his range on the word "destiny"), throwing in a baby for good measure before the end. Such a lovely record. Only Pops...


A quick note to thank those who came out to the National Jazz Museum in Harlem Tuesday night as Loren Schoenberg and I preached the gospel of Pops to about 25 "curious listeners," all of whom it seemed got the message. It was a great time and I'm really looking forward to doing it again for the next two weeks, Tuesday, July 14 and Tuesday, July 21. I'll be discussing Armstrong's 1930s output on the 14th and his 40s work on the 21st so it should be a lot of fun. So if you're in the NY area, stop by because the Museum is really doing wonderful things (Jon Hendricks tonight!) and needs all the support it can get (the event is free and begins at 7). Thanks!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Spend Fourth of July Weekend With Pops!

Hey everyone. It's July 4 weekend and that's a good time to be a Louis Armstrong fan (when isn't it?). Though he was later found out to be born on August 4, 1901, Armstrong spent his entire life believing he was born on July 4, 1900. Thus, for many Pops fanatics, Louis Armstrong and July 4 will always be linked together (and besides, we celebrate the August 4 one, too...the more the merrier!). If you're in the NY area, you'll have a ball by celebrating the fourth at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens (see their link to the left. They're having tours all day, a scat-singing lesson, a book reading from Muriel Harris Weinstein's children's book "When Louis Armstrong Taught Me Scat," concert by the Red Hook Ramblers and even birthday take. The House's assistant director Deslyn Dyer (featured in yesterday's New York Daily News) will also be giving a talk on the Museum's latest exhibit on Armstrong's collages. Not to be missed.

If you prefer to stay home, make sure your radio is tuned to WKCR of Columbia University, offering their annual Louis Armstrong Birthday Broadcast. If the radio doesn't work, keep a computer nearby and go to www.wkcr.org to stream the audio live.

And as my good friend Al Basile pointed out to me last year, Louis Armstrong died on July 6, 1971 so ideally, a "birth to the death" marathon of Armstrong from the fourth through the sixth is perhaps the best way to pay tribute to Mr. Strong. And speaking of the great man's death, NBC's coverage of that fateful day actually appeared on YouTube yesterday. As long as it's not removed, give it a viewing:

And don't forget to listen to Louis and Earl Hines explode on 1928's "Fireworks"!

Have a happy fourth...and happy birthday (number one) to Pops!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

To Be In Love

Seger Ellis
Recorded June 4, 1929
Track Time 3:06
Written by Fred Ahlert and Roy Turk
Recorded in New York City
Seger Ellis, vocal; Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Tommy Dorsey, trombone; Jimmy Dorsey,clarinet; Harry Hoffman, violin; Justin Ring, piano; Stan King, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41255
Currently available on CD: It's on volume five of Columbia’s old chronological series of Armstrong’s OKeh recordings, Louis in New York
Available on Itunes? Yes, on the same set

Last week, I tackled Seger Ellis's 1929 recording of "S'posin'" in this space, a request from the great jazz historian/trombonist David Sager. I was pretty harsh on Ellis, which prompted Sager to write me personally, saying, "I feel I must gently take you to task in regards to Seger E's artistry. Now, mind you I am not a fan of his style of singing. But there is something intrinsically musical there--intentionally musical--that I feel is absent, big time, in Rudy V's singing. Ellis is a phraser while Rudy tends to sing flat--not pitch wise, but without nuance. that is why I cannot understand why he was such a rage w the females of those days. Perhaps the flat presentation represented a kind of standoffishness, a coolness, aloofness? In comparison Seger (which by the way was pronounced like my last name, with a long "A" sound) had some passion in his phrasing."

All good points. I hammered Ellis's vocal quality but I did note that his phrasing was improved after Armstrong's trumpet solo. I've decided to give Ellis another shot today with a look at the other recording made that same June day in 1929, "To Be in Love" (for the specifics on the session and its personnel, check out the "S'posin'" entry) .

"To Be in Love" came from the prolific team of Fred Ahlert and Roy Turk, responsible for chestnuts such as "Mean to Me," "I Don't Know Why," "I'll Get By" and a few other songs Pops tackled including "Walkin' My Baby Back Home" and "Love, You Funny Thing." The original sheet music of "To Be in Love" added the phrase "Espesh'lly With You" to the title and that's how it was recorded on May 22, 1929 by Waring's Pennsylvanians for the Victor label. Courtesy of the Red Hot Jazz archive, here's how Waring tackled it, with a vocal by Tom Waring (and dig that hot trumpet solo!).

Around the same time, "Whispering" Jack Smith, a pretty original singer of the period who balanced his tenor voice with a partially spoken style of singing, recorded his own version of the tune...with yet another muted trumpet solo. Here 'tis, courtesy of YouTube:

As usual, Columbia had to respond by having their in-house tenor, Seger Ellis, record a version of the pop tune. As discussed previously, Ellis knew how to get the best musicians to his parties and this mixed band, complete with the Dorsey Brothers and Louis Armstrong, featured some of the finest cats on the New York scene. Here's how it came out:

(I should note that David Sager thought that "S'posin'" sounded a little flat. Indeed, I checked the pitch on "To Be in Love" and as it was transferred by Columbia, it's in the key of E...what is this a rock group? Thus, it was probably really done in F but this is only version I have. I'll check and see if any others are floating around out in MP3 land in the right key.)

It's hard not be cheered by the sound of Jimmy Dorsey's peppy clarinet immediately starting the record over Stan King's press rolls (though pianist Justin Ring seems to rush a bit). Regarding Stan King, David wrote to me, "I am glad you pointed out Stan King's press rolls. What a player he was! Years ago I was in San Francisco, playing at the St. Francis Hotel. I was sitting in the lobby and there was an elderly man w whom I struck up a conversation. He was an old-time drummer who nearly shouted when he said, 'Stan King had the best press roll in the business!'" Amen.

Harry Hoffman's violin bursts through and kind of reestablishes the tempo before a neat bit featuring two-bar cameos from Hoffman, Tommy Dorsey and Pops. Ellis then starts in with the verse....that first line, "I'm so topsy-turvy" is pretty much how my mind always conjures up Ellis's voice. Like "S'posin'," there's a bit of chaos behind Ellis's vocal when he gets to the chorus as it seems like everyone wants to play collectively instead of taking turns and passing around the obbligato (Hoffman seems especially pushy). But again--like "S'posin'"--Pops breaks up the anarchy with a bubbling break leading to a terrific solo, backed by more King press rolls. Armstrong's playing is very melodic, with a couple of double-timed runs thrown in for good measure. I think my favorite part occurs in his first eight bars when he keeps repeating that D--the sixth, a favorite of Lester Young--right through the turnaround and into the next A section.

Tommy Dorsey takes a good bridge before Pops swoops back in, pounding home some high concert A's. He kind of muffs the downward run he attempts, but I'll forgive him considering what just occurred. Then Ellis comes back for another chorus and as Sager pointed out, shows his innate musicality in the way he rephrases the melody, repeating the word "Love" on a series of different pitches, a nice touch. The band keeps things hot behind him and everyone swings out to a joyous conclusion. A good record.

So anyone else care to weigh in on ol' Seger Ellis? I'm not quite through with him yet as he'll be back later this month for my 80th anniversary posting on "Ain't Misbehavin'." But until then, feel free to leave a comment on the subject.


In other news, I want to alert my New York friends that I'll be spending the next three Tuesdays discussing Pops at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Each event will be part of the museum's "Jazz for Curious Listeners" series, taking place at the Museum's Visitors Center (104 E. 126th St, Suite 2C) from 7 til 8:30 p.m. On July 7, I'll be joined by the great Loren Schoenberg, discussing Pops's work in the 1920s. I'll be flying solo on July 14 and July 21, discussing Armstrong's 1930s and 1940s recordings respectively. For more information, click here. Hope to see some of you there!


And finally, my pal David Ostwald finally launched his own website. Dig it by clicking here and don't forget to catch David's group at Birdland, celebrating Pops's music every Wednesday from 5:30 til 7:15.