Monday, August 17, 2009


Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded April 21, 1953
Track Time 2:45
Written by L. Wolfe Gilbert and Mabel Wayne
Recorded in New York, NY
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Trummy Young, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Milt Yaner, Dick Jacobs, alto saxophone; Sam Taylor, tenor saxophone; Everett Barksdale, guitar; Joe Bushkin, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Cozy Cole, drums
Originally released on Decca 28704
Currently available on CD: Satchmo Serenades
Available on Itunes? Yes

Regular blogging resumes today, though not with the promised look at Armstrong's 1950s versions of "Ain't Misbehavin'." I had forgotten just how many renditions of that song survive from that decade so I'm going to hold off a bit until I have a little extra time. So for now, I'll take my wife's pleading advice to write shorter blogs and pepper in the encyclopedia entries for when the baby's sleeping.

Thus, I gave the ol' Itunes shuffle a spin and it landed on a good old good one, "Ramona." The song was written in 1928 by two Americans familiar with writing tunes that dealt with other nationalities and countries, lyricist L. Wolfe Gilbert ("The Peanut Vendor," "I Miss my Swiss") and Mabel Wayne ("In a Little Spanish Town," "It Happened in Monterey"). The tune was introduced in a 1927 film of the same name and first became a smash hit in 1928 thanks to a version by Dolores del Rito. YouTube loves "Ramona" so if you're interested in some of these early versions, stay put. Here's del Rito's original waltzing treatment:, complete with broken English (it took me a few seconds to hear if she was singing in English or Spanish):

Del Rio had such a hit, it was only a matter of time before the cover versions started rolling out. Here's Mr. 1920s himself, Gene Austin's take:

And here's the always original "Whispering" Jack Smith's cover. I don't own any Smith, but thanks to YouTube and such, I've developed an admiration for his talking style. Dig it:

Interestingly, "Ramona" didn't seem to break into the jazz world. Paul Whiteman did a straight cover of it in 1928 and Benny Goodman swung an Eddie Sauter arrangement over it over a decade later, but otherwise, it does not seem to have made much of an impact of the jazz fraternity.

So how did Louis Armstrong end up recording it for Decca in 1953? Well, if you know anything about Armstrong's recording relationship with Decca during this period, there could only be one answer: he was covering a recent popular hit. So who dug up "Ramona" 25 years after its inception? That would be The Gaylords, a popular male vocal group of the era (with a name that's unlikely to be revived in today's pop music world). Here's their original Mercury recording (stay for the shuffling, swing treatment midway through...where's Louis Prima when we need him?).

According to old Billboard magazines (now available on Google), The Gaylords's take on "Ramona" was pretty popular on jukeboxes during the first months of 1953, and figured in multiple ads, such as those for Mercury Records's best-selling discs. Covers were quickly made by Les Brown, Gordon McRae, Tony Martin, Vic Damone and--you guessed it--Pops. Armstrong recorded his version on April 21, 1953, while in the midst of his infamous tour with Benny Goodman. Armstrong played so much horn on that tour, he almost killed Goodman, as Bobby Hackett put it, and that good form shows on the two tracks he made for Decca that day (the other being "April in Portugal," a subject for another day). Armstrong had his All Stars with him, including pianist Joe Bushkin, who just joined for the Goodman tour. Also, three saxophone vets of the studio scene filled in the harmonies, including raucous R&B tenor man Sam "The Man" Taylor and Dick Jacobs, the man behind some of Armstrong's weakest recordings of the 1960s. No one seems to know who did the arrangements for the date but Sy Oliver wouldn't be out of the question.

With the preliminaries out of the way, let's hear how Armstrong performed "Ramona":

The record opens with the always-welcome sound of Pops's voice, intoning the song's namesake. Barney Bigard gets off one of his patented runs--a pretty hot one--and Trummy Young answers with some sober playing. Armstrong then sings the vocal passionately, barely deviating from the written melody. The rhythm section is decidedly two-beat, but in a Lunceford-ian way, which makes me think this is the work of Sy Oliver (compare the feel to "Your Cheatin' Heart," recorded earlier that year). Armstrong shows off his vocal range throughout the first chorus, exuding warmth with each gravel-coated syllable.

But stand back for the main event. After a neat setup by Barney and Trummy (Trummy still sounding very smooth in his quick muted run), Pops steps up to the mike for a powerful half-chorus of trumpet playing. Again, he sticks close to the melody but it's where he plays it that kills me every time. He could have easily asked for a modulation...but then, he wouldn't be Armstrong. So he just jumps in and plays it in the upper stratosphere of his range. It's one of those, "He's not going to be able to do it" solos but sure enough, he nails it and even tops it off with a superb break. Gorgeous stuff.

Armstrong reprises his vocal, just as warm as the first time around, and even extends the ending with a little scatting and a devilishly insinuating "Mm-hmm" before picking up the horn for one last run up to the heavens. A beautiful little record.

Armstrong's version wasn't a hit by any means but it did get a positive review in the May 30, 1953 issue of Billboard: "Gravel-voiced Louis awards the recently revived evergreen a reading full of the individual appeal that has build him his large following. Armstrong fans will grab; others may sample."

Armstrong never played "Ramona" again, as far as I can tell, but the song still had a couple of surprises in it. It became a number one hit in Germany thanks to a version by the Blue Diamonds (also available on YouTube). And in 1968, Billy Walker's country-fied (country-fried?) take on the tune cracked the top 10 charts in America. It's an endearing tune and I think we should be thankful that Decca passed it along to Pops to create something so warm and so memorable.

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