Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 19, 1935
Track Time 3:18
Written by Saul Chaplin and Sammy Cahn
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken, Louis Bacon, trumpet; Harry White, Jimmy Archey, trombone; Henry Jones, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Bingie Madison, Greely Walton, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Originally released on Decca 572
Currently available on CD: It's on Mosaic's recent boxed set of Armstrong's complete Decca recordings, 1935-1946
Available on Itunes? Yes
[A quick note: this is probably going to be a somewhat long entry with at least four music samples to listen through. I realize that time is precious to all of my readers and most don't have the time to make it through all listening excerpts I post. However, if you only have six minutes to spare, skim through the text and go straight to the last sample from 1949...and be prepared to cry like a baby. If you do have some extra time, sit back, relax and prepare yourself for four completely different, breathtakingly beautiful Louis Armstrong performances of "Shoe Shine Boy." Either way, thanks for being here!]
Last week, the jazz world celebrated the centennial of one of my heroes, Lester Young. If I had all the time in the world, I would have done a Pops and Pres blog. They never performed together but there was definitely a mutual appreciation society. Lester told George Avakian that he learned the art of the obbligato from listening to Armstrong's records with the blues singers in the 1920s. Armstrong had a fondness for the "My Sweetie Went Away" quote that Lester immortalized at the end of his recording of "Sometimes I'm Happy." Naming a dream band for the April 1945 issue of Metronome , Armstrong named two tenor players, the being Pres (the other being Coleman Hawkins). And anyone who has listened to the 1952 Verve session Lester Young With The Oscar Peterson Trio, a true favorite of mine, has to detect a bit of an Armstrong influence in Young's melodic playing on "I'm Confessin'," "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," to name three songs associated with Pops (not to mention Young's vocal outtake from that session on "It Takes Two To Tango," then currently a hit for Armstrong).
I think Lester Young should be celebrated daily as much as Pops, but the main reason I'm conjuring up images of the President today is because I'm going to discuss Armstrong's history with "Shoe Shine Boy." Today, if you played free association with a knowledgeable jazz fan and said "Shoe Shine Boy," he or she would probably immediately say "Lester Young" and with good reason; it was the first tune tackled at Young's very first recording session on November 9, 1936 and featured an incredible solo by Young that turned the jazz world on its ear. (And as I've argued in my "Indian Love Call" blog, there's a break that Pops takes on that number that I see as an ancestor to Pres's opening call to arms.)
Lester's version is probably the most famous of all "Shoe Shine Boys," but it surely wasn't the only one from the period. Fletcher Henderson recorded it in a version that featured a vocal by Roy Eldridge and some buzz-muted playing from "Little Jazz" himself. Wingy Manone and Duke Ellington also took stabs at it around the same time. But it's safe to say that without Louis Armstrong, there never would have been a "Shoe Shine Boy" and it's Pops's versions that will be the focus of today's blog.
As Louis Armstrong's recordings grew in stature during the 1920s, songwriters took note. It was easy to incorporate various Armstrong-isms into popular songs of the day (for example, Harold Arlen's "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," which Pops immortalized in 1933). "Shoe Shine Boy" was written by the formidable team of Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin and Kahn was upfront in saying that the melody was inspired by a lick of Armstrong's. Here's Cahn discussing the origin of the tune on a Humphrey Lyttelton-produced tribute to Armstrong that aired on BBC radio shortly after the trumpeter's death:
In that clip, Cahn mentions the song being written for a show, but he doesn't mention it. The show was "Connie's Hot Chocolates of 1936" and here's a photo of the original sheet music to prove it:
Addition: my good friend and fellow jazz historian (we have master's degrees to prove it) John Wriggle wrote in today with some useful information: The revue at Connie's opened up on October 29, 1935. How do we know that? John even provided an advertisement from the New York Times as further proof (and check out the supporting cast...Billie Holiday!). Thanks, John!
The late Gösta Hägglöf used to send me photos of Armstrong all the time. One time he sent one simply named "LA on Stage 1935." I didn't realize it until I heard the Cahn interview, but the photo is obviously of Armstrong and that show's "shoe shine boy" character. I think it's a beautiful shot, capturing a resplendent Armstrong in a white suit at arguably the height of his status as a hero to the black community:
Now that we know the show opened on October 28, 1935, that means that Armstrong had been playing "Shoe Shine Boy" for nearly two months straight by the time he first waxed it for Decca on December 18, 1935. (I still want to write an appreciation for Mosaic Records's essential set of Armstrong's Decca recordings from 1935 through 1946; until I do, I'll offer this simple phrase: BUY IT!) Here's how the performance--in my opinion one of Armstrong's finest Deccas--came out:
Lovely stuff. The band (Luis Russell's) leisurely starts things off with a pretty eight-bar intro before Armstrong comes right in with the vocal. The arrangement features a nice touch of the band playing the melody precisely as written. Cahn might have based it off an Armstrong-inspired idea, but listen to Armstrong's own phrasing, slightly ahead or behind the original melody. He even boils the “you’re content with what you’re got” line to one pitch.
Armstrong’s Decca records always featured some delicious scatting and “Shoe Shine Boy” is no different. “Shoe Shine Boy” is a little different in that Armstrong’s scat breaks are allowed to stretch out a bit. Thus, whereas his first break should have technically been for one bar, Armstrong actually stretches it to about one and three-quarters bars. The suspended time bit is actually even more effective coming out of the bridge (and dig that “Now look at-cha” that opens the bridge).
This was Armstrong’s fourth Decca session in three months and he still was still getting comfortable with the Russell band. Arrangements were exactly a priority and you can hear that on “Shoe Shine Boy” where the band stiffly repeats the same two bars they just played under the end of Armstrong’s vocal as a way of setting up the entrance of the trumpet. But who cares about such nonsense when the entrance is so sublime?
Armstrong only gets one chorus to make his mark and as was his wont, he knocks it out of the park. He pays Cahn’s melody the proper respect for about a bar-and-a-half before he immediately begins decorating it with subtle, yet touching flourishes. He continues alternating between the written notes and an improvised variation of It before he spins out a neat little turn of a phrase during the turnaround, almost echoing his first scat break to a tee.
Armstrong’s next eight bars are almost indescribable. His phrases are so slippery they almost defy transcription, translating all the wistfulness of the admiring lyrics through the bell of his Selmer trumpet. Dan Morgenstern has pointed out that this is romantic trumpet solo and I personally couldn’t think of a better way to describe it.
Armstrong’s bridge is fairly low-key but no less effective (dig the almost startling phrase he plays halfway through it; pretty modern stuff for 1935!). But just when he’s lulling you into a state of peace with his caressing playing, the opera singer in Armstrong comes out for a bit towards the end of the bridge, culminating in a little descending motif that almost sounds like he’s chuckling.
Instead of heading for the land of high drama, Armstrong continues his lyrical flow of ideas during his last eight bars (that funky, repeated half-valve effect is also pretty hip). After a slightly cracked note, Armstrong resorts to the melody (actually, not Cahn’s melody, but rather the way he sung it earlier) before the grand conclusion. According to my clock, there are 26 seconds left in the track and all Armstrong has to do is play the final two bars. And that’s where the operatic Louis returns once again for a spine-tingling ending. Many of his Decca records ended with such cadenzas, something that I’m sure grew tiresome to some listeners. I’m a sucker for them and especially this one. Those three final notes—a building G-A-C—are each held for inhuman amounts of time, each one throbbing with intensity, the final high concert C as pure and as crystal clear as a trumpet could produce. Bravo!
Armstrong put “Shoe Shine Boy” on the map and continued to perform it in the years that followed. There are numerous scattered broadcasts of Armstrong from 1935-1942 but the two largest surivivng bodies of work are the Flesichmann’s Yeast broadcasts of 1937 and the Casa Manana airchecks from 1942. I think it says something that Armstrong performed “Shoe Shine Boy” on each of those occasion, proof that this must have been one of his most frequently played tunes in live settings. First, we’ll examine the Fleischmann performance from May 28, 1937 (if you still haven’t purchased the historic Fleischmann’s broadcasts, stop reading and order it NOW). Here ‘tis:
Right off the bat, you can hear that the Russell arrangement hadn’t changed a bit in the previous 18 months except for a very Louie-like trumpet obbligato by (I believe) Louis Bacon behind the vocal.
The tempo is a shade faster, causing Armstrong to be a little looser in his vocal (the original barking “Now look at you,” becomes a friendly, “Now look at you, Gate”). The stretched out scat breaks are also eliminated as Armstrong does everything in time with the music. A great moment occurs in the bridge where Armstrong scats a descending chromatic run over a D-minor chord, a favorite lick of his (he ends both “Summertime” with Ella Fitzgerald and “I Will Wait For You” from 1967 with the same run). He even drops the final word of the bridge, turning the humorous “Brother, can’t you spare a shine” into “Brother, can’t you spare oh-ohhh.”
I’ve always marveled at Armstrong’s ability to make quarter notes swing. That was obviously something that enchanted Cahn as the three notes that correspond with the song’s title are all quarter notes. Coming out of the bridge, Armstrong sings the titular phrase all one on pitch, placing each one squarely on the beat and infusing it with just the proper amount of devilish soul in his voice to make it swing like mad. Great stuff.
The trumpet solo is a “gassuh,” too. (But before we get to it, notice the arrangement now has a new interlude, better than the stilted repeated two bars from the record.) Armstrong approaches it much like the record, playing some phrases verbatim, as in the turnaround phrase at the end of the first eight bars. But because of the faster tempo, the urgency of the band lends a hotter aspect to Armstrong’s playing, which practically bubbles over at the bridge. Notice, there’s now a bit of call and response in the bridge, a nice touch. Paul Barbarin boots things along nicely, too, obviously spurring Pops on with his playing (he sounds like he’s spanking a child at the end of the middle section). Armstrong’s final eight bars are full of bravura absent on the record; gone are those twisty half-valve effects. I love it all so don’t think that I’m complaining; in fact, I think this live solo builds up better towards the climactic cadenza, though it’s not quite as romantic as the original. Speaking of the cadenza, Armstrong misses the next-to-last note for a half-second but recovers quickly. As if to make up for the momentary display of mortality, he closes the performance by glissing to a ridiculous high F, pretty much the top of his range and a full fifth higher than the sparkling high C that ended the record. Amazing.
Flash forward five years to Casa Manana in Culver City, California and it’s clear that Armstrong’s chops hadn’t deteriorated in the least way. In fact, this past March, I blogged about this April 1, 1942 appearance, arguing that it might be possibly be the greatest radio broadcast of Armstrong’s career. For the rest of the surviving material from that evening (including the astounding “You Don’t Know What Love Is”) check out that entire piece. But for “Shoe Shine Boy,” look no further than this:
We’re five years down the road, but it’s the same arrangement, though the tempo is slowed down a bit to resemble the original Decca recording. The trumpet obbligato is back, too (not sure who, this time…Bernard Flood?). Armstrong’s vocal is just as warm as ever and his first scat break is pretty wild. Overall, it’s a softer vocal than the somewhat frantic Fleischmann’s offering.
During the interlude before the trumpet solo, you’ll hear one major difference: Big Sid Catlett is now on drums and all is right In the world. Armstrong’s first eight bars are marked by a halting quality, though he still uncorks that same run during the turnaround. His second eight bars are more relaxed, in a similar vein to the Decca record. But what a bridge! I mean, the bridge on the Fleischmann’s broadcast was hot as hell but this one is SCORCHING, especially that opening phrase. Coming out of the bridge, Catlett starts laying down the press rolls but Louis oddly reverts back to more lyrical playing at first. However, it only takes him a couple of bars to feel the spirit and he begins the bravura stuff in the upper register.
Unfortunately, whoever recorded the original acetates from this broadcast ran out of room before the end of the cadenza! So did Pops hit the high C? Gliss to the high F? Only the folks in attendance that night at the Casa Manana could have told us (another reason to bemoan the passing of Lawrence Lucie).
Now, up to about a year ago, that was pretty much the known history regarding Louis Armstrong and “Shoe Shine Boy.” And really, there’s no reason to complain with three monster performances like that, right? But when Jos Willems’s Armstrong discography came out, I immediately became fixated on a single entry located on page 188: February 27, 1949, Booker T. Washington Auditorium, New Orleans, “Shoe Shine Boy.” What could this be, I’d ask myself. A quick vocal, a request, what, what, what??? Well, eventually, Jos became the patron saint of myself and this blog, sharing with me some of his greatest treasures. When I asked him about this broadcast, it only took a few weeks for it to arrive in my mailbox as part of a disc compiled by Swedish Armstrong expert Håkan Forsberg (Håkan, by the way, requested that I do a blog on “Shoe Shine Boy” so if you’re enjoying this, thank him!).
When I popped in the disc and began listening, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was a radio broadcast of a concert Armstrong gave a couple of days before the famous Mardi Gras parade that featured him as King of the Zulus. It was at this concert that Armstrong was crowned King, which was thrilling to hear. The coronation occurred right before the second half of the concert, which, after the obligatory “Sleepy Time” theme, found the All Stars tackling an appropriate number for the occasion, “Where the Blues Were Born in New Orleans.”
And then Armstrong announced “Shoe Shine Boy”: “We’re going to play one of our good ol’ recordings and it’s a beautiful tune titled ‘Shoe Shine Boy.’” I braced myself and went along for what turned out to be a majestic, six-minute ride. When it was over, I verbally said to no one in particular, “Oh my God,” and felt my eyes welling up. This was a special moment.
I soon shared it with Boston trumpeters Dave Whitney and Phil Person, each of whom was speechless. I then made a copy for tubaist and Armstrong scholar David Ostwald. He cried when he heard it. He told me about another trumpet player he played it for; that one cried, too. All of a sudden I began getting e-mails from major players like Jon-Erik Kellso and Joe Muranyi, asking about this “Shoe Shine Boy” they had heard so much about. It was taking on a life of its own…
Flash forward to the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans last month. On day one, Michael Cogswell was going to offer a presentation celebrating the 60th anniversary of Armstrong being named King of the Zulus. Michael prepared a typically authoritative and interesting lecture, complete with rare audio clips from Armstrong’s personal tape collection. It turns out that Armstrong’s private collection featured the coronation ceremony…but no “Shoe Shine Boy.” David Ostwald told Michael that he should let me play “Shoe Shine Boy” at the end of his presentation. Since I was up next anyway, it made for a neat segue and Michael was all for it.
As his presentation wound down, Michael called me and my trusty Ipod up to the podium. I gave a little background, hit play and played the entire six-minute track. For the entire duration, the room was almost eerily silent. By the time of Armstrong’s emotional ending, I could see people visibly moved. When Armstrong hit the final note, George Avakian was clearly broken up by what he had just heard. “I’ve never seen George like that,” Ostwald told me. Dan Morgenstern, Michael Cogswell, all the heavy hitters, were moved beyond belief. For the rest of the festival, the 1949 “Shoe Shine Boy” was something that frequently came up In conversation.
I think part of the emotional wallop contained in this version of “Shoe Shine Boy” has to do with its context. Armstrong was on top of the world, having just appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Yet, humble to the end, he was thrilled beyond belief to be able to go back to his hometown and serve as King of the Zulus, a lifelong dream of his. As David Ostwald put it, it was almost as if he called “Shoe Shine Boy” to tell his hometown fans, “I know I’ve gotten pretty big over the years, but don’t worry, I’m still the same hard-working, humble boy who grew up right here in this city.” And when you think about it that way, some of the lyrics become somewhat autobiographical: “You work hard all day,” “Got no time to play,” “You find joy in the things you do,” “Seldom ever blue,” “You’re content with what you’ve got,” “People look at you with scorn,” “Still you never whine,” etc.
Håkan Forsberg went a little deeper, writing to me, “Every recording of [“Shoe Shine Boy”] is however splendid. If one of these superb recordings should be ranked as his numero uno however, that recording, in my opinion, was the rendition of the tune he gave at the Booker T. Washington Auditorium in New Orleans in 1949 when he really poured his soul into it. Whenever I listen to that version I get the feeling that Louis, more than usual, wanted to send out a message of freedom and equality. – And perhaps that he found New Orleans to be the appropriate place to do it!” Amen, brother Håkan….
So have you had enough yet? Enough background, enough suspense? I’m sure you have. So without further ado, here’s “Shoe Shine Boy,” New Orleans, 1949 (the sound quality isn’t the greatest…but who cares?):
Everyone okay? Anyone need a tissue? I understand. So where to begin? Well, first, a theory of mine. Dan Morgenstern once wrote a blurb about this version without having heard it and assumed it was a request. It very well might have been but to my ears, the performance is way too tight to be a spur-of-the-moment creation. The breaks in the bridge, the ending, all of it seems like something they had done before. Perhaps it’s one of those tunes that just didn’t survive for very long in the All Stars book (maybe Armstrong thought that six minutes of such a slow ballad ate up too much time in his show). That’s just my opinion, but it definitely sounds like something that might have been a staple of the group’s early days, only to disappear too soon.
Also, I’ve been harsh on Earl “Fatha” Hines on this blog, hammering him for his careless, intrusive playing during his All Stars tenure. But I have to give Hines an A+ for his accompaniment on “Shoe Shine Boy.” Every run is perfectly placed and those tremolos could move mountains. Credit to the entire rhythm section, too, of Arvell Shaw’s bass and Sid Catlett’s drums for maintaining such a slow tempo.
This is the kind of tempo that Armstrong was comfortable with but I can’t think of many other jazz musicians who would feel the same way. Hines does seem to start it slightly faster than it becomes; Armstrong slows it down immediately with his playing and really turns it into a crawl during the vocal, extending his scat breaks almost to the point where any sense of a tempo disappears.
That vocal is tremendous, as tender and heartfelt as it gets, but really, it’s the trumpet playing that packs the biggest punch. Unlike the earlier versions, we get an entire chorus of trumpet playing at the front, two minutes of glory. Armstrong states the melody with plenty of passion but also finds plenty of room for embellishments (credit to Barney Bigard’s clarinet and Jack Teagarden’s trombone for offering appropriate support).
That first chorus is so gentle, so lovely, the kind of playing we heard yesterday on “In the Gloaming.” But it’s after the vocal that Armstrong really turns up the drama. The bad news is he only plays a half-chorus after the vocal. The good news? Just listen to that half-chorus and try not to be moved. There is so much passion behind every note of trumpet that I cannot even begin to put into words. The whole thing is so dramatic, yet so flowing, so free, so rhythmically complex, it boggles the mine.
But really, how about that ending? It was terrific on those early recordings, but it’s extra special here. Armstrong at his most operatic. He holds the next-to-closing note for seven seconds and that’s when I usually lose it. When it all erupts on that final high C., well, that’s just the sound of freedom my friends. Breathtaking.
There’s really not much else I can say on “Shoe Shine Boy.” For those who stuck with it until the end, I hope you got some enjoyment out of this piece and the music featured in it. I’m going to let it linger over the weekend and I’ll be back next week probably with “Gut Bucket Blues” on Tuesday or Wednesday. Please, though, I would love comments on anything discussed here, especially on that 1949 “Shoe Shine Boy.” Til then, have a great Labor Day weekend!