Sunday, November 29, 2009

On the Sunny Side of the Street: The 1930s Versions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded November 7, 1934
Track Time 6:02
Written by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields
Recorded in Paris, France
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Jack Hamilton, Leslie Thompson, trumpet; Lionel Guimaraes, trombone; Peter duConge, Henry Tyree, Alred Pratt, reeds; Herman Chitison, piano; Maceo Jefferson, guitar; German Arago, bass; Oliver Tines, drums
Originally released on Brunswic A 500491
Currently available on CD: It's on CD "Jazz In Paris, Vol. 51: Louis Armstrong and Friends"
Available on Itunes? Yes, on the above disc, split into two parts

Since I started the new job in Queens last month, I've been terrible with anniversary postings, watching "Blueberry Hill," "We Have All The Time In The World," "Everybody Loves My Baby" and more breeze right by me. But personally, the biggest omission occurred on November 7, when I missed the 75th anniversary of "On the Sunny Side of the Street," another song that's been covered by everyone (and his or her mother) but I think will always be most associated with Pops. I especially felt silly when David Ostwald played it at Birdland and asked me when Armstrong recorded it. "November 1934," I proudly answered...on November 5, oblivious that the anniversary was just hours away. Oops...

But thank goodness for Thanksgiving weekend, which is letting me stockpile a blog or two to take us through the rest of the fall. And finally, a few weeks late, I want to celebrate "On the Sunny Side of the Street" today with the first of three blog postings that will take you through a good chunk of the 30 or so versions of this standard that occupy space on my Ipod.

Of course, I start with a little history. The song was written by the formidable team of Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields for Lew Leslie's Broadway production of "International Revue." The show opened in February 1930 and soon enough, recordings were popping up of the show's standout tune. One of the first to tackle it was Ted Lewis, whose version is fortunately available on YouTube. Give it a listen:

Is it me or is that pretty similar to some of Armstrong's recordings of the period? There's the saxophone reading of the melody, the lumpy two-beat feel, a touch of vibraphone and a crooning violin...shades of "Song of the Islands" to my mind. And there's Lewis, too, whose spoken-vocal style has more in common with Armstrong than with other pop balladeers of the period such as Smith Ballew or Seger Ellis. It's a real heartfelt version, though it picks up some marching-and-swinging steam in between the vocals. Charming stuff.

The other big hit in "International Revue" was "Exactly Like You," which Pops famously recorded on May 4, 1930. So why would Pops record one song from the show but not "Sunny Side"? I do not know the answer but do know that it didn't long before Armstrong began performing the song live. By the time of Armstrong's European tours of 1932 and 1933, it was a regular part of his show, even though he still hadn't recorded it in a studio! Fortunately, some genius managed to somehow record three live Armstrong performances in Stockholm, Sweden on October 28, 1933 (just a week after the famous Copenhagen film of Armstrong doing "Dinah," "Tiger Rag" and "I Cover the Waterfront"). The Stockholm material is arguably the first live concert recording ever and is fortunately available on Storyville's indispensable Louis Armstrong In Scandinavia series. The sound quality isn't that great and the performance isn't quite complete but we do get four full minutes of historic live Armstrong a full year before he waxed this tune for posterity. Here's the audio:

As can be heard, only the last eight bars survives from Armstrong's vocal before the band takes over for one (you can hear someone on the phone during pianist Justo Barreto's pianist, as the person recording the show was using a phone line from the theater...not exactly Rudy Van Gelder in Birdland but I'm not complaining!). The most exciting thing about the performance is that it features more trumpet than any other succeeding Armstrong version of "Sunny Side." It's truly a magical solo, Armstrong's delicate entrance alone being worth the price of admission. He takes his sweet time, playing the melody straight in the second eight bars, leaving plenty of space in the bridge and getting down right rhapsodic in the final eight.

Heading into the second chorus, Armstrong turns up the heat and I get the chills. His playing becomes more intense as he works wonders with just two pitches, concert C and E, as the band riffs behind him. (Pay attention to those first eight bars, because they'd become favorites of Armstrong's decades later.) Armstrong's bridge is as dramatic as one would imagine, topped off by the dazzling triplet-infused break that became the centerpiece of almost all future performances of this song. And Armstrong's long, drawn-out ending (complete with a little talking to the band and some audience titters) is proof that even two years before Joe Glaser and the Decca contract rescued Armstrong's career, he was already loving those types of endings. An absolutely stunning solo.

Armstrong remained in Europe throughout the rest of 1933 and all of 1934, taking a long layoff to rest his bruised chops. Meanwhile, back home, there was proof that Armstrong had been playing "Sunny Side" in the States before departing for Europe in 1933: on September 10, 1934, Chick Webb recorded a version of the song featuring trumpet ace Taft Jordan. If you were with me for my look at "When You're Smiling" a couple of weeks ago, I quoted Jordan at length on the influence that record had on himself and numerous other trumpeters of the time. Jordan admitted he played it a couple of times live, as well as Armstrong's "Shine" solo and with the Washboard Rhythm Kings, he sang and played like Pops on "Hustlin' and Bustlin' for Baby." For "Sunny Side," Webb chose a slightly brighter tempo than Armstrong's treatment. Jordan takes the melody muted up front, impersonates Armstrong for the vocal, then takes an open horn solo, complete with a dramatic, slowed-down ending. It's not note-for-note the same as Armstrong's, but it's clearly a tribute, proof that Jordan must have been quite familiar with Armstrong's playing of this song in the early 30s. Dig it:

Finally, on November 7, 1934, Armstrong made his first recording session in a year-and-a-half, laying down six songs for France's Brunswick label. It was during this session that Armstrong finally made his routine on "On the Sunny Side of the Street" immortal. And by this point, it clearly was a routine, as every note of it had been worked out on the stage. Because it was a long routine in live performances (the above Swedish excerpt is four minutes and is incomplete), Armstrong recorded it in two parts, totally six minutes and two seconds of playing time. Thanks to the magic of CDs and editing and such innovations, most issues magically splice the two parts together into one seamless track. And that, my friends, is what I'm going to share at this time. Preliminaries aside, here's Louis Armstrong's first official studio recording of "On the Sunny Side of the Street," recorded 75 years ago this month:

The tempo's a shade slower here than it was in Sweden, though it follows a similar pattern. After the band sets the scene with eight bars of melody, Armstrong enters for the first of two sublime vocal choruses. Again, this is pre-Glaser and pre-Decca, but his vocal quality is already similar to the recordings that were about to take place just a short time later. Armstrong's voice is crystal clear, conveying all the warmth of the tune's message in the first chorus ("I'll be rich as Rocky-fellow"), before he begins his dramatic variations on his second go-around. Armstrong's declamatory "Grab your coat" at the start of his second chorus always elicits a "Yeah, man" from me. He completely rephrases the melody, utilizing only a few basic pitches, but infusing everything with a gripping urgency (listen to the way he sings the word "leave"). The scatting asides are terrific, but it's the show-stopping bridge (literally) that gets me every time, with the most passionate uttering of the word "rover" to ever be found on a record.

The vocal ends at almost exactly the three-minute mark, at which point--in 1934--you'd flip your 78 record over onto the second side to hear the band playing the melody once again. I should have mentioned the great pianist Herman Chittison earlier, whose fills were all over Armstrong's vocal and the band's melody statements before he gets eight-bars of his own during a Hines-esque bridge, ending with some whole-tone chords in a very hip way.

After eight more bars of melody (I think the arrangement was only eight bars long, repeated ad infinitum), Armstrong finally enters for the main event. Unfortunately, in the year since the live Swedish version, Armstrong cut his playing down to just a lone chorus. Instead of building up to the declamatory statements that ended the Stockholm performance, Armstrong comes right in with them, alternating the C's and E's in a solo that's clearly already been set in stone (no surprise for those who slogged through my "Indiana" diatribe last week).

There is one new addition to the routine that needs to be pointed out since it will be heard multiple times in the upcoming posts: the bridge now has a new opening. It's a completely logical little motive that has always seemed like a natural part of the tune for Armstrong nuts who've heard it dozens of times. But it wasn't until last month, on a road trip to Jack Bradley's house, that my boss Michael Cogswell hipped me to the fact that Armstrong's quoting an old country standard, "Faded Love." I had never heard this before until Cogswell whipped out his Ipod and played me Patsy Cline's recording of this tune. I was blown away and promised to look into it. I've since discovered that the tune was written by Western Swing king Bob Wills, who had a hit with it in 1950. Wait...1950? How was Pops quoting it in 1934? Wills claimed it was an old fiddle tune that he learned from his father John Wills. Okay, but still, how did Pops come across it? Jamming with Jimmie Rodgers one night in California? Who knows? Anyway, listen to "Faded Love" by Wills now and you'll never hear Armstrong's "Sunny Side" the same way again:

After the "Faded Love" quote, Armstrong completely nails his break, a series of searing repeated triplet phrases before a slippery, sliding descent back to solid ground. From there, it's more passionate C's and E's (so much drama, so few pitches) before another extended, dramatic ending. A six-minute masterpiece. No wonder the song became one of Armstrong's most famous...

Flash forward one year: Armstrong's back in the United States, climbing out of his doldrums, now led by Joe Glaser, recording for Decca and fronting Luis Russell's orchestra. Armstrong's first Decca session was on October 3, 1935 but just two days later, he made time to appear on the "Shell Chateau Radio Show" in New York City to perform two good ol' good ones with a studio band conducted by Victor Young. One, "Ain't Misbehavin'," was discussed on this here blog in July. The, other, though was "On the Sunny Side of the Street." Armstrong nails this version of "Sunny Side," eliminating the full chorus in the middle that bridged the vocal and the final trumpet solo. Thus, it's a full minute shorter than the studio version and is wall-to-wall Armstrong. He's a little shaky one or two of the notes but otherwise, for a live reading, he kills it (and the final eight bars are phrased differently). The extended ending gets another laugh as we go out on another high note (after a quick fluff). A great live performance:

By the time of Armstrong's historic Fleischmann's Yeast Broadcasts in 1937, Armstrong had trimmed his arrangement of "Sunny Side" even more, down from six minutes to a lean and mean three-and-a-half. Now, there's only one vocal chorus (a post-throat operation Armstrong is more gravelly than ever, really reaching to hit those low notes). As often happened with set pieces performed night after night, the tempo gradually quickened over the years. Drummer Paul Barbarin sets Armstrong up with some thudding accents before Pops embarks again one his set flight of fancy, now almost sounding even more impressive at this tempo (dig that break!). Again, though, there are a few cracked notes; this was a tough solo, even during these years when Armstrong seemingly could do anything he wanted on his horn. Give it a listen:

Now, you might be saying, "Jesus, Rick, you're really going to sit here and bore us with the same solo, year after year, for the next 25 years? Time to go play online solitaire..." Don't go anywhere yet, is all I can say as on November 15, 1937, Armstrong came up with a new approach for "On the Sunny Side of the Street." On that day, Armstrong recorded it with a small group taken from Russell's orchestra (one trombone, two reeds and a rhythm section) at a completely new, swinging tempo. Composer Jimmy McHugh later wrote in a letter to Armstrong that it was Pops who "put the beat in 'On the Sunny Side of the Street.'" He wasn't kidding: this version SWINGS. Diggeth:

Right from the start, we're met with the extroverted, joyous sound of J.C. Higginbotham's trombone paraphrasing the melody, with a bridge by altoist Charlie Holmes. Russell's band always had a tremendous rhythm section and they can really be appreciated on this small group side. Armstrong then jumps in with an incredibly bouncy, gravelly vocal. I don't think he touches the original melody for more than a couple of notes at a time. You can almost see him bouncing in tempo, the swing is so palpable. There's a bunch of added asides, from the opening "Boy," to a later "no suh," a delicious growl during the bridge and a picture perfect scat break. Rompin', rompin'...

But if the vocal wasn't enough, there's more good news right around the corner as Armstrong picks up his horn for one-and-a-half choruses of pure improvisation. Well, he still can't resist the "Faded Love" quote, uncorking it during his first bridge, but otherwise every other note is freshly minted. And please, a round of applause for Paul Barbarin's ceaselessly creative drumming. Poor Paul usually gets the shaft these days as most listeners (deservedly) save the praise for Big Sid Catlett, but don't take Barbarin for granted. I've already written about his driving work on the Fleischmann's Yeast broadcasts and I think Pops would have loved to have him around for decades. Speaking about Cozy Cole in 1956, Armstrong said, '"I mean he coudn't play like Paul Barbarin who plays real New Orleans drums. It's a different beat altogether--if you don't believe me, just kinda listen. Catlett and Cole were good men, no doubt 'bout that, but they couldn't keep that tempo like Paul Barbarin can. He ain't got a beat, man, he's got the beat." So you know those cymbal splashes, press rolls and latin-accents were just driving Pops mad on the Decca "Sunny Side."

Our look at Armstrong's 1930s versions of "On the Sunny Side of the Street" concludes with the famous Martin Block jam session version of December 1938. This is one of the great broadcasts in jazz history, one I covered in detail last December, as it matched Armstrong with other immortals of the period such as Fats Waller, Jack Teagarden and Bud Freeman. Keeping with his Decca treatment, Armstrong kicks it off at a bright tempo again (and he truly kicks it off, playing the first few notes unaccompanied). Here's what happened next:

Armstrong sounds great and, though I have an obsession with Fats Waller, it’s interesting hearing his backing as Armstrong rarely felt comfortable with stride piano players (Joe Sullivan lasted less than two months with Armstrong and sounds terrible on the few surviving live recordings from his stint). The ensemble cautiously stays out of Armstrong’s way before Pops gets a full improvised chorus to himself. Teagarden and Freeman solo well before an incredibly joyous vocal from Pops, with some almost stuttering scat at the end.

Fats announces his solo with a hearty “Hello” and even throws in a little “Stop it, Joe” aside to comment on his tickling. James Lincoln Collier later wrote about how serious Waller was during this session as opposed to Armstrong’s off-the-wall personality but I honestly think he must not have paid much attention to the actual music. Fats is subdued hear and there but that’s because Armstrong’s in the spotlight and, as just mentioned, during his own solos and his later vocal, there’s plenty of the Waller good humor in evidence.

Armstrong’s reentrance is wonderful as once again, he rhythmically plays with just two pitches, driving them to the brink of swinging insanity. From there, Armstrong more or less plays the set solo he used on his ballad interpretations, though he finds a new way out of the bridge, eschewing the triplets and falling glisses in favor of giant gliss towards the heavens. A fantastic version from a fantastic jam session.

And that's all we know of what Louis Armstrong did with "On the Sunny Side of the Street" in the 1930s. Come back in a few days and hear how his big band jumped it and how the All Stars treated it in the 1940s. Til then!

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