Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanks a Million - Again!

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 19, 1935
Track Time 2:37
Written by Gus Kahn and Arthur Johnston
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 666
Currently available on CD: It's on the new Mosaic box set of Armstrong's Decca recordings from 1935-1946 (perfect for the holiday season!)
Available on Itunes? Yes, on various issues (both takes are on something called “Knowing Louis”)

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Two years ago, I covered Armstrong's version of "Thankful" on this day, while last year, I looked at "Thanks a Million." Unfortunately, that's pretty much where the theme of Armstrong giving thanks ends so I'm forced to reuse my post on "Thanks a Million," which I don't think anyone will mind as it's one of those tunes that all the real Pops lovers seem to have a soft spot for, especially trumpet players. Just off the top of my head, I know the song has been a favorite of hornmen from Bobby Hackett and Ruby Braff to Randy Sandke, Jon-Erik Kellso and Dave Whitney. Though there’s no wild pyrotechnics, the song still exists as a standout example of Armstrong playing and singing a beautiful melody with a tremendous amount of warmth.

The song comes from the formidable talents of two great songwriters of the 1930s, Arthur Johnston and Gus Kahn. Throughout his career, Armstrong found Johnston’s songs especially suitable for blowing, Johnston having written “Mandy, Make Up Your Mind,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “Moon Song” and “Just One of Those Things,” to name a few, all subject to terrific Armstrong treatments. “Thanks a Million” was written for a 20th Century musical comedy of the same name starring Dick Powell and Ann Dvorak, as well as two great comedians of the era, Fred Allen and Patsy Kelly. In the film, Powell got to sing the title song, backed by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra (with David Rubinoff on violin). Sadly, what a difference a year makes: the YouTube clip I shared last time out has been removed. Bah humbug...

Powell is harmless and has a very good voice but rhythmically, he’s the anti-Armstrong, very stiff and almost comically emotional (his hand gestures bordered on hilarious in the clip). Nevertheless, the song must have become pretty well associated with Powell as it became the title of a 1998 biopic and like I said, it’s harmless, with the very pretty melody coming through clearly. Sure enough, it would be a winner for Pops and indeed, he hit it out of the park. Here ‘tis:

Doesn’t get much better, eh? People sometimes refer to this a ballad but pay close attention to the tempo, which swings in a more medium groove thanks to Pops Foster’s bass. I think just because the tune is gentle and pretty, it could be confused into being called a ballad, but this version really isn’t (though almost any succeeding version I’ve heard is on the slow side).

Regardless, the main event is arguably Pops’s first chorus. He barely deviates from the melody, though when he does, such as the lightening quick descending run, it always works. He plays it fairly straight for half the chorus before hitting the magic elevation button and taking it up an octave, climaxing on a penetrating high C, followed immediately by an even higher concert Eb. He almost sounds like he’s sobbing in the way he descends from the high note. I know I’m almost sobbing over here listening to such beauty.

The Luis Russell band takes over, setting up Pops’s vocal, one of his finest of the period. He still hadn’t had his throat operation, which occurred in 1937 and seemed to add a quarter-pound of gravel to his already unique voice. Thus, we get that crystal clear tenor, something to marvel at. There’s no scatting, but the “Now mama” in the second half is priceless. An incredibly heartfelt vocal.

Russell’s piano leads to a modulation that finds Armstrong playing the melody one more time in a more human key, with no need to reach for those sickeningly beautiful high notes. Yet, because it’s a Decca record, you can bet your life that there’s going to be a slowed down coda. Sure enough there is, and once again Armstrong makes the angels weep with his final two notes, a gorgeous, throbbing Ab topped off with a ridiculously pure concert Db. Bravo, Mr. Armstrong.

“Thanks a Million” survives in another, almost identical take, as heard on volume one of the priceless Ambassador series. On this one, which was actually recorded first, Armstrong stays closer to the melody the first time around but otherwise all the hallmarks of take one are in place: taking the melody up an octave, the “Now, Mama” in the heartfelt vocal, the modulation and the gorgeous coda. For the nuts out there, give it a listen:

On a personal note, let me just say “Thanks a Million” once again to the readers out there who keep me going. I'd like to announce that this site has had more hits this month than any prior month...and there's still five days remaining! So welcome to all who are recently becoming attuned to my madness and thanks, as usual, to all the readers from around the world who have been with me from the beginning. I know it's been harder and harder to get new blogs out since I began my dream job at the Armstrong Archives, but I'm never going to quit, especially with the book around the corner (speaking of which, the good people at Random House have added a nice little summary of it on their website and on the Amazon listing. Click the link at the top of this page and check it out!).

But again, thanks to all who have supported me and especially who support Armstrong. The Armstrong community is incredibly generous; must have to do with the man’s spirit. About three years ago I gave a lecture at the Institute of Jazz Studies and carried around my Ipod with 2,200 Armstrong songs arranged chronologically. Since then, I think I’ve bought maybe four or five new Armstrong CDs, yet somehow the number of Armstrong songs in my Itunes has jumped to 3,605! (When I wrote that sentence in 2008, it was, 3,395...not a bad year considering I bought zero Armstrong CDs!) How? Through the generosity of so many of you for offering up so much unissued Pops and thanks to anyone who has ever left a comment or written me an e-mail. For now, it’s time for scarfing. Happy Thanksgiving to all and thanks a million!

1 comment:

Ed Peterson said...


Just discovered your blog! Amazing!