I'm actually nervous as I set out on today's blog post. Armstrong's 1956 version of "When You're Smiling" is an incredibly emotional experience for me, probably my second all-time favorite Armstrong recording (only "Star Dust" tops it, personally). I'm not sure I can even find the right words to describe what that recording does to me but even if I fail miserably, you should at least listen to it in full as I can guarantee that it will contain the greatest four minutes of music you will hear all day.
First though, a little recap. Previously on "The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong" (sounds like a TV show), I discussed Louis Armstrong's landmark 1929 recording of "When You're Smiling," a masterpiece that featured a slower-than-expected tempo, a vocal full of sunshine and an epic trumpet solo consisting of Armstrong playing the melody an octave higher than expected. (I should apologize, though, for screwing up a bunch of the links, including the YouTube videos; everything's fixed so dig it all over again!). As I explained, more than any other version, Armstrong's "When You're Smiling" really put the song on the map. It became one of his big hits and something he was often requested to play during live performances...mostly by frustrated trumpet players who couldn't believe the endurance and range showcased in that concluding solo.
Truthfully, though, I don't think Armstrong's chops could quite handle the range and endurance to pull off "When You're Smiling" night after night. By 1932, 1933, Armstrong began battling lip troubles, about as deadly an ailment as there is for a trumpet player to face. He took some time off in Europe and came back to America blowing beautifully. As I've argued in this space before, I find Armstrong's late-30s period (the Deccas and Fleischmann's Yeast Broadcasts) to feature the absolute pinnacle of his trumpet playing.
Having said that, Armstrong also learned to pace himself a bit better in those years. The days of hitting 200 high C's and topping it off with a high F were over. He did keep lip-busting charts such as "Swing That Music," "Chinatown" and "Tiger Rag" in his live performances, but sometimes with notable differences. He never recreated his original Decca "Swing That Music" solo and he played fewer choruses on "Chinatown" and "Tiger Rag" than he did earlier in the decade. What he continued to blow was absolutely stupefying but he now knew how adjust these trumpet features a bit to keep his chop troubles behind him.
Thus, I don't know if he wanted to mess with "When You're Smiling" anymore when he returned from Europe. I'm sure he could still play but it might have burned him out. Of course, that's just a hunch, but it's a fact that there are no surviving recordings, broadcasts or other live performances of "When You're Smiling" between 1932 and 1950. And when we get to 1950, the surviving version, from an episode of Kay Kyser's NBC TV show, is only 43 seconds in length. Fortunately, it's a pretty stunning 43 seconds, as Armstrong just plays his concluding solo as a way of introducing himself to the audience. The tempo is much faster than it was in 1929--hence the shortened length--but Armstrong still takes it an octave up and still nails every note of it. Dig it:
Still nailed it, right? But then that's it again, no more versions until January 21, 1955. On that evening, Decca's engineers recorded three full sets by Armstrong's All Stars at Hollywood's Crescendo Club, eventually releasing it on a terrific two-LP set (in the 90s, almost the complete evening was issued on the four-disc Decca set, The California Concerts, which is still available as an MP3 download. It remains the definitive look at a typical evening at a nightclub with the All Stars in the 50s). Armstrong's group--with Trummy Young, Barney Bigard, Billy Kyle, Arvell Shaw and Barrett Deems--was going through a prime period, having recently recorded Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy and about to record Satch Plays Fats, both seminal albums done for Columbia. (Clarinetist Bigard was just about out of gas but the rest of the band swung mightily.)
At the Crescendo, the All Stars played many of the popular tunes in their book, songs they often played night after night. But perhaps knowing that Decca wanted some different material (they already had two All Stars live shows on the market, Symphony Hall 1947 and Pasadena 1951), Amstrong also called a few surprises like "Tain't What You Do," "Old Man Mose" and, you guessed it, "When You're Smiling."
Now, was "When You're Smiling" a regular part of the All Stars's live shows during this period? I don't think so, but really, who knows? The band played over 300 nights a year and though a solid five or six shows/broadcasts survive from this period, I can't vouch for the other 295. At the Crescendo Club, Armstrong chose "When You're Smiling" as the 11th song of the first set. It followed "Me and Brother Bill," an Armstrong novelty that featured zero trumpet playing, as Pops obviously had to have the chops totally rested for what was about to follow. In fact, I don't need to share it here, but if you pull out your copy of this disc, you'll hear Armstrong announce "Me and Brother Bill" over the microphone, then turn and tell the band, "'When You're Smiling,' next. Jump it like it is." I always liked that moment because it illustrates Armstrong's mind, even with Decca professionally recording him, still working on the fly, improvising a set list as he goes. (I'll personally fight anyone in a parking lot tomorrow afternoon who throws the, "But he played the same show every night!" routine at me!)
Armstrong's instructions to "jump it" also makes me think this was a one-time only performance for Decca. Why else would he need to instruct the tempo? Anyway, the tempo is indeed faster than the original, though not dramatically so. The original vocal take clocked in around 120 beats per minute. The non-vocal alternate I shared in my last posting was 144. The 1955 Crescendo Club version is 160, not that much faster than the non-vocal take. It sounds faster, but that's really because of the "modern" 1955 rhythm section, complete with four-four bass and swinging cymbal patterns. Dickerson's 1929 band plodded away with such a two-beat that it naturally sounded much slower than it really was.
Enough yakking from me. Let's listen to the performance as think it's truly one of the All Stars's finest moments of the mid-50s, a period that was chock full of incredible performances. This band swung with almost ridiculous power and you'll hear what I mean by clicking here:
From Billy Kyle's opening piano introduction, the piece is already swinging. You'll hear Pops quietly tell his All Stars, "Wail, boys," and man, do they listen. Armstrong leads the ensemble with a chorus of melody, the rhythm section enhanced by Arvell Shaw doubling up notes in his bass line. After the first relatively straight chorus, Armstrong swings into a second chorus, now trotting out some variations, sounding beautiful. Trummy's with him the entire way and even Barney Bigard wakes up a bit for some hot playing.
Armstrong then follows with the vocal (Trummy sets him up with the original lead-in from the 1929 record). As he did in 1929, Armstrong rephrases the melody in a descending manner, showing no need for the static, ascending nature of the way the tune was written. He sounds great, throwing in bits of scat and really wailing on that final, high "when" (and do I detect a little Yiddish accent in Pops's final reading of "smiles" as "schmiles"?).
Armstrong closes his vocal by asking Trummy Young to take it. The rhythm section, backed by Deems's powerful backbeats, kicks it into second gear, as Trummy blasts forth a hard-punching solo, Pops giving him a quiet harmony note for his second eight bars. When they get to the bridge, Pops blows in, urged by Shaw's vocal exhortations to "Go, Pops!" Armstrong improvises an exciting new line over the bridge, before he hits the melody. And then, shades of B.A. Rolfe, Armstrong keeps going with the melody, playing the last eight bars an octave higher, killing every damn note of it, Shaw cheering him on in the background. My goodness, that band could swing!
I love that performance but relentless swing of the All Stars. Pops sounds amazing but of course, if you're looking for the octave-higher business, there's only the last 12 bars or so to satisfy you. But don't worry, Armstrong next--and final--recording of "When You're Smiling" would put every other performance of the tune, before and after, to shame.
Armstrong's final attempt at "When You're Smiling" came on December 12, 1956. It was recorded for the ambitious Musical Autobiography project for Decca, the end result being a four-LP set that found the mid-50s Armstrong recreating many of the tunes he originally made famous in the 1920s and early 30s. I've gushed about the Autobiography numerous times in the past and I'll probably never stop as I think it's the definitive look at Armstrong's trumpet playing abilities in the 1950s. He was in simply stunning form from the first session through the last, mainly thanks to a little strategy on the behalf of producer Milt Gabler. Gabler insisted that Joe Glaser not book Armstrong anywhere else in New York while Pops was doing this project. Gabler paid Glaser for the service, and even booked the sessions in the evening, when Armstrong's chops were most ready for an evening of blowing. Friends and family were invited, food and drink were served and by all accounts, it was a relaxed, truly special series of sessions. With such care and concern surrounding the dates, Armstrong responded with some of the greatest playing of his entire career.
Because of the conditions, it was an ideal chance for Armstrong to dig out "When You're Smiling" one final time. He could rest the chops before, rest them after, take a break, do whatever he had to do to get through this test of endurance one more time. The song was chosen to be second one recorded during the album's second session. The December 12 date led off with a swinging run-through on "Mahogany Hall Stomp," a piece the All Stars regularly played in 1956. Armstrong was familiar with it and knocked off his climactic three-chorus solo with ease.
Sufficiently warmed up, it was time for "When You're Smiling." Though the conditions were ideal, one small curveball threatened to make this performance a lot more difficult then it had to be: the tempo. Yes, at 120 beats per minute, the 1929 original was pretty slow. But for the 1956 remake, Armstrong and arranger Sy Oliver decided to up the ante...or is it lower the ante? Regardless, they dropped the tempo to an almost inhuman 88 beats per minute. 88 beats! That's fine for a resting heart rate, but for a song tempo? As Dan Morgenstern once wrote, this is "dangerous territory--to swing at this almost static pace takes some doing."
Fortunately, Armstrong was more than up to the challenge. The resulting four minutes of music, I think, constitute a high point for Armstrong's trumpet playing in the 50s...and that's saying a lot since it was a helluva decade for him and his chops. Enough from me, listen for yourself and just prepare to feel good about everything and anything:
Well, I'm emotionally knocked out...you? Where to begin? I guess at the beginning with Sy Oliver's reeds, mimicking the "Lombardo" saxes from the original. Trummy Young's obbligato is quite beautiful. After quietly clearing his throat, Armstrong enters his vocal with a righteous, relaxed scat-break. He still phrases the melody in his own way and still inserts all the bits of scatting in all the right places. By the final eight bars, it's simply joy personified. Armstrong's smile was arguably the greatest in show business and you can actually hear him smiling as he delivers the song's simple message. As warm a vocal as has ever been sung.
But that's just the appetizer; the main course is coming up and believe me, it's worth the wait. Billy Kyle's piano takes eight bars to allow Pops to get his lips in his horn. Once he's ready, well, good night nurse. Armstrong hits his first note at the 2:15 mark. The song is 4:03 long. It was tough enough work lasting the original 72 seconds in 1929. But lasting 108 seconds? With 55-year-old, battle-scarred lips? At 88 beats per minute?
Armstrong's trumpet enters with the exact same phrase he scatted as a lead-in to his vocal, but then it's melody time. Two giant quarter notes followed by an even bigger concert Ab, held and shook for all its worth. Oliver's reeds give him a sensuous cushion of harmony that just adds to the angelic feel of this performance (not even Gabriel could have blown anything so pretty). In the next eight bars, Armstrong now climbs higher to a Bb, again, holding it for an insane amount of time. That's the thing about a solo like this that some jazz fans, accustomed to strings of 16th notes chewing up the changes, might not get. Yes, it's quite a feat to play dozens of notes per bar. But this is something else. This is a test of endurance. This is high notes, held notes, gigantic notes, vibrato-filled notes. Each quarter note is worth more than any chorus of runs based on a lydian mode.
But back to the action. In between the strict melody playing, listen to Armstrong's asides, once again echoing his little scatted phrases. But it's still those held notes that take my breath away, such as towards the end of the second eight bars, when he hits a high G, hold it, plays it two more times, then hits again once more for good measure, holding it yet again. But the bridge is really where I begin to worry. I've heard this track about a thousand times but still there's that tension of "Is he going to make it?" After hitting multiple high Ab's and Bb's, it's the end of the bridge (corresponding to the lyrics "be happy again") where Armstrong finally makes high C. Once up there, he shows no quit, hitting it three more times going into the last eight bars.
And what bars they are. He's basically back to the melody by this point, but he's officially been up in the stratosphere for a minute-and-a-half. Trust me, I've listened to this track with world class head phones, looking for any evidence of a splice. There's nothing. This was all knocked off in four other-worldly minutes. Nearing the finish line, Armstrong pushes himself another step higher, hitting a high Db during the song's final phrase, "the whole world smiles with you." But he has one more trick up his sleeve; where the written melody makes those lyrics descend two notes at a time, Armstrong goes up one more time where the word "world," hitting a sickening Eb, the highest note of the solo. I mean, is this guy kidding or what?
Finally, it's time for the final two notes of the solo, "with you." On the second-to-last note, Armstrong plays a quick gliss to the high C. For me, it's his only teeny, tiny sign of tiring. He hit every other note square on the nose, but that last high C sounds like it needed a little push. Still, he hits it and safely lands at his final note, an Ab, not quite as high as some of the ones we've just heard, but still a freakishly high one to hit and hold after almost two minutes of pure chops-punishment. That last note, for me, is one of the great ones of Armstrong's entire career. Bravo, Pops...
Fortunately, the stars aligned beautifully to create that magical moment inside of Decca's New York studios that December day in 1956. But a piece like that required the absolute ideal circumstances, which Armstrong had for the Autobiography. It was too punishing a piece to be performed during a grueling evening with the All Stars, where Armstrong usually blew on about 95% of the songs performed each night (especially during that period). Thus, unless someone requested it with a tape recorder present, the 1956 masterpiece is the last surviving version of Louis Armstrong performing "When You're Smiling." What a way to go out!
Armstrong might have never played it again, but he was certainly proud of the Decca version. Dan Morgenstern remembered that when Armstrong was about to leave his Corona home to go on back on the road for another string of one-nighters with the All Stars, he'd blast the 1956 "When You're Smiling" to put him in the right frame of mind. Definitely something to be proud of. Even for me, it's the kind of performance that always puts me in the right frame of mind, too. No matter what's happening in my world, it's guaranteed to make me smile and marvel at our luck to have a performance like that to savor forever. Amazing stuff. I'm going to listen to it again....