Thursday, December 10, 2009

80 Years of "I Ain't Got Nobody"

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 10, 1929
Track Time 2:44
Written by Spencer Williams, Dave Payton and Roger Graham
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Henry "Red Allen, Otis Johnson, trumpet; J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Albert Nicholas, clarinet; Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Teddy Hill, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Will Johnson, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Originally released on Okeh 8756
Currently available on CD: A Columbia disc from 1991, Louis Armstrong Volume 6: St. Louis Blues, was the first one to include both takes.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on the above set

"I Ain't Got Nobody" is probably the only Spencer Williams tune that still gets requested at weddings (though I'd love to be at one where the DJ plays "I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jelly Roll"). The reason for this is David Lee Roth's 1985 medley of "Just a Gigolo" and "I Ain't Got Nobody," which raped and pillaged Sam Butera's arrangement for Louis Prima right down to the saxophone solo (though Butera's "Witnesses" were replaced for the most part by a synthesizer...classy). Because Roth had a monster hit with the medley, "I Ain't Got Nobody" has become a song that even most people of my generation know and love. That's a good thing. The bad thing? Those same people often think Roth wrote the song. Yikes...

"I Ain't Got Nobody" was originally published in 1916 with lyrics by Roger Graham and music by the great Spencer Williams. (Interestingly, a 1914 copyright deposit of the tune as titled "I Ain't Got Nobody and Nobody Cares for Me" gives the credit to Chales Warfield, David Young and Marie Lucas. Make of that whatever you'd like...thanks Wikipedia!) It seems to have been a hit right from the start. Here's a copy of the original sheet music cover:

As the cover depicts, the song was obviously big in vaudeville, performed by blackface comedians and female singers alike. In the latter category, there's Marion Harris, who waxed one of the earliest versions of the tune in 1916. Thanks to YouTube, you can listen to it right now:


By the 1920s and 1930s, the song was still going strong, as can be heard in versions by Bessie Smith, Red Nichols, the Mills Brothers, Fats Waller (solo and with his Rhythm), Bing Crosby, Red McKenzie (check THAT one out on YouTube) and others. And 80 years ago today, Louis Armstrong recorded it, too.

One could argue that Armstrong was already somewhat familiar with the tune since he made two recordings in 1927 of "Melancholy," a song that's almost a clone of "I Ain't Got Nobody." But Armstrong's actual version of "Nobody" is special because it teamed him up with Luis Russell's orchestra, arguably the hottest big band in the country at that time. Armstrong and Russell weren't strangers, having played together briefly in early March 1929, an occasion commerorated by the recording of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" and "Mahogany Hall Stomp." After that session, Armstrong went back to Chicago before returning to New York in the summer to become a star with his rendition of "Ain't Misbehavin'" in Connie's Hot Chocolates (all of these 1929 specialties have blogged about by yours truly this year so feel free to go back and catch up on them...if you have a couple of free days to wade through it all).

Armstrong stayed in New York, recording a few times with Carroll Dickerson's orchestra, but eventually it was time for him to go out on his own. Instead of creating his own big band, Armstrong often toured and recorded as a single, fronting whatever orchestra he could hire for the occasion. And at the end of 1929, the combination of Armstrong and Russell's orchestra was an absolute no-brainer. The four tunes recorded in December of that year--"I Ain't Got Nobody," "Dallas Blues," "St. Louis Blues" and "Rockin' Chair"--are all pretty wonderful.

Beginning in the early 30s, Armstrong tended to (rightly) dominate his recording sessions. His backing bands often played erratically but it didn't matter as long as they provided a simple framework for Pops to play the melody, sing a chorus and take things out on top. But the Russell band was already at the peak of its powers, cutting one legendary record after another for OKeh. Armstrong wasn't about to get in their way which makes the 1929 sessions so special. Yes, Armstrong's the leader and is featured the most, but he also made room for solos by trombonist J.C. Higginbotham and alto saxophonist Charlie Holmes, as well as letting the band just do its thing: swing, swing and swing some more thanks to what I've always felt to be the first truly great swinging rhythm section of Russell's piano, Will Johnson's guitar, Pops Foster's bass and Paul Barbarin's drums.

But "I Ain't Got Nobody" is extra special because it allowed Armstrong to give a little bit of space to one of the Russell band's greatest acquisitions since that earlier March date, trumpet great Henry "Red" Allen. Allen and Armstrong knew one other from their New Orleans days and had a great deal of mutual respect for each other's playing. Allen cut a bunch of records in 1929, both with Russell and as a leader for Victor, who probably saw the opportunity to cast a new Armstrong. During this period, Armstong's influence on Allen was undeniable. As the years went on, Allen consciously tried breaking away from Pops's influence, leading to the daring tendencies that made him one of the first great "modern" jazz musicians ("Queer Notions" solo...nuff said).

But in 1929, Allen was so absorbed in Pops that sometimes it's hard to tell the two of them apart. And that's exactly what happens on "I Ain't Got Nobody." As you'll hear in a second, the record opens with the Russell band swinging through the verse before Armstrong enters with a vocal that starts off fairly subdued for the period, though it grows in both humor and intensity as it goes on. But then, after a brief transition, comes the main event: Armstrong and Allen trade fours for half a chorus. The incredible thing is that both men sound so alike, many writers have overlooked this and written about it as if it was just a single Armstrong solo (even Brian Peerless's notes for Columbia's 1991 issue of this music didn't mention it).

In 1994, Loren Schoenberg wrote, "For many years people have been intrigued by Red Allen's claim that he and Louis traded with each other so smoothly on one of these titles that it was impossible to spot." At the time, Loren assumed Allen was talking about a non-vocal take of "St. Louis Blues" but upon close listening, it has to be "I Ain't Got Nobody." The crazy part is, it seems like Armstrong and Allen are consciously trying to make it sound like one person's playing. They never overlap, but each one ends their four-bar stint right on the nose. The most telling evidence comes in the second four bars, when one of the trumpets resolves a phrase by working it into the lower register, immediately followed by another trumpeter swinging out in the upper register.

Now, you'll realize I'm using phrases like "another trumpet." That's because I'm not 100% sure who is who! If I had to guess, I think Armstrong leads, but I'm not sure. Maybe Allen takes 8, then Armstrong takes 8? I'd love to get some feedback from my readers on this one. After the 16 bars of trading, Armstrong and Allen team up to play an arranged passage on the bridge. Once finished, there's one more trade and this time, you can clearly hear another trumpet in the background. To quote Red Allen himself when playing one of these records years later, "My, my, those two trumpets do sounds alike, don't they?" Here's the master:


In 1991, a non-vocal version of "I Ain't Got Nobody" was discovered. It's a little slower and in place of the vocal, we get a chorus split by Higginbotham and Holmes. But we also get another trumpet trade and this time the evidence is concrete: there are times, sometimes only a second or two, when you can hear another trumpet playing something at the same time as the one soloing. (Does Armstrong pick up the ball at bar six?) Here's the alternate:


And naturally, I had to do some of my famous editing, so here are the two trading passages back to back:


Again, I'd love to hear what the experts--including Franz Hoffman, the world's foremost Red Allen expert and a reader of this blog--think. Let me know!

Armstrong never touched "I Ain't Got Nobody" again until the fall of 1959 when he recorded it for the album Satchmo Plays King Oliver on Audio Fidelity (yes, 1959, 50 years ago, making this a rare double-anniversary post!). Don't let the title fool you as I don't believe King Oliver ever touched this tune, which was the case with about half the numbers on the final album (which should have been titled "Satchmo Plays Some King Oliver Tunes, Some Tunes King Oliver Might Have Played and Some Songs in the Public Domain We Don't Have to Pay to Record"). I love the Luis Russell version but honestly, there's not a lot of Pops on it. The trading is fun and all but a lot of the record is given over to the band swinging through arrangement. Because of this, I think the 1959 "I Ain't Got Nobody" cuts the 1929 one to ribbons. Listen for yourself:


I don't know about you, but I think that performance is a classic, one of my favorites from Armstrong's final decades. Besides for Billy Kyle's bridge in the first chorus and Peanuts Hucko's bridge in the final chorus, it's Armstrong's show from start to finish...and what a show!

Backed by his All Stars--and fresh from a heart attack--Armstrong's first chorus demonstrates that even though he was recording tunes not associated with his mentor, he hadn't forgetten Oliver's advice on how to play lead, stating that melody perfectly, with just enough embellishment to keep it swinging. His vocal is simply wonderful. My goodness, the way he swings those quarter notes on "I'll sing my love song" at the bridge, it could move a mountain. The "hot mamas" references always makes me laugh and his phrasing of the final "nobody cares for me" is a righeous period to end a definitive statement.

The tempo's just slow enough that Armstrong doesn't have to pass the ball to anyone to get his chops together. He just lets the All Stars complete the turnaround and whammo, he's back and swinging. And just listen to the variations he comes up with in those 16 bars; this is mind-alterning stuff. It's free, it's operatic, it's daring, it's swinging, it's the complete package. Even his scattered runs, I listen to them and say, "Ahhh, so that's where Red Allen got that, too!" But as fantastic as those 16 bars are, it's just a warm-up for the final eight, where Pops simply goes for it and takes the melody up an octave higher than expected, nailing a high concert C for the titular "I" and topping it with a high D just seconds later. What a performance!

For the completists out there, Hank O'Neal discovered an alternate take of this tune years later and released it on his Chiaroscuro label. In fact O'Neal released an entire album of alternates and I've always found that he got a better sound out of these recordings than the audio geniuses at Audio Fidelity. It's a very similar performance, but I like the sound quality better and Armstrong trots out some different ideas in both the vocal and the trumpet solo, making it worth a listen:



I hope you enjoyed this look at Armstrong's recordings of "I Ain't Got Nobody." And please, feel free to leave a comment or send me an e-mail regarding the trading of Red and Pops. Thanks!

1 comment:

Loren Schoenberg said...

Ricky,

Listened again, closely, and I still think it's Louis all the way here. I hear two other trumpets behind him at times (especially the written bridge) but the same trumpet seems to bridge the first two 8 (A) bar sections.

Will report back on other titles.

Love your work on this.

Loren