Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 13, 1929
Track Time 3:19
Written by Hoagy Carmichael
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, vibes; Hoagy Carmichael, vocal
Originally released on Okeh 8756
Currently available on CD: The JSP disc Hot Fives and Hot Sevens Volume 4 has both original takes. For the other 30 or so survivng versions, you're on your own!
Available on Itunes? Yes, on the above set
I know I promised a few more thoughts on Terry Teachout's "Pops" but that's going to have to wait a bit because I didn't want another Armstrong anniversary to pass me by. This past Sunday, December 13, marked the 80th anniverary of Armstrong's first recording of a tune he was to perform until the final year of his life, Hoagy Carmichael's "Rockin' Chair."
I've always wanted to do a blog on "Rockin' Chair" for a variety of reasons: the song is a classic and Armstrong's treatments over the years always contained some emotional trumpet playing and good laughter. But also, it's one of those songs where I really don't have to write a lot, I just have to let the different versions speak for themselves. And the way I've been going these days, that's just what I need. So grab a chair (it doesn't necessarily have to rock) and get ready to enjoy a little "Rockin' Chair."
The tune was written by Hoagy Carmichael, who was first bitten by the Armstrong bug when he heard Louis play with King Oliver at the Lincoln Gardens in 1922. I don't think the pair were best friends or anything but they definitely had a mutual appreciation society; an album of "Armstrong Plays Carmichael" would be guaranteed to feature nothing but winners.
"Rockin' Chair" was made during the stretch of sessions with Luis Russell's orchestra I discussed last week, beginning with "I Ain't Got Nobody" and "Dallas Blues" on December 10, then "St. Louis Blues" and "Rockin' Chair" on the 13th. For "Rockin' Chair," Armstrong apparently invited Carmichael himself to sing on the date, playing the role of the father while Armstrong would be the son. Early integrated jazz sessions are discussed frequently and of course we have the New Orleans Rhythm Kings with Jelly Roll Morton, the Eddie Condon "That's a Serious Thing" date, Armstrong's "Knockin' a Jug" and maybe a few more. But is "Rockin' Chair" the first time a black man and a white man sang a duet together on record? I can't think of any earlier instance, though please correct me if I'm wrong.
The original "Rockin' Chair" survives in two takes. The master is a classic, as will be heard in a minute. But if you really want to hear a fairly sloppy, warm-up, alternate take, listen to this one first:
Yikes! I guess they're mere mortals after all. The start is a mess as one of the second trumpet players (Red Allen or Otis Johnson) comes on a little too strong with his harmony part, causing Armstrong and the second trumpet player to stop abruptly. (You can hear them exchange glances.) Then it's off to the verse, which sounds like it's being read for the first time. Even Armstrong seems to be just noodling around, getting a feel for it. I wonder if they knew this was being recorded?
The vocal, though, is knocked out without any problems, Carmichael simply singing/half-talking his words with Armstrong simply repeating them, though the two add an extra order of ham in the last eight bars. Then after a simple vibes interlude (pre-dating Lionel Hampton), Armstrong comes in with his climactic trumpet solo, sounding strong as hell (good Pops Foster behind him). After Russell's crew takes the bridge, Armstrong takes it out with a series of searing high Ab's before a somewhat tentative closing cadenza. Not the worst performance in the world, but definitely room for improvement.
Fortunately, they nailed it two takes later. Here's the master:
Much better. Armstrong gets to play his lead uninterrupted in the first eight bars and he plays much more confidently during the verse. The vocal is very similar, with Armstrong providing all the responses. Carmichael's a little stiff but overall, you can sense the affection between the two legends. And if Carmichael was a little stiff, at least someone was present to take some notes for future use: trombonist Jack Teagarden, who didn't play on the date but according to Hoagy, was in attendence.
(Quick question: on this and every succeeding version of "Rockin' Chair," Armstrong always responds to the phrase "Can't get from this cabin" with something that sounds like "What cabin, choking, father." What is Pops saying and what does it mean? Will Friedwald once posed this question to a mailing-list of top jazz researcher's including the likes of Dan Morgenstern and George Avakian and no one could come up with a satisfactory answer. Anyone out there want to take a stab at it?)
After the vocal, Armstrong takes over, in blistering good form, those repeated high Ab's even more expressive, while the cadenza is perfectly poised. Ladies and gentlemen, a hit record was born...
Armstrong didn't waste any time putting it in his live repertoire. In fact, photos exist from Armstrong's 1933 European tour of Armstrong performing the tune with trombonist Henry Tyree, complete with Tyree wearing a hat and a fake beard in playing the role of the father. By 1937, Armstrong's career was officially taking off. He was once again fronting Luis Russell's orchestra in 1937 when he hired to host a series of radio broadcasts for the Fleischmann's Yeast company. I've written about these sessions time and again and I'll never tire of recommending the two-C.D. set released last year (makes a perfect stocking stuffer). On that package is version of "Rockin' Chair" featuring trumpeter Louis Bacon in the role of the father. Bacon's a little dry (there's a pun in there somewhere), but this version, to me, is more notable for the dynamic trumpet playing:
That version opened with no trumpet, just the Russell band playing an introduction. Armstrong sounds particularly exuberant in the vocal, really selling his responses. Once the vocal's finished, the reeds play the simple little break Paul Barbarin originally played on the vibes. Now, though, it sets up a real treat: 16 bars of peak-form Armstrong played over a new arrangement, complete with some chord substitions and a pounding bridge that's worthy of a strip club. He still hands it over to band for the bridge, adding a church-like atmosphere with some righteous "Hallelujahs," singing along with the group, feeling the spirit. He finally picks the horn back up to play something very similar to his original 1929 solo with those Ab's. However, by this point, almost every Armstrong record for Decca ended with an extended cadenza of some sort. This broadcast of "Rockin' Chair" features a 40 second ending with the band holding a single chord as Armstrong takes his time and drives home some powerhouse glisses. One of my favorite versions of the tune.
Two years later, it was back to the studio to record it for Decca with the popular Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra. This time, Armstrong shared vocal duties with trombonist Pee Wee Hunt (when I first heard this version, I was convinced it was Jack Teagarden and that my C.D. booklet was wrong! I was 16, what do you expect?). Here's the audio:
Once again, the vocal doesn't really interest me, though there's nothing wrong with it. The later Armstrong versions are so damn funny, these early ones just come off as kind of dry (though Pops's reponses are phrased beautifully). The main event in this version is Armstrong's plum-toned trumpet solo. What a sound he gets on this record. It's quiet, yet huge, deceptively high with no sense of strain. The Casa Loma band gives him a relaxed backing, different from the pounding tom-toms of Russell's group. The great Clarence Hutchenrider takes the bridge on alto before Pops ends it with some new playing, building up to the final high Eb.
Alas, "Rockin' Chair" seems to have disappeared during the war years as there are no versions of it on the dozens of surviving broadcasts from 1940-1946 (this doesn't mean that Armstrong didn't perform it, it's just that I have no concrete evidence of anything from those years). But on February 8, 1947, it made its comeback in a big way. That evening, Armstrong fronted Edmond Hall's sextet for half of a performance at Carnegie Hall. Utilizing a small group, Armstrong called many numbers he originally made famous in his OKeh days, including "Rockin' Chair." For this version, Hall's bassist Johnny Williams stepped into the role of the father. Now, I thought Hoagy and Louis Bacon were a bit dull? Williams sounds like he's having trouble staying awake, something that Pops picks up one when he says, "Yeah, boy, you're in bad shape," breaking up the audience in the process. But this is a historic for another reason: it's the first to feature Armstrong singing an entire chorus as the lead voice. Dig it:
For any Armstrong nuts familiar with Pops's later versions of the tune, it might be a bit stunning to see Armstrong's vocal chorus already cemented in stone. This is what makes me think he must have continued performing it during the war years. I mean every inflection, every phrase, even the fantastic ascending scat run in the middle of the bridge, it's all there. On top of that, Armstrong's trumpet is spectacular, though he's thrown for a loop for a second in his closing cadenza, perhaps worried that Jimmy Crawford was ending the piece too soon after the drummer's somewhat awkward accent. Pops pauses for half-a-second (again, you can hear him glance) before resuming on his way to a heroic finish. The only problem with the performance is Williams's boring father, offering nothing but a steady stream of "Mm-mm's" during Pops's chorus. Now if only Armstrong had an adequate partner for the song...
Well, that adequate partner was lurking right around the corner. And how! On May 17, 1947, Armstrong performed a similar concert at New York's Town Hall, fronting a small group for an evening of performances of Armstrong's early repertoire. On "Rockin' Chair," Armstrong called on trombonist Jack Teagarden to play the role of the father. Teagarden, whom Carmichael remembered as being at the original "Rockin' Chair" session, was more than up for the challenge. The mutual love and affection between these two musicians never shined brighter than on this performance. It's truly something special, pure magic, a lightening-in-a-bottle moment on an evening that had more than a few of them. Here is my all-time favorite version of "Rockin' Chair":
It seriously does not get any better than that. Teagarden's comebacks perfectly fit Armstrong's lead singing, and vice versa. The audience picks up on it, offering the kind of laughter that sounds positively giddy, the kind were you laugh in wonder of what you are watching, but consciously hold back a bit because you don't want to miss a word of it. They even break into spontaneous applause at one point, unable to contain their enthusiasm until the end. The two vocal choruses put me in such a happy state of mind that when Sid Catlett finally starts rattling his drums and Pops enters for the final trumpet solo, I can usually do nothing but cry. (Kudos to Bobby Hackett's second cornet part, too.) A magic moment.
The moment was so magical that it convinced Armstrong and Glaser to ditch the big band and start a small group, of which Teagarden would be the first man signed. Less than a month after the Town Hall concert, Armstrong brought many of that evening's stars into Victor's recording studios to cut four tracks, including "Rockin' Chair." It's a perfectly fine version but to squeeze it into three minutes of playing time, the tempo is a little too up, making the lazy interplay of molasses-slow pace of the Town Hall version sound a bit rushed. Thus, because I don't intend to share every version I own of "Rockin' Chair," I'm going to skip this studio version (if you really want to hear it, write in--or beg--and I'll make it happen). Instead, I'd like to offer something much, much rarer. By November 1947, Armstrong's All Stars were a raging success. Back at Carnegie Hall, Armstrong and Teagarden reprised "Rockin' Chair." This is an interesting version because it's completely unissued, it's in great sound quality and it offers a true rarity: Armstrong with a sore throat! I know it sounds hard to believe, but it's true; Armstrong's so scratchy at one point, he totally eschews his steamrolling scat break during the bridge of his chorus. Perhaps because of this or because he was just in a great mood, Teagarden is unusually feisty (I like his response to Armstrong's line, "But you ain't going nowhere": "I had 23 year years of one-nighters, I don't care to go no place!"). Once again, Armstrong's trumpet playing is stirring, though interestingly, he passes the ball to a seemingly unsuspecting Teagarden at the finish, though he swoops in for a typical high note ending. Give it a listen:
Armstrong and Teagarden had a bona-fide showstopper with "Rockin' Chair" and they performed it as often as possible. All in all, I have 12 versions of "Rockin' Chair" with Armstrong and Teagarden between the years 1947 and 1951, all of them wonderful but not really worth sharing. The routine pretty much remained the same, though little lines and jokes came and went (on one version from 1951, Armstrong sings, "But I ain't got no gin, father," causing Teagarden to respond, "Well, I guess I'll take a 7-Up then."). The most interesting thing about these "Rockin' Chairs" is the change in structure over the years:
1947 - Ensemble intro, Teagarden vocal lead, Armstrong vocal lead, Ensemble close
March and April 1949 - Ensemble intro, Teagarden vocal lead, Ensemble close - no Armstrong chorus
August 1949 - Ensemble intro, Teagaden vocal lead, Armstrong vocal lead -no closing ensemble
September 1949 - Teagarden vocal lead, Armstrong vocal lead - no opening or closing ensembles
December 1950 - Teagarden vocal lead, Teagarden instrumental bridge, closing ensemble
January 1951 - Ensemble intro, Teagarden vocal lead, Armstrong vocal lead - no closing ensemble
It took four years, but the structure of the January 1951 version would serve as the template for all future versions. The bad news? The glorious trumpet playing of the earlier "Rockin' Chairs" was now a thing of the past, which is a shame. The Town Hall trumpet lead, those cadenzas, those Ab's, they were all retired as of the beginning of 1951. Why? Because the Armstrong-Teagarden vocal was officially bringing down the house and couldn't be topped. The image of Armstrong and Teagarden ending the song with their arms around each other's shoulders, smiling broadly and singing the final line together, it was a perfect high note to end on. Thus, the days of the actual perfect high notes--speaking of the trumpet--were over, but even without them, "Rockin' Chair" always killed.
Unfortunately for Louis, Teagarden left the band in the summer of 1951. He returned for one more concert in Pasadena in 1951 but Teagarden proved a little rusty. In their All Stars days, Armstrong would sing, "Your cane laying there by your side," causing Teagarden to respond, "I use it as a trombone sometimes." At Pasadena, Armstrong sang his opening line, "Old Rockin' Chair's got you father," but Teagarden, not really paying attention, responded with the "Well, I use it as a trombone sometimes" line, getting zero lines (he had to repeat it awkwardly seconds later). Other than that snafu, it's a fine version and a fitting end--for now--to the great Armstrong-Teagarden partnership on "Rockin' Chair."
With Teagarden out of the band, it was time to hire a replacement. A lot of people assume Trummy Young jumped in at this point but in actuality, Teagarden was replaced by Russ Phillips, a musician out of Denver who once performed with the All Stars when Teagarden missed a Denver gig due to illness. Armstrong remembered his playing and suggested him as a replacement to Joe Glaser. Phillips was a good musician but to me, he was Jack Teagarden-lite. He even played one of Tea's features, "Baby Won't You Please Come Home" in a similar fashion but after Jack, it was awfully hard to hear anyone else perform that song with Armstrong. I think Armstrong wanted someone as similar to Teagarden as possible, which is why he personally sought out Phillips. But during Phillips's second month with the band, the All Stars visited Hawaii where Armstrong ran into his old pal Trummy Young. He immediately began asking Trummy to join the band and Trummy finally agreed, though not until he finished some prior commitments. He eventually joined in September 1952 as Phillips kept the trombone role warm during what was truly a rebuilding year for the All Stars.
Only a couple of hours of audio survives from Phillips's tenure with the band, but one broadcast from Boise in February captured an ultra-rare rendition of "Rockin' Chair." Let's hear how Phillips did:
Phillips is pretty good but he obviously learned Teagarden's lines pretty closely, right down to the "I use it for a trombone sometimes" line. It's fun and Pops sounds great, as usual, but really it's just a curiosity.
As mentioned, Trummy Young joined about six months later and it wasn't long before he was drafted into the role of the father on "Rockin' Chair." I have about ten versions of the tune with Trummy and they're all a lot of fun. Armstrong and Teagarden had a special bond but I think that Louis and Trummy were even closer, as Trummy spent years in the band as Louis's right-hand-man. Trummy's personality was more vivacious than Teagarden's and he could also ham it up and mug like mad when called to do so. Thus, Trummy's versions of "Rockin' Chair" lack some of the warmth of Teagarden's, but they're more energetic, a little hipper (Trummy peppered his responses with phrases like "so I could ooze alone" and "there's a gang of it") and arguably funnier.
Trummy's personality also must have inspired Armstrong two make two permenent changes to his responses in the first chorus. One change actually started during the Teagarden era. Jack always sang, "Fetch me my gin, son," to which Armstrong would reply "I ain't got no gin, father." But on an episode of Bing Crosby's radio show in 1950, Teagarden sang, "Fetch me a drink of water, son." Pops now replied, "You know you don't drink no water, father," getting a big laugh in the process. It was a good line, but they didn't use it every time after that, nor was it present on the Russ Phillips version. However, with Trummy, the line became a permenant part of the routine.
The other new change came after Trummy's next line, "Son, I'm gonna tan your hide." Armstrong's new response was "My hide's already tan!" I think it's hysterical and audiences always loved it but I'm sure it was lines like and routines such as "Rockin' Chair," with two black men mugging and cutting up onstage that drove the critics to their misery. I pity them.
Anyway, enough from me, let's listen to Louis and Trummy at the Crescendo Club in Hollywood, January 1955:
I find it amazing while listening to that version how fresh everything sounds. Armstrong is still putting everything into it and the laughter between the two sounds completely genuine, even though they had already been doing the routine for two years (well, in Armstrong's case, 26 years, but who's counting?).
There is one joke in there that I've never been able to fully make out. When Louis sings, "Looks like your cane laying there by your side," Trummy responds, "Oh man, I keeps it over there. That's my moral support!" Armstrong then mumbles something like, "You mean none support," which causes Trummy to admonish him, "Watch your language!" The two kept it in for a couple of years but by 1957, Armstrong stopped mumbling his little joke. But I have never heard it accurately and I don't even know what he's really saying. Any help out there?
Though Armstrong and Trummy nailed "Rockin' Chair," Trummy always stepped aside when Jack Teagarden was present. Teagarden guested with Louis on "Rockin' Chair" twice in high-profile situations in the late-50s. One appearance was at the Newport Jazz Festival, beautifully filmed by Bert Stern for "Jazz on a Summer's Day." You should be able to find that easily on YouTube but I'm going to skip it because it's edited. On December 30, 1957, they performed it at the first Timex All Star jazz show on NBC with Armstrong sitting in with a group of former and future All Stars associates: Bobby Hackett, Peanuts Hucko, Marty Napoleon, Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole. I thought about including this earlier with my discussion of Teagarden's versions, but Armstrong uses the lines from his duets with Trummy so I decided to keep it chronological. Either way, it's a magical television moment:
Armstrong and Trummy Young continued performing "Rockin' Chair" until Trummy's departure at the end of 1963. I'm not sure if his replacement, "Big Chief" Russell Moore, ever gave it a shot, but if he did, there are no surviving versions. Tyree Glenn joined the band in 1965 and but it took him some time to become Armstrong's foil. The two didn't begin performing "That's My Desire" until the summer of 1967. And regarding "Rockin' Chair," the first surviving version is from a BBC television show in July 1968, right before illness kept Armstrong off the stage for almost two years.
Fortunately, the 1968 version is a very good one, showing that routine still worked nearly 40 years later. Here's the audio:
I didn't want to spoil the surprise, but how about that opening trumpet bit??? Louis's chops were officially erratic during this period but when he was feeling good, stand back. He felt great on that July day and it shows at the beginning of "Rockin' Chair"; that might as well be a version from the 1950s, his tone sounds so strong and full. As for the routine, Tyree was also an energetic ham but sometimes he sounded like he was forcing it a bit and to me, I don't sense the same affection as on the versions with Teagarden and Young (the audience, too, doesn't seem to be laughing as much either, perhaps sensing that Tyree was just trying a bit too hard). Still, Pops sounds good and overall, it's a valuable version to have.
And finally, I've arrived at my final clip, which really brings us full circle: an a capella duet between Armstrong and Hoagy Carmichael from Armstrong's 1970 birthday bash at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Hoagy was the emcee that evening while Armstrong got to enjoy all of the different bands while seated onstage in a--you guessed it--rocking chair. After introductions and some jokes, Carmichael coaxed Armstrong into singing one chorus of the tune. Hoagy begins it fairly straight as he had in 1929 but Pops, after years and years of perfecting it, has all of his jokes in place, drawing huge laughs with the "my hide's already tan line." Hoagy responds by eventually hamming it up a bit himself, but it's Armstrong's show, right down to the touching harmonies and scat finish. This clip is six minutes long but "Rockin' Chair" only takes up the first two minutes. Enjoy:
That concludes my look at Armstrong's history with "Rockin' Chair." Phew. I'll be back in a couple of days with another look at "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and then I'll once again tackle Armstrong's Christmas recordings next week. Til then!