Wednesday, December 2, 2009

On the Sunny Side of the Street: The 1940s Versions

When we last left our hero, he was starting to jump "On the Sunny Side of the Street" in his performances of the late 1930s. There are no surviving "Sunny Sides" between 1938 and 1943 but when we finally arrive to the WWII era, Pops was still swinging that "Street." By 1943, Armstrong had a new arrangement of it, probably written by his new music director Joe Garland. It was a swinging one and one that Pops must have been proud of, as he trotted it out on a Jubilee broadcast, on an AFRS Downbeat program and a Victory Parade of Spotlight Bands show, all within a few months of each other. By this point, Armstrong REALLY had cemented his routine on the song, both vocally (two choruses)and instrumentally, so sharing all these versions would be overkill (I know, I know, when has overkill stopped me before?). I have chosen the Jubilee version because the sound quality is excellent, Pops is smoking throughout (that freakish final high concert E is clear as a bell) and one can never have too much of emcee Ernie "Bubbles" Whitman, right? Dig it:

So that's pretty much how Pops approached "On the Sunny Side of the Street" during the war and I think it's a gassuh. However, on February 11, 1945, Armstrong broke his routine a bit when he took part in "The Second Annual American Swing Festal - A Tribute to Fats Waller" on WNEW. Backed Waller's All Stars (Herman Autrey, Gene Sedric, Al Casey, Cedric Wallace and Art Trappier with Pat Flowers filling in for the departed pianist), Armstrong reverted back to jam session mode. Here's how it came out:

Armstrong states the melody in his own fashion for the first chorus before handing it over to tenorman Sedric for a full outing. Armstrong then returns with what sounds like the first four notes of the "Faded Love" quote I discussed in my last post. He always used that on the bridge but here, I think he realizes that the rest of the band isn't quite ready to head to the bridge, so he seamlessly turns it into an improvised phrase. He continues improvising for 16 bars, showing he still had plenty of ideas for this song, before his love finally fades on the bridge (though he comes up with another different way of getting out of it; for the time being the old triplets and glisses ending was a thing of the past). Like most jam sessions, there's a bit of confusion at the end as Armstrong seems to want to play an extended ending a la his big band arrangement but probably realizing they had no rehearsal, he opts to ends it rather abruptly. No one's hurt in the process, ending this swinging little rarity.

By May 1947, Armstrong found himself on the stage of New York's Town Hall, fronting a small group of top musicians, revisiting many of the tunes he originally made famous in the 1920s and early 1930s. It was Armstrong's success at Town Hall that placed the final nail in his big band's coffin, setting the stage for the formation of his sextet The All Stars, beginning the last stage of Armstrong's life. In addition to performing many of Armstrong's OKeh hits like "Cornet Chop Suey," "Big Butter and Egg Man" and "AIn't Misbehavin," Armstrong also dusted off "On the Sunny Side of the Street." Here are the results:

As can be heard right off the bat, Armstrong still felt more comfortable taking this piece at a swinging clip, as he had now been doing for ten full years. Like the other jam session versions, Armstrong's in charge of the melody for the first chorus, leading a stellar ensemble that included Jack Teagarden on trombone, Peanuts Hucko on clarinet, Bobby Hackett on second cornet, Dick Cary on piano, Bob Haggart on bass and Sid Catlett on drums. If you listen very carefully, it's Hackett who takes the lead on the final eight, as Armstrong lets out a quiet yell in the background, getting ready for his vocal. He had now been singing this song for about 15 years, but he still it still sounds like he's doing it for the first time. As usual, he takes two choruses, saving his loosest variations for his second go-around. Both bridges are a marvel and you can hear light laughter here and there from the audience and the other musicians, all of whom were clearly basking in Armstrong's aura that night.

Hucko and Teagarden swing out a chorus each before Pops leads the final ensemble. In his big band, this would have been a solo, but the other horns can't resist joining in, creating as joyous a final ensemble as you'll ever here. Pops controls it with his two-pitch stuff at first, improvises the next eight, then digs out both "Faded Love" and--for the first time in a decade--the triplet flourish used to end the bridge (Big Sid's backbeats could move mountains). The final eight bars are positively ecstatic, with Pops reaching and nailing that high concert E at the conclusion. A swinging joy.

So Town Hall was a hit and a few months later, the All Stars were born. From the very start, Armstrong never treated the All Stars like a loose jam session group. Like his big band, they had routines and they put on a show night-in and night-out. And somewhere early in the birth of the All Stars, it was decided that "On the Sunny Side of the Street" would become a standard part of the show...but as a ballad, not as a swinging romp.

The first surviving "Sunny Side" from the All Stars period comes from the Symphony Hall concert of November 30, 1947, a pretty famous version from a pretty famous evening. Listen to the whole, beautiful six minutes and 49 seconds now:

Sheer heaven. The tempo is slow; I don't think the early 30s versions were quite this slow. After a typically perfect Dick Cary piano introduction, Armstrong takes the lead for an entire chorus of melody, getting empathetic support from Jack Teagarden's trombone, Barney Bigard's clarinet and a quietly swinging, almost reverent rhythm section. Armstrong plays it like a lullaby, or a hymn; simply beautiful. And though Armstrong's vocals in the 20s and 30s were revolutionary, I feel he was a better singer in his later period, both diction-wise and as a storyteller. There's such a quiet passion to his vocal here. Listen to his voice go up for the first "rover," then come crashing down into the lower register for the "yeah" that follows "crossed over." The second chorus is just a mellifluous as ever, that "Grab your coat" demanding you stop whatever you're doing to pay attention to this mellow sermon. And speaking of sermons, Teagarden and Bigard's almost constantly ongoing duel-obbligato definitely features some appropriate responses from the congregation (though is Barney quoting "Rigoletto" early on in the first chorus?). Again, the rhythm section stays out the way but Big Sid might play the world's greatest bass drum accent in the second bridge, filling up the gap beautifully after Pops sings, "My rover!" Armstrong's resulting scat break breaks the mournful mood, winning him a smattering of applause and laughter for his efforts. What a vocal!

The crowd goes wild as Armstrong passes the ball over to Teagarden, Big Sid now laying down some fat-bottomed press rolls, Cary laying down a carpet of tremolos with him. If one wants to nitpick, you could complain that when he first started playing it at a slow tempo in the early 30s, Armstrong took two full choruses at the end. By the time he recorded it in Paris, it was down to one dramatic chorus. But starting with the All Stars, Armstrong usually took a chorus of melody up front, but mostly ended with only 16 climactic bars. That's if you want to nitpick, hoping in vain that Armstrong would blow more. But what he does blow is undeniably fantastic. He enters with the "Faded Love" quote (oh Sid and your backbeats), then sets himself up for a break wilder than the one he scatted just a minute earlier. The Symphony Hall break is most definitely a killer, arguably the highlight of the performance. Armstrong's passion bubbles into his final eight bars, culminating in a slow ending topped by a high C (the days of ending on the high E were over). Does it get any better?

Well, judge for yourself. The next surviving All Stars version comes from the Salle Playel in Paris, March 2, 1948. By this point, Earl Hines had replaced Dick Cary but otherwise the routine is the same. If anything, Big Sid's not quite as reverent, peppering the first chorus with assorted accents. Armstrong's vocal is still a jewel, but he yells something in the second bridge that I wish I could understand. Humphrey Lyttelton wrote of seeing Armstrong admonish both Hines and Catlett during Armstrong's 1948 European tour and I've always wondered if that yell was a little evidence of that or if it was just a joyous exclamation. Anyway, if you have the time, I think it's definitely worth a listen, especially for the performance's last eight bars. As Armstrong performed "Sunny Side" more and more, perhaps he remembered the stunning break he used to play during the bridge in the mid-30s: a series of triplets, topped with some slippery descending glisses. It wasn't there at Symphony Hall but here it is, in Paris. And from there, he even digs into alternating the C and E pitches as he also used to do in the 30s. Listen to it for yourself:

Pretty terrific, eh? I'm sure Armstrong played it frequently in the late 40s, but that's the last surviving performance of it by the All Stars from America in 1948 or 1949. I do have a bit of a rarity, though, a television broadcast from Harlem Jubilee (The Willie Bryant Show) of September 13, 1949. On this occasion, Armstrong played "Sunny Side" backed Don Redman and his Orchestra. The bad news? Armstrong's chops were a bit down for the occasion, not terribly so, but enough that he couldn't exactly pull off his upper register flights of fancy. The good news? This handicap forced him to improvise an entirely new full chorus at the end, full of fresh ideas. Even when he starts to pull out the "Faded Love" quote, he knows he doesn't have the lip to hold the high notes, so he even turns that into something new (new bridge, too). Here's a very rare treasure, courtesy of my late friend, Gösta Hägglöf:

A few weeks after that broadcast, Armstrong and the All Stars (now with Cozy Cole on drums), embarked on a tour of Europe. A partial version of "Sunny Side" exists from a Paris concert in November of 1949. I thought about not sharing it because it's incomplete (it cuts abruptly in the middle of Armstrong's second vocal chorus to Teagarden's solo), but it's still nearly six minutes long and features Armstrong nailing the trumpet break in the final bridge before he comes up with yet another new way to play the last eight bars, alternating the C and E in an exciting new fashion. If you're really a nut, like me, listen along:

And that concludes our look at Armstrong's 1940s versions of "On the Sunny Side of the Street." The Thanksgiving break allowed me to stockpile some blogs so I can assure you that if you come back at the end of the week, there'll be another fresh one on Armstrong's 1950s and later versions of this song, including my all-time favorite performance from the Decca Autobiography project. Not to be missed...til then!

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