Friday, December 4, 2009

On the Sunny Side of the Street: 1950-1956

At the end of my last post on Louis Armstrong's 1940s versions of "On the Sunny Side of the Street," I included a teaser to come back at the end of the week as I promised to finish the saga of this great tune in Armstrong's repertory. And then I started the prep work, telling myself, "Rick, you don't have to include audio of EVERY surviving version. You don't have to write about EVERY single version from Armstrong's final decades. No one will mind if you skip a few. For the love of God, you can stop at any time."

And then I continued prepping and listening like crazy. The more I did this, the more I realized how many different ways Armstrong approached "Sunny Side" in the 50s. I'd HAVE to write about all the versions. But once I started, it looked like I was heading towards a post of thousands of words and numerous audio samples ranging between five and seven minutes. In the blogging world, I think those posts are referred to as "death."

So what I've decided to do is split it in two more parts. Today, I'll cover Armstrong's versions from 1950 through 1956. Then sometime in the early part of next week, I'll pick up the slack with Armstrong's magnificent Autobiography version and take the story right through its completion. Sound good? Here we go.

One of the reasons I really wanted to cover as many versions of "Sunny Side" from the 50s as possible is to explore the different treatments Armstrong gave the tune during those years. As we all know, I'm the All Stars's number one defender and "Sunny Side" I think is one of those tunes that helps me make some of my arguments. First off, people assume it's one of the songs Armstrong played each and every night but that doesn't seem to be the case when looking through the discographies. By the early 50s, "Sunny Side" seemed to join the ranks of "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "I'm Confessin'," songs that were hugely popular for Armstrong in the 1930s, ones that he performed frequently in the 1940s, but usually held off for special occasions or as requests in the 1950s. Of course, not every All Stars concert survives, so who knows, maybe he did perform it each night. But there are many, many more evenings that survive that don't feature "Sunny Side" than ones that do.

Thus, because Armstrong doesn't seem to have performed it nightly, he never had a set routine on it in the 1950s. Once he decided he was going to play it, you never knew just how he would approach it. To give you an example, I did some of my famous editing. Here is one complete chorus of "On the Sunny Side of Street"...made up of eight different versions. (Yes, I'm nuts.) Here's the breakdown:

First four bars: Town Hall, May 1947 (fast)
Next four bars: Symphony Hall, November 1947 (slow)
Next four bars: Italy, October 1952 (fast)
Next four bars: Denmark, September 1952 (slow)
First four bars of bridge: Barcelona, December 1955 (fast)
Second four bars of bridge: Chicago June 1956 (medium)
Next four bars: Europe 1959 (slow)
Final four bars: Ravinia Park, Illinois June 1960 (medium)

All of that only takes 71 seconds so if you can spare the time, give a listen to this composite:

Pretty neat, eh? So who knows why Armstrong chose the tempos he did, but the point is it always differed (and yes, I consciously grouped each eight bars with versions set apart by less than a year). Sometimes he'd take one vocal chorus, other times he'd take two. When he'd take two, he always ending his second bridge with a delicious scat break. Well, even those changed as my next "fun with editing" project will demonstrate. This only takes 47 seconds but in it, you'll hear Armstrong's scatted bridge breaks from Town Hall 1947, Symphony Hall 1947, the Willie Bryant TV show 1949, the Bing Crosby radio show 1951, the Milton Berle TV show 1951, Denmark 1952, Italy 1952 and Newport 1957. (The final one from Newport is guaranteed to make you laugh but I won't go into that story until next week.) Here are the scats:

In my last two posts, I made a fuss about the trumpet breaks Armstrong would take at the end of the tune's final bridge. Usually, it consisted of a series of triplets topped off be three descending glisses, though he came up with a new one when his big band started to jump the tune in the 1940s. Well, when you get into Armstrong's later years, you'll find that the majority of the time, Armstrong revisited the triplets-plus-glisses break that always served him so well...but not always. Sometimes he came up with different ideas. Sometimes he reshaped the triplets, phrasing them on the beat or a little more insistently a fraction off the beat. For my final edit, here are 60 seconds of "Sunny Side" breaks from 1947 through 1960:

To recap class, it's easy to assume that Armstrong played "On the Sunny Side of the Street" every night for the last 25 years of his life...but he didn't. And when he did play it, you never knew how he would approach it. And regardless of what tempo he chose, he always found new twists on both his vocal and trumpet work. Got it? Don't take the All Stars for granted! (At least not while I'm around...)

Okay, with the Ricky Riccardi Circus pulling out of town, I'm sure some of my more serious listeners might actually want to hear some complete tunes. I'm always up for that so let's start at the beginning of the decade with a romp recorded on April 19, 1951 for "The Bing Crosby Show" on CBS-radio, featuring Pops sitting in with members of Crosby's house band, including, Matty Matlock on clarinet and Dick Taylor on trombone. And stick around for Bing's hilarious line after the performance is complete:

We're off and swinging! Pops's vocal is on fire and I love his calling "Every tub, every tub" to signal the start of the last ensemble (he also did this on his original OKeh record of "I Got Rhythm"). By this point, Armstrong usually only came in for the final 16 bars but here he plays an entire chorus of lead, chock full of fresh ideas until he hits his favored "Faded Love" quote on the bridge. But even then, he comes out of it with a new break and plays stirring lead until the final drum break and beyond. (And did you dig Bing's joke? Love it...)

Five months later, Armstrong trotted out "Sunny Side" during a television appearance on Milton Berle's "Texaco Star Theater." "Sunny Side" was always a favorite of Armstrong's when he appeared on radio and television, as we'll discuss more when I get to the final installment of this series next week. The Berle version is only a minute-a-half but Pops packs it full of entertainment, with a single vocal chorus (listen for the lyric change, "I'll be rich as Uncle Miltie!") and 16 bars of trumpet. Unfortunately, the video doesn't seem to have survived of this performance so we'll never know who that other trumpet player is crowding Pops's space. Armstrong pays him no mind and drives him away with one of the most scorching renderings of his final break. Dig it:

We'll now leave the world of television and focus on how the All Stars interpreted "Sunny Side" over the course of one month during a European tour of 1952. On September 29, Pops played it in Copenhagen, giving it the old ballad feel for what turned out to be the longest surviving "Sunny Side," clocking in at almost eight minutes. I know that alone probably just made some of readers head for the hills but seriously if you have the time, give this version a shot. It's in my top five, maybe even top three favorite Armstrong performances of this tune. Here 'tis:

The opening trumpet rendering of the melody is as warm as it gets before we get two, count 'em two, delectable vocal choruses. Something (someone in the audience?) breaks Pops up early on and when Armstrong calls him/her out later on ("All right, baby"), the audience goes nuts. Oh, if only we had the video to know what exactly happened. Anyway, the vocal is a delight from start to finish, benefitted by incredibly support by pianist Marty, did he fit the All Stars like a glove (especially coming after Earl Hines and Joe Sullivan, two brilliant players who offered nothing but problems in their stints with Armstrong). The double-timed second bridge actually started in 1949 (I forgot to mention it the other day) and works beautifully.

After Trummy takes 16 bars, encouraged by Louis and (I think) Marty, (he just joined the band earlier in the month), Armstrong enters at the bridge, knocking out the "Faded Love" quote before taking his time on an absolutely delectable break. But from there, Armstrong comes up with his motive of alternating two pitches, switching from E's and C's to E's and B's, something he had done a few other times before. But this time, the intensity always gets to me as he continues the alternating for six whole bars before the final high note ending. Such a passionate performance from start to finish; definitely worth the time if you have it.

Less than a month later, the All Stars found themselves in Italy for a broadcast that is notable for always being pitched too high and for featuring Pops's chops in erratic shape. Perhaps for that reason, Armstrong chose to take "Sunny Side" at a quicker clip. Regardless of the reasoning, it's a smoking performance, especially in the vocal, where Armstrong completely rephrases the second bridge before vocally calling out Trummy. And Armstrong's trumpet playing is full of different ideas, right to last note. Listen for yourself:

After the European tour, there are no other surviving All Stars versions until a version from Barcelona from another European tour of December 1955 (God bless Europe for letting those recorders roll). In between, there is a broadcast of Armstrong singing a chorus with some unknown musicians probably from January 1954 but I'm going to skip it for now (see, I'm not emptying the entire arsenal). The Barcelona version is notable because it's pretty loose and exciting. Armstrong was feeling under the weather that day and still had to give three performances, still giving his all til his day's work was finished. As he announces, "Sunny Side" was a request from a member of the Hot Club of Spain. Feeling feisty, Armstrong says, "Jump, jump" to his musicians, who respond by kicking it off a swinging uptempo version. This is my favorite version of the All Stars with Armstrong, Trummy and Edmond Hall up front, on top of an ass-kicking rhythm section of pianist Billy Kyle, bassist Arvell Shaw and drummer Barrett Deems. Here's how "Sunny Side" came out...including a rare encore:

Right from the first chorus, you can feel the heat generated by this edition of the All Stars (I love Teagarden and Bigard for other reasons, but not for their ensemble work). For a change, Armstrong only sings one chorus, before passing the ball to Trummy. Usually, Pops would enter at the bridge but here, he seems rarin' to blow, stepping on Trummy's second eight and immediately taking over. However, on the bridge, Armstrong seems to want to shoot for his famed triplets but he doesn't exactly know how he wants to execute him. The result is kind of roughly executed but Armstrong spins out of it with a graphic blue note, rare for "Sunny Side." He ends fine but perhaps knowing he kind of botched that break, he calls for encore. Now he's steaming, as is the entire band. Armstrong chooses two pitches and rams them down the listener's throat in the most emphatic way possible, Hall and Young gathering steam behind him (Armstrong's like a gang leader going in for the kill, Young and Hall his menacing accomplices). To me, it's this edition of the All Stars at their most violently swinging. Armstrong continues swinging like mad into the bridge, where he uncorks a different bridge that elicits wild cheers from the audience. It's loose and ragged but fantastically exciting.

By the following June, the All Stars had worked out the kinks a bit, as demonstrated in their "Chicago Concert" version, released on Columbia decades later. By this point, after playing it for about 25 years, Armstrong settled on a new, rocking medium tempo different than the slow/fast extremes he usually called. The new tempo fit like a glove. Give it a listen:

Isn't that a great version? Columbia has used it on a bunch of "greatest hits" Armstrong packages and with good reason. It's pretty short--only one vocal chorus--but my goodness is it perfect. I think my favorite part is Armstrong's entrance after Trummy's short solo. I can listen to those eight bars over and over again. From there, Armstrong doesn't really offer anything new, but really, why does he even have to at this point when every note is so perfectly placed. The bridge is perfect, the break is perfect, the alternating of pitches is perfect, the slow, extended high note ending is perfect. Why fight it? (And if you think listening to it is fun, wait until you see it when I'll share video of a very similar version Armstrong performed just a couple of years afterward.)

So that ends part three of our tour of "On the Sunny Side of the Street," focusing on Armstrong's television and radio performances of the tune, as well as the different ways the All Stars approached it in the 1950s. But Armstrong still had one more studio rendezvous left with the song and the result would be pure magic. Until then...have a great weekend!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, this 1956 Chicago version came in the 1980s through the wall to east germany on a long play record. This recording since then defined for me armstrong's genius. What kind of perfection in all! Thanks for the memories!

Uwe (Germany)