Saturday, February 28, 2009

That's When I'll Come Back To You

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven
Recorded May 14, 1927
Track Time 2:59
Written by Frank Biggs
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; John Thomas, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba; Baby Dodds, drums
Originally released on Okeh 83519
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Sometimes the Itunes shuffle is smarter than I think. In my last blog on “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” I talked about how someone as esteemed as guitarist Marty Grosz basically felt insulted that the great Louis Armstrong had to make a record of kids songs at the end of his career, a complete departure from the trailblazing jazz Armstrong was responsible for in the 1920s. So I spin the Itunes shuffle and what does it land on? “That’s When I’ll Come Back To You,” a neglected Hot Five outing that showcases the “entertainer” side of Louis from the same period when his instrumental prowess shaped the sound of jazz to come.

It’s too damn easy to make Louis Armstrong’s career so cut and dry. The early years were all fiery trumpet solos, groundbreaking music. Then one day, he woke up and said, “I want to tell bawdy jokes and sing pop tunes,” started mugging and singing “Blueberry Hill,” barely played the trumpet and eventually died. End of story.

Nonsense, I say. Armstrong entertained from the minute he entered show business, doing preacher routines, impersonating Bert Williams, doing an onstage bit where Zutty Singleton wore drag, dancing the Charleston and the Mess Around, playing Noel Coward’s “Poor Little Rich Girl” as a feature, and so. And that just represents what he did onstage, day in and day out through the 1920s. On record, he waxed the vaunted Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, which I feel to be the most important records in jazz history (really, were you expecting me to say something else?). One can never underestimate the breathtaking impact of “Potato Head Blues,” “Cornet Chop Suey,” “Hotter Than That,” “West End Blues” and the others of that ilk. But those who focus on just those tunes are listening with blinders on. Just because “Who’sit,” “Don’t Forget To Mess Around,” “Irish Black Bottom,” “Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa,” “That’s When I’ll Come Back to You” and others don’t get the same kind of “publicity” as the aforementioned titles, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. To paraphrase a song Armstrong helped make a standard, why not take all of him?

I’ll get off my soapbox now as I’ve gone through these themes before on this blog and I really hammer ‘em home in my book manuscript. The song “That’s When I’ll Come Back To You” interestingly was not written by Louis and Lil but rather by a Frank Biggs, I name I can find no other mention of anywhere on the Internet or in any books. He doesn’t seem to have even written any other songs that were published or recorded. Perhaps he was a local Chicago guy or a friend of someone in the group, though decades later, Louis thought Lil wrote the tune (which we’ll see in a bit). There’s not a lot of meat to discuss in this one, but it’s a lot of fun. Give it a listen:


This track really has a woozy feel to it thanks to constant one-and-three blurtings from Pete Briggs’s tuba. After a short introduction, Armstrong takes a tricky break that is neatly finished by Briggs. Then the ensemble takes a crack at the melody, Armstrong very vocalized in his approach to it. Dodds sounds good, both in the ensemble and in his solo, complete with breaks. There isn’t much flash to the solo, which is almost played entirely with somewhat oddly accentuated eighth-notes, an outing that would probably sound pretty corny without Dodds’s unique sound (though the end of his break is positively Armstrong-like).

After Dodds’s break, the sound of Lil Armstrong’s piano disappears as Miss Lil left her bench to make her way to the microphone. Dodds dips into his chalameau register for an obbligato to Lil’s humorous vocal. She had a good personality (dig her singing on “Clip Joint” from her 1961 Riverside album produced by Chris Albertson) and her purposefully pleading tone is very funny. All morning, I had to hear my wife and her best friend talk about the pop star Rihanna returning to her boyfriend, Chris Brown, who physically abused her a few weeks ago. I got bored of the conversation, so I went to write a blog...and there’s Lil singing, “You could knock me down, treat me rough, even kick me/ black both my eyes but Daddy, please don’t quit me!” Perhaps if Rihanna needs a new single, she could give “That’s When I’ll Come Back To You” a try!

After Lil, Pops enters with a hilarious chorus, featuring all sorts of bravado and expert comic delivery. Here’s how he sings it:

Now Mama, when the rain turns to snow and it’s 90 below-uh,
That’s When I’ll Come Back To You
When I have nothing to eat, no shoes for my little feet,
Then I will think that you’ve been true (which I know that’s a lie, ha!)
You may have somebody else, I’ll agree
But baby you lost a goldmine when you lost me.
Now when your hair drags the ground and bucks are flying around,
Then I’ll come back to you, baby.
Yes dearie, Papa, then he’ll ‘bout face and come back to you.


Ah, Pops the entertainer at his finest. The exaggerated extra syllable on “below-uh,” the addition of “little” before “feet,” the “which I know that’s a lie” aside, complete with chuckle...personality, personality, personality. Interestingly, the first seven Hot Seven numbers were all instrumentals. Finally, on the last two sessions, he began to sing and didn’t quit, scatting on “Keyhole Blues,” singing the blues on both “S.O.L. Blues” and “Gully Low Blues” and showing off his comedic side on “That’s When I’ll Come Back To You.” On “S.O.L. Blues,” Armstrong took particular delight in singing the word “bucks” as a substitute for money. However, at the time, “S.O.L. Blues” wasn't released because the title contained an acronym for “shit outta luck.” “Gully Low Blues” is the same song but with a different vocal. But still, Pops had “bucks” on the brain and at the end of “That’s When I Come Back To You,” you’ll hear Pops pause after the line “Now when your hair drags the ground,” and in an instant, his mind conjured up a substitution: “and buck’s are flying around.” The hesitation before “bucks” always makes me think Pops ad-libbed it.

John Thomas follows the vocal with a pretty good trombone solo, getting very bluesy in his second part. But he’s just setting the stage for the 20 seconds the purists probably loved: a dazzling Armstrong break, another hint of stately ensemble playing and a quick chromatic finish. I especially love the break. At such a slow tempo and without stop-time accents, Pops is on his own for four bars. Naturally, he floats a bit and plays with the time, but he maintains a blues feeling throughout and you still feel the tempo even without anyone else playing.

In 1951, Armstrong was asked by Esquire magazine to comment on some of his earlier records for something called “Jazz On A High Note.” Armstrong original notes appear in Louis Armstrong In His Own Words, a book never too far from my side. Here are his comments--complete with his unique typing style--on “That’s When I’ll Come Back To You”:

"It certainly was real kicks making this record . . . especially with Lil Hardin . . . who later became Mrs. Satchmo Louis Armstrong . . . This is our first time singing together . . . It amused the recording company so well until they started looking around for new material for Lil and I . . . Honest . . . Lil also knocked me out with that cute little voice of hers . . . And to me, she always could ‘Swing Sing’ (an expression of mine) with feeling . . . If I’m not mistaken I think that Lil wrote this tune . . . She was very much versatiled when she and I were married, between us we wrote some pretty good songs together . . . ‘That’s When I’ll Come Back to You’ was written as a comedy number . . . You’ll notice in the recording that Lil sings these words--’You can Beat me, Kick me, Blacken my eye, but please don’t quit me’ . . . Which knocked everybody out . . . Then, my line is, ‘When the rain turn to snow and it’s fifty below-er--that’s when I’ll come back to you’ . . . Blaa Blaa Blaa . . . All in all, the tune brings a little laughter.”

So Pops got a few tiny facts wrong (he had already sung “Georgia Grind” with Lil the previous year) but he still remembers some of lyrics and even the way he delivered them (“below-er”). But there’s Pops, not trashing the tune as trifle not worthy of such a grand artist as himself. He specifically says it’s a comedy number, it knocked everybody out and in the end, it “brings a little laughter.” It’s a very good-humored record, one that won’t make many Armstrong “greatest hits” discs but again, that doesn’t mean it should be ignored.

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This is a rare Saturday afternoon entry for me, my 12th of the month and 29th of the new year, which is an absurd pace I know will not last. But this coming week should be a special one if I somehow have the time to pull it off. 80 years ago this week, on March 5, 1929, Armstrong, in one historic day, recorded the seminal “Knockin’ A Jug” in the wee hours of the morning, then returned later that day with the Luis Russell Orchestra and cut timeless renditions of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Mahogany Hall Stomp.” If one day summed up everything Pops was about, it’s this one. Thus, I want to examine the histories of all three tunes but I don’t know how and when I’ll get to it (I’m definitely not going to post three massive entries on the fifth). For “Knockin’ A Jug,” I’ll discuss the background of the session and both the 1929 version and the 1957 remake. For “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” I’d like to give a little history of the tune, talk about the two 1929 takes and discuss some of Pops’s later cracks at it. And “Mahogany Hall Stomp” was a tune Armstrong made four studio recordings of but played it numerously with the All Stars, often changing up his solo, so I want to take a tour of that tune’s history, as well. (Oh, and my 200th posting is not too far away and I think it’ll be time to finally take a swing at “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.”) I don’t know how it’ll all come out but keep checking back as I’m going to start working on all of it right now...


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo

Recorded May 16, 1968
Track Time 2:08
Written by Al Hoffman, Mack David and Jerry Livingston
Recorded in Hollywood
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Tyree Glenn, trombone; Joe Muranyi, clarinet; Marty Napoleon, piano; Buddy Catlett, bass; Danny Barcelona, drums; with unknown studio orchestra and mixed choir
Originally released on Buena Vista STER-4044
Currently available on CD: On Disney Songs the Satchmo Way
Available on Itunes? Yes

Today’s entry comes courtesy of a spin of the Itunes shuffle and is related to a story I told on this blog last May. Armstrong tackled this song on Disney Songs the Satchmo Way and even I’ll admit that at a glance, having the most important jazz musician ever sing kiddy ditties like “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” and “Heigh Ho,” complete with studio orchestra and mixed choir, might seem like another losing battle with commercialism, much like the Brunswick records Armstrong was making during the period. Last year, one of my musical heroes, Marty Grosz, ranted to me at the Institute of Jazz Studies about his regrets about Armstrong’s later years. He saw the Armstrong of the 1950s and 1960s as a completely different being from the one of the 1920s and he never got over all the pop songs and stuff like “What a Wonderful World” that Armstrong was asked to record. In the middle of his diatribe, Grosz began doing a spot-on impersonation of Armstrong singing “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” grimacing and waving his hand in disgust when he finished.

Because Grosz is one of my favorite musicians and people in the jazz world, I smiled politely and let him go off, though it’s precisely that attitude that I have been trying to fight against for years. Of course, if you’re looking for something specifically like “Potato Head Blues” in the 1950s or 1960s, you might be disappointed. But Louis Armstrong was Louis Armstrong and no matter what material he was forced to record, he made it his own. Thus, while some purists probably get indigestion, I have to say that the Disney outing is one of Armstrong’s finest albums of the 1960s.

I related the above story in my entry for “When You Wish Upon A Star,” a recording that can make me cry after hearing a few seconds of Pops’s trumpet entrance. There’s so much soul and so much reflection in that solo, it’s really something to marvel at. Joe Muranyi has fond memories of listening to the playback of “When You Wish Upon a Star” with Armstrong and the session’s arranger, Tutti Camaratta. “Here comes Louis with a white handkerchief and he’s standing there,” Muranyi remembers. “Camaratta’s standing there, too. And he said, ‘You’ll be glad to hear it.’ I think I grabbed his hand or grabbed him around and said, ‘Pops, I think it’s wonderful. That’s the one.’ I don’t know that he said, ‘You think so?’ but that look he gave me [was] a very soulful look cause he liked it, too. A wonderful moment. Every time I hear that, I think of that.”

So after such a beautiful moment, it was time to tackle something a little more light-hearted. The session ended with two songs that were tailor-made for Armstrong because, without Pops’s popularizing of scat singing, they might not have ever even been written: “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” and “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Today, I’m just going to focus on the former, but both tunes are a lot of fun and feature surprising trumpet outings for such a late date. Armstrong’s chops began gradually deteriorating around 1966, resulting in less blowing in live performances and some sadly erratic moments captured in live settings and on records from the period.

But in 1968, Armstrong’s chops had a very good year. He turned back the clock at the San Remo Song Festival in Italy in February and sounded very good during an extended stay in England that summer. In between came the Disney sessions and beautiful “I Will Wait For You” recorded for Brunswick. His health couldn’t have been in too great a shape and sure enough, by September, various serious ailments put Armstrong out of commission for a year. But he went out with a bang with his blowing in 1968.

“Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” from Cinderalla, is only 128 seconds long, but it’s fun from note one...well, the choir is a little corny, but if you listen past them, you’ll hear Pops playing along with their introduction. Before I get carried away, give it a listen:


The gibberish nature of the lyrics is perfect for Armstrong who was a just plain natural singer, whether singing in German (as we heard on Monday), Italian, Hawaiian or his own language of scat. He rattles off the lyrics with a smile on his face, perhaps thinking of some of the children in Corona neighborhood. He sticks close to the written melody, though the “Yes” before the bridge is pure Pops (and the “Yeah” response from the choir fits nicely). But after the bridge, Pops begins taking chances, singing the title phrase once with a sly winking voice before humorously rushing it at the end of the chorus.

But stand back for the trumpet solo. As usual, it’s 1968 and Armstrong’s almost dead for heaven’s sake, so don’t hold him up to “Weather Bird” standards. But he sounds pretty strong, telling a melodic story and swinging throughout. Only his first note has a little static to it but from there, his tone is remarkably full for such a late stage; he didn’t spend as much time in the upper register in his later years, but he never lost his golden tone. He also never lost his sense of rhythm as he alternately makes quarter notes swing but he definitely exhibits some of his patented floating feel in the middle of the solo, complete with a short, falling gliss that shows he’s still in command of his instrument. And his ending is as righteous as it gets, as he turns back to 1936 and his “Skeleton in the Closet” solo for a string of repeated F’s topped by a higher Ab. Great stuff.

For the vocal reprise, he returns to the bridge sounding happier than ever, having more fun with the title phrase, this time uttered on a break. And he completely changes the melody, hitting a pretty neat ninth (a concert D) on the C chord with the word “boo.” Still having a ball, Armstrong gets positively preachy (in a good way) during the last eight bars. Listen carefully for the subtle “Tch” in Armstrong’s voice, setting up the gleeful, “Now you put them together, Gate, and what have you got? Bibbidi-ah-bobbidi-boo.” A righteous “yes” of satisfaction from Pops allows the choir to reprise their introduction before one final statement from Pops, repeating the “Bibbidi’s” before a dazzling, chromatically ascending that echoes the ending to 1957’s “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” heard right here on this blog just last week.

So let the jazz purists frown at what they perceive as the sad ending of Louis Armstrong, singing kids songs. He sure as hell doesn’t sound sad to me and that trumpet solo is the truth, my friends. I just listened to a Louis Armstrong record with a great trumpet spot, a delightfully swinging vocal and some fun scat singing and I can’t stop smiling. So really, does it matter if it comes from 1928 or 1968? It’s all Pops and it’s all great.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I've Got A Gal In Kalamazoo

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded in Early 1943
Track Time 3:58
Written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren
Recorded in Los Angeles, California
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Frank Galbreath, Shelton Hemphill, Bernard Flood trumpet; George Washington, James Whitney, Henderson chambers,, trombone; Rupert Cole, Joe Hayman, alto saxophone; Prince Robinson, Joe Garland, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lawrence Lucie, guitar; Ted Sturgis, bass; Chick Morrison, drums
Currently on CD: Only on Radio Days, an obscure release on the Italian Moon label and possibly a few budget, "best-of" discs
Available on Itunes? Yes on two cheapie compilations

Today’s entry has been about a month in the making. Last month, the great Michael Steinman over at the Jazz Lives blog posted an entry titled “Louis And ‘That Modern Malice.’” In it, he quoted a memory from the wonderful saxophonist and clarinetist Sam “Leroy” Parkins. Here are the words of Sam:

I heard Louis Armstrong the music critic at that dance in Lexington KY, spring 1945.  A very clear statement about his loathing for modern music, coming at him like a tornado.  Music lesson:   For preceding centuries, a song or a complete chorus ended on what’s called the “tonic” - the home key, and the chord that preceded it was called the “dominant”, 4 notes below. Here comes modern, and by 1944 the “dominant” was often replaced by a somewhat purple 7th chord a half-step above the “tonic”.  Let’s put our mythical tune in the key of F major; at least 20% of the standard repertoire is in F.  Eddie Condon called F “the key of love”.  Means the traditional “dominant” chord is C, usually with a 7th.  So I’m grooving away with Louis blowing his heart out over the band, and come to an ending, where his up-to-date arranger has modernized things with a G-flat 7th before the “tonic” F.  Louis slashes an angry C triad right across it, making him play at least two “wrong” notes, and Louis was incapable of playing wrong notes.  “That for your godamned modernism!”

(To read the post in its original context, click here. while there, you will easily get sucked into Michael’s world of hot jazz so please make a point to check out Sam’s other ruminations on Popshere.)

As soon as I read Sam’s words, I thought it would be fun to listen through Armstrong’s various radio broadcasts of the war years to see if I could find a song that ended as Sam remembered it, descending from the “two” chord then to another chord a half-step down then finally to the tonic. I finally came up with just such an ending on Pops’s broadcast version of “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo” from an AFRS “Downbeat” Program from Los Angeles recorded sometime in early 1943.

The song “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo” has some pretty corny elements to it but in the right hands, it’s a lot of fun. Written by the formidable team of Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, the song made its debute in the 1942 film Orchestra Wives, where it was performed by Glenn Miller’s and His Orchestra with a vocal by Tex Beneke and The Modernaires. Here’s the complete clip, courtesy of YouTube, complete with the astounding tap dancing of the Nicholas Brothers. (Regarding the vocal by Tex and The Modernaires, I once showed this to an old friend from high school and all he could say was, “White people....ugh.”)


So that’s how “Kalamazoo” took off, eventually winning an Oscar for Best Original Song and becoming a smash hit. Thus, it was an easy new choice for Armstrong’s band book. Armstrong’s war years are probably the least discussed in his entire career and it’s easy to see why: the recording ban kept him out of the studio from April 1942 to January 1945 (he cut three tunes for Decca in August 1944 but they were all rejected at the time). Thus, because the history of jazz is often the history of jazz records, it’s easy assume that because Armstrong had no records to speak of in this period and because the big band days were coming to end, his career stalled as he probably just kept playing the same tunes every night.

Naturally, that couldn’t be more wrong. Pops was a frequent presence on radio during the war (soldiers couldn’t get enough of him) and fortunately, many broadcasts survive and have been issued since the days of the LP. You might have to look hard to find these broadcasts but once you do, you’ll hear that in addition to favorites like “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Shine,” “Coquette” and “Lazy River,” Pops was playing live versions of pop hits like “As Time Goes By,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” “Caldonia,” “I Couldn’t Sleep A Wink Last Night” and many more. Thus, when the critics blew their tops in the early 50s claiming that Pops finally “went commercial,” they obviously hadn’t paid attention to what he did in the early-to-mid-40s.

So “Kalamazoo” was in the book though only the “Downbeat” version survives. To give you some period flavor, here’s Pops trading scripted jokes with announcer Dick Joy (oh, how the musicians must have had fun with that name). Pops’s comic timing is good as ever, but the material is weak and as a straight man, Joy is no Bud Abbott. Here’s the patter:


And now “Kalamazoo”:


Armstrong enthusiastically counts off the number but sticks to just leading the band through the first chorus of melody. It’s a decent arrangement, though nothing special and the band is a little ragged in places (the muted trumpets sound like a 1924 Fletcher Henderson record for a couple of bars before they pile on some atomic power). I don’t know who wrote the arrangement (it doesn’t have any of Chappie Willet’s trademarks so it might have been from then-director Joe Garland), but it has some slightly modern voicings and the too-heavy power of most big bands of the period. Armstrong’s band would continue to get brassier and brassier in the coming years, reflecting the influence of Stan Kenton, I suppose. Anyway, they get tighter as they go on, drummer Chick Morrison on top of all the accents.

Pops gets ready for his vocal by asking the band to lay it on him and starts right in with the famous “ABCDEFG” line, proof that he could have swung the alphabet song if given the chance. Armstrong sounds happy with the song, swinging nicely and rephrasing where fit in the second A section and even getting a third-person reference to “Mr. Satchmo” in the bridge. By the end, he’s shouting in fine bluesy fashion before handing it over to the band to take it through a short interlude, setting up a modulation for Pops’s climactic solo.

Armstrong enters with a quick peep of a high concert Ab, before he switches gears and starts repeating the same note an octave lower, getting the solo of to a driving start. Knowing he only has one opportunity to play, he achieves a perfect balance of keeping the melody prominent while still coming up with all sorts of improvised ways to rephrase it.

The bridge is a hot one, with Armstrong pounding out some high C’s before hitting a pretty modern note: a concert Gb, the flatted fifth of the C-chord that starts the bridge and the flatted ninth of the F chord that follows it. He continues to generate more and more heat before snarling out and built-in blues inflections. But then dig the ending: what Pops plays is pure Armstrong; C-C-C-C-Db-D-Eb. But behind him, the band plays chords descending chromatically, as Sam Parkins remembered. Here, though Armstrong doesn’t sound angry and what he plays fits like a glove, but it’s definitely a more modern voicing in the arrangement that what Armstrong was used to. I could see him getting fed up with it two years later at the dance Sam attended as bop started rising and Pops started getting knocked for being too old-fashioned...

So that’s “Kalamazoo” but if you continue listening, you’ll hear announce Joy continue his patter with Armstrong’s female vocalist Ann Baker. (His pun about her last name is so bad that I secretly wish Baker slapped him the face like Moe Howard of the Three Stooges.) I’m not including Baker’s song but trust me, you’re not missing much. The meat is “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” another unsung, almost completely forgotten performance from the war years of Louis Armstrong.

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Birdland alert! I’ll be at New York’s friendliest jazz club tomorrow evening (Wednesday) to catch David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band, which will featuring Ed Polcer on cornet, Joe Muranyi on clarinet, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone, Ehud Asherie on piano, Kevin Dorn on drums and Ostwald on tuba. I’ll be having a powwow with my agent about book-related items, but don’t hesitate to stop in and say hello to your friendly blogger. I still think the $10 cover is a bargain and the band is always top notch. Til next time...

Monday, February 23, 2009

50 Years Of "Kisses In Der Nacht"

It's back to 1959 today where our heroes are still in Germany after last week's look at the Stuttgart videos. While in Hamburg, Armstrong and the All Stars shot a scene for the film Die Nacht Vor Der Premiere. They performed one number, "Kisses In Der Nacht," writtten by Lothar Olias and Hans Bradtke. The song isn't exactly a piece of gold--you can drive a truck through some of the open spaces--but Armstrong always gave his best to all material, making terrible songs sound good and making great songs incredible. Thus, he performs the slow melody with a beautiful, soulful quality with his trumpet. Then he sings--in German! He still swings, scats and mugs a bit, putting it over like it's "Blueberry Hill."

But after a Danny Barcelona drum break, the band turns the tune into an uptempo romp, everyone getting a chance to solo and Pops really riding high towards the end. Because the band is miming to a pre-recorded track, they ham it up a bit which is fun visually, but the music is seriously powerful. Here's the entire six-minute clip:


Here's a little more information about the the comedic actress you see enjoying the music, courtesy of my new friend from Germany, Sebastian Claudius Semler: "Concerning the leading actor Marika Rökk: Born in Hungria, she was very famous in Germany, gaining her first fame during the mid-30s for the legendary UFA movie productions during the Nazi years, especially in expensive and illustrative muscial productions as singer and dancer. She later was often critisized like other famoues actors from other countries - like Zarah Leander from Sweden or the still living + still active 105-years-old Johannes Heesters from the Netherlends - that they voluntarily came to Germany and supported the Nazi propaganda machine with the UFA productions, which had their own, very political objectives during the war years; but that's another story. In 1959 she was already in her mid-forties and - for those years - already a bit old for playing a sexy dressed dancer. And she really doesn't look like Madonna at the age of 45... HER interpretation of Küsse in der Nacht in the movie says much about the tune was meant by the composers, it has a cha cha rhythm and is merely a dancing number. However, it belongs to the worst tunes Armstrong ever was forced to play..."

Thanks Sebastian for the information and I hope everyone enjoyed the footage. Sorry for the lack of blogs last week; the pregnancy is slowing down the missus with each passing day and I'm doing more and more to keep the household afloat...and to keep her happy! Thus, I fell behind on writing, e-mailing, phone calls, you name it. But I have some windows to work this week and I'm planning on pumping out three or four new ones so keep checking back for more Pops!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

I Get A Kick Out Of You (And A Tribute To Louie Bellson)

Recorded October 14, 1957
Track Time 4:21
Written by Cole Porter
Recorded in Los Angeles
Louis Armstrong, vocal; Oscar Peterson, piano; Herb Ellis, guitar; Ray Brown, bass; Louie Bellson, drums
Originally released on Verve
Currently available on CD: Ella and Louis Again and Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson
Available on Itunes? Yes

Drummer Louie Bellson passed away over the weekend and that breaks my heart. For one, he was a favorite drummer of mine; I'd hate to count how many recordings I have with Bellson on them. But on a personal note, I now have to live with the fact that I never got to interview him for my Armstrong book to get his recollections of the dates he played with Pops in 1957 for Norman Granz. While I'll kick myself over this til the end of time, it won't ever dampen my admiration for Bellson's tasteful playing on these sessions.

Pops first recorded for Granz in the summer of 1956, making the first Ella and Louis album with Ella Fitzgerald, the Oscar Peterson trio and Buddy Rich. The album proved to be a big success so the cast reassembled the following summer for a longer, double-LP set with Bellson filling in for Rich. Two months later, Granz let Armstrong run loose with the Peterson rhythm section and Bellson for Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson, one of my favorite works of Armstrong's later years. The rhythm section and the choice of material challenged Armstrong throughout all these dates and Pops passed with flying colors.

Because the rhythm section played such a background role on all these dates, it's hard to find any Bellson showcases to spotlight today. The closest would probably be the warm-up run-through on "Indiana" from August 1, 1957. For the second pairing with Fitzgerald, both Ella and Louis were allowed to do a few solo numbers of their own. Armstrong recorded his that day but, as usual, chose to warm-up on "Indiana." The session tapes rolled and captured a pretty free-wheeling performance. The August dates for Granz are infamous because Pops played long gigs at night in Las Vegas and recorded during the daytime, so his chops weren't always in 100% form. He sounds a little hesitant at first on "Indiana" but he plays a lot of new ideas, before getting off his "set" solo towards the end. But there's a lot of talking and happy swinging (Pops even plays on his mouthpiece alone at one point). Bellson really drives the group well and Pops sounds quite happy. I know I've covered it in the past but it's worth another listen:



But when I heard the news that Bellson died, I immediately thought of his tasteful, yet driving drumming on "I Get A Kick Out Of You," recorded the same day as that "Indiana" warm-up. This has long been one of my all-time favorite Armstrong performances, though he doesn't play a note of trumpet on it. This is Pops the singer at his very best and more proof that if his lips fell apart in 1934, he still could have had a helluva career as a stand-alone singer (though thank God that never happened!).

There's not much I can say about the song "I Get A Kick Out Of You." It's a Cole Porter doozy, introduced by Ethel Merman in 1934 and covered by almost anyone with a voice and a standards mentality. The session tapes don't exist for this date, alas, but the Verve "Tape Legend" reports that the group gave "I Get A Kick Out Of You" a grand total of 13 takes. Of those 13, 10 were false starts and three were complete alternatives. After three false starts, Pops finally made it through the fourth take but after a few more false starts, he required a little rehearsal after take six. After straightening everything out, he finally hit a home run on the eighth take. Like I said, they continued making attempts until another complete alternative take was made on the thirteenth attempt, but it would have been tough to top the efforts of take eight. (Granz didn't believe in splicing or anything so either he liked a full take or he chucked it).

So without further ado, here's "I Get A Kick Out Of You":


Yeah, man. Peterson beautifully ushers in Pops's reading of the verse and he gives him sympathetic support throughout (I understand criticism of Peterson's excessive virtuosity as a soloist--though I don't quite agree--but I don't know how anyone could not love his accompaniments). Pops gets to show off his impressive range during the verse; listen to the way he sings the words "case" and "ennui." And I love the little vibrato on his voice on "totally cold," followed by a trademark "yeah." On the final "face" you can hear Pops start smiling; it's time to swing.

The Petersons launch into a simple two-beat vamp, Pops sets himself up with a perfectly placed "Yes" and we're off. The all meet on the downbeat and begin swinging at one of the most perfect medium tempos I've ever head. Bellson's brush patters are a little fatter during the two-beat vamp but man, when he locks in with Ray Brown's bass and Herb Ellis's guitar, it's as tight as it gets. I have a weakness for that brushes-on-the-snare sound (though I can't get my own drummers--I rotate two--in my own little trio to play like that!) and Bellson proves his mastery of it throughout the track, offering perfect little accents wherever they fit but without ever getting in the way.

But dig Pops. Porter's first line is as good as they come but Armstrong thinks it needs an extra syllable. So he sings, "I get no kick a-from champagne." "A-from" might not make grammatical sense but it works! Then there's the great "babes" peppered throughout and the almost Bing-like scatting after the first A section (after the second A section, that scat is pure Pops!). Peterson's a monster throughout, riffing like a big band during the "cocaine" verse and filling up spaces with beautifully conceived ideas such as the dizzying upward run in the bridge. Pops keeps pretty close to the melody throughout the chorus, but he's clearly digging the tempo and the quarter-notes of the bridge, swinging on the beat like he was playing his trumpet. And again, the range, digging deep for "flying too high" and going way up for "gal in the sky," hitting everything perfectly.

It's a great chorus, but stand back for take-off at the three-minute mark. Without missing a beat (literally), Bellson switches to sticks, Ellis's Texas guitar begins barking and the whole rhythm section turns the intensity level into overdrive. Armstrong goes back to the bridge and now he's letting it all out. Listen to the way he holds the words in the phrase "see you standing there before me." He holds each one a second longer than you'd expect. He's in his own rhythmic word, again, just as if he's playing the trumpet, and the result is scintillating. As he heads to the finish of the bridge, he throws in another syllable with "you obviously uh-don't adore me" and it works yet again.

But still stand back because now we're really swinging into the final A section. Pops's righteous "Mama" is a clarion call to forget all your problems, forget anything that ails you and come along for this delightfully swinging trip. If you're thinking of something else or not patting your foot, check your pulse. This is the happiest feeling on the planet (and it's legal!). Armstrong now rephrases where he sees fit while Bellson digs down with rim-of-the-snare-drum backbeats (a favorite technique of later Armstrong drummer Danny Barcelona), turning in a perfect fill after the "on a plane" line. Peterson's still riffing and Pops's is positively smoking. Going into the end, you know Pops is going to repeat the title phrase three times--you have to love the "Mama, I get a boot" line--before going into something clearly not in Porter's original lyrics: a scat, "I Get A Kick--boappa dot dot dot dah You!" Brilliance all around.

So it might not be a typically magnificent, five-minute Bellson drum solo but the sway he drives the Peterson trio and Pops on that track is pretty magnificent in itself. Rest in Peace, Louie...

Sunday, February 15, 2009

50 Years Of The Stuttgart Videos

Back to 1959, my friends, but I promise not to get too wordy in this entry because I think the videos will speak for themselves. Last week, we listened to our heroes--Louis Armstrong, Trummy Young, Peanuts Hucko, Billy Kyle, Mort Herbert, Danny Barcelona and Velma Middleton--perform a typically wonderful show at the Concergebouw in Amsterdam. From there, the non-stop touring continued into Germany. In Stuttgart, 50 years ago today, parts of their performance were filmed and later aired. I've used a couple of these clips before in other entries but this is the first time I've assembled all six clips in one posting so you can watch all the footage in a row, exactly as it aired.

Of course, part of me wants to travel to Germany and bang down the door of whatever station or studio did the filming; you'll hear Pops announce an intermission, Velma comes out at the end...long story short, I'm sure the cameras caught the entire show and they just chose these six selections to air as a 30-minute show. That's all well and good...but where's the rest?

Okay, enough from me, let's enjoy the All Stars, one month into this marathon tour, still performing swinging, fresh versions of some of their best-known performances. The broadcast opens with this terrific "Basin Street Blues," featuring the slower first section, something the All Stars started doing in 1958:



Next, one of my all-time favorite clips of Pops and one I've blogged about before. I showed this one at the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans last year and people literally cried. It's pretty overwhelming for me to: "I Get Ideas."


"Mack the Knife" is next, an appropriate show for a German audience. The tempo kept on creeping up through the years until Pops put on the brakes in the early 60s and slowed it down. Here, it's pretty fast but it still kills:


Finally, it's Danny Barcelona time! I've resisted sharing any of Danny's features in my past 1959 entries because I knew I had this in my back pocket the entire time. I interviewed Danny at length a few times in 2005 and we became close phone friends before his unfortunate passing away in 2007. Danny sometimes got criticized for speeding up during his breaks and I'm not going to defend that; but he also swung the band tremendously, he created zero drama and his solo features always tore up the audience. For that, Pops, who notoriously clashed heads with drummers, kept Danny in the band for 13 years. I copied this clip to David Ostwald and others and I always get the same reaction: no one realized how good of a drummer he was and what a monster solo this version of "Stompin' At The Savoy" truly is. Let's hear it for the "little Filipino boy" (or "Hawaiian boy," depending on the night), Danny Barcelona!


As chronicled in my dissertation on "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" last year, Pops was still shooting the lights out on this number until the heart attack he suffered in June 1959. After that, he attempted to play his always-exciting three-chorus rideout solo on the Ed Sullivan Showin September but he struggled a little more than usual. By October, the rideout was gone, a sad concession to his aging chops and aging heart. But here in Stuttgart, he was feeling in 100% form so here are the rideout choruses in all their glory:


And finally, a neat little encore. The band gets some flowers and decides to lay "The Faithful Hussar" on the German audience, a smart choice considering the song originated as "Es War Einmal Ein Treuer Husar" and was picked up by Pops in Germany during a 1955 tour. By this point, he had started singing some funny lyrics about how he found the song and began singing it "in a Satchmo way." However, when Pops usually took these encores, they were condensed and alas, the vocal and some of the solos are gone from this version. But Trummy still gets to roar and Pops takes it out on top. A wonderful finish!


That's all from Stuttgart. I'll be back this week with some more spins of the Itunes shuffle...til then!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

That's For Me Revisited

Recorded April 26 or 27, 1950
Track Time 5:08
Written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstien
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Jack Teagarden, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Earl Hines, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Cozy Cole, drums
Originally released on Decca
Currently available on CD: On the Hip-O box set, An American Icon
Available on Itunes? Yes

Valentine’s Day is here again and instead of choosing one of the very many love songs Pops recorded in his career--“Let’s Fall In Love,” “I Was Doing All Right,” “I Married An Angel,” “If I Could Be With You,” “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby,” “Fantastic, That’s You” immediately spring to mind—I decided to revisit the same song I covered for my last Valentine's Day entry, "That's For Me." It was requested by my good friend Michael Steinman and since my last go at it, I actually have a few things to add so join me on another visit to a tune that's worth celebrating 365 days a year.

For me, “That’s For Me” is one of Pops’s all-time greatest records, treasured by those who know it, but unknown to most of the world. I couldn’t believe when I just searched for it on Itunes and it only came up twice, once on a cheapie compilation and again on Louis Armstrong: An American Icon, a wonderful box set on the Hip-O label that is now out-of-print on C.D. (though it’s available on Amazon). It was on the Mosaic collection of Armstrong’s Decca recordings with the All Stars, but that’s out-of-print, as well. But hopefully, by the end of this blog, you’ll have a new appreciation for this neglected gem.

The song “That’s For Me” was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the 1945 musical, State Fair. Dick Haymes sang it in the film and had a hit record of it, as did Jo Stafford. After listening to various versions of it on Itunes, it appears that it was originally conceived as a sort of snappy number, not fast and uptempo, but with a lilting beat that makes the singer sound pretty confidant that he knows what he likes and likes what he sees (substitute “she” if necessary).

I never understood how it got into Armstrong’s hands, but I’m glad it did. Armstrong was performing it live for at least a year before he recorded it. Now, this is some pretty sad audio quality, but please, have a listen to this early version from a broadcast from Philadelphia’s Click, August 7, 1949:




Again, the quality is atrocious (why does it sound like someone’s beating time with a coke bottle?). One thing’s for sure is that the band sounds like they have the routine down, meaning they had probably been performing it for some time. When I tackled this song last year, I complained that the tempo was a little too fast for my taste until it was pointed out to me that, being an unmastered bootleg, it's pitched too high and thus, artificially fast...oops! Earl Hines sounds particularly good but the record obviously centers around Pops’s heartfelt vocal, which showcases his range, especially his beautiful tenor register. The tempo’s a shade too fast to allow him to feel completely at ease with the lyrics, but he does a beautiful job. Much like the later “Gypsy,” the song has a built in space for applause after the vocal, as Earl Hines repeats the last few bars to allow Pops to get his chops in his horn. And it’s a wonderfully poised trumpet solo, no high notes or real drama, just a lot of melodic flurries that stick with the listener long after the song has ended. Pops reprises his vocal at the bridge and continues on until the nice, slowed down ending. Even through the abysmal sound quality, Pops’s warmth shines through.

I didn’t want to spend too much time on the blow-by-blow of that version because the real main event comes with the Decca studio recording of 1950. Over two days in April of that year, the All Stars recorded ten of their finest concert numbers in a studio setting. Pops had already embarked on his string of pop records for Decca but for this occasion, producer Milt Gabler allowed Armstrong to record whatever they wanted from their live repertoire. Armstrong’s picks are interesting because instead of just featuring himself all day, he gave each of his sidemen one feature of their own choice. Like most sidemen features, Armstrong doesn’t exactly stay in the background, taking a series of stirring breaks on “Bugle Call Rag/Ole Miss,” singing a chorus on “I Surrender Dear” and stealing the show from Jack Teagarden with his trumpet solo on “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home.” For the other five numbers, Armstrong chose one romp the band had been playing since their inception, “Panama,” one stage set-piece, “New Orleans Function,” one comedy number, “Twelfth Street Rag,” and a lowdown blues song that was about to become a staple of almost every All Stars show, “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.”

For a tenth song, Armstrong could have chosen any of the All Stars’s great numbers from the period: “I’m Confessin’,” “Back O’Town Blues,” “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” “Basin Street Blues,” “King Porter Stomp,” “That’s A Plenty,” anything. But instead he chose “That’s For Me,” which he really must have loved to perform. So without any further ado, let’s listen to this classic, classic recording from April 1950.




Now, I’m sorry, but that’s the most beautiful piece of music you’re going to hear all day. The slow tempo strips Armstrong’s vocal from any confidant leanings and instead makes it a charming, fragile ode from a man who truly cannot believe how lucky he is to be in love with the woman “that’s for him.” If you’re reading this on Valentine’s Day morning and still need an inscription for your card, you can’t go wrong with this offering from Oscar Hammerstein:

I saw you standing in the sun
And you were something to see.
I know what I like, and I liked what I saw
And I said to myself "That's for me."
"A lovely morning," I remarked,
And you were quick to agree.
You wanted to walk,
And I nodded my head
As I breathlessly said "That's for me."
I left you standing under stars,
The days adventures are through.
There's nothing for me but the dream in my heart,
And the dream in my heart, that's for you.
Oh, my darling, that's for you.

Doesn’t get much better than that. But listening to the record is a marvelous experience. The opening ensemble is perhaps the most tender one in All Stars history, clearly one that had been perfected on the bandstand. Bigard sticks to his low, chalameau register, playing the melody straight in the second half while Armstrong plays lead, opening with those gorgeous quarternotes, phrasing the melody where it feels best for him and sounds best for us. Teagarden plays quietly, but he later makes his presence felt with a lovely obbligato. Hines, maintaining the proper mood for a change, sets Armstrong’s vocal up with a perfect interlude and then we’re off to heaven.

Just listen to quality of Armstrong’s voice, brilliantly captured by Decca’s engineers. There’s barely a trace of gravel and though you can hear him struggle to sing those high notes, that all adds up to the charm of the record. He clearly loves the melody, not even infusing it with a single scat syllable or a even a “mama.” Tegarden’s obbligato is a highlight of the record, as he quotes liberally from the Armstrong vocabulary, especially the phrase he plays at 2:17 in, a quote from the Drdla Souvenir that Pops loved to sing and play (thanks to reader Anthony Coleman who pointed that out to me, something I did not know a year ago!). Hines again sets the stage for Armstrong’s lightly muted trumpet offering, which, repeats some of the phrases from the 1949 broadcast, but is much more effective at this gentle tempo. The double-timed opening phrase never fails to give me the chills as Bigard noodles around in the low register and the rhythm section begins swinging ever so lightly. The rhythms in this Armstrong solo are mind-boggling. Really, how many more times am I going to write this? I guess one more can’t hurt…I would hate to transcribe a solo like this one! It’s so flowing, so melodic, yet it’s also so unpredictable and quite daring. Armstrong goes into the upper register to bridge the two halves of his solo, but otherwise, he’s content to play circles around the melody, offering snippets of Rodgers’s original notes here and there as points of reference. Please, listen to this one 10 or 11 more times. It never ceases to surprise and it never ceases to move.

After the solo, you can hear Armstrong quietly clear the rubble out as Hines and Teagarden play a Satchmo-fied phrase (shades of Django’s “Nuages”?) Pops reenters with the “I left you standing under stars phrase,” which sounds like a bridge, but the melody reverts right back to that of the first two A sections (this is an oddly structured song, but it works). Teagarden plays that Pops phrase in obbligato once again at the 4:10 mark. Finally, though he’s made it this far, Armstrong sings a perfectly placed “Babe” before his final climb into the highest registers of his voices. I don’t think there’s a lovelier phrase in the history of Armstrong’s recorded vocals than that “Oh my darling,” leading to the sublime coda, with a little subdued scatting. You can hear Armstrong smiling as he hits the final “You,” Hines’s playing pretty descending runs behind him while Bigard and Teagarden harmonize. I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful ending to a more beautiful record.

In my research, I’ve come across a concert review from, I believe, 1951 that mentions a live performance of “That’s For Me,” but it soon after disappeared from the All Stars’s band book. That’s not to say he forgot about it completely. In a 1968 interview for the BBC radio program “Be My Guest,” Pops spoke about the inspiration for his recording that song: his fourth wife, Lucille. At that time, I didn't have my Mac so I was clueless about editing tracks but now I'm a whiz so here it is, a beautiful, short excerpt from the interview climaxed by the 67-year-old Armstrong singing "That's For Me" completely a capella:



“That was for Lucille.” Ah, love. Pops had it for Lucille and it's safe to say, the world still has it for Pops. I hope you enjoyed "That's For Me" half as much as I did and I wish all of you a very Happy Valentine's Day!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Little Joe

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded April 28, 1931
Track Time 3:12
Written by Jule Styne and Ned Miller
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Preston Jackson, trombone; Lester Boone, alto saxophone; George James, alto saxophone, baritone saxophone; Albert Washington, tenor saxophone; Charlie Alexander, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; John Lindsay, bass; Tubby Hall, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41501
Currently available on CD: It’s on the JSP two-disc set The Big Band Sides, 1930-1932
Available on Itunes? Yes

When my Itunes shuffle landed on this tune, I initially hesitated; surely, the politically correct crowd would disapprove such a patronizing song complete with lyrics about a “kinky-headed baby” and “papa’s little colored sonny boy.“ Surely, the cringe-inducing tone of the lyrics, at least on a surface level, has led “Little Joe” to kind of become a “lost” Armstrong track from the wonderful OKeh big band days. I did an Itunes search for the song and found a one single, solitary release featuring the song, an old Columbia disc that chronologically featured Armstrong’s recordings of the era. Armstrong recorded “(I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead) You Rascal You” the same day as “Little Joe.” You don’t want to know how many versions I found of that tune on Itunes...

So “Little Joe” has kind of been pushed out of the spotlight though the years and honestly, I’ve never given it much of an in-depth listen either. But for the blog purposes, I threw it on and was immediately captivated. Three minutes and 12 seconds later, I knew I had the subject for my next entry. I’ve listen to it almost daily for about a week and I find something new to love about it every day. I’m not saying it’s a classic like “West End Blues” or “Star Dust,” but if you haven’t paid much attention to it because of the nature of the lyrics, you’ve missed out. (Consider this a second chance!)

Anyway, the song was written by the team of Jule Styne and Ned Miller, who already had one hit together in 1925 with the venerable standard “Sunday.”
As for Styne, yes, “Little Joe” was written by THE Jule Styne, the man behind “Just In Time,” “Make Someone Happy,” “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” “People” and “Let Me Entertain You.” It’s safe to say that I don’t think “Little Joe” has been performed at many Styne tributes.

According to one shady website, “Little Joe” was written specifically for Mildred Bailey but I have not been able to confirm this information anywhere else, so it’s probably not true. But Bailey herself did get around to recording it on March 23, 1937 with her husband Red Norvo’s orchestra, the same day she recorded a famous version of her signature tune “Rockin’ Chair.” Again, if you’re just listening on a surface level with a 2009 set of ears, the lyrics can be pretty offensive. But when you look at the songwriters involved and the performers involved, included Bailey, it becomes clear that it’s a pretty affectionate tune. Skipping into the future, here’s the great Mildred Bailey:


For posterity’s sake, here are the complete lyrics Bailey sung:

Verse
Little pickaninny, stars are in the sky
Time that you were in your bed.
Go to sleep while mammy, croons a lullaby
To her little curly head.
Chorus
Little Joe, Little Joe
Though your color isn’t white, you’re mighty like a rose to me.
Little Joe, Litle Joe
Though your eyes are black as coal, your little soul is white as snow to me.
Kinky-headed baby, I will always love you til the judgement day.
Even though the white folks may think nothing of you, and they always chase you away.
Little Joe, Little Joe
You’re my little pride and joy, your mammy’s little colored sonny boy.


So there you have it. They ain’t pretty, but there’s an awful lot of love in those lyrics, something that really shines through with Mildred’s voice. However, I can’t say the same about the next recording I want to share of the tune, from February 19, 1931, recorded a couple of months before Armstrong recorded it. It’s from the popular Ted Weems orchestra and though I don’t know who is singing it, I don’t hear any of the affection present in Bailey’s version. It’s a typical tenor of the day and though he tries to put a lot of heartfelt emotion into it (dig the bridge), I almost feel that he is SO white, that we’re now in an offensive territory. Click here to listen.

(Of course, that same day, Weems recorded “Jig Time,” which part of me wants to believe has something to do with an Irish or country “jig” but with its lyrics about rhythm, the hot soloing from the band and tap dance interlude, makes me squirm at the thought that they used “Jig” in the most offensive way possible. But I don’t believe in hiding from history or pretending things like this never happened, so click here to hear “Jig Time" and judge for yourself.)

With that out of the way, let's get to the main event. Weems recorded "Little Joe" in February 1931 while Armstrong was in California. When he arrived back in Chicago and began a series of sessions for OKeh with his own big band, the record company had a number of pop tunes for him to record, such as "Little Joe." I went into some details on this period in my January entry on "Walkin' My Baby Back Home" but I want to repeat Zilner Randolph's assertion that he didn't join Armstrong's band as music director/second trumpet until the following month. Thus, I don't know who wrote the "Little Joe" arrangement but even if it's a stock, it's a good one.

Before including the link to the music, I just want to say that "Little Joe" is a good transitional recording in terms of Pops the trumpeter. As stated time and again on this here blog, there was only one Louis Armstrong and all attempts to separate the man into a young, serious artist who played dazzling trumpet and an older clown who couldn't play as well as he used to will be laughed at by the author. But stylistically speaking, Armstrong in the 1920s employed a lot more velocity in his phrases than he would in later years (and I'm not just talking when he was an old man, I mean the late 1930s, too). By the early 30s, Armstrong's dramatic, operatic style was really taking over, with its use of floating phrases, freakish high notes and tremendous feats of endurance.

"Little Joe" uses a device Armstrong used a few times in the 1930s: playing his first solo muted and returning at the end with powerful open horn playing (see "All of Me" or "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" for examples). Thus, when listening to "Little Joe," listen to how Armstrong still trots out some very fast fingering while muted and how he sits back and soars more dramatically in the end with his open horn, the two styles of Armstrong's trumpet playing merging together beautifully in the course of a little over three minutes.

Enough from me, listen to "Little Joe":


Now see, that didn't hurt a bit, right? I'm telling you, I dig this record more and more with each passing listen. The record opens with the muted Armstrong alluding to the song's verse in the four-bar introduction before he launches into a reading of the melody. His first playing of the three-note "Little Joe" phrase is strong but soon he's coming up with variations on it, much as he will on the vocal. The reeds take over the melody for a bit but leave breathing room for Pops to take a break that sounds an awful lot to me like the genesis of the immortal opening phrase of Lester Young's "Shoe Shine Boy" solo. It's not an exact match, but it's close enough!

Another thing I love about "Little Joe" is the way it shows how Pops sounded when playing on the beat and when he laid back a little behind it. During the whole muted opening, the rhythm section accents every quarter-note with a delicate wisp, almost marching, rather than swinging. With this static foundation, Armstrong breathes down the neck of the beat, sticking as tightly to it as the mute in his Selmer trumpet. He's pushing it, prodding it and practically sweating on top of it. It allows him to springboard off of it with the aforementioned fleet-fingered phrases, swinging mightily but not in a relaxed manner.

After the proto-"Shoe Shine Boy" break, Armstrong plays the titular phrase but cracks it a teeny bit, which sometimes happened in his muted playing, offering a rare fragile glimpse into a different facet of his trumpet sound. The second eight bars follows the pattern of the first, Armstrong taking another dizzying, dazzling break before the bridge. Here, Armstrong relaxes a hair for some of his customary floating, but there's still an urgent quality to the way he develops his motives, working over one at the start of the bridge and another in the midway point.

Armstrong gets lowdown with his melody reading the last time through but just when you brace yourself for one more devastating display of trumpet prowess, a chortling Preston Jackson takes over for a quick, woozy hint of melody on his trombone (do I hear another trumpet with Jackson? There's none listed in the discography but I'm not so sure). But it's with good reason as Pops has to step up to the mike to deliver his version of the vocal which I'd like to transcribe right here, right now:

Now Little Joe, oh hear me calling Little Joe,
Though your color isn't white, you're more than mighty like a rose to me.
Little Satchelmouth Joe, oh Little Joseph,
Though your eyes are black as coal, your little soul is white as snow to me.
(Oh, Joseph)
Your kinky-headed baby, I'll always love you til the judgement day (bay-bi),
(Now babe) Even though the white folks, they think nothing of you, they always drive you away.
Little Gatemouth Joe! Oh Little Rivermouth Joe,
Son, you're my little pride and joy, your papa's little colored sonny boy.


That's more like it. If you have to sing "Little Joe," THAT'S the way to do it! Armstrong's good-natured affection and enthusiasm more than transcends any of the horribly dated aspects of the lyrics. Perhaps Armstrong was thinking of the "Little Joe's" he knew, including "Little Joe" Walker from his days playing at the Sunset Cafe and drummer Little Joe Lindsay, brother of Armstrong's bassist on the session and the man who co-formed the very first jazz band little Louis led while a teen in New Orleans.

But regardless, Pops already proved how proud he was of his race when he made the decision to record "Black and Blue" in 1929. "Little Joe" have included some poor choices of words in the lyrics, but in the end the message is clear, something Dan Morgenstern summed up in one sentence much better than I could do in an entire blog entry: "If that's not black-is-beautiful, I don't know what is."

With the vocal out of the way, there's still more than a minute left on the record, enough time for Pops to discard his mute and start wailing dramatically in his most grandiose style. Remember the slight cracking in his muted playing? It's nowhere to be found with his open horn. He plays that first "Little Joe" phrase and positively soars on that third note. He sticks close to the melody for a bit, but then gets damn blues throughout the second eight bars. He's relaxed and powerful, but still manages to throw in another double-timed phrase right before the bridge, another marvelous Armstrong creation that relies on little more than two pitches, but the way he plays them, he creates a song all his own (in fact, the vocal trio on Noble Sissle's "Characteristic Blues," including Sidney Bechet himself, turns this phrase into part of the routine in between Billy Banks's falsetto vocal).

The alto saxophone of either Lester Boone or George James takes over for half the bridge (all of Pops's reedmen in his early 30's big band had such distinct tones) before Armstrong swoops back in with a crackling clarion call to announce his presence, five notes, the last two repeated before he pauses for a beat. He takes the rest of the bridge in style, stretching a simple phrase like a baker kneads dough, playing it quickly a few times, then slowing it down until we're safely in the Louis Armstrong Universe of Time (where there's no such thing as gravity). He holds a high note into the final A section, milking the "Little Joe" phrase for all its worth and continuing to the keep the essence of the blues in each one of his phrases. What sounds like a clarinet trio finishes the melody but Armstrong gets to play a beautifully sweet concluding phrase, one that sticks with the listener long after the record has faded (and like the Pres "Shoe Shine Boy" lick, resembles an early proto-type to the closing phrase of Fats Waller's immortal "Jitterbug Waltz").

So that's that for "Little Joe." The dated, uncomfortable lyrics have relegated this tune to jazz purgatory but hopefully giving it a fresh listen today will prove that it's a very good record, with Armstrong playing and singing quite wonderfully (can't I say that about a thousand records?). Tomorrow is Valentine's Day and I'm going to revisit "That's For Me." Til then!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

New Armstrong Book!

I'll be back with a brand new blog at some point tomorrow but to tide you over, check out this book, which looks to be an essential purchase for all Pops nuts. (This story is from Jazz Times, by way of Michael Steinman's Jazz Lives blog)
*****************
New Louis Armstrong Book to Be Published in March
Date: February 5, 2009
Written By: Jeff Tamarkin
Satchmo: The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong is a new book being published by Abrams in March. The book is 256 pages with 200 full-color illustrations and will sell for $35.00 (U.S.) and $39.00 (Canada).
Satchmo is a biography in the form of an art book. It tells the story of Louis Armstrong’s life through his writings, scrapbooks and artworks, much of which has never been published before. It includes many collages that Armstrong made on recording tape boxes. These incorporate marvelous photographs of Armstrong and others in atmospheric settings that capture the archetypal scenes in the life of a jazz musician: nightclubs and fast trains, women and wild parties. The book includes many photographs of Armstrong and is framed by a text that describes his significance.

Satchmo is written and designed by Steven Brower, whose previous book was the award-winning Woody Guthrie Artworks. It is supported by the Louis Armstrong House and Archives.

To order a copy, visit Satchmo.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

50 Years Of The All Stars in Amsterdam

My long, weekend posts usually bomb just for that very reason: they're too long, with too much music and it's the weekend and no one wants to be bothered sifting through 30 minutes of music when there are places to go and people to see. Nonetheless, I feel like it's my duty to Pops to keep celebrating these anniversaries as they pass and today's another one worth celebrating as far as I'm concerned. We're going back to that mammoth 1959 tour of Europe I wrote about in mid-January. I gave the background to the tour in that posting, as well as a discussion of Armstrong's typical concert repertoire during the period and a ton of music samples from his first show in Sweden. If you missed it, click here to catch up.

Of course, background information isn't 100% necessary unless you're a freak like me. In a nutshell, the All Stars--with Pops, trombonist Trummy Young, clarinetist Peanuts Hucko, pianist Billy Kyle, bassist Mort Herbert and drummer Danny Barcelona--embarked on a tour of Europe in January 1959 that would not end until June of that year. The group rarely had a day off and often did two sold-out shows a day. Pops showed remarkable endurance during the tour, never coasting or appearing tired, and always he blew in tremendous form (see my blog about the "Tiger Rag to End All Tiger Rags" from a couple of weeks ago, perhaps the highlight for me of the 1959 tour).

After the Scandinavian wing of the tour, the All Stars found themselves in the famous Amsterdam concert hall, the Concertgebouw, where they played to an intensely enthusiastic, "in-the-round" crowd. The great Jos Willems was kind enough to share the surviving audio of this concert with me and I'm going to play some samples later in the entry, but what really makes me salivate is the video.

That's right. You heard me. The All Stars's concert was filmed for, I'm guessing, Netherlands television. I found this
entry on the Library of Congress website, in David Meeker's Jazz and Blues filmography. That's the kind of stuff that makes me sweat, being a long-time Armstrong film collector. What's crazier is that some European television show in the not too distant past showed two complete songs from the Concertgebouw concert and those performances are now on YouTube. Thus, the whole concert must be in a vault somewhere in Europe and if anyone out there knows a collector from the Netherlands that might be willing to share it or make a trade, write me right away at dippermouth@msn.com! I did contact one collector in Switzerland who seemingly had everything but he only had the two performances on YouTube.

But both performances are wonderful to see so enough of my selfish want-list and let's get on with the Amsterdam show! Here's the wonderful opening, featuring the All Stars running down the aisle onto the stage the way a boxer walks through the crowd into the ring for a championship fight. After a little tuning up, they're off with "When It's Sleepy Time Down South":


Isn't that wonderful? I really like the camera shots, much more intimate than some of the other, more statically-shot concert performances of the same period. And did you notice the little color logo at the start that identified the tune? More proof that this was broadcast by the Dutch sometime in the days of color television...let's get some more of it!

Naturally, after "Sleepy Time," it was time for "Indiana." This is a wonderful version primarily because it's a video; you can listen to Pops play the tune 20 times a day but there's replacement for actually seeing it. And as I alluded to in the past, Peanuts Hucko apparently didn't care for background riffs so watch for Pops and Trummy to begin playing their old riff behind Peanuts then abruptly stop and start laughing, probably a little inside joke (and listen for Pops singing "Back home again" during Hucko's solo). The audience is obviously having a ball and so is Pops. A great performance:


Alas, that's all the video I have from this concert but there is some audio to share. It's not worth sharing all of it since much of it is similar to what was played at the Swedish concert I blogged about last month. As I discussed then, most of Pops's 1959 European shows featured a similar pattern:

First Set
*Pops would feature himself on five in a row: "Sleepy Time," "Indiana," "Basin Street Blues," "Tiger Rag" and "Now You Has Jazz," the latter with a shared vocal with Trummy Young
*To pace himself, he'd call Billy Kyle out for two features, the first usually not needing the trumpet. In Amsterdam, he played "Girl of My Dreams" and "Sweet Georgia Brown."
*Then it would be time for Peanuts Hucko to play two, usually "Autumn Leaves" (no Pops) and a barn-burner such as "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise" (a lot of Pops)
*After the features, Pops would step back into the spotlight and do something like "I Get Ideas"
*Mort Herbert would then do two features, both featuring Louis, who would usually play the melody on Herbert's first and sing "Old Man River" for Herbert's second outing
*Then Pops would excite the crowd with "Mack the Knife" and calm them down with his medley of "Tenderly" and "You'll Never Walk Alone"
*Wanting to excite them again, Pops would close the set with a Danny Barcelona drum feature on "Stompin' At The Savoy"

Second Set
*These would be much short but were usually very heavy on Pops. He'd open with an instrumental "Sleepy Time" before playing a hot instrumental, usually "Struttin' With Some Barbecue"
*Then it would be time for either requests or just something different. On the 1959 tour, this slot was occupied by "C'est Si Bon," "Faithful Hussar," "Muskrat Ramble," "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and others. In Amsterdam it was "La Vie En Rose."
*Velma Middleton would follow with a long version of "St. Louis Blues" and "Ko Ko Mo," both featuring Pops
*"When The Saints Go Marchin' In" would always close the show on a high note

So that was the 1959 tour in a nutshell. Like I said, I'm not going to share all the audio because I don't think anyone will listen to it all. But some stuff must be shared, including another "Tiger Rag To End All Tiger Rags." If you read my blog on that insane nine-and-a-half "Tiger Rag" from Copenhagen in January 1959, you know what Pops was capable of on this tune when he was sufficiently inspired and when the audience was sufficiently crazy. The All Stars almost always played one encore on the tune, but when things were extra crazy, Pops would call more. In Amsterdam, it was only one more, but it's a "gassuh." First, after the standard first encore, you'll hear the rhythm section play a cute "Good evening friends" line, a not-so-subtle way of of saying that the hilarity of the tune, which would end with Armstrong and Trummy Young chasing each other around the stage while playing, was over. Kyle then goes into the standard arpeggio for the next tune, "Now You Has Jazz," but as we heard in Copenhagen, Pops had the final decision on what to do next and what he did was call a second encore!

It's an incredible one, opening with his favored "Gypsy Love Song" quote but it's another quote that really knocks me out every time I hear it: on the break, he somehow inserts the 1924 pop song "When You Wore A Tulip (And I Wore A Big Red Rose)." (Thanks to my two New England trumpeting friends, Dave Whitney and Al Basile, for setting me straight...I have a few George Lewis versions of the tune and I've even played it myself once at a nursing home gig so I knew it was familiar but for some reason I couldn't place it...thanks!) From there, he skyrockets right up to high Eb's, hitting one after another like he was 30 years old again before ending on a sky-high concert F! Ridiculous playing. Enjoy the whole thing here:



That was about a six-minute romp. For those who know the routine by heart and just want to hear the second encore, I made an edited version that begins with the trumpet playing during the first encore, continues through the "Good evening friends" bit and carries into the full second encore. Dig it!



After "Now You Has Jazz" it was time for Billy Kyle. I didn't share any of Kyle's features in my Sweden 1959 blog, but I'm going to share both of them here today. First came "Girl of My Dreams," one of my favorite Kyle outings, one that he played into the 1960s. There's no Armstrong but it demonstrates what a swinging pianist Kyle was and also how good the All Stars's rhythm section was (listen to the momentum shift midway through and try not to pat your feet):



Next, though, came a real treat and something of an anomaly. When clarinetist Edmond Hall joined the group, he brought "Sweet Georgia Brown" as a feature. However, on the 1959, Kyle took a couple of stabs at, using Hall's arrangement, complete with breaks, as the framework for his solo. Kyle sounds like a monster on this cut and Pops also sounds great in leading the ensemble, complete with encore. Dig this rarity:



Peanuts Hucko was next and after a pretty "Autumn Leaves," he tore through "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise." I blogged about this track in full back in October but it's worth another listen because Peanuts sounds great but Pops just doesn't quit. Even in the encore, he ends with another freakish high concert F...on a sideman feature!



All great stuff but at this point I'm going to leave the first set. Pops did a beautiful "I Get Ideas" but I'm going to revisit that song again next weekend. Then Mort Herbert did two feature, the highlight being "Old Man River" which I shared in the Sweden blog. I also shared "Mack the Knife" and the "Tenderly/You'll Never Walk Alone" medley there and I'm also saving Danny Barcelona's "Stompin' At The Savoy" for next week. So that takes us through the first set but I must share the entire, shorter second set. After the instrumental "Sleepy Time" it was time for a great "Struttin' With Some Barbecue." Pops had finished making his film with Nina and Fredrick so "Barbecue" went back to being an instrumental romp (though again, the old riffs behind Hucko's clarinet solo are gone and again, Pops and Trummy allude to it by playing the start of it and disappearing!).



Next, a favorite of everyone's, "La Vie En Rose." This might have been a request and perhaps Pops hadn't played it in a little while because he fudges the lyrics at one point. But you cannot top the intensity of the trumpet playing at the end, which can bring tears from my eyes:



Then it was time for Velma. As I wrote in the Sweden blog, that version of "St. Louis Blues" was a little too slow and began with some major confusion. This time, the tempo is perfect and the whole band contributes mightily to the rocking groove. Always a killer:



Next came "Ko Ko Mo," which Pops always loved to improvise on during his opening trumpet solo, often coming up with different quotes on a nightly basis. Here, he starts with Dvorak's "Going Home" before turning it into a bluesy creation all his own (I know, I know, "Ko Ko Mo" is crying out for an extended blog treatment just to analyze those opening trumpet solos). Here 'tis:



With the audience having a ball and Pops putting on a riotously good show, it was time to end it with the ultimate crowd-pleaser, "When the Saints Go Marchin' In." I really don't have to share this one because I included in the Sweden blog and am showing a video of it next week. But people love it so if you want to hear how the show ended, give it a listen:



And that was the end of another wonderful evening with the All Stars. I wish the concert was commercially available on CD so the whole world could listen to it and enjoy it but hopefully these audio samples will due until the real thing comes along...and especially until a video comes along! But speaking of videos, I'm going to end with one more. The same week, the All Stars appeared in Den Haag and were captured by newsreel cameras. The resulting newsreel is on YouTube and it kills me because it features live sound! Thus, again, perhaps in some Netherlands archive, the entire concert in beautiful quality and audio quality survives. But for now, enjoy this two-minute medley of "Struttin' With Some Barbecue," "St. Louis Blues" and "La Vie En Rose," capturing the soul-shaking concluding trumpet solo on that final number:

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Three Little Bears

Those tuning in for today's scheduled posting on "Little Joe" will have to wait a few days longer as a better idea struck me this morning and I decided to put that one on the back burner until next week. My good friend Michael Steinman at the required-reading Jazz Lives blog has dedicated some of his recent postings to the Eddie Condon Floor Show, a landmark early presentation of pure unfiltered jazz on television. Alas, no footage exists from these shows but plenty of audio has leaked out over the decades. For the history of the show, as well as some beautiful memories and pictures, dig Michaels' work NOW.

In his last posting on the Condon series, Michael mentioned one of the highlights of the Condon show, Louis Armstrong's reading of "The Three Little Bears." Yep, you heard that right. On August 27, 1949, Pops took part in Condon's one-year anniversary show, which also featured the likes of Hot Lips Page, Sidney Bechet and Billie Holiday (now can you see why people have been lamenting the lack of footage from this program???). Armstrong brought Earl Hines and Jack Teagarden from his All Stars and sat in with a typical Condon super-group featuring the likes of Pee Wee Russell, Cutty Cutshall, Joe Bushkin, Jack Lesberg and George Wettling. Teagarden took the lead on "We Called It Music," a song tied in with the title of Condon's seminal autobiography, while Pops got to do a beautiful "Someday You'll Be Sorry" backed by Helen Cherell and the Swan-Tones. A closing jam session on "Chinatown" is also hotter than hot. I'd like to share all the Pops audio from this broadcast and perhaps I will someday real soon but for now, I don't want to detract from the unquestionable highlight: "The Three Little Bears."

I have no idea whose idea it was but give that man (or woman) a medal. Instead of just having Pops pick up a storybook and read it, someone wrote an elaborate retelling of the story for Pops to read, complete with humorous updated references to things such as a "junior atomic gun!" For dramatic effect, Pops gets a soap-opera-esque organ to back him while The Swan-Tones also make their presence felt with some sweet harmonizing.

But really, it's the Louis Armstrong Show from start to finish. Every single element of Armstrong's personality is in full force here. His acting skills are beautifully on display in his reading of the text but even croons a new, loving melody at one point, foreshadowing the career boost he was about to receive the following month when he recorded "Blueberry Hill" for Decca. And he also plays, gingerly finding an obbligato to the Swan-Tones in the beginning, perhaps a little unfamiliar with the melody. But by the end, he plays a wonderfully melodic solos...a whole different kind of storytelling, but it's just as effective.

So sit back and relax for 12-plus minutes and enjoy Louis Armstrong, King of Everything, lending his born charm and musical genius to something as seemingly silly as "The Three Little Bears." And enjoy this beautiful photo (copyright Genevieve Naylor/CORBIS) of Pops as he appeared on camera that day, storybook in hand, black-rimmed glasses on his nose, a group of children at his feet and the world's biggest smile on his face. It's such a touching photo:

And now, here's the audio, something I truly hope will be a favorite of my daughter in the future. Enjoy!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

More Oliver Confusion! Who Shouted "Play That Thing"?

After a record-setting month in January, I burnt myself out by the end of the month and needed a week to catch up on the book and my wife (now 30 weeks pregnant!). I’m ready to dive in again, with an entry on “Little Joe” and a look at another one of Armstrong’s 1959 tour dates coming up in the next few days. But first, I return to the “Canal Street Blues” personnel or, as the worldwide media is now referring to it: Canal-Gate.

To refresh your memory: when I did the "Canal Street Blues" blog a couple of week’s ago, I used David Sager and Doug Benson's Off The Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings as my primary source. In his notes, Sager writes about bassist Bill Johnson playing banjo on those earliest King Oliver sessions and that was good enough for me. Of course, I should have consulted Willems's All of Me Armstrong discography to see if he had differing information. Willems lists Bud Scott as the banjo player on the date and added this note, which relies heavily on Irakli de Davrichewy's notes to the Masters of Jazz CD Louis Armstrong, Volume 1 1923:

"Note: The dates of the first sessions are clearly confirmed by Gennett studio files, but, other than the name of the band, no further information is given. The personnel have thus had to be established from aural evidence, with the only real doubt revolving around the identity of the banjo player, generally listed as Bill Johnson. True, on certain band photographs Johnson can be seen holding a four-string banjo rather than a string-bass. Yet interestingly, careful listening to the various recordings involved, especially Canal Street Blues, reveals the presence of a six-string banjo tuned like a guitar. Certainly, the boomingly low notes of a double-bass or bass drum could not technically be absorbed by the recording equipment of the time."

"Johnson was supposedly on this tour, but he was unable to record. Based on the evidence of photos and the audible absence of a double-bass, it seemed logical to attribute the banjo part to Bill Johnson. But despite scrupulously detailed examination of discographies, I have been unable to unearth no single recording on which Johnson plays either four or six-string banjo. Moreover, Johnny St. Cyr, who was with Oliver and who later played with Johnson, has stated (Jazz Finder, December 1948) that he never saw Johnson play any other instrument than double-bass. Bud Scott is known to have arrived in the band early spring of 1923 (Record Changer interview, September 1947) and since there is a distinct similarity between the playing here and that of Scott on later recordings, I opt (always with very little hesitation) for Scott as banjo on the King's first recordings."

A few days later, trumpeter and New Orleans jazz expert Chis Tyle wrote in to say, "I was just reading down the page on your blog re: Bill Johnson on banjo w/Oliver. IMO, it's either St. Cyr or Scott, and it's a six-string banjo, definitely. I've always thought that Johnson holding a banjo in a photo is rather flimsy evidence to suggest he was playing it on the recording - that and the fact there's no evidence he actually played it! (Although it's possible, since his family had a string band in Mississippi...) But my vote is for Bud Scott, since he worked with Oliver later."

The evidence was looking pretty clear that it wasn’t Johnson so I had to write Sager himself and get his take on the matter. He wrote. “I have heard the arguments against Johnson, for instance the fact that he is pictured w a tenor banjo and that the banjo on ‘Canal’ is a plectrum...or is it vice versa.  It makes sense to attribute it to St. Cyr, except that Johnson was consistently named by Louis and Lil and I think Baby too, as being on the records.  But the clincher is his voice!”

Hmmm, intrigued yet? Here’s Sager’s explanation: “Johnson recorded frequently later in the decade and was quite vocal on his recordings, jiving away ala Frankie Half Pint Jaxon.  The reissue set on Dust to Digital, "How Low Can You Go" captures many of his sides where his speaking voice can be heard.  He is even addressed at one point by one of the other players.  This voice matches perfectly the one heard shouting ‘Oh play that thing’ on the Gennett ‘Dipper.’  The voice on the Okeh ‘Dipper’ belongs to another. So, I'll go along attributing the Gennetts to Mr. Bill and listening respectfully to those in dissent.”

A couple of days later, David wrote back to assure me that he didn’t have any “solid information” that it was Johnson, but he was sticking with his hunch about Johnson’s voice. He wrote, “Now aside from the voice that shouts ‘Oh play that thing’ the only evidence that it is Johnson is based on whatever was told to discographers by Armstrong.  And wasn't it Louis who pointed out that the Dippermouth break was supposed to be played by the clarinet and then named Bill Johnson? “

I did some quick research and though Louis mentioned Bill Johnson a lot in his writings (see Thomas Brothers’s essential volume Louis Armstrong In His Own Words), it was always as a bassist. However I did find this passage in The Baby Dodds Story, as told by the drummer himself: “On one number I was caught very unsettled. That was ‘Dippermouth Blues. I was to play a solo and I forgot my part. But the band was very alert and Bill Johnson hollered ‘Play that thing!’ That was an on-the-spot substitution for the solo part which I forgot. And that shows how alert we were to one another in the Oliver band. The technician asked us if that was supposed to be there and we said no. However, he wanted to keep it in anyway and ever since then eery outfit uses that same trick, all because I forgot my part.”

So there’s another vote for Johnson, taken directly from someone who was there. But back to Sager’s point about Johnson’s voice. To illustrate it, David sent me a wonderfully rocking cut from 1928 of the Dixie Four doing “Kentucky Stomp.” Johnson plays bass but also does a lot talking and as David wrote me, “Here is the first of the Dixie Four recordings with Bill Johnson who apparently announces ‘Here I go!’ just before taking the lead.  I think it sounds like the distinctive shout on the Gennett Dippermouth, no?” To give “Kentucky Stomp” a listen, click here.

Got that in your head? That’s Bill Johnson’s voice, 100%. Now, thanks to the wonders of computer editing, let’s go back and listen to to who shouted “Oh, play that thing” on the April 6, 1923 Gennett version of “Dipper Mouth Blues,” recorded the day after “Canal Street Blues.” Here’s the Gennett break:



About two-and-a-half months later, Oliver remade “Dipper Mouth” for OKeh, this time with Bud Scott on banjo. If you’ve been paying attention, some people feel that it was Scott, not Johnson on the first “Dipper Mouth.” The OKeh version is definitely Scott so give it a listen and compare the two voices:



23 years later, Armstrong recreated “Dipper Mouth” for the film New Orleans with, you guessed it, Bud Scott back on guitar. Here’s how Scott sounded in 1946:



And if you want to SEE Scott take the break, here’s a poor quality video of that same performance from the film New Orleans:


Hmmm, so what do you think? I have to admit that most logical signs point to Johnson not being on the date but I do think the two 1923 “Dipper Mouth” breaks feature two distinct voices (Scott’s being gruffer) and the voice on the original does sound like the Johnson yelling “Here I go” on that version of “Kentucky Stomp.” I’m going to refrain from making a 100% authoritative decision but I’d love to hear from you, my loyal readers. You’ve heard the arguments of both sides and you’ve a bunch of voice examples. What do you think? Leave a comment below and let’s settle this once and for all! (That’ll never happen but it makes for a fun debate!)