Eva Taylor acc. by Clarence Williams' Blue Five
Recorded January 8, 1925
Track Time 3:04
Written by Clarence Williams, Chris Smith and Harold Troy
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, cornet; Charlie Irvis, trombone; Sidney Bechet, soprano saxophone; Clarence Williams, piano; Buddy Christian, banjo
Originally released on OKeh 40321
Currently available on CD: Available on many, many compilations under both Armstrong's and Bechet's name. For boxed sets, it's on Armstrong's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man set and Bechet's Mosaic Select box
Available on Itunes? Yes
Let's get ready to rumble!
In this corner! From New Orleans, Louisiana! 23 years old! Undefeated in his first 90 recordings! They call him Dippermouth..."Little" Louis Armstrong! Armstrong!
And in this corner! Hailing from New Orleans, Louisiana! 27 years old! The first great jazz soloist! Undefeated in his first 27 recordings! A smash hit in Europe! The New Orleans Feetwarmer himself...."Young" Sidney Bechet! Bechet!
When the bell rings, I ask both of you men to come out swinging. Let's get it on!
Okay, okay, the boxing introduction is probably a bit corny but what else could I open with when dealing with the two of the greatest slugfests in jazz history? Armstrong and Bechet are our Ali and Frazier and I love celebrating their epic wars. And tonight, January 8, 1925, marks the 85th anniversary of one of the greatest recordings ever made in the history of the music, the Clarence Williams version of "Cake Walking Babies From Home."
How great is this recording? Let me indulge you in a quick story; I taught jazz history to undergraduates at Rutgers for a year, one of the greatest experiences of my life. I had never taught before but relished the challenge of standing in front of 55 students--who clearly took the class because they thought it would be easy--and making them care about records that were made before their grandparents were born. Fortunately, I had enough enthusiasm to border on making a fool of myself and I managed to make some deep connections. When I got to Armstrong and Bechet, I didn't talk about it as hi-falutin' art. I treated it as an epic battle of two geniuses with pretty large egos.
I built up Bechet's personality--the older man who liked to dominate the ensembles with his loud soprano saxophone, a true genius who could get downright violent about musical matters, the first great soloist who was used to dominating every musical situation he took part in. Then I built Armstrong--the younger man, a genius in his own right, who was much more respectful, unwilling to play over his fading mentor, King Oliver, yet possessing enough talent to turn the entire New York jazz scene on its head when he joined Fletcher Henderson's popular dance orchestra in 1924. And then I pressed play and played them two scratchy three-minute recordings that were already 80 years old at that point. By the time the second "Cake Walking Babies" ended, the room was electrified and people were cheering for Louis. More on the outcome in a bit but for me, it was a personal triumph to make these kids react so enthusiastically to these records. But once you listen to them, is it possible to react any other way?
Before getting to the records, a little more background. Armstrong and Bechet obviously knew of one another in New Orleans. Bechet was the older man but fondly remembered "Little Louis" blowing the famed "High Society" piccolo/clarinet part on a cornet. Bechet left New Orleans before Armstrong, made a splash in Europe and was taking astounding solos on records like "Wild Cat Blues" and "Kansas City Man Blues" in 1923 while Armstrong was still playing second cornet with Joe Oliver. Armstrong left Oliver to join Henderson in New York City, where he became something of a fixture in OKeh's recording studios, accompanying blues singers and vaudeville performers as often as humanly possible. Bechet was part of the New York scene, too, at this point, also putting in his time by accompanying various OKeh artists. Thus, it was only a matter of time before the two joined forces in a recording studio.
That first time came on October 17, 1924 for a recording of "Texas Moaner Blues," which I feel is one of the great early jazz records. Armstrong's solo is completely poised, made up of phrases that never quite left his blues vocabulary, but Bechet is the real star of the show with his passionate, almost animalistic playing. That same day, Armstrong and Bechet backed up the singer Virginia Liston on two numbers, each man adding some spirited playing to the proceedings. Two months later, on December 17, the same exact lineup--Armstrong, Bechet, trombonist Charlie Irvis, banjoist Buddy Christian and pianist/leader Clarence Williams reconvened to back Williams's wife Eva Taylor on two numbers. On one, "Mandy Make Up Your Mind," Bechet broke out a sarrusophone to use to snort and bark his way through the ensemble. Armstrong's hot playing was magnificent but the ear still finds its way to Bechet's bizarre gargling.
Five days later, the bulk of the same personnel got together for another session under the name the Red Onion Jazz Babies, this time for Gennett records. Armstrong, Bechet, Irvis and Christian made the party but this time, Williams and Taylor were nowhere to be found (perhaps it was their date night). Armstrong's wife Lil Hardin took over the piano duties while the vocals were handled by the great Albert Hunter, billing herself as "Josephine Beatty." After waxing "Nobody Knows the Way I Feel Dis Mornin'" and "Early Every Morn," it was time to record a third and final tune: "Cake Walking Babies From Home."
The song had a lot of talented fingerprints on it as it was co-written by Clarence Williams, Harold Troy (known for writing the gospel tune "Jesus, I Love Calling Your Name" and Bessie Smith's "Red Mountain Blues") and Chris Smith, the man behind early jazz classics such as "Ballin' the Jack" and "Down in Honky Tonk Town." All three men had roots in vaudeville, explaining the almost minstrel-esque tone to the lyrics:
Here they come, look at 'em, demonstratin',
goin' some, ain't they syncopatin'?
Talk of the town, teasin' brown pickin' 'em up and layin' 'em down
Dancin' fools ain't they demonstratin'?
They're a class of their own
Now the only way to win is to cheat 'em,
you may tie 'em but you'll never beat 'em
Strut your stuff, they're the cake walkin' babies from home
Not exactly Gershwin. Fortunately, the changes were good for blowing and more importantly, the vocal would be so short, it would ensure plenty of time for just that. So without further ado, here is the epic first match between Armstrong and Bechet, December 12, 1924:
What a fight! There's no feeling-out process; everything's forecasted in the performances opening seconds when Armstrong and Bechet simultaneously play the first three notes of the song. Who's going to play lead? I guess they didn't discuss that in the dressing room! Throughout the entire first chorus, there's kind of a duel-lead going on; trombonist Irvis sticks to playing tailgate smears but Armstrong and Bechet are already battling for the listener's attention. Bechet cedes the lead over to Armstrong who, following Oliver's advice, pushes out the melody with plenty of swing. Bechet probably preferred it that way as it allows him to unleash a never-ending stream of ideas, exploring every region of his horn with complete command. Just listen to Bechet during the turnaround at the midway point of the first chorus...my goodness, he just keeps building onward and upward into the second half like an unstoppable force.
Like many records of the period, the band goes back to the verse after playing the first chorus. Armstrong continues rhythmically pumping out the melody while Bechet, who toys with playing a harmony part for a few bars, continues on his own way doing his own thing. Then Hunter and and Clarence Todd sing a pretty boring duet on the vocal, reeking of dated vaudeville. I mean, I love everything vaudeville but come on, this is dull...especially with the greatest vocalist in jazz history standing a few feet away (no, not Sidney "It's been a long time since I've heard my backbone crack" Bechet).
Fortunately, by my clock, there's still about a minute-a-half before the record ends so you know you're going to get your money's worth. Now if you're scoring at home, Bechet won the early rounds so it's up to Armstrong to get back in the fight. Ready to start swinging, Armstrong plays a funky lip trill to announce his arrival; the gloves are off.
Armstrong's now front and center, playing his variations on the melody. The aggression almost seems to catch Bechet by surprise for a second as he sounds lost in the mix but soon enough, he's running his arpeggios up and down his soprano. Bechet gets the first break and it's a pretty good one but ends a bit awkwardly. Armstrong sees his opening and turns on the heat during his ensemble playing before turning in an absolutely dazzling break. Score that round for Pops...
With the fight even heading into the final chorus, the momentum's on Armstrong's side. He holds a note to announce the start of the last go-around but Bechet reads his mind and holds the same note. At that point, Armstrong stumbles as one of his notes gets muffed a bit. Smelling blood, Bechet pours it on, his virtuosity overwhelming Armstrong for 14 bars leading to a break by...Charlie Irvis? What the hell is he still doing here? The slight breather allows Armstrong to gather himself for a second and he comes back with some hot playing but again, one or two of those notes don't sound fully baked. Going in for the kill, Bechet pulls out all the stops in his final break, basically snarling with his saxophone. Armstrong, needing a big finish, rallies strongly, entering with another growling trill before using rhythm over virtuosity to swing to the finish line. Both Armstrong and Bechet work over different two-note motives until the final bell sounds. It was an epic fight and though Pops had his moments (that break!), I award it to Bechet by split decision.
Everyone involved must have known they had created something special. Clarence Williams didn't take part in the session but he knew a good opportunity when he saw it. Thus, 17 days later, Williams led another date for OKeh and decided to record "Cake Walking Babies From Home" again, this time with Eva Taylor taking the vocal. As great as the Red Onion Jazz Babies version is, this one, to me, is the real one for the pantheon, which is why I've decided to commemorate its anniversary instead of doing that for the earlier recording.
Bechet must have known he got the better of the younger man in the first scrap. Armstrong would have to go back into training and find his eye of the tiger. Both men took tune-up fights before their next meeting: Armstrong accompanied blues singer Clara Smith on two numbers the day before while Bechet backed up Margaret Johnson (with Bubber Miley serving as a sparring partner) earlier the same day. Finally, it was time for the rematch. Grab a ringside seat. Ding, ding:
Fight of the century! Why, do you know that I've listened to that recording about six jillion times and that final chorus gives me the chills every time? Every time. Makes my heart pound. Real visceral stuff. I'm all for soggy ballads and splendid teamwork. But sometimes a good old-fashioned cutting contest/competition can really get the blood pumping.
For starters, the sound quality is much better on the OKeh, with Armstrong's horn a little more prominent in the mix. (and I'm using a really dynamite-sounding reissue on the Pristine Audio label, which could be purchased by clicking here). This time, Bechet cedes the lead to Armstrong, not sharing the opening three notes with him. Bechet's still a force in the opening ensemble, but he's doesn't quite indulge in the perpetual motion of the first recording. Armstrong still sticks mostly to lead but he changes it up a little more than he did before, generating a little more heat with his playing. A bit cautious, but I score the opening round for Armstrong.
Then Eva Taylor steps up to demonstrate how to really deliver a vaudeville vocal; gotta love it! Once again, Armstrong enters with a little lip trill, but this one is much tamer than the one from 1924. By now, Bechet is unleashing the combinations, growling through another break and more or less swarming Armstrong in the ensembles. This was Armstrong's time to shine previously but now Bechet mops the floor with him, leading to one of my all-time favorite extended Bechet breaks. The man's positively on fire and seemingly cruising his way towards another points victory.
And it's at that point where Pops says, "ENOUGH!" Armstrong respected his elders, as already mentioned, refusing to play over King Oliver and such. But dammit, he's the cornet player and going to lead the damn ensemble! He finishes the rest of the chorus soberly before unleashing another trill, probably the angriest note of his entire career. Armstrong then reaches way back and gives us the opportunity to hear what Joe Olive must have sounded like when he was in his prime. He alternates two notes in the most swinging, rhythmic way, leaning on the first and third beats, creating a bit of phrasing that he would employ elsewhere in his career, both vocally and instrumentally. However, in the 1950s, Armstrong gave two interviews where he told a story about playing in a baseball game in New Orleans when a funeral passed. Oliver was leading a brass band in playing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" and he swung the second chorus so hard, all the kids dropped everything and began second lining with the parade. And in both interviews, Armstrong sang what Oliver played: it's the exact phrasing as his "Cake Walking Babies" lead in the final rideout chorus. Here's a ten-second excerpt of this from a 1956 Voice of America interview:
Armstrong might have gotten the idea from Oliver but the heat, the power, the fire, the swing, that's the Louis Armstrong that changed the world. Armstrong comes on so hot, Bechet completely disappears from the ensemble. I mean completely. The man's out on his feet! When he returns a few seconds later, he just hits a few single harmony notes, one of them an awkward choice; it's as if his equilibrium was completely thrown off by Pops's furious playing.
Smelling blood, Armstrong takes an absolutely ridiculous break...and I mean that in the best way possible. It's a simple motive, alternated between the upper and lower registers of his cornet but it's mind-boggling to fathom how a) his mind came up with it and b) how he managed to execute it so perfectly. Well, that break clearly scored a knockdown but Bechet, a man of great dignity, gets up to finish the fight. In the next eight bars of ensemble playing, Bechet manages to toss out a few jabs from instinct but holy mother of God is Pops tearing it up on his horn. To drive the point home one last time, Armstrong takes a four-bar break that has to rank as one of the most mind-blowing moments of his career. The rhythmic tension of the first part of it is enough to make the listener queasy; I mean, what time zone is this man playing in? (And I don't mean time as in a clock.) He straightens out of it with some swinging syncopation, follows it with a rip up to the upper register and takes it out with some lowdown blue notes. Genius, genius, genius.
Bechet's contribution to final bars is nil, though he wakes up long enough to trade a couple of blows at the final bell, duetting with Armstrong on the last phrase of the performance. It was still an amazing, close, hard-fought battle and Bechet looked like he was taking charge there for a moment after the vocal but man oh man, Pops's final lead almost blew him out of the studio. Winner and new champion...
Fortunately, Bechet didn't pack up his soprano and leave town as the two men created another magical tune that day with "Pickin' On My Baby." But that's the subject for another time, another day. And also, it wasn't the end of the Armstrong-Bechet rivalry, which still had two more acts, both of which I'm planning on discussing this month so stay tuned. But for now, just bask in the heat and fury generated in those two viciously swinging, timeless, priceless, joyous, epic versions of "Cake Walking Babies From Home."