Monday, January 4, 2010

Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded February 13, 1945
Track Time 4:32
Written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer
Recorded live at the New Zanzibar in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Jesse Brown, Thomas Grider, ANdrew "Fatso" Ford, Ludwig JOrdan, trumpet; Russell "Big Chief" Moore, Norman Powe, Adam Martin, Larry Anderson, trombone; John Brown, Joe Evans, alto saxophone; Teddy McRae, tenor saxophone, conductor; Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, tenor saxophone; Ernest Thompson, baritone saxophone; Ed Swanston, piano; Elmer Warner, guitar; Alfred Moore, bass; James "Coatsville" Harris, drums
Originally released on AFRS "One Night Stand" Program #540
Currently available on CD: Available on a homemade disc on the "Crabapple Sound" label
Available on Itunes? Yes, on some cheapie compilations

Last week, during a mention of the never-ending "Rockin' Chair" choking-vs.joking debate (this is making health care woes look like a game of marbles), I mentioned that Louis sang "choking" as an aside during a 1945 radio broadcast of "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive." Tonight, while looking for an appropriate song to start off the new year with, I selected this tune since I'm sure it hasn't been previously heard by many of my readers. Thus, a blog was born...

This sermonette was penned by the formidable team of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. Mercer's Capitol recording of it in late 1944 became a bona fide hit in January 1945. Unfortunately for our hero, Pops was going through a bit of a dry spell in the recording studio (zero tunes in 1943 because of the recording ban, three tunes that were all rejected in 1944 and only two for the entire year of 1945). Thus, Armstrong never made a studio recording of "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," but he almost immediately began performing an arrangement of it as soon as the song looked like it had the makings of a hit. (Louis covering pop tunes and hit records in the 1940s shouldn't be a surprise since he did the same thing in the 1930s and late 20s but thick-headed people still like to cry out "he went commercial" when needing an excuse to dismiss his later years.)

Two Armstrong versions survive of this tune, both in listenable, though not exactly ideal sound. The first comes from the New Zanzibar in New York City on February 13, 1945. By this point, Armstrong's big band was filled with youngsters including Joe Evans (who wrote about his experiences with Armstrong in his autobiography Follow Your Heart), pianist Ed Swanston and the legendary Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis on tenor. Jaws took a few short solos during the Zanzibar gig but he only stayed with Armstrong for four or five months and as far as I can tell, never talked publicly about his experiences with the group.

A couple of weeks earlier, George T. Simon blasted Armstrong's band in a review of broadcasts from the Zanzibar engagement, writing, "I’ve heard several of [the broadcasts] and never in my life have I heard anything that does anyone a greater injustice. The choice of tunes, many of the arrangements, the pacing of the shows, and, in many instances, the band behind him are positively abominable. Nothing could possibly do more harm to such a great artist. It’s absolutely murderous. If Louis can’t be presented to the radio public in a better light that that, he shouldn’t be presented at all. I sincerely hope that by the time this gets into print somebody will have give this subject some thought and rectified the ridiculous conditions, or else that Louis will be spared future embarrassment and the rest of his broadcasts be cancelled."

As should be known now, I'm usually the first to defend Armstrong against any kind of criticism, but in this case, I can't disagree too much. By the mid-40s, Armstrong's musical director Ted McRae must have figured he had to follow brassy outfits like Stan Kenton's if he wanted to keep Louis musically hip. Unfortunately, this just led to a bunch of loud, unswinging, sloppily played pieces that makes one yearn for the days of Luis Russell's backing of just a few years earlier. As Joe Muranyi once pointed out to me, the mid-40s arrangements were made as an attempt to keep Louis up-to-date but when you listen to them today, it's the arrangements that are dated and Louis that is just as timeless as ever.

With that out of the way, here's the audio to "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" from the Zanzibar:


You can hear the ponderous playing of the group during the opening melody chorus but Louis steals it with his short trumpet break (what a gliss he ends it with!). But Louis really comes alive during the vocal, which he opens by adopting his "Reverend Satch" persona. As Terry Teachout pointed out in his recent Armstrong biography, this tune's message seems to embody Armstrong's outlook on life more than anything else and Pops really conveys the message (did you catch the "choking" during the bridge?).

Armstrong brings on "Brother McRae" for a slightly bombastic tenor solo (if I wanted bombast, I would have preferred Lockjaw's variety). Pops swoops in for the bridge and the final A section and sounds in peak form, getting downright funky with his use of blue notes. But it's the vocal reprise that really gets me every time. Armstrong really preaches, talk-singing in such a righteous way, it's impossible to not get swept up in the atmosphere. Armstrong then picks up his horn and takes it out with an extended coda backed by James "Coatsville" Harris's drums. He has a quick bit of shakiness towards the end but he makes it. A righteous good time.

By September 1945, Armstrong's former musical director Joe Garland was back to direct the band, whipping the group into better shape than McRae did (Armstrong always praised Garland for having no tolerance for wrong notes). The arrangement is still a little ponderous, trying too much to be like Sy Oliver's "Yes Indeed" without any of the swing. Otherwise, Armstrong's playing is more poised and the mock-sermon preaching stuff still kills:



Last week, a version popped up on YouTube from the Zanzibar on New Year's Eve 1945. According to Jos Willems's "All of Me" discography, it's not certain whether or not this is the same version we just heard from September 1945 with some added applause and cheers added in the beginning. What is certain is that the sound quality of this version is far superior to the above so dig it:

Few broadcasts survive of Armstrong in 1946 so it's not known how long this tune stayed in the Armstrong book but I'm still glad to have this 1945 versions to enjoy. Any time "Reverend Satchmo" showed up, a good time was guaranteed. And besides, I think the song makes a perfect New Year's resolution, right? Happy 2010!

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this!

I have a Moon Records CD titeled RADIO DAYS with the second clip from this blog but dated August 1945, Los Angeles AFRS "Jubilee" Program Nr. 146.

And fortunately this newly unearthed youtube clip is a different version, so we have at least three radio performances of the song !

Uwe (Germany)

Anonymous said...

I have a Radiola LP which features the youtube version.

By the way, don't be so hard on the mid-40s big band style. This orch sounds pretty close to what Lucky Millander, Count Basie, and Cab Calloway were putting out at the time. (Sorry, this is more R&B than Stan Kenton Progressive Jazz) It's not always the best context for Louis (as the RCA recordings of this band in 46-47 show), but I have to say I like the third version sax solo, as well as the opening riff.