Tuesday, February 2, 2010

80 Years of "Blue Turning Grey Over You"

Louis Armstrong And His Orchestra
Recorded February 1, 1930
Track Time 3:31
Written by Fats Waller and Andy Razaf
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Otis Johnson, Henry “Red” Allen, trumpets; J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; William Thornton Blue, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone, clarinet; Teddy Hill, tenor saxophone, clarinet; Luis Russell, piano, vibes; Will Johnson, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Originally released on Okeh 41375
Currently available on CD: Volume four of the JSP Hot Five and Hot Seven series has it, as does volume six of Columbia’s old Armstrong series (St. Louis Blues).
Available on Itunes? Yes

80 years ago this week, Louis Armstrong recorded his first version of "Blue Turning Grey Over You" for OKeh records with Luis Russell's Orchestra. If you've been a regular visitor of my blog for the past couple of months, you've waded through a few of these celebrations. Armstrong and Russell shared four recording dates between December 10, 1929 and February 1, 1930 producing seven wonderful sides (and a slew of alternate takes).

"Blue Turning Grey Over You" was their last collaboration until Armstrong officially began fronting Russell's group full-time in 1935. The song was written by the terrific team of Fats Waller and Andy Razaf, whose "Ain't Misbehavin'" really put Armstrong on the map in the summer of 1929. Armstrong and Waller were good buddies and Pops always seemed to thrive on Fats's compositions. "Blue Turning Grey Over You" is no exception.

"Blue Turning Grey" is one of those compositions that can be treated as either a soggy ballad or a hot swinger. Recordings made at the time of its publishing illustrate this point. If you'd like to hear Lee Morse give it a sentimental treatment, click here. And if you like hot dance band performances, look no further than this 1930 recording by British bandleader Bert Ambrose and his Orchestra:

When Fats finally got around to recording it in 1936, he treated it as an extended instrumental romp. I know this is kind of getting away from the subject, but I also know there are a lot of Fats Waller nuts out there, so here's Fats's version:



It's all great stuff. But no one quite owned the tune like Pops. Armstrong saw the wistfulness of the lyrics and immediately braced the qualities that made this song such a lovely ballad. With mute firmly in the bell of his Selmer trumpet, this is how "Blue Turning Grey Over You" turned out (of course, you might already know how it turned out since I used it to discuss Paul Barbarin's drumming on my "Song of the Islands" post...can't hurt to hear it again!):


The Russell band takes the intro, which is very heavy and serious (and probably could have used another run-through), until Pops's light muted beeps turn up the swing quotient. Armstrong starts off with the melody, but almost immediately he's off to his variations, bubbling over with double-time brio during the first turnaround.

At this stage in his career, Armstrong's operatic tendencies were starting to come into view, especially on uptempo songs. But on slower pieces (not necessarily ballads), he tended to state the melodies muted, filling in the gaps with as many double-timed phrases as possible (see "All of Me," "Little Joe," "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" and others). As time went on, this aspect of his style seemed to disappear, though he still liked to play certain melodies with a straight mute.

Armstrong continues going for broke thoughout his first chorus, not quite making a daring rip into the upper register at the end of the bridge. Armstrong's vocal follows a similar pattern; he's a little more respectful of the melody but he can't resist using the turnarounds for scat escapades. His last reading of the titular phrase is especially declamatory.

J.C. Higginbotham plays a humorous break setting up a slightly boozy 16-bars. Armstrong, unmuted, launches himself into the bridge with a lightening-fast run and he continues bubbling during the bridge, not so much by playing strings of notes, but by playing with an urgency that suggests a mountain about to erupt. He finally comes across two pitches he likes and dramatically riffs on them, calling everyone home for the final eight bars. A few years later, the record might have ended with a slow candeza, but at 3:31, it was already pushing the limits of a 78 rpm record so Pops just goes out with the band on a little arranged passage.

The original "Blue Turning Grey Over You" has some wonderful moments and it's clearly a record worth celebrating. However, I can never get too enthused about for one reason: Armstrong's 1955 remake cuts it to ribbons. Don't believe me? Come back in a few days for part two at this look at Louis Armstrong's history with "Blue Turning Grey Over You"!

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