Friday, February 5, 2010

Blue Turning Grey Over You - 1955

Louis Armstrong And His All Stars
Recorded April 27, 1955
Track Time 4:57
Written by Fats Waller and Andy Razaf
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Trummy Young, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Billy Kyle, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Barrett Deems, drums
Originally released on Columbia CL 708
Currently available on CD: Satch Plays Fats
Available on Itunes? Yes

Welcome back to part two of this week's celebration of Louis Armstrong's recordings of "Blue Turning Grey Over You." Earlier this week, I examined Armstrong's 1930 OKeh recording of this magnificent Fats Waller-Andy Razaf composition, recorded 80 years ago this past Monday. It's a great record, but it's somewhat characterized by a nervous energy in Armstrong's performance; his playing, muted and open, and his singing have an urgent quality on the original, consistently threatening to erupt in a double-timed run of some sort, making good on that threat numerous times over the course of the record.

25 years later, Armstrong remade "Blue Turning Grey Over You" for the Columbia album Satch Plays Fats. It's doubtful he had performed it in the intervening years but it didn't matter. What mattered was that he had matured tremendously in his approach to his music. As time went on, his playing grew less exhibitionistic and began to value melody over running up and down his horn. He even began singing clearer. Critics frowned, wanting Armstrong to return to the dazzling virtuosity of his 1920s recordings. But while they were busy complaining, Armstrong went on making some of his greatest recordings in the 1940s, 1950s and into the 1960s. Without a doubt, the 1955 "Blue Turning Grey Over You" is one of the greatest recordings Armstrong made in any period.

Armstrong's producer at Columbia, George Avakian, hit a home run the previous year with his idea of matching Armstrong and his All Stars with the music of W.C. Handy. Eager to do it again, Avakian hit upon the idea of having Armstrong do an album of Fats Waller songs. I think the resulting album is another classic but George still has a few regrets. First, Armstrong didn't exactly revere Fats as he did Handy; as Avakian told me, Fats was more of an old "drinking buddy" to him. Second, Avakian wanted Louis to try some of Fats's lesser known compositions--"Willow Tree," for one, as well as "I Hate to Leave You Now," which Louis recorded for Victor in 1932. However, the All Stars were in the middle of such a grueling tour of one-nighters, they didn't have any time to rehearse anything new. Thus, Avakian had to stick to some of Fats's most tried and true tunes, many Armstrong and his group could have played in their sleep. The weary All Stars arrived in Columbia's studios in April 1955 and over the course of three sessions, managed to churn out nine songs, a relatively low number (the Handy album had 11 cuts).

But even George knows these are minor quibbles; Armstrong and his group (minus Barney Bigard, who was going through a prolonged period of playing with zero feeling) nailed the material and the resulting album was a big seller for Columbia. George told me that he was just proud to have done the album for two tracks alone: "Black and Blue" and "Blue Turning Grey Over You."

He has every right to be proud of "Blue Turning Grey Over You." Unlike the original, which was on the more medium side of the tempo scale, the song was slowed down dramatically for the 1955 reading. And it's Armstrong's show from start to finish: one chorus muted, a beautiful vocal and a dramatic open horn chorus at the end. It's one of the best testaments to Armstrong's work in his later years. Yes, the later Louis might not have been able to execute the daring runs and breaks the younger Armstrong did with ease; but the younger man could not interpret a ballad with as much maturity and feeling and soul as the elder. Listen for yourself...and you might want to have a box of tissues nearby:

Absolutely exquisite music. It's the kind of recording where I kind of feel that it's useless to go on and on for a thousand words because the music speaks for itself. So here's a few highlights that move me every time:

*Armstrong's opening pickup; four simple notes that perfectly set the tempo and definite slow swing

*The entire opening chorus, where Armstrong simply gives a master's class in how to play a melody. He keeps it front and center, yet rephrases it just enough to make it his own, filling in all the cracks and turnarounds with all sorts of vocal-like improvisations (I love the repeated G's at the end of the first eight bars and again at the bridge)

*The simple, understated backing by the All Stars: lovely harmonies by Young and Bigard, suitable fills by Kyle, throbbing bass by Shaw and tasteful brushwork from Deems

*That vocal! In 1930, Armstrong tried really hard to sound serious, a la "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," but his voice then couldn't convey the warmth of the gravel pit of later years. Every scat break is a thing of perfection (some are lifted verbatim from the original record). But just listen to the actual singing; the way he sings the word "found" in the last eight bars gives me chills. And you gotta love the New Orleans accent turning it into "Blue Toining Grey Over You"!

*Through the magic of editing, Armstrong's trumpet immediately follows the vocals, playing the same pickup to announce to any and all listeners that something special is about to take place. And it does.

*Listen to Armstrong's rhythms, especially on the double-timed runs. The urgency of the 1930 version isn't there, but he's in greater command of his instrument (remember when he kind of fluffed that one high note on the OKeh) and from a rhythmic standpoint, he's almost more free-floating than ever before in 1955. I wrote the other day about how the younger Armstrong tended to approach slower tempos with more fleet-fingered playing. I should have added the same as sometimes true of the later Armstrong: listen to "That's For Me" from 1950, "You Can Depend On Me" from 1951 and this track for some great examples.

*That bridge! With the All Stars turning up the heat in their rhythmically accented backing, Armstrong responds by completely rhapsodizing with his improvisation, leading into a stunning break, started with a gliss to a high B before another string of G's that shake me to my core.

*Again, listen to that ridiculous spiraling downward run in the last eight bars, the rhythmic flow to it and how he stops on a time and shoots to a surprising higher C, giving a little shake to wring out every last bit of emotion.

*I mentioned last time that I didn't like the ending of the 1930 recording but this one is perfect. It's standard Armstrong, building up to a long, held high C, shook for all its glory. Put it in the time capsule...

If you really feel like starting an argument, you can say, "But wait, Rick, the original was one solid take while Armstrong's 1950s' Columbia recordings featured songs and solos pieced together from various takes by George Avakian...that shouldn't count!" True enough, the pioneering Avakian did do a lot of editing and splicing on his albums but I say so what? All of his artists were thankful for it and the end results George got more than speak for themselves.

Though the kindness of George and David Ostwald, I was able to listen to the complete session reels for Satch Plays Fats during the preparation for my upcoming book, including about 25 minutes of takes of "Blue Turning Grey Over You." I can attest that Armstrong played brilliantly throughout all the takes and especially throughout all the sessions; George must have had a helluva time editing it all together because Armstrong gave him a lot of gold to choose from (not so with Bigard; it's a miracle Avakian was able to make him sound like a coherent musician after hearing some of his work on the tapes).

After running through the arrangement, the band still didn't have things down cold when Avakian began rolling the tapes for takes 1 and 2, each of which breaks down (Louis can be heard practicing his first scat break during one of the breaks; it's one he originally sang on the 1930 version so I wonder if he had listened to it to keep it fresh). Finally, on take 3, everything clicked and the band was well on its way to making a perfect take when it all fell apart during the final bridge as the band couldn't exactly get the rhythms straight on how they wanted to back Armstrong. Armstrong asked, "Is the rest all right?" causing Avakian to respond in awe, "Oh, the rest is beautiful!"

George knew they had something special so capitalizing on it, he called for another take to begin from Armstrong's concluding solo. From the sixth bar through the finish, Armstrong played what appeared on the final record (you can barely hear a splice at the 3:34 mark on the master). Thus, that final masterpiece of a solo is almost entirely one take so I don't want to hear anything about it being the work of an editor. Got it?

Happy, George still called a few more takes to have some vocals and opening choruses to choose from. Louis, ever the professional, knows when things aren't right; he calls off one take when his voice doesn't quite make a high note during a scat break and he calls off the fourth full take when the band takes too long to enter after one of the breaks. George finally got a perfect vocal on take 5 and another damn good trumpet solo, to boot (more on that in a minute). Arvell Shaw complained of a "goof" at the end of the take and Armstrong brought up something else that didn't go quite right but George brushed it off, saying that there was plenty to splice from the other takes.

So yes, the opening solo is from one take, and the vocal is from take five and the solo is almost entirely the insert take after the third attempt...again, who cares? The final result more than speaks for itself. It's an absolute masterpiece, one that we could not have enjoyed if George Avakian hadn't recorded and edited it...and if Louis Armstrong and his All Stars didn't play it with such feeling!

In 2000, Sony finally reissued Satch Plays Fats but idiotically didn't include a set of new liner notes Avakian wrote for the occasion. They also could have made it a deluxe box set with many of the full alternate takes that survive. Unfortunately, in Sony's eyes, the name Louis Armstrong doesn't mean the same thing as the name Miles Davis and that's a crying shame. Sony did release four "edited alternate takes" on the album but didn't make any attempt to explain what they are. They included one of "Blue Turning Grey Over You" and I personally think it's another masterpiece, another example of how much greatness poured out of Armstrong on this session.

Being an "edited alternate take" means just what it says: this take is all of take three until it broke down at the final bridge. From the bridge on, it uses Armstrong's concluding solo from the fifth and final take. Armstrong's scat break is a "gassuh" (I love that "Yeah, man!") and if you can stand it, there's even more dramatic passion from the trumpet. Here's the "edited alternate":

See what I mean? I could only imagine how tough it was for George Avakian to make his final editing choices. But George, God bless him--he'll be 91 next month--made the right choices so let's be thankful that. And let's be thankful to Fats Waller and Andy Razaf for writing such a beautiful song. And of course, thanks to Pops and the All Stars, who in the face of almost unyielding criticism in the 1950s and 1960s, continued to make such timeless, glorious music as the performances shared today. I hope you were as moved by them as I. Have a wonderful weekend and if you're one of my fellow east coasters who is going to be shoveling snow for the next two or three days, just blast "Blue Turning Grey Over You" out of some loudspeakers...there's enough warmth in that 1955 recording to melt all the snow in Alaska!


alan-pat said...

"It's doubtful he had performed it in the intervening years but it didn't matter." Isn't this on the Symphony Hall Concert or some other late forties-early fifties live recording? Seems like I learned off something like that.

Lemonlymelon said...

It really is incredible how much emotion he could put into his singing and playing. And he makes it sound natural and easy. I personally don't know of anyone else who could pull it off like he did. Past or present.