Saturday, March 27, 2010

St. James Infirmary - November 14, 1967 - This'll Blow Your Mind...

In December 2008, I wrote a ridiculously long blog on Louis's history with the tune "St. James Infirmary" (which you can access by clicking here). It was almost immediately picked up by Robert W. Harwood and Robert Walker, "St. James Infirmary" experts who have written and blogged extensively on the subject (check my links for "NO Notes" and "I Went Down To St. James Infirmary"). And just last week, it was mentioned again on the excellent Villes Ville blog (again, check my links, though that particular entry seems to have disappeared). To me, it's just more proof that "St. James Infirmary" continues to be an exceptionally popular, intriguing song with jazz fans, blues fans and many plain old music fans in general.

Well, when I spilled thousands of words on the subject back then, i thought that was it. Well, I was wrong...gladly wrong. My good friend from Sweden Peter Winberg sent me the audio of a concert Armstrong and his All Stars gave in Miami in November 1967. Last week, I shared the link to a video of Louis performing "Indiana" in London in July 1968 and I talked a bit about this phase in Louis's career. Before sharing the November version, I'll add just a bit more perspective.

As I mentioned last week, Louis was getting really run-down in 1966 and 1967. He took more days off than ever before but still continued going on strings of one-nighters that must have really taxed him; it's no coincidence that pianist Billy Kyle died in 1966 and clarinetist Buster Bailey died in 1967. But Pops kept going until pneumonia felled him in the spring of 1967, forcing him to take a few months off. When he emerged, he was in feisty form, playing great solos on "Hello, Dolly" and "Mame" on "The Tonight Show" and really tearing it up on a privately recorded set from Ravinia Park, Illinois. At Ravinia, Louis played a version of "St. James Infirmary" that really blew me away. Though it survives in rough sound quality, I still shared it in my earlier post on the subject.

However, the good times were short-lived. A broadcast from Atlantic City in mid-July finds Armstrong's chops sounding pretty beaten up. Soon after, he headed to Europe, where shows survive from Copenhagen and Juan-Les-Pins, France on three consecutive days. The Copenhagen show is something of a low point as Louis fights bravely to overcome tired chops. He sounded better in France, but still had some shaky moments. On all three nights, he played "St. James Infirmary," but now he let his chops determine how much he was to blow on it: In Copenhagen, he stuck to one chorus of melody in the front, sounding fine and quitting while ahead, ending with his vocal. In France, he eliminated the trumpet playing altogether and just stuck to singing for a 107-second performance.

Thus, you couldn't blame me for writing back in 2008 about the somewhat sad "end" of Louis's association with "St. James Infirmary." Thank God--and Peter Winberg--I've been proven wrong! After coming back from Europe, Louis went back on the road in August 1967 but soon fell ill and had to cancel a string of engagements again in September 1967. But once back on the road, Louis was completely rejuvenated. Road manager Ira Mangel remarked that Louis sounded like he dropped 20 years. Clarinetist Joe Muranyi excitedly wrote postcards to Jack Bradley, giddily exclaiming, "I never expected to hear him play like this again!"

Louis's rejuvenation is more than realized in the surviving concert from Miami, Florida that Peter Winberg sent to me late last year. It's not exactly the Louis of 1955; he takes many more breaks, pacing himself, letting his All Stars double up on his features. But when he out! He improvises completely new solos on "Cabaret" and "Ole Miss" (ingeniously quoting "Moon Over Miami" on the latter). But the main event is "St. James Infirmary," the fourth song of the evening, performed right after "What a Wonderful World," which he just recorded three months earlier. The days of the 107-second vocal-only performances are gone; Louis blows two choruses up front, sings three, then plays two at the finish that will give you the chills. I played it for Michael Cogswell on a trip back from Jack Bradley's house and he was simply stunned. David Ostwald heard it and almost drove his car off the road. This is DEEP stuff.

Before sharing the audio, one note: Louis fluffs the very first note he plays. It's ugly and it serves as a reminder of his diminishing command but it passes in a second and doesn't detract from anything that follows. So enough from me. Live from Miami, in the twilight of his career, here's Louis Armstrong doing "St. James Infirmary":

Wow. Kills me every time. It's all about the art of storytelling. His first run-through of the melody is so sober but when the variations follow, his intensity is stunning. Never mind his fantastic vocal; the two trumpet choruses at the end stand up with the best of his 1960s work, especially his post-1965 output. Rhythmically, he's damned slippery for so late in the game. His blue notes go right through the soul, especially in the last chorus as he holds and shakes the guts out of them. When he digs out the triplets, in a bit of a "12th Street Rag" bag, and soon turns them inside out, I can only shake my head. Top it off with a perfectly poised closing cadenza with a build to a final high note....magical stuff.

Unfortunately, as Joe Muranyi told me, "St. James," "Cabaret" and "The Faithful Hussar," all of which were performed in Miami, soon disappeared. According to Joe, Louis was still coming back from his illnesses and was playing these numbers to prove that he could still do them. But by 1968, the more demanding numbers were weaned out. Though, as demonstrated in my "Indiana" blog of last week, he could still play glorious horn in that year, whether on live versions of "Indiana" and "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" or in the recording studio with gems like the opening cadenza on "I Will Wait for You" and the heartfelt solo on "When You Wish Upon a Star." Pops still proved a lot every time he put that damned trumpet to his lips in those final years.

That's all for now. I'll leave this "St. James" brewing until the weekend. Thanks to Peter for making it available to me and thanks to all of you whom I know will dig it as much as I did.

Weekend Video: Louis on What's My Line

Louis Armstrong's 1964 appearance as the mystery guest on the popular game show "What's My Line" has been a fairly celebrated moment in the trumpeter's television career. After faking out the panel successfully for a while by disguising his voice, Louis was eventually outed and asked to sing a chorus of "Hello, Dolly" by panelist Arlene Francis. The tune was still climbing the charts and Pops delightfully offered an impromptu a capella chorus (something that cost Joe Glaser a pretty good piece of change if you've read Terry Teachout's Armstrong biography). It's a wonderful clip and has been used in Gary Giddins's "Satchmo" documentary among other places.

Alas, that clip is no longer on YouTube. However, many people might not know that Louis appeared on the show a decade earlier (literally almost to the day: March 14, 1954 and March 22, 1964). Loyal reader David Parkinson wrote in to inform me that this clip recently appeared on YouTube and believe me, it's a gassuh! Armstrong's hilarious attempts to disguise his voice aren't too successful but it's in the little interview with host John Daly where the real gold appears. Talking about Louis's failed attempts to get his voice "higher," Daly says"I wish you could have gotten higher..." I won't spoil Louis's response....enjoy!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

78,834 Thank You's!

Hello all. I've been running this here blog since July 2007, using Blogger as my host. It was simple and easy to start and maintain but after time, I realized that Blogger offered me zero perks. No stat counter, no way to check Google searches, no automatic links to Facebook and such. Thus, after almost two full years in the dark, I came to my senses and decided to install a hidden stat counter on March 23, 2009. I seriously thought maybe a had a hundred readers a day and for that, I'd be thankful.

Well, it turned out I had about 200 which was really exciting. Then in the summer, it hovered around 250 before crossing the 300 barrier in September. Once Terry Teachout's Armstrong bio came out, it gave me a little shove past the 400 mark (thanks Terry!). And today, 365 days later, I'm weighing in with 78,834 hits in one year.

Now I know a lot of major websites probably get that in an hour, but I don't care. I'm very proud that such an obsessed, ridiculously wordy, homemade, sometimes psychotic specialist blog can still earn respectable hits. Of course, I take none of the credit; for me, the heartening thing is seeing that Pops still matters and there's still enough interest and love for him to keep people coming back here for more rantings and ravings. That's why I started this blog and I'm glad the effort has been worth it.

Of course, I'm receiving more hits than ever at a time when my ridiculously busy life has led me to post on an erratic basis. But even then, thanks for sticking with me! I don't have time for anything new and exciting to write about today, but I will share Louis's 1935 Decca record of "Thanks a Million" to express my gratitude.

Long live Pops!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Weekend Video: Indiana - 1968

When YouTube first started growing in popularity, the number of rare Armstrong gems that popped that was positively mind-blowing. But eventually, it seemed like all the collectors emptied their Armstrong collections and for the longest time, every time I checked for Louis videos, I was bombarded with multiple offerings of teenagers trying to sing "What a Wonderful World." But every so often, something slips through the cracks, such as the 1970 video of Louis doing "Hello, Dolly" with Ray Charles and Duke Ellington I posted a couple of weeks ago.

Well, about a week ago, someone with the name "ZA96661" began posting stuff from two television shows Louis and the All Stars shot for the BBC on July 2, 1968. A few years ago, the BBC broadcast the second show, one featuring Louis wearing a blue suit jacket. That soon started exchanging hands in collectors circles, something I welcomed because it had some great moments such as Louis's playing on "Ole Miss" and touching singing on "You'll Never Walk Alone."

But the first show has been harder to find. This show featured Louis wearing a black suit and doing material like "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" and "Rockin' Chair," material that was eventually released on the Brunswick album "Greatest Hits Live," but I've never seen the footage of these performances. However, "What a Wonderful World" from the first show did manage to slip onto YouTube three years ago...and today, has amassed 21,659,327 views. Not bad. But so far, that's been it from the BBC material.

Thus, you can imagine my excitement when "Indiana" popped up from the first show. Could more of this footage be out there? Hopefully it will be released one day because for such late-in-the-game material, Louis is in very good form. He was actually going through a pretty good stretch after a rocky 1967, which was marred by bouts of ill health that forced him to cancel gigs, erratic studio recordings and the death of one sideman, Buster Bailey.

But from the end of 1967 through September 1968, everything was singing. The All Stars continued their ridiculous touring--including a stay in Mexico--and Pops sounded great on his album of Disney songs. The personnel of the group--Tyree Glenn on trombone, Joe Muranyi on clarinet, Marty Napoleon on piano, Buddy Catlett on bass, Danny Barcelona on drums and Jewel Brown on vocals--remained solid, too.

In June, Pops headed to England for a two-week stay at the Batley Variety Club in Yorkshire. He had lost a bunch of weight, which alarmed the press, but generally he received good reviews and always played in front of a packed house. Before heading back to the states, the BBC filmed the All Stars for two hours. Louis was very proud of the aforementioned Brunswick album that was released from these performances--he was even credited with being the disc's "producer"!

Anyway, if you've been with me for any period of time, you probably know about my slight obsession with "Indiana." If you don't, click here and tell your loved ones you'll return in about a week. In that post, I charted Louis's fine-tuning of his solo chorus, something critics usually bashed him for but it was something he worked hard at to perfect. However, by 1966, Louis's chops were finally starting to desert him. Pops had to pace himself more carefully than ever, eliminating many challenging pieces like "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "Basin Street Blues." And solos he once worked so hard to master on songs like "Indiana" and "Muskrat Ramble" were eliminated altogether, which must have been very deflating. Thus, this 1968 version does not have a solo.

Having said that, Pops still plays two strong choruses up front, a rousing rideout (listen to the quote from "Sidewalks of New York") and still hits the high note at the end. In between, the All Stars solo and you can hear Pops keeping his chops warm by blowing random phrases behind Muranyi and Glenn's efforts. Joe once told me that it used to scare the hell out of him when Pops would do it unexpectedly but Armstrong knew what his chops needed and if they needed to produce three or four notes every minute or so to stay warm, so be it. This is a genius of a man in his twilight, rapidly losing his tools, but making the most of what was left. I find his playing positively triumphant.

Alas, this period of stability was not to last. In September, Armstrong was felled due to kidney and liver ailments and would not perform again with the All Stars for two full years. And even then, it wasn't meant to last; two engagements in Las Vegas and a final run at the Waldorf-Astoria were all that was left in this great road warrior.

But don't weep for old Pops. Listen to this version of "Indiana" and rejoice in his ability to still get across his message. Because embedding has been disabled, clickhere to go to the video and let me know what you think. Have a great weekend and if it's as warm by you as it is by me, enjoy the weather!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Irish Black Bottom

Recorded November 27, 1926
Track Time 2:37
Written by Percy Venable
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Henry "Hy" Clark, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet, alto saxophone; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8447
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

Happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone! I don't know why it took me so long to celebrate this holiday on this blog but I've finally come to my senses (I guess it shows my heritage that I've already done a Columbus Day post, but nothing for St. Patty's!). It's not a hard topic by any means since Louis recorded a perfect song for the occasion: "Irish Black Bottom," a fun Hot Five record from 1926. Raise a beer, slice some corned beef and enjoy!

Isn't that a lot of fun? No, it's not earth-shaking art as "Potato Head Blues" or "West End Blues" but who cares? "Irish Black Bottom" comes from a series of Hot Fives Louis made in 1926 that most stoic historians tend to frown on or, in the case of some like Gunther Schuller, attempt to ignore completely. Why? Because they get in the way of the myth of the young Louis being a serious artist, not some commercial clown.

But all it takes is one listen to the complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens to see that Louis was doing plenty of clowning during his "artist" days. On February 26, 1926, Armstrong's horn changed the world with his solo on "Cornet Chop Suey" and his stirring lead playing on songs like "Oriental Strut" and "Muskrat Ramble." But his voice also had equal impact that day as he rasped out the blues on "Georgia Grind" and popularized scat singing with "Heebie Jeebies." Naturally, the records all sold well with "Heebie Jeebies" causing a sensation.

OKeh was thrilled and corralled Armstrong into their studios for a string of sessions in June and another in late November. And these are the sessions that make the "serioius" Armstrong fans sweat: there's Louis shouting about doing the "mess around" or getting off eye-rolling lyrics on "Dropping Shucks." There's Louis playing a slide whistle on "Who'sit." There's Louis inviting vaudeville entertainers--friends of his--to the studio, people like Butterbeans and Susie, Clarence Babcock and Mae Alix. Here's Louis performing material he did nightly at the Sunset Cafe, songs written by that club's choreography Percy Venable. THIS is the Louis Armstrong of the 20s, not some frowning artist who forced to "go commercial" in later years.

And oh yeah, he still sounds like a genius on all of these cuts, taking a dramatic solo on "Skid-Dat-De-Dat" and one for the pantheon on "Big Butter and Egg Man." The critics particuarly adore that latter solo, with good reason, but they don't seem to want to discuss Mae Alix's booming vocal--she was a favorite of Louis's--or Louis's own Al Jolson-tinged offering. Nope, to them it's just about the trumpet, trumpet, trumpet. The trumpet IS brilliant...but they're missing a helluva lot of fun!

Which brings us to "Irish Black Bottom." Admittedly, this is not songwriting as its finest but as a novelty, it's good fun. The "black bottom" was a popular dance of the 1920s so this tune humorously pretends that it's also taken Ireland by storm. If Louis had to record something so silly in the 1950s, critics would scream at the producers for forcing it on him. But "Irish Black Bottom" was written by the aforementioned Percy Venable so more than likely, it was a staple of Louis's act at the Sunset. And can't you imagine Louis bringing down the house with that vocal? That "ha, ha" he gives after singing "And I was born in Ireland," breaks me up every time. I can only imagine what it did to the audiences who heard him do it live.

The song begins with the funny sound of Louis and his Hot Five swinging through a sample of the Irish classic "Where the River Shannon Flows" before Louis swings out with the main melody, which is predominantly in a minor mode until the end. Louis's lead sounds great and Dodds is bouncing around as usual but trombonist Hy Clark, a substitute for Kid Ory, sounds hesitant and doesn't add much. After a chorus and an interlude by pianist Lil Armstrong, Louis takes the vocal. If you can't make it out, here's what he says:

All you heard for years in Ireland,
was the "Wearin' Of The Green",
but the biggest change that's come in Ireland
I have ever seen.
All the laddies and the cooies
laid aside their Irish reels,
and I was born in Ireland
(Ha, Ha), so imagine how I feels.

Now Ireland's gone Black Bottom crazy,
see them dance,
you ought to see them dance.
Folks supposed to be related, even dance,
I mean they dance.
They play that strain,
works right on their brain.
Now it goes Black Bottom,
a new rhythm's drivin' the folks insane.
I hand you no Blarney, when I say
that song really goes,
and they put it over with a wow,
I mean now.
All over Ireland
you can see the people dancin' it,
'cause Ireland's gone Black Bottom crazy

I don't know how you can't get swept up in that offering. Armstrong doesn't so much sing it as shout it, or talk it, but his spirit sure gets the message across (though sometimes, he's so far from the written melody, it sounds like he's singing a different song on top of Lil's chording on the piano). After the vocal, Clark and Dodds take forgettable short solos and breaks before Louis carries the troops home with brio. Louis's lip trill towards the end is particularly violent and right before his closing breaks, he dips into his bag for a favorite phrases, one that ended both "You're Next" and "Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa." The concluding break is so perfect in its phrasing and choice of notes that I believe it might have already been set in stone by Pops during his live performances of the tune at the Sunset. Either way, that's no reason to criticize him; it's a perfect ending and puts an emphatic stamp on a very entertaining record.

That's all for now. Have a happy St. Patrick's day and don't forget to mix in a little Louis with your Guiness. I hand you no blarney, it's a great combination...

Friday, March 12, 2010

So Little Time (So Much to Do)

Recorded May 13, 1938
Track Time 2:45
Written by Peter DeRose and William Hill
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Shelton Hemphill, trumpet; J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Rupert Cole, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Bingie Madison, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin
Originally released on Decca 1822
Currently available on CD: It’s on Mosaic Records's "Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions 1935-1946" box set.
Available on Itunes? Yes.

Hello, friends. Once again, sorry for the delay but sometimes life just moves too fast. With a little bit of spare time, I decided to tackle a tune that might as well be my personal anthem: "So Little Time (So Much to Do)."

This song was penned by two formidable songwriters, Peter ("Deep Purple") DeRose and Billy ("The Glory of Love") Hill. This wasn't their first joint venture, as the two had combined to produce the western classic "Wagon Wheels" in 1934. "So Little Time" wasn't quite as enduring. In fact, I couldn't find any other recordings of it by anyone during the time it was written. However, I did find sheet music for it with Guy Lombardo's face on the cover. Perhaps that's where Louis got it from since Lombardo was his main "inspirator." Or perhaps Decca just wanted to hand him another pop tune with the hope he could work the Armstrong magic on it.

In any case, the song didn't really take off, but Louis still sprinkled it with his magic. I think it's a lovely song with a very attractive melody (I've been known to play it at some of my gigs) and I think Pops must have felt the same way since he really sticks to the melody like glue for most of the record.

Regarding the personnel, Louis was leading a scaled-down version of Luis Russell's big band with one other trumpet, one trombone, three reeds and rhythm. Who knows the reasoning behind such decisions but I'm sure Louis and Decca didn't complain when the date was over as the final tune waxed that day was Armstrong's first version of "When the Saints Go Marchin' In." I don't think as many people have heard "So Little Time" as "The Saints" but let's try to change that. Give it a listen right now:

Okay, so it's never going to overtake "The Saints" but I think it's a swinging little record. The nifty little introduction (drummer Paul Barbarin getting his press rolls ready for "The Saints") builds up to heavenly sound of a muted Louis playing a catchy melody. He builds up to an effortless high note (listen to the pure tone of that single offering) before passing the ball to the big-toned tenor of Bingie Madison. The band's really swinging at this point and it's almost as if Pops can't get enough of it, so he jumps back in and improvises a swinging obbligato behind Madison before stepping back to the forefront to complete the chorus.

The vocal finds Louis in pretty gravelly terrain, but he still sings with plenty of heart, really emoting with that "Mama" towards the end, which elevates his outing into a whole other level (and listen to alto saxophonist Charlie Holmes's fine obbligato behind Pops). After another transition (and another two-note piano break by Russell), Pops becomes part of the section and plays an arranged passage, again staying right on the melody. He again hands it off to the slightly tart clarinet playing of Rupert Cole, whose solo is harmless but enhanced by the roof-shaking press rolls of Barbarin...the man could move a mountain!

With only half of a chorus left, Pops continues caressing the melody, though the way he squeezes the life out of a descending gliss is worth the price of admission. There are no pyrotechnics and no slow motion finish as the band keeps swinging along and Pops works his way up to a high C. Those looking for fireworks might be disappointed but I'm always glad to hear Louis Armstrong play melodies such as this one. A very fine record.

Now, if I had written this post six months ago, it would have ended right there. But back in November, I met a man at a Louis Armstrong Symposium in Staten Island named Paul Kahn. Paul's the husband of Catherine Russell, daughter of Luis Russell and a singer in her own right. It turns out Paul and Catherine had read my blog in the past and Paul wanted to show his appreciation by giving me a copy of Catherine's CD Sentimental Streak. I had heard that Catherine was a singer but I really knew nothing about her. I looked forward to listening to the disc, but really, these days it seems like anyone with a voice makes at least one attempt to do a jazz/standards album so I didn't really know what to expect.

Well, to cut the chase, the first song on the disc was "So Little Time" and it knocked me on my ass. The whole disc did, in fact. It stayed in my car from that November day until just today, when I took it out to upload "So Little Time" onto my computer so I could share it on this post. Catherine absolutely swings like a force of her nature and her backup band, featuring great musicians such as trumpeter Steven Berstein, guitarist Matt Munisteri and pianist Mark Shane, are equally terrific. Using Louis's 1938 recording as a template, they gave "So Little Time" an irresistibly swinging treatment. Listen for yourself:

Isn't that fantastic? The whole album is like that and really knocked me out. I'm officially a Catherine Russell fan and can't wait for her new disc to be released in April. Check out her website for more information (and to hear her tackle Pops's "Back O'Town Blues") by clicking here.

S'all for now. I just did some quick math and realized that this is my 300th post! Pretty crazy. Normally, I do special things for my milestone posts but trust me, I'm lucky I got this one out. I think "So Little Time (So Much to Do)" really says it all! But thanks for being patient and I hope to be back real soon with more Pops, Pops, Pops.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Penny A Day - Pennies From Heaven - Billy Kyle's Feature, May 13, 1958

As promised, I'd like to give pianist Billy Kyle some much deserved time in the spotlight by highlighting his feature version of "Pennies From Heaven," something that he began playing soon after he started with the All Stars in late 1953 and was still playing--note-for-note, the same--at the time of his death in 1966. Kyle didn't always trot it out--"Perdido" always remained his first choice for a feature--but "Pennies" served an important function because it didn't require Louis to play any horn. Thus, if there was a night when Pops's chops were a bit down and he needed a rest, Kyle would do "Pennies" or "Girl of My Dreams." On other Kyle features such as "Perdido," "Blue Moon" and "When I Grow Too Old To Dream," Louis would blow with fury at the end, so I'm sure the others would be called when Louis needed a break.

I have a bunch of Kyle "Pennies" in my collection but the one I've chosen to share is from May 13, 1958 and was recorded live with the All Stars in North Bay, Ontario. On this night, Louis had no troubles with his chops. Far from it; what has been issued on C.D. contains some of the fiercest blowing he did that entire decade. But during intermission, a fan requested "Long Gone (From Bowlin' Green)," which Louis probably hadn't done since he originally recorded it four years earlier for the seminal album Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy. Thus, after blowing out the lights on "Muskrat Ramble," I think he called on Kyle to do "Pennies" because he wanted to have a quick powow with Velma Middleton, Trummy Young and Edmond Hall on the routine and lyrics for "Long Gone." One day, I'll share that version because it's so overpowering, it completely makes one forget about the original.

But that's for another day. While Louis was backstage, the spotlight shone on the rhythm section of Kyle, bassist Mort Herbert and drummer Danny Barcelona. Herbert and Barcelona both joined the band in early 1958 so they were still fairly new but this rhythm section would prove to be one of Louis's most durable, as well as one of his finest, lasting into the middle of 1961 when Herbert finally left to practice law. I have other Kyle versions of "Pennies" in slightly better sound but the swing engendered on this version is second to none. When Barcelona switches from brushes to sticks....stand back! This "Pennies" has the rocking power of a freight train and Kyle's full-chorded riffs never sounded better. Thus, ending our weeklong look at "Pennies From Heaven," here's Billy Kyle:

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Penny A Day - Pennies From Heaven - Newport 1970

After yesterday's magnificent 1952 version of "Pennies From Heaven," we have to jump all the way to 1970 for today's entry. You might be wondering why Pops didn't touch the tune in those ensuing years. The reason is pianist Billy Kyle joined the band in late 1953 and brought a feature of his own on "Pennies From Heaven." Armstrong respected that let Kyle keep it to himself until his death in 1966. I'm probably going to post Kyle's version this weekend for completness sake but Pops never played on it.

There is one conspicuous unissed version in the Armstrong discography and that's from the Newport Jazz Festival 1958. Anyone who has been with me for a while is probably sick and tired of hearing me talk about Newport 1958 but it's still number one on my list of Louis performances I need to hear. Columbia recorded it in gorgeous stereo sound but they've only issued three random tracks on various compilations. Sony is still sitting on it, the good people at Wolfgang's Vault say they don't have it in their Newport archive and Scott Wenzel of Mosaic Records expressed interest to me about it last year but so far, no news. In addition to Pops's chops being in top form and the concert being recorded in stereo, it also featured a special reunion of Louis with Jack Teagarden and Bobby Hackett. And what do you think they did? Yep, "Pennies From Heaven." I sweat when I think about it (of course, it could be lousy), but hopefully one day it'll be released and I'll be able to talk about it here.

Anyway, in 1970, Louis's 70th birthday was celebrated at Newport, the subject of the DVD Good Evening Ev'rybody I discussed in detail last week. Bobby Hackett was appointed music director for the event. Perhaps knowing the tie between Louis and Bobby on the Town Hall and Newport 1958 versions of "Pennies From Heaven," George Wein wanted them to open with the tune in 1970. Pops wouldn't hear of it, arguing to open with his standard theme, "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." He won that argument but once onstage, he followed "Sleepy Time" with a breezy vocal-only performance of "Pennies." The tempo is swinging is Pops delivers yet another master's class in swinging. Here's the footage:

Louis Armstrong-Pennies From Heaven-1970 Newport
Uploaded by redhotjazz. - Music videos, artist interviews, concerts and more.
Fantastic stuff. In addition to Pops and Hackett, Tyree Glenn was on trombone with a rhythm section of Dave McKenna on piano, Jack Lesberg on bass and Oliver Jackson on drums. Louis looks and sounds great and his ad-lib lyric, "Bobby Hackett will swing the trumpet for me!" is terrific. (Seriously, check out that DVD to see and hear it in much better quality.)

That seems to be Louis's last public performance of "Pennies From Heaven," but there's still one more story to tell. In early 1971, Louis appeared on "The David Frost Show" with Bing Crosby. Dan Morgenstern was there and was with Pops backstage when Bing walked in. Louis was warming up on his trumpet, saw Bing and immediately, with a wooden practice mute in the bell of his horn, played a chorus of "Pennies From Heaven" that made Dan cry. If only a tape recorder was running for that moment...

So with that, we've come full circle with this week's look at five Louis Armstrong versions of "Pennies From Heaven." I hope you enjoyed it and be sure to come back this weekend for Billy Kyle's version (gotta give the piano player some respect, too!).

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Penny A Day - Pennies From Heaven - October 4, 1952

Louis Armstrong and His All Stars
Recorded October 4, 1952
Track Time 6:07
Written by Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke
Recorded in Stockholm, Sweden
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Trummy Young, trombone; Bob McCracken, clarinet; Marty Napoleon, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Cozy Cole, drums
Currently available on CD: It’s on Louis Armstrong in Scandinavia Volume Two on the Storyville label
Available on Itunes? Yes

Unlike yesterday, where I discussed the Town Hall version of "Pennies From Heaven" that has been celebrated for over 60 years, today's version remained unissued until just a few years ago. But just because it's less known doesn't mean it's any less special.

After the success of the Town Hall concert in 1947, Armstrong formed his All Stars but "Pennies From Heaven" did not seem to be a regular feature with the group. Pops always sounded so good on it that I'm sure he must have taken it for a spin a few times but if he did, nothing survived until this version from Stockholm, Sweden on October 4, 1952. As you'll hear in Armstrong's announcement, it was a request given to him by a fan during intermission and he was glad to oblige it. Armstrong's intro is humorous because he has a momentary lapse on what film "Pennies From Heaven" was from, originally starting to introduce it from the picture "Skeleton in the Closet." Of course, "Skeleton in the Closet" was Armstrong's featured song in the film "Pennies From Heaven" and he quickly sorts it out.

Like the Town Hall version, the tempo is slow and stately. But unlike every preceding version, we get a full chorus of the Armstrong horn up front. For that alone, this version is very, very special. Dig it:

Isn't that breathtaking? If there's one thing lacking in this version, it's the passion from the other members of the group. The Town Hall event was so special and I think everyone on that stage knew it and as I discussed yesterday, everybody just plays over their head in that final rideout half-chorus, with Pops leading the way.

Here, everyone else is, you could almost say, more revervential. Trombonist Trummy Young and clarinetist Bob McCracken offer very low-key support; maybe they were too busy marveling at Pops's lead! And in the rhythm section, I enjoy Cozy Cole, but sometimes his playing is too dry for my taste and he really doesn't add much here, especially after we heard Sid Catlett's pushing and prodding and dancing drums at Town Hall.

But forget about all of that and just focus on Pops. He plays that opening chorus like a damn lullaby, it's so touching. As usual, no one sung this song as charmingly as Armstrong so I dare you not to smile when you listen to his vocal. Trummy then takes a half-chorus, again, not quite living up to what Teagarden played in 1947, but this is not a talent competition.

Louis,, there are no words. In 1947, he was sure to stay right on that melody. In 1952, he had already stated the melody so beautifully in the first chorus, that he takes a few more chances and improvises a bit more, building up to that dramatic high-note finish. A spectacular version!

Our thanks to the late, great Gösta Hägglöf, who spearheaded Storyville's four-volume Louis Armstrong In Scandinavia series, unearthing numerous rare gems such as this one, which appears on volume two. All four volumes are still available on Amazon in a box set for $40, an absolute steal. If you still haven't picked it up...what are you waiting for?

Tomorrow, Louis and Bobby Hackett reteam to perform it at Newport in 1970. Til then!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Penny A Day - Pennies From Heaven - May 17, 1947 (Town Hall)

Louis Armstrong and His All Stars
Recorded May 17, 1947
Track Time 3:44
Written by Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Bobby Hackett, cornet; Jack Teagarden, trombone; Peanuts Hucko, clarinet; Dick Cary, piano; Bob Haggart, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Currently available on CD: It’s on The Complete Town Hall Concert and Armstrong's Complete Victor Recordings
Available on Itunes? Yes

Yesterday's version of "Pennies From Heaven" was a rarity, unheard by the general public from the time of it's 1937 broadcast until it was finally issued on CD in 2008. Today's version, though, has been celebrated for over 60 years and with good reason. It was part of Louis Armstrong's historic Town Hall concert, an event that changed the course of Armstrong's career by showing him the way towards the formation of a small group. Concert producer Ernie Anderson recorded the night on a series of acetates but the sound quality varied from track to track. Victor eventually chose the six tracks that sounded the best and released them on a series of 12-inch 78s. All six--"Ain't Misbehavin,'" "Save It Pretty Mama," "St. James Infirmary," "Rockin' Chair," "Back O'Town Blues" and "Pennies From Heaven"--almost immediately became part of the pantheon.

Eventually, the complete concert was issued in 1983 (it's now out on a variety of it out if you don't have it!), but those original six still have a special resonance. In the original concert, "Pennies From Heaven" was wedged between romps on "St. Louis Blues" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street." A change of pace was needed so "Pennies" was called at an ultra-slow ballad tempo. "Pennies From Heaven" is one of those songs that sounds good at ALL tempos but this pace--which usually gets eschewed in favor of treating the song as a midtempo swinger or an uptempo burner--is particularly ideal...especially with Louis and his cohorts.

And what cohorts! At Town Hall, Louis was supported by three of his greatest partners-in-crime, cornetist Bobby Hackett, trombonist Jack Teagarden and drummer Sid Catlett. Each man's contributions add something special to magic of this version "Pennies From Heaven." All I can say is sit back, relax, think of something that's been bugging you, listen to this performance and watch everything go away. I predict you'll be smiling in approximately three minutes and 44 seconds...

First off, Dick Cary takes one of his perfect introductions; the man had a helluva knack for setting the scene. There's a lot of excited talking behind the introduction as a buzz seems to have already started building. Louis comes right in with the vocal, no longer bouncing and swinging as he did in the 1930s versions but rather treating it as a gentle lullaby. Teagarden and Hackett, both masters of the obbligato split the duties of backing up Pops's vocal. Hackett especially made an ideal fit as he worshipped at Armstrong's feet and had a gorgeous tone that was a particular favorite of his idol's. And listen, too, to Big Sid's almost discreet support (the little bass drum bomb when Pops sings the word "thunder" is a perfect touch).

After Armstrong wins deserved applause for his delicious vocal, Teagarden steps up for a brilliant half-chorus with more special backing by Armstrong (I'm particularly fond of Big T's working over of a "Love in Bloom" motif, one of his favorite devices). Towards the halfway point, Armstrong's voice can be heard saying, "Every tub!" It was his way of telling everyone else to start blowing, we're on their way out.

Thus, Louis only plays 16 bars of trumpet on the entire performance and he rarely leaves the melody. But there's no substitute for tone, timing and feeling and Louis has all of that in abundance. He sticks beautifully to the melody but there's an awful lot of emotion going on around him with Hackett playing a counterline to Louis's lead, clarinetist Peanuts Hucko wailing in his upper register and Catlett moving things along emphatically right up until Louis's build to his final high note. Everyone is simply playing over their heads for the cause (I like to picture them all crying with passion towards the end, because that's what happens to me when I listen to it). It's only two choruses and Louis doesn't change the world with any "West End Blues"-type cadenza; he sings the melody and he plays the melody and that, my friends, is all one needs to feel at peace with the world.

But it just keeps getting better, folks. Tomorrow, the All Stars tackle "Pennies From Heaven" in Sweden at the same tempo, but this time with an entire chorus of trumpet at the beginning. You don't want to miss it. Til then!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Penny A Day - Pennies From Heaven - April 9, 1937

Louis Armstrong and His All Stars
Recorded April 9, 1937
Track Time 2:36
Written by Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leonard Davis, Henry "Red" Allen, Louis Bacon, trumpets; Snub Mosley, Jimmy Archey, trombone; Pete Clarke, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Abert Nicholas, Bingie Madison, clarinet, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Currently available on CD: It’s on the indispensable two-disc set Fleischmann's Yeast Show & Louis' Home Recorded Tapes
Available on Itunes? Yes

Welcome to day two of our look at Louis Armstrong's surviving performances of "Pennies From Heaven," a song that's guaranteed to put you in a good mood with Louis at the helm. Yesterday, we listened to the Decca recording made for the release of the film of the same name. As I mentioned, it was a pioneering moment for Louis as he became the first black actor to have featured billing in a major Hollywood movie.

Today's entry comes from another pioneering step in Pops's career, the Fleischmann's Yeast radio programs of 1937. When the series's original host Rudy Vallee left for an extended stay in England, the series was turned over to Armstrong, becoming the first black entertainer to star on a commercially sponsored network radio program. In 2008, many of Armstrong's Fleischmann's Yeast performances were released for the first time, compromising an absolutely essential release that features some of the finest playing of his entire career.

On the April 9, 1937 Fleischmann's Yeast show, Armstrong and his Orchestra, led by pianist Luis Russell, debuted a new arrangement of "Pennies From Heaven," one that was never recorded in the studio. Not only does it feature another great vocal, but this time we get to hear the Armstrong trumpet. Stand back:

With only an arpeggio serving as an introduction, Louis jumps right in with the vocal at a slightly faster clip than the Decca recording. Once again, he sounds marvelous, filling the spaces with an "oh babe" here and an "mm-mm" there. After the chorus, the Russell band takes a swinging interlude as Armstrong gives Papa Bing a plug. Pops enters during the second eight bars, sticking closely to the melody. Armstrong continues rhapsodizing the melody over a splashing cymbal backbeat by Paul Barbarin and some very hip chord substitutions in the arrangement (is it a Chappie Willet work?). Armstrong lets loose a bit in a perfectly paced extended ending. His sense of time is just too much to handle sometimes; is it possible to swing anymore than Louis does during this coda? Just try to keep your feet still. The gliss to a high note at the end is right in there with Armstrong's Decca work of the period. It took 71 years for it to be made public but this version of "Pennies From Heaven" was more than worth the wait.

Tomorrow, Town Hall, 1947...bring some tissues!

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Penny A Day - Pennies From Heaven - August 17, 1936

Louis Armstrong and Frances Langford and Bing Crosby
Recorded August 17, 1936
Track Time 4:20
Written by Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke
Recorded in Los Angeles
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; George Thow, Toots Camarata, trumpet; Bobby Byrne, Joe Yukl, Don Mattison, trombone; Jimmy Dorsey, clarinet, alto saxophone, conductor; Jack Stacey, clarinet, alto saxophone; Fud Livingston, Skeets Herfurt, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Bobby Van Eps, piano; Roscoe Hillman, guitar; Jim Taft, bass; Ray McKinley, drums; Frances Langford, Bing Crosby, vocal
Originally released on Decca 15027
Currently available on CD: It’s on Mosaic Records recent box set of Armstrong's complete 1935-1946 Decca recordings (an ESSENTIAL set)
Available on Itunes? Yes.

Okay, time to try something a little different: "A Penny A Day," a weeklong celebration of Louis Armstrong recordings of "Pennies From Heaven." Normally, I'd put all the versions in a single massive post and let it simmer for a while but I think a series of five shorter posts on the subject might work pretty well. We'll see. Either way, I think it'll be a lot of fun because "Pennies From Heaven" is such an enduring song and Louis always sounded wonderful on it.

So we'll begin at the beginning today. The song "Pennies From Heaven" was written for a Columbia film of the same name that starred Bing Crosby and Louis. It was a landmark moment for Louis and for Hollywood as, with Crosby's insistence, Louis's name appeared in equal billing with those of the other white stars, the first time that ever happened. It was a pioneering moment for Louis and cemented a bond between himself and Crosby that had been burgeoning ever since each man began digging the other's singing in the late 1920s.

In the actual film, Bing sings the titular song to 13-year-old Edith Fellows. It's a charming sequence and Bing rarely sounded lovelier. Fortunately, it's on YouTube, though the picture quality is horrendous. Still, it's worth checking out:

Charming stuff. Armstrong and Crosby were both under contract to Decca, so it made sense for the label to try to do a tie-in with the film by recording a double-sided 10-inch 78 of songs from the movie. In addition to Bing and Louis, they added Frances Langford and Jimmy Dorsey's orchestra, neither of whom had anything to do with the film but both were popular Decca artists. One side of the 78 contained a medley of Langford doing "Let's Call a Heart a Heart," Langford and Bing duetting on "So Do I" and Pops doing an abbreviated version of his "Skeleton in the Closet" showstopper. But the other side featured a four-and-a-half minute version of "Pennies From Heaven" that featured everyone getting into the act. Here's the audio:

Langford's up first, delivering a straightforward chorus of melody with her pleasing voice. Then all at once, the Dorsey band begins swinging a bit to set up Armstrong's entrance. Right from his insertion of the word "Now" before his opening phrase, you know we're in another world. Armstrong swings the hell out of his chorus, throwing in an "oh babe" or two and really emoting on the last eight bars. A key change brings Bing up to the mike for a strong-voiced outing of his own. The tempo starts jumping for a short spot featuring Dorsey's alto before a dramatic, almost Hollywood-ized ending wraps up this demonstration of the different ways one can approach "Pennies From Heaven."

A little more trumpet would have been nice but don't worry, that's right around the corner. See you tomorrow for a look (and listen) at Armstrong's 1937 Fleischmann's Yeast performance of "Pennies From Heaven."