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."

1 comment:

Peter said...

Fabulous and you're totally right, the Mosaic boxset is absolutely essential.