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!


Randy said...

My all time favorite version of this one, and as always a great write up perfectly describing what's going on and providing context about the event, the band and the song order. Many years ago when I was in the midst of a divorce and more than a little down, I played this song every morning before leaving for work and voila! Instant peace with the world and a good day ahead. Thanks, Ricky, for another great one.

GeePawHill said...

Ricky... Any chance you'd be willing to provide a full feed instead of just the excerpts? Those of us who use a reader just don't get the joy right now. -- GeePawHill