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 solos...watch 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.