Louis Armstrong's Town Hall concert of May 17, 1947 was one of those evenings when every single aspect of every single performance came together brilliantly. The success of that night led to the full-time formation of Louis's sextet, the All Stars, and the death of his big band. I've shared many performances from that evening on this blog and I don't feel I need to rehash everything that's great about that evening all over again. But for me personally, I'll never tire of the greatness of Dick Cary's piano playing that evening.
Every introduction Cary took, every solo he unleashed, was so note-perfect, it's almost mind-boggling. It was an important night for Cary, a lifelong Armstrong nut, too, and he more than rose to the occasion, performing so well, he was Louis's first choice as pianist when the All Stars were officially formed a few months later.
The middle of the concert, featuring Louis with a small group featuring the horns of Bobby Hackett, Jack Teagarden and Peanuts Hucko, offered the most timeless performances, mainly because six songs from that portion of the concert were released by RCA Victor almost immediately, each one a classic. But I've always been more impressed with the earliest portion of the evening. Here's Louis, in front of a sold-out house, about to lead a small group for an entire evening. The anticipation was huge. And he comes out, backed just by a rhythm section, and absolutely knocks it out of the park, playing "Cornet Chop Suey" and "Butter and Egg Man," songs he probably hadn't touched in 20 years. Those two performances are positively thrilling and officially set the ball rolling for this last, 24-year phase of Louis's career.
But after the hard-charging swing of those two performances, Louis called "Dear Old Southland." Like the original 1930 recording, he did it backed solely by Cary's piano. The results were pure magic. I wish I could remember the exact source, but I remember reading somewhere that this particular rendering of "Dear Old Southland" is one of Wynton Marsalis's all-time favorite Armstrong moments. And with good reason; give it a listen yourself:
Stunning music. Unlike Buck Washington's cautious playing on the original, Cary is full of confidence, laying everything out perfectly for Pops. As we heard yesterday, Louis played "Dear Old Southland" in the early 40s, but he didn't approach it the same way as the 1930 recording. But at Town Hall, the intervening years disappeared and it was 1930 all over again. Pops plays his original solo in almost note-for-note fashion, with only maturity and years of beat-up chops slowing down some of those earlier, more rapid runs. But otherwise, the whole routine, the climaxes, the introduction of the blue notes, you name it, it's all here. Even crazier is the fact that Louis couldn't attend any rehearsals for the Town Hall concert so he and Cary were truly winging it, Louis from his memory of playing it 17 years earlier, Cary from his memory of listening to that record for probably as many years. Yes, Louis's doesn't hold those final notes as long as he did in 1930. But otherwise, his way of conveying the passion and feeling of this song is even more dramatic here, more sure-footed and purely operatic with less of the agitated, almost hyper burbling of the original. Add in Cary's perfect accompaniment and this becomes arguably the greatest "Dear Old Southland" in the Armstrong discography.
Just a few weeks later, Louis did it all over again, hiring many of the same musicians for a small group show at New York's Winter Garden Theater to celebrate the opening of the film New Orleans. A short set was broadcast and though it has its moments, Pops's chops were not in the best of shape. Still, though he wasn't 100%, he still called "Dear Old Southland." This version is not, I repeat, not as spine-chilling as the Town Hall one but it's still instructive to hear how Louis overcomes any problems with his lips. Granted, the problems are not graphic; most trumpeters would kill to have "problems" like these. But his tone is occasionally thin in the upper register. When he gets to the minor strain, he sticks mainly to the lower part of his horn and he sounds wonderful. But when it's time to start wailing, he doesn't hold many of those high notes, instead just hitting them and being thankful to get away with them. When it comes time for the climactic high Ab at 2:10, Armstrong has two hit two stepladder-type notes to vault himself up and once hit, he doesn't hold it for very long. He sounds fine on the swinging section but when it comes to the final climb up, it's clear that it hurts. He makes it all right, but don't expect him to hold any notes for nine seconds! Summoning up every ounce of strength and guile he has, Louis hits that final high concert A, barking out his unintelligible signs of approval as the crowd rewards the effort. Don't take my word for it; listen for yourself:
Once the All Stars were officially formed in August 1947, the "Dear Old Southland" duet became a staple of their early shows. I have an incomplete version (not worth sharing) from a Carnegie Hall concert in November, while contemporary reviews of Louis's shows sometimes made mention of it being performed during this period.
Alas, as great as Cary was for the band, Joe Glaser had his sights set on another pianist who was truly a star: Earl "Fatha" Hines. Hines soon joined and Cary was pushed aside. Tomorrow, we'll listen to Armstrong and Hines battle for the spotlight on "Dear Old Southland," but today, give thanks again for Dick Cary and the wonderful job he did for Pops, especially on that historic evening at Town Hall. Til tomorrow!