Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 18, 1939
Track Time 2:52
Written by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Bernard Flood, Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, trumpet; Wilbur De Paris, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Rupert Cole, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Joe Garland, Bingie Madison, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Decca 2934
Currently available on CD: It's on Mosaic Records's boxed set of Louis's complete 1935-1946 Decca recordings.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on a few different compilations, including Thanks a Million.
Welcome back to the second and final part of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday Take On Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin, December 1939. Last Friday, we listened to Louis's fantastic "You're a Lucky Guy," with its sweating, strutting tempo, as well as Billie Holiday's fine, if a little bland, recording of the same tune. During the same five-day period, Armstrong and Holiday also recorded "You're Just a No Account," so let's give it a whirl.
This was written for the same Cotton Club Revue as "You're a Lucky Guy." Because it was an all-black revue and because this song is nothing but a listing of another person's lazy traits, it has been called "racist bile" by Michael Brooks. I'm not going to argue that this is "Star Dust," nor a social commentary like "Strange Fruit," but I will call for a time out to let cooler heads prevail. Yes, we're treading on stereotypical waters but at the same time, lazy is lazy, black or white. These types of songs were somewhat common during the era (see "Lazybones," "Loafin' Time" and others). Some of these songs do make for some cringe-inducing moments but I've never felt that way about "You're Just a No Account" because of who's doing the singing: Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday were not for one minute lazy people. And to Louis, laziness was just about the worst trait a human being could have. Right up until his final television appearance on "The Tonight Show" in 1971, Louis was quick to impart the wisdom that "The Lord helps the poor, but not the poor and lazy." So a song sung by Louis Armstrong chastising someone else for being a "no account"? Makes sense to me!
Having said that, the lyrics still aren't Shakespearean. And while we're at it, the melody's not exactly timeless either. In fact, there isn't much melody at all, causing Louis to kind of talk-sing his vocal at points. For these reasons, "You're Just a No Account" pretty much died in 1939 (cause of death: lazy songwriting). But to me, Louis and Billie's versions have withstood the test of time and in the end, that's saying a helluva lot.
So let's listen to Pops first, shall we?
I've always enjoyed the introduction to this record for the glory of Sid Catlett's dancing drums; he's putting on a clinic back there, killing himself over an introduction! Gotta love it. Then Pops takes the vocal, really selling it, relying on his prodigious gifts as an actor. He's full of good humor and gentle kidding throughout his outing, enhancing Cahn's lyrics more than they deserved to be. But after a brief trombone interlude (someone's a little off or out of tune), Pops picks up the trumpet, which is always good news. But even better news? There's about 90 seconds of the record left and it's all Louis! (Those were the days, huh? Nowadays, most trumpeters need take five choruses to just warm up, never mind making an epic statement in under two minutes.)
I'll admit, I've always found the herky-jerky, sing-song nature of the first part of this solo to be very fine, but not quite as polished as what we're used to hearing from Pops, especially during this period. As I said earlier, there's not much melodic meat to the tune and he sounds like he's searching for one to sink his teeth into. What he improvises is melodic and full of tricky rhythms but there's a very brief fluff or two as it just sounds like he could have used perhaps one more run-through to iron it out. Nevertheless, it's still a swinging half-chorus, no doubt enhanced by Big Sid's fat hi-hat playing.
But on second thought, this take was probably more than good enough because what happens during the final minute is enough to make a grown man weep (grown man = me). For me, the glory starts at the 2:05 mark. The band swarms in and sounds like they're about to take over but Pops isn't finished. He floats over them, much more relaxed than he was just seconds earlier, before inserting the most ingenious quote of "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" imaginable. It fits like a glove and always sticks in my head long after the record ends.
After this passionate moment, Pops takes the tune into the gutter for its built-in, bluesy final section. Catlett, too, gets in the groove by laying down some thick press rolls, inspiring PLouis's march towards the finish line. And what a finish it is! You can feel the intensity, the drama, the feeling that something big is about to happen as Louis approaches the final bars of the tune. By this point, it's a given that the record is going to end on a high note, since that's what almost all of his Decca recordings did in this period. But nothing really prepares me for the superhuman feat of strength that occurs: six, count 'em, six gorgeous high concert C's, each one held for a full four beats. Hitting one of those must have been difficult enough. Hitting one and holding it four three or four seconds isn't exactly a piece of cake either. But Pops hits six in a row with the clearest tone one could ever attain up in the stratosphere like that.
But he's not finished yet! After the six high C's, he builds higher, hitting and holding a D before ending the recording with a freakish high E! If you listen closely, he almost loses that E, as it faintly cracks for a millisecond. But he recovers and keeps it going until the last kick of Catlett's bass drum. Oh, the beauty, the endurance, the wonder of it all. No wonder Pops didn't make another take of that one...he probably needed to lay down for a few minutes! (Though honestly, he was back in fighting form on the next and final track recorded that day, "Bye and Bye," which I blogged about in November 2008...dig it!)
The Billie Holiday recording of "You're Just a No Account" doesn't feature any similar grandeur but I find it more satisfying than her take of "You're a Lucky Guy." She seems to put a little more into her vocal; I just love the way she sings the opening reading of the titular phrase. She's full of the same loving spirit as Louis; neither sound trapped by "racist bile" in these lyrics. Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself; here's Billie:
Isn't that a great vocal? Billie's followed by another great trumpet/drum combination as Buck Clayton takes a dramatic solo backed by some very emphatic accents from Papa Jo Jones. Lester Young takes the bridge sounding supremely relaxed; oh, if only he could have taken a full chorus. Instead, Billie comes back and finishes the tune with a vocal reprise, nothing to complain about. In fact, I don't anyone else could have made the lyrics, "We've got machines to do, the work for you," sound so sexy (I don't think any bosses have played this record while downsizing their staffs). Towards the end, Billie boils the melody down to a single pitch, very Pops-inspired. Great stuff.
So that ends our little look at Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday's recordings of "You're a Lucky Guy" and "You're Just a No Account." I hope you enjoyed it. In a perfect world, with free time (har har har), I'd like to celebrate the 60th anniversary of "New Orleans Function," which was recorded this week in 1950. Hopefully, I can pump something out on the subject this weekend. And next Tuesday, May 4 will mark the 80th anniversary of Louis's first recordings of "Dinah" and "Tiger Rag." Again, if I had the time, I'd do in-depth studies of Louis's history with both pieces, but that's not going to happen right away. So I'll put it up to a vote: leave a comment or send me an e-mail and whichever tunes gathers more interest, I'll blog about. Til then!