Friday, June 11, 2010

Louis Armstrong: iPhone Salesman

Greetings everyone. I had hoped to have something fresh ready for today...I had also hoped to hit the lottery overnight. I had about the same chance of either one occurring and naturally, failed on both accounts. But I wanted to post a quick note to say that this week, the good folks at Apple unveiled their new iPhone complete with "Face Time" feature. They also unveiled their new pitchman: Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong. In fact, before Steve Jobs came out to unveil it at the press conference, "What a Wonderful World" played for all to enjoy. And once unveiled, it was time to debut a new commercial directed by Sam Mendes, the main behind major films like "American Beauty," "Revolutionary Road" and the upcoming James Bond film. Mendes went full Hallmark for his opus, with something to pull at the heartstrings of anyone within viewing distance of the commercial. Soldiers, babies, deaf people...take your pick!

But for me, I was turned into putty at the opening sounds of Sy Oliver's saxophone section because I knew it only meant one thing: hundreds of thousands of people were about to hear Louis Armstrong's 1956 version of "When You're Smiling," one of Pops's all-time great moments. For those who haven't seen the commercial, here 'tis:

There you have it. Already, the commercial has been viewed thousands of times on YouTube...and it's probably led to thousands of iPhones being sold. But of course, I'm just pleased that thousands of people are listening to Pops sing "When You're Smiling." So in case any future iPhone user is a little curious about the music heard on that commercial, here's what I blogged about that performance back in November. Enjoy it, have a great weekend and keep on smiling!

(Do I get an iPhone now, Mr. Jobs?)


Armstrong's final attempt at "When You're Smiling" came on December 12, 1956. It was recorded for the ambitious Musical Autobiography project for Decca, the end result being a four-LP set that found the mid-50s Armstrong recreating many of the tunes he originally made famous in the 1920s and early 30s. I've gushed about the Autobiography numerous times in the past and I'll probably never stop as I think it's the definitive look at Armstrong's trumpet playing abilities in the 1950s. He was in simply stunning form from the first session through the last, mainly thanks to a little strategy on the behalf of producer Milt Gabler. Gabler insisted that Joe Glaser not book Armstrong anywhere else in New York while Pops was doing this project. Gabler paid Glaser for the service, and even booked the sessions in the evening, when Armstrong's chops were most ready for an evening of blowing. Friends and family were invited, food and drink were served and by all accounts, it was a relaxed, truly special series of sessions. With such care and concern surrounding the dates, Armstrong responded with some of the greatest playing of his entire career.

Because of the conditions, it was an ideal chance for Armstrong to dig out "When You're Smiling" one final time. He could rest the chops before, rest them after, take a break, do whatever he had to do to get through this test of endurance one more time. The song was chosen to be second one recorded during the album's second session. The December 12 date led off with a swinging run-through on "Mahogany Hall Stomp," a piece the All Stars regularly played in 1956. Armstrong was familiar with it and knocked off his climactic three-chorus solo with ease.

Sufficiently warmed up, it was time for "When You're Smiling." Though the conditions were ideal, one small curveball threatened to make this performance a lot more difficult then it had to be: the tempo. Yes, at 120 beats per minute, the 1929 original was pretty slow. But for the 1956 remake, Armstrong and arranger Sy Oliver decided to up the ante...or is it lower the ante? Regardless, they dropped the tempo to an almost inhuman 88 beats per minute. 88 beats! That's fine for a resting heart rate, but for a song tempo? As Dan Morgenstern once wrote, this is "dangerous territory--to swing at this almost static pace takes some doing."

Fortunately, Armstrong was more than up to the challenge. The resulting four minutes of music, I think, constitute a high point for Armstrong's trumpet playing in the 50s...and that's saying a lot since it was a helluva decade for him and his chops. Enough from me, listen for yourself and just prepare to feel good about everything and anything:

Well, I'm emotionally knocked Where to begin? I guess at the beginning with Sy Oliver's reeds, mimicking the "Lombardo" saxes from the original. Trummy Young's obbligato is quite beautiful. After quietly clearing his throat, Armstrong enters his vocal with a righteous, relaxed scat-break. He still phrases the melody in his own way and still inserts all the bits of scatting in all the right places. By the final eight bars, it's simply joy personified. Armstrong's smile was arguably the greatest in show business and you can actually hear him smiling as he delivers the song's simple message. As warm a vocal as has ever been sung.

But that's just the appetizer; the main course is coming up and believe me, it's worth the wait. Billy Kyle's piano takes eight bars to allow Pops to get his lips in his horn. Once he's ready, well, good night nurse. Armstrong hits his first note at the 2:15 mark. The song is 4:03 long. It was tough enough work lasting the original 72 seconds in 1929. But lasting 108 seconds? With 55-year-old, battle-scarred lips? At 88 beats per minute?

Armstrong's trumpet enters with the exact same phrase he scatted as a lead-in to his vocal, but then it's melody time. Two giant quarter notes followed by an even bigger concert Ab, held and shook for all its worth. Oliver's reeds give him a sensuous cushion of harmony that just adds to the angelic feel of this performance (not even Gabriel could have blown anything so pretty). In the next eight bars, Armstrong now climbs higher to a Bb, again, holding it for an insane amount of time. That's the thing about a solo like this that some jazz fans, accustomed to strings of 16th notes chewing up the changes, might not get. Yes, it's quite a feat to play dozens of notes per bar. But this is something else. This is a test of endurance. This is high notes, held notes, gigantic notes, vibrato-filled notes. Each quarter note is worth more than any chorus of runs based on a lydian mode.

But back to the action. In between the strict melody playing, listen to Armstrong's asides, once again echoing his little scatted phrases. But it's still those held notes that take my breath away, such as towards the end of the second eight bars, when he hits a high G, hold it, plays it two more times, then hits again once more for good measure, holding it yet again. But the bridge is really where I begin to worry. I've heard this track about a thousand times but still there's that tension of "Is he going to make it?" After hitting multiple high Ab's and Bb's, it's the end of the bridge (corresponding to the lyrics "be happy again") where Armstrong finally makes high C. Once up there, he shows no quit, hitting it three more times going into the last eight bars.

And what bars they are. He's basically back to the melody by this point, but he's officially been up in the stratosphere for a minute-and-a-half. Trust me, I've listened to this track with world class head phones, looking for any evidence of a splice. There's nothing. This was all knocked off in four other-worldly minutes. Nearing the finish line, Armstrong pushes himself another step higher, hitting a high Db during the song's final phrase, "the whole world smiles with you." But he has one more trick up his sleeve; where the written melody makes those lyrics descend two notes at a time, Armstrong goes up one more time where the word "world," hitting a sickening Eb, the highest note of the solo. I mean, is this guy kidding or what?

Finally, it's time for the final two notes of the solo, "with you." On the second-to-last note, Armstrong plays a quick gliss to the high C. For me, it's his only teeny, tiny sign of tiring. He hit every other note square on the nose, but that last high C sounds like it needed a little push. Still, he hits it and safely lands at his final note, an Ab, not quite as high as some of the ones we've just heard, but still a freakishly high one to hit and hold after almost two minutes of pure chops-punishment. That last note, for me, is one of the great ones of Armstrong's entire career. Bravo, Pops...

Fortunately, the stars aligned beautifully to create that magical moment inside of Decca's New York studios that December day in 1956. But a piece like that required the absolute ideal circumstances, which Armstrong had for the Autobiography. It was too punishing a piece to be performed during a grueling evening with the All Stars, where Armstrong usually blew on about 95% of the songs performed each night (especially during that period). Thus, unless someone requested it with a tape recorder present, the 1956 masterpiece is the last surviving version of Louis Armstrong performing "When You're Smiling." What a way to go out!

Armstrong might have never played it again, but he was certainly proud of the Decca version. Dan Morgenstern remembered that when Armstrong was about to leave his Corona home to go on back on the road for another string of one-nighters with the All Stars, he'd blast the 1956 "When You're Smiling" to put him in the right frame of mind. Definitely something to be proud of. Even for me, it's the kind of performance that always puts me in the right frame of mind, too. No matter what's happening in my world, it's guaranteed to make me smile and marvel at our luck to have a performance like that to savor forever. Amazing stuff. I'm going to listen to it again....


Michael Steinman said...

Dear Mr. Riccardi,


P.S. Do I have to buy an iPhone now to show solidarity?

Please advise!

Mike Johnston said...

Ricky, the '56 version of When You're Smiling never fails to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. There's something about that slow tempo that gives the song a slightly bittersweet, stoic quality, as if to say, "press forward, things ain't that bad."

Then Pops begins a wailin'

And everything does seem better.