Friday, June 18, 2010

Public Melody Number One

Greetings, fellow rhythm rascals. I've decided to head into the weekend with a little video treat, Louis's performance in the 1937 film "Artists and Models." This was formerly a pretty rare clip but now, thanks to YouTube, it can be viewed while eating breakfast. For those who don't know, this performance was pretty controversial at the time. Louis takes part in a performance of "Public Melody Number One," a song written by the top team of Harold Arlen and Tod Koehler, who had already done much for Pops (see "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues" and "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea").

But "Public Melody Number One" would be no standard pop tune. It was the basis for a lavish seven-minute production number staged by the legendary Vincente Minnelli. The film itself, I should add, was directed by Raoul Walsh, another heavy hitter. Louis had officially hit the big time by this point, recording for Decca, hosting the Fleischmann's Yeast radio series and with this, appearing in his second major motion picture after signing with Joe Glaser in 1935.

But the controversy surrounding "Public Melody Number One" could have derailed him. In addition to Louis and about a hundred of black dancers (as Dan Morgenstern has pointed out, the white actors play the G-men, the black actors play the gangsters!), the number's co-star was Martha Raye, always a popular attraction--and a white one at that. This was 1937 and the thought of a provocatively dressed, gyrating white woman surrounded by a number of black people was enough to make the South break into a collective cold sweat. Knowing something would have to be done to soothe the situation, a light layer of dark makeup was applied to Raye's body, an attempt to make her appear more, um, ethnic.

Naturally, this didn't work. Many southern cities had the scene cut from showings while one critic from Atlanta wrote, "Martha Raye, thinly burnt-corked, does a Harlem specialty with a fat Negro trumpeter and a hundred other Negroes. It is coarse to the point of vulgarity. I have no objection to Negroes on the screen. I like them from Bill Robinson down the line. Their stuff is usually good. But I don't like mixing white folks--and especially a white girl---in their acts." Yikes. Well, you can't please everyone..

Anyway, here is the full seven-minute performance, in excellent quality. Louis plays and sings beautifully and overall makes a commanding presence in his sharp suit (how could anyone write him off as just a "fat Negro trumpeter"!?). Enough from me; enjoy the full performance and feel free to let me know what you think in the comments section. Here 'tis:

So there you have it. I guess while I have your attention, I should cover Louis's Decca recording of the tune, cut with his usual big band, led by Luis Russell, on July 2, 1937. Here's the audio:

For this record, Louis doesn't have to share the spotlight with anyone else. He's the main event from start to finish and makes the most of it, delivering a really fun vocal, his gifts as a actor emanating out of every groove as he completely sells every line. When he picks up the melody, you almost immediately realize that hey, this isn't exactly the world's greatest melody. But Pops, the master, adds his variations and rephrasings and comes out with something swinging.

After a brief break from the band, with Paul Barbarin making his present felt on drums, Louis begins soaring. He was in superhuman form during the period--just listen to those Fleischmann's Yeast broadcasts--and sounds in complete command beating out those high concert Bb's before taking a Gb, the minor third, and squeezing and wringing all the blues out of it that he can get. The band takes over for much of the bridge with more Barbarin fills before Louis gets a dramatic spot backed only by swishing cymbals.

But it all builds up to that final climb, first up to a giant Bb, which he holds triumphantly--that sound!--before using it as a springboard into a dazzling cadenza. The band implores, "Look out, Satch!" and Pops replies with some grumbling about "going to make that note" (Dizzy Gillespie must have known this record as, with Joe Carroll playing Louis, this routine would crop up in his 1950s parody, "Pops Confessin'"). And sure enough, Pops sets off on a giant gliss and makes that note, a big fat Eb up in the stratosphere. Bravo, Pops.

S'all for now. Have a great weekend everyone, and if you're lucky enough to be at David Ostwald's concert at the Louis Armstrong House Museum on Saturday night, come up and say hello as I'll be enjoying the righteous sounds direct from Pops's garden. Til next time...

1 comment:

Lulla said...

I am writing a dissertation about Ella and Louis, and I would like to know where you found this info regarding the Many southern cities had the scene cut from showings . I want to proof that Louis was vcitim of chensorship but I could not find any document.Thanks in advance