It's been a long time since I've been able to write about any major new Armstrong C.D. release. The last big one I can think of was the Mosaic Decca box of 2009 preceded by the Fleischmann's Yeast set of 2008. Otherwise, the pickings have been slim as the major labels sit on their jazz archives and the MP3 world more or less sees an endless stream of no-name bootlegs enter the market. However, a new Armstrong set was released last week, though it's flying so low under the radar I don't quite understand it. It's called, "Hello, Louis! The Hit Years 1963-1963" and it's put out by the good people at Hip-O Select.
Do you know about Hip-O Select? The Hip-O label has been around for a while and they've done some nice Armstrong compilations in the past, including the three-disc "An American Icon" set that is more or less the ideals soundtrack to my forthcoming book (the "American Icon" set is now out-of-print but available used on Amazon for about $10!). Fairly recently, Hip-O was pretty much given carte blanch of the vaults of the Universal Music Group, allowing them to put out limited edition boxed sets a la Mosaic Records. Unlike Mosaic, Hip-O Select doesn't cater specifically to jazz, instead releasing complete sets on everyone from Chuck Berry and Little Walter to Buddy Holly and The Supremes.
But now they're getting into jazz, which is cause for celebration. They put out a fantastic Ella Fitzgerald boxed set last year culled from unissued material recorded at the Crescendo Club, a set that was received with tremendous publicity and great sales (see that, big labels?). Now, they've done what look like terrific sets (I haven't purchased them) on Oscar Peterson and Nat King Cole, focusing on Peterson's rare duet recordings from 1949-1951 and some of Cole's finest jazz sides of the 1940s.
And now, they've given the Hip-O Select touch to ol' Pops. So what did they dig up? The Verve Hollywood Bowl concert of 1956? More alternate takes from Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson? What could it be???
The answer? A two-disc set that reissues the complete "Hello, Dolly" and "What a Wonderful World" albums, as well as Louis's 1960s Mercury Recordings and a handful of bonus tracks.
All right, I don't mean to be so unenthusiastic but the majority of this set is so easily accessible elsewhere that it's hard to must up THAT much enthusiasm. BUT--and it's a pretty big but--this is the first time that Louis's 1960s Mercury output has ever been issued in complete form in the US and that is pretty good news for the hardcore Armstrong fan...
...such as myself, who dropped $30 on this set just to have terrific sounding versions of Louis's 13 Mercury master takes, as well as two rare Kapp singles from 1968. I have Louis's Mercury material on the original LP simply titled, "Louis," which I transferred to CD in shaky sound. Then I purchased a German bootleg with Louis's Mercury and Brunswick 1960s material that satisfied me but the sound was only marginally better. Now, I have the Mercury material in sparkling sound and I couldn't be happier...but is it worth it?
Louis's Mercury output contains a fairly mixed bag. Louis joined the label right after he had a hit with "Hello, Dolly" so the formula for the Mercury sessions was to come up with a "Dolly" clone, often with middling results. Armstrong recorded for the label in 1964, '65 and '66, finally coming up with a winner in his last session for the label with "Mame." The deck was usually stacked against Louis as he had to battle both inferior material and diminishing chops during this period, making some of the Mercury singles somewhat forgettable.
But others are bona fide classics. I rate "Short But Sweet" to be one of Louis's finest performances of the 1960s, a recording so powerful that it moved Louis's friend Jack Bradley to call me out of the blue a few months ago because he listened to it on a disc I had sent him and was so emotionally moved, he couldn't think straight. And Louis's trumpet playing on the 1964 dates is pretty spectacular.
Thus, I would never recommend the Mercurys as first-choice, desert island Armstrong but there's some great stuff here that most Armstrong nuts should have. Then again, those same people interested in specifically the Mercury recordings probably already have the complete "Hello, Dolly" and "What a Wonderful World" albums elsewhere so it becomes a struggle to decide whether or not to make the leap.
Of course, if you don't have those albums or if you know someone interested in ultra-late, pop-hit, Louis, then by all means, don't pass this set up. But $30 for 13 Mercury sides, two corny Kapp singles and "We Have All the Time in the World" (which I don't believe has ever been issued on CD in the United States) is a little steep.
But you see, this is where the fine folks at Hip-O Select dropped the ball a bit. Disc 1 is a chunky 70 minutes, filled the gills and packed with good stuff (I don't listen to it often, but my goodness that original "Hello, Dolly" album has some great stuff). Disc 2 however ends at only 40 minutes and to me that's a bit unfair. I happen to know that many rehearsal, alternate and insert takes exist for the Mercury sessions (I happen to know this because I have copies of them...shhhhhh) but none made the cut. About 10 years ago, when Verve was knocking out Armstrong reissues the great producer Ben Young added many alternates to the releases he produced, notably the two-fer "I've Got the World on a String/Louis Under the Stars" (all hail Ben Young!). Because I know this stuff exists, it's a shame that Hip-O Select didn't raid the vaults any deeper for this stuff.
But never mind unissued rarities; what about other Armstrong odds and ends from the period? Adding the 1968 Kapp single of "Life of the Party" and "Kinda Love Song" is a terrific bonus for collectors (though neither song is Gershwin-esque). But for me, my mind melts when confronted with the puzzling choice of "We Have All the Time in the World," which was a United Artists release. I don't argue with reissuing that song, but why not issue the flip side, an incredible "Pretty Little Missy" that featured the final trumpet solo Louis ever recorded in a studio (and it's a great one, too!). The only version in my collection is in crappy sound quality so that really would have made me flip. And since they got "We Have All the Time" from United Artists, why not include Louis's two Mitch Miller-produced singles from 1967, "No Time Is a Good Good-Bye Time" and "We're a Home"? Those would have also been especially rare treats.
And correct me if I'm wrong, but Hip-O Select is using the Universal catalog. Doesn't Universal own Decca and Brunswick recordings? Louis recorded an album for Brunswick in 1967 and 1968, "I Will Wait for You," that again, isn't exactly one for the time capsule but is deserving of release, which has never happened in the United States in the compact disc era. That album, according to my Itunes, clocked in at 31 minutes. Thus, disc 2 could have included the entire Brunswick album, the two United Artists singles from 1967 and "Pretty Little Missy" from 1969 and it still would have clocked in at under 80 minutes. And my goodness, it would have been a can't-miss for both newbies looking for the hits and for the hardened collector who might have been trying to piece together these scraps for years.
The packaging for the set is fine, with some lovely photos included in the booklet. The liner notes by Bill Dahl, a terrific blues writer, are fine though I could always find something to nitpick. Dahl doesn't seem to have had access to a large Armstrong reference library as his list of resources at the end of the notes are pretty sad, with no major Armstrong works of late listed. He does list a vague "Louis Armstrong Discography" with no details but I can assure you that it's not the essential one compiled by Jos Willems (one that can be partly searched on Google Books for free). Dahl is hung up on the "Hello, Dolly" session being recorded in a single session on April 18, 1964 but as Willems makes clear, it was actually recorded over three sessions (none April 18). And he also repeats the old myth about "We Have All the Time in the World" being recorded in London, when it was really done in New York. I know its nitpicking but there's some silly errors that could have been fixed with a little more research.
And one final odd thing: this set has been released with zero fanfare. As I mentioned earlier, the Ella Fitzgerald box got a "New York Times" review, it was released in stores and sold a bunch. I only knew of the Louis set because I received a Google Alert mentioning it...two days before it released! And I had to order it through Hip-O's website (www.hip-oselect.com) as it wasn't listed anywhere else, including Amazon (it's still not!). And when you go to the Hip-O site, you can search for "Louis Armstrong" and find it but otherwise, it was buried as the last release on the "Rock, Pop and Country" page. Weird...
But that, my dear readers, is that. If this sounds like a release that will fit your needs, head over to the Hip-O site, plunk down the $30 and have a ball. If you want to pass, by all means, pass (though this is a limited edition of 6,000 copies if that matters). It's not a groundbreaking release and it's not what it could have been, but it's Pops and the music is still pretty great. Have a great weekend!