Monday, July 19, 2010

You Go To My Head

Recorded October 14, 1957
Track Time 6:28
Written by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie
Recorded in Los Angeles
Louis Armstrong, vocal; Oscar Peterson, piano; Herb Ellis, guitar; Ray Brown, bass; Louie Bellson, drums
Originally released on Verve
Currently available on CD: Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson
Available on Itunes? Yes

When I somehow find the time to churn out a new blog, it usually comes in one of two varieties: the anniversary post or the completely random Itunes shuffle result. But occasionally, I listen to a Louis song that hits me so in between the eyes that I have to run to the computer and share it with the world (the perks of having a blog).

That's what happened to me today when I listened to Louis Armstrong's 1957 recording of "You Go To My Head." Full disclosure: this was not exactly a song I had never listened to before. As I've mentioned in this space before, I hold the album Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson in almost absurdly high estimation, ranking probably just behind the W. C. Handy tribute and Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography in my pantheon of favorite Louis long-playing albums. I also feel that it's one of Louis's most neglected outings in the jazz community, though I don't know why this is the case.

Perhaps because it represented something so very different in the Louis discography during this part of his career: no All Stars, no strings, no arrangements, no pop tunes. It's just Louis backed by a hall-of-fame quartet, given a dozen of the finest songs ever written to put his remarkable stamp on. For this project, I hail producer Norman Granz, one of my heroes. Granz had impeccable taste in musicians and songs and he really gave Louis first-class treatment during his too-short run of albums on the Verve label.

Of course, when mentioning Louis and Verve, I have to mention his three classic albums with Ella Fitzgerald, just perfect chunks of music that no amount of superlatives can do justice. Then there's Louis's two albums arranged by Russell Garcia, ones that found Louis in an the midst of a grueling pace that found him playing each evening in Las Vegas, then flying to Los Angeles every morning to record for Granz, traveling with abused chops on his face. Even with Louis in pain and with Garcia's somewhat overblown arrangements, those albums have some incredible moments, featuring some of Louis's most human moments on the trumpet (just listen to him push through "Stormy Weather" and try not to cry).

But for me, the Peterson album takes the cake. For one thing, Louis's trumpet was in better form than on the Garcia sessions of just two months prior. But there's something about hearing Louis with just an ace rhythm section that is so refreshing--and this is coming from the world's number one fan of the All Stars! But I think it's a perfect primer album for jazz fans who don't know much about Louis. The All Stars might reek too much of Dixieland, the "What a Wonderful World"-esque pop tunes might be pegged as too commercial and those world-changing early records could be hindered by poor sound quality to someone used to listening to jazz from the 1950s, 60s and beyond. I do not condone such reactions, but I know they exist.

But the Louis-meets-Peterson album sounds like a normal jazz album of the 50s, featuring choice standards, some ballads, some burners, a little bit of everything. And Louis rises to the occasion marvelously, contributing vocals that rival anything Sinatra or Billie Holiday or any other top singer was putting out during the same period. And on trumpet, his power on "Let's Fall in Love" is frightening, he handles the deft tempo of "Just One of Those Things" with ease and in the words of my mentor Lewis Porter, "out-Mileses Miles" on "Sweet Lorraine."

So you can that I love this album. Every few months, I'll give it a spin and it always moves me to no end. Last week, I brought my copy to work and listened to it three days in a row. Then, the other night I brought it in my car and listened to it once again while driving by myself. This time "You Go To My Head" came on and I don't know, even though I had heard it approximately 87 times prior, this time it really got me. The muted trumpet reading of the chorus is so fragile, so heartbreaking, its a masterpiece in itself. But then Louis sings and well, good night nurse. What a vocal! I mentioned Sinatra and Holiday, who each owned this song. Well, I'm not condoning the destruction of their records but I do think Louis's version should be mentioned with theirs. This is some DEEP stuff. Give it a listen and try to disagree:


Isn't that the warmest performance imaginable? The trumpet solo is so sober, so subdued, you might forget its Louis for a second. Except for that sound. Jesus Christ, what a sound! Even muted, nothing could subdue the pure sound of that horn. And the man barely leaves the melody but just infuses it with a lifetime of emotion that it just melts me into mush. Perhaps someone looking for the "Hotter Than That" virtuosity or the searing high notes of "St. Louis Blues," to name two songs I've shared in the last week or so, might be disappointed. But I don't know, it moves me tremendously.

But for reason #273 of why Louis was simply the greatest, who else could play the trumpet like that, set aside his instrument and deliver such a moving vocal? Some props must go to lyricist Haven Gillespie, whose lyrics are of a simply can't-miss quality. Anyone who has loved and lost can identify with these lyrics. Louis still radiates his usual warmth--pronouncing "burgundy" as "boigundy," delivering a perfect scat run, etc.--giving it a different spin then say, Sinatra's tone of despair. But it's still very subdued, very powerful and I think touches the listener in a different way, a way that states that yes, love hurts but it's always worth the heartache as long as you keep on smiling. Or in Louis's parlance...boppa do zot!

Well, that's all I have for tonight. I'd love to hear other opinions on this song and especially this album. It's back to work for me tomorrow...and I'll probably be spinning it one more time.

3 comments:

Al Pomerantz said...

Ricky,
Thanks a million for one I'd sadly neglected for years. But certainly you can also never offer enough Oscar props, reminding us that Oscar might just be the single greatest of all time, as much for what we feel as what we hear, and certainly for his supernatural and prescient accompaniment. Oscar and Pops, why piano, trumpet, and music were invented. Thanks again.

Michael Steinman said...

That is a superb album, making me wish that Granz had done it more -- imagine Louis with Jimmy Rowles and no one else! For me, the extraordinary apex is THERE'S NO YOU, the duet with Ellis. A little sidebar: Jonathan Schwartz, who spins records on New York's WNYC-FM, has eclectic taste (a polite way of saying I leave the room now and again when the Beloved has him on the radio) and some weeks ago he chose to play Diana Krall's version of the song -- very credible singing and piano, quite pleasant. Then Jonathan followed up with the Louis version and poor Ms. Krall vanished into the ether as if she had been a mote in the air. She no longer existed. Louis had such power to touch the heart that he can be a dangerous weapon to other singers and players . . . even thirty-or-so-years dead. Cheers and thanks!

Swingin' Drummer said...

Love this album! I actually bought it after hearing "Blues in the Night" (another highlight) in a restaurant while on tour in DC. That track blew me away and I immediately sought out and bought the album. It is one of Louis' most soulful albums and Oscars playing compliments him beautifully.