Monday, August 16, 2010

80 Years of "Confessin'" Part 1: The Original

Louis Armstrong and His Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra
Recorded August 19, 1930
Track Time 3:28
Written by Al J. Neiburg, Doc Daugherty and Ellis Reynolds
Recorded in Los Angeles, CA
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leon Elkins, trumpet, conductor; Unknown, trumpet; Lawrence Brown, trombone; Leon Herriford, Willie Stark, alto saxophone; William Franz, trombone; Charlie Lawrence, piano; Ceele Burke, banjo, steel-guitar; Reggie Jones, tuba; Lionel Hampton, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41448
Currently available on CD: It’s on the JSP two-disc set The Big Band Sides, 1930-1932, as well as about a hundred other discs
Available on Itunes? Yes

With New Orleans and the Satchmo Summerfest behind me, it was time to resume regular blogging. I hadn't done an anniversary posting in a while I took out my battered copy of Jos Willems's Armstrong discography, "All of Me," and check if there was anything worth celebrating this month. I wasn't disappointed: August 19 is the 80th anniversary of Louis's first recording of "I'm Confessin' (That I Love You) while August 23 marks the 60th anniversary of Louis's one and only historical (and hysterical) recorded meeting with Louis Jordan.

Thus, there's plenty to celebrate in these next two weeks. As usual, I don't exactly have time to hit each of these anniversaries on the nose so I'm beginning "Confessin'" a couple of days early and plan on making this a four-part series: today will focus on the original then I'll be back with a look at Louis's late 1930s studio and broadcast versions, an entry on Louis's star-studded mid-40s versions and finally a history of the tune as performed by Louis with the All Stars. And once I get through that, look out for Louis Jordan! Trust me, you're not going to want to miss that one.

But today we're talking about "Confessin'," one of Louis's signature tunes and one he would perform for 40 years (his last known public performance of it is a charming version sung to his wife Lucille on the "Mike Douglas Show" in 1970). The song was written by Ellis Rynolds and Doc Daugherty with lyrics by Al J. Neiburg, the man responsible for "Under a Blanket of Blue" and "It's the Talk of the Town" to name two standards. But as many hardcore fans of early jazz might now, these songwriters must have been big fans of Fats Waller. The previous year, Waller recorded a song titled "Lookin' for Another Sweetie," which I've seen credited to the team of "Smith and Grant." I've also seen it credited to Waller and Fred Saintly. Either way, it's a carbon copy of "Confessin'" and it was recorded in 1929 while "Confessin'" wasn't published until 1930. Clearly, there was some dirty work afoot. The Waller performance, though it boasts a sad vocal by Orlando Roberson, is a classic featuring a remarkalbe group with Red Allen, Leonard Davis, Jack Teagarden, J.C. Higginbotham, Albert Nicholas, Charlie Holmes, Waller, Pops Foster, Kaiser Marshall and others (Jesus, my fingers started sweating as I typed those names!). If you've never heard it, you can listen to it now by clicking here.

Alas, "Lookin' for Another Sweetie" went nowhere and when "Confessin'" came around a few months later, it was a bona fide hit thanks to versions by Rudy Vallee and Guy Lombardo. OKeh records had been getting quite comfortable in passing along the latest pop hits for Louis to record and in "Confessin'" they had a tune that was a perfect fit. Armstrong recorded it in California on August 19, 1930 with Leon Elkins's band from Sebastian's Cotton Club, a band that included youngsters Lawrence Brown on trombone and Lionel Hampton on drums (not bad!). (For the full story on Louis's coming out to California and fronting on Elkins's band, see my entry on "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy" by clicking
here.)

Louis's record of "Confessin'" contains what some might deem a slightly bizarre accompaniment courtesy of Ceele Burke's Hawaiian guitar. Many jazz purists have scratched their heads at this novelty addition but I don't know, after listening to this recording about a thousand times, I find it charming. The only explanation I can muster for its presence is that earlier in the year, Louis recorded "Song of the Islands" for OKeh with violins. Perhaps it sold well and OKeh though Louis should record something else with a Hawaiian element so they asked for some steel guitar. Who knows, but I'll let you decide whether or not it works. But steel guitar aside, this is one magical recording. Listen for yourself:


Lovely, lovely stuff. After Burke's intro, Louis comes right in with the vocal, and it's a damn touching one. It really unfurls like one of his classic solos; he opens by sticking pretty close to the melody before he gradually begins to take more chances with it, throwing it snatches of scat and eventually rephrasing it with a tremendous passion. Great moments: Louis boiling down "But your lips deny they're true" to one pitch; his repetition of "making them blue"; the little two-note descending scat motif in the middle of the bridge. and the aforementioned passionate rephrasing of the final eight bars, bubbling into an ecstatic bit of scat. A fantastic vocal, and I think it must be a somewhat historic one as it's a black man coming right out and singing the phrase "I love you," something that I don't think was very common back then. You just couldn't stop Louis...

The vocal leads into a nifty trombone solo by Lawrence Brown, his sound and style already formed at age 23. Then it's time for Louis, who enters with an almost fragile hesitation to his playing, riding one note for a while and finally letting it all come together in a break that Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton would "borrow" a few years later in the tune "Pick-A-Rib." Don't believe me? Here's Louis's break:


And here's the "head" of "Pick-a-Rib":


How many Armstrong improvisations crept their way into Swing Era compositions, arrangements and solos? Countless...

After Louis's shining eight bars, one of the saxophones picks up the bridge, playing with some passion but with also plenty of the dated mannerisms of other saxophonists of that era. Fortunately, our hero is there to swoop in and save the day with eight bars of bravura melody. You can hear Louis's mature style evolve with each passing bar; he keeps the melody front and center but what he plays in between it is mind-boggling. At such a slow tempo, he's swinging like mad, playing in the upper register before reeling off a dazzling break that actually ends in the lower register of the horn.

And with that, a masterpiece was born and jazz had one of its first great ballad recordings. I forget the story (I think it's in a Stanley Dance book), but decades later, a group of top Swing Era trumpeters were joking around during rehearsal when someone mentioned Louis's "Confessin'" solo and everyone of those musicians--years and years later--sang Louis's solo together with note-for-note perfection. This was some influential stuff.

As for Louis, he had just recorded a song that would become associated with him until the day he died. In his later years, Louis took quite a bit of heat for recording pop tunes and love songs, seen by some in jazz circles as having gone "commercial." But Louis addressed this issue towards the end of his life by tying it in with "Confessin'" in what is one of my all-time favorite quotes: "I came off one night after playing 'Tenderly' I think it was, and this man got all steamed up with me. He said, 'I heard yo playing that love song, and I'd hoped you were going to play some of the great old jazz tunes you did in the 1930's.' 'Hell,' I said, 'I recorded "Confessin'' about that time and that sure ain't a hate song.'" Amen, Pops...

See you in a few days for part 2!

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