Sunday, October 17, 2010

April in Portugal

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded April 21, 1953
Track Time 2:42
Written by Raul Ferrão and Jimmy Kennedy
Recorded in New York, NY
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Trummy Young, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Milt Yaner, Dick Jacobs, alto saxophone; Sam Taylor, tenor saxophone; Everett Barksdale, guitar; Joe Bushkin, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Cozy Cole, drums
Originally released on Decca 28704
Currently available on CD: Satchmo Serenades
Available on Itunes? Yes

Ever get a song stuck in your head that you don't really know how it ended up there...but you don't mind it? Well, welcome to my world. Since immersing myself in jazz 15 years ago, almost a minute doesn't go by without some fleeting melody bouncing around my brain. And oddly enough, I usually like and feel the need to jump in. I might as well warn you: I'm a serial whistler, a foot stomper, a head nodder and above everything else, a tapper. Oh boy, when I get tapping, stand back! I once got in a gang of trouble back in high school when I started a four-man percussion section, all of us using our hands....during study hall in the school library! The librarians did not appreciate our polyrhythms.

Friends would watch me tap on a desk and say, "Geez, do you have ADD or something?" I would brush them off and say, "Oh, you're missing out because you can't hear the song in my head!" And then I'd go back to tapping out patterns learned from Sid Catlett or Cozy Cole.

I usually walk around by myself with an Ipod and even at work, there's usually form of Armstrong coming from my desk. I don't like silence and if I'm surrounded by it, well, here comes the whistling and tapping!

Anyway, this is all a prologue to today's blog. I obviously have been slow as molasses getting these things out but I knew I'd have a bit of time this afternoon. But what to write about? I didn't really have anything planned and I didn't feel like spinning my Itunes shuffle. But while out to breakfast with my wife and daughter this morning, I realized I couldn't get the damn bridge to "April in Portgual" out of my head...and I liked it! More or more, it played on repeat, and occasionally I joined in with a whistle or by singing a lyric or two to myself. Somehow it got planted in my brain--I don't think I've listened to the track in weeks--but once I realized it, I figured I'd share it with the world and see if it could get stuck in the collective brains of my loyal readers.

The tune "April in Portugal" was originally an instrumental, by Raul Ferrão with the original title "Coimbra" about a city in Portgual. In 1947, Jimmy Kennedy wrote English lyrics and re-named the tune, "April in Portugal" (I guess it was catchier than "April in Coimbra"). But as far as I can tell, the tune was under the radar until it exploded in 1953. Les Baxter's instrumental version spent 22 weeks on the chart beginning on March 28 of that year. To hear the sound that captivated the nation, we turn our eyes (and ears) to YouTube:

Yep, that's the sound. Three other versions--Richard Haman's, Freddy Martin's and Vic Damone's--also charted in April and May 1953. The world had gone "Portugal" mad. And that meant one thing: it was time for Louis Armstrong to cover it!

You have to give Milt Gabler of Decca some credit; he knew Pops. Sometimes, Decca was maligned for having Armstrong cover other people's hits but Gabler always made appropriate choices. I just consulted the online "Cash Box" charts from April 1953 and do you know what was the number one hit for that entire month? Patti Page and "The Doggie in the Window." 'Nuff said.

So Gabler knew what songs to avoid but more importantly, he knew how to select songs that Armstrong could really dig into. Another song with Spanish origins was also burning up the chart in early 1953, "Ramona." Gabler saw a pairing of "Ramona" and "April in Portugal" as a natural and he was correct. To hear Armstrong's "Ramona," click here as I already blogged about it last year. Trust me, it's worth a listen as it's a pretty dynamite cover.

But now, it's off to "Portugal." GIve a listen:


In the words of our hero, "Yeah, man!" (or in Portguese, "Sim Man"...thank you, Internet). The recording was made by the All Stars augmented by three reeds and guitar. Though he's not listed in the discography, I'm willing to wager money that Sy Oliver contributed the arrangement because the strutting two-beat feel has Oliver's name all over it. For Armstrong's take on the tune, the tempo was slowed down a bit, only allowing enough room for a single-chorus vocal. Thus, the trumpet playing you hear at the beginning is IT. Armstrong was aware of this and conducted one of his lessons in telling a complete, exciting story in less than a minute.

Right from the start, it's clear that Pops's chops were in top shape (you'd know that already if you listened to "Ramona"!). His intro is so simple but my goodness, how he makes those quarter notes swing. Arvell Shaw's bass rolls out the red carpet for Armstrong to play a touch of melody (Barney Bigard sounds like he had some coffee...he's all over his horn!). Armstrong infuses the melody with his special sound before he lets loose and starts improvising, wailing to the close of his potent, but too-short solo.

Then Armstrong takes the vocal, which is a ball, because it tests his range. Armstrong passes the test but it's always fun hearing him reaching for those high ones. I've always loved the tune's minor bridge the best; Armstrong at first sounds a bit tentative but he really digs in to the word "Portgual" (this is the part stuck in my head) and ends with some passionate vocalizing. Armstrong goes back to crooning the melody sweetly (listen to him holding the middle syllable on romance, shaking it a bit like his trumpet) until the scat-filled close. With the band wailing, Armstrong's "and Portugal too" is a nice punctuation mark. A fine record.

Naturally, Armstrong's cover didn't exactly burn up the charts but as is usually the case with Pops, his version seems to have endured better than the popular versions from the period. When I typed "April in Portugal" into YouTube, Armstrong's version was the first to come up (though Perez Prado's has more views...dig if it you're a fan of the mambo; it's great!). Combined with the flip side of "Ramona" this is a nifty little record that, as usual, has been forgotten by the jazz cognescenti. Well, who needs them? As long as my readers and Pops fans from around the world are digging it, it'll always live on. I hope you enjoyed this look back at this number (though if anything, it's more firmly embedded in my head than ever...no complaints!).

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