Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I Believe

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded November 1, 1967
Track Time 3:25
Written by Ervin Drake, Irvin Grham, Jimmy Shirl and Al Stillman
Recorded in New York, NY
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Tyree Glenn, trombone; Joe Muranyi, clarinet; Marty Napoleon, piano; Art Ryerson, banjo; Wally Richardson, guitar; Everett Barksdale, electric bass; Buddy Catlett, bass; Grady Tate, drums; with unknown vocal group with three male and three female voices, Dick Jacobs, conductor
Originally released on Brunswick BL 754136
Currently available on CD: Tough to find, but it's on a couple of compilations, including one blandly titled "The Best of Louis Armstrong"
Available on Itunes? Yes

Sometimes, you don't know when something's going to hit you right between the eyes. Over the course of three sessions from October 1967 to March 1968, Louis Armstrong recorded ten songs for a Brunswick LP, "I Will Wait for You." For years, this music eluded me as it was never issued on CD or MP3. Eventually, I stumbled across a German three-disc boxed set with the ultra-generic title "The Best of Louis Armstrong" that had all of the Brunswick recordings. I listened to them and safe to say, my first impression was pretty underwhelming. Many of the songs were trifle, forgotten music for forgotten movies. The arrangements by Dick Jacobs were as square as could be and on top of all that, Louis barely played the trumpet (40 bars total across the entire album!).

One song particularly bothered me, "The Happy Time," which, to this day, I still regard as probably the worst Louis Armstrong record ever made, though it wasn't Pops's fault; he tried but the material and the arrangement was too much to overcome (another candidate, for me, is "His Father Wore Long Hair," on which Armstrong tries almost too hard).

But another song also rubbed me the wrong way at first listen, "I Believe," on which I thought Louis was trying awfully hard but was swallowed whole by Jacob's cloying choir. In a super-early draft of my book, I knocked "The Happy Time" and "I Believe" as being two of Louis's lowest moments in the recording studio.

Suffice to say, I haven't spent much time with this Brunswick album as it doesn't improve with each passing listen. But the other day, I was standing in a subway station in Queens when my Ipod shuffle led me to "I Believe." I had just missed a train so I sat down and in the quiet subway--a rarity--I LISTENED to "I Believe." And when it was done, my heart was pounding and I was ready to cry.

I ended up listening to it three times in a row, then took a break, and returned to it later in my commute. Still knocked me out. How the hell did I write this song off for so long?

Before sharing it and getting your opinion (though I realize I accidentally shared the music a bit too early for about six hours today; I had to get my daughter up from her nap and didn't have time to come back to the blog!), a little background. "I Believe" was written by four songwriters in 1953 and was debuted by Jane Froman on television. The always dramatic Frankie Laine soon covered it and had a major hit, one that was especially popular in the United Kingdom. Here's Laine's version:

Like most Laine, you can hear the man's heart on his sleeve, but I'm not bothered but such emotion. (And don't forget, Louis had done well by Laine, turning in memorable versions of Laine hits "That Lucky Old Sun" and "That's My Desire.") The song was also popular with many vocal groups of the 1950s, as attested to the many versions found on YouTube.

But how did Pops end up with it? I have a simple theory: "What a Wonderful World." Louis had just recorded this song, his best-known hit today, in August 1967. The idea of having Louis sing an inspirational song with strings and a choir was a novel one, one that Bob Theile was glad to take credit for. The song barely made a stir in America but was a huge hit in England. Louis began performing it almost immediately, debuting it on "The Tonight Show" on October 11, 1967. As wonderful was "Wonderful World" was, Louis had already turned towards inspirational works literally only weeks earlier, when he trotted out "You'll Never Walk Alone," one of his famed instrumental showpieces from the 1950s, and began singing it in July 1967, always managing to dedicate it to the mother's of the soldiers in Vietnam. Louis continued singing both songs night after night, "What a Wonderful World" placed up front after "Indiana" and "You'll Never Walk Alone" sometimes acting as the evening's closer.

Perhaps sensing a trend, Brunswick decided to jump on the bandwagon, much like the "Hello, Dolly" clones, Louis recorded for Mercury earlier in the decade. In addition to a beautiful "You'll Never Walk Alone" (which I covered in here last year; hear it by clicking here), Brunswick asked Louis to put his stamp on "I Believe," perhaps sensing some similarities in theme and content with "What a Wonderful World."

Louis was more than game; he ate this kind of material up. I am now going to share the audio to this gem. Learn from my mistakes, if you can; try to ignore the intrusive choir, the silly popping of Everett Barksdale's electric bass, the odd sound of the All Stars trying to add a hint of New Orleans polyphony in the background. Just ignore it all and focus on Louis and listen to the man pouring his heart and soul to spread this message of hope:


Well, there's not much for me to say; I think it speaks for itself. What do you think? Was my original opinion valid? Has marriage and fatherhood turned me into a softy? Or are you as touched by the gospel of Pops on "I Believe" as I am? As always, comments are appreciated. Let me know and perhaps I'll post a follow-up in a few days.

(And to those who know I am crazy about the Yankees, this is my theme when asked if they can come back from a 3-1 deficit....we'll see!)

2 comments:

Greg Beaman said...

Ricky, You're not crazy...that track got soul! Keep 'em comin'!

Anonymous said...

You're right about Louis' performance, but even he can't rescue this record alone. Does anyone else appreciate "We Have All The Time In The World?" as much as I do?