Sunday, November 21, 2010

80 Years of "Memories of You": Part 1 - The Original

Louis Armstrong and His Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra
Recorded October 16, 1930
Track Time 3:13
Written by Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf
Recorded in Los Angeles, CA
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; George Orendorff, Harold Scott trumpet; Luther Craven, trombone; Les Hite, alto saxophone, conductor; Marvin Johnson, alto saxophone; Charlie Jones, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Henry Prince, Harvey Brooks, piano; Bill Perkins, guitar; Joe Bailey, bass; Lionel Hampton, drums, vibraphone.
Originally released on OKeh 41463
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

After some crazy, crazy blogless weeks in September and October, I am now attempting to break out of it and get back something that resembles regular blogging. However, I realized a lot of time passed without an anniversary post. I consulted my battered copy of Jos Willems's Armstrong discography "All of Me" and checked out what I missed. Yep, October 3, was the 75th anniversary of Louis's first Decca session (opening with "I'm in the Mood for Love"). And September 10 was the 45th anniversary of one of my favorite later Armstrong recordings, the almost forgotten "Short But Sweet." Damn, how did I let that go by?

But I had to choose something to start with and the winner was "Memories of You," recorded 80 years ago on October 16, 1930. Not only is it a fantastic song, but Louis made a wonderful record of it, one that is somewhat historic (take a bow, Mr. Hampton), and continued to perform it for quite some time, giving me a bunch of versions to talk about over the next week. So let's start at the beginning with the original recording.

"Memories of You" was written by the dynamite team of Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf for a Broadway show, "Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1930." Louis was one of the first to record it, though Duke Ellington had beat him to it, waxing a version on October 2. In fact, let's give a quick listen to the Duke's take on it because it's a very interesting record:

The first thing you notice is the tempo, more upbeat than probably every single proceeding version. Then it's time for a vocal featuring the velvet tones of Irving Mills, the less said of which, the better. It's fascinating tha when compared to what you're going to Louis do with those same lyrics just two weeks later. Then after an arranged, muted passage that sounds like pure 1920s dance band music, the Duke steps out and swings the final chorus, made up of phrases and rhythms that probably couldn't have existed without Louis. So it's a pretty interesting record to see someone as epic as Duke with one foot in the past and one foot in Armstrong's conception of the future. But enough about that, let's get to Pops.

Louis was in California at the time, fronting Les Hite's band, working and broadcasting nightly from Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club in Culver City. The drummer of that band was young Lionel Hampton, already heard to great effect on Louis's other California recordings, swinging like mad on "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy." But for "Memories of You" Hamp offered a more important contribution to the jazz world: his first vibraphone solo. I'll let Hamp tell the story:

"We were recording for OKeh, and the recording studio was also the NBC studio and sitting in the corner was a set of vibes. Louis said, 'What's that instrument over there?' And I said, 'Oh, that'sa new instrument that they're bringing into percussion, into the drum department. They call it vibraharp, some call it a vibraphone.' At that time they were only playing a few notes on it--bing, bong, bang--like the tones you hear for N-B-C....Louis noticed the vibraharp again. So he said 'Can you play it?' I was a young kid, full of confidence, and I said, 'Sure.' So I looked at it, and it had the same keyboard as the xylophone had. He said, 'Pull it out in the middle of the floor and play something on it.'...Everybody's standing around waiting to record, and I played one of his solos, note for note, that I had taken off one of his records....He said, 'Come on, we going to put this on a record. You can play on this record.' Eubie Blake had sent Louis a copy of his song, 'Memories of You,' and I played the introduction on it....That's the first time jazz had ever been played on the vibes."

According to Louis, Hampton had already been playing the vibes before the "Memories of You" date. In his notebooks to Robert Goffin, Louis wrote of his first rehearsal with Hampton in the California band originally led by Leon Elkins, and later by Les Hite. He wrote about Hampton being "one of the Swinginest Drummers I had ever seen and heard in my life. And he was playing some little Bells which he kept besides his Drums. And he was Swinging the hell out of them too--like I had never heard in my life before."

So who know? Perhaps Hamp was already a virtuoso by the time of the "Memories of You" date. Regardless, it's an important landmark in the history of the vibraphone in recorded jazz...but it does last a matter of seconds so I think it's time to move on. In fact, I think it's time to listen to that original recording in all its glory:

Nothing wrong with that. Hamp's intro is on the mark, swinging and setting the tempo completely unaccompanied. And then it's the glory of Pops, taking eight bars of melody, backed by some nice guitar playing by Bill Perkins (whose entire style seems to be comprised of single-string obbligatos). One gets the sense just in that brief solo that Louis is going to do mighty special things with that ascending melody. He doesn't disappoint.

After another spot for Hampton, completely unaccompanied by demanding you pat your foot to him, Louis delivers an ultra-tender vocal. The song "Memories of You" is inherently a sad one and Louis doesn't do anything remotely humorous, treating it like is a sacred work, at least as far as the lyrics are concerned. His additions of "Now honey," "oh baby" and the rest of the ilk are very endearing, making the song very personal. But from a melodic standpoint, Louis basically composes a new one with his daring reshaping of the written words. If I had the time--and ability--to do in-depth transcriptions, this one would be ideal because even when Louis borrows something from the melody, he still puts a spin on it, choosing to sing a passage higher or lower than written, or just stringing large chunks of words together on one pitch. Armstrong also makes great use of repetition, especially in the bridge, where he fills in the gaps by repeating "yesteryears" and "rosary of tears" to hammer home the emotional content of he lyric. The climax finally arrives with Louis's passionate "oh baby" in the last eight bars, a completely natural expression of emotion that is so real, it renders the notion of approaching the tune as Irving Mills did completely unfathomable.

After that delicious vocal, the band starts swinging out a bit as Les Hite takes eight bars on alto, allowing Pops to get set up for his climactic solo. After entering with a terrific break with hints of "Dixie," Louis is off an running, completely playing with the time, floating across the bar lines. He actually builds down in his first eight bars, setting up a dramatic bridge, where his use of space--punctuated by the band's accenting the first beat of every bar--creates an atmosphere equal parts relaxed and intense. It all builds up to that high, held concert Bb, which Armstrong continues exploiting into his final eight bars, returning to that note again and again, hitting it from different angles, boiling the wide-spanning contour of the melody to a single, searing pitch. After this dazzling, virtuoso display, Armstrong calms down a bit (Hampton making his present felt again with those chords on his vibes), building up to the big ending, as Armstrong slows it down and ends with a screaming high Eb, though Hampton gets the last word in. An absolute magical recording.

Come back in a couple of days to hear how Louis tackled the tune on a 1937 radio broadcast. Til then!

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