Sunday, January 30, 2011

60 Years of "Satchmo at Pasadena"

Hello all, and especially to you newcomers. In recent weeks, Patrick jarenwattananon of NPR's excellent jazz site, A Blog Supreme, has given me two appreciated shout-outs while Michael Steinman over at Jazz Lives, was kind enough to give my upcoming lectures at the Louis Armstrong House Museum on "Louis and Race" a nice plug (more on those as we get a little closer). On top of that, the good folks at Pantheon, publishers of my upcoming book, "What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years," called attention to the blog on their Facebook and Twitter pages. As this has been happening, I've watched my climb tremendously, which made me very happy. I still feel like a new kid on the block but I've been keeping this thing going for almost four years and for hundreds of posts so this is no novelty. So welcome to any new readers or Armstrong fans out and I hope you enjoy the lunacy. There's a vast archive of posts to search through on the left side of the page and in upcoming months, this is the place where I'll be sharing any new news about the book (such as the new official release date: June 21!). So again, welcome to my new readers and thanks for my long-term fans who have been with me for a long, long time. This is only the beginning, my friends....

With the pleasantries out of the way, let's get down to business. 60 years today, Louis Armstrong and His All Stars played a "Just Jazz" concert at the Civic Auditorium in Pasadena, California. The "Just Jazz" series was run by disc jockey and concert promoter Gene Norman and Louis was no stranger to the event. After the All Stars debuted at Billy Berg's in August 1947, one of their next stops was to play a concert for Norman in Pasadena. Norman broadcast their 1948 "Dixieland Jubilee" show on his radio show (for another day, kiddies, for another day) and the All Stars always seemed to make an annual appearance in Pasadena for Norman's events. The choice of venue was the Civic Auditorium (NOT the Shrine, as I originally posted yesterday...oops!, Here's an image from the stage to give you an idea of what the musicians saw from their vantage point:

Though Louis's Pasadena shows were a regular occurrence, the January 30, 1951 concert was extra special because Decca was there to record it. With LP technology taking off, live concert recordings were becoming all the rage. Ernie Anderson had recorded Louis's show at Symphony Hall in Boston in November 1947 and sold the tapes to Decca. Decca would release them later in the summer of 1951 and it immediately became a best-seller, cracking the Billboard Top 10 immediately (thank you Google for the use of the Billboard archives!).

Decca probably knew it was going to release "Satchmo at Symphony Hall" first but it didn't hurt to have another live album ready to go in the can. And sure enough, though recorded on January 30, 1951, "Satchmo at Pasadena" wasn't released until September 1952. And though Decca had enough material for another two-LP set, producer Milt Gabler picked what he viewed to be the highlights and changed the original order of the performances to make for a fast-moving, fantastic portrait of the All Stars in action. Here's the original LP cover, as reissued on CD and MP3 in 2009 as part of Universals "Decca Originals" series:

I can't argue with Gabler's choices: "Indiana," "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," "My Monday Date," "You Can Depend On Me" and "That's a Plenty" are fantastic Armstrong performances, while Velma Middleton gets the spotlight for two songs, "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and "The Hucklebuck" and the other three big names in the group, Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines and Barney Bigard, get "Stardust," "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Just You, Just Me." The original is a great little album, was another best-seller and must have been a favorite of Pops's, as he copied it to reel-to-reel tape in his private collection multiple times.

And that would have been the end of the story...until 1994. It was in that year when Decca decided to empty the vault. With legendary producer (and recent NEA Jazz Master) Orrin Keepnews at the helm, the label released a four-C.D. set, "The California Concerts." The set contained 18 songs from the Pasadena concert instead of 10 (only a "That's My Desire" didn't make the cut, having survived in inferior sound), as well as three sets from the All Stars's evening at the Crescendo Club (another Gene Norman venue) in January 1955, part of which was also released in the 1950s by Decca. The four-discs are about as fine a portrait of the All Stars as one can find and when you throw in Dan Morgenstern's notes, the package is essential (and I can admit that those notes were very influential on my teenaged self, lighting the fire early on that something in-depth had to be done about Louis's later years).

Alas, that set is long out-of-print, but at least the MP3s can be downloaded on Amazon or Itunes for under $40. It's the still the way to go, as far as I'm concerned. I know what Universal is doing with their "Originals" series, but a straight reissue without those eight extra tracks is kind of silly; they should have included at least a few "bonus tracks." But hey, download the "California Concerts" set and you won't be wrong.

Okay, enough about Decca and the Shrine and the reissues, let's get to the music! So where were Louis and the All Stars at this point in their existence? They were doing pretty damn good, I'll say that. When an ailing Sid Catlett left in the spring of 1949 and Cozy Cole entered on drums soon thereafter, the personnel of the All Stars locked into place for two years with Jack Teagarden on trombone, Barney Bigard on clarinet, Earl Hines on piano, Arvell Shaw on bass, Cole on drums and Velma Middleton on vocals. They conquered Europe in 1949 and broke records at venues such as Bop City in New York. Louis was growing more popular all the time, with hit records such as "Blueberry Hill," "That Lucky Old Sun," "La Vie En Rose" and "C'est Si Bon." Hollywood also came calling as most of the band had just filmed "The Strip," a little noir film starring Mickey Rooney, for MGM in December 1950.

Things would continue to get better and better for Louis throughout the 1950s, but this version of the All Stars didn't have much longer to go at the time of the Pasadena concert. Arvell Shaw was first, as he left for Switzerland to study music in June of 1951. Jack Teagarden soon followed. Louis and Teagarden loved each other but Big T was growing weary of the constant traveling and besides, had enough money to start a small group of his own, which he'd lead until his death in 1964. Earl Hines was next but that departure was much less amicable. Hines hated being treated like a sideman and was itching to leave pretty much since the time he joined in 1948. Louis was happy for Hines "and his ego" to leave in the fall of 1951. Thus, one year after the Pasadena show, all that remained were Bigard, Cole and Middleton, setting up a "rebuilding" phase that culminated in an even better edition, with Trummy Young and Billy Kyle, just a few years later.

Despite its flaws--Hines sometimes didn't pay attention, Bigard usually sounded pretty bored, Cole was a dry drummer, no match for Catlett--this was still a pretty special band and the Pasadena night captures them a their finest. They opened with a short instrumental version of Louis's theme, "When It's Sleepy Time Down South"; this is how "Sleepy Time" was always treated until Louis recorded a vocal version with Gordon Jenkins in November 1951 and soon began singing it nightly. "Sleepy Time" was followed by "(Back Home Again in) Indiana," which might make some casual Armstrong fans say, "Duh, of course it did." Sure enough, the "Sleepy Time/Indiana" combination did open almost every All Stars show...but not before the Pasadena concert. In all the research I've done, I have not found a single version of "Indiana" even mentioned in any contemporary reviews of the All Stars before this one. Maybe they had played it before, but it couldn't have been a regular thing. In fact, there are no other versions of "Indiana" to compare it to until May 1952, so it's not like it was always the regular opener ("Sleepy Time" the theme; the next song was technically the "opener").

As some might know, I have a special relationship with "Indiana," having done lectures on the subject, as well as a massive blog about it that can be accessed by clicking here. I'm not going to share the audio of the entire Pasadena concert, but I would like to include a few highlights and "Indiana" fits that description. Here's the audio, as well as part of what I wrote about it in my earlier post on the subject:

Anybody who knows any later versions will immediately notice that the tempo is a little slower than it would become just a couple of years later. But here’s piece of evidence number one that this had to be one of the band’s first shots at the tune: Earl Hines’s piano intro. It’s kind of rambling and hesitant and he doesn’t even play the horns in. He only plays the first 16 bars, which sounds to my ears a little odd as the song’s built-in “C” section is a natural for a piano introduction. But then it’s Armstrong leading Teagarden and Bigard through two opening ensemble choruses. Armstrong once gave his improvising philosophy as follows: “The first chorus I play the melody. The second chorus I plays the melody round the melody, and the third chorus I routines.” Armstrong only plays two up front on “Indiana,” but I think playing “the melody round the melody” just about sums it up.

After solos from Hines and bassist Arvell Shaw, Armstrong enters with the very first “Indiana” solo he ever recorded. It’s a damn good one and please take note that almost none of what Armstrong played here would appear in his later, “set” solo. I’ve always felt uncomfortable about the opening of the solo because Shaw’s not back in place yet, so the bottomless sound is pretty empty. Armstrong also slightly cracks two early notes but he soon settles in for a solo that practically defines relaxation. Rhythmically, he’s his usual free-floating self, though I like how he ends the first half with a Pops-ian “doddle-doddle-da-da” phrase. The only part Armstrong would retain for later versions are the triplets in the last eight bars, giving the solo a touch of a 3/4 feeling, as well as the very last phrase of the solo. Nice stuff.

Bigard’s up next and Pops immediately lays some background riffs on him. Piece of evidence number two that this is one of the first versions, if not the very first: Teagarden’s following him, but they’re by no means tight. Armstrong’s leading the way and Jack is doing his best to follow his lead. After Teagarden’s solo, Armstrong reenters for the final charge, giving Cozy Cole a neat eight-bar drum break. Teagarden and Bigard are very reticent in the background; great players but this is not my favorite version of the All Stars. Pops ends on a high one and sounds happy with the results. Decca must have been happy, too; on the original “Satchmo at Pasadena” album, they cut out five or six numbers performed, but they did include “Indiana.”

Armstrong always opened his concerts with himself in the spotlight for a while and that's how it was in Pasadena, as "Indiana" was followed by two Louis originals, "Some Day (You'll Be Sorry)" and "Back O'Town Blues." Both songs are given rather gentle treatments, though Armstrong sounds majestic as usual, playing and singing. "Some Day" would pick up in tempo after he recorded it for Decca in 1953, while "Back O'Town" grew somewhat more raunchy after Trummy Young entered the band to bruise it up a bit. In fact, I prefer later versions of both songs to these, but again, Louis sounds spectacular. Louis then ended his moment in the spotlight with a scorching instrumental of "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans." This is song I haven't covered before and it deserves it's own in-depth post as Louis kept returning to it until at least 1965, always with different variations. Here's the audio:

Notice that it follows the same pattern as "Indiana" with two ensemble choruses up front, then piano, bass, Louis, clarinet (with riffs), trombone and ensemble, a common routine for All Stars instrumentals such as "Muskrat Ramble," "Royal Garden Blues" and "Ole Miss." This was a number that Louis always changed up his solo but he never budged with that intro which, as Loren Schoenberg has pointed out to me, was copped from the beginning of Lester Young's "You Can Depend on Me Solo" with Count Basie (oh, Louis and Lester...that would have been a pairing for the ages).

Louis's five opening numbers took about 22 minutes, at which point it was time for the parade of sideman, opening with Jack Teagarden and his breathtaking treatment of "Star Dust." This is so damn beautiful, I don't know what to say, but I have to share it for those who have never heard (and for those who have, dig in):

Next up was Velma Middleton, who appeared earlier in the set than she would a few years later when she almost always closed Armstrong's first and second sets. Middleton delivered a fun version of "The Hucklebuck," though her dancing seemed to cause her to lose her breath during the instrumental interlude--she sounds winded on the vocal reprise! Louis is dynamite here with two choruses of blues (I can't share it!). Velma usually did at least two numbers so this was probably followed by the "That's My Desire" with faulty sound. Decca probably didn't care since they had the terrific version from "Satchmo at Symphony Hall" in the can, ready for release.

Next up was Earl Hines and "Honeysuckle Rose." Hines sometimes sounds like he's not paying attention in his accompaniment, but he always woke up for his features and "Rose' is no exception. Interestingly, when he first joined the band, Louis used to play on this one, but on this version, he doesn't play a single note. You have to the years progressed, did Louis decided he needed a longer break? Or did Hines politely (or not-so-politely) ask for the spotlight all for himself? I tend to go with the latter theory but we'll probably never know.

Arvell Shaw's up next with "How Hight the Moon," a routine he had perfected back at the Symphony Hall concert in 1947. Shaw didn't change it for years but when he rejoined Louis for two years in the 1960s, he played with more intensity and some pretty modern ideas (dig a version from Australia on YouTube). It's always nice hearing Louis play the melody of this bop anthem, too. Barney Bigard's up next for "Just You, Just Me" and like most Bigard features, if it ended at three minutes, it would have been fine. But most of Bigard's features ended with minute-after-minute of Barney noodling around, trading with the drummer and indulging in some horseplay. It gave Louis a break and audiences seemed to enjoy it but I can never listen to a Bigard feature from start to finish too many times.

Armstrong used to like to close sets in this period with drum features and though there's no sign of this, it's quite possible that the All Stars played two sets at Pasadena and "Bugle Blues" ended the first set. It always featured Louis on a scintillating series of breaks before settling into the familiar groove of "Ole Miss." In ensuing years, especially after the "Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy" album, the breaks, the "Bugle Blues" portion and the lengthy drum solo disappeared and Louis was content to just jam on "Ole Miss." As I mentioned earlier, Cozy Cole was no Sid Catlett in terms of creativity, but I always dug his features; he could build up to a helluva climax and you can really hear the audience screaming and digging it as he goes on. If it did end the set, it was an exciting conclusion.

The next three numbers are so incredible, I have to share the audio for all of them, even if they were on the original LP (and part of me thinks that there might have been a second set as Louis would usually open sets like this, with three or four numbers featuring his horn right up front). The first two were Earl Hines compositions, which must have made the grumpy pianist happy. First up was "Monday Date," immortalized by the Hot Five in 1928. That version might have the "all-time-classic" status but I personally love the Pasadena version to no end. It was even used on the later Decca set, "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography." In his liner notes to the reissue, Joshua Berrett complained that this version couldn't compete with the original. Okay, the original is pretty terrific and naturally, more historic, but as an example of Louis and the All Stars in 1951, I think this "Monday Date" is as good as it gets. Dig it:

The whole band sounds great and it's nice to dig Louis's vocal but again, it's the trumpet solo that gets me. He's so relaxed, so inventive and very fleet-fingered, getting around his horn in total command. It's a shame that this song left the group's repertoire when Hines left the band.

Next was "You Can Depend on Me," which Louis recorded for OKeh in 1931. That version is fine but not quite a classic as Armstrong's band at the time sounds pretty woeful and Louis sticks to playing a series of stunning glisses, but not much else. The Pasadena version cuts it to ribbons, in my opinion. First off, there's the trumpet playing that just knocks me to my knees. At these slow tempos, Louis tended to play more notes and though I'm not the kind of person who feels that "more notes equals good jazz," there's something to marvel at in Louis's dexterity here. He's just on fire and the ideas simply rush out of his horn, much like the similar "That's For Me" recorded for Decca in April 1950. But then there's that vocal, which might be in my top 5 or 10 favorite Louis vocals of all time. One day I'll do a complete post on "You Can Depend on Me" (Trummy Young had a swinging instrumental feature on it later in the 50s) so I won't say more except just listen:

The third song in this stunning sequence is a breakneck version of "That's a Plenty" that is as exciting as it gets. For those who have never heard it before, buckle your seatbelts. However, I've heard many versions from this edition of the band and can tell you that this is a pretty set performance: most of the solos and especially the ensembles had been worked out after playing the tune almost nightly for years. This is the kind of thing that critics who followed the All Stars around started complaining about but I don't care. It's just a perfect performance and if you had never heard it before, you'd be knocked out. It all works: Louis's quote of the "National Emblem March," the held note, Cozy Cole's accents, Louis and Teagarden's insistent riffs at the end (and Bigard's answers)...what a band! Dig it:

At this point, it was time for Louis to take another breather. Teagarden stepped up to play a beautiful "Body and Soul," which was usually a feature for Bigard (and one of his better ones). I don't know why it changed this evening but I'm not complaining and Teagarden played the hell out of it. Then Velma came back on for "Big Daddy Blues," singing, dancing and yes, even doing her famous split. Without seeing it, it's still fun to listen to the group steaming along, especially Louis and his endless sequence of quotes: "Isle of Capri," "My Sweetie Went Away," "Honeysuckle Rose," "Moon Over Miami" and more. I did an early post on the history of Velma's blues features but that was in the days before I knew how to include audio. One day I'll do it again from scratch, with audio.

Velma stayed for one more duet and it became one of her best-loved features with Louis: "Baby, It's Cold Outside." For two years, I've shared versions of this tune on this blog, but I didn't do it in 2010. To make up for it, here's the classic Pasadena version. I've always thought the audience was a little subdued but don't mind them...Louis and Velma are HILARIOUS. Enjoy it (and damn, it is cold out there these days, isn't it?):

It was tough to follow that and end of the Pasadena concert was indeed a bit anticlimactic. Gene Norman's "Just Jazz" and "Dixieland Jubilee" bashes usually made it a point for one act to perform a number with the band that was to follow. I can't imagine anyone following Louis but in this case, the always fun Firehouse Five Plus One joined in for a too-short version of "Muskrat Ramble." Everyone sounds good and there's a little heat in the ensembles, but everyone's a little tentative regarding the routine ("Muskrat" has multiple strains and not every band moves from strain to strain at the same time) and the whole thing ends too early. Still, a fun ending to a wonderful evening of music.

This post has gone on long enough and if you're still with me, you're a trouper (I guess this is a good time to say good-bye to any new readers!, but I want to end with one more little section on Louis and repertoire. One of the big complaints about the All Stars is that they played the same songs every night. This simply wasn't true. I'm not going to argue that didn't play some of the same songs nightly--Louis had his hits and he knew audiences wanted to hear them--but you can't find two All Stars shows with exact same set orders. Louis always changed things up and the band had a very large pool of songs to choose from, larger than a lot of other jazz artists at the time. The perfect example of this regards the Pasadena show and a concert from Vancouver recorded on January 26, 1951, just four days longer. A lot of the Vancouver concert has been issued, some of it remains unissued and in two cases, only a few bars of music survive, letting us know what was played but not letting us hear how it went down. Regardless, compare the set lists of Louis in Vancouver and Pasadena, four days apart in 1951:

January 26, 1951 – Vancouver..............January 30, 1951 - Pasadena

Rose Room...........................................Sleepy Time Down South
Back O’Town Blues...............................Indiana
C’est Si Bon..........................................Someday You’ll Be Sorry
Way Down Yonder In New Orleans........Back O’Town Blues
Stardust...............................................Way Down Yonder In New Orleans
The Hucklebuck...................................Stardust
Can Anyone Explain.............................The Hucklebuck
Rockin’ Chair......................................That's My Desire
Big Daddy Blues..................................Honeysuckle Rose
Baby It’s Cold Outside.........................How High The Moon
C Jam Blues.........................................Just You, Just Me
Stomping At The Savoy........................Bugle Blues
I Used To Love You.............................My Monday Date
La Vie En Rose....................................You Can Depend On Me
Lover..................................................That’s A Plenty
I Love The Guy....................................Body And Soul
That's My Desire.................................Big Daddy Blues
High Society........................................Baby It’s Cold Outside
Royal Garden Blues.............................Muskrat Ramble
Ain’t Misbehavin’
Steak Face
Love Me Or Leave Me
How High the Moon
Tea For Two
Bugle Blues

As can be shown, only eight songs were repeated and the order is completely different. Certain things stayed the same because Pops must have liked they way it flowed: "Way Down Yonder" into "Star Dust" into Velma or Barney into a drum solo, but otherwise, it's very different. You also start realizing what wasn't played at each show. "Louis didn't play 'Some Day' in Vancouver? And he didn't play 'La Vie En Rose' in Pasadena? I thought he played the same songs every night!" And here's the topper: if you happened to be a big Armstrong fan in Pasadena and went to see him later again in November 1951, Armstrong performed 13 more numbers…only three were repeated from the January concert: “Sleepy Time Down South,” “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans” and “Back O’Town Blues.” And "Blueberry Hill," one of Armstrong's biggest hits, wasn't included in either of the earlier 1951 performances, just the November one.

So take it for what it's worth, but I think it's worth a lot in changing how people view the All Stars. Naturally, some of this is ground I'll cover in my book but the blog lets me get into all sorts of boring details that wouldn't have held up in book form! And don't worry, the book will contain PLENTY of good stuff to explode people's minds all over the country. But that's note until June 21, my friends. Until then, enjoy "Satchmo at Pasadena" and keep coming back for more Pops!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Almost Persuaded - Revisited

Louis “Country & Western” Armstrong
Recorded August 5, 1970
Track Time 4:27
Written by Glenn Sutton and Billy Sherrill
Recorded in New York )
Louis Armstrong, vocal; Jack Eubanks, lead guitar; Stu Basore, steel guitar; Billie Grammer, rhythm guitar; Larry Butler, piano; Henry Strzelecki, bass; Willie Ackerman, drums
Originally released on Avco Embassy AVE-33022
Currently available on CD: Apparently, it’s been out on a few European CDs but I’ve never seen one with my own eyes
Available on Itunes? No

It's time for a "revisit" post but unlike some of my other such efforts, I have some substantial new information to add this time. When I first blogged about "Almost Persuaded" from the album "Louis 'Country and Western' Armstrong" two years ago, I repeated the facts that had been trotted out in every discography for the last 40 years. In fact, please allow me to quote myself: "I should point out that the album represented a new style of recording for Armstrong, a man who made his debut on records by blowing into an acoustic horn in 1923. All the music was recorded in Nashville by a band of country veterans. Armstrong then went into a New York studio and overdubbed his vocals over the existing tracks. I’m sure Pops would have liked to feel a little more interaction with the musicians, but, ever the professional, he still turned in a great performance, not letting the overdubbing hinder his vocal."

Wrong! As my readers know by now, it was in late 2009 when I joined the staff of the Louis Armstrong House Museum and began the task of cataloging the monumental Jack Bradley Collection. Jack's reputation is as the foremost private collector of all things Armstrong and having gone through every piece of paper in his collection, I can tell you that reputation is well-earned! And remember, our online catalog went up last month allowing you to search through exactly what is contained in the Bradley Collection. (Click hereto begin searching!)

Jack was a renowned photographer who, as a trusted member of Armstrong's entourage, was allowed access to Pops in places like dressing rooms and recording studios. In addition to almost 2,000 prints in the Bradley Collection, we have hundreds of sets of contact sheets and negatives for photos that Jack took and had developed, but never turned into actual print. Found in this part of the collection were about five contact sheets of photos from the sessions where Louis recorded the "Country and Western" album and lo and behold, there's Louis with actual musicians! A pianist, a guitarist, a bassist, the entire "Nashville Rhythm Section," as the discographies put it. Now, the "Country and Western" album does contain occasional uses of horn sections and backing vocals that definitely do seem to be dubbed in later. But there's no reason not to believe that Pops was live in the studio with the rhythm section while recording the masters. The online catalog has many watermarked scans of photos, including one of a contact sheet from these sessions. I'll share it here so you can see for yourself that Louis was surrounded by these other musicians:

The Bradley Collection also helped clear up another discographical issue. Since the album was recorded, all anyone has ever listed about the sessions regarding the dates is "August 1970." Well, Jack was there, he took notes and in a box of various handwritten notes, I found the original breakdown of the sessions. So for posterity, here's the breakdown of the sessions:

August 3
Ramblin' Rose
Crustal Chandeliers
The Easy Party's Over

August 4
Wolverton Mountain
You Can Have Her
Get Together

August 5
Why Did Mrs. Murphy Leave Town
Crazy Arms
Runing Bear
Almost Persuaded

August 6
Miller's Cave
Black Cloud

So there you have it, something for the discographers out there. Speaking of which, one such discographer is the great Michael Minn, who has been overseeing Louis's online "Satchography" for quite some time, listed in my list of links as "The Louis Armstrong Discography." Michael wrote me a few weeks back to tell me that he updated his section on the "Country and Western" album because he, too, had found out that Louis recorded with live musicians. That reminded me to check my old blog on "Almost Persuaded," which was now hopelessly out-of-date. Anyway, Michael added some fantastic recollections from the wife of the session's drummer, Willie Ackerman, as well as a PDF of a Houston Post newspaper article from November 12 1970 written by a reporter who was there at the sessions, painting a fascinating portrait of how Louis and the Nashville musicians interacted in the studio. And never mind my watermarked contact sheets, Mark has color photographs from the studio! So what are you doing here? Click here and go there NOW! (But be sure to come back for the music!)

As this information continues trickling in, I realize that sure have given this album the brush off for a while. I might as well admit that my upcoming book features a total of one long paragraph on these sessions, just touching on it as it turned out to be Louis's final recording date. But Louis clearly had a ball during the sessions and in the final months of his life, dubbed the results of the final LP to his private reel-to-reel tape collection numerous times (again, found at the Louis Armstrong House Museum and searchable on the online catalog).

Of course, one of the reasons the album is forgotten is that it has been nearly impossible to find since it's original issue. And truthfully, "Louis 'Country and Western' Armstrong" has been treated as something of a joke for years--poor old Satchmo, unable to play the trumpet, goes out with a final album of ill-suited country tunes. I, too, was always afraid to hear the album, fearing it would remind me of the worst of Armstrong’s later years, namely, some rock bottom moments on the Dick Jacobs-arranged Brunswick sessions (“The Happy Time”) or the “Louis Armstrong and Friends” date (“His Father Wore Long Hair”).

Eventually, I dug in, bought a used LP on eBay and had it converted to CD. When I first listened to it, I almost closed my eyes, expecting to hate it, but needing to at least get it down in one gulp. But, no, the album didn’t exactly turn out to be the aural equivalent of castor oil. I’m not saying it’s a great moment in Armstrong’s career, but it’s better than I thought, mainly through the unexpected use of humor. Some of these tracks are quite funny and all and all, it’s a fun listen.

Armstrong doesn't play any horn on the album, which might have changed had they recorded it a month later as Louis began performing live, complete with trumpet, at an engagement at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in late August. And by the time the of the album's release, Armstrong plugged it on "The Johnny Cash Show" in October, pulling out his trumpet for an immortal meeting with Cash on "Blue Yodel Number 9," Louis playing an obbligato straight out of one of his 1920s records with various blues singers (if you haven't seen that, please over to YouTube and prepare to be knocked out). In the introduction to that clip, Armstrong talked about how he knew Jimmie Rodgers in California, resulting in the famous “Blue Yodel Number 9” recording of 1930. And in the early 50s, he recorded “Cold Cold Heart” and “Your Cheating Heart,” two Hank Williams classics, for Decca. Thus, Pops was no stranger to country music, even though Ray Charles still gets the most credit for his use of country sounds in the black music world.

It’s hard to think of why Armstrong was presented with the country idea in 1970. Charles’s country and western album was a hit in 1962 so it wasn’t like Armstrong was cashing in on that. But by this point, Armstrong’s records were almost all solely made for the purpose of generating hits and perhaps having Armstrong target a new audience would sell a few more records. I don’t think it worked as the record is still generally unknown, unavailable as an MP3 download and never issued on an American CD. But it’s not a terrible album and the moments of great humor make it a worthwhile listen, especially on “Almost Persuaded,” perhaps the highlight of the recording.

“Almost Persuased” won a Grammy for “Best Country & Western Recording of 1966 and has been covered by dozens of artists (114 versions exist on Itunes and a bunch of performances exist on YouTube). According to the always trustworthy Wikipedia (pause for sarcasm), the tune’s nine weeks at number on on the Billboard charts is still a record for a country song. Thus, it made for a natural choice on Armstrong’s country album. This is how it came out:

Isn’t that a lot of fun? It’s almost like two records in one. The first three minutes is a touching country ballad, Armstrong giving the song a respectful, loving treatment. Around the 2:20 mark, Armstrong throws in a customary aside, singing “I was Almost Persuaded,” before uttering a quick, “She’d like to got me that time!” He’s just setting the ball rolling for the final 90 seconds of the record. The band simply vamps on two chords, back and forth, back and forth, while Armstrong was just told to improvise, sing or say whatever came into his mind. At that point, it stops becoming a version of “Almost Persuaded” and instead becomes a Louis Armstrong comedy record with Pops hysterically singing about kissing “them strange chops!” (He also referring to them as “crumb crushers.”) He wants someone to “run into me there and buss me one” and even trots out his favorite, “Somebody better run in here, I ‘spec,” something he previously used on 1950’s “Bucket’s Got a Hole In It” and 1967’s “Wilkommen.” As the tune gradually fades, Armstrong continues going on about those lips...I can only imagine how long it went on for in the studio!

Truthfully, the final record could have, and maybe even should have edited everything out after the scat break but I’m glad they didn’t because that line about the “strange chops” kills me every time. Not everything on Louis “Country and Western” Armstrong works as well (the very next track, “Running Bear,” is pretty rough going until Armstrong’s improvised comments at the end and hearing Armstrong do The Youngbloods’s “Get Together” is incredibly bizarre), but overall, it’s an interesting album and I think “Almost Persuaded” holds up well. Thanks to Michael Minn for his great work and to my hero, Jack Bradley, for being there and recording it al. In fact, after the session, Jack organized a photo session in Central Park featuring Louis wearing country and western get-ups. None of Jack's photos were used but at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, we have dozens of them, many in color. If "Louis 'Country and Western' Armstrong" ever gets a serious CD reissue, I think there's plenty of material to make those sessions finally come alive again. Someday, perhaps...but for now I'll close with one of Jack's terrific photos from Central Park in 1970:

Monday, January 17, 2011

Happy 101st Birthday to Big Sid Catlett!

Today, legendary drummer Big Sid Catlett would have been 101-years-old. It's a tragedy that Sid only made it to 41, but oh, the music he created in that time (my pal Michael Steinman recently had a post with an 18-year-old Sid swinging on a Punch Miller record from 1928, Sid's creative shadings already much in place. His partnership with Louis was one of the greatest in all of jazz and if I had the time, the Louis-Sidney relationship deserves no less than a year full of blog posts, a thesis and a hardcover book. But since I don't have the time for any of that, I'm just going right to the heart of it by sharing audio of three Catlett features on the song "Mop Mop" from the year 1947, one of which I can almost guarantee has never been shared publicly.

The song "Mop Mop" was originally credited to Coleman Hawkins as "Boff Boff" and was recorded for Commodore under that title, with Sid on December 4, 1943. A little more than a month later, it was featured at the famous Esquire jazz concert at the Metropolitan Opera House, with Sid also getting his innings in. The song's a catchy riff contrafact of "I Got Rhythm" with a melody that is ideal for the drums; I can't count how many drummers I've heard sneak a snatch of it into a solo.

By 1947, "Boff Boff' had turned into "Mop Mop," but aside from the title change, everything else was the same. Catlett hadn't performed with Louis for years but he returned for an all-star event at Carnegie Hall on February 8, 1947. The main feature of this concert was a first half that placed Louis in a small-group setting, sitting in with Edmond Hall's sextet for a romping set. The second half featured Louis with his brassy big band of the time (not one of his finest units) but with the added attraction of Billie Holiday and the return of Big Sid. History has focused so much on the small-group part of the evening, that Sid's feature has become almost forgotten. Well, not anymore: here's Big Sid and Louis's big band on "Mop Mop" (oh, and the pretty poor boppish trumpet at the start is definitely not Louis!):

Excellent stuff, Big Sid. The small-group portion was such a hit, it led to Louis's famed Town Hall concert in May 1947, once again with Sid on drums. When that night became the stuff of legend, it was time for Louis to ditch the big band and lead a small group. The drum choice was a no-brainer as Big Sid became the full-time tub thumper from August 1947 until ill health forced him to leave in March 1949.
[UPDATE: After posting a link to this blog on Facebook earlier today, a disagreement broke out as to whether or not the trumpeter on that first bridge is Louis. I still say it's not but a very respected historian says it is. I don't think I can be swayed so I ask you dear readers to sign in and leave a comment....did Louis take that first bridge or is that a youngster in the trumpet section? Let me know!]

By November 1947, the All Stars were being booked in prestigious places such as Carnegie Hall and Boston's Symphony Hall. The Symphony Hall show is one of best-known recordings in the Armstrong discography, having been released by Decca in 1951 (though it's not complete; we still have to wait for the day when a complete edition gets the royal treatment). At both venues, Sid got two features, "Steak Face" and "Mop Mop." Last year, for Sid's centennial, I shared both versions of "Steak Face" in a post that can be found be clicking here. As I noted back then, Sid had worked out huge chunks of his solos, setting them like Armstrong did on some of his trumpet solos and fellow All Stars Jack Teagarden and Barney Bigard did with their features. It's a practice that's all but taboo today but this was a generation and these guys worked to achieve the perfect solo. Once they had, why start from scratch?

So let's jump in with quite a rarity, a never-before-issued version of "Mop Mop" from Carnegie Hall, November 15, 1947:

Dynamite stuff. Sid's use of dynamics is something to marvel at; he builds things to a such a quiet, low simmer, making the listener pay attention. But for all of his creativity and remarkable swing, one can never forget that Sid was one of the greatest showmen in the history of jazz. We have precious little video of Sid in action but if you listen closely, you can hear spaces where Sid was probably tossing and twirling his sticks. At the Louis Armstrong House Museum, we have a photo of Sid with four drumsticks, one under his neck and one in his armpit, in the middle of twirling them around his head, a trick Lionel Hampton later did. I've seen critics frown on Hampton's use of showmanship then praise Sid's taste but I have a feeling that if video survived of one of these "Mop Mop's," we'd see enough showmanship to make our heads spin like those sticks. And that's not a bad thing.

Oh, and how about that band? Man, Louis is killing it and the rest of the group sounds great (Teagarden can't help but quote "I Got Rhythm" at the end, something he did at the Esquire concert...he probably didn't believe in contrafacts). Two weeks after Carnegie Hall, the band traveled up to Boston for the aforementioned Symphony Hall show. This is a well-known Catlett feature but it doesn't hurt to hear it again, especially to compare the similarities (of which there are many) with the Carengie Hall version we just heard.

Because it's so well known, I've dipped into my bag to share a little rare treasure to set the mood. In 1956, Louis did a series of Voice of America broadcasts where he acted as his own disc-jockey, selected music and introducing it with stories and such. I've shared many of these tidbits before and I'm about to do so again as in the third hour of broadcasts, Louis selected this version of "Mop Mop," which, in the original release, reverted back to the original title of "Boff Boff." Here's Louis introducing it with some very kind words about the dear, departed Sid (and a plug for being "physic-minded'!):

And finally, the main event, "Boff Boff" at Symphony Hall:

Another magnificent feature (though listen to Sid apparently drum his sticks during final toss around the 4:30 mark, with Louis offering a pained, "Ohhh" in response!). Many broadcasts survive from Sid's two years with Louis but only one more "Mop Mop" was captured, a great one from Ciro's in Philadelphia in 1948. But I'm going to save that for another day as I don't want to empty my arsenal of goodies in one shot. So until that day, enjoy these three gems from 1947 and don't forget to celebrate the genius of Big Sid Catlett EVERY day!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Love, You Funny Thing!

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded March 2, 1932
Track Time 3:38
Written by Fred Ahlert and Roy Turk
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Preston Jackson, trombone; Lester Boone, alto saxophone; George James, alto saxophone; Albert Washington, tenor saxohpone; Charlie Alexander, piano; MIke McKendrick, guitar; John Lindsay, bass; Tubby Hall, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41557
Currently available on CD: It’s on the JSP two-disc set The Big Band Sides, 1930-1932
Available on Itunes? Yes

A few days before Christmas, my trumpet-playing pal Dave Whitney call to say hello. I was unable to answer so Dave left a message, along with a little treat: about a half-chorus of "Love, You Funny Thing," unaccompanied (Dave has a beautiful tone and part of me wishes I knew how to convert voicemail messages to MP3 so I could share it!). When Dave and I finally connected, we talked about how much we loved the song and how it has pretty much disappeared off the face of the earth. Except for a version by Mel Torme, I can't recall anyone else recording the song after 1932. It's apparently even escaped the keepers of the early-Louis flame such as Marty Grosz, Duke Heitger and David Ostwald (though I'm sure Vince Giordano could probably pull out an arrangement at the drop of a hat).

So as means of rehabilitating the song, I've decided to make it the subject matter for my first blog of 2011. The song was written by the dynamite team of Fred Ahlert and Roy Turk, composers of standards such as "Mean to Me" and "I'll Get By," as well as "Walkin' My Baby Back Home," which Louis recorded successfully for OKeh the previous April. The song was also set to be featured in the background of the all-star major motion picture "Grand Hotel." And on top of that, it was set to be recorded by none other than Bing Crosby on February 23, 1932 (Ahlert and Turk wrote Crosby's theme "Where the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day" so Bing obviously had an affinity for their work).

You don't need me to tell you that Louis and Bing had quite a mutual appreciation society. No one would deny that Louis had a profound influence on Papa Bing, but I also here elements of Crosby in Armstrong's early-1930s vocals. From 1930-1933, the two men recorded the same song ten times so there's clearly something ready to be written about this (paging Jimmy Leach!). I'm no vocal expert (and hell, I wouldn't know which end to blow into a trumpet if you gave it to me), but I think it could be fun to compare and contrast the two versions of "Love, You Funny Thing" (and if you are an expert out there on these subjects, don't hesitate to chime in!).

Okay, let's start with Bing's version:

Beautiful stuff. Bing could mix it up with the finest names in jazz, but this is 100% a pop record, with that conspicuous strings-and-muted-trumpet sound from the period. After a short verse, Bing slides into the refrain, singing with ease and with confidence. The song takes a bit of a range to pull off and Crosby's high notes and low notes are equally full. After a chorus, the band attempts to swing for eight bars before Bing enters with a dramatic anticipatory "And"....shades of Pops! It's a lovely record and echoes what Louis said about Crosby in 1955: "Bing's voice has a mellow quality that only Bing's got. It's like gold being poured out of a cup." Indeed.

Of course, with Louis, we're dealing with a voice that sounds like gravel being poured out of a trash can...but, oh, what he does with it. Before jumping in, let's see where Louis was in his life at this point. He was still leading an Orchestra he started in April 1930 consisting of many New Orleans homeboys and directed by fellow trumpeter Zilner Randolph. Mob troubles had led Pops and his men on a tour of the south (including New Orleans) as they had to avoid New York because that's where the trouble was (bullets don't make good mutes). Anytime they passed through Chicago, OKeh grabbed them up to record some pop tunes of the day, a series of recordings that brought Louis's genius to epic new heights.

Armstrong had already recorded "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," "Home" and "All of Me" for label in January 1932 with "All of Me" apparently going on to become a substantial hit for Louis. On March 2, Louis and his orchestra tackled "Love, You Funny Thing," only seven days after Crosby recorded his version (meaning that he could have never heard what Bing was doing with it, unless Crosby was broadcasting it, which is a good possibility). Let's hear how it came out:

Nicely done, Pops. Louis loved this orchestra but critics were quick to point out its flaws. Louis still defended them in later years, but this isn't one of the band's finest fact, you know it's bad when Louis himself has to point out the flaws on the record! It opens with the saxophones bizarrely alternating two pitches (how often do the trains go by?) while the peculiar sound of Mike McKendrick's guitar plink-plinks in the background....not exactly an arrangement for the books but I guess it provides some atmosphere. But don't fret, it's Louis to the rescue, immediately getting the thing swinging with two simple quarter notes. I never understood how it did it; quarter notes as quarter notes don't really swing but Louis knew had to place them and how to attack them just right so the whole thing takes off in forward motion.

Louis is muted here, too, which is always a treat. Some will say that Louis never used a mute or if he did, he only used a straight mute, but that's clearly not the case on many of these early 1930s performances (he had already broken it out on that year's "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" and "All of Me"). Trumpeter Herbert Christ wrote it to tell me that it was a Solotone mute, while others have argued that it's a cup. Regardless, it's a unique sound and it's a shame that Pops seemed to leave it behind when he returned from Europe in 1935.

Louis clearly digs the melody but it's really a case of Louis listening to the band in his head...and playing what he's hearing. After almost every straight melodic line he plays or sings, he immediately follows it with a perfect fill, playing what he thinks the band should be playing (it's a shame he didn't do arrangements). Armstrong's playing is also filled with Crosby-like mordents, little turns at the end of phrase that are effective.

When the bridge turns to D-minor, the reeds take over. It only takes Louis a couple of bars to not be impressed with their effort and he calls them out on it. "Bring it out, bring it out saxophones! Come on, out with it!" The reeds immediately respond with the full-throated blowing but it's still an awkward (though priceless) moment. Clearly, the song was brand new and the band needed some time familiarizing themselves with it. But they were in a studio and you'd think they'd have it ironed out when the recording light when on. Also, you'd think Louis or the A&R man for OKeh would have waved it off and said, "Let's try it again." But no, Louis admonishes them, they respond and the record moves forward. A fascinating little moment.

For his final eight bars, Louis can't wait to get the horn to his chops, playing an anticipatory phrase before the bridge is even over. Now he's feeling good, taking more chances with the melody, throwing in a well-placed gliss and ending on a high note. Most human beings would be happy with that but because he's Louis Armstrong, it's time for the vocal...and time for us to get a singing lesson.

Opening with a delightful "Mmmm," Louis swings right into the vocal, rephrasing it almost instantly; listen to the declamatory way he sings "look at what you did to me." But not wanting to come off as too harsh, Louis immediately follows it with a higher "Love" that sounds like pure sunshine. In fact, you can really hear him smiling on the next eight bars, especially with the way he swallows the words "First (or really, "Foist") you come along."

Armstrong dives into the bridge with a long "Ohhhh" before perhaps the most delicious moment of the vocal: he leaves a little gap of space and rushes back in with the lyrics "someone made it seem that way," a chunk of it rendered on a single pitch. Another "Oh" leads to the final eight bars, where Louis sticks mainly to the melody but still moans a few swinging asides.

After this vocal, there's time for one more chorus (barely; the finished product is 3:38, really pushing the limit of a 78 record). At the start of the record, Louis took the A sections while the bridge went to the band. Now, the roles are reversed as Louis becomes part of the arrangement during the A sections and saves his improvisitory genius for the bridge. Louis's tone is simply magical as he hits those high notes. He breaks away for a few passionate outbursts but really stays a part of the section until that bridge...and wow, what a bridge! There's so much information in these eight bars, it's almost stunning. He opens with a held note before snaking his way into the lower register with a run of notes that rhythmically free, blurs the bar lines and is full of tension. Just as he hits his lowest night, he responds with a frightening glissando back into the upper register. He follows that with another flurry of notes before he pauses, allows a second of space and flat out swings his last phrase so damn hard, pushing that last note up for maximum dramatic effect.

Nothing can top that bridge...and sure enough, nothing did. Louis rejoins the section to hit those high notes but the final eight bars are a ragged affair: the saxophones are off, trumpets are coming and's not pretty but Louis's final high note is the truth. So yeah, there's enough roughness around the edges (I'm looking at you, Orchestra) that has allowed "Love, You Funny Thing" to get left off a lot of compilations. And honestly, Bing's version was mighty hard to find, too; I don't think it's ever been reissued on a major American CD (I found it on a cheapie MP3 compilation over at It's safe to say that "Love, You Funny Thing" didn't have much of an effect on the pop charts and soon disappeared (though if you're really digging the tune, YouTube has a couple of British dance band versions from the same period).

But I think it's a fine song with a memorable melody and a great minor-bridge. And hey, it's Louis and Bing and at the end of the day, that's really all we need, right? For the vocal fans out there, I've made one of my famed edits, taking eight bars of Bing and eight bars of Louis and swapping them back and forth for a single chorus. The last time I did this was with Louis and Seger Ellis's versions of "Ain't Misbehavin'" to show how advanced Armstrong was to Ellis. But this time, I'm doing it to show that BIng and Louis were equals and each learned from the other. Here's Bing and Louis's vocals on "Love, You Funny Thing" together:

Isn't that pretty neat? Louis is still the aggressor, but it's clear he picked up some stuff from Bing, especially that mordent. Bing does it frequently throughout but Louis really does a noticeable one on the word "go" during the phrase "she let me go" on the bridge. And though it's not in my edit, remember that Bing reprises his vocal with an anticipatory (have I really used that word three times now?) "And" that Louis does throughout his vocal with those "Oh's" and "Mm's. But there are differences, too, and to me, I hear it mostly in the way each man ends a note. Crosby sings a note and hits it; Louis is constantly bending them, moaning low, groaning high. Compare the way they sing the word "sympathy" at the end of the first eight bars: Bing sings it and holds it but Louis glides down on the last syllable. It's clearly a trumpet thing...or maybe not? Maybe it was something Louis always did and just added to his trumpet playing? Louis did always say that singing was his "first hustle." But he also once said that when he was singing, he could picture hitting the notes with his hand on the trumpet. Let's just be thankful he did both things so well! (Though did you hear him botch one of the lyrics? In the second eight bars, Bing sings, relaxed, "First, you come and bring, happiness into my heart." But Louis sees an extra word, which actually leads a bit of urgency to his vocal, singing, "First, you come along and bring, happiness into my heart.")

That's all I have to say for Louis and Bing and this great but I'll end by boring everyone to tears with some discographical discussions. According to discographies, "Love, You Funny Thing" was the only song recorded on March 2, with a matrix number of W 405154. Fine. But Louis next ended the studio on March 11 to record three more songs. The opening number of that session, "New Tiger Rag" has a matrix number of W 405155. But the other two songs recorded on the 11th saw the matrix numbers jump up to 405166 and 405167. Hmmm, something doesn't seem right. I really find it somewhat hard to believe that a) Louis only recorded one song at the March 2 session and b) that OKeh recorded nothing else for the next nine days and resumed the March 11 session with the 405155 matrix number. My best guess is that Louis spent the bulk of the March 2 date working out the new material (which, as we heard, still didn't get perfected) and closed the session by trying "New Tiger Rag." Perhaps OKeh thought they could live with "New Tiger Rag," slapped the 405155 matrix number on it and called it a day. Then, when Louis returned on March 11, perhaps someone suggested they give "New Tiger Rag" another shot. They did, it was better, and it replaced the March 2 take, retaining the 405155 matrix number. Okeh had recorded ten songs with other artists in the intervening nine days so they resumed the rest of the March 11 Armstrong session with matrix number 405166. Make sense? Or maybe "New Tiger Rag" comes from the March 2 session and the discographies have been wrong for all these years?

Well, that's for other people to figure out. My usual response: who cares, let's just enjoy the music! And when Mr. Satch and Mr. Cros are at the helm, well, nothing else really matters.