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:

2 comments:

Michael Steinman said...

"Oh, those lips . . . those nice fine juicy lips . . . " ALMOST PERSUADED nothing -- I'm completely persuaded. It makes me sad to think I had the lp and gave it away. He sings so beautifully . . . that song spoke to him, we can be sure!

Thank you, Ricky!

Anonymous said...

I have "Louis C&W Armstrong" on CD
(plus 4 bonus tracks) here in Europe.
oldiesfan@seznam.cz