Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Recorded February 26, 1926
Track Time 2:57
Written by Boyd Atkins
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8300
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes
Continuing with my look at Louis Armstrong's historic Hot Five session of February 26, 1926, it's time to make history. "Georgia Grind" was a fun blues number and it showcased some good-natured vocals by Louis and his wife at the time, Lil Hardin Armstrong. All well and good, but not exactly earth shattering. Well, that all changed with the next tune on the docket, "Heebie Jeebies."
This is a performance that has been written to death about since it was waxed 85 years ago this week and it's still shrouded in mystery. I don't think I can shed any definitive light on it, but it's always a fun track to listen to and debate what conspiracy theories we have as to what really happened that day.
What we do know is the song was written by Chicago violinist Boyd Atkins, a member of Louis's band at the Sunset Cafe. But the first mystery arises around the lyrics: were there any when Louis got around to recording it? Banjoist Johnny St. Cyr remembered that OKeh head E. A. Fearn was digging Louis's voice on the earliest Hot Five numbers like "Gut Bucket Blues" and "Georgia Grind" and perhaps sensing a number of instrumentals on the schedule for the day, asked Louis to whip up some lyrics for this "Heebie Jeebies" song. St. Cyr remembered Louis sitting in the corner, writing them out and trying to familiarize himself with them before the recording light went on.
Hmmm, maybe this happened, maybe it didn't (I don't know why St. Cyr would make it up). But of course, it's what happened once the recording began that has become the stuff of legend. Richard M. Jones, who oversaw a lot of black music recorded for OKeh, was the first to tell the tale that while Louis singing the vocal, he dropped the words and started to scat. According to Jones, Louis carried the microphone with him to the floor at the same time that Jones dove for the lyrics, causing both men to hit their heads! Armstrong kept going, the record was released and viola, scat singing was on the map.
A fine story, but one aspect of it completely wrongheaded: there were no microphones in the studio as the song was recorded acoustically. So right there, the whole idea of Louis at a microphone, hitting his head and all that stuff, becomes rather silly.
But what if we remove the microphone part? What if we just stick to the basics: Louis was singing the song, dropped the sheet with the lyrics, scatted for a while and the record was released. A lot of people have trouble with this story as well, but you know what? After hearing it for so many years, I think I've started to maybe believe it.
Never mind Jones; Louis never wavered in his telling the story that way for over 30 years. He was asked it countless times and he always gave the same answer, as can be heard on a number of his private recordings housed at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. In my private collection, I have a number of interviews and conversations Louis did, including one with producer George Avakian at the Armstrong home in 1953. Avakian produced the first major reissue of this material in the early 40s and quoted the famous "dropped lyrics" story in his notes, which really turned it into legend. But there he was, grilling Armstrong at his home in private and Pops still didn't change his story.
On top of that, Johnny St. Cyr and Kid Ory said the same thing! Really, what did it matter to them? Armstrong and Ory had a somewhat awkward relationship and Ory could have easily said it was bunk. I'm sure there wasn't a private, Hot Five reunion phone call in the 1940s with each man making a solemn promise to stick by this story.
And then there's the matter of the record itself, which isn't very polished and contains a giant gaffe in the routine at its conclusion. Shall we listen to it now? Let's...
There it is. Did you catch the gaffe at the end? Of course, it's Kid Ory jumping the gun with his response, "Whatcha doin' with the Heebies?" In Armstrong's first Hot Five session, Johnny Dodds suffered mike fright during "Gut Bucket Blues" and Ory was the one who had to rescue the day. But here, the Kid blows the routine, allowing for the incredibly awkward moment of silence as Lil and St. Cyr play that weak Charleston beat. The whole thing reeks of a first take but according to Armstrong, Fearn was so tickled by the scat interlude that he stopped the proceedings right there, knowing they had just created something special. Louis, as we'll hear, did exaggerate it a bit, I feel, as he usually said that Fearn walked into the studio and said, "Louie Armstrong, this is where scat was born." That sounds a little convoluted, but again, early newspaper articles from the period did soon refer to the "skat" craze, so maybe Fearn predicted it all in a matter of minutes.
So let's listen to Louis. In 1956, he gave a series of interviews for the Voice of America where he introduced his favorite recordings. Here's the intro to "Heebie Jeebies" with Louis telling a definitive version of the "dropped lyric" story:
There it is, straight from the source. One thing Louis mentions there is Jelly Roll Morton's "Library of Congress" recordings. It should be mentioned that when "Heebie Jeebies" was released, it created a nationwide scat-singing sensation. But as has been proved countless times, this was not the first scat vocal to be recorded; Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards and Don Redman both beat Louis to the punch. But "Heebie Jeebies" was a hit and helped make Louis a star and to many, Louis innovated the whole concept.
Well, Louis never claimed this to be true, as he often said he was doing this kind of singing was still in vocal quartets in New Orleans. But when Jelly Roll Morton did his Library of Congress interview with Alan Lomax, he took offense to Louis getting the credit for inventing scat. Naturally, Jelly Roll claimed he invented it, doing it with Tony Jackson while Armstrong was still a baby. Louis got a kick of out this section and I think was more than a little annoyed, as he brought it up in many, many interviews. He usually told Jelly's side with a laugh but there is one private tape at the Louis Armstrong House Museum that must be heard to be believed. Louis owned Jelly's Library of Congress records and transferred them to tape many times. But one time, he got to the scat story, stopped the tape, picked up his microphone and addressed Jelly directly. Well, I never wrote the quotes down as they didn't pertain to anything in my book, but all I know is I was laughing out loud within minutes. Morton was dead for 10, 15 years by this point, but that didn't stop Louis from pretty much telling him off and bragging that he (Louis) was still performing and Jelly, for all his big opinions, was six feet in the ground!
Anyway, to get back on point, "Heebie Jeebies" isn't the first record to feature scat singing and Louis Armstrong didn't invent the concept, but it did a helluva lot to make it something that people began incorporating into their vocals almost immediately (so when you see a poor amateur singer incorporate a snatch of awkward scat on "American Idol," sending the crowd into a tizzy, thank "Heebie Jeebies"). Just think: this was Louis's third full vocal on record and he already upset the world. Amazing.
Louis kept scrapbooks with many of his 1920s reviews and the great majority mentioned "Heebies" (one naming him as "one of 'Heebies' pet writers"). Louis began featuring it with Erskine Tate's orchestra at the Vendome Orchestra and even did a dance to go along with it. But once he went out as a single in the late 20s, "Heebie Jeebies" seemed to have left the Armstrong repertoire...for good.
Seriously, there's not a single live performance of the tune in entire Armstrong discography except for one, and thankfully, it is a gassuh. It comes from the "Eddie Condon Floor Show" from September 3, 1949 and features Louis in pretty good company, surrounded by Wild Bill Daviso, Cutty Cutshall, Peanuts Hucko, rnie Caceres, Joe Bushkin, Condon, Jack Lesberg, George Wettling and Jack Teagarden. Armstrong tells the famous dropping-the-sheet-music story before recreating the performance. I love the vocal chorus because it features Condon's guitar playing, which I've always enjoyed. In most mixes, Condon's lost the in the shuffle, but occasionally he stood a little too close to the microphone, resulting in a chance to appreciate his driving pulse and seamless chord-work. Armstrong's on fire during the vocal, setting up some good solos (Hucko begins by quoting Armstrong's original scat solo!) before Pops up his horn for some absolutely dazzling playing. Overall, he takes three choruses , building to a ferocious climax driven by George Wettling's tidal wave of a roll. The original "Heebie Jeebies" is pretty historic but from a purely musical standpoint, this remake cuts the original to ribbons. Dig it:
And just like yesterday, Pops payed one last tribute to this Hot Five classic in his 1957 project, "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography." The one thing I haven't mentioned about the original "Heebie Jeebies" is the quality of the instrumental music played, which is okay, but nothing spectacular. For the "Autobiography," Louis had his greatest All Stars with him, including Edmond Hall on clarinet and Trummy Young on trombone, and the difference in quality of the solos is marked. The tempo is faster, like the Condon version, and the whole thing romps from start to finish. Unfortunately, it's over a little too quick--there was definitely time for one more chorus, a la the Condon version--but there's good news: the "whatcha doin' with the Heebies" hokum is straightened out! And for that, we should be thankful. In fact, Armstrong's friend Jeann Failows was in attendance at this session and a few of her write-ups survive at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, each of them making special emphasis on this performance and how much fun everyone had doing it. Enjoy!
So that's "Heebie Jeebies," an absolute iconic moment in the history of jazz singing. But an equally iconic moment would follow it, this one for the history of jazz solos. Stay tuned for my next installment: "Cornet Chop Suey."