Thursday, February 10, 2011

Velma's Blues (aka Big Mama’s Back in Town; Big Daddy Blues; Blues; Blues-A-La-Hey Bob-a-Rebob; I Cried Last Night; Where Did You Stay Last Night)

Louis Armstrong and His All Stars
Recorded at numerous live concerts from 1947 to 1960
Track Time varies between 2:43 and 4:04
Written by Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton
Recorded around the world!
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Velma Middleton, vocal; and all the All Stars!
Currently available on CD: Yes, details to follow
Available on Itunes? Ditto

50 years ago, Louis Armstrong's dear female vocalist, Velma Middleton, passed away in a Sierra Leone hospital, a tragic end to a career that brought nothing but joy to the millions around the world who came to see Pops and ended up digging Velma. As a little tribute, I've dug up one of my earliest blogs on the history of "Velma's Blues," and updated a bit, complete with music samples. Enjoy...and here's to Velma!

******************************
“And now, ladies and gentleman, it’s blues time and here’s our vocalist, Velma Middelton!”

For 13 years, Louis Armstrong uttered the above sentence almost nightly. For critics, it meant it was a good time to use the bathroom or get a soda. But for audiences around the world, it signaled one thing: Velma Middleton was on her way out to spread joy and get everybody feeling high and happy. She would always open with a blues and from her very first line, “Here’s news for you baby, mama’s back in town,” she would have the audience in the palm of her hand. For the next three minutes, she would recycle famous blues lyrics, indulge in some light-footed dancing and climax the whole performance with a split. I have nearly 20 versions of “Velma’s Blues” in my collection and you can hear audiences scream, shout and shriek with delight on every single one of them.

I’ve made my feelings about Velma clear in the past. Critics be damned; she loved Pops and he loved her and that love shone through in every one of their performances together. As I discussed in my “Butter and Egg Man” entry, Armstrong always had a thing for female foils in the 1920s and Velma was his Lil Hardin/Mae Alix/Susie Edwards all wrapped into one big, beautiful human being. She also sang the blues well, if not quite like the legends Armstrong accompanied in his early days such as Bessie Smith and Chippie Hill. She sang standards and pop songs, like Eva Taylor in the 20s and Ella Fitzgerald in the 40s and 50s. She sang R&B like Helen Humes, impersonated Satchmo and of course, of course, of course….the split. Yes, seeing an obese woman do a split in the middle of a jazz concert was usual the bane of most jazz snobs’s existence. I cannot even begin to count how many contemporary reviews of the period made fun of Velma’s weight and the split.

“His star singer was Velma Middleton, a 250-lb. lady named--by the Gagwriters Association--Miss Petite of 1946. She waddled through 'Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy' and then did a split which almost literally brought down the house.” – Time magazine, 1946

“This reviewer has yet to feel the humor that is apparently present when an obese person jumps around on a stage. However, the Opera House audience got their kicks when Velma jumped her vocals. Velma sells her songs by showmanship which is necessary as there isn't anything spectacular about her voice and phrasing.” - George Hoefer, Chicago Opera House review, 1947

“Louis’ voice, especially without the annoying duet presence of Velma Middleton—happily absent from this LP—is sandpaper joy.” – Down Beat review of Ambassador Satch

“…[T]he tasteless flouncing of Velma Middleton.” - John S. Wilson, 1956

“At any rate, Satchmo hardly qualifies as an expert on what contributes to the advancement of the colored race; if he did, he would long ago have divorced himself professionally from Velma Middleton, whose tasteless (nay, vulgar) performances with the Armstrong band rate as ‘handkerchief-head’ with progressives, and do anything but elevate the prestige of the Negro in our society.” – Unknown author, unidentified clipping from September 1957

Of course, Pops loved the splits and bragged about them. On one of his private tapes, he talks in a hotel room to some fans who are about to see the All Stars for the first time. Does Armstrong brag about his trumpet playing or the skills of the other members of the band? Nope. Here’s what he says: “Wait’ll you see Velma’s split. She sings and dances and makes a split just like tearing a piece of paper. Yes, indeed. I tried it once and stayed in the hospital the whole week.” In fact, for more proof that Pops loved the split, check out the Soundie film he made on April 20, just one month after Velma joined the big band:

Classic, isn’t it? She had just joined the band only weeks earlier and Pops already thought enough of her to feature her in one of his short films. Thus, Armstrong’s love of Velma knew no limits. We all know the story of the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival when Armstrong was told Velma wasn’t wanted because Ella Fitzgerald was planning on joining him. Ella Fitzgerald! The first lady of song! Who sang with Armstrong that night? Velma, of course. Pops even fought to try to get her in High Society. She’s on a number of his major 1950s projects: the Handy and Waller albums, as well as the Autobiography, and a number of singles. She was truly part of the family and regardless of what one thinks of her voice, her showmanship and, yes, the split, she should be respected as an integral part of Louis Armstrong’s career.

Okay, the with pontificating over, let’s have some fun with “Velma’s Blues.” Louis Armstrong’s All Stars made their official debut as a group at Billy Berg’s in August of 1947 but Velma Middleton was not present. In fact, Velma didn’t join the band probably until November, according to Jos Willems’s All of Me. Perhaps Armstrong or Glaser wanted to make sure this small group experiment was going to work before bringing aboard another member but, of course, it was a smash hit from the beginning. At both a Carnegie Hall concert on November 15, 1947 and the famous Symphony Hall concert of November 30, Velma did her blues number, but both versions remain unissued so I cannot comment on them. In fact, there are many unissued versions of “Velma’s Blues” from throughout the years, mainly because so many All Stars shows were privately recorded. Fortunately, it was a performance that didn’t change much over time, though it will still be fun to discuss the small changes that did occur. The first version of “Velma’s Blues” that I have comes from the Nice Jazz Festival in France in February 1948. The sound quality isn't the best, but you can tell that this blues feature is already polished into a tight routine, one that would be followed closely in the decade to come (and Big Sid Catlett's accents are as perfect as they come). Dig it:


After a piano introduction by Earl Hines, Armstrong begins the blues in Db with one of his patented blues solos, one that would serve as the song’s “melody” until the end. In the second chorus of this early version, Armstrong holds a high Db for three bars, resolving it a with a quick Bb-Ab phrase in unison with Jack Teagarden’s trombone and Barney Bigard’s clarinet, before improvising for the rest of the chorus. Armstrong also plays a phrase, Gb-Gb-Gb-Ab, that almost sounds like a quote from “Heebie Jeebies.” It’s another blues lick he favored, one that he usually used in changing to the five chord in ninth bar of a 12-bar blues (it also crops up in “Ko Ko Mo,” a later feature for Armstrong and Middleton). Armstrong sets Velma up with a perfect concluding phrase, one he uses again a little later Velma then sings the lyrics she would use for about five years, lyrics that always drew cheers from the very first line:

Big daddy, big daddy, where did you stay last night?
Hey baby, where did you stay last night?
I got rocks in my bed and my pillow ain’t sleeping just right.

Say, I cried last night and I cried all the night before,
Yes, I cried last night, all the night before,
Come on home baby so I don’t have to cry no more.

Cause, I ain’t mad at you, pretty baby, I ain’t mad at you,
No, I ain’t mad at you, tell me what you want poor me to do,
I’ll steal, beg, borrow, do any ol’ thing for you.

Yes, I love that man, and I tell the world I do
Yes, I love that man, and I tell the world I do
If you knew him, you're bound to love him to.

Pops would usually begin his obbligato in the third chorus, but after that fourth chorus, Velma would go into her dance, usually sending audiences into a frenzy. For us listeners, Pops would lead two powerful ensemble choruses that would become more and more refined over the years. After setting up Velma’s entrance with the same phrase he played earlier, she comes back to sing a few more choruses, borrowing from Helen Humes and Sophie Tucker respectively:

Got a man over here, got a man over there, but the man over here,
Oo--oo-baba-re-bob, Oo—oo-baba-re-bob
Oo-oo-baba-re-baba-re-baba-re-baba-re-bob.

Yes, I love that man, he’s built up from the ground,
He’s long and tall, stacked up from the ground.
Yes, I get so weak, wooo, whenever he comes to town.

Velma would then resume dancing as Pops would begin wailing, dropping in some of his favorite quotes, including “Isle of Capri” and “My Sweetie Went Away.” With the band smoking, Velma would jump in for a quick four-bar statement:

I ain’t good looking, I ain’t built so fine,
But all the men like me cause I take my time!

The band then takes it out, using an ending that would be recycled a year later for another Middleton feature, “The Hucklebuck.” After a few seconds, the band comes back for an encore, Pops wailing and Velma probably doing some more dancing. She then enters with a couple of extra chourses:

Oh well, oh well, I feel so fine today
Oh well, oh well, I feel so fine today
Say that man of mine, he done come back home today

Say, I'm short and plump, a little bit round
but you can't tell the difference when the sun goes down!

Pops and Velma sound great from start to finishl, but there's one thing that might be missing from Nice version: the split! I don't hear any reaction to it but it had to be there somewhere. In fact, it was definitely there on October 29, 1948, when the All Stars performed at a Dixieland Jubilee concert in Pasadena. This version is even tighter and Pops has some new quotes, including "Honeysuckle Rose." Velma also has a new chorus she debuted after the "steal, beg and borrow" stanza:

Say, nobody loves a fat gal, but oh how a fat gal can love,
Nobody loves a fat gal, how a fat gal can love,
Yes, I love you baby, by the stars above.

Dig the audio (and again, Big Sid!):



There it is! In the encore, Velma clearly does the split while the band plays "The Hoochie Coochie Dance" quote and the crowd goes wild. Everyone's having a ball from the audience to the band (Teagarden really can be heard shouting vocal encouragement and humorous answers in the background). And also, scanning the lyrics should make the title of this blog entry make more sense. There have been so many released versions that many record companies just pick a line and use it for the title!

That’s what happened with the version from a concert in Vancouver in January 1951. This version is commercially available as “Where Did You Stay Last Night,” a title that often leads to confusion since that was the name of a song Armstrong recorded with King Oliver in 1923! Thus, anyone hoping that Armstrong dug something out of the Creole Jazz Band songbook for that Vancouver date would be sorely disappointed to find it to be another version of “Velma’s Blues.” By this time, the band had begun tightening the arrangement a little bit. Let's hear how it sounded in Vancouver:


They now only play one chorus at the start and it ends with the held Db to the Bb-Ab phrase that used to begin the second chorus. Otherwise, matters remain fairly similar until the ensemble jamming after Velma’s fourth chorus. The band now plays the seven-note triplet phrase that every All Stars drummer used to end his solos with, obviously being performed to accompany a specific Middleton dance move.

Then, after the “Hey-baba-re-bob” chorus, Middleton drops the “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl” motif (to be stolen years later by Jim Croce) and tries out some new lyrics (well, new for her, Big Joe Turner sang them years earlier):

Hey baby, get your basket, let’s truck down to the woods,
Baby, go get your basket, truck down to the woods,
Say we may not pick no berries but we both sure will come back feeling good.

It’s a good bawdy line, though the audience reacts with a groan. However, if you have this version, listen for Pops’s obbligato, which is really dynamite. Pops then leads the ensembles with those quotes, though he has a new one after Velma brags about how she takes her time with “Moon Over Miami.” This is followed by a whole new bit of business as the band prepares for Velma’s split. First the play a series of two-note phrases, with big cymbal hits by drummer Cozy Cole, before breaking into an exotic reading of “All the girls in France do the hoochie-coochie dance,” no longer in an encore setting. Velma does her thing, the audience screams and Pops takes it out with a standard All Stars ending.

Just four days later, the band recorded “Velma’s Blues” at another Pasadena concert, this time for Decca. It’s faster than the Vancouver version and upon release, it was dubbed “Big Daddy Blues,” but otherwise, everything is pretty much status quo except for one major omission: the “get your basket” chorus is gone. Perhaps it was too explicit or perhaps Louie and Velma heard the groans and Vancouver and maybe thought it didn’t go over too well. Regardless, this is what was sung in Pasadena:

Say, I love that man, tell the world I do,
Yes, love that man, tell the world I do,
If you knew him, say, you’re bound to love him, too.

However, those lyrics must not have done it for Louis and Velma either. Almost two years later, at an October 1952 concert in Sweden, the chorus after the “Hey-baba-re-bob” is gone completely: no fat girls, no baskets, no telling the world she does—though that last one would reappear. Otherwise, the 1952 version, heard on volume two of Storyville’s In Scandinavia series, isn’t one of my favorites because it’s slower than usual and the band plays some of the arranged passages, such as the accents on one-and-three towards the end, too stiff and stately. Also, Pops abandons the “Moon Over Miami” quote in favor of a much bluesier lick.

However, here’s where the plot thickens. By the beginning of 1952, Velma was still being featured on an uptempo blues and she was still doing a split, but now "Big Daddy" split the scene and was replaced by a new set of lyrics, "Big Mama's Back and Town." Let's listen to a super-rare broadcast of the All Stars in Boise in February 1952 with Russ Phillips on trombone and Joe Sullivan on piano (that steady oom-pah backing just doesn't work and he was gone in less than a week after this broadcast...subject for another day!).


As you can hear, the references to “big daddy” were gone as Velma now used her feature to spread the word that she’s the one in town:

Here’s news for you baby, Big Mama’s Back In Town
Here’s news for you baby, Mama’s Back In Town
So stop all your jiving, daddy, and all your running around.

Yes, I’m back home baby, Mama’s home to stay,
Oo-oo, I’m back home baby, Mama’s home to stay,
Ain’t going to let those women, steal your lovin’ away.

Cause, I ain’t mad at you, pretty baby, I ain’t mad at you,
No, I ain’t mad at you, tell me what you want poor me to do,
I’ll steal, beg, borrow, do any ol’ thing for you.

You left one morning, daddy, I was feeling low
Yes, you left that morning, baby, I was feeling low
I'm back home to stay, baby, I ain't gonna do that no more.

After those four opening choruses, it was back to the old routine, with Pops joining in for his obbligato on the third chorus as Velma shouted the “I ain’t mad at you” refrain. After that chorus, Velma now enthusiastically instructed the band to “Jump, jump, jump, jump” as she would go into her dance and let the All Stars jam for a chorus. Velma then reappears for the “Hey-baba-re-bob” chorus, the band vocally answering her, before she starts another chorus:
Say, I love that man, tell the world I do,
Yes, love that man, tell the world I do,
If you knew him, bound to love him, too. What a guy! What a guy!

From here, Velma goes into her dance and Louis trots out his usual “Isle of Capri” and “My Sweetie Went Away” quotes and everything else from there on out is as was. Interestingly, "Big Baddy Blues" reared its head a couple of more times, including on a European tour in October 1952, but by 1953, "Big Mama" was here to stay.

Still, there would be some slight changes. For example, the held Db in the first chorus that would set up Velma’s entrance was discarded in favor for the perfect lick that Armstrong played on the earliest 1948 performance. Also, Trummy Young joined the band in 1952 and he proved to be the perfect foil for Armstrong. Since almost all of Armstrong’s playing on “Velma’s Blues” was fairly set, Young adeptly created harmony lines to play along with Armstrong’s lead, making the brass section of the All Stars sound more potent than ever before. Otherwise, “Velma’s Blues” was set and began getting announced as “Big Mama’s Back In Town.” That opening line proved to be a killer every time—even in Yokohama, Japan on New Year’s Eve 1953, the audience hooted and hollered during Velma’s vocal and especially screamed during her dancing.

Thus, I know the preceding analysis might look pretty confusing so here is the breakdown of a particularly smoking version of “Big Mama’s Back In Town” from the Crescendo Club concert of January 1955 (available on The California Concerts). You can follow along as you listen:


First chorus: After a four-bar intro from Billy Kyle, the band jams a chorus, Pops playing one of his standard blues licks for the first eight bars before holding a high Db and setting up Velma’s entrance with a perfect two-bar phrase, played in unison with Trummy Young.

Second chorus: Trummy riffs behind Velma as she sings:
Here’s news for you baby, Big Mama’s Back In Town
Here’s news for you baby, Mama’s Back In Town
So stop all your jiving, baby, and all your running around.

Third chorus: Trummy and Barney Bigard team up to tightly play a prototypical backing riff, one that’s been used a million times and I think harkens back to Count Basie. Midway through, Pops plays two notes. Velma sings:
Yes, I’m back home baby, Mama’s home to stay,
Oo-oo, I’m back home baby, Velma’s home to stay,
Ain’t going to let those women, steal your lovin’ away.

Fourth chorus: Pops takes over, with a powerful obbligato behind Velma:
Cause, I ain’t mad at you, pretty baby, I ain’t mad at you,
No, I ain’t mad at you, tell me what you want poor me to do,
I’ll steal, beg, borrow, do any ol’ thing for you.

Fifth and sixth choruses: As Velma admonishes the band to “Jump” and begins to dance, the band jams two. Pops plays that little “Heebie Jeebies”-type thing in the first chorus, while the second one features some arranged playing to suit Velma’s dancing, namely a harmonized playing of the first line of “Hesitating Blues” and the forceful drum-like triplets. Pops plays the same “Heebies”-ish line in the same spot and the horns harmonize on the same line they used in the first chorus to set up Velma’s entrance. Phew!

Seventh chorus: Over stop-time backing, Velma sings:
Got a man over here, got a man over there, but the man over here, (Pops: “What about him?”)
Hey-baba-re-bob, (Hey-baba-re-bob ) Yeah, baba-re-bob (Hey-baba-re-bob)
Hey, baba-re-baba-re-baba-re-baba-re-bob.

Eighth chorus: Trummy gets funky with a mute in his trombone as he and Bigard continue to pump out more riffs. Also notice, Velma no longer sings about “him” but rather “Satch.”
Say, I love that man, tell the world I do,
Yes, love that man, tell the world I do,
If you knew old Satch, bound to love him, too. What a guy! What a guy!

Ninth chorus: Pops leads the way with “Isle of Capri” and “My Sweetie Went Away,” Trummy playing wonderful harmony to each. Another triplet excursion with drum accents by Barrett Deems obviously was used for Velma’s purposes. Feeling hot, Pops speeds up the triplet phrase before soldiering in to the….

Tenth chorus: Velma again must have done something specific here because on every version, Deems plays a cymbal accent on the third beat of the second bar, kind of an odd place. As they go on, there’s another arranged bit of business with Deems whacking away on one-and-three as Pops plays scorching two note riffs. Bigard chimes in with a humorous tremolo, sounding like a spaceship about to land. With all hell breaking loose (in a good way), Trummy leads the way to the…

Eleventh chorus: Trummy riffs for the first two bars before Pops joins in. Deems plays more accents for Velma on the beat before Pops leads the way out, ending on the high Db.

It’s a wonderfully exciting performance but as you can see, Velma doesn’t reenter to sing about “taking her time” and the band doesn’t play the “Hoochie-Coochie” segment. Otherwise, this was the pattern for the new and improved “Velma’s Blues.”

However, “Big Mama’s Back In Town” was soon to have competition. In the summer of 1954, the All Stars recorded their seminal tribute to W.C. Handy, an album on which Velma Middleton played a big part of. The opening track of that album was a raucous, legendary jam on “St. Louis Blues.” Armstrong featured himself on that song for about 20 years of his career, but after Earl Hines joined the band, it became a feature for the group’s pianists, including Hines, Marty Napoleon and Billy Kyle. In fact, Kyle was still playing it as a feature on March 3, 1955 but when the Handy album hit and created such a stir, Armstrong knew he had to include something from it in his live shows. By May 28, 1955, Armstrong and Middleton were now featuring “St. Louis Blues.” Because the record version was nearly nine minutes long, it took the All Stars some time to figure out how to edit it for live performances. The earliest surviving broadcast version is that May one from Basin Street and it’s severely edited to fit within the confines of the short broadcast (Pops doesn’t even sing on it). However, the tempo is almost identical to the original record. But by October 1955, the band was almost jumping it, as heard on volume three of the In Scandinavia series, just to come in around the six-minute mark. However, Pops eventually edited out some choruses and always managed to finish at the six to seven-minute mark at a perfect stomping medium tempo.

“St. Louis Blues,” though, had another important use in addition to being just another blues feature for Velma and Pops; it allowed Velma to take a break from the splits. By 1956, the countless nights of doing splits had begun taking its toll on Velma. She was only 39 years old and still very much overweight and now her dance interludes were beginning to have an effect on her. She usually followed “Big Mama’s Back In Town” with “That’s My Desire” during this period and on some versions, you can hear her just about gasping before starting “Desire.” Numerous versions of “Big Mama” survive from 1955 and 1956 and it’s interesting to note the one concession the band made to make things easier on Velma. All versions of “Big Mama” through January 20, 1956 are exactly as described earlier. However, by the time of a March 26 one-nighter in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Pops had chopped off almost the entire final chorus. Now Trummy would charge into it by himself but just two bars in, Pops would end it, making for an odd four-bar final chorus. It might have only been eight bars and maybe saved just a few seconds but it’s always been my guess that Velma was beginning to break down in those final seconds so to make things easier, Pops shortened the performance a bit. This is how “Big Mama” is heard at the Chicago concert of June 1 of that year, as well as a concert in Hinsdale, Illinois on March 20, 1957.

But then, “Big Mama’s Back In Town” disappears. Jos Willems’s All of Me discography lists many concert set lists, including a number from the European tour of 1959, and “Velma’s Blues” is nowhere to be found. However, a 1959 concert at Keesler Air Force Base contains a song titled “Nobody Loves A Fat Girl,” which, as mentioned earlier, was a stanza in the original versions of “Velma’s Blues.” I didn't have this concert when I first wrote this entry, but I do now and can tell you that's it's a replacement of "Big Mama's Back in Town," recycling some of Velma's oldest blues choruses, along with nods to Lloyd Price's 1959 hit "Personality."

However, there's one thing this performance definitely doesn't have: a split. Thus, beginning in late 1956, the days of Velma’s splits were more or less over, a fact that led some mean-spirited critics to rejoice. Reviewing an All Stars concert in February 1958, Patrick Scott wrote, “Vocalist Velma Middleton did not do the splits (which was a bitter disappointment to me since I had hoped to see her break a leg).” “St. Louis Blues” and “Ko Ko Mo” were now the two big Middleton blues performances. The Live in 1959 Jazz Icons DVD contains both songs and though they’re both tremendous and Velma sings with enthusiasm, her dancing isn’t as feathery light as it was in that 1942 clip. She smiles bravely and dances a lot, but it almost looks like she’s dancing in slow motion. However, the one time she really lets loose, on “Ko Ko Mo,” the camera isn’t on her! All that can be heard is the audience shrieking in delight, but it’s such a short period of time, there’s no way she could have done the split. As always, though, I offer my usual reminder: the All Stars played over 300 dates a year so I cannot fully say that she never did a split after 1956 because I have never heard every show. But after studying the set lists and the reviews of the late 50s, it’s fairly certain that “Velma’s Blues” became much less conspicuous than it was in the first nine years of the All Stars.

Nevertheless, “Velma’s Blues” managed to turn up at least one more time, in what is the saddest version ever captured: her last recorded concert appearance with the All Stars. Velma never missed a show, but her health continued to decline until she eventually had a stroke before a performance in Freetown, Sierra Leone on January 25, 1961. She died on February 11 at the age of only 43. The band had resumed touring Africa on January 7 after taking five weeks off to allow Armstrong to film Paris Blues. Before the layoff, the band performed a State Department-sponsored tour of Africa that included a November concert at Elisabethstad, Katanga in the Belgian Congo. It’s a fine concert, but not a classic by any means, namely because the sound is subpar (most of the concert is available on C.D. and on Itune). However, listening to Velma sing on what became her final recorded performance makes for emotionally difficult moments. First off, it’s the odd concert where she performs both “St. Louis Blues” and one final go-around of “Velma’s Blues.” “St. Louis Blues” usually radiated warmth and good times but for one thing, Velma’s voice isn’t as strong on this version as it was at the Newport Jazz Festival just four months earlier. But also, one chorus of lyrics stands out like it never had previously:

I love my man, like a school boy loves his pie,
Louie Armstrong, blows so nice and high,
Gonna love that man, until the day I die.

It’s a perfect summation of Velma’s career and purpose in life but for the purpose of this entry, I’d like to focus on this last version of “Velma’s Blues.” Here's the audio:


This one begins like every other one, with Pops playing a chorus of trumpet as Velma steps up to the mike, but Pops prolongs the chorus to 14 awkward bars to allow Velma enough time to get into place. I’m guessing that she hadn’t performed this number in quite some time because the ultra-tight background riffs that Young and Bigard used to play are gone. Instead, it’s more or less a blues jam, identical to the 1959 Keesler version I mentioned in that Velma trots out some old and new lyrics, including a chorus where she quotes “Personality.” She sings five choruses in a row up front, Pops playing his obbligato in the fifth chorus before he launches into a completely new solo as Velma claps along.

To add to the sorrowful mood, Louis opens by quoting Dvorak's "Going Home"...yikes, talk about foreshadowing. In a nod back to 1947, Armstrong ends the second chorus of his solo by quoting “Honeysuckle Rose,” which he hadn’t done since the earliest performance of the tune. And then Velma sings two more choruses of new lyrics that make me want to cry, knowing the circumstances of the recording. Her health was failing, her voice sounds a little shaky and she would be dead in less than three months, making it difficult to listen to these stanzas without being affected emotionally:

I’m going to this song, ain’t going to sing no more,
Going to sing this song, I ain’t going to sing no more,
Come home baby, ‘fore your mama shuts the door.

Bye, baby, bye bye,
Bye, baby, bye bye,
Bye bye, don’t cry, baby come back home.

There’s no jamming at the end, no time for a split or anything. Like the trouper she was, she put everything into the song, even though her voice is very pitchy on those final “Bye’s,” and gets great applause for her efforts. Still, knowing what was lurking around the corner gives those last two choruses an eerie feeling. And like it had for so many years, Velma followed with “That’s My Desire,” an appropriate final recorded performance for Velma’s career. Every version of “That’s My Desire” makes me laugh out loud, but this one saddens me. I listen to that first chorus, where she sings about her desire to be with her man, as Pops plays a gorgeous obbligato, and, like that lyric in “St. Louis Blues,” it’s a perfect summation of what she lived for: to entertain audiences and serve Louis Armstrong night-after-night for almost 20 years. And of course, her final line says it all: “Though you’ve found someone new, I’ll always love you, that’s my desire.” It’s almost like she was saying goodbye to Pops and on this one occasion, Pops played her off the stage with one single chorus of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” which, again, sums everything up from his perspective as well. If they ever make the movie version of Armstrong’s life story, the Katanga concert would provide quite a dramatic setting for Velma’s goodbye.

Armstrong took Velma’s death very hard, though as drummer Danny Barcelona told me, he still went on with the show. The All Stars had to continue their tour without Velma though Louis made sure that Joe Glaser pulled strings to have her body sent back to the United States so her mother could pay her last respects (more details on the whole circumstances around Velma's passing will be found in my book). After some time, LaVern Baker was approached to replace Velma. According to those present, Armstrong and Baker demonstrated wonderful chemistry on “That’s My Desire” at an engagement they shared together in 1961, but Baker wanted too much money and already had a successful career on her own. Jewel Brown soon replaced Velma permanently, but she never reprised Armstrong’s duets with Velma. However, Armstrong believed in those routines and in the late 60s, would often perform “That’s My Desire” with trombonist Tyree Glenn in the role of Velma. In fact, on one of Armstrong’s last television appearances, Armstrong and Glenn performed “That’s My Desire” on the David Frost Show on February 10, 1971. The routine, which hadn’t really changed since 1947, gets huge laughs from the studio audience. Glenn tells the audience, “You should have seen Pops and Velma do that. They did it so Pops said, ‘Let’s do a take off on that.’” Armstrong responds, “We love her so well.”

So the next time you listen to “Velma’s Blues” and you hear the shrieks of delight emanating from the audience, smile and remember how much joy she brought to countless audiences. And remember that, critics be damned, Louis and Velma truly loved each other and you can hear it on every single recording they did together.

1 comment:

Low Hank said...

Every anecdote about Louis reveals more about how wonderful the man was.