Recorded June 16, 1926
Track Time 3:04
Written by Louis Armstrong
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet, alto saxophone; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8343
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
Time for a revisit to an old post of mine, one of my earliest from back in 2007. 85 years ago, Louis recorded a really light-hearted, fun Hot Five session that the Gunther Schuller's of the world probably wish never existed. I wish I had time to discuss the whole session, but for a sense of the fun, you can't top "Don't Forget to Mess Around." Here's what I wrote back in 2007 (this was the first Hot Five I ever wrote about, hence the opening) and it still holds up today, laying out some of the themes that crop up in my book regarding Louis's early days (five days til publication!). Enjoy!
Finally, something from the sacred Hot Five series. And no, it's not "West End Blues" or "Weather Bird," but rather a lighthearted romp with a fun vocal about a dance. I'm actually happy this one came up in my shuffle because for quite some time, I've argued that more attention needs to paid to all the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, not just the ones critics and analysts tell us are the only ones worth remembering. And of course, many of the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens are more important than others in the series but the point remains that by focusing just on Armstrong's greatest statements, it's easy to buy into the myth of, "Wow, he used to be some artist, playing stuff like 'Potato Head Blues' and 'Cornet Chop Suey.' It's a shame he gave it up to become an entertainer."
Nothing can be farther from the truth and as proof, I offer you the Hot Five session of June 16, 1926. Four tracks were recorded that day, three with ridiculously fun Armstrong vocals...and on the one he doesn't sing, he plays a slide whistle! The whole date has such a happy feeling to it but these four tracks rarely get reissued on best-ofs from the period (for the record, the others are "I'm Gonna Gitcha," "Dropping Shucks," and 'Who'sit," the latter with the slide whistle solo). "Don't Forget to Mess Around" led off the first Hot Five session since Februray 26, a date that produced three bona fide classics: "Heebie Jeebies," "Cornet Chop Suey" and "Muskrat Ramble." But please don't think Armstrong confined himself to just the Hot Five sessions in this period. He would enter the recording studio five more times between March and June, accompanying blues singers such as Sippie Wallace, recording with his regular band, Erskin Tate's Vendome Orchestra, and even doing a session under his wife Lil's name for Vocalion. Earlier on June 16, Armstrong had already recorded two tracks backing the singer Nolan Welsh. I have Armstrong's recordings arranged in chronological order and I think it's important to hear what he recorded in order because it's not just one small band classic after another. The Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions pop up sporadically and always manage to delight, but they were just a small part of what Armstrong was doing in Chicago during this period.
So when it comes to "Don't Forget to Mess Around," there's not a lot to analyze. Let's listen:
Armstrong plays two flawless one-bar breaks in the introduction and basically sticks to melody in his lead ensemble playing. "Charleston" was obviously the craze of the period and this Armstrong composition incorporates the "Charleston" beat very well. Like most originals from the period, it isn't a neat 32-bar AABA pop song but rather features a chorus followed by a verse, then back to the chorus with some neat arranged sections for the horns along the way. Towards the end of the verse, one notices Johnny Dodds disappears, only to return a few seconds later...on alto! Yikes, I'm not a big fan of Dodds's stiff alto playing, even though his high notes oddly still sound like his clarinet. Fortunately, Armstrong's right behind him with one of his most exberant, shouting vocals of the Okeh days. It's not Gershwin, but it's a lot of fun:
Don't forget to mess around/ when you're doing the Charleston...Charleston
First thing you do/ now when you rear...way back!
Say, you grab your gal/ and then you clap your hands
And you do the Eagle Rock/ but don't you stop at all!
Uncle Jack, that dancin' fool/ He would never do the Charleston...Charleston
When he learned of that brand/ new dance...such a prance!
And he forgot his name/ when he danced this brand new way
Then he yelled out/ don't forget to do your stuff/ when you dance the mess around!
Now, I'm usually good at translating the language of Armstrong but the quality of the recording coupled with Armstrong's shouting ways makes this a hard lyric to decipher. Only the next to last line, "And he forgot his name," might be wrong. That's what I think Wycliffe Gordon sings on a remake for David Ostwald's Gully Low Jazz Band recording of it (on "Blues In Our Heart"), but Armstrong kind of sounds like he's singing, "And he clean forget his aid/ when he danced this brand new raid." I don't even know if that makes sense, but obviously this isn't a lyric with deep emotional content. It's just supposed to convey a sense of fun and on that level it succeeds greatly. And besides, no one else was really singing like this during the period, though there are traces of Al Jolson in some of these early Armstrong vocals (on "Butter and Egg Man," Pops practically imitates Jolson at one point).
After the vocal, Johnny Dodds takes a very aggressive clarinet solo, as if he's saying, "Please posterity, don't judge me by my alto playing!" Kid Ory takes a typical break towards the end before Armstrong takes one of his own, notable for staying in middle register before shooting up an octave to end it with a piercing high note. All in all, it's a lot of fun and if I say it again, not as important as a "West End Blues" but I think it's just as important in understanding Armstrong's entire career. Legendary producer George Avakian tells this story about this track:
"By 1926, Louis Armstrong was headlining at Chicago's Sunset Cafe and writing novelties which he performed nightly, in addition to recording them with his Hot Five for Okeh. During one of many happy afternoons of hanging out in Luois's upstairs den in his home in Corona, I asked Pops if the 'mess around' was an actual dance.' 'Yes, yes indeed,' he cried and leaped out of his chair. 'Went like this!' Well, there I was without a movie camera, but be assured of one thing--Louis was a great dancer and still light on his feet. 'Used to do that every show after the vocal, and then blow two choruses. Had to dance two, three encores on Saturday nights.'"
Picture that. The great, serious, artist, Louis Armstrong (before he went commercial), performing "Don't Forget To Mess Around" and then dancing for a few choruses. During the same year, newspaper clippings exist in Armstrong's scrapbook of rave reviews he received in Chicago for putting on mock sermons and singing "Heebie Jeebies" to the delight of the audiences. But the image of two different Armstrong persists to this day. Here's a Time magazine critic just last year reviewing a Hot Fives and Hot Sevens set: "Forget the Satchmo who sang and mugged his way through his later decades, wonderfully entertaining as he was. This is Armstrong the force of nature--exuberant, inspired, irresistible." When I first read that online, I mailed it to myself with the subject line, "Makes Me Sick." So sure, I have my moments where I just want to put in a best-of compilation and watch the hits keep coming: "Cornet Chop Suey" followed by "Muskrat Ramble" followed by "Potato Head Blues" followed by "West End Blues" followed by "Beau Koo Jack," and so on. But please don't forget that the same man made "Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa," "Irish Black Bottom," "That's When I'll Come Back to You," and "Don't Forget to Mess Around," FUN songs that wanted to do nothing more than entertain and provide joy, which is what Louis Armstrong lived to do for his entire career.
(And a note on the great David Ostwald. He seems to understand this and on the wonderful Nagel-Heyer release "Blues In Our Heart," he dug out "Mess Around," "New Orleans Stomp" and "Who' Sit," from Armstrong's mid-20s period. The disc is wonderful, as are George Avakian's notes, from which I copped the earlier quote. David leads the Louis Armstrong Centennial Band at Birdland every Wednesday from 5:30 to 7:15 and I can't think of a better way to spend time in the city. Hopefully, as long as there's a New York City, there'll be a place for this wonderful group!)