Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanks a Million - 2011 Edition

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 19, 1935
Track Time 2:37
Written by Gus Kahn and Arthur Johnston
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken, Louis Bacon, trumpet; Harry White, Jimmy Archey, trombone; Henry Jones, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Bingie Madison, Greely Walton, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Originally released on Decca 666
Currently available on CD: It's on the Mosaic box set of Armstrong's Decca recordings from 1935-1946 (perfect for the holiday season!)
Available on Itunes? Yes, on various issues (both takes are on something called “Knowing Louis”)

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! That means it's time once again to look at one of my favorite Louis Armstrong records, "That's a Million," one of those tunes that all the real Pops lovers seem to have a soft spot for, especially trumpet players. Just off the top of my head, I know the song has been a favorite of hornmen from Bobby Hackett and Ruby Braff to Randy Sandke, Jon-Erik Kellso and Dave Whitney. Though there’s no wild pyrotechnics, the song still exists as a standout example of Armstrong playing and singing a beautiful melody with a tremendous amount of warmth.

The song comes from the formidable talents of two great songwriters of the 1930s, Arthur Johnston and Gus Kahn. Throughout his career, Armstrong found Johnston’s songs especially suitable for blowing, Johnston having written “Mandy, Make Up Your Mind,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “Moon Song” and “Just One of Those Things,” to name a few, all subject to terrific Armstrong treatments. “Thanks a Million” was written for a 20th Century musical comedy of the same name starring Dick Powell and Ann Dvorak, as well as two great comedians of the era, Fred Allen and Patsy Kelly. In the film, Powell got to sing the title song, backed by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra (with David Rubinoff on violin).

Powell is harmless and has a very good voice but rhythmically, he’s the anti-Armstrong, very stiff and almost comically emotional (his hand gestures bordered on hilarious in the clip). Nevertheless, the song must have become pretty well associated with Powell as it became the title of a 1998 biopic and like I said, it’s harmless, with the very pretty melody coming through clearly. Sure enough, it would be a winner for Pops and indeed, he hit it out of the park. Here ‘tis:


Doesn’t get much better, eh? People sometimes refer to this a ballad but pay close attention to the tempo, which swings in a more medium groove thanks to Pops Foster’s bass. I think just because the tune is gentle and pretty, it could be confused into being called a ballad, but this version really isn’t (though almost any succeeding version I’ve heard is on the slow side).

Regardless, the main event is arguably Pops’s first chorus. He barely deviates from the melody, though when he does, such as the lightening quick descending run, it always works. He plays it fairly straight for half the chorus before hitting the magic elevation button and taking it up an octave, climaxing on a penetrating high C, followed immediately by an even higher concert Eb. He almost sounds like he’s sobbing in the way he descends from the high note. I know I’m almost sobbing over here listening to such beauty.

The Luis Russell band takes over, setting up Pops’s vocal, one of his finest of the period. He still hadn’t had his throat operation, which occurred in 1937 and seemed to add a quarter-pound of gravel to his already unique voice. Thus, we get that crystal clear tenor, something to marvel at. There’s no scatting, but the “Now mama” in the second half is priceless. An incredibly heartfelt vocal.

Russell’s piano leads to a modulation that finds Armstrong playing the melody one more time in a more human key, with no need to reach for those sickeningly beautiful high notes. Yet, because it’s a Decca record, you can bet your life that there’s going to be a slowed down coda. Sure enough there is, and once again Armstrong makes the angels weep with his final two notes, a gorgeous, throbbing Ab topped off with a ridiculously pure concert Db. Bravo, Mr. Armstrong.

“Thanks a Million” survives in another, almost identical take, as heard on volume one of the priceless Ambassador series. On this one, which was actually recorded first, Armstrong stays closer to the melody the first time around but otherwise all the hallmarks of take one are in place: taking the melody up an octave, the “Now, Mama” in the heartfelt vocal, the modulation and the gorgeous coda. For the nuts out there, give it a listen:


And that's all for "Thanks a Million," though the song continues to prosper. For two fantastic modern-day versions, check out Michael Steinman's blog. Michael also gets right to the heart of it about what it means to be a crazed blogger doing this kind of stuff out of pure love for the music and the lovers of the music who are still out there. So on a personal note, let me just say “Thanks a Million” once again to the readers out there who keep me going. As you can imagine, it has been a helluva year and I'd say I'm the most thankful cat out there: after a very difficult pregnancy, my wife and I welcomed little Melody Patricia Riccardi to the world on May 31. A few weeks later, my book, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years, was published, a dream come true. And I'm still working my dream job as archivist at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. How thankful can a fella be? Just ask me...

But special thanks to all of you out there, whether this is the first time you've visited or whether you've been with me for all for years. I love hearing from fellow Armstrong nuts from around the world and I hope to continue to do so until the end of time. But for now, it’s time for scarfing. Happy Thanksgiving to all and thanks a million!

No comments: