Saturday, December 3, 2011

Listening to the Book: Chapter 13

It's been over a month since I shared audio related to a chapter of my book, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years, but don't worry, I haven't forgotten about it and vow to complete the job sooner rather than later (except for my usual Christmas posts, I'll probably stick to these "Listening to the Book" posts for the rest of the year).

At first, I didn't think there'd be much to share from chapter 13, which covers a short stretch from Louis's heart attack in June 1959 through the end of that year. Then I started going back and looking at my blogs and I realized that I've covered a LOT of music made in this short period. So let's get to it, shall we?

First up, not long after Louis's heart attack, he was back in action, touring with the All Stars and making a recording with the Dukes of Dixieland for the Audio Fidelity label. This material wasn't released until years later as Louis had recorded the majority of tunes for Decca and Columbia and was forbidden from recording them for another label (not much planning went into the Audio Fidelity sessions). But Louis played great at this first date with the Dukes, as evidenced by this warm-up version of "Muskrat Ramble":


For a full blog on "Muskrat Ramble" from that period, go here:
Muskrat Ramble Part 6

Louis sounds great here, but he did lose a few miles off of his fastball in this period. In 1957, Louis tore through "Cornet Chop Suey" like a kid again but in 1959, he sounds a little sludgy at times, though strong as hell when not trying to replicate his original solo. Listen along:


And here's my full blog on "Cornet Chop Suey":
Cornet Chop Suey Blog

Louis also tackled "I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jelly Roll" with the Dukes. Here's how it came out:




That was a new one for Pops but since most of the other songs had already been recorded by Louis for other labels, Audio Fidelity couldn't release this meeting with the Dukes of Dixieland. Now knowing what they had to do, Audio Fidelity brought Louis back a couple of month later, this time with the All Stars. They "borrowed" a concept that George Avakian originally wanted to do with Louis when he was recording for Columbia in the mid-50s: "Satchmo Plays King Oliver." Unfortunately, Audio Fidelity's head, Sid Frey, didn't put any thought into the preparation for the album and instead just had Louis and his group jam a bunch of ancient songs, only some with a connection to Oliver. Frey must have liked how "I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jelly Roll" came out with the Dukes so he had Louis make it again with the All Stars:



Both versions of "Jelly Roll" are pretty different, featuring Louis improvising different sets of lyrics. Here's a blog I wrote way back when (without any audio!) in which I dissect the differences:I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jelly Roll Blog

"Satchmo Plays King Oliver" isn't the greatest Louis Armstrong of all time--in fact, I know some Louis lovers who downright don't like it--but it has grown on me over the years. And there are some undeniably great moments. One is a slower-than-molasses version of "St. James Infirmary" with some positively scary trumpet at the conclusion:


Here's my full blog on "St. James Infirmary": St. James Infirmary blog

And on "I Ain't Got Nobody," Pops, I think, topped his 1929 effort. What heart attack?


Here's my blog comparing both of Louis's attempts at "I Ain't Got Nobody": I Ain't Got Nobody Blog

Apparently Audio Fidelity recorded a lot of material, enough that Hank O'Neal got to comb through it and create some albums of alternate takes in the 1970s on his Chiaroscuro label (I don't know who has this material, but it would make a great Mosaic Records set!). Here's an extended "Butter and Egg Man":



Interestingly, some of the tunes they attempted that had real strong connections to Oliver ended up on the cutting room floor. One was "Snake Rag," which is too stiff and Dixie-fied at first (most of the All Stars didn't even know these tunes and had to be taught by Louis in the studio!), but Louis saves the day with some strong-ass trumpet playing towards the finish:
Snake Rag:


Again, here's an old blog where I compared the 1923 Oliver versions of "Snake Rag" to the 1959 version (with details on how Louis's memory got the chord changes wrong in 1959!): Snake Rag Blog

Another tune recorded with Oliver was "New Orleans Stomp." For this remake, Louis tried an entirely new approach, giving it a relaxed feel and improvising another hilarious vocal. I think this is pretty great:


And another blog, comparing Louis's three attempts at this song over the years: New Orleans Stomp Blog

A few weeks later, Louis and the All Stars performed a one-nighter at Keesler Air Force in Biloxi, Mississippi. Someone recorded it in gorgeous sound and passed it around (Bobby Hackett had a copy and made one for Louis, which is in his private tape collection). Unfortunately, it's never been commercially issued but I do have a copy of it and love because the band sounds great, the audience is nuts and it's a full two-plus hours show with some different material performed (look for it in my next installment of "Anatomy of an All Stars Show"). There's one drawback: Louis is not in 100% form. He's not in bad form and he doesn't struggle like he did at Monterey in 1958 but it's clear that he's not in complete command of his horn. I don't think it's heart attack related; rather, it might have been the weather, being an outdoor venue in late October...and I could swear I hear Louis mutter something about it being "cold" during this version of "Tiger Rag." If you were with me for my post on Chapter 12, you heard some of the wildest "Tiger Rags" of Louis's career. But after the heart attack, he cut the routine way down. He often still played explosively, but at Keesler, he's working hard to get those high notes to pop:


The tenth (!) and final part of my series on "Tiger Rag" gives more perspective to this and other versions that followed: Tiger Rag Part 10

But not being able to do whatever he wanted on the horn did result in some nice, fresh moments such as on "Muskrat Ramble" where Louis totally forgoes his "set" solo and instead improvises something that's not quite as fluid but more than makes up for it with brute strength:


The earlier link to part six of my "Muskrat Ramble" series has more on that version.

And on the last surviving version of "Butter and Egg Man," now a duet with Velma Middleton, Louis turns back the clock and opens his solo with a nod back to his original Hot Five solo from 1926 (recorded 85 years ago last month):


For a full blog on "Butter and Egg Man," with more info on the earlier versions from "Satchmo Plays King Oliver," here's where to find it:
Butter and Egg Man Blog

As you'll hear next time, on most nights, Louis was still blowing like mad. But the heart attack did have some subtle effects on Louis. One big casualty was Louis's explosive, perfectly building, three-chorus climactic rideout lead on "When the Saints Go Marchin' In." In 1958, he began ending it by playing the melody an octave higher, really flexing his muscles, and he played the hell out of it throughout his 1959 tour of Europe. But in September 1959, he played it on the "Ed Sullivan Show" and it was clear that it was taking more effort than ever before. He made it...but it wasn't easy. It must have killed him, but he knew he had to shelve it. Thus, "Saints," is performed twice at Keesler and both times, right when Louis would begin his three-chorus rideout, he stops the song abruptly, the first time to go into "Mop Mop," the second time to go into his closing "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." It was a first concession to age and health and it wouldn't be the last. For the whole story of Louis and "When the Saints Go Marchin' In," along with a link to watch the video of Louis on the "Ed Sullivan Show," go here:
When the Saints Go Marchin' In Revisited

And that does it for Chapter 13 and for Louis Armstrong's career in the 1950s. It was an incredible decade. The 1960s would have its shares of ups and downs but the ups made up some of the finest work of Armstrong's career. Stay tuned....

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