Wednesday, January 25, 2012

80 Years of Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and Kickin' the Gong Around

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded January 25, 1932
Written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Preston Jackson, trombone; Lester Boone, clarinet, alto saxophone; George James, alto saxophone, soprano saxophone; Albert Washington, tenor saxophone; Charlie Alexander, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; John Lindsay, bass; Tubby Hall, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41550
Currently available on CD: It’s on the JSP two-disc set The Big Band Sides, 1930-1932
Available on Itunes? Yes

With all those pesky book-related posts out of the way, it's time for an old-fashioned anniversary post--actually, two posts, with one today to celebrate "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" and "Kickin' the Gong Around" and another coming up on Friday for the 80th anniversary of "All of Me" and "Home."

These January 1932 sessions were Louis's first since he cut eight classics for OKeh in November 1931 (all discussed in this blog post: He was still happily fronting the band of New Orleans and Chicago musicians that was formed by second trumpeter Zilner Randolph and though mob troubles were still keeping Louis on the road and out of New York, OKeh grabbed Louis anytime he was passing through Chicago.

The material waiting for him on January 25 was written by the dynamite team of Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen for a Cotton Club revue, "Rhyth-Mania," which debuted in March 1931. Aida Ward introduced "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" in the show, but on record, that distinction went to another vocalist featured in the revue, the great Cab Calloway (whom I just read is going to be the subject of a PBS "American Masters" documentary in February). Here's how Cab treated it on October 21, 1931:

I love Cab, honestly I do, but I find his vocal to be somewhat stiff on that one. Maybe it comes from the need to introduce a new song by sticking almost exclusively to the melody. But Cab, who could be a ferocious swinger, sticks a little too close for my liking and as a result, doesn't swing.

Then again, maybe I'm just prejudiced after having listened to Louis's versions for so long. I have a deep love affair with Louis's early 1930s OKeh recordings and to me "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" is near the top of the list, maybe topped by "Star Dust," "Lazy River" and not many others. This is prime stuff, vocally and trumpet-ly speaking.

And yes, I said versionS...hooray for alternate takes! The first take was a paced a little too slow for the tastes of the OKeh A&R man in the booth. Another attempt raised the number of beats per minute by a few and shaved 20 seconds off the performance to be used as the master. Still, somehow the slower take leaked out and was mistakenly used as the issued take on some very rare pressings of the tune. An Armstrong nut with good ears picked up the difference and viola, an alternate take was magically discovered.

So with the preliminaries out of the way, let's listen to the first attempt at "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea":

After knowing the master for so many years, the tempo does seem to drag a bit at first, but once you get into the swing of it, it has a nice foot-pattin' groove. The band takes the verse, which makes overt reference to "Kickin' the Gong Around," the other Koehler-Arlen tune recorded that day (more in a bit). Louis enters the vocal with a preliminary "Now" and begins telling his tale with a melody of his own, that's based in the written score but more based in Louis's brain and heart (lots of phrases made up of a single pitch). It must have been an early read, which comes out during a highlight for me when Louis loses the phrasing in the bridge. He relaxes a bit too much on "I don't want to cross you off my list," realizes he's rapidly running out of bar space and rushes to squeeze in the next line, "But when you come knocking at my door." He just gets it in and then, as an aside, asks, "How do you like that?" Like it? Louis, we love it!

Perhaps knowing this take might be wasted, it seems to take him a second to regain his equilibrium but he gets it and floats through the bridge and a relaxed final eight. Then it's trumpet time and as a treat, we get Louis with a mute (is it a Solotune? a cup? I'll let the trumpeters in the crowd argue that one out). There was something about being muted that brought out Louis's double-time side (see "Little Joe" from the previous year and stay tuned for "All of Me" later this week). Louis really gets all over his horn for the first 16 bars and even after the bridge, which is made up of held high notes. He's still boppin' around (and I do mean Bop) in the last eight of the chorus when all of a sudden he hits a note and pulls the trumpet off his lips in an instant. What's up? Nothing much...the great man has just decided to take his mute out! He's so relaxed and everything is simply mellow as Louis leads the way out. He repeats a few thrilling high notes (though they're a bit strained) as he builds up to a heroic finish.

It's all great, but there was the vocal gaffe, the slight strain in the high notes and the overall dragging tempo. If OKeh had quit right there, it would still be known as a great record (and the double-time stuff would be transcribed and lauded around the world) but I'm glad they gave it one more go because the master take is a master piece:

From the start, you don't need a metronome to tell you that this performance is noticeably faster (but it does slow down; compare the tempo at the start with the tempo at the end). Once again, the band takes the verse. Louis enters with a gentle "Oh" and proceeds to swing the hell out of the lyric. He shows off his range, too, going down low for the titular phrase. Louis know has the song under his belt and he sings the lyric with his new phrasing as if that's how it should have been written (and maybe it should). Anyone looking for the standard pause between the first two words "I" and "don't" should look elsewhere. Louis phrases each line like a statement rather than a melodic statement but it works. There's also a major trumpet aspect to his vocal; just listen to what he does with "more," the final note of the bridge, vocally glissing and bending it. After the bridge, he takes a few more liberties, delivering the line "But mama, I guess instead I love you" all on one pitch. With a closing wink at that "little devil you," the band plays a short interlude to allow Pops to get his chops in the horn and more importantly, to get that mute in there, too.

His muted opening could not be any more relaxed and swinging. But then, watch out for the double-timing! Dan Morgenstern likes to point out that this record must have been a favorite of Charlie Parker's; one listen and you can see why! Pops's double-timing is so smooth but he only does it in short bursts. Still, it's enough for critics of later Armstrong to grumble about Pops's abandoning of this aspect of his playing, since we all know that good jazz is only about how many notes you play.

But those who wish Louis would have remained lightening quick on his horn probably stop listening to this track at the bridge, which is completely made up of held, high notes, Armstrong flexing the chops. The two high notes he repeats at the end of the bridge swing with such an urgency, it's impossible not to feel that something major is going on. Louis uses his free sense of rhythm and floats downward until he finally pauses for a few second to take out the mute. That can only mean one thing: it's opera time! Armstrong announces his open-horn arrival with a two-note riff, repeated twice as Louis gets comfortable and finally settles on another held high note to take us into an unexpected extra eight-bar "A" section. Now everyone's feeling good, the band riffing and swinging and Louis positively preaching over them. He's in complete command, throwing in a spine-tingling gliss at one point, and ending with his signature doddle-doddle-da-da lick that he loved so much (and played during the muted section, too). Bravo, Pops.


The other tune recorded that day, "Kickin' the Gong Around," also came from Koehler and Arlen's "Rhyth-Mania" and was also introduced by Cab Calloway. This was the period when Calloway was riding high off the popularity of "Minnie the Moocher," probably the greatest call-and-response song about drug addicts ever written. It only made sense for the sequels to be written. And in Arlen and Koehler, Cab had a helluva team to drum up those future scenarios for Minnie and all the other cokies. Though they later presided over "Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day" but first up was "Kickin' the Gong Around," a slang term of the day for smoking opium. I thought maybe the Internet machine would perhaps give a little more background but all I could find was this from "The Mavens' Word of the Day" in 1998:

"Kick the gong around is first found in the late 1920s. It is based on the earlier (1915 or so) gong and gonger, both meaning 'an opium pipe'. The origin of these words is not clear; gong could be a shortening of gonger or the inspiration for it. It it not known whether gong is the same word as gong meaning 'a large bronze disk that produces a vibrant tone when struck', which is a borrowing from Malay or Javanese, presumably of imitative origin. Opium pipes do not have any disk-like parts, but the relationship (if any) could simply be that both gongs and opium are associated with East Asia."

Makes sense to me.

Anyway, Cab recorded the tune in late 1931 and got to immortalize it in the 1932 film The Big Broadcast. Here's the footage (dig Cab's dancing!):

Isn't that great? I love Cab; he was a helluva entertainer and he seems much more at ease there than the recording of "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea." Armstrong and Calloway didn't cover too many of the same tunes so it's interesting to hear how their versions of "Kickin' the Gong Around" compare. While not quite one for the time capsule like "Between the Devil," it's a lot of fun. Listen for yourself:

The recording comes out swinging right from the gate with an arranged introduction (Armstrong's reeds always had an unusual, if distinct, intonation), taking the piece at a faster trot than Calloway. Armstrong emerges from the ensemble with a big gliss that launches him into a poised break. Armstrong takes the melody, his reeds providing the responses, without changing it up too much, but I love the two-note riff he plays during the turnaround after the first eight bars, almost like a fanfare to call everyone's attention to what he's about to go down. In his next eight bars, he's more free with the melody and very sparing with his choice of notes.

A neat tricks occurs when Armstrong dips down to a rare low note and holds it right into the bridge, repeating it a few times for good effect. The bridge is very mellow except for the surprising break. From there, Armstrong turns on the heat, coming up with another clarion call of a riff that he hammers into the start of the vocal.

The vocal is a lot of fun but Armstrong seems to start singing it straight before he gets to the title of the song. At that point, he can't resist chuckling over the subject matter of the tune and uttering a hilarious "Ohhh, Lord." After the next eight bars, Armstrong instructs his band to "Double it up, Gate," which they do. Armstrong takes off on a dazzling scat interlude that is very much in tune with his trumpet conception, especially the break. Armstrong's joy continues through the end of the vocal, a fun one.

From there, Armstrong's trumpet section (aka Zilner Randolph) takes the lead during a somewhat dissonant interlude (Pops digs it, yelling out "Yeah" in the background). Louis rejoins the group for a modulation but for the most part sticks to playing with the band, poking his head out now and then to recast the melody where he sees fit. The whole trumpet solo comes to life during the bridge. Remember that low note Louis held the first time around? Well, now he uses the same concept, but this time with a high note. He swings mightily on some quarter notes and keep building upward to a thrillingly passionate end to the bridge. That bridge always, to me, foreshadows something he would have played in the 1940s or 50s, right?

The bridge is the highlight of the record but Louis still plays with authority until a cute arranged ending that finds him and the band creeping upward towards the finish line.

"Kickin' the Gong Around" might not be the greatest recording he ever made but it's still a good ol' good one for those two trumpet bridges and that contagious vocal. Ohhhh, lord, indeed!


jacethecrowl said...

Fantastic! I really appreciate having all the versions at hand to compare. Please keep 'em comin'.

Adrian Cullen said...

Thanks for this , I just picked up Between the Devil/Gong around on a nice Parlophone 78. I was looking for some info about the session and found your great blog. Many thanks