Friday, March 2, 2012

80 Years of Love, You Funny Thing

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded March 2, 1932
Track Time 3:38
Written by Fred Ahlert and Roy Turk
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Preston Jackson, trombone; Lester Boone, alto saxophone; George James, alto saxophone; Albert Washington, tenor saxohpone; Charlie Alexander, piano; MIke McKendrick, guitar; John Lindsay, bass; Tubby Hall, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41557
Currently available on CD: It’s on the JSP two-disc set The Big Band Sides, 1930-1932
Available on Itunes? Yes

Sorry for the silence, dear readers; as usual, I've been drowning and had to put the blog on the back burner for a few weeks. And yes, this is a re-post, too, of one I wrote in January 2011. But it's the 80th anniversary of this great performance and for those who might have missed my analysis the first time around, here 'tis again. Enjoy!

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A few days before Christmas, my trumpet-playing pal Dave Whitney call to say hello. I was unable to answer so Dave left a message, along with a little treat: about a half-chorus of "Love, You Funny Thing," unaccompanied (Dave has a beautiful tone and part of me wishes I knew how to convert voicemail messages to MP3 so I could share it!). When Dave and I finally connected, we talked about how much we loved the song and how it has pretty much disappeared off the face of the earth. Except for a version by Mel Torme, I can't recall anyone else recording the song after 1932. It's apparently even escaped the keepers of the early-Louis flame such as Marty Grosz, Duke Heitger and David Ostwald (though I'm sure Vince Giordano could probably pull out an arrangement at the drop of a hat).

So as means of rehabilitating the song, I've decided to make it the subject matter for my first blog of 2011. The song was written by the dynamite team of Fred Ahlert and Roy Turk, composers of standards such as "Mean to Me" and "I'll Get By," as well as "Walkin' My Baby Back Home," which Louis recorded successfully for OKeh the previous April. The song was also set to be featured in the background of the all-star major motion picture "Grand Hotel." And on top of that, it was set to be recorded by none other than Bing Crosby on February 23, 1932 (Ahlert and Turk wrote Crosby's theme "Where the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day" so Bing obviously had an affinity for their work).

You don't need me to tell you that Louis and Bing had quite a mutual appreciation society. No one would deny that Louis had a profound influence on Papa Bing, but I also here elements of Crosby in Armstrong's early-1930s vocals. From 1930-1933, the two men recorded the same song ten times so there's clearly something ready to be written about this (paging Jimmy Leach!). I'm no vocal expert (and hell, I wouldn't know which end to blow into a trumpet if you gave it to me), but I think it could be fun to compare and contrast the two versions of "Love, You Funny Thing" (and if you are an expert out there on these subjects, don't hesitate to chime in!).

Okay, let's start with Bing's version:



Beautiful stuff. Bing could mix it up with the finest names in jazz, but this is 100% a pop record, with that conspicuous strings-and-muted-trumpet sound from the period. After a short verse, Bing slides into the refrain, singing with ease and with confidence. The song takes a bit of a range to pull off and Crosby's high notes and low notes are equally full. After a chorus, the band attempts to swing for eight bars before Bing enters with a dramatic anticipatory "And"....shades of Pops! It's a lovely record and echoes what Louis said about Crosby in 1955: "Bing's voice has a mellow quality that only Bing's got. It's like gold being poured out of a cup." Indeed.

Of course, with Louis, we're dealing with a voice that sounds like gravel being poured out of a trash can...but, oh, what he does with it. Before jumping in, let's see where Louis was in his life at this point. He was still leading an Orchestra he started in April 1930 consisting of many New Orleans homeboys and directed by fellow trumpeter Zilner Randolph. Mob troubles had led Pops and his men on a tour of the south (including New Orleans) as they had to avoid New York because that's where the trouble was (bullets don't make good mutes). Anytime they passed through Chicago, OKeh grabbed them up to record some pop tunes of the day, a series of recordings that brought Louis's genius to epic new heights.

Armstrong had already recorded "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," "Home" and "All of Me" for label in January 1932 with "All of Me" apparently going on to become a substantial hit for Louis. On March 2, Louis and his orchestra tackled "Love, You Funny Thing," only seven days after Crosby recorded his version (meaning that he could have never heard what Bing was doing with it, unless Crosby was broadcasting it, which is a good possibility). Let's hear how it came out:


Nicely done, Pops. Louis loved this orchestra but critics were quick to point out its flaws. Louis still defended them in later years, but this isn't one of the band's finest moments...in fact, you know it's bad when Louis himself has to point out the flaws on the record! It opens with the saxophones bizarrely alternating two pitches (how often do the trains go by?) while the peculiar sound of Mike McKendrick's guitar plink-plinks in the background....not exactly an arrangement for the books but I guess it provides some atmosphere. But don't fret, it's Louis to the rescue, immediately getting the thing swinging with two simple quarter notes. I never understood how it did it; quarter notes as quarter notes don't really swing but Louis knew had to place them and how to attack them just right so the whole thing takes off in forward motion.

Louis is muted here, too, which is always a treat. Some will say that Louis never used a mute or if he did, he only used a straight mute, but that's clearly not the case on many of these early 1930s performances (he had already broken it out on that year's "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" and "All of Me"). Trumpeter Herbert Christ wrote it to tell me that it was a Solotone mute, while others have argued that it's a cup. Regardless, it's a unique sound and it's a shame that Pops seemed to leave it behind when he returned from Europe in 1935.

Louis clearly digs the melody but it's really a case of Louis listening to the band in his head...and playing what he's hearing. After almost every straight melodic line he plays or sings, he immediately follows it with a perfect fill, playing what he thinks the band should be playing (it's a shame he didn't do arrangements). Armstrong's playing is also filled with Crosby-like mordents, little turns at the end of phrase that are effective.

When the bridge turns to D-minor, the reeds take over. It only takes Louis a couple of bars to not be impressed with their effort and he calls them out on it. "Bring it out, bring it out saxophones! Come on, out with it!" The reeds immediately respond with the full-throated blowing but it's still an awkward (though priceless) moment. Clearly, the song was brand new and the band needed some time familiarizing themselves with it. But they were in a studio and you'd think they'd have it ironed out when the recording light when on. Also, you'd think Louis or the A&R man for OKeh would have waved it off and said, "Let's try it again." But no, Louis admonishes them, they respond and the record moves forward. A fascinating little moment.

For his final eight bars, Louis can't wait to get the horn to his chops, playing an anticipatory phrase before the bridge is even over. Now he's feeling good, taking more chances with the melody, throwing in a well-placed gliss and ending on a high note. Most human beings would be happy with that but because he's Louis Armstrong, it's time for the vocal...and time for us to get a singing lesson.

Opening with a delightful "Mmmm," Louis swings right into the vocal, rephrasing it almost instantly; listen to the declamatory way he sings "look at what you did to me." But not wanting to come off as too harsh, Louis immediately follows it with a higher "Love" that sounds like pure sunshine. In fact, you can really hear him smiling on the next eight bars, especially with the way he swallows the words "First (or really, "Foist") you come along."

Armstrong dives into the bridge with a long "Ohhhh" before perhaps the most delicious moment of the vocal: he leaves a little gap of space and rushes back in with the lyrics "someone made it seem that way," a chunk of it rendered on a single pitch. Another "Oh" leads to the final eight bars, where Louis sticks mainly to the melody but still moans a few swinging asides.

After this vocal, there's time for one more chorus (barely; the finished product is 3:38, really pushing the limit of a 78 record). At the start of the record, Louis took the A sections while the bridge went to the band. Now, the roles are reversed as Louis becomes part of the arrangement during the A sections and saves his improvisitory genius for the bridge. Louis's tone is simply magical as he hits those high notes. He breaks away for a few passionate outbursts but really stays a part of the section until that bridge...and wow, what a bridge! There's so much information in these eight bars, it's almost stunning. He opens with a held note before snaking his way into the lower register with a run of notes that rhythmically free, blurs the bar lines and is full of tension. Just as he hits his lowest night, he responds with a frightening glissando back into the upper register. He follows that with another flurry of notes before he pauses, allows a second of space and flat out swings his last phrase so damn hard, pushing that last note up for maximum dramatic effect.

Nothing can top that bridge...and sure enough, nothing did. Louis rejoins the section to hit those high notes but the final eight bars are a ragged affair: the saxophones are off, trumpets are coming and going...it's not pretty but Louis's final high note is the truth. So yeah, there's enough roughness around the edges (I'm looking at you, Orchestra) that has allowed "Love, You Funny Thing" to get left off a lot of compilations. And honestly, Bing's version was mighty hard to find, too; I don't think it's ever been reissued on a major American CD (I found it on a cheapie MP3 compilation over at EMusic.com). It's safe to say that "Love, You Funny Thing" didn't have much of an effect on the pop charts and soon disappeared (though if you're really digging the tune, YouTube has a couple of British dance band versions from the same period).

But I think it's a fine song with a memorable melody and a great minor-bridge. And hey, it's Louis and Bing and at the end of the day, that's really all we need, right? For the vocal fans out there, I've made one of my famed edits, taking eight bars of Bing and eight bars of Louis and swapping them back and forth for a single chorus. The last time I did this was with Louis and Seger Ellis's versions of "Ain't Misbehavin'" to show how advanced Armstrong was to Ellis. But this time, I'm doing it to show that BIng and Louis were equals and each learned from the other. Here's Bing and Louis's vocals on "Love, You Funny Thing" together:


Isn't that pretty neat? Louis is still the aggressor, but it's clear he picked up some stuff from Bing, especially that mordent. Bing does it frequently throughout but Louis really does a noticeable one on the word "go" during the phrase "she let me go" on the bridge. And though it's not in my edit, remember that Bing reprises his vocal with an anticipatory (have I really used that word three times now?) "And" that Louis does throughout his vocal with those "Oh's" and "Mm's. But there are differences, too, and to me, I hear it mostly in the way each man ends a note. Crosby sings a note and hits it; Louis is constantly bending them, moaning low, groaning high. Compare the way they sing the word "sympathy" at the end of the first eight bars: Bing sings it and holds it but Louis glides down on the last syllable. It's clearly a trumpet thing...or maybe not? Maybe it was something Louis always did and just added to his trumpet playing? Louis did always say that singing was his "first hustle." But he also once said that when he was singing, he could picture hitting the notes with his hand on the trumpet. Let's just be thankful he did both things so well! (Though did you hear him botch one of the lyrics? In the second eight bars, Bing sings, relaxed, "First, you come and bring, happiness into my heart." But Louis sees an extra word, which actually leads a bit of urgency to his vocal, singing, "First, you come along and bring, happiness into my heart.")

That's all I have to say for Louis and Bing and this great but I'll end by boring everyone to tears with some discographical discussions. According to discographies, "Love, You Funny Thing" was the only song recorded on March 2, with a matrix number of W 405154. Fine. But Louis next ended the studio on March 11 to record three more songs. The opening number of that session, "New Tiger Rag" has a matrix number of W 405155. But the other two songs recorded on the 11th saw the matrix numbers jump up to 405166 and 405167. Hmmm, something doesn't seem right. I really find it somewhat hard to believe that a) Louis only recorded one song at the March 2 session and b) that OKeh recorded nothing else for the next nine days and resumed the March 11 session with the 405155 matrix number. My best guess is that Louis spent the bulk of the March 2 date working out the new material (which, as we heard, still didn't get perfected) and closed the session by trying "New Tiger Rag." Perhaps OKeh thought they could live with "New Tiger Rag," slapped the 405155 matrix number on it and called it a day. Then, when Louis returned on March 11, perhaps someone suggested they give "New Tiger Rag" another shot. They did, it was better, and it replaced the March 2 take, retaining the 405155 matrix number. Okeh had recorded ten songs with other artists in the intervening nine days so they resumed the rest of the March 11 Armstrong session with matrix number 405166. Make sense? Or maybe "New Tiger Rag" comes from the March 2 session and the discographies have been wrong for all these years?

Well, that's for other people to figure out. My usual response: who cares, let's just enjoy the music! And when Mr. Satch and Mr. Cros are at the helm, well, nothing else really matters.

5 comments:

LoSnaso said...

Dear Ricky,
Thank you for your blog.
I will tory to explore it in the next days, but for the time being I would like to warn you that the first version from Bing is not correctly linked to your post. Instead we can listen to a funny conversation which can be derived from a radio show.
Please let me know if you plan to correct it.
I will go on with reading, Best regards.

Simone

LoSnaso said...

Dear Ricky,
Your blog is really interesting and now that I've found it I will read it more often as I am a fan of Satchmo anche or the classic jazz.
Just a point: in your post it is not possible to listen to the Bing's versione. Instead we can listen to a funny conversation from a radio show.
do you plan to fix it?
If yes, please let me know, thank you very much.
Best regards,
Simone Naso.

Ricky Riccardi said...

Just fixed it, Simone! Can't believe nobody else noticed it. Thanks for reading and for the kind words.

Yours in Pops,

Ricky

LoSnaso said...

Hi Ricky,
I have tried to test again to listen to the Bing version of "love, you funny thing", bug I still get the same thing. Well, it's not crucial, I am just curious about it.
I also have another curiosity: at the end, did hou have a "Louis" or an "Ella"?
Have a nice day,
Simone.

LoSnaso said...

Perfect, thank you very much! Now it's working fine.
Regards,
Simone.