Sunday, June 10, 2012

85 Years of the Hot Seven: Willie the Weeper

Recorded May 7, 1927
Track Time 3:10
Written by Marty Bloom, Walter Melrose and Grant V. Rymal
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Honore Dutrey, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba; Baby Dodds, drums
Originally released on Okeh 8482
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

About a month ago, as I lost myself in work, family and getting people to vote for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in the Partners in Preservation grant competition, I realized that an awfully big anniversary was looming: ALL of the Hot Seven recordings had been waxed 85 years ago in the month of May 1927. I had every intention of doing something on them, but time was my enemy and the next thing I knew it was June. My first reaction was, "Oh well, I guess I'll wait til 2017 and celebrate the 90th anniversary." But who knows what the heck I'll be doing 5 years from now if I'm already having so much trouble keeping this thing up-to-date now.

So exact anniversaries be damned! Yeah, a month late but I could choose to celebrate these recordings on December 25, 2014 and once heard, the world would respond with a collective "Yeah, man." Thus, I'm going to go for it now, better late than never.

The next question is how to go about this? I thought about one of my old-fashioned massive chunks of texts but I don't know if anyone has the attention span for that. Therefore, I'm going to take 'em one at a time and really explore them inside and out: history of the tune, other contemporary versions, other versions by Louis, etc. And I'm going to try to keep the length manageable...but don't hold me to it.

The first Hot Seven tune, waxed on May 7, 1927, was "Willie the Weeper." But first, how'd we get here? OKeh liked to record Louis in chunks. In November of 1926, Armstrong recorded two Hot Five sessions and two Bertha "Chippie" Hill sessions in a span of 11 days, cutting 11 tracks in all. And then he went back to ruling the Chicago jazz scene. OKeh wouldn't need him again until May of 1927, but that didn't stop Armstrong from making some extra bread by cutting two sessions with his pal Johnny Dodds in April. First, on April 21, he made four tracks with Jimmy Bertrand's Washboard Wizards for Vocalion, a session I covered here. The following day, Dodds was the leader of another Vocalion date, one that featured a true all-star cast: Louis, Dodds, Roy Palmer on trombone, Barney Bigard on tenor sax, Earl "Fatha" Hines on piano, Bud Scott on banjo and Baby Dodds on drums.

Up to this point, all of the records Louis made under his own name featured the Hot Five instrumentation of cornet-trombone-clarinet-piano-banjo. Louis must have liked the larger lineup on the Dodds date for it is exactly the one he used for the Hot Seven, except instead of a tenor saxophone, he used Pete Briggs on tuba.

A note on personnel: back from the Hot Five, the first Hot Seven date used Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Johnny St. Cyr on banjo and Lil Hardin Armstrong on piano. In addition to the aforementioned Briggs, the rhythm section was anchored by the drums of Baby Dodds. Drums were usually taboo in these days but the Hot Seven were to be electrical recordings and thus, OKeh figured the drums couldn't hurt as long as Dodds stuck to cymbals and played somewhat discreetly.

But what about trombone? For years, I've observed many people stating that Kid Ory played on the Hot Five tracks and John Thomas played on the Hot Seven tracks. But t'ain't so, honey, t'ain't so, at least according to Armstrong discographer, Jos Willems, whom I agree with. For the majority of the sessions, Willems placed Honore Dutrey as the trombonist. In his words:

"Aural evidence makes certain that Honore Dutrey was the trombonist on the Hot Seven Sessions of May 7 and May 10, 1927, as well as the session of May 9, 1927. The 'singing trombone' of Dutrey can't be mistaken. The author substantiates the claim that on 'Willie the Weeper,' 'Wild Man Blues,' 'Alligator Crawl' and 'Potato Head Blues,' the trombone was played by Honore Dutrey by comparing his trombone solos on other records from the same period. 'Blue Washboard Stomp' (Johnny Dodds Washboard Band) sounds very like the trombone solo on 'Willie the Weeper' and the trombone on 'Alligator Crawl' is again extremely like the trombone in 'Bucktown Stomp.' The solo by Dutrey in 'Lady Love' with the Chicago Footwarmers, recorded in July 1928, shows that Dutrey at that time was playing rather like Ory. But Ory must be ruled out on all sides here for the reason that he went with King Oliver's band to New York from St. Louis for an engagement at the Savoy Ballroom, which seems to have commenced on May 8, 1927. Ory stayed in New York until June 1927."

So there you have it--I love discographers (and especially miss Willems, who passed away in 2011). Now, onto the music!

The first Hot Seven tune recorded set a high standard for what was to follow. The song was "Willie the Weeper" and it's still a favorite of traditional jazz (and even country) bands today. Louis's version doesn't have any vocal, but in case you're curious why Willie's weeping, let's just say his gal didn't leave him; this is more drug-fueled stuff. Listen to Frankie "Half-Pint" Jackson tell you all about it in his July 1927 recording, just two months after Armstrong's:

For another good vocal take, check out Andrew Hilaire's vocal on Doc Cook's version, also from July 1927.

But from a purely instrumental jazz vantage, Armstrong wasn't the first to tackle "Willie." His mentor, Joe "King" Oliver recorded it less than a month earlier, on April 22, 1927, with a great band featuring, among others, Kid Ory, Omer Simeon, Barney Bigard, Luis Russell, Bud Scott and Paul Barbarin. (And yes, April 22, 1927, was the same date as the Johnny Dodds Black Bottom Stompers date with Louis, Bigard and Bud Scott--a busy, hot day in Chicago's Vocalion studio! Wonder if Louis and Oliver crossed paths?) Let's listen to how Oliver approached it:

That's a wonderful record. I love the clarinet-soprano intro with Bigard and Simeon, before Ory boots out the melody. Then Simeon takes the lead, playing that great minor-themed verse before a little interlude brings on Bud Scott's guitar. Another interlude leads up to a spot for Bigard on tenor (listen to Barbarin's swirling cymbals) before they go back to the verse for a short spot by Oliver. Simeon switches to clarinet for another solo on the main theme before Oliver leads everyone out.

I just wanted to kind of dryly go through the sequence of events on that track to compare it to what goes on in the Hot Seven record. So how does Armstrong's version go down? Enough with the preliminaries, let's listen to Pops!


Hot damn, what a record! A different kind of arranged introduction serves as a wakeup call, announcing that this is going to be a helluva series of recordings (Baby Dodds's cymbals sound great, too). Like the Oliver recording, we start right off with the main verse, but this time we get two choruses and instead of a solo, it's just beautiful New Orleans polyphony, with Briggs's tuba really captured nicely in the mix.

From here, they go back to the minor-keyed verse, also like the Oliver record, but still in ensemble mode. Armstrong leads heroically but I like Dutrey, too, combining something that sounds like a Spike Jones sound with a heavier, Ory-inspired approach. But finally, after 65 glorious seconds of ensemble interplay, Dutrey steps out with the first solo, a fluent one in which he ingeniously works over an ascending motif in a variety of ways. Johnny Dodds follows with a typically bluesy outing. His concept of swing isn't exactly floating like Armstrong's, but the urgency of his playing combined with that beautiful tone solidifies his place in the pantheon.

Like Oliver, Armstrong takes over on the verse next. He's in prime form, able to do anything he wants (that closing blue notes hits me in the gut), but those opening quarter notes seem like a nod to Papa Joe. Armstrong cuts his solo short to allow his wife Lil to take a spot. She's been pounding chords away four-to-the-bar since the beginning of the record--and she just keeps on pounding. It's not Earl Hines but it's rhythmic enough (and maybe it's just the minor-key, but I hear echoes of his classical introduction to "You're Next").

Then one of the highlights of the record: Johnny St. Cyr's guitar solo. After having probably switched from banjo during Lil's outing, St. Cyr launches into a one-man-band-of-a-chorus, mixing in single-string melodies and accompanying chords (and giving a country feel to the proceedings which might explain this tune still being a favorite in the country/country blues circle). I love St. Cyr's guitar playing and wish he did more of it on these recordings. Anyway, at the close of his solo, he swings out with some fat chords but as soon as Louis enters, he disappears! It's a shame because Louis always sounded good with guitar backing (see "Chicago Breakdown" from two days later). And honestly, I'm not sure if he even goes back to banjo. Giving it a close listen, St. Cyr might very well take the rest of the track off. Hey, he earned it with that timeless solo...

Anyway, if you've loved the first 2:25 of this record, you ain't head nothing' yet! Pops finally gets his moment to shine in full and he makes the most of it with a solo that is simply perfection. It's melodic, it swings, it has a funky motif of Louis emphasizing the first-and-third beats a couple times, it has that neat little trill and, point the way to the future, it ends on a screaming high Bb. Meanwhile, Lil keeps swinging those chords, Briggs continues his funkified tuba bottom and Dodds whips that cymbal backbeat like it owes him money. Seriously, Dodds doesn't do anything else for the rest of the record except whack away at 2-and-4 on his cymbal, yet it drives everyone to ecstasy, foreshadowing a nation that would be obsessed with backbeats in just a short time (this goes for Louis, too; there's a reason Barrett Deems and Danny Barcelona lasted so long in the All Stars).

The rideout chorus is joy personified. Louis stays in the upper register, floating over the beat with his powerful lead with great support by Dutrey and Dodds (the latter uncorks a wail of a blue note in one of Louis's gaps). One for the time capsule!

And that's just the FIRST Hot Seven number! Many more to come with another classic coming up next: "Wild Man Blues" (and yes, I'll be sharing the two previous Johnny Dodds versions and the 1957 "Autobiography" remake).

3 comments:

Tom Collins said...

I love your blog, man. I wish I could write like you because you express the way I feel perfectly!

Steven Kozobarich said...

Yeah man!

Phil said...

Ricky, thanks for the excellent detailed blog.

You write:"I thought about one of my old-fashioned massive chunks of texts but I don't know if anyone has the attention span for that."

Of course we have!!
Whether you do it tune by tune or all in one large blog, we will read it!
Phil (UK)