Friday, July 20, 2012

85 Years of the Hot Seven: Alligator Crawl

Recorded May 10, 1927 
Track Time 3:13
Written by Fats Waller, Andy Razaf and Joe Davis
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 

After numerous segues into other topics--"West End Blues," Louis's July 4 birthday, July 6 death date and the 5-year anniversary of this blog--I'm finally ready to go back to dissecting Louis's Hot Seven recordings, all of which were recorded 85 year ago. After tackling "Willie the Weeper" and "Wild Man Blues" blues on May 7, Louis rested on the 8th and then brought in his working band, Louis Armstrong and His Stompers, on May 9 to record three tunes, "Chicago Breakdown," "Sam Henry Blues" and "Poor Boy Blues." All three were rejected at the time (sacrilege!) and only "Chicago Breakdown" has surfaced. It's a wonderful record but I'll save that for another day.

The following day, May 10, Louis rounded up the Hot Seven again to record two more numbers. The second, "Potato Head Blues," is one of the great moments in the history of civilization; that'll be my next foray. But for now, I want to talk about the first song recorded on May 10, "Alligator Crawl."

This is a notable recording because it's the first time Louis recorded a Fats Waller composition under his own name. Previously, he recorded Waller's "Anybody Here Want to Try My Cabbage" and "Squeeze Me" with Maggie Jones and Eva Taylor respectively while in New York in the mid-20s. Louis obviously must have began enjoying Fats's company during his 13 months in the City with Fletcher Henderson from 1924-25. 

"Alligator Crawl" was originally titled "House Party Stomp" and "Charleston Stomp" before publisher Joe Davis gave it the final title, which Andy Razaf then wrote lyrics for (has anyone ever sung them? I'm drawing a blank.). In Bruce Bastin and Kip Lornell's biography of Joe Davis, "The Melody Man," they write, "The April 9, 1927 edition of 'Zit's Theatricaal News' carried the note that ['Alligator Crawl'] was the latest addition to the Triangle Family of 'Hot Tunes' and that Joe thinks that he will have another 'blues' hit to his credit.' 'The Metronome of the following week added that Davis 'claims this is a new rhythm in blues and will create a sensation among the orchestras.'"

Thus, with the song already getting some publicity in the press and with Louis being a friend of Fats's, "Alligator Crawl" was made the third Hot Seven number, recorded just 11 days before Waller's 23rd birthday (man, did he pack a lot of life into just 39 years). As a sidenote, Waller didn't get around to recording it until 1934 and when he did, he did it as a piano solo. This has nothing to do with Louis, but you can't go wrong with listening to Fats so let's hear how the composer treated it:

Always loved that one with Waller juxtaposing heavy boogie-woogie with his more typical light-as-a-feather technique.

But boogie-woogie wasn't on the scene yet when the Hot Seven tackled it, leaving them to treat it as a lowdown blues. Here's how it came out:

You know, I've always enjoyed "Alligator Crawl" but it sometimes seems to one of the lesser known Hot Seven performances as it's sandwiched between two out-and-out masterpieces. It might not have changed the shape of jazz to come but I still think it's pretty great. 

Louis opens it unaccompanied but "West End Blues" it ain't. He starts off confident but then seems to rush it a bit before calming down by setting the tempo with some quarter notes. Johnny Dodds then swoops in and plays the hell out of the blues for a chorus. The typical cliche when it comes to the clarinet is that it "moans"; well, I hate to trot that one but but my goodness did Dodds master the art of clarinet moaning. 

Louis then plays a stately pickup phrase as he and Honore Dutrey join in for an ensemble chorus of 12-bar blues. The interplay is great, with Dutrey playing some nice stuff in his upper register. I still don't hear the melody Fats played in his later solo but finally, after a brief arranged interlude, Louis heads into the song's better known "B" section. 

This is the highlight of the record, Louis backed by the rhythm section for 58 seconds of bliss. I know, 58 seconds sounds like so little time in this era of four-minute solos (minimum) but Louis does more in these 58 seconds than most musicians could do in 24 hours. 

For those who know the later Hot Seven record "Twelfth Street Rag" (which we'll get to....eventually), I hear the genesis of Louis's playing on that recording right here. He has the melody in front of him, he hints at it for a second and then he plays with it, taking the ascending four-note riff that makes up its basis, stretching it out, playing it three times instead of two, switching up the rhythm, really kind of turning it inside out. When he gets to the middle section, with those minor chords, you hear the dramatic side of him come out as he puffs out his chest and starts getting dramatic. He builds up to a high note that he holds (over descending chords from Lil's piano) and then tops himself, taking Fats's four-note riff, playing it high before shooting down to play it an octave lower before going back up to play with it some more. He continues floating across the bar lines until ending on a vintage 1927 break.

And notice the rhythm section behind him with Pete Briggs's tuba hitting the heavy "one" and "three" and Baby Dodds's cymbal crashing on "two" and "four." Nothing could be simpler but that's how Louis liked his rhythm sections, especially at tempos like this when he felt like he could take some extra chances. In just a few short years, tuba's would be passe and Louis would find himself fronting big bands but he still liked this feel, hence all those early 30s OKeh classics that feature saxophones riffing on one and three with drummers still whacking away at two and four. And over it all, Pops floating, teaching us what it means to be free.

After Louis's moment of glory, a change of pace as Johnny St. Cyr picks up his guitar for a sweet solo. Most think of St. Cyr as primarily a banjo player but on two of the Hot Seven's I've covered so far (the other being "Willie the Weeper"), he took terrific guitar solos. 

And then we're back to the blues, the entire ensemble punching out 12-bars of goodness, Louis riding on top, holding and shaking that high concert A for good measure before a little double timing. The ending is a tad abrupt; latter Hot Seven's and Hot Five's sometimes added cute arranged tags, but regardless, it's a fine ending to a great record.

But next up would be something for the ages: "Potato Head Blues." Til next time!

4 comments:

Phil said...

"Louis heads into the song's better known "B" section.

This is the highlight of the record, Louis backed by the rhythm section for 58 seconds of bliss. I know, 58 seconds sounds like so little time in this era of four-minute solos (minimum) but Louis does more in these 58 seconds than most musicians could do in 24 hours."
............
Or even in a lifetime.
.......
Thanks for this blog, Ricky.
Phil (UK)

Phil said...

I wonder if Louis connected with his alligator story during this recording session...

http://www.myspace.com/louisarmstrong5/music/songs/alligator-story-album-version-57409165
............
Phil(UK)

Phil said...

More about Alligator Crawl at:
http://www.perfessorbill.com/pbmidi13.shtml
"The difficult retrofit of lyrics in 1937 did not enhance the piece, but did sell some more sheets."
..........
Here's the lyrics (same source):
http://www.perfessorbill.com/lyrics/lyalcrwl.htm
..............
Phil(UK)

Scott J said...

A real pleasure to sit next to you on this one, Ricky, and enjoy your blow-by-blow commentary.
scott, denver