Thursday, November 29, 2012

85 Years of the Hot Seven: That's When I'll Come Back to You

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven
Recorded May 14, 1927
Track Time 2:59
Written by Frank Biggs
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; John Thomas, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba; Baby Dodds, drums
Originally released on Okeh 83519
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

We have reached the conclusion, the last Hot Seven! And lucky me, it's one that I had written about in 2009 so if you don't mind, I'm going to use that piece as the basis for this one because it allows me to finish this series by reiterating some of my favorite arguments. I like that the Hot Seven ends with something humorous. It's easy to get swept up in the "this is ART" argument when discussing Louis's 1920s work, especially the Hot Seven: they're a pretty serious bunch. Don't get me wrong, the music is often joyous as can be but except for the good-natured scat vocal on "Keyhole Blues," the almost-parody on "Twelfth Street Rag" (which wasn't initially released) and Louis's pleading vocal on "Gully Low Blues," the Hot Seven is all about the instrumental jazz these musicians created. If you only knew the Hot Sevens when it came to Louis Armstrong's 1920s output, you might be able to believe the whole "artist-in-the-20s turns into clown-in-the-50s" argument.

But then you come to “That’s When I’ll Come Back To You,” a neglected Hot Seven outing that showcases the “entertainer” side of Louis from the same period when his instrumental prowess shaped the sound of jazz to come.

It’s too damn easy to make Louis Armstrong’s career so cut and dry. The early years were all fiery trumpet solos, groundbreaking music. Then one day, he woke up and said, “I want to tell bawdy jokes and sing pop tunes,” started mugging and singing “Blueberry Hill,” barely played the trumpet and eventually died. End of story.

Nonsense, I say. Armstrong entertained from the minute he entered show business, doing preacher routines, impersonating Bert Williams, doing an onstage bit where Zutty Singleton wore drag, dancing the Charleston and the Mess Around, playing Noel Coward’s “Poor Little Rich Girl” as a feature, and so. And that just represents what he did onstage, day in and day out through the 1920s. On record, he waxed the vaunted Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, which I feel to be the most important records in jazz history (really, were you expecting me to say something else?). One can never underestimate the breathtaking impact of “Potato Head Blues,” “Cornet Chop Suey,” “Hotter Than That,” “West End Blues” and the others of that ilk. But those who focus on just those tunes are listening with blinders on.  Just because “Who’sit,” “Don’t Forget To Mess Around,” “Irish Black Bottom,” “Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa,” “That’s When I’ll Come Back to You” and others don’t get the same kind of “publicity” as the aforementioned titles, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. To paraphrase a song Armstrong helped make a standard, why not take all of him?

I’ll get off my soapbox now as I’ve gone through these themes before on this blog and I really hammer ‘em home in my book. The song “That’s When I’ll Come Back To You” interestingly was not written by Louis and Lil but rather by a Frank Biggs, a name I can find no other mention of anywhere on the Internet or in any books (except a Library of Congress catalog of copyright entries showing he copyrighted it in Chicago on March 21, 1927). He doesn’t seem to have even written any other songs that were published or recorded. Perhaps he was a local Chicago guy or a friend of someone in the group, though decades later, Louis thought Lil wrote the tune (which we’ll see in a bit). There’s not a lot of meat to discuss in this one, but it’s a lot of fun. Give it a listen:

This track really has a woozy feel to it thanks to constant one-and-three blurtings from Pete Briggs’s tuba. After a short introduction, Armstrong takes a tricky break that is neatly finished by Briggs. Then the ensemble takes a crack at the melody, Armstrong very vocalized in his approach to it. Dodds sounds good, both in the ensemble and in his solo, complete with breaks. There isn’t much flash to the solo, which is almost played entirely with somewhat oddly accentuated eighth-notes, an outing that would probably sound pretty corny without Dodds’s unique sound (though the end of his break is positively Armstrong-like).

After Dodds’s break, the sound of Lil Armstrong’s piano disappears as Miss Lil left her bench to make her way to the microphone. Dodds dips into his chalameau register for an obbligato to Lil’s humorous vocal. She had a good personality (dig her singing on “Clip Joint” from her 1961 Riverside album produced by Chris Albertson) and her purposefully pleading tone is very funny. All morning, I had to hear my wife and her best friend talk about the pop star Rihanna returning to her boyfriend, Chris Brown, who physically abused her a few years ago. I got bored of the conversation, so I went to write a blog...and there’s Lil singing, “You could knock me down, treat me rough, even kick me/ black both my eyes but Daddy, please don’t quit me!” Perhaps if Rihanna needs a new single, she could give “That’s When I’ll Come Back To You” a try!

After Lil, Pops enters with a hilarious chorus, featuring all sorts of bravado and expert comic delivery. Here’s how he sings it:

Now Mama, when the rain turns to snow and it’s 90 below-uh,
That’s When I’ll Come Back To You
When I have nothing to eat, no shoes for my little feet,
Then I will think that you’ve been true (which I know that’s a lie, ha!)
You may have somebody else, I’ll agree
But baby you lost a goldmine when you lost me.
Now when your hair drags the ground and bucks are flying around,
Then I’ll come back to you, baby.
Yes dearie, Papa, then he’ll ‘bout face and come back to you.

Ah, Pops the entertainer at his finest. The exaggerated extra syllable on “below-uh,” the addition of “little” before “feet,” the “which I know that’s a lie” aside, complete with chuckle...personality, personality, personality. Interestingly, the first seven Hot Seven numbers were all instrumentals. Finally, on the last two sessions, he began to sing and didn’t quit, scatting on “Keyhole Blues,” singing the blues on both “S.O.L. Blues” and “Gully Low Blues” and showing off his comedic side on “That’s When I’ll Come Back To You.” On “S.O.L. Blues,” Armstrong took particular delight in singing the word “bucks” as a substitute for money. Pops had “bucks” on the brain and at the end of “That’s When I Come Back To You,” you’ll hear Pops pause after the line “Now when your hair drags the ground,” and in an instant, his mind conjured up a substitution: “and buck’s are flying around.” The hesitation before “bucks” always makes me think Pops ad-libbed it.

John Thomas follows the vocal with a pretty good trombone solo (finally!), getting very bluesy in his second part. But he’s just setting the stage for the 20 seconds the purists probably loved: a dazzling Armstrong break, another hint of stately ensemble playing and a quick chromatic finish. I especially love the break.  At such a slow tempo and without stop-time accents, Pops is on his own for four bars. Naturally, he floats a bit and plays with the time, but he maintains a blues feeling throughout and you still feel the tempo even without anyone else playing.

In 1951, Armstrong was asked by Esquire magazine to comment on some of his earlier records for something called “Jazz On A High Note.” Armstrong original notes appear in Louis Armstrong In His Own Words, a book never too far from my side. Here are his comments--complete with his unique typing style--on “That’s When I’ll Come Back To You”:

"It certainly was real kicks making this record . . . especially with Lil Hardin . . . who later became Mrs. Satchmo Louis Armstrong . . . This is our first time singing together . . . It amused the recording company so well until they started looking around for new material for Lil and I . . . Honest . . . Lil also knocked me out with that cute little voice of hers . . . And to me, she always could ‘Swing Sing’ (an expression of mine) with feeling . . . If I’m not mistaken I think that Lil wrote this tune . . . She was very much versatiled when she and I were married, between us we wrote some pretty good songs together . . . ‘That’s When I’ll Come Back to You’ was written as a comedy number . . . You’ll notice in the recording that Lil sings these words--’You can Beat me, Kick me, Blacken my eye, but please don’t quit me’ . . . Which knocked everybody out . . . Then, my line is, ‘When the rain turn to snow and it’s fifty below-er--that’s when I’ll come back to you’ . . . Blaa Blaa Blaa . . . All in all, the tune brings a little laughter.”

So Pops got a few tiny facts wrong (he had already sung “Georgia Grind” with Lil the previous year) but he still remembers some of lyrics and even the way he delivered them (“below-er”). But there’s Pops, not trashing the tune as trifle not worthy of such a grand artist as himself. He specifically says it’s a comedy number, it knocked everybody out and in the end, it “brings a little laughter.” It’s a very good-humored record, one that won’t make many Armstrong “greatest hits” discs but again, that doesn’t mean it should be ignored.

That's the end after my months-long exploration of the vaunted Hot Seven recordings and I hope you, dear reader, got something out of it. But I don't want to leave this period for long as December marks 85th anniversaries of classics like "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" and "Hotter Than That" and I'd like to find time to celebrate them (hey, give me credit, I just rallied with four blogs in 10 days after a month with none....I'm back, baby!). 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

85 Years of the Hot Seven: S.O.L. Blues/Gully Low Blues

Recorded May 13 and May 14, 1927 
Track Time 2:58 for "S.O.L. Blues" and 3:20 for "Gully Low Blues"
Written by Louis Armstrong
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; John Thomas, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba; Baby Dodds, drums
Originally released on Okeh 8474 ("S.O.L. Blues" was Columbia 35661)
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 

We in the home stretch of my year-long tribute to the Hot Seven, tackling two great numbers for the price of one in this post. One point I've made a number of times thus far is the Hot Seven recorded a LOT of songs with the word "Blues" in the title but only one was an out-and-out 12-bar blues and that's the one we're dealing with today....and even it doesn't follow the form for the entire course of the record.

You've probably noticed by now the two different titles for what's essentially the same number, "S.O.L. Blues" and "Gully Low Blues." Here's the legend: Louis and the Hot Seven record "S.O.L. Blues" on May 13, 1927, it gets approved and everyone goes home. Then the next day, someone from OKeh catches on that S.O.L. stands for "Shit Outta Luck," raises hell and demands the Hot Seven record the number again under a new title and with different lyrics. They do and "Gully Low Blues" is the result, released soon thereafter. 15 years later, young George Avakian stumbles over "S. O.L. Blues," deems it a lost treasure (which it was) and has it issued on Columbia. 

Something has always smelled a little funny to me. As you'll hear in a minute, Louis sings nothing naughty on "S.O.L. Blues," singing "out of luck" but nothing about the "shit" part. Maybe the title could have been deemed risque....but so what? Change it! The Hot Five would later record "Ory's Creole Trombone" but they submitted the name "Slidin'," which is how it was labeled when Avakian discovered it. Avakian knew better and "Ory's Creole Trombone" was slapped on its first issue, also in 1942. So changing a title would have been no big deal.

No, I think, "S.O.L. Blues" survives as a true rarity: a half-baked alternate take by the Hot Seven. In the original Columbia files, "S.O.L. Blues" bears a matrix number of 81126 B, which doesn't make much sense since the date's previous offering, "Keyhole Blues," has one of 80876. But "Gully Low Blues" has a Matrix of 80877 D. According to the late discographer Jos Wilems, "The matrix number of 'Gully Low Blues' is in sequence with 'Keyhole Blues,' but there's a jump in the numbering for the next title, 'That's When I'll Come Back to You.' The original file card of 'Gully Low Blues' shows two takes, 80877-D and -E. Therefore it can be suggested that the day before, three takes of this tune--but under the title of 'S.O.L. Blues--had already been made (matrix 80877-A, B and -C.) he theories why those first three takes ('S.O.L. Blues') were rejected are many."

So "S.O.L. Blues" was something the Hot Seven tried three times on May 13 but couldn't nail. The second effort, take B, was the best and was probably saved but with session time booked the following day, they resumed recording the number with some changes and knocked it out of the park on take D, the overall fourth attempt, counting the three from the previous day. This is all speculation but it makes more sense to me than having to record the number from scratch because of a risque title. 

Well, now that all but the discographers in the crowd are asleep, let's press on with some music. Let's listen to the first attempt, "S.O.L. Blues":

I mentioned that the Hot Seven just couldn't play a blues all the way through from start to finish. Case in point: the entire opening section, which is based on a song that some New Orleans jazz fans might know as "Do What Ory Say" or "South" but really had its origins in the Crescent City during cutting contests, where it got its original title of "Kiss My Fuckin' Ass" (sorry this has been such a bawdy post!). Louis opens the record with a dazzling unaccompanied introduction before the band swings into these changes, Briggs's tuba pushing everyone forward as Louis takes another stirring break in the middle. Then Johnny Dodds takes a solo, also on these changes but when he gets to the break, he cuts the tempo in half and when he emerges, the band is now playing a slow 12-bar blues! A pretty neat little arrangement. 

Dodds wails the blues for an entire chorus and then Louis sings:

Now I'm with you sweet mama / as long as you have the bucks
(Bucks, bucks, bucks....I mean money, mama!)
I'm with you sweet mama / as long as you have ba-rucks, bucks, bucks
When the bucks run out, sweet mama you're out of luck (out of luck, luck luck).

One chorus and it's an effective one. Louis sometimes doesn't get credit as a blues singer but like everything else he did, he's pretty great (check out "Lonesome Blues" and "I'm Not Rough" for two other shouting blues vocals from this era). Dodds then comes back for a second helping, this time exploring his lower register (poor John Thomas never gets a solo). Then it's time for the main event, one of Louis's greatest--and most imitated solos. The motif might seem simple on paper but is murder to execute: a searing high concert Bb, held for all its glory, followed by a tumbling arpeggiated phrase. Lather, rinse and repeat. But Louis's high notes are so dramatic and the arpeggiated phrases are so tricky and skillfully executed that the whole 12 bars becomes the stuff that legends are made of. However, Louis does seem to get a tad stuck on some of the lower runs, not playing anything wrong, but sounding a tad hesitant as he goes on. Still working it out, I presume. 

Louis calls everyone home with about as down-home of a phrase as you can get (based mostly on a repeated note but the rhythms are irresistible) and then he preaches, still getting around his horn but leaving lots of space for Johnny Dodds to have his say (Thomas, again, sticks to quiet glisses....with his contribution, this record should have been billed as by the Hot Six-and-a-Half). Armstrong gradually builds down in terms of intensity; he seems to have been emotionally spent after that stirring solo and is now content to simply play the blues like a mortal. Everyone ends on a tight-note but there's still a little arranged tag...and it just doesn't come together. Dodds sounds ultra hesitant and no one seems quite sure of how it goes. 

People have been enjoying "S.O.L. Blues" now for 70 years and if it came out in 1927, I'm sure it's place in the pantheon would be safe. But when you really examine it--Louis possibly unsure of the lyrics ("ba-rucks"?), his somewhat hesitant playing towards the end of the solo, the botched tag--I can see what they'd want to do it again and why it would have nothing to do with the title.

The next day, the Hot Seven reconvened and tackled this number right off the bat. Armed with new lyrics (and the realization that they had time for an extra vocal chorus) and a new title, the group added to posterity with "Gully Low Blues":

Now isn't that more like it? Sure is a perfect record, as Louis might say. There's not much for me to add to my original analysis except to hammer home one of my long-running themes: Louis Armstrong was a great improvisor but he was also one who liked "routines" and when he got one that worked, he didn't change it. From his opening unaccompanied introduction to the epic high-note-centered solo, the framework was in place on "S.O.L. Blues." 

But Louis was still an improviser at heart so some of the note choices and turns-of-a-phrase differ (the breaks he takes on the fast section are completely different). But I look at "S.O.L. Blues" as him creating the framework and "Gully Low Blues" as him perfecting the execution. Even the tempo is a little more up on the fast section, everyone sounding more comfortable with Louis taking an even more dazzling break. And when it comes time to sing, Louis takes two choruses, each featuring brand-new lyrics (asides in parentheses):

Now, mama, mama, mama, / why do you treat me so?
Ah, mama, mama, mama, why do you treat me so?
(I know why you treat me so bad.)
You treat me mean, baby, just because I'm gully low.

Now, mama, if you listen baby / I'll tell you something you don't know.
(You don't know.)
If you just listen to me honey / I'll tell you something you don't know.
If you just give me a break and take me back, I won't be gully no mo'. 
(Gully no mo'.)

The first time around, Louis made himself the butt of the joke, in a relationship with his lady just for the money but this time, he's singing like a man truly scorned by his "mama/baby/honey." This is lowdown blues...gully low, if you will. I also love the spoken and sometimes sung asides (the way he sings "You don't know" is just beautiful). 

And when it comes to Louis's triumphant solo, though he follows the same pattern, those falling phrases are much more sure-footed. The first few are almost identical but just where the hesitancy crept in on "S.O.L. Blues," he responds with some supremely confident, perfect choices. His lead in the closing ensemble is stronger, too, winding down a little bit after that first chorus (how could it not?) but still featuring a swaggering edge. And when they get to the tag, this time they nailed it. What a record!

Naturally, Louis's solo became something that all the hip musicians had to learn and eventually it started cropping up on some records. Here's Count Basie's "Blues in the Dark" from 1938. At around the 1:20 mark, while Jimmy Rushing is singing, listen in the background to trumpeter Ed Lewis playing the solo beautifully:

And for proof that not only trumpet players got stuff from Louis, here's a tremendous record from a little later, 1944's "Blues at Blue Note" by Edmond Hall. At 2:30, Vic Dickenson devotes his entire trombone solo to playing Louis's "Gully Low Blues" chorus:

Even Louis himself used that solo for inspiration when he recorded "Beale Street Blues" on the timeless 1954 album Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy. But I'll save that one for another day and instead close on the exact remake Louis did of "Gully Low Blues" 30 years later for Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography. Here 'tis:

He's still got it! The routine is identical with Louis knocking out his original intro and first break with no problem (tempo is a little slower, more in the "S.O.L. Blues" range than "Gully Low"). Edmond Hall picks up the solo on the "Kiss My You-Know-What" chorus and like Dodds, masterfully turns it into a slow blues. The original was slow but this is SLOW; though the arrangement is the same, the slower tempo adds some extra time to the remake. 

Louis sings beautifully, following the original "Gully Low" lyrics--and asides--to a tee, though it's not as wild and wooly as the earlier recording. Louis improved as a singer as he got older but his vocals on the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens were so animated, they could border on vaudevillian at times (not a bad thing), something he got away from by the mid-1930s.

After the vocal, Trummy Young takes a real mellow muted chorus, sounding fabulous (and hey, at least he got a solo unlike poor John Thomas). Then it's Louis's turn. Interestingly, arranger Bob Haggart pulls a switcheroo (musicology terminology) on the 1927 recording. On that one, Louis knocked out his solo and then led the ensemble for one chorus, playing beautifully, but a little more reserved from the mountain he just climbed. 

In 1957, Haggart reverses it and has Louis lead the ensemble first and THEN hit the high note chorus. Louis reaches way back to one of his favorite blues choruses, featuring an opening phrase he used on "Gut Bucket Blues" and about a dozen others (Jack Teagarden was fond of that opening as well). Perhaps realizing he already recorded a remake of "Gut Bucket Blues" (the day before), he gets off of it and improvises some real lowdown phrases. I always like to think of teenage Louis playing the blues all night in the honky-tonks of New Orleans. He must have had so many blues choruses minted that he could fall back on them for the rest of his life. 

Anyway, Haggart's reversal proves to be a stroke of genius in my mind. As Louis builds and builds, Trummy and Ed Hall with him all the way, it reaches a more emotional climax by building towards the high note chorus. And how does 56-year-old Louis handle it? Another home run on an album full of them. Those high Bb's are just as dramatic as ever and even more surprisingly, he's still pretty fleet-fingered on the descending runs. As anyone who knows anything faintly about me, I'm Mr. Latter Day Louis Armstrong (name change pending) but though I often faint at the power and swing of his 1950s playing, I'm the first to admit, he had to sacrifice a few miles off the fastball to keep the rest of his style at such a high level. So to hear him making those fast little figures around his horn a this date is a nice touch.

But like the original, Louis eventually settles down, trading in opera and drama for some sadly lamenting blues playing. But it wouldn't be "Gully Low Blues" without the tag and they toss it off without a problem. In fact, at the slower tempo, it comes off as a more melancholy ending whereas in the original, it was almost a humorous novelty of sorts. 

And that's it for Louis's history on "S.O.L. Blues" and/or "Gully Low Blues." There's only one more Hot Seven to go and if you thought Louis singing about a toxic relationship was bad on this number, wait til you hear "That's When I'll Come Back to You"!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanks a Million - 2012 Edition

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 19, 1935
Track Time 2:37
Written by Gus Kahn and Arthur Johnston
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken, Louis Bacon, trumpet; Harry White, Jimmy Archey, trombone; Henry Jones, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Bingie Madison, Greely Walton, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Originally released on Decca 666
Currently available on CD: It's on the Mosaic box set of Armstrong's Decca recordings from 1935-1946 (perfect for the holiday season!)
Available on Itunes? Yes, on various issues (both takes are on something called “Knowing Louis”)

[Note: this was written the day before Thanksgiving and set up to publish Thanksgiving morning at midnight....only it didn't publish AND I didn't realize this until now, 10 p.m. on the day after Thanksgiving. Oops! I'm still going to leave it up for a day because I'm the most thankful cat in the world and the sentiments would be true any other day of the year (and "Thanks a Million" is a great record. And don't worry, I have TWO more blogs in the can that will pop up this long as I get the hang of this automatic publishing thing! Hope everyone had a great holiday!]

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! That means it's time once again to look at one of my favorite Louis Armstrong records, "That's a Million," one of those tunes that all the real Pops lovers seem to have a soft spot for, especially trumpet players. Just off the top of my head, I know the song has been a favorite of hornmen from Bobby Hackett and Ruby Braff to Randy Sandke, Jon-Erik Kellso and Dave Whitney. Though there’s no wild pyrotechnics, the song still exists as a standout example of Armstrong playing and singing a beautiful melody with a tremendous amount of warmth.

The song comes from the formidable talents of two great songwriters of the 1930s, Arthur Johnston and Gus Kahn. Throughout his career, Armstrong found Johnston’s songs especially suitable for blowing, Johnston having written “Mandy, Make Up Your Mind,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “Moon Song” and “Just One of Those Things,” to name a few, all subject to terrific Armstrong treatments. “Thanks a Million” was written for a 20th Century musical comedy of the same name starring Dick Powell and Ann Dvorak, as well as two great comedians of the era, Fred Allen and Patsy Kelly. In the film, Powell got to sing the title song, backed by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra (with David Rubinoff on violin).

Powell is harmless and has a very good voice but rhythmically, he’s the anti-Armstrong, very stiff and almost comically emotional (his hand gestures bordered on hilarious in the clip). Nevertheless, the song must have become pretty well associated with Powell as it became the title of a 1998 biopic and like I said, it’s harmless, with the very pretty melody coming through clearly. Sure enough, it would be a winner for Pops and indeed, he hit it out of the park. Here ‘tis:

Doesn’t get much better, eh? People sometimes refer to this a ballad but pay close attention to the tempo, which swings in a more medium groove thanks to Pops Foster’s bass. I think just because the tune is gentle and pretty, it could be confused into being called a ballad, but this version really isn’t (though almost any succeeding version I’ve heard is on the slow side).

Regardless, the main event is arguably Pops’s first chorus. He barely deviates from the melody, though when he does, such as the lightening quick descending run, it always works. He plays it fairly straight for half the chorus before hitting the magic elevation button and taking it up an octave, climaxing on a penetrating high C, followed immediately by an even higher concert Eb. He almost sounds like he’s sobbing in the way he descends from the high note. I know I’m almost sobbing over here listening to such beauty.

The Luis Russell band takes over, setting up Pops’s vocal, one of his finest of the period. He still hadn’t had his throat operation, which occurred in 1937 and seemed to add a quarter-pound of gravel to his already unique voice. Thus, we get that crystal clear tenor, something to marvel at. There’s no scatting, but the “Now mama” in the second half is priceless. An incredibly heartfelt vocal.

Russell’s piano leads to a modulation that finds Armstrong playing the melody one more time in a more human key, with no need to reach for those sickeningly beautiful high notes. Yet, because it’s a Decca record, you can bet your life that there’s going to be a slowed down coda. Sure enough there is, and once again Armstrong makes the angels weep with his final two notes, a gorgeous, throbbing Ab topped off with a ridiculously pure concert Db. Bravo, Mr. Armstrong.

“Thanks a Million” survives in another, almost identical take. On this one, which was actually recorded first, Armstrong stays closer to the melody the first time around but otherwise all the hallmarks of take one are in place: taking the melody up an octave, the “Now, Mama” in the heartfelt vocal, the modulation and the gorgeous coda. For the nuts out there, give it a listen:

And that's all for "Thanks a Million," though the song continues to prosper (the great young Pops disciple Bria Skonberg just recorded a dynamite version with Dan Levinson on the Morganville Four CD, "Alone with My Dreams).  So on a personal note, let me just say “Thanks a Million” once again to the readers out there who keep me going. As you can imagine, it has been a ridiculously busy year, hence only 37 blogs up to this point, when I used to pride myself on 75-100 annually. But even though I'm not here as often as I used to, please know that I'm still doing everything in my power to promote Pops. In many ways, that was the whole purpose of this blog. When I started it in 2007, I was a nobody with entirely too much love for Louis and I wanted a platform to get the chance to spread some of that love around. So in a year like 2012, though the number of blogs has dwindled, I've spoken about Pops at lectures in venues from the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans to the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, the Greenwich Library in Connecticut to the Monterey Jazz Festival.  My book, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years, is still going strong, now in paperback. I've broken into other venues, writing liner notes for three different Armstrong CD releases this year, in addition to co-producing Satchmo at Symphony Hall: The Complete Performances (makes a great holiday gift!). And I'm still working my dream job as archivist at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. How thankful can a fella be? Just ask me...

But special thanks to all of you out there, whether this is the first time you've visited or whether you've been with me for all five-plus years. I love hearing from fellow Armstrong nuts from around the world and I hope to continue to do so until the end of time. But for now, it’s time for scarfing. Happy Thanksgiving to all and thanks a million!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

85 Years of the Hot Seven: Keyhole Blues

Recorded May 13, 1927 
Track Time 3:29
Written by Wesley "Kid" Wilson
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; John Thomas, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba; Baby Dodds, drums
Originally released on Okeh 8496
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 

Phew, that was a long layoff, but I'm back! Yes, it's been a month since my last post, but I have a good excuse this time. As some of you might know, I live in Toms River, NJ. And if you hadn't hear of Toms River before, you probably did a few weeks ago when we were in the middle of Hurricane Sandy. I'm happy to report that my home suffered no damage or flooding--we were VERY lucky--but we did lose power for about 12 days. On top of that, we moved into a new home the day before the storm and then were forced to live on the run during the aftermath of the storm, staying with various friends and family members who had electricity. Finally, everything returned to normal, but we still had to unpack. Thus, never mind electric; my iMac with my library full of Armstrong goodies was packed up on October 26 and didn't get unpacked until Friday, November 16! And though I love this blog, I wasn't going to write one of my missives on an iPhone (as I've mentioned before, I am on Facebook and post short things about Pops there almost daily so if you're in the need for quick fixes in between blogs, look me up there).

Anyway, that's my story and I'm happy to be back, STILL writing about the Hot Seven's after all these months. Fortunately, the finish line is in sight as after today, all I'll have is a duel posting on "S.O.L. Blues" and "Gully Low Blues" and a finale on "That's When I'll Come Back to You." I'm feeling a bit inspired these days and if time permits me, I'd like to close out the year with an 85th anniversary tribute to "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," and 80th anniversary post on Louis's first Victor session with Chick Webb and most importantly, a definitive account of all the releases of Louis's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens with audio samples so you, the reader, can decide what's the best bet for you.

But for now, let's go back to 1927 and pick up where we left off with "Keyhole Blues." When we last left our hero, he had just turned Twelfth Street Rag inside out, an interpretation so daring (and perhaps a little too comedic in places) that OKeh sat on it until young George Avakian rescued it in 1940. Two days later, the Hot Seven reconvened again to record two more numbers. I find it fascinating that the most the Hot Seven ever recorded in a single session was three songs. Isn't that bizarre? These were supposed to be loose sessions, everybody jamming on tunes they just made up to make some extra scratch. But hopefully if you've been with me for this series, you've realized that these were pretty tricky numbers to begin with and the Hot Seven had their routines down tight. So perhaps it was extra preparation that led to the diminished number of results but an average of two per date was very low considering the Hot Five had recorded as many as six in one day just a year earlier. 

"Keyhole Blues" was composed by Wesley Wilson, better known as "Kid Wilson" in the legendary vaudeville blues team of Coot Grant and Kid Wilson. Louis met the husband and wife team in New York during his tenure with Fletcher Henderson. In October 1925, Louis backed Grant and Wilson on four numbers for Paramount Records. Pianist Wilson was also a gifted songwriter, the man behind "Prince of Wails" (which Henderson recorded) and Louis's later Decca recording, "Do You Call That a Buddy," as well as Bessie Smith classics "Do Your Duty," "I'm Down in the Dumps" and "Gimme a Pigfoot." Wilson obviously admired Armstrong, penning the number "Toot It, Brother Armstrong," which, alas, was never recorded by Pops.

We're going to leave the chronology a bit and listen to Coot Grant and Kid Wilson do their version of "Key Hole Blues" on Columbia, recorded September 27, 1928:

There you have it. I find that stuff a lot of fun and you just know that Louis LOVED it and did his best to recreate such duets with Velma Middleton in later years. But as a song, it's a pretty standard blues without much of a distinctive melody.

That differs from the Hot Seven version. Again, instead of just jamming on the blues, Louis and his crew put a little effort into coming up with a routine with small arranging touches. Listen for yourself and then we'll discuss:

The record opens up with the horns playing an arranged, descending passage, with a faint whiff of "Melancholy Blues," recorded earlier in the week. The rhythm section kicks in and plays the concluding four bars together, setting up a slightly woozy atmosphere reminiscent of similar feels on other Hot Seven numbers such as the aforementioned "Twelfth Street Rag," "Melancholy," and "Alligator Crawl." The introduction leads to Armstrong playing the first strain (is it a verse?) accompanied only by the rhythm section. The first part of this strain is in a minor mode, which Louis always thrived in. It eventually turns major but there's a built-in spot for a break, which Louis takes full advantage of, starting off strong and high before getting a little more skittish around the horn. Then it's back to the minor section, Louis playing a three-note phrase that would come back later in the year as the basis to "Savoy Blues." Armstrong's phrasing grows more and more relaxed as he goes on, a nice touch.

But before he puts you to sleep, a hurried double-time ascending run calls everybody back in to jump on the descending melody heard in the introduction. Like the intro, everybody jams together for four bars, until Louis jumps out with an absolutely funky, dirty, nasty, bluesy break. Back to the descending melody, Louis breaks free from the other horns and offers his own behind-the-beat phrasing, setting him apart from the others for a few seconds. After some more ensemble, Johnny Dodds sets off on an effective double-timed break of his own. Then yet another little arranged transitional interlude allows John Thomas to take a simple, short break.

Thomas's efforts are soon forgotten as Louis steps up to the mike (remember, they were recording electrically by more recording horns!) and takes a scat solo that is a gassuh. What I love about it is he does so much with so few pitches. The first SIX bars of the vocal feature nothing but an F! That's it! He takes the pitch and just swings his butt off, bouncing back and forth between F's an octave apart, but laying out a simple, but effective rhythmic motif that masks any sense of limitations in his choice of notes. Finally, in bar 7, Louis gets bluesy, his voice becoming more and more an approximation of his horn: the descending slides (gliss?) in the first break, the trickier phrases and blue notes and finally, a double-time break that is the verbal equivalent of a string of exclamation points. 

Another thing to point out: Wesley Wilson wrote this song....right? Because I played the Coot Grant-Kid Wilson record first and it was nothing but a fun 12-bar blues. But this, though it has the word "blues" in the title is, like almost every other Hot Seven "blues," NOT a blues. The main strain is 16 bars in the key of Bb: two bars of F7, two bars of Bb, two bars of F7, two bars of Bb, two bars of G7, two bars of C7, two bars of F7 and two bars of Bb. And that's it. Nice changes (the switch to G7 in the middle almost gives it a bridge-like feel) but it ain't no blues. Why would Wilson copyright this song and then record something so basic? Hmmm, there must be something missing to the backstory but damned if I know what it is. 

Johnny Dodds is right on Pops's tail and his slightly energetic entrance seems to upset the equilibrium momentarily. Pete Briggs's tuba finally finds the "one" and everything tightens up. After Dodds's bluesy chorus (with two breaks) comes the main event: Louis's rideout lead. Unlike Dodds, who entered nervously and a bit unsure, Louis sounds three triumphant notes confidently, sure of himself and his ability to bring this thing to a rousing finish. Almost like "Twelfth Street Rag," Louis takes three notes (ascending instead of descending this time) and makes a riff out of them; how many Swing Era arrangements were written from such phrasing? But as swinging and solid as the riffs are, Louis tops himself with a daring break that needs to be heard to be believed. This is young Louis, taking chances, throwing himself on the tightrope and hoping he'll make it to the other side. He takes those same three notes and just spins them around and around like a juggler (any more circus metaphors out there?) before shooting himself into a downward spiral (a much better thing than it sounds). He lands on his feet and continues leading the closing ensemble with bravura, throwing in snatches of double time and some more searing high notes before winding down with some down home quarter notes. A Baby Dodds cymbal clasp closes the time capsule on another great Hot Seven record.

As great as it is, "Keyhole Blues" is usually known as one of the "lesser" Hot Sevens. Gary Giddins has called it "relatively ordinary" and I suppose it is when you consider that some of the other songs in the series seriously changed jazz history and are still taught and dissected 85 years later. But it still has some marvelous moments, doesn't it? And you never know what song is going to be the one to change someone's life. In this case, it was listening to "Keyhole Blues" that short-circuited the brain of 13-year-old Wycliffe Gordon and led him on the path to becoming a marvelous jazz musicians and a proud bearer of Pops's torch. 

Last year, Gordon made a lovely CD tribute to Louis titled "Hello, Pops." After years of trombone dominance, Gordon picked up the trumpet for this disc and to the surprise of no one, showed that he mastered that tough brass instrument as well. In tribute to the song that did it for him, Gordon recorded "Keyhole Blues" in a version that is pretty much a note-for-note recreation of the original. Gordon does go for himself in the scat vocal, throwing in an "Oo-bop-sh'bam" to make it clear that the boppers wouldn't have had their language without Louis. Here's Gordon's version:

So there you have it, "Keyhole Blues" still having the power to move listeners 85 years later. Not a track that changed the world but there's no duds in the Hot Seven bunch so it's just as worth celebrating as the others. Next time--and barring any more natural disasters, it won't take a month!--"S.O.L. Blues" and "Gully Low Blues" step up to the plate. Til then!