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!). 

1 comment:

skip heller said...

I always enjoyed this record, and couldn't agree mose with your assessment that the conventional view of Louis' career is not accurate.