Thursday, January 31, 2013

He's a Son of the South: 80 Years of Louis's January 1933 Victor Sessions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Track Time: 2:41
Recorded January 26, 1933
Written by Reginald Foresythe, Andy Razaf and Joe Davis
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Keg Johnson, trombone; Scoville Browne, George Oldham, alto saxophone, clarinet; Budd Johnson, tenor saxophone; Teddy Wilson, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; Bill Oldham, tuba; Yank Porter, drums
Originally released on Victor 24257
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Finally, we come to the end of a LONG day's work with another tune that's become somewhat forgotten but I know is a favorite of Louis freaks, "He's a Son of the South." This song was written by the formidable team of Joe Davis, Andy Razaf and Reginald Foresythe. Davis wasn't much of a songwriter, instead adding his name to many of the songs he published by the likes of Fats Waller. Razaf was the legendary lyricist, best known for his work with Waller; never mind "Satch Plays Fats," I'm sure a "Satch Sings Razaf" would make for a formidable compilation. And finally, Reginald Foresythe--of British West Indian origin--was a composer's whose work--with funny titles like "Serenade for a Wealthy Widow" and "Dodging a Divorce"--is ripe for rediscovery these days. (Someone's had to do a "Music of Reginald Foresythe" CD...right?)

When you throw those three writers together and add a pinch of Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra, this is what came out:
Right from the start we are Swinging with a capital S. We all know that Louis practically invented
the whole concept of swing but it took a long time for rhythm sections and arrangements to catch on. You hear it occasionally in his big band recordings (I once wrote that Pops Foster ushered in The Swing Era with his bass playing behind Louis on "Mahogany Hall Stomp") but Louis's big bands had a lot of New Orleans rhythm to them (not a bad thing at all). In December I wrote that Louis's Victor session with Chick Webb--featuring a tuba and Webb's streamlined, almost march-like playing--sounded like another world compared to what Bennie Moten's band did (with Count Basie) in the same studio that same week.

But here, on "He's a Son of the South," the band is swinging from note one. (Alas, it wouldn't last very long; for Louis's April sessions, bassist Bill Oldham switched to tuba, causing the rhythm section to go backwards on some of those selections.) Louis makes his entrance with some fancy tonguing of a repeated before floating through the melody, a real relaxed, behind-the-beat feel, especially with those triplets early on. He ends with a flourish before the somewhat confused reeds finish of the first chorus (first sounds like a solo alto before the others join in).

Entering with a sliding upward "Oh," Louis sings Razaf's lyrics with relish. Louis was usually inspired by songs about dear old southland, but this one definitely had an autobiographical touch that I'm sure he picked up on:

Rare photo of Louis  in London, 1933. Courtesy of Dave Bennett
Oh, if he's dressed up to kill / his feet won't keep still
You know He's a Son of the South.
Oh, if he sings with a swing / and struts like a king
You can bet He's a Son of the South.
Hear woman sigh / when he goes by
He's their delight / he's so polite.
If he's right on the spot / and the music gets hot
You can bet He's a Son of the South!

I'm surprised he didn't change the words to, "I'm a Son of the South." He sounds great but there's a little hesitation here and there, especially towards the beginning, possibly because of unfamiliarity with the lyrics (the combination of this being a new tune AND the sixth one recorded in one session might have led to a little weariness creeping in on this number). Listen to him show off his range again on the bridge, going way down low for "when he goes by" then right back up for "he's their delight." Also, the little extra gravel he conjures up for the word "hot" adds a searing edge.

After the bridge, we get something we haven't heard this entire session: a verse. (At least I'm assuming it's the verse; I don't think Zilner Randolph would arrange an entire long interlude like this.) It's a really neat passage filled with delights: the brass pounding it home on two-and-four, the dainty response of the reeds, Louis's shocking high Bb out of nowhere....good stuff. But then Louis pretty much enters the brass section for the modulation into the main chorus and stays there for much of the next melody chorus. It's a swinging little passage and it's always nice to hear him playing with and instead of on top of the band (that tone!).

But you can only hold him down for so long. He holds a high concert A going into the bridge and takes it for himself, once again starting so relaxed (fast tempos always caused him to slow down interestingly enough) before turning on the heat and ending with a break that concludes with a giant high C.

It's a terribly exciting moment...but then confusion seems to follow. Almost three full bars pass and no Louis, just the band quietly playing the melody. Did his chops hurt after that C (and all the other work he'd done that day)? Did he have to signal to someone about what comes next? We don't know but when he re-enters, his first phrase sounds tentative. However, the confusion comes to an abrupt halt as the band hits the final F chord...and holds it. Louis jumps on it and creates the kind of closing cadenza that would become a trademark of nearly all of his Decca recordings of later in the decade. At this point, however, these kinds of endings weren't commonplace, so this is a great early version of it.

As one would expect, Louis knocks it out of the part. He starts by holding an A on top of the F chord, almost giving it a minor hue. From there, Pops the opera star indulges in the moment, using some space for drama and gradually working up to that final high C. Bravo, Pops!

Alas, that was pretty much the end of "He's a Son of the South" for Louis and for the rest of civilization. But don't worry, hope is on the way! Louis disciple and reader of this blog (and someone who just became a parent for the second time!) Marc Caparone has added it to his repertoire lately. In September, he pulled it out during a performance with the Reynolds Brothers at the Sacramento Music Festival, a tremendously hot band filled with Armstrong worshippers (including for this occasion, the great Clint Baker). My pal Michael Steinman was present with his video camera and captured it for posterity. So here's the "Son of the South" alive and swinging in 2012:
Louis would be proud, no?

Tomorrow: One of Louis's greatest vocals on "Some Sweet Day."

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