Sunday, January 27, 2013

I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues: 80 Years of Louis's January 1933 Victor Sessions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Track Time: 3:02
Recorded January 26, 1933
Written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler
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 24233
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

After tackling future standard "I've Got the World on a String" in his usual explosive way, it was now time to record Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's other hit of 1932, "I've Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," from "Earl Carroll's Vanities." Cab Calloway again beat Louis to the recording punch but for this one, we DO have YouTube to help us out so let's listen to Cab's take:

I can't get through one of these blogs without illustrating how a non-Armstrong, “popular” version of a tune sounded, so here’s another YouTube capture of a 78 record of “I Gotta Right to Sing The Blues.” The YouTube video says it’s the Victor Young Orchestra but I have this one on a Mosaic Records Bunny Berigan box set and they say it’s the Dorsey Brothers band. Regardless, this is no ordinary hotel band with the likes of a Paul Small singing. We’ve got Bunny playing and the great Lee Wiley singing and though it was recorded in March 1933, two months after Armstrong, it’ll give a good illustration of how a popular dance band would have approached the song, complete with Wiley singing the verse. And for visuals, enjoy some photos of Greta Garbo (?) as the music plays:

Okay, with the preliminaries out of the way, let’s turn our attention to Pops!
As mentioned, “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” opens with this monologue:

“What’s the matter with you, boy? Don’t you know I gotta right to sing the blues? Listen at this…look out! One…two….”

And with that, we’re off. The horns play a simple intro, eliciting a mellow “Yeah” from their leader before  Wilson plays another Earl Hines-like interlude to allow Pops to get ready for his vocal close-up. I don’t know if there are any specific quotes from Harold Arlen about Louis Armstrong but clearly, he must have loved Pops for many of his songs seem to be peppered with the Armstrong vocabulary. I already mentioned the bridge of "World on a String" sounding like Louis; Armstrong had already recorded Arlen and Koehler’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” a relaxed melody that also reeks of Armstrong. “Right to Sing the Blues” might be the most Pops-ified (not a real word) of them all since it relies so much on repeated notes in its melody. Because of that, Armstrong doesn’t feel the need to take many creative liberties with the written tune. He sings it beautifully, making great use of his high tenor voice of the period, while the band swings lightly behind him, clarinetist Scoville Browne and tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson improvising polyphonically behind him. Armstrong throws in a “babe” early on, but with 16 bars down, it’s all Arlen.

That changes immediately after Arlen’s heroic stop-time bridge. Armstrong works himself up with the lyrics, “Babe, all I see for me is mis’ry,” but where he’s supposed to sing the title phrase, he instead substitutes a passionate “Oh” and the most mellifluous “Mm-mm,” I’ve ever heard, insinuating everything about the mood of the title phrase without actually using the English language. Feeling high and happy, Armstrong reverts back to Koehler’s lyrics but now takes some chances, singing the phrase “Moan and sigh,” before giving himself an obbligato of his own, re-singing “moan and sigh” an octave lower, sounding like a character out of an old horror movie or something. In fact, the tune was a good one to demonstrate Armstrong’s range as he goes way down for the line, “Down around the river.” Approaching the last eight bar “C” section, Armstrong swings out a perfectly placed “Oh babe,” before singing the last eight bars with all those repeated notes Arlen must have written with Pops somewhere in the back of his mind.

Rare photo of Louis in London, 1933. Courtesy of Dave Bennett
After the vocal, the band swings out for awhile, Armstrong clearly enjoying their playing, growling out another “Yeah” when they begin (Armstrong loved and always defended the Zilner Randolph bands; his unrestrained shouts of joy throughout the session are contagious) Teddy Wilson sounds especially good here, as does the entire band, propelled by Bill Oldham’s big-toned bass. It’s a long showcase for the band but fortunately, there’s 90 seconds of record left and Pops makes the most of it, opening with one of his all-time greatest entrances: a single held D (listen for one of the saxes goof up and hit a quick note under it). Perhaps the Armstrong of 1928 would have played something flashy and jaw-dropping in this two-bar break, but the Armstrong of 1933 had already matured greatly and he knew he could convey just as much drama and feeling with a perfectly placed held note. I mean, really, how do you make one held note swing? It’s all in the placement, my friends. Armstrong hits it a shade after the beat and the whole thing swings. Genius.

For his solo, Armstrong improvises quite a bit, alluding to Arlen’s melody here and there, but taking more chances than he did in his vocal. Another favorite part of mine is a quote Armstrong plays in the second eight bars, dropping in a snatch of Jack King and Dorothy Parker’s 1929 song, “How Am I To Know,” a song Armstrong is said to have featured himself on during live performances in the early 1930s. Anyone familiar with the song would be correct to assume that Armstrong was born to play Arlen’s rising stop-time episode in the second eight bars. However, genius that he is, Armstrong doesn’t play it as written but instead blasts out one high Bb after another while the band, in stop-time form, plays the melody as written. Each pulsating Bb glimmers with intensity before a soul-stirring glissando, starting around the southern tip of Florida and ending somewhere in Detroit…or low F to a freakishly high D for those keeping score at home. Armstrong played hundreds of glisses on record but this might be the greatest.

After the gliss, Armstrong stays in the upper register, but he doesn’t feel the need to shoot off anymore fireworks. There’s not much more I can say other than it swings relentlessly. And kudos to the rhythm section of Oldham, Wilson, guitarist Mike McKendrick and drummer Yank Porter who clearly give Armstrong the kind of pulse he thrived off of. And your honor, for example #201 of Armstrong trumpet player mirroring Armstrong the vocalist, listen at the 2:34 mark where Armstrong plays the “moan and sigh” part of the melody followed immediately by a lower, obbligato-ish paraphrase of the same line…JUST as he sang it a couple of minutes earlier.

There’s something so beautiful about the concept of Armstrong’s rhythm that I never get tired of. Listen to his attack at the 2:42 mark and how those he accents those G’s that pop in and out of his improvisation. Armstrong calms down for the final eight bars, sticking to the melody (where he again almost naturally alludes to “How Am I To Know”) before ending on a high Bb. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a perfect record.

Tomorrow: Louis gets up with the roosters to croon "Hustlin' and Bustlin' for Baby."

1 comment:

"Jazz Lives" @ said...

There is a story which I will paraphrase: Arlen plays a Louis record for his cantor father, and his father hears all the deep "cantorial" singing and playing, wordless and intense, and turns to his son (Hyman Arluck) and says, "Where did he get our stuff?" So if Arlen was playing Louis records at home in a proselytzing way, you know he was deep. Arlen's own vocals show he could swing, too. On another note: Louis is talking to the band and the world on records before or at the same time as Fats . . . I wonder if someone at Victor encouraged Fats to be himself with the Rhythm -- only a year later -- because they had made records with Louis and they sold. Parallel, not "influence," but for the same company. Wonderful post, heavenly music. And then to start HUSTLIN' tomorrow? I won't get any sleep tonight, just waiting.