Saturday, January 26, 2013

I've Got the World on a String: 80 Years of Louis's January 1933 Victor Sessions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Track Time: 3:16
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 24245
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Well, here goes something! 80 years ago today, Louis had another one of those home run sessions that gets me all breathless. As related in recent posts, he landed at Victor in late 1932, finishing off that year with two sessions. The first featured Louis on four new songs, backed by Chick Webb's Orchestra. A few weeks later, he recorded two medleys of his biggest hits backed by a Philadelphia theater orchestra. But by January 1933, Louis was back in the bandleading business, once again fronting an outfit run by Zilner Randolph and featuring some terrific players such as the Johnson brothers, Keg and Budd, Scoville Browne, Yank Porter and of course, Teddy Wilson. On the that January 26, 1933 session, Louis and his guys knocked out six numbers....followed by three the next day....and three more after that. Yep, 12 songs in three sessions, all in three days' work. 

I've worked myself into a lather plenty of times on this here blog about Louis's Victor period. To me, that five-month period represents an incredible transitional period for Pops. He had one foot in his 1920s style, full of flash and pretty much able to run up and down and do whatever he pleased on his horn. At the same time, he was calming down a bit, and loving the big, dramatic high note endings, foreshadowing his later recordings for Decca. He was also singing beautifully with that tenor voice of his. The material ranged from future standards to traditional jazz classics to forgotten pop tunes....but tunes Armstrong fans know and love because of what their hero made of them. Show me a real Louis nut and I'll show you someone who can hum "He's a Son of the South"....

I've always wanted to write about ALL the Victor tracks (and honestly, I'm probably more than halfway there) so for this special anniversary, I'm going for it: one blog every day for the next 12 days about each of the songs Louis recorded in January 1933. Are you with me? Let's go! (Full disclosure: I have blogged about some of these numbers in the past and will be quoting heavily from my original texts when applicable). 

The first two songs to start us off are classics: "I've Got the World on a String" and "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues." Both songs were written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, but for different shows, “String” being utilized in a “Cotton Club Parade” while “Blues” debuted in “Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1932.” Ethel Merman seems to be first to record the latter, waxing a medley of Carroll’s Vanities songs (“Right to Sing the Blues” and “Anything Goes”) on September 29, 1932 with Nat Shilkret and His Orchestra.

Victor obviously wanted to push these songs and in November 1932, they had Cab Calloway record each of them, “String” on November 2 and “Blues” on November 30. Calloway introduced “World on a String” in the aforementioned “Cotton Club Parade,” but alas, his Victor recording isn't on YouTube. It's very good but Louis's is mind-melting. Listen with me!
“I’ve Got the World on a String” begins informally with Pops counting the band off. On “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," as we'll hear, Armstrong opened up with a little monologue. He does this on a few more later Victor sides, as well. The label clearly wanted to showcase his entire personality and not just his musical side and I think it works. Even counting off, Louis swung!

Armstrong’s young pianist, Teddy Wilson, takes a typically sparkling introduction that could have easily been played by Earl Hines. This was something of a raggedy band and you can hear guitarist Mike McKendrick hit one chord on his guitar before he stops, realizing he wasn’t supposed to come in until after the intro. When the band does enter, they swing with a hearty bounce courtesy of bassist Bill Oldham, a strong player who got stuck playing strictly tuba on some of Armstrong’s later Victor dates. The reeds simply play pads of harmony behind Armstrong, not offering anything fancy, but then again, that wasn’t their job.

Armstrong’s reading of the melody is dazzling. It’s kind of a wide-ranging melody, like “Lazy River” but the only time he plays the opening phrase as written is at the start of his first muted chorus. After a few bars, the variations begin, starting with some quiet little asides played in the cracks of the melody. By the second eight bars, he’s improvising around the melody, keeping it present but refracting through his floating rhythmic feel. The repeated Bb-C riff towards the end of the second A section is very soulful. The bridge to the tune is very wordy, though Armstrong combats that by reducing it to its essential pitches, relaxation personified. He climaxes it with a gliss to an A, which carries over to another, shorter gliss to begin the final eight bars. I always love the juxtaposition of Armstrong free-form rhythmic phrases followed immediately by swinging quarter-notes on the beat, which is what happens at the 58-second mark. Totally in control, he tosses off the final phrases of the melody in the upper register like it’s the easiest thing in the world to do.

Wilson plays an interlude to allow Pops to step up to the microphone and when he does, it’s even more magic. He dispenses with the complicated melody, singing the first four notes all on a single pitch. The melody does test the lowest ranges of Armstrong’s voice, but he passes with flying colors. When playing the melody on the trumpet, Armstrong began his second eight bars with a bluesy feel and he does same exact thing in the same exact place with his vocal. He then sings all of Koehler’s lyrics but their relation to Arlen’s written melody is fourth cousin at best. As already mentioned, the bridge is wordy but Arlen must have written it with Armstrong in mind. It consists of almost nothing but repeated notes and since that’s what Armstrong might have sung anyway, he feels no need to change a thing. Heading back to the final eight bars, Armstrong’s reading of “I’ve got” is, to me, the definition of swing. By the end of the vocal, he’s practically bubbling over with enthusiasm and, with all due apologies to Mr. Koehler, he makes mincemeat out of the final line, “What a world, what a life, I’m in love,” instead turning into a wonderful excursion into scat.

With the vocalizing accomplished, Wilson once again plays a bit to let him get his chops together. The band, probably playing a Zilner Randolph arrangement, rephrases the melody by playing it in two-note phrases almost like a shuffle (dotted eigth note-sixteenth note combinations), which sounds incessant compared to Armstrong’s calm, assured response that ends on a high C. As the band takes over for four more bars, you can hear Armstrong yelling in the background, clearly enjoying himself. For his next response, Armstrong works out the same Bb-C pairing he played in the first chorus, but now he does it an octave higher to thrilling effect. Again, he shouts during the bridge, which is played by the band (watch that intonation, saxophones!). He leads the way into the final chorus with a perfectly hit high C.  He swings out the last few bars of melody, holding an A before glissing to a final high C. One masterpiece down!

Tomorrow: An masterpiece for the ages, "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues."

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