Saturday, February 23, 2013

60 Years of "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "Congratulations to Someone"

Recorded February 23, 1953
"Your Cheatin' Heart" Track Time 2:46
"Your Cheatin' Heart" Written by Hank Williams and Fred Rose
"Congratulations to Someone" Track Time 2:47
"Congratulations to Someone" Written by Roy Alfred and Al Frisch
Recorded in Detroit
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Trummmy Young, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Louis Alois, Everett Van Deven, alto saxophone; Fred Netting, tenor saxophone; Abraham Rozanoff, baritone saxophone; Marty Napoleon, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Cozy Cole, drums; Sy Oliver, arranger, conductor
Originally released on Decca 28628
Currently available on CD: Satchmo Serenades, among others
Available on Itunes? Yes

60 years ago today, Louis Armstrong recorded two of those terrific pop song covers for his label at the time, Decca. Before we get to the sessions, a little backstory.

1952 was a transitional year for the All Stars. The departures of Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines and Arvell Shaw in late 1951 led the band to do some major rebuilding. Fortunately, the All Stars’s rebuilding period didn’t take as long as the one the Mets are immersed in right now (rim shot, please). Russ Phillips took over the trombone role, Joe Sullivan replaced Hines and Dale Jones filled in for Shaw. Sullivan didn’t last long as his stride piano style didn’t fit…and I’m sure his heavy drinking didn’t either. He was soon replaced by Marty Napoleon, who was playing with his uncle Phil’s band, booked by, you guessed it, Joe Glaser. Phillips was apparently well-liked by Louis and on the few recordings of him with the band, he sounds fine, but during a visit to Hawaii in February 1952, Armstrong ran into an old friend, Trummy Young and asked him to join the band. Young couldn’t come immediately but found his way back to the mainland to join the All Stars in September. By that point, Shaw was back in the band, though Dale Jones would return (his Bert Williams specialty, “Nobody,” slayed a high school audience in Vancouver in February 1952). But though Shaw was back, clarinetist and original member Barney Bigard left in the summer of ’52, replaced by Bob McCracken. Still with me? I should be shouting, “Scorecards! Get your scorecards here! Can’t tell your All Stars apart without a scorecard!” It was the Young-McCracken-Napoleon-Shaw-Cozy Cole band that had a very successful tour of Europe in the fall of 1952, with some great music from this tour being captured on the first two volumes of Storyvilles’s “Louis Armstrong In Scandinavia” series.

Perhaps because 1952 was such a hectic year, with so much touring and so many personnel changes, Armstrong barely had time to make any records. He only made three trips into the studio that entire year, waxing “I’ll Walk Alone” and “Kiss of Fire” on April 19 (a helluva record, if I say so myself), a coupling of “I Laughed at Love” and “Takes Two to Tango” on August 25, and four songs with Gordon Jenkins on September 22. By comparison, Decca recorded 18 Armstrong sides in 1951, as well as the entire Pasadena concert with the All Stars in January.

By the time of Armstrong’s first session of 1953, the All Stars had seen yet another personnel change as Barney Bigard returned to the fold just days before the session, which was recorded in Detroit, a somewhat odd choice as Armstrong spent most the 50s recording in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. Decca (and when I say Decca, I’m usually referring to producer Milt Gabler) liked to augment the All Stars for Pops’s pop dates and this session was no different as the sextet was bolstered by three reeds and a rhythm guitarist. The great Sy Oliver did the arrangements. Oliver, a trumpet man himself and a veteran of Jimmie Lunceford’s famous big band, loved Pops from way back, having backed him up during an Armstrong appearance fronting Zack White’s band in Toledo, Ohio in the late 20s. Gabler first paired Armstrong and Oliver for Armstrong’s first return session for Decca in September 1949. The teaming worked and Oliver would continue to arrange sessions for Armstrong until 1958.

Decca would look high and low for popular songs and once it looked like something was going to be a hit, they usually rushed Armstrong in to put his imprint on it. Thus, the completely varied material on that February 23 date: a country song by Hank Williams and a pop ballad made popular by Tony Bennett, Armstrong’s favorite “boy from my neighborhood” (Queens).

Having Armstrong record country music might have seemed odd, but this wasn’t a first. Of course, he played on Jimmie Rodgers’s famous “Blue Yodel Number Nine” session in 1930. And in September 1951, Armstrong and Sy Oliver collaborated on a cover of Williams’s “Cold, Cold Heart,” which had been already popularized by Tony Bennett (the Bennett-Williams-Armstrong triangle, where does it stop!?). I love Ray Charles tremendously and cherish all the recordings I own of “The Genius,” but he sure got a lot of attention for making that country album in 1962, though Armstrong’s earlier forays into the country field are generally neglected (and Armstrong did “Georgia” first, dammit!).

Hank Williams wrote “Your Cheatin’ Heart” with his first wife in mind (apparently, his second wife took down the lyrics as Williams thought them up while driving). Williams recorded the song on September 23, 1952, but it wasn’t released until after Williams’s death on January 1, 1953 at the age of 29. Here's that iconic record:
Williams’s version spent six weeks on the country charts and became known as one of his greatest songs, but at the time, bigger versions were made by others. Joni James scored a number two hit with it, recording it on January 7, while Frankie Laine’s version, recorded January 8, reached number 18 (did the record executives even wait for Williams’s body to be buried?).

With a hit in the air, it was time for Armstrong to put his stamp on it. As I’ve expressed time and again, I love these early 50s “commercial” recordings. Obviously, some are better than others, but “ Your Cheatin’ Heart” is one of my favorites, with a lot of credit for that going to Oliver’s arrangement, which, instead of instilling a stiff countrified two-beat, instead struts and nods its head with a decidedly Lunceford-ian two feel, with shades of “Yes Indeed” thrown in to give a chuch-like feel. As pianist Marty Napoleon told me, “The manager of the band gave me a lead sheet on ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart.’ And we were in Detroit, Michigan and Joe Glaser said, ‘Run this over with Louie cause we’re going to record it with Sy Oliver.’ So I played it over myself and I said, ‘My God, what kind of song is this?’ It was like a flat, hillbilly song, you know what I mean? And then Sy came in with this arrangement and that thing was swinging like crazy. It was magnificent, man! It was wonderful.”

Listen along and see if you agree:
Talk bout an infectious record! Armstrong opens the proceedings with two bars of trumpet (it almost sounds like he’s about to start playing the “Isle of Capri”) before the band carries out the final two bars of the introduction. Immediately, just off that intro, you have to be feeling good. Trummy’s trombone is prominent in the mix, adding a bluesy quality to the proceedings (remember, Trummy was a Lunceford man, too). As Pops starts singing, look out for a reenergized Barney Bigard. Bigard often got tired of touring and would take periodic breaks. He wanted extra money to go to Europe in 1952 and when Glaser turned him down, McCracken was hired. However, Bigard usually returned full of energy and he plays like a madman behind Pops’s vocal. In fact, it might be a little too busy, clashing with the rest of the relaxed arrangement, but I’ll take it over the bored, going-through-the-motions Bigard of “Satch Plays Fats.”

A muted Trummy takes over the obbligato for the second A section, more relaxed than Barney, but effectively keeping that blues-inflected atmosphere going. The only clam on the entire record, though, comes from the great Armstrong himself as he has trouble hitting the right pitch on the word “You.” It’s not a completely wrong note, but it’s definitely “pitchy,” in the parlance on an “American Idol” judge. Armstrong recovers quickly for the bridge, which he introduces by singing “When tears come down” all on one pitch in a break (dig Cozy Cole’s perfectly timed rimshot behind it). The reeds riff gently during the bridge, with Cole’s bass drum really keeping the two-feel in a funky bag. Bigard takes a page from Young when he returns for an obbligato in the final eight bars, keeping it simple and lowdown and instead of running all over his horn.

As Armstrong sings the final note, Trummy introduces Pops with a simple Ab scale (I almost expect him to start playing his “Honeysuckle Rose” contrafact, “Through For the Night”). Armstrong delays his entrance for one second before opening with the first few notes of the melody. Soon, though, he discards the melody completely and turns in a real down home 16-bar solo. Dig Oliver’s writing for the band, chanting and riffing like a congregation. Shaw and Cole stay with the two-beat for two bars but when Shaw kicks it into four in the third bar, the effect is exhilarating. Armstrong’s phrases come in three shapes and sizes: there are the snatches of melody here and there; there are the tumbling faster phrases, not boppish eighth-note runs, but tricky rhythmic grumbles that are strictly Armstrong; and finally, downright bluesy phrases, such as the emphatic three minor thirds he plays right on the beat heading into the second half of his solo, squeezing the juice out of the last one for good measure. As always, the high notes are impressive but that final low minor third is a “gassuh,” as Pops would say.

When he returns to sing the bridge, the record sounds like a party broke out in the studio. Shaw reverts back to the two-beat, slapping his strings so hard you can hear one pop and the band moans righteously behind the vocal (good tremolos by Napoleon). Matters become a little more subdued in the final A section—were those saxes left over from a Dick Stabile-led Dean Martin session??? Armstrong finishes the chorus, lets out a resounding “Yes,” like a preacher about to repeat the point of his sermon one last time, and does just that, repeating the last four bars joyously, going up for the final “will tell on you” as the band swings to its conclusion. A great, great record.

As I stated earlier, I love these Decca pop tunes and though they're all great--and seriously in need of reissue and reappraisal--some are better than others. Well, “Congratulations to Someone” isn’t one of my favorites, though Pops still sounds good. The tune was written by Al Frisch and Roy Alfred, the latter being the man behind the lyrics of “The Hucklebuck.” Tony Bennett recorded it for Columbia on August 26, 1952, backed by Percy Faith’s Orchestra with the Ray Charles Singers (no, not THAT Ray Charles). Bennett’s version peaked at #20 on March 7, 1953, not one of his biggest hits, but at least it got his picture on the sheet music cover.

Here's how Mr. Benedetto's version sounded:
With Bennett’s version rising in the charts, Decca took a chance and had Armstrong record it, though without the choir and strings Bennett used, which would have been a natural for Gordon Jenkins. Armstrong still took it--like everything--seriously. We have a tape at the Armstrong Archives of Armstrong recording the Tony Bennett version, followed by the sounds of him singing the song a cappella, getting a feel for it and committing it to tape so he could listen, practice and be ready when he got to the studio. Here's how it turned out:
Oliver’s arrangement isn’t quite as jaunty as what he came up with for “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” though it’s nice, if a little bland. Perhaps the highlight of the record is the very beginning as Armstrong plays a dramatic introduction, starting with the main melody phrase, followed by a descending motive that equal parts simple, logical and beautiful. The range of the song keeps Armstrong in the nether regions of his voice and he doesn’t sound too comfortable there, though he rallies for the higher parts of every A section, including the bridge. Napoleon once again plays some Hines-like tremolos behind him, but otherwise not much happens during the vocal, though if you like listening to Louis Armstrong sing (and who doesn’t?), you’ll be happy.

A frustrating moment occurs before the trumpet solo as you can clearly hear an edit right before Armstrong’s entrance. Thus, we get the final two bars of the second A section, followed by a solo on the bridge, making for a somewhat odd 10-bar excursion. What was edited out? Shaky playing or was the solo just too long? We’ll never know, but what’s there is quite lovely, if not earth-shattering. Armstrong really sings with feeling during the reprise and I especially like the coda where the band lets there hair down and starts swinging. Pops emotes, Barney wails and the record ends on a happy note. Not my favorite record, but a good one nonetheless.

So there’s a typical day in the life of Louis Armstrong, Decca recording artist, circa 1953. A Hank Williams lament, a Tony Bennett pop song, some Sy Oliver arrangements, mix it all together and you have the recipe for the some very fine records. This blog entry might be over, but I think I’m going to listen to “Your Cheatin’ Heart” one more time because it’s such a groovin’ record…has anyone else ever sounded so happy singing about a cheating heart?

1 comment:

Dan said...

Sounds to me like the "flub" on the word, "you" (on"Your Cheatin' Heart") is actually Pops laughing at something: the lyric? something in the studio? In any case, it;s odd they didn't do another take.