Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Irish Black Bottom - 2015 Update

Recorded November 27, 1926
Track Time 2:37
Written by Percy Venable
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Henry "Hy" Clark, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet, alto saxophone; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8447
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

Hi everybody! I still need to recap my unforgettable trip to England last week but right now, it's St. Patrick's Day so it's time for a yearly tradition and listen to "Irish Black Bottom."  I originally wrote this in 2010 but keep reading for some new information I recently gleaned from one of Louis's private tapes. But first, raise a beer, slice some corned beef and the original 1926 recording of "Irish Black Bottom"!

Isn't that a lot of fun? No, it's not earth-shaking art as "Potato Head Blues" or "West End Blues" but who cares? "Irish Black Bottom" comes from a series of Hot Fives Louis made in 1926 that most stoic historians tend to frown on or, in the case of some like Gunther Schuller, attempt to ignore completely. Why? Because they get in the way of the myth of the young Louis being a serious artist, not some commercial clown.

But all it takes is one listen to the complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens to see that Louis was doing plenty of clowning during his "artist" days. On February 26, 1926, Armstrong's horn changed the world with his solo on "Cornet Chop Suey" and his stirring lead playing on songs like "Oriental Strut" and "Muskrat Ramble." But his voice also had equal impact that day as he rasped out the blues on "Georgia Grind" and popularized scat singing with "Heebie Jeebies." Naturally, the records all sold well with "Heebie Jeebies" causing a sensation.

OKeh was thrilled and corralled Armstrong into their studios for a string of sessions in June and another in late November. And these are the sessions that make the "serioius" Armstrong fans sweat: there's Louis shouting about doing the "mess around" or getting off eye-rolling lyrics on "Dropping Shucks." There's Louis playing a slide whistle on "Who'sit." There's Louis inviting vaudeville entertainers--friends of his--to the studio, people like Butterbeans and Susie, Clarence Babcock and Mae Alix. Here's Louis performing material he did nightly at the Sunset Cafe, songs written by that club's choreography Percy Venable. THIS is the Louis Armstrong of the 20s, not some frowning artist who forced to "go commercial" in later years.

And oh yeah, he still sounds like a genius on all of these cuts, taking a dramatic solo on "Skid-Dat-De-Dat" and one for the pantheon on "Big Butter and Egg Man." The critics particuarly adore that latter solo, with good reason, but they don't seem to want to discuss Mae Alix's booming vocal--she was a favorite of Louis's--or Louis's own Al Jolson-tinged offering. Nope, to them it's just about the trumpet, trumpet, trumpet. The trumpet IS brilliant...but they're missing a helluva lot of fun!

Which brings us to "Irish Black Bottom." Admittedly, this is not songwriting as its finest but as a novelty, it's good fun. The "black bottom" was a popular dance of the 1920s so this tune humorously pretends that it's also taken Ireland by storm. If Louis had to record something so silly in the 1950s, critics would scream at the producers for forcing it on him. But "Irish Black Bottom" was written by the aforementioned Percy Venable so more than likely, it was a staple of Louis's act at the Sunset. And can't you imagine Louis bringing down the house with that vocal? That "ha, ha" he gives after singing "And I was born in Ireland," breaks me up every time. I can only imagine what it did to the audiences who heard him do it live.

The song begins with the funny sound of Louis and his Hot Five swinging through a sample of the Irish classic "Where the River Shannon Flows" before Louis swings out with the main melody, which is predominantly in a minor mode until the end. Louis's lead sounds great and Dodds is bouncing around as usual but trombonist Hy Clark, a substitute for Kid Ory, sounds hesitant and doesn't add much. After a chorus and an interlude by pianist Lil Armstrong, Louis takes the vocal. If you can't make it out, here's what he says:

All you heard for years in Ireland,
was the "Wearin' Of The Green",
but the biggest change that's come in Ireland
I have ever seen.
All the laddies and the cooies
laid aside their Irish reels,
and I was born in Ireland
(Ha, Ha), so imagine how I feels.

Now Ireland's gone Black Bottom crazy,
see them dance,
you ought to see them dance.
Folks supposed to be related, even dance,
I mean they dance.
They play that strain,
works right on their brain.
Now it goes Black Bottom,
a new rhythm's drivin' the folks insane.
I hand you no Blarney, when I say
that song really goes,
and they put it over with a wow,
I mean now.
All over Ireland
you can see the people dancin' it,
'cause Ireland's gone Black Bottom crazy

I don't know how you can't get swept up in that offering. Armstrong doesn't so much sing it as shout it, or talk it, but his spirit sure gets the message across (though sometimes, he's so far from the written melody, it sounds like he's singing a different song on top of Lil's chording on the piano).

2015 update: I wrote those words about Louis's vocal in 2010. Just yesterday, I was paid a visit at the Armstrong Archives by the terrific singer Tara O'Grady, who has recorded "Irish Black Bottom" on her latest CD. I dug out one of Louis's private tapes, one I hadn't heard for a while, and though I can't share the audio, I do want to share Louis's very interesting thoughts. The tape was made in Chicago in 1951 and features Louis and a bunch of friends listening to the old Hot Five recordings. Armstrong puts on "Irish Black Bottom" and makes comments about how Percy Venable wrote it and how it was Lil on the piano (Armstrong says OKeh supervisor E.A. Fearn was responsible for the "ax hitting" Lil and Earl Hines being brought in in 1928; a subject for another day).

But when it comes to the vocal, Louis quietly starts humming along with the verse. But when it comes to the chorus, 1951 Louis shouts, "Here's the lead!" and starts emphatically scatting the written melody over 1926 Louis's shouted vocal on the record. He continues for the entire chorus, sounding quite wonderful (come to Queens one day and I'll play it for you!). He probably hadn't performed it in 25 years but every note of the original melody was firmly entrenched in his brain.

After scatting, Armstrong again moans, "That's the lead!" before imparting some self-critical analysis: "In those days, we sang just what you call 'obligato,' you know? And we commenced to hollering, 'Where's the melody?' See? First thing you see when you walk in the Decca studio, chick with her hair down to her asshole, hollering 'Where's the melody?' holding both of her hands out. Just like I say, we'll take this number…." At this point, 1951 Armstrong catches 1926 Armstrong playing the melody on the record and shouts, "There's the lead" before listening to it in silence to the end.

I find this a fascinating little insight because many writers and listeners--including myself--love listening to Armstrong's wild 1920s vocals and marveling at the chances he took with the written melodies. But here's Armstrong in the 1950s, almost disgusted by his younger self, calling that vocal style nothing but an "obligato" and recalling the advice from the famed Pocahontas photo Jack Kapp plastered around the Decca studios: Pocahontas with her arms outstretched in prayer and Kapp's mantra, "Where's the melody" written underneath. Anyway, that's the update, let's continue with the original analysis of the recording.

After the vocal, Clark and Dodds take forgettable short solos and breaks before Louis carries the troops home with brio. Louis's lip trill towards the end is particularly violent and right before his closing breaks, he dips into his bag for a favorite phrases, one that ended both "You're Next" and "Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa." The concluding break is so perfect in its phrasing and choice of notes that I believe it might have already been set in stone by Pops during his live performances of the tune at the Sunset. Either way, that's no reason to criticize him; it's a perfect ending and puts an emphatic stamp on a very entertaining record.

That's all for now. Have a happy St. Patrick's day and don't forget to mix in a little Louis with your Guiness. I hand you no blarney, it's a great combination...

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