Sunday, April 21, 2013

60 Years of "Ramona" and "April in Portugal"

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded April 21, 1953
"Ramona" Track Time 2:45
"April in Portugal" Track Time 2:42
"Ramona" Written by L. Wolfe Gilbert and Mabel Wayne
Written by Raul Ferrão and Jimmy Kennedy
Recorded in New York, NY
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Trummy Young, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Milt Yaner, Dick Jacobs, alto saxophone; Sam Taylor, tenor saxophone; Everett Barksdale, guitar; Joe Bushkin, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Cozy Cole, drums
Originally released on Decca 28704
Currently available on CD: Satchmo Serenades
Available on Itunes? Yes


60 years ago, Louis Armstrong recorded two pop tunes for Decca, both personal favorites of mine, but generally ignored by the jazz purists. Both of them were previously covered by the blog in years past so I've combined them today and updated them a bit so you can celebrate them with me. Here goes (and be sure to come back on Wednesday for the start of my 11-day tribute to Louis's April 1933 Victor recordings!):

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Ever get a song stuck in your head that you don't really know how it ended up there...but you don't mind it? Well, welcome to my world. Since immersing myself in jazz 18 years ago, almost a minute doesn't go by without some fleeting melody bouncing around my brain. And oddly enough, I usually like and feel the need to jump in. I might as well warn you: I'm a serial whistler, a foot stomper, a head nodder and above everything else, a tapper. Oh boy, when I get tapping, stand back! I once got in a gang of trouble back in high school when I started a four-man percussion section, all of us using our hands....during study hall in the school library! The librarians did not appreciate our polyrhythms.

Friends would watch me tap on a desk and say, "Geez, do you have ADD or something?" I would brush them off and say, "Oh, you're missing out because you can't hear the song in my head!" And then I'd go back to tapping out patterns learned from Sid Catlett or Cozy Cole.

I usually walk around by myself with an Ipod and even at work, there's usually form of Armstrong coming from my desk. I don't like silence and if I'm surrounded by it, well, here comes the whistling and tapping!

Anyway, this is all a prologue to today's blog. I obviously have been slow as molasses getting these things out but I knew I'd have a bit of time this afternoon. But what to write about? I didn't really have anything planned and I didn't feel like spinning my Itunes shuffle. But while out to breakfast with my wife and daughter this morning, I realized I couldn't get the damn bridge to "April in Portgual" out of my head...and I liked it! More or more, it played on repeat, and occasionally I joined in with a whistle or by singing a lyric or two to myself. Somehow it got planted in my brain--I don't think I've listened to the track in weeks--but once I realized it, I figured I'd share it with the world and see if it could get stuck in the collective brains of my loyal readers.

The tune "April in Portugal" was originally an instrumental, by Raul Ferrão with the original title "Coimbra" about a city in Portgual. In 1947, Jimmy Kennedy wrote English lyrics and re-named the tune, "April in Portugal" (I guess it was catchier than "April in Coimbra"). But as far as I can tell, the tune was under the radar until it exploded in 1953. Les Baxter's instrumental version spent 22 weeks on the chart beginning on March 28 of that year. To hear the sound that captivated the nation, we turn our eyes (and ears) to YouTube:
Yep, that's the sound. Three other versions--Richard Haman's, Freddy Martin's and Vic Damone's--also charted in April and May 1953. The world had gone "Portugal" mad. And that meant one thing: it was time for Louis Armstrong to cover it!

You have to give Milt Gabler of Decca some credit; he knew Pops. Sometimes, Decca was maligned for having Armstrong cover other people's hits but Gabler always made appropriate choices. I just consulted the online "Cash Box" charts from April 1953 and do you know what was the number one hit for that entire month? Patti Page and "The Doggie in the Window." 'Nuff said.

So Gabler knew what songs to avoid but more importantly, he knew how to select songs that Armstrong could really dig into. Another song with Spanish origins was also burning up the chart in early 1953, "Ramona." Gabler saw a pairing of "Ramona" and "April in Portugal" as a natural and he was correct. We'll get to to the backstory of "Ramona" in a minute but first, it's off to "Portugal." Give a listen:


In the words of our hero, "Yeah, man!" (or in Portguese, "Sim Man"...thank you, Internet). The recording was made by the All Stars augmented by three reeds and guitar. Though he's not listed in the discography, I'm willing to wager money that Sy Oliver contributed the arrangement because the strutting two-beat feel has Oliver's name all over it. For Armstrong's take on the tune, the tempo was slowed down a bit, only allowing enough room for a single-chorus vocal. Thus, the trumpet playing you hear at the beginning is IT. Armstrong was aware of this and conducted one of his lessons in telling a complete, exciting story in less than a minute.

Right from the start, it's clear that Pops's chops were in top shape (you'd know that already if you listened to "Ramona"!). His intro is so simple but my goodness, how he makes those quarter notes swing. Arvell Shaw's bass rolls out the red carpet for Armstrong to play a touch of melody (Barney Bigard sounds like he had some coffee...he's all over his horn!). Armstrong infuses the melody with his special sound before he lets loose and starts improvising, wailing to the close of his potent, but too-short solo.

Then Armstrong takes the vocal, which is a ball, because it tests his range. He passes the test but it's always fun hearing him reaching for those high ones. I've always loved the tune's minor bridge the best; Armstrong at first sounds a bit tentative but he really digs in to the word "Portgual" (this is the part stuck in my head) and ends with some passionate vocalizing. Armstrong goes back to crooning the melody sweetly (listen to him holding the middle syllable on romance, shaking it a bit like his trumpet) until the scat-filled close. With the band wailing, Armstrong's "and Portugal too" is a nice punctuation mark. A fine record.

Naturally, Armstrong's cover didn't exactly burn up the charts but as is usually the case with Pops, his version seems to have endured better than the popular versions from the period. When I typed "April in Portugal" into YouTube, Armstrong's version was one of the first to come up, clocking in with over 77,000 views. (Only Perez Prado's version has more views...dig if it you're a fan of the mambo; it's great!). 

But speaking of YouTube, that's where the flip side, "Ramona," really has thrived in the 21st century. As of today (April 21, 2013), it's clocked over 273,000 views! I'm not even sure if 273 hardened jazz fans have even heard it (put the Hot Fives down for a second, for Pete's sake (not Pete Briggs)!) 



The song was written in 1928 by two Americans familiar with writing tunes that dealt with other nationalities and countries, lyricist L. Wolfe Gilbert ("The Peanut Vendor," "I Miss my Swiss") and Mabel Wayne ("In a Little Spanish Town," "It Happened in Monterey"). It was introduced in a 1927 film of the same name and first became a smash hit in 1928 thanks to a version by Dolores del Rito. YouTube loves "Ramona" so if you're interested in some of these early versions, stay put. Here's del Rito's original waltzing treatment:, complete with broken English (it took me a few seconds to hear if she was singing in English or Spanish):


Del Rio had such a hit, it was only a matter of time before the cover versions started rolling out. Here's Mr. 1920s himself, Gene Austin's take:

And here's the always original "Whispering" Jack Smith's cover. I don't own any Smith, but thanks to YouTube and such, I've developed an admiration for his talking style. Dig it:


Interestingly, "Ramona" didn't seem to break into the jazz world. Paul Whiteman did a straight cover of it in 1928 and Benny Goodman swung an Eddie Sauter arrangement over it over a decade later, but otherwise, it does not seem to have made much of an impact of the jazz fraternity.

So how did Louis Armstrong end up recording it for Decca in 1953? Well, if you know anything about Armstrong's recording relationship with Decca during this period, there could only be one answer: like "April in Portugal," he was covering a recent popular hit. So who dug up "Ramona" 25 years after its inception? That would be The Gaylords, a popular male vocal group of the era (with a name that's unlikely to be revived in today's pop music world). Here's their original Mercury recording (stay for the shuffling, swing treatment midway through...where's Louis Prima when we need him?).


According to old Billboard magazines (now available on Google), The Gaylords's take on "Ramona" was pretty popular on jukeboxes during the first months of 1953, and figured in multiple ads, such as those for Mercury Records's best-selling discs. Covers were quickly made by Les Brown, Gordon McRae, Tony Martin, Vic Damone and--you guessed it--Pops. Armstrong recorded his version on April 21, 1953, while in the midst of his infamous tour with Benny Goodman. Armstrong played so much horn on that tour, he almost killed Goodman, as Bobby Hackett put it, and that good form shows on "Ramona" and as we've already heard, "April in Portugal."  Armstrong had his All Stars with him, including pianist Joe Bushkin, who just joined for the Goodman tour. Also, three saxophone vets of the studio scene filled in the harmonies, including raucous R&B tenor man Sam "The Man" Taylor and Dick Jacobs, the man behind some of Armstrong's weakest recordings of the 1960s. No one seems to know who did the arrangements for the date but Sy Oliver wouldn't be out of the question.

With the preliminaries out of the way, let's hear how Armstrong performed "Ramona":


The record opens with the always-welcome sound of Pops's voice, intoning the song's namesake. Barney Bigard gets off one of his patented runs--a pretty hot one--and Trummy Young answers with some sober playing. Armstrong then sings the vocal passionately, barely deviating from the written melody. The rhythm section is decidedly two-beat, but in a Lunceford-ian way, which makes me think this is the work of Sy Oliver (compare the feel to "Your Cheatin' Heart," recorded earlier that year). Armstrong shows off his vocal range throughout the first chorus, exuding warmth with each gravel-coated syllable.

But stand back for the main event. After a neat setup by Barney and Trummy (Trummy still sounding very smooth in his quick muted run), Pops steps up to the mike for a powerful half-chorus of trumpet playing. Again, he sticks close to the melody but it's where he plays it that kills me every time. He could have easily asked for a modulation...but then, he wouldn't be Armstrong. So he just jumps in and plays it in the upper stratosphere of his range. It's one of those, "He's not going to be able to do it" solos but sure enough, he nails it and even tops it off with a superb break. Gorgeous stuff.

Armstrong reprises his vocal, just as warm as the first time around, and even extends the ending with a little scatting and a devilishly insinuating "Mm-hmm" before picking up the horn for one last run up to the heavens. A beautiful little record.

Armstrong's version wasn't a hit by any means but it did get a positive review in the May 30, 1953 issue of Billboard: "Gravel-voiced Louis awards the recently revived evergreen a reading full of the individual appeal that has build him his large following. Armstrong fans will grab; others may sample."

Armstrong never played "Ramona" again, as far as I can tell, but the song still had a couple of surprises in it. It became a number one hit in Germany thanks to a version by the Blue Diamonds (also available on YouTube). And in 1968, Billy Walker's country-fied (country-fried?) take on the tune cracked the top 10 charts in America. It's an endearing tune and I think we should be thankful that Decca passed it along to Pops to create something so warm and so memorable.

[And quick 2013 tag: two years ago, trumpeter Greg Hammontree worked for me at the Louis Armstrong Archives while he was completing a Master's degree in Jazz performance. He didn't know much Louis before joining me so naturally, every day was a crash course. Without any preconceived notions (ex: "Louis's pop covers = garbage"), he listened to everything with open ears. He enjoyed it all and became quite an admirer of Louis. But one of the only times he stopped what he was doing to express amazement at what he was listening to was the trumpet interlude on "Ramona." Sensing his reaction, I played it for him three times in a row and made a copy of it for him. More proof that Louis's pop sides of the 1940s and 50s could still be influential on the current crop of young jazz musicians if only they knew where to find them. Hopefully they'll get the proper rediscovery and reevaluation in the not-too-distant future!]

1 comment:

Dave said...

Pops' solo break on "Ramona" is simply stunning, in sharp contrast to his easy-going vocal lead-in. What a wake-up call; evocative of West End Blues.

In only a few bars he tells a complete beginning, middle & end story, rounding it off as strongly as he began. One beat after and he resumes singing as if nothing had happened. Such a technically daring move, but Pops makes it work because he can. Every note the right note.

My goodness such talent. It seemed limitless.