Friday, April 26, 2013

Laughin' Louie: 80 Years of Louis's April 1933 Victor Sessions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded April 24, 1933
Track Time 3:30
Written by Clarence Gaskill
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Keg Johnson, trombone; Scoville Brown, George Oldham, alto saxophone; Budd Johnson, tenor saxophone; Charlie Beal, piano; Mike MicKendrick, guitar; Bill Oldham, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Bluebird B-5363
Currently available on CD: Available on The Complete RCA Victor Recordings of Louis Armstrong.
Available on Itunes? Yes,

Apil 24 marked the 80th anniversary of what I’ve always considered to be one of the quintessential Louis Armstrong records, “Laughin’ Louie.” Some in the crowd might think that’s blasphemy because to many ears, the vaudeville routines are difficult to stomach. “Surely,” some would say, “‘West End Blues,’ or ‘Potato Head Blues’ or ‘Cornet Chop Suey’ are more indicative of our hero.”

Not quite, says I. If you want to boil down the “Louis Armstrong Experience” to 210 seconds, then “Laughin’ Louie” gives you everything. It was recorded during Armstrong wondrous Victor big band days, when he was absolute control of his horn, yet was killing his chops with each passing session. “Laughin’ Louie,” might sound like a nothing tune but it was actually written by Clarence Gaskill, who had a hand in writing standards like “Minnie the Moocher,” “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me” and “Prisoner of Love. In later interviews, Lucille Armstrong (who, admittedly, was not there) claimed that the whole thing was made up in the studio; the routine obviously was, but they did have a song to work from.

“Laughin’ Louie” is no great piece of writing, but I think the band knows that, which leads to a lot of the fun. Of course, marijuana also led to a lot of the fun. Tenor saxohponoist Budd Johnson later remembered, “We were floating when we made that ‘Laughin’ Louie’ and Louis played that trumpet like a bird.”

Besides knowing that the band was high as a kite, the only other background information you might need to know is that after the vocal, “Laughin’ Louie” becomes a parody of the famous 1923 “Okeh Laughing Record,” one of the biggest-selling novelty records of all. On it, a somber trumpet is heard at the start before you start hearing some giggling. As the record goes on, the trumpet playing grows worse and the laughing becomes uproarious. You can listen to the original online here:


Louis loved "The Okeh Laughing Record" and owned a copy of it, transferring it to reel-to-reel tape many times and even joining in with the laughter one time when dubbing it with some friends. With the preliminaries out of the way, let us listen to “Laughin’ Louie” in all its glory. Yesterday, I shared the alternate take of "Mississippi Basin" and then ran my mouth about it so long, I had nothing to say when I got to the master. Because both takes of "Laughin' Louie" are so similar, I'm going to share them both here. So first, the classic master:



And the alternate, probably recorded first:




The band attacks the corny introduction as if they’re sitting in a vaudeville pit before Pops steps up to the mike and introduces his vocal, announcing he’s going to play his Selmer trumpet (“bless its little heart) after he “chirps” the song. Armstrong had talked to his trumpet before but I believe this is the first time he gave Selmer an endorsement, surely brought upon by his first trip to Europe in 1932 and his receiving a Selmer from King George V (now on display at the Louis Armstrong House Museum). Everyone’s laughing and obviously feeling high and happy. Armstrong sets off his vocal with a neat little scat introduction before he delivers the inane lyrics:

Laughin’ Louie, I’m Laughin’ Louie
Yeah man, I’m Laughin’ Louie, yes sir,
Ain’t no phooey, Laughin’ Louie
Boy...ha ha ha
Look here! I wake up every morning and I have to laugh
Cause I look on the wall and see my photograph!
Yeah man, they call me Laughin’ Louie but you cats must play yourself because you won’t let me swing there.

Not exactly “Prisoner of Love” but Louie has a ball with it, laughing hysterically after almost every line. The Johnson brothers, the best improvisers in the group, split a swinging chorus before Pops comes up for another monologue, using the phrase “one of those old-time good ones,” a close relative to the “good old good ones” that would be in his vocabulary before the year was out. Armstrong then sounds like he moves 20 feet away and starts noodling on the trumpet, one sad note at a time. This is where Armstrong turns it into the “OKeh Laughing Record Parody,” and besides the laughter, some friends in the studio get in on the act. His adopted son, Clarence Hatfield Armstrong, is the one who shouts “Look out there, Pops!” Listening to it in his Corona, Queens home in 1951, Louis called out the rest of the personnel, mentioning not only Clarence, but also Joe Lindsay (who also made an appearance during the 1931 "Lonesome Road" hilarity), "Stumpy" and what sounds like "Lil' Chord." I don't know who they are, but their voices are immortal!

But at the 2:18 mark, Pops starts blowing and it’s more serious than your life. At 2:30, he plays a double-time break that sounds like pure proto-beboop to these ears. Not wanting to get too serious, everyone laughs at Pops’s ending and someone yells, “Change ‘em P-wops!” Pops breaks up but then announces, “Here comes the beautiful part.” He’s not kidding...

What follows is one of the most astounding Louis Armstrong trumpet solos ever recorded. I can’t do it justice in words but I’ll just say that the slow climb to that high concert F almost always brings a tear to my eye. Some notes hurt more than others but damn it, he gets there. And throughout, he’s in complete control, throwing in small glisses and all his other tricks. Vince Giordano later discovered the song to be Minnie T. Wright’s “Love Song,” a silent movie cue from 1920 and something Pops probably played in his days accompanying silent movies with Erskine Tate's Vendome Orchestra.

UPDATE: The late Swedish collector Gosta Hagglof heard it played by a violin in the score of a Charlie Chaplin silent, but I could never find which one. While going through his papers at the Louis Armstrong Archives, I came across a note of it being featured in the 1917 short "Easy Street." I knew 1917 was too early for musical soundtracks, so I went to YouTube and found the 1938 "Charlie Chaplin Festival," which combined "The Adventurer," "The Cure," "The Immigrant" and "Easy Street" AND included a score, plus sound effects and even occasional dialogue. And bless Hagglof, there it is, at 1:08:46, as played by the violin! Thanks to people with big ears like Vince and Gosta (and Louis, who remembered the tune), we can finally hear it in its original silent movie context:  



Back to "Laughin' Louie." Armstrong's playing of "Love Song" is beautiful and though no one else is playing, you can hear the chord changes through Pops’s playing. And when he’s finished, the band hits a corny “ta-da” kind of static chord and the record’s over.

I played this record for my bass player a few months ago, describing it as the “quintessential Louis Armstrong” record and I stand by that. It’s the artist and the entertainer as one. He’s laughing, he’s mugging, he’s scatting and dropping all sorts of slang into his speaking. And then he picks up the horn and makes you cry. If one recording sums up everything that made Louis Armstrong such a great figure, then it has to be “Laughin’ Louie.” I hope you enjoyed the chance to celebrate it on its 80th anniversary (and if you chose to get high while listening, then I KNOW you really enjoyed it!).

Tomorrow: Two takes of "Tomorrow Night (After Tonight)."

3 comments:

Sahfen said...

Great celebration and analysis of a great and immortal recording. Thanks!!

Nicola

Sahfen said...

Great celebration and analysis of a great and immortal recording. Thanks!!

Nicola

pwlsax said...

I had never heard that alternate take before. I still like the issued one better for technical reasons.