Friday, January 24, 2014

75 Years of "Jeepers Creepers"!

Recorded January 18, 1939
Track Time 2:42
Written by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, Otis Johnson, trumpet; Wilbur De Paris, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Rupert Cole, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Albert Nicholas Bingie Madison, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Decca 2267
Currently available on CD: It’s on volume five (1938-1939) of the wonderful Ambassador series, as well as a bunch of other compilations
Available on Itunes? Yes

The title of this blog post is a slight misnomer. First off, the 75th anniversary of the Decca recording was last Saturday, January. But I wanted to let the latest Mosaic Records post stew for a few days, so today isn't the exact 75th anniversary. Besides that, the song had already been around since late 1938. If you forgive the slight bending of the rules, stick around because it’s always a good time to listen to one of Armstrong’s best known songs...and one that won’t die.

“Jeepers Creepers” is one of those songs that seemingly anyone with a voice has tackled it. Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Jack name ‘em, they’ve sung about those peepers (Hell, even Porky Pig did it!) But I think many associate the song with Armstrong and really, how could you not? Pops introduced the tune, written by the formidable team of Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer, in the Warner Brothers film Going Places.

Armstrong became a ubiquitous presence in Hollywood films of 1936 and 1937, sharing the screen with the likes of Bing Crosby, Mae West and Martha Raye. But for Going Places, he got to share it with a horse. Yeah, you read that right. In one of Armstrong’s most demeaning film scenes as he sings “Jeepers Creepers” to a horse of the same name. Armstrong’s character, “Gabe, the Black Hostler” is a nightmare of stereotypes...he even gets called “Uncle Tom” by a white character in one scene, the first association of Armstrong and this insulting term but far from the last.

Fortunately, Pops, being Pops, transcended it all. He gave the song 100%, performing it as if he was onstage, wearing a tuxedo. And in the end, the scene becomes pretty charming and downright irresistible. See for yourself by watching it here:

Except for the solo trumpeting at the start of the clip, Armstrong doesn’t play on the tune in Going Places. However, at the time of the film, Armstrong made a pre-recording of the tune where he blew wonderfully in prime 1938 form, backed by an unknown, dynamite rhythm section. The tempo is up and Pops can do no wrong...just listen to that gliss up to a concert Eb! Here’s the pre-recording:

Going Places opened up on December 31, 1938 and eventually, “Jeepers Creepers” received an Oscar nomination for “Best Music, Original Song,” though it lost out to “Thanks for the Memory.” But even before Going Places opened, Armstrong was plugging the film and the tune on a Martin Block radio appearance on December 14. I blogged about this session in great detail just last month and I’ll repeat the gist of what I said then: for a song that none of the musicians knew before the broadcast, they pull off a very tight, swinging performance. Of course, when the musicians are Fats Waller, Jack Teagarden and Bud Freeman, perhaps it’s not too much of a surprise! Here’s the Block version again:

Finally, one month later, Armstrong immortalized the tune for Decca. Armstrong hadn’t recorded with his regular big band (that of Luis Russell’s) since May 1938, spending the rest of that year waxing tunes with the Mills Brothers, the Decca Mixed Choir and a studio orchestra. After the above versions, Pops clearly had a grasp on the number so it was no surprise that the studio recording is so good. The arrangement is simple: introduction (dig Sid Catlett’s press rolls), vocal (verse and chorus) and trumpet solo. Nobody else is heard from and in the end, the record is an Armstrong tour de force. Give it a listen:

The vocal is so sunny, I have to squint my eyes when I listen to it. But sweet Jesus, what a trumpet solo. There’s really one main motif in the arrangement, sung by Pops at the end of his vocal, repeated by the band, then repeated one more time modulated in the proper key for Armstrong’s trumpet solo. His entrance, all on one note is very vocal-like, before he embarks on a solo that sticks pretty closely to the melody with spots reserved for some powerhouse breaks, each featuring small glisses that sound almost deceptively easy. He sticks to the melody for the bridge but throws in some variations in the last section, ending with a flourish. After one more reading of the main motif, Armstrong takes the record out with three soaring high notes, topping out at another high Eb. There’s nothing too daring in the solo, but it’s a great example of keeping a memorable melody in the forefront while still swinging like mad. A triumphant record.

Surely, Armstrong must have continued featuring “Jeepers Creepers” with the big band but alas, there are absolutely zero surviving versions from the war years. The next time we encounter the tune is with the All Stars. Hundreds of surviving nights with the All Stars exist, thanks to broadcasts, concert recordings and such and “Jeepers Creepers” does not seem to have been one of the most frequently played numbers in the Armstrong book. However, it did come out now and then and when one thinks about the countless All Stars shows that were not recorded, maybe it was more prevalent than I’m thinking. Regardless, here it is from August 9, 1949 from The Click in Philadelphia, with Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole. The sound isn’t great but the playing sure is...

I like the instrumental chorus up front, allowing Pops to play a strong, relaxed lead (very good ensemble work from Teagarden and Bigard). Armstrong then sings two, omitting the verse. He swings the first go-through nicely before taking a dazzling scat chorus. Though, just as sometimes the great Pops would hit an air note while playing the trumpet, listen to the ascending scat line in the sixth bar; I love how his voice kind of gives out on the high note! Nevertheless, he keeps singing, his phrases especially trumpet-like, before he throws in some words again at the bridge, phrasing them as he sees fit. A terrific vocal. Teagarden takes a loose half-chorus before Pops comes in at the bridge to lead the final charge home, sounding fantastic in the upper register. Instead of the patented “Jeepers” ending, they give it the standard All Stars finish, with drum break and final climb by the trumpet. Quick note: Armstrong now played the entire song in the key of G, instead of modulating to Eb for the trumpet solo as he did on the Decca. A great performance...and I’m glad I got to revisit it today because I forgot how good it was!

“Jeepers Creepers” became a popular feature for Pops on television in the early 50s. I have video of him doing it on Milton Berle’s show in 1951, singing a chorus and improvising a completely new, relaxed solo, but alas, it hasn’t made its way to the Internet so I can’t share. I can share the audio of another TV appearance from May 13, 1950 on the Ken Murray Show. It’s the same edition of the band but the track leads off with Betty Lou Walters singing a couple of lines of “Basin Street” to introduce the band. Then Pops comes in and we’re off. Enjoy:

The arrangement neatly features all the All Stars after Pops sings one with Hines, Shaw, Bigard and Teagarden taking eight bars each (well, Tea gets a couple of extra because he gets the built-in tag). Then it’s time for Pops, Cozy Cole switching cymbals to back him up. He has a few rocky moments early in this solo as his chops sound like they don’t like the middle register too much, hitting a slight clam or two. But he goes up for the bridge and sounds terrific, blowing right into the final eight, staying cool until the end where, instead of a standard All Stars ending, he plays the original tag, building up to a high G at the end...not quite the higher Eb of the Decca record but still pretty impressive.

Five years later, on January 21, 1955, Decca recorded three long sets by the All Stars at the Crescendo Club in Hollywood. This is one of my favorite live documents of the band, a wonderful edition with Trummy Young on trombone, Bigard, Billy Kyle on piano, Shaw and Barrett Deems behind the drums. “Jeepers Creepers” is an incredibly exciting performance, featuring the drive that this edition of the band was best known for. A treat is Pops takes leads the ensemble through two, count ‘em, two ensemble choruses in the beginning. The second one is particularly fierce, the rhythm section driving him to try out all sorts of new variations. Dig it:

Like the other All Stars version, Pops sings two and again the second one is a masterpiece of scatting. However, instead of going back to the trumpet, Armstrong scats the regular coda and takes it out with a pretty lowdown, groovy ending. A swinging rendition all around, but especially thanks to those two trumpet-led choruses at the start.

But if you really dig trumpet playing, then look no further than the next known Armstrong performance of tune from an April 30, 1958 episode of the Timex All Star Jazz Show, a show that featured Pops’s chops in positively Herculean form. On “Jeepers Creepers” he sat in with a Jack Teagarden All Star group with Tony Parenti on clarinet and a rhythm section made up of former All Stars, Marty Napoleon on piano, Chubby Jackson on bass and Cozy Cole on drums. Teagarden’s trumpeter is Ruby Braff, a lifelong Armstrong follower and a good friend of Pops. Braff starts with some Armstrong-inspired blowing before he’s joined by an unseen, but definitely felt Armstrong. Pops strides in to lead the ensemble before singing two choruses with Teagarden, one of his best friends. There’s some confusion in the second chorus as Pops looks like he wants to scat and Teagarden forgets a world or two, but Armstrong doesn’t let it show and in the end it’s yet another great Satchmo-Big T duet, Pops cracking Teagarden by asking, “How’d you get so lit up?” But vocals aside, the true highlights involve the horns. Braff is wonderful and so is Teagarden but Armstrong is a force of nature, going for broke, taking chances and hitting all the high ones. Enough from me, enjoy it for yourself!

What a coda! Absolutely sick playing and as Gary Moore asks, “How do you follow something like that?” The answer, of course, is with more Pops. “Jeepers Creepers” seems to have slipped out of the Armstrong repertoire yet again after that performance but it still made for one more classic Armstrong recording when he tackled the tune for the 1964 Hello, Dolly! album. With that song on top of the world, Armstrong was asked to record a full-length album made up of either other showtunes or Armstrong classics that he had seasoned to perfection after performing them for years, tunes like “Blueberry Hill,” “Some Day You’ll Be Sorry” and “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.” “Jeepers Creepers” was also chosen for a version that features some of Pops’s finest blowing of the 1960s. Like the Crescendo Club version, Pops leads the ensemble for two choruses up front, sounding quite strong in his second chorus of variations, full of surprises. The All Stars now consisted of Russell “Big Chief” Moore on trombone, Joe Darnesbourg on clarinet, Kyle, Shaw and Danny Barcelona with a ringer, Glen Thompson, sitting in on banjo. Here ‘tis:

After Pops’s two outings up front, a shaky Darensbourg and a robust Moore split a chorus before Pops’s vocal. Armstrong always owned the song so there’s no surprise as to what a good vocal is but dig the backing by Darensbourg and Moore, a neat little arranged part probably from the mind of Billy Kyle. In his second chorus, Pops swings out and the horns loosen up behind him. I don’t really like the way Armstrong’s voice is miked, at least on the mix I have, but he sings beautifully, especially in the second go-around. Featuring everybody, Kyle and Shaw even get eight-bars each (listen to the dopey strings in the background during the bass solo!). Pops swarms in during the bridge, sounding very strong throughout, and swings mightily into the end, playing the coda and even going up to a surprising high B before landing on the final G. Dan Morgenstern calls this one of Armstrong’s last great extended trumpet outings and it’s hard to disagree.

Apparently, Armstrong began featuring the tune in live performances again, doing it at a concert in Miami on February 13, 1965, but alas, I have never heard this concert and don’t even know if it exists so I cannot share it. “Jeepers Creepers” soon faded away again, but it still cropped up on a TV appearance in 1966 on the Danny Kaye Show.

But Armstrong's last run-in with "Jeepers Creepers" is one for the ages--and alas, one I can't share. I didn't even know it existed until last year when began transferring 130 of Louis's reel-to-reel tapes during my day job at the Armstrong Archives. On one of those previously uncataloged taped was an Armstrong appearance on The Merv Griffin Show in, I believe, July 1970. This wasn't even in any Armstrong discographies so I was as excited as could be to hear do both "Jeepers" and "Back O'Town Blues." Because of his health problems, Armstrong was forbidden from playing the trumpet. It didn't matter; he sang two choruses of "Jeepers" that swung so furiously, they'd stack up with any of the previous versions already shared in this blog. I can't share it but I have transferred it digitally, so if yo visit me at the Archives on the Queens College campus, feel free to request it!

Though only these handful of versions survive, Armstrong made his mark on the song and even today, it’s still one of his best-known (the 2001 horror hit Jeepers Creepers helped by using Armstrong's version in the film). And after hearing so many different versions from throughout the decades, it’s wonderful hearing how many ideas he had on the tune, vocally, instrumentally...and even sung to a horse!

That same January 18, 1939 day that Louis did "Jeepers Creepers," he also recorded "What is This Thing Called Swing." Give me a few days and I'll be back with more on that fantastic number!

No comments: