Louis Armstrong hated the word "commercial." When a disc jockey made the mistake of introducing one of Armstrong's early 1950s recordings as "a commercial approach," Armstrong stopped him dead, saying, "You take a guy that wants to be hip to the tip and he say, 'That guy's commercial,' you know, you're about calling that guy a dirty name, in a way f saying. Why don't you say just 'a good musician' or 'a good swing man' or 'someone that plays music, period'? A musician ain't supposed to just play one type f music. When they ask me, say, 'Why do you play "Cold, Cold, Heart," why do you play this?' I play anything where I come from."
But by the time of that
1952 exchange, cries over Armstrong having "gone commercial" had been
ringing in his ears for decades. To some, the moment occurred when he
stopped recording blues and New Orleans jazz with the Hot Five and
started recording pop tunes with a big band. To others, it was the late
1930s Decca years, finding him recording with choirs, Hawaiian bands and
other eclectic combinations, all while supporting star turns on the
silver screen in films with the likes of Bing Crosby and Mae West.
there's one date that all of the "commercial" naysayers could (and can
still) point to as a red letter day in the supposed commerification (did
dat come outta me?) of Louis Armstrong: September 6, 1949, the day he
recorded "That Lucky Old Sun" and "Blueberry Hill" for Decca.....backed
by Gordon Jenkins's Orchestra.....and a choir.....and without playing a
single note of trumpet.
The fact that the resulting
record was one of Armstrong's biggest sellers (and just a tremendous
example of his singing abilities) doesn't mean a thing in some circles.
They see Louis Armstrong, the trailblazer who blew the glorious cadenza
on "West End Blues" in 1928, and Louis Armstrong, the gentle singer
simply crooner a couple of pop tunes in 1949, as two completely
different human beings. On top of that, they value the first one more
than the second.
I've argued against this line of
thinking for years. Hell, I wrote a book on it. There was only Louis
Armstrong. The same guy who recorded "West End Blues" in 1928 also
recorded lots of novelties and spent his time on stage playing pop
songs, singing through a megaphone, dancing the mess around,
impersonating a preacher and doing routines in drag. And the guy who
crooned "Blueberry Hill" in 1949 was also playing blistering trumpet 300
nights a year with the All Stars, as evidenced in the recent Mosaic
set. One guy with one total goal in mind: entertaining his audiences.
In Danny Barker's autobiography, My Life in Jazz,
he writes about working at the New Orleans Jazz Museum in the 1960s and
the various types of visitors who came in, armed with their opinions.
"Then, before Louis Armstrong's death, there were the many who came in,
looked at the Armstrong horn and Louis's historical dates before
shouting, 'Armstrong is finished-playing all that commercial crap. He
didn't have to do that. He clowns too damn much." Barker's next line is
perfect: "I stayed clear of them because it was obvious they never did
dig Louis." Yes! If you didn't get that he was ALWAYS clowning and
ALWAYS singing pop tunes, you really never did dig Louis.
with the thesis out of the way, let's look at how Pops ended up at that
Decca studio with these two songs 65 years ago today. Armstrong had a
very successful run at Decca Records from 1935-1946, but by the final
few years of the contract, he barely recorded anything at all. The
recording ban shut him down for most of 1942 and all of 1943 and
producer Milt Gabler rejected the numbers he recorded for the label in
1944. "I Wonder" became a big hit in 1945 but that was the only thing
Armstrong recorded that year. He started off 1946 with his first duet
with labelmate Ella Fitzgerald, but his manager, Joe Glaser, was looking
for a change.
Later that year, RCA Victor swooped in
and signed an exclusive contract with Louis, recording his big band
multiple times in 1946 and early 1947 and eventually recording the first
two small-group sessions by Armstrong's brand-new All Stars, as well as
releasing an album of selected tracks from the famous Town Hall concert
of May 17, 1947. There's some really fine items during this RCA
period--but not a single one scratched the charts. What's more, a
recording ban at the end of 1947 would keep Louis out of the studios in
It didn't really matter because the All Stars
were packing them in nightly and starting to conquer Europe. But every
artist likes a hit record and more than that, every artist's manager,
REALLY likes a hit record. So in 1949, Glaser negotiated a five-year
contract to return to Decca with Milt Gabler overseeing Armstrong's
recordings on a full-time basis. This was a very smart decision. Coming
from his days running Commodore Records, Gabler loved no-frills jazz and
made sure the All Stars got featured on albums like Satchmo at Symphony Hall, New Orleans Days, Satchmo at Pasadena and Jazz Concert.
Gabler also had a gift for identifying sounds that would appeal to the
general public. With Armstrong back in the fold, Gabler made it his
business to scour the pop music charts, look for songs that had enough
meat for Armstrong to sink his teeth into, then stand back while
Armstrong made each song his own, backed by studio orchestras. Armstrong
was happy, Gabler was happy and most of all, Glaser was happy. "Glaser
never asked to see the material," Gabler recalled. "He used to say,
'Give him a Top Ten hit!' That's what he wanted."
great experiment began on September 1, 1949. Gabler had Sy Oliver put
together a band (with Buck Clayton, Budd Johnson, Horace Henderson,
Wallace Bishop, etc.) and arrangements for two current pop hits, Patti
Page's I'll Keep the Lovelight Burning in My Heart
and Dick Haymes's "Maybe It's Because." The results were very good (I
especially love "Lovelight"...click the link for an old blog entry on
it) but again, the results were far from being a hit.
on September 6, 1949, Gabler brought in the big guns: arranger Gordon
Jenkins, a choir and the biggest hit in the country, "That Lucky Old
Sun." Jenkins was really hitting his stride in those days, composing
songs like "Goodbye" and the popular Manhattan Tower suite, as
well as being in demand as an arranger. "Everyone wanted to work with
Gordy, and as you look back, he was making history back then," Gabler
said. "He's the one who brought background vocals into combination with
musicians. The Armstrong sessions really typified that."
this date, Jenkins did not have his signature strings on hand, but he
did have a choir, which he wanted to weave into the arrangements. And as
already mentioned, Louis got to leave his trumpet at home as Jenkins
and Gabler just wanted to concentrate on his singing. (Two top trumpet
men were on hand in the band in Billy Butterfield and Yank Lawson; a
coin flip decided that Butterfield would handle the Armstrong-esque
The "A-side" of the record would be "That
Lucky Old Sun." Frankie Laine, then at the height of his popularity, had
the big hit with this sentimental old to the working man, hitting Billboard's charts on August 19 and staying there for 22 weeks, hitting number one during the run. Here's his original recording:
delivers a characteristically emotional vocal with his unique deliver
("Good lord above, can'cha know I'm pinin'...."), building up to the big
climax at the end of the bridge into the belted ending. It's pretty
hard to resist. But also notice the prominence of the choir, integrated
into the arrangement, doing more than just "oohing" and "ahhing" in the
background. That's probably the sound that told Gabler and Jenkins to
stick with voices behind Pops instead of strings.
the Armstrong session, Jenkins was overwhelmed with emotion to be
working wit his hero. "I cracked up," he said. "I walked into the
studio, looked over there, saw Louis and broke down. Cried so hard I
couldn't even see him." With the tears out of the way, Jenkins lifted
his baton and conducted Armstrong through an emotional version of the
song. Here is Louis Armstrong's "That Lucky Old Sun."
Chills. I get the chills every
time I hear. Jenkins's intro with the somber choir and repeated low
clarinet sets the mood. Then it begins. Your first thought might be,
"Whoa, is that Louis singing?" People love to impersonate his deep
gravely voice but he was most comfortable singing at a tenor range.
Still, Jenkins starts him off as low as he can go, a low C. At the end
of the bridge, he hits a D over an octave higher. Impersonate his
"funny" voice as much as you want. The man could sing and had an
Then there's the lyrics. "Up in the
morning...out on the job...work like the devil for my pay." Now if
that's not autobiography, I don't know what is. (Hmm, with the later
"toil for my kids," it works for me, too!) Louis sings with so much
passion because, as he often said, he liked to "see the life of a song."
He lived the life of this one so he didn't have to look far.
how Jenkins uses the voices like he would his signature strings,
swooping in around Pops after each eight bar section. They swell
underneath him during the passionate bridge--notice the absolute lack of
gravel in his voice, too. Armstrong ends the bridge with that high D,
before swooping way down low for the last eight bars. The choir takes
the bridge with Butterfield sounding a few Armstrong-esque notes.
re-enters with a soulful "Mmmm." All soul. The vibrato on it and the
following "river" are reminiscent of his own trumpet playing. Extra
points go to Bernie Leighton's tasteful piano fills and the steady,
unobtrusive drumming of Johnny Blowers.
get to the lovely extended ending, the choir repeating "Heaven, heaven,
heaven" while Louis--audibly smiling--answers them. He then goes way
down low for that final "day," once again the C, hitting aand it holding
it while the choir and voices swell around him. Like I said, I get the
chills every time.
The hardened jazz fans might have
blanched, but the record-buying public went for it in a big way. The
November 12, 1949 issue of Billboard gave it a high rating of 88
and wrote, "A standout Armstrong vocal and the usual smart Gordon
Jenkins production backing makes this an excellent entry in the 'Sun'
stakes." The record eventually hit #24 on the pop charts but scanning
back issues of Billboard on Google shows how it remained on the list of most popular disc jockey and jukebox discs for years, Jet estimating it had sold over 300,000 copies by 1951.
again, perhaps "That Lucky Old Sun" wasn't the only reason the record
took off; it had a lot of help from the flip side: "Blueberry Hill." In
fact, for all of its popularity, "That Lucky Old Sun" never entered the
All Stars' repertoire. There's one surviving live version from the
Apollo Theater in late 1949 and once again, it features Louis backed by a
choir (on one of his tapes, he mentions that Velma Middleton's mother
was in it). Perhaps he felt like it needed the choir for full effect.
Here's the live version, with a different vocal arrangement and some
prominent trombone, quite possibly by Jack Teagarden:
That's all for
"That Lucky Old Sun" and Louis Armstrong. But "Blueberry Hill"....that's
a different story. Once Louis began singing this one live, he never
stopped, telling the BBC as late as 1968 that it was still his most
requested number and people responded to it like they did the "National
But the question remains: why the hell was
Louis Armstrong recording "Blueberry Hill," a song written in 1940, in
1949?? It wasn't on the Hit Parade. No one had seemingly recorded it for
years. The excellent Gordon Jenkins biography Goodbye states
Louis suggested it, which is possible, but I've never seen that anywhere
else. I assume Milt Gabler was familiar with the original recordings by
Gene Autry and Glenn Miller and thought it would be appropriate for
Pops. He was right.
If you only know Louis's
version or Fats Domino's later hit, check out Gene Autry's 1941
take....it's right in the wheelhouse of "The Singing Cowboy,"a charming
country ballad without any of the later jazz or R&B connotations:
Hill" was recorded multiple times in 1940 and 1941 but the biggest hit
was by Glenn Miller. Here it is, a sweet big band arrangement at a
suitable ballad-with-a-bounce tempo:
after those early versions, I can't find any other covers of it between
1941 and Pops's version in 1949. Such a strange choice but talk about
paying off on a gamble!
Armstrong sure appreciated the
choice. Later in life, when people would get on him for "going
commercial," Armstrong argued back, "But all songs display my life
somewhere, and you got to be thinking and feeling about something as you
watch them notes and phrase that music--got to see the life of the
song. 'Blueberry Hill,' that could be some chick I ain't seen for twenty
years--which chick, who cares?...And I think of that, even if the songs
is so commercified."
Jenkins doubled down on
tying "Blueberry Hill" into the trumpeter's life. concocting an entire
second chorus of special lyrics from Armstrong's vantage point,
beginning with, "Come climb the hill with me, baby / we'll see what we
will see / I'll bring my horn with me." As Jenkins's special lyrics
continued, they originally ended with, "Each afternoon we'll go / Higher
than the moon we'll go / Then to a saloon we'll go." But according to
Gabler, the sensors made them change the "saloon" line. Gabler
suggested, "To a wedding in June we'll go," but always regretted it,
saying in Goodbye, "Every time I hear it, I think about the time I loused up Gordon's great lyric."
the arrangement set, the lyrics in place and Butterfield the winner of
that coin toss with Jenkins, the stage was set for one of the most
enduring recordings of Armstrong's entire career:
Interestingly, I was
at the Detroit Jazz Festival last week and this record came up during a
panel discussion with Wendell Brunious, Marcus Belgrave and myself.
Wendell instructed the audience to go home and listen to it that evening
because Louis just sang it so beautifully. He's right. I hope you all
took the time to listen to that, even if you've heard it two thousand
times. Listen again.
The tempo swings lightly, faster
than later versions. Louis again sounds crystal clear, sticking to the
melody closely during the entire first chorus. Butterfield's muted
obbligato is also spot on. After the choir takes the bridge, Armstrong
with more melody and nice vibrato. Then the voices sing the melody while
Louis answers them with Jenkins's special lyrics, now rephrasing the
melody sweetly and finally bursting out with a well-timed bit of scat
after Gabler's "wedding in June" line. Louis sings the bridge this time
then swings out the last eight, first repeated the lyrics on a single
pitch, gradually adding in responsive bits of scat and finally shouting
and scatting a bit high note at the end. Bravo.
frequently talked about the end of the record and how the lead female
singer belted out a high G at the end. Again, to the critics, Jenkins's
choir was a sure-fire sign of commercialism but to Armstrong, that final
G--and really the work of the choir during the entire session--brought
him right back to his days of going to church with his mother Mayann in
New Orleans. "The life of a song"....
once again approved, writing, "The Armstrong-Jenkins combination
projects a standout ballad of some years back with feeling and charm."
By January 14, 1950, Armstrong was featuring it during an appearance on
Bing Crosby's Chesterfield Show as a duet with Papa Bing. It
proved to be such a hit, they reprised it on Bing's December 14th show
later that year. Here's Louis and Bing's take:
But here's a funny thing: after
recording it on September 6, 1949, there are no surviving examples of
the All Stars playing the tune until February 1, 1952, and even that's
not the full band. On that date, Pops played Kitsilano High School in
Vancouver, bringing along All Stars Russ Phillips, Joe Sullivan, Dale
Jones, Cozy Cole and Velma Middleton (no Barney Bigard) and sitting in
with some musicians from the high school. The song might have been
almost 2 1/2 years old but listen to the reaction of the audience; this
is a HIT record:
Finally, the next
night, with Barney back, the All Stars performed their usual routine on
it at the Palomar Supper Club in Vancouver. Alas, this was one of the
weakest editions of the All Stars, specifically the rhythm section.
Pianist Joe Sullivan meanders too much during the introduction, bassist
Dale Jones hits a few clams and drummer Cozy Cole's time isn't quite
steady as a rock. But I do admire trombonist Russ Phillips's lovely
obbligato on both Vancouver versions:
As you might imagine, I have more versions of
"Blueberry Hill" than I can count. Seriously, it's a lot. And as
beautiful as Pops sang it, he rarely changed the routine, so there's no
reason to share a hundred versions. But a few must be shared, plus
videos are always a good idea, so we must press on.
July 14, 1956, the All Stars found themselves at Lewisohn Stadium,
rehearsing for a big gettogether with Leonard Bernstein and the New York
Philharmonic. After rehearsing with the orchestra, Columbia Records
producer George Avakian saw an opening and held an impromptu recording
session in the afternoon, getting multiple takes of "Way Down Yonder in
New Orleans," "Mahogany Hall Stomp," "Blueberry Hill" and "Mack the
Knife." All of this--and more--can be heard on a certain new boxed set
on the Mosaic Records imprint....
Anyway, by this
point, "Blueberry Hill" strangely had dropped from being an every night
staple of the All Stars' act. Avakian had recorded a lot in Europe but
didn't have a version of "Blueberry Hill" he could release (he got one
in Amsterdam but Louis introduced it as his "Decca recording" and that
was forbidden on the Columbia label). So George called for "Blueberry
Hill" and Louis obliged, telling Billy Kyle to "jump it like we used
to." They did and the result, as heard for the first time on the Mosaic
set, is a flawless version of the routine.
wasn't satisfied. Could Louis blow a little on it? He hadn't ever done
so but why not. Takes 2, 3 and 4 survive but were not included on the
Mosaic set because each was a breakdown, with Louis hitting light fluffs
each time as he felt his way around the melody. Nothing egregious, but
very cautious playing. If my memory serves me, he almost made it through
a full chorus on take 4, but I think Trummy Young might have botched
it. Anyway, on the fifth go around--with a small audience
gathered--Louis, with his mute in, played a full chorus in his
inimitable way. Listen for how he phrases it just like his vocal in the
last eight bars, as well as Billy Kyle's excellent, echoing fills:
Fantastic, still my
favorite version of the tune. It was even issued as a single on the
Phillips label, but that would be it: except for a short interlude on a
1965 version during an episode of The Hollywood Palace, Louis
Armstrong would never again blow a note of trumpet on "Blueberry Hill."
Clearly, the song had a purpose in giving Pops's chops a little rest in
the middle of each night of fierce blowing and he didn't want to mess
with it--nor did he need to.
Interestingly, later that
same year of 1956, Armstrong's original 1949 Decca version ended up back
on the pop charts. Why? Because that fall, another New Orleans native,
Fats Domino, recorded this version of the song:
it's a classic and was a huge hit in Domino's career. In fact, today,
more people probably associate "Blueberry Hill" with Domino than
Armstrong (arguable, of course, when you factor in Armstrong's
international popularity; Vladamir Putin,
of all people, showed he was more familiar with Armstrong's take on it
when he covered the Gordon Jenkins arrangement a few years ago!).
Anyway, Decca rushed out a single of Armstrong's original version and it
at least charted, even if it didn't touch Domino's version.
would think that this would have caused Armstrong to make sure
"Blueberry Hill" was an integral part of every show....but it
didn't....maybe. There's a lot of Armstrong shows that survive from
1957, '58 and '59 and in all three of those years, exactly two of those
shows featured the song. Again, this is not scientific; hundreds of
shows do not survive and Trummy Young for one, said he never forgot the
endless routine of "Sleepy Time" followed by "Indiana" followed by
"Blueberry Hill." But he sure didn't play it at Newport from 1955-1958
and the heavily recorded 1959 European tour features zero versions.
then came the heart attack. In June 1959, Pops was stricken ill while
in Spoleto, Italy. He rushed back to work to prove he could still do
it--and he did, as some of the most spectacular blowing of his career
occurred between 1959 and 1961. But he also made concessions: no more
grandstanding on "Tiger Rag," no more three-chrouses of trumpet playing
during the rideout to "When the Saints Go Marchin' In"...and a LOT more
In fact, from 1960-1971, it's almost impossible to find a Louis Armstrong show where he doesn't
perform "Blueberry Hill." They're all great. But again, super similar.
So here's my two favorite versions from the 1960s. The first is from the
1964 Kapp album Hello, Dolly!, a quickie recorded in April of
1964 to cash in on the song that was about to hit number one on the pop
charts. I sometimes get the feeling that this album gets taken for
granted but I really love it. For one thing, Armstrong revisited a lot
of old favorites and after years of performing these things night after
night, really turned in definitive treatments of songs such as "Someday
You'll Be Sorry," "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" and this delightful
remake of "Blueberry Hill." That Russell "Big Chief" Moore on trombone
and Joe Darensbourg on clarinet. The strings and rhythm guitar are also a
nice touch. Check it out:
And I think we're
overdue for a video, huh? If you go to YouTube and search for Louis
Armstrong and "Blueberry Hill," you'll have plenty of great choices,
including a touching one from a BBC TV show done in July 1968, the same
time Louis said that this song was the most popular one he
performed--which is saying a lot considering this was after "Hello,
Dolly!" and during the time "What a Wonderful World" was a hit in
England. But for now, let's go back a few years and watch him tell a
story at a deliciously slow tempo in East Berlin, March 22, 1965:
Louis got sick in the late 1960s and had to take some time off, he came
back in the summer of 1970 just in time to celebrate what he believed
to be his 70th birthday. Versions survive from the Shrine in Los Angeles
and the Newport Jazz Festival but they're rough because though
Armstrong was surrounded with top-flight musicians, they didn't know the
All Stars' routine and it leads to some shaky moments, especially at
the Shrine. Eventually he got his band back and eventually the old
routine came back with them, but Pops's final act wasn't to be a very
We'll end our journey in 1971, shortly before the end, with Louis appearing on the February 10 episode of The David Frost Show.
Bing Crosby was the other main guest. Louis and Papa Bing had a ball
reminiscing before they decided to reprise their old radio show duet on
"Blueberry Hill." Something was different after 20 years, though: Louis
had performed the song roughly 5,000 times but Bing probably hadn't done
it once. Thus, you'll hear Bing really searching for the lyrics at
times, asking Louis to give him some hints along the way. The ending is
hilarious, though, when Bing attempts to end it during Armstrong's
patented scat ending, causing Louis to interrupt him by shouting, "I
ain't over that hill yet, Daddy!"
So quick-witted, so hilarious, so
warm, right to the very end. Alas, after Louis died, "Blueberry Hill"
became one of the poisonous numbers critics used to attack his legacy,
Gunther Schuller specifically citing it when needed an example of
Armstrong "scratching out a living as a good-natured buffoon." But if
you got anything from this post, it's that Louis truly loved both of
these songs because he understood "the life of them." And like
everything else he did, he was 100% real in everything he did.