Wednesday, September 10, 2014

85 Years of Some of These Days

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded September 10, 1929
Track Time
Written by Shelton Brooks
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Homer Hobson, trumpet; Fred Robinson, trombone; Jimmy Strong, clarinet; Bert Curry, Crawford Wethington, alto saxophone; Gene Anderson, piano; Mancy Carr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba; Zutty SIngleton, drums; Carroll Dickerson, conductor
Originally released on OKeh 41298

"Some of These Days" is a song that has never really gone away. Sophie Tucker made her own in 1911--103 years ago!--while Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks backed up Kathy Brier on a version of the song in 2010 that currently has over 110,000 YouTube hits and was included on the Grammy-winning soundtrack to HBO's Boardwalk Empire. And in those ensuing years, it seems that just about anyone with a voice has tackled this song at some point or another.

But today, like all days around here, we're here to examine what Louis Armstrong did with it, first 85 years ago today and then later in his life when he revisited it for Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography.

First, though, there's the song, which was written by Shelton Brooks, the man also responsible for hit tune of that period such as "Darktown Strutters' Ball" and "I Wonder Where My Easy Rider's Gone." Brooks's song is a doozy but I might not be writing this today if it was for "The Last of the Red Hot Mamas" herself, Sophie Tucker.

Born in 1887, Tucker originally hit the stage in 1907, spending her first two years doing a blackface act. Eventually, she lost the burnt cork and joined the Ziegfeld Follies of 1909, but was let go when the revue's other female members refused to share the stage with her. She was picked up by William Morris himself, who guided her career and saw to it that she record "Some of These Days" in 1911. Here's the original:

What a voice. Remember, this is years before blues and jazz were being recorded but she definitely has the feeling; listen to the way she belts the word "far" in "far away." The backing is kind of sad but all you need is Sophie.

The song launched Tucker into stardom but it seems that it took a while for the song itself to catch on. The next version I can find is by Bennie Kruger's Orchestra from October 1922. I hadn't heard it before writing this blog and expected something of a quaint dance band performance....but this is some jazz stuff! Great tempo, strong trumpet, a loose rhythmic feel and the interesting front line of trumpet, trombone and violin. There's even some stop-time saxophone breaks. Check it out:

Remember, that's before Oliver, Armstrong and Bechet had a chance to record. I'm not saying it's a revolutionary piece of music, but it shows that a lot of dance bands were incorporating elements of jazz into their performances.

Of course, most of these bands experienced jazz for the first time through the Original Dixieland Jazz Band explosion of the late-teens. On January 3, 1923--years after conquering New York and London--the ODJB recorded their own version of "Some of These Days" for OKeh. Perhaps the influence went both ways as by this point, the band added a saxophone to kind of hammer home the melody for much of the record, like some of the dance bands of the day. But for those who like their ODJB when they're imitating animals, Eddie Edwards takes a few such breaks, apparently with his "kazoo mute" in place. Also notice the common practice at the time of breaking up the arrangement by playing the verse about a minute and 50 seconds in. Here's the ODJB:

The following year, the popular Coon-Sanders Original Nighthawks Orchestra gave it a peppy treatment for Victor on November 13. I like this arrangement: there's breaks, a modulation and lots of fun stuff going on.

All these versions are fine but it wasn't until November 1926 that "Some of These Days" really exploded. And who put it back on top? Sophie Tucker herself, with these heavily jazzed-up version featuring Ted Lewis and his Band. Notice how the backing has changed but Sophie still sounds like Sophie. If anything, she's even looser than in 1911. Give it a listen:

With that record, Tucker had a bona fide million-seller, one that was the top selling record in the country for at least five weeks. By 1927, other artists such as Ethel Waters and Fletcher Henderson were putting their own fresh spins on the old stand-by. But it remained Tucker's tune, to the point that she reprised it in the 1929 film Honky Tonk.

Honky Tonk was released in theaters on August 31, 1929. Thus, it's really no surprise to see Louis recording his own version less than two weeks later, on September 10. He had his loyal orchestra with him, the group he brought from Chicago earlier that year, fronted by Carroll Dickerson and featuring old friends and associates such as Zutty Singleton, Fred Robinson, Jimmy Strong, Mancy Carr and Pete Briggs (all Hot Five and/or Hot Seven alumni). It was with this group that Louis conquered New York with his nightly performance of "Ain't Misbehavin'" in the revue Connie's Hot Chocolates. Feeling confident and ready to blow, he tore into "Some of These Days"like a man possessed:

Wee! Where to begin? Well, how about that introduction? Yikes. The reeds kind of stick together, mostly in tune, ascending into a clarinet trill...the "West End Blues" cadenza this ain't. The group settles into some light tempo with Zutty on brushes, setting the stage for Louis's magnificent vocal. After spending much of the 1920s singing the blues and scatting on records, Armstrong was getting more and more English words to sung in 1929, having already waxed "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Black and Blue" that year, three performances that changed the direction of American popular singing.

Armstrong immediately makes the song his own, completely changing the phrasing of the titular phrase, going up on "Days" instead of down, and repeating "Babe, babe, babe" for good effect. Then, instead of singing, "You'll be lonely," he changes it to, "Lonely babe." He then repeats the title phrase on one high pitch, repeats "day" in descending fashion and rather than singing actual words, does a bit of neat scatting. Sorry Shelton Brooks!

He continues in this fashion, singing the melody higher than it's written; it's almost as if he's singing a harmony part. And please dig what he does with the word, "You," sliding down it like a trumpet gliss. More good stuff: his new melody on "When you're gone away." Sorry, Shelton, it's an improvement.

Armstrong treats the middle portion with respect (though again, he has fun with the word "you") before the blues enter in the last eight bars, Armstrong really emoting on the word "grieving." It all builds up to possibly my favorite part, Armstrong singing, "You'll miss your little brown skin papa, MAMA, Some of These Days!" That "papa-mama" thing fractures me.

With the vocal gymnastics out of the way, a saxophone break allows Armstrong to get some chops in his horn. His entrance spins like a top before he plays the verse, opening with a string of quarter notes. As  Zutty whips them cymbals, Armstrong heads upstairs, incorporating a snatch of "The Hoochie Coochie Dance" to humorous effect (Zutty catching him on the toms).

He then rests while the saxophone section tepidly plays a written part. Trombonist Robinson swings the middle eight with more of that good Zutty backing but the reeds swarm back in to close the chorus. It's easy to be underwhelmed but the Guy Lombardo fan in Louis loved saxophone sections so I'd rather picture him beaming.

But then. Then. The entrance to end all entrances: a single low trumpet note, placed perfectly. Armstrong spent much of the 1920s dazzling listeners with what he could pack into a short break but by the end of the decade, he was beginning to realize that less was more. He holds it, gingerly repeats it twice, them goes an octave lower to sound it two more times. Notated, it must like beginner's music but it's so damn effective.

Armstrong stays in the basement, mysteriously playing with these low notes when, after a pause, he jumps up with a striking minor phrase reminiscent of some of his work on the previous year's "Tight Like This." But instead of peaking too fast, he step on the brakes and floats through the next eight bars in the middle register, really taking his time. A break features a quick flurry but he's still laying back. Oh, the tension!

He kicks off the second half of his first chorus with a phrase that defines swing. Seriously, listen to it and sing it back; you just learned to swing! Congratulations. Then slowly he begins to rise with a series of twisty phrases that seem to grow organically from each note that precedes it.

He then goes for a high concert Ab but hits a G first, then the Ab. A mistake? It might be but quick-thinking Louis immediately mirrors it by playing an echoing two-note Eb to E phrase a little lower so the whole thing seems logical. And it is!

Stick, even with these high notes, the master of suspense pulls back, finishing his chorus with some supremely melodic playing. You can sing every note of it. The reeds swoop in to say "You ain't heard nothin' yet" and that's when Pops really explodes. He goes sky high to play the melody an octave higher than expected. He'd do it again with more famous results the very next day when he tackled "When You're Smiling" but "Some of These Days" shows he already had the idea in mind.

He still phrases it in his own way, filling in the spaces with some pretty notes and boiling the melody to its essence. At the way point, you wonder if he's really going to go higher. Of course, he does, hitting a high C smack on the nose. On and on he marches toward the end, generating enough heat to be considered a possible cause of global warming. Heading to the last eight bars, he hits the climax, hitting a high D and holding it for four bars. He repeats it a few times then ends with one of his patented endings from the Hot Five days. Perfection.

To do that once in a lifetime would be enough for most mortals but Pops had to do it again immediately. OKeh was experimenting in this period, releasing vocal versions of some Armstrong tunes on its popular series and having him record instrumental versions of the same songs for its race series. I still don't quite understand the rationale behind that thinking--by the next year, all Armstrong records would be on the pop label--but at least it gives us a bunch of alternate performances during Armstrong's 1929-30 series of recordings. So here's the non-vocal "Some of These Days" recorded later that same day:

After the reeds once again open the proceedings, Armstrong's vocal is replaced by a full chorus of Robinson's trombone. It's okay, but an extra helping of Pops would have been nice. He does swoop in for the verse again, playing an even longer series of quarter notes before some slightly different playing leads to the big "Hoochie Coochie" finish. The next chorus is as it was one the first take with the reeds splitting the bill with Robinson.

But then it's time for Pops's two-chorus main event...and what an event. It's no surprise that Armstrong used to set his solos so there's some similar stuff here to the vocal take but also a lot that's different. For instance, his entrance is still on one note but he's in more of a playful mood and doesn't quite dip as low as before. There's also some different stuff before the almost identical break. The swinging phrase that follows it is also spot on.

But now notice: when he goes up for the Ab, there's no G, though he still doesn't exactly hit it square. To me this means the first take probably contained an accident, but Armstrong brilliantly worked into his improvisation. Here, without that to worry about, he just goes off in some new fleet-fingered directions.

The last chorus, though, mirrors the first take closely. The octave up stuff is in place, there's the high C midway through, the long, piercing high D and the Hot Five phrase at the end. Some of the upper register phrasing is different, but overall, the second chorus is a good example of Pops not messing up a perfect, demanding approach to his solo.

Alas, that's all we have of Pops playing this tune until the Autobiography sessions of 1956. Coincidentally, this time the roles were reversed with Louis blowing that immortal, slow version of "When You're Smiling" first, then immediately following it with "Some of These Days." When I first heard this music about 15 years ago, this immediately became a track I listened to repeatedly. Still applies. Here's the remake:

Arranger Sy Oliver wisely trimmed all the dated elements of the original arrangement so now we have the modern sounds of Billy Kyle's piano playing the introduction. Almost 30 years have passed, but Armstrong still sings the melody in the same rephrased, higher fashion. He still repeats "Days, days, days" the first time but overall, it's a more coherent vocal, as Pops learned to respect the lyrics more as he got older. This means he doesn't elongate the word "you" or blow his top on the word "grieving" (no papa-mama stuff either) but he still swings his ass off.

Armstrong approaches the verse almost identically as he did in 1929: first the spiraling break, next the quarter notes and then swinging mightily into "Hoochie Coochie Man" at the end. Trummy Young and Edmond Hall split a chorus, each man sounding in top form.

But what about old man Pops? The man routinely blasted by the jazz press. The man ignored by so many young musicians. Could he still pull it those two choruses off???

What do you think?

The single note break once again ushers him in before he finds a new way to float down low. He shouts a bit but soon returns to relaxing...before that break! He NAILS it like its 1929 again. The second half of the first chorus begins a lot like it did in 1929 but notice he edits out a note or two for maximum effect. He works his way up to that high Ab, making it part of a three note phrase before improvising a bit, adding a three quarter-note phrase a la King Oliver. But does he cede to the reeds before that final chorus?

Nope! He hits a high, hard one, squeezes it and then goes into the octave higher bit, sounding like a kid again. It's all there: the high C in the middle, the held high D, even the tight Hot Five ending. Is it any wonder Louis repeatedly said he was playing better than anytime in his life in 1956?

The only slight drawback is the All Stars rhythm section. As I've complained about in the past, someone in the room thought the Autobiography should have a restrained rhythmic feel so drummer Barrett Deems sticks to closed hi-hat while bassist Squire Gersh thumps away on 1 and 3. This is NOT how those two played nightly with the All Stars but it's a small price to pay to hear Pops blow like that on so many songs he hadn't touched in years, sometimes decades.

"Some of These Days" never did make it into the band's book but he did have one last rendezvous with it in Rome, Italy in April 1962. For this TV broadcast (I assume the visuals are lost), Pops brought along All Stars Trummy Young, Joe Darensbourg, Billy Kyle, Billy Kronk and Danny Barcelona for a version that found Pops sharing vocal duties with the Peters Sisters, Nini Rosso and Nunzio Rotondo. The vocal stuff is fun in a weird way but the highlight is hearing Louis play the melody at the song's usual medium tempo. He sounds great, as usual.

And with that, my look at Pops's history with "Some of These Days" comes to end. They're all great so feel free to listen to them again....and again....and again....and again....

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