Saturday, November 15, 2014

80 Years of Louis Armstrong's Paris Recordings: Will You, Won't You Be My Baby

After knocking out turbocharged versions of two longtime showpieces, St. Louis Blues and Super Tiger Rag, it was time for Armstrong to finally record two numbers he had been live for some time: "Will You, Won't You Be My Baby" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street." Most Armstrong fans know that "Sunny Side" had been in the book for a while because a live version that survives from Sweden in 1933 (more on "Sunny Side" in my next entry).

However, the connection between Louis and "Will You, Won't You" has never really been discussed and personally, I wasn't aware of one until I really started digging into Louis's private tapes, now housed at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Armstrong's Paris recordings were issued as a 78-album on the Vox label in 1947 and Louis was quick to purchase it and dub it to tape numerous times. And every time he did so, he'd get very excited and talk about how he used to swing this number with Les Hite's band in California. In fact, on a tape Louis made on Christmas Day in 1950, he spun the recording while staying at his friend Stuff Crouch's home in Los Angeles, reminisced about playing it with Hite and then said he couldn't wait to play it when Hite came over for dinner later that day! Nice to know Louis and Les remained close.

But the point is that Armstrong only played with Hite in Los Angeles between 1930 and 1931. So like everything else recorded in Paris, Armstrong was dipping into his bag of tricks, pulling out some of his favorite arrangements from the early part of the decade. We'll never know how it sounded with Hite's band, but it's possible that it wasn't much different from the Paris recording as once Louis settled into a routine, he was usually content to stick with it.

Then again, Armstrong's chops were in Herculean form on all of his 1930-31 California recordings and he was fighting for his life in Paris, in the midst of some severe bouts of pain. This might account for the fact that there isn't much trumpet on the Paris version but it's still a fine record.

The song "Will You, Won't You Be My Baby" was written by John Nesbitt and recorded by him with the fantastic group McKinney's Cotton Pickers back in 1929. Let's listen to the original version, as the arrangement is nearly identical to the one Armstrong recorded five years later:

Fine, fine recording, right at that perfect, 1920s two-beat feel, just before everything smoothed out and started swinging. Actually, some of that was already happening; hear Louis with Pops Foster backing him up on "Mahogany Hall Stomp" from March 1929. Louis lived for that 4/4 feeling and it wouldn't be long before the rest of the world joined him. But there's a nice groove here and Nesbitt himself also takes a nice solo.

So let's flash forward five years to hear what Pops did with "Will You, Won't You Be My Baby":

The first thing we hear is the tempo is UP, much faster than the McKinney's easy rocking, danceable feel. After a new introduction, the band has the plenty of time to itself, taking a full chorus, then an alto break (like the McKinney recording) leads us into the verse. We're 59 seconds into a 2:51 track and so far, Louis has sat it out.

But here he comes to save the day! Mighty Mouth immediately immediate goes up to the same high Ab Nesbitt began his solo with, but the faster tempo lends a more urgent quality to Armstrong's entrance, especially with drummer Ollie Tines whacking that cymbal on the offbeat behind him. He soon relaxes in the lower register and floats his way back up to that Ab, almost silently glissing away from it. Then he plays a little lick that's been quoted in the jazz pantheon forever; I know it first from the ending of Louis's 1929 recording of "That Rhythm Man" but is it a quote? He then comes off the Ab motive and floats across the bar lines, mostly in the lower register, sounding like he has all the time in the world. Alfred Pratt takes the bridge before Louis swoops in and up to a high concert C, holding it for good measure and closing his outing a little lower.

Peter duConge is up next and watch out for that alto playing! Sounds great, as does pianist Herman Chittison, who takes the bridge. But now, Armstrong is reduced to humming, shouting encouragement and singing the titular phrase, all as if he was at home, listening along to one of his favorite records. He continues as the band reprises the melody in the final chorus. It's fun, but it's not exactly a vocal and another 59 seconds pass before Louis picks up the trumpet again. I have to wonder if this was the standard arrangement or if it was modified to accommodate the chops. Spoiler alert: they came back in full force on the final three tunes recorded that evening, "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "St. Louis Blues" and "Song of the Vipers."

But he's not through yet! When the band gets to the bridge, they drop out and Armstrong enters with a dramatic, mysterious break, works his way upward (oh, that sense of rhythm) and then answers the ensemble, building up to a "broken record" ending, with Armstrong pushing out a string of Ab's before a final high C.

On its own, "Will You, Won't You Be My Baby" is a fun record but definitely not one for the pantheon. In boxing terms, I think Louis needed to "take a round off." Of course, what he does play is demanding, rhythmically free and tremendously effective (some trumpet players might be thinking, "THAT is taking a round off?") but he's really only front and center for about 50 seconds of the record and I'm sure that was a strategy to conserve the chops. It worked. Next up: "On the Sunny Side of the Street"!

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