With three songs in the can (once again, for those catching up, first was St. Louis Blues, followed by Super Tiger Rag and then Will You, Won't You Be My Baby), it was time to record a two-part extravaganza, Pops's first official studio recording of "On the Sunny Side of the Street."If you permit me a little recycling, I covered Louis's entire history with "On the Sunny Side of the Street" five years ago and opened with a long entry detailing the history of the song and Louis's pre-Paris versions. If you're in the mood for all of that fun stuff, click here.
If you don't have time to go through my past musings, the important takeaway is that Louis had been performing Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fiedls's 1930 composition for quite some time. In fact, that earlier posting has audio of a live recording from Stockholm from October 1933 that is interesting because it features more trumpet playing on it than any other succeeding version. It might be another sign of chops fatigue that Louis blows less on the 1934 Paris studio recording, but what he blows is marvelous and this would be the routine he'd follow for years to come.
While Armstrong was in Europe, on September 10, 1934, Chick Webb recorded a version of the song featuring trumpet ace Taft Jordan. Jordan worshiped Armstrong and frequently played his solos in live settings, trotting out favorites such as "Shine," "When You're Smiling" and"Sunny Side of the Street"....before Louis's own recording! At a brighter tempo than Armstrong, Jordan takes the melody muted up front, impersonates Armstrong for the vocal, then takes an open horn solo, complete with a dramatic, slowed-down ending. It's not note-for-note the same as Armstrong's, but it's clearly a tribute, proof that Jordan must have been quite familiar with Armstrong's playing of this song in the early 30s.
Perhaps Armstrong got wind of Webb's recording while over in Paris and decided it was time to finally record his own version on "Sunny Side." By this point, it clearly was a routine, as every note of it had been worked out on the stage. Because it was a long routine in live performances, Armstrong recorded it in two parts, totaling six minutes and two seconds of playing time. Thanks to the magic of CDs and editing and such innovations, most issues magically splice the two parts together into one seamless track. And that, my friends, is what I'm going to share at this time. Preliminaries aside, here's Louis Armstrong's first official studio recording of "On the Sunny Side of the Street," recorded 80 years ago this month:
The tempo's a shade slower here than it was in Sweden in 1933, though it follows a similar pattern. After the band sets the scene with eight bars of melody, Armstrong enters for the first of two sublime vocal choruses. This is pre- Joe Glaser and pre-Decca, but his vocal quality is already similar to the recordings that were about to take place just a short time later. Armstrong's voice is crystal clear, conveying all the warmth of the tune's message in the first chorus ("I'll be rich as Rocky-fellow"), before he begins his dramatic variations on his second go-around. Armstrong's declamatory "Grab your coat" at the start of his second chorus always elicits a "Yeah, man" from me. He completely rephrases the melody, utilizing only a few basic pitches, but infusing everything with a gripping urgency (listen to the way he sings the word "leave"). The scatting asides are terrific, but it's the show-stopping bridge (literally) that gets me every time, with the most passionate uttering of the word "rover" to ever be found on a record.
The vocal ends at almost exactly the three-minute mark, at which point--in 1934--you'd flip your 78 record over onto the second side to hear the band playing the melody once again. Pianist Herman Chittison, who really shines on these sessions, takes a Hines-esque eight-bar bridge, ending with some whole-tone chords in a very hip way. He also supported Louis beautifully during the vocal. In my first part on this series, I mentioned Armstrong and Chittison having a reunion on John McClellan's Boston TV show in 1960. Audio survives at the Louis Armstrong House Museum and it's a wonderful show, highlighted by Armstrong and Chittison duetting on "Sunny Side." Louis didn't bring his horn that day but it's worth the price of admission to hear him take those two sublime vocal choruses with that special backing by Brother Chittison.
After eight more bars of melody (I think the arrangement was only eight bars long, repeated ad infinitum), Armstrong finally enters for the main event. Unfortunately, in the year since the live Swedish version, Armstrong cut his playing down from two choruses to just a lone chorus. Instead of building up to the declamatory statements that ended the Stockholm performance, Armstrong comes right in with them, alternating the C's and E's in a solo that's clearly already been set in stone.
There is one new addition to the routine that needs to be pointed out since it's heard on quite possibly every single succeeding version in the Armstrong canon: the bridge now has a new opening. It's a completely logical little motive that has always seemed like a natural part of the tune for Armstrong nuts who've heard it dozens of times. But it wasn't until I started working as Archivist for the Armstrong House in 2009, on a road trip to Jack Bradley's house, that my boss Michael Cogswell hipped me to the fact that Armstrong's quoting an old country standard, "Faded Love." I had never heard this before until Cogswell whipped out his Ipod and played me Patsy Cline's recording of this tune. I was blown away and promised to look into it. I've since discovered that the tune was written by Western Swing king Bob Wills, who had a hit with it in 1950. Wait...1950? How was Pops quoting it in 1934? Wills claimed it was an old fiddle tune that he learned from his father John Wills. Okay, but still, how did Pops come across it? Jamming with Jimmie Rodgers one night in California? Who knows? Anyway, listen to "Faded Love" by Wills now and you'll never hear Armstrong's "Sunny Side" the same way again:
After the "Faded Love" quote, Armstrong completely nails his break, a series of searing repeated triplet phrases before a slippery, sliding descent back to solid ground. From there, it's more passionate C's and E's (so much drama, so few pitches) before another extended, dramatic ending. A six-minute masterpiece. No wonder the song became one of Armstrong's most famous!
Feeling good with his chops percolating in peak form, Armstrong decided to tackle "St. Louis Blues," the session's opener, again. To hear the results, check back in a few days!