Saturday, November 22, 2014

80 Years of Louis Armstrong's Paris Recordings: St. Louis Blues (Second Version)

When we last left our hero, Louis Armstrong was having a VERY productive evening in Paris on November 7, 1934, having already recorded five sides: St. Louis BluesSuper Tiger RagWill You, Won't You Be My Baby and the two-part On the Sunny Side of the Street. As already chronicled throughout my series, Louis had been battling chops trouble for about two years by the time of this session. He opened with "St. Louis Blues" and though he started very tentatively, Louis rallied for the final ascent during the exciting rideout choruses.

But now, after "Sunny Side," Louis must have been feeling really good so either he or session A&R man Jacques Canetti requested another stab at "St. Louis Blues." Here's how it turned out:



Wee! The difference between the first and second attempts are almost immediately noticeable. Once again, another trumpet player takes the opening minor strain and then Louis swoops in for TWO choruses instead of the one he took earlier in the day. He's still very relaxed, only hinting at W.C. Handy's original melody, and staying firmly in the middle register of the horn, except for a brief blue note blast in the second go-around. Clearly, he's in the mood to play.

From there, it follows the pattern of the first version for a while: trombonist Lionel Guimaraes takes the minor strain and then Louis sings almost identically as he did on take 1, right down to ending on the fifth. The parade of follows, with Guimaraes and clarinetist Peter duConge pretty much playing their earlier solos, proof that they had probably set their choruses after playing it so often with Louis in live performances (and yet, Louis was the only one to get steady criticism for setting his offerings). I don't think I've mentioned that duConge was a student of the great New Orleans master Lorenzo Tio; it shows in his playing throughout this session.

Pianist Herman Chittison, though, offers up a new chorus, as does tenor saxophonist Alfred Pratt, who gets the same emphatic backing from drummer Ollie Tines that he did the first time around. Louis has been shouting encouragement the entire time, but during Pratt's solo, he yells, "Old Al Brown!" He mentions "Al Brown" on the next tune, "Song of the Vipers," too, and for years that mystified me as no discography ever mentioned a musician named Al Brown present.

But then it hit me. I'm a bit of a boxing historian and I remembered an old bantamweight champion named Panama Al Brown. A quick look at his bio states, "He enjoyed Paris so much that he decided to stay there for the rest of his life. He became a hugely popular boxer in France, and fought on the European continent 40 times between 1929 and 1934....During his time in France, he joined Josephine Baker's La Revue Negre as a tap-dancer. His lover Jean Cocteau helped him." I don't know if this has been reported elsewhere, but I have a pretty strong hunch that Louis probably palled around with Panama Al Brown in Paris and invited him to this session, giving him a few shoutouts along the way (something he did years later on the 1956 "Song of the Islands," with scatted hellos to pals Slim Thompson and Lorenzo Pack).

Immediately after, the rhythm section goes into hyperdrive and Louis is ready to go into his routine. Or is he!? On the first attempt, he opened with a string of quotes: Dvorak's "Going Home" into "The Song is Ended" into "Swanee River." Now? Totally different. He spends an entire chorus pecking and poking (like Panama Al Brown), getting his feet wet. Then he takes Dvorak for a relaxed spin in the second chorus before starting his third helping with a brand new one: "Dixie"! Three brand new choruses. So much for set playing! But after that, he builds up to those high D's in the same manner and just blows the roof off the studio. In all, this "St. Louis Blues" is 23 seconds longer than the first one and all of that new time is devoted to Louis. I'll take it!

Interestingly, Brunswick couldn't straighten it out and released both versions simultaneously with some pressings of "Super Tiger Rag" containing the first version on the flip side and other ones containing the second. When Vox put out the big 78-album reissue in 1947, they opted for the second version (and a spelling of "Saint" rather than "St.") so that's been the more common take, but both are pretty fantastic.

With all of that down, there was only one more to go: "Song of the Vipers."

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