Tuesday, September 30, 2014

65 Years of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday's Only Session

Ask anyone to name a handful of the greatest jazz singers of all time. If that person doesn't include Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, they're wrong.

Armstrong and Holiday were friends. Holiday claimed Armstrong was one of her biggest influences. They worked together in New Orleans. They both recorded for Milt Gabler of Decca in the 1940s and for Norman Granz of Verve in the 1950s. They were both managed by Joe Glaser. They appeared together at Carnegie Hall in 1947 but no audio survives of them singing together there. On one of Louis's private tapes is a broadcast from Club Hangover in 1952 and on it, Louis mentions Billie in the audience and dedicates "West End Blues" and "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" to her. He also told a story of Billie yelling at a drunk who asked Louis who took the trumpet solo on his 1950 recording of "C'est Si Bon" because an "old man" like Louis couldn't have played it!

And yet, with all of that interaction, they only went into the recording studio a single time and only churned out a grand total of two selections. Can you imagine a series of Billie and Louis albums recorded for Granz in the mid-50s, a la the Ella Fitzgerald collaborations?

Alas, it wasn't to be and all we have are the two selections, recorded 65 years ago today. As chronicled a few weeks ago, Louis returned to Decca in September 1949 and immediately fell into step with producer Milt Gabler. First up was a cover of a few recent pop tunes, fronting a biggish band arranged by Sy Oliver. Next, Gordon Jenkins scored one of the biggest hits of Armstrong's career with the coupling of "Blueberry Hill" and "That Lucky Old Sun." And finally, just before leaving for a major European tour, Armstrong teamed up with Holiday on another Sy Oliver-arranted date. Like the Jenkins session, Armstrong plays zero trumpet. Oliver's band, though, was filled with top musicians, including future All Stars Johnny Minch and Billy Kyle (the latter making his debut with Louis), trumpeter Bernie Privin, guitarist Everett Barksdale, bassist Joe Benjamin and Jimmy Crawford.

Gabler had been giving Holiday the star treatment since she came aboard in October 1944 and immediately scored a big hit with the strings-laden "Lover Man." Holiday, however, was slowly slipping into the personal hell that would take her life just ten years later. This was one of her last Decca sessions before turning to Granz's stable. 

Someone at Decca must have had a vested interest in the musical Sugar Hill because both Armstrong-and-Holiday songs came from the score, composed by James P. Johnson and Flournoy Miller. Up first was "You Can't Lose a Broken Heart."
It might not be one for the time capsule, but it's still a fun meeting between giants. On a personal note, this song means a lot to me because it was on a compilation, Highlights from His Decca Years (with great notes by my future friend, Loren Schoenberg), that was one of my earliest Armstrong purchases. This was my first run-in with Holiday and she knocked me out (I think I might have every studio and live recording she ever did....Pops is the gateway!). 

She's up first on this one, sounding in good voice, though maybe a little bored (nice backing from Billy Kyle). One thing that's fun is to listen to her phrasing; so much Louis in there (listen to the way she sings "you" in "you'll regret" and how she sings "you'll upset your apple cart on a single pitch). She comes alive towards the end, but Louis almost steamrolls her with one of his greatest entrances: "Look out, don't lose your head," all sung on a string of insistent quarter notes (Kyle senses what's going on and joins him briefly). Louis sings it charmingly with a great obbligato by Priven, but the next thing you know, Armstrong takes a scat break, a strong-sounding Holiday chimes in to repeat the last line....and it's over! The first Louis Armstrong-Billie Holiday duet recording features their voices intertwining for exactly four bars. Again, students of singing could probably write a thesis on the similarities and differences in their phrasing on this number, but I don't think it's too much to wish for a little more interaction.

Fortunately, the flip side is nothing but interaction....and for a brief second, a little too much interaction, as we'll explain in a minute. Here's "My Sweet Hunk o' Trash":
A bluesy, muted Privin takes the introduction before Holiday starts singing about everything that's wrong with Louis. That's pretty much the pattern for much of the record, Holiday singing the blues about Armstrong's worthlessness and Pops responding with a series of ad-libbed responses, my favorite being, "What do you want me to do in my idle moments?"

Midway through, Armstrong asks to get a few words in and does so with some passionate blues singing. I don't think "comic singer" is the top accolade that people associate with Lady Day but she's good here, especially her dry line, "I work my fingers down to the elbows." But this is Armstrong's arena and he sounds completely comfortable from start to finish. These days, Tony Bennett's album of duets with Lady Gaga is making headlines (justifiably so; I enjoyed it very much, personally), but it made me think that Louis was really the guy who perfected this. Just think of his duets with Hoagy, Ella, Louis Jordan, Frank Sinatra, Velma, Bing, on and on and on...he elevated every partner he ever shared the stage with (even Gary Crosby).

(Note: breaking news has Barry Manilow releasing a new album next month in which he sings a bunch of duets entirely with dead people, including Louis on "What a Wonderful World." Hoo boy. Louis might have met his match here....stay dead, Pops, stay dead!)

On and on they go, the two legends having a lot of fun with each other. Holiday even delivers a supremely girlish reading of the title at one point, audibly breaking Pops up with belly laughter. All is going well...until Holiday sings, "It makes me mad to wait" and Louis responds with "How come, baby?" Or is it "Fuck 'em, baby?"

The record was issued and apparently the world went mad. Walter Winchell, one of Louis's staunchest supporters, complained about it. The Downbea review read, "On 'Trash,' Louis feels constrained to dish out the same expletive Patricia Norman used some years ago on Eddy Duchin's 'Old Man Mose,' when she worked it into the 'buecket' line. Here it is not only in bad taste, it doesn't even make much sense in the lyric line. And since when does Louis have to use obscenity to sell records?"

The "fuck 'em" controversy was big enough for Gabler to record some poor schmo singing a crystal clear "How" and inserting it into a reprint of the original single. You can hear the edited version here; it makes me laugh every time!

But now, the eternal debate. When I was a student at Rutgers, Dan Morgenstern came in to talk about Louis in one of Lewis Porter's Jazz Historiography courses. Lewis played this for Dan and Dan grew annoyed, saying there's no way Louis would have cursed on a record date, that he was too professional to do so and that it doesn't even make sense. It's clearly supposed to be "How come" because Holiday answers with a "Because" statement. What's good enough for Dan was good enough for me....

...until I met David Ostwald, another of Dan's disciples, but one who likes to trumpet Louis's subversive side. And David told me that trying to sneak in "Fuck 'em" was in line with Louis's mischievous side. I was wary of this theory for years....

And then I heard one of Louis's private tapes, where he bragged about how he sang the title of the 1953 song, "I Can't Afford to Miss this Dream," and how he accented the second word so it turned into the daddy of all curse words without the censors picking up on it.

And then I put together the Mosaic set and clearly heard Louis singing, "Fucker up" instead of "Pucker up" live onstage at the Newport Jazz Festival.

And then I heard some Joe Muranyi audio diaries from the 1960s where he talked about Louis smiling and shouting apparent gibberish onstage, but secretly saying, "Kiss my ass," the entire time.

So after years of coming into contact with that side of Armstrong's persona, I do think it's entirely possible he phrased the "Ho'cum, baby" as he did to maybe make Billie laugh and get one past the powers that be. He did...but he couldn't get it past Walter Winchell.

What do you, loyal readers, think?

Anyway, that's all for the lone Louis Armstrong-Bilie Holiday duet recording, not the greatest moment in either of their careers, but still worth celebrating 65 years later. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Perfection

Over at The New Yorker this week, Richard Brody shared his list of Perfect Jazz Recordings. It's a a good list, but like all lists, no one's going to agree with all of it. There's plenty to agree with but of course, plenty that also, for the sake of a tamer phase, inspires discussion.

For one thing, Brody's 66 choices are all pre-1973...but only a small amount are from the pre-bop era. He admits this up front: "Idiom: bebop and after. I've noticed a preponderance of performances from the mid-forties onward." Well, duh. The majority of jazz fans still believe that the music didn't start getting good until Charlie Parker came on the scene (most young jazz musicians feel the same way). I've vented about this for years so it's not worth going to town on it again. I did unload on this on my Facebook page recently and it's worth repeating that when Lester Young died in 1959, Ralph J. Gleason wrote, "[Young] was one of the three great instrumental soloists in jazz who changed the course of this music--the other two, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker." Sounds right to me. Yet, of those three, Bird is the only one who is still worshipped and treated as The Creator. Parker was a genius and I love him but he spent his formative years studying Armstrong ("West End Blues" cadenza) and Young ("Shoe Shine Boy") solos until he could incorporate them into his playing. But today, countless musicians learn their Omnibook solos in every key and can't talk about Pops or Pres to save their lives. Brody's list just follows the trend.

He does have a possible explanation: "I think it's because of the liberated role of the drum in bebop and post-bop eras." Right. Sid Catlett, Jo Jones, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton, Baby Dodds, Paul Barbarin, Zutty Singleton, Chick Webb, Alvin Burroughs and other greats were simply human metronomes, just waiting for Max Roach to teach them to drop a bomb and liberate themselves. 

But again, with these picked nits aside, I can't argue with Brody's choices as there's lots of great music on that list. But what of Louis Armstrong, you say? Yeah, he's there. One selection. "Potato Head Blues." Of course, a common choice. But that's it. John Kirby's on there twice (go Billy Kyle!) but Pops is one and done.

However, it's not like everyone else got lots and lots of selections; Brody does try to be balanced so other, later greats like Parker, Coltrane and Davis only have two apiece (tied with John Kirby!). But it did get me thinking. If someone asked me to create a list of "perfect" jazz recordings, first, there'd be a lot of names missing here--Bobby Hackett, Roy Eldridge, Fats Waller, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Jack Teagarden, Erroll Garner, etc. But what about Louis? I could list 66 perfect Louis Armstrong recordings and not even touch the surface.

Oh, wait a minute....blog idea!

So here goes. No one asked me and this is admittedly ridiculous, but here are the first 66 "perfect" Louis Armstrong recordings that come to mind. No particular order, I'm just going to think and type. I'm not even going to look at the discography or my iTunes to give me food for thought. Obviously, the ones I think of first will be towards the top of my personal list, but I'm sure I'll forget something. And when I'm done, feel free to comment with some of your personal Pops favorites that didn't make my list. Let's go:

1. Stardust
2. St. Louis Blues (from Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy)
3. When You're Smiling (from Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography)
4. Blue Turning Grey Over You (from Satch Plays Fats)
5. On the Sunny Side of the Street (from Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography)
6. King of the Zulus (from Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography)
7. Beau Koo Jack
8. Tight Like This
9. Struttin' with Some Barbecue (1938 Decca version)
10. Muskrat Ramble (from Satchmo at Symphony Hall)
11. Black and Blue (live in Berlin, 1965)
12. Lazy River (1931 original)
13. I Never Knew
14. When It's Sleepy Time Down South (Decca instrumental)
15. Hotter Than That
16. I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues
17. Mahogany Hall Stomp (1929 original)
18. Butter and Egg Man (1926 original)
19. Sweethearts on Parade (1930 original)
20. Dinah (1933 Copenhagen film)
21. The Nearness of You (with Ella)
22. Dream a Little Dream of Me (with Ella)
23. Stompin' at the Savoy (with Ella)
24. Rockin' Chair (1947 Town Hall)
25. Because of You
26. Pennies from Heaven (1947 Town Hall)
27. Ain't Misbehavin' (1929 original)
28. I Can't Give You Anything But Love (1929 original)
29. West End Blues (1928 original)
30. Hello, Dolly! (yeah, I went there!)
31. That's For Me
32. On a Coconut Island
33. Avalon (with Dukes of Dixieland)
34. Azalea
35. Summer Song
36. Sweet Lorraine
37. Keepin' Out of Mischief Now (from Satch Plays Fats)
38. The Faithful Hussar (from Ambassador Satch)
39. I Get Ideas
40. La Vie En Rose
41. Song of the Vipers
42. Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen (from I've Got the World on a String)
43. Weather Bird
44. Short But Sweet
45. A Kiss to Build a Dream On
46. Ev'ntide
47. Swing That Music (1936 original)
48. I'm a Ding Dong Daddy
49. Cake Walking Babies from Home (with Clarence Williams' Blue Five)
50. There's No You
51. Chantes-Lez Bas (Sing 'Em Low)
52. Jack Armstrong Blues
53. Someday You'll Be Sorry (1953 version with The Commanders)
54. When You Wish Upon a Star
55. Chinatown, My Chinatown
56. Bess, Oh Where's My Bess
57. Wolverine Blues (1940 Decca)
58. That's My Home (1932 original)
59. Laughin' Louie
60. Moon River
61. I Get a Kick Out of You
62. Muggles
63. I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good
64. You Rascal You (with Louis Jordan)
65. I Ain't Got Nobody (from Satchmo Plays King Oliver)
66. Potato Head Blues

Whew, there it is! Oh damn, what about "St. James Infirmary"? "I've Got the World on a String"? "Cornet Chop Suey"? "What a Wonderful World"? Impossible to even keep it to 100 but I'll quit here....and think I'll have a little Louis listening session of the above!

So what did I miss? Tell me in the comments section below!

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....

Saturday, September 6, 2014

65 Years of That Lucky Old Sun and Blueberry Hill

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.

Yet 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.

So 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 1949.

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.

But 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."

The 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.

So 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."

For 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 obbligatos.)

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:

Laine 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.

At 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 impressive range.

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.

Notice 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.

Louis 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.

Finally, we 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.

Then 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 Anthem."

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:


"Blueberry 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:
 
But 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."

With 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.

Armstrong 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"....

Billboard 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.

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.

But George 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:


Yep, 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.

One 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.

And 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 "Blueberry Hill."

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:

After 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 long one.

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.