Sunday, March 29, 2015

Rappin' Louie: 75 Years of "You've Got Me, Voodoo'd" and "Hep Cats' Ball"

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded March 14, 1940
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Bernard Flood, Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, trumpets; Wilbur De Paris, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Rupert Cole, alto saxophone, clarinet; Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Joe Garland, Bingie Madison tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Decca 3052
Currently available on CD: It’s available on the Mosaic Records box of Louis's 1935-1946 Decca recordings. 

When I got back from Bristol, I knew I wanted to celebrate Louis Armstrong's very busy day on March 14, 1940, when he recorded five tunes in one session: "Harlem Stomp," "You've Got Me Voodoo'd," "Hep Cat's Ball," "Wolverine Blues" and "Lazy 'Sippi Steamer." But the combination of jet lag, family leisure time, getting back to work and the need to write a wrap-post about my Bristol experiences made the March 14 anniversary pass by without a single word. 

But hey, it's never too late, right? It's still March, so even if I'm a few weeks behind, I still want to celebrate the 75th anniversary of at least two of the five songs recorded that day, "You've Got Me Voodoo'd" and "Hep Cats' Ball."

If you would have told me 15 years ago that "You've Got Me Voodoo'd" would be one of my favorite Armstrong numbers and one that I consistently pull out during student presentations, I would have thought you were nuts. When I first got into Armstrong, it was through the All Stars period and then I went back to the 1923-1934 era. When I finally started buying the old Chronological Classics discs covering the Decca years back in the late 90s, I enjoyed the music but it wasn't my favorite period of Pops. I'm sure there was some pre-loaded bias in my brain against this material because I hadn't read too many positive reviews of this era. Also, it was hard to find the discs since the Decca stuff never got first-class reissue treatment in the U.S. until Mosaic rolled around in 2009.

Don't get me wrong; there was plenty that I found absolutely lovely. But as the discs rolled on and the number of "novelties" started growing in the early 40s, I'd listen once or twice but didn't find much meat to keep going back to. When I went to Rutgers to get a Master's in Jazz History and Research, the entire class had to purchase these 40-CD German boxed sets full of public domain material. There was no rhyme or reason to the selections, but one of the Louis CDs was made up of just 1940-41 Deccas. The whole class had to listen and discuss and I spoke up and looking at a room of musicians and historians who hadn't really checked out Pops before, and pleaded, "Don't make this the only Louis Armstrong disc you listen to! He did so much better work!"And then I played "Chinatown" and some 1950s Columbia stuff to demonstrate.

But somewhere along the way, I learned to listen at a deeper level and all of a sudden, those Deccas started to pop. I loved Louis's fun vocals and the trumpet was consistently spectacular. I was already changing my tune when I started this blog in 2007. The late Gosta Hagglof befriended me and began sending me his Ambassador series of CDs (now available online through the Louis Armstrong House Museum). He would tell me about his favorites, such as "Cain and Abel" and other lesser-known "novelties." I began listening deeper to write about some of them and all of sudden, man, this was pretty great! And just like that, cue the good folks at Mosaic Records with their complete boxed set and that was that, the Decca period was IT for me, and probably the music I listen to most often at the Armstrong Archives today.

I think the turning point in my feelings on this period actually goes back to "You've Got Me Voodoo'd." I've never seen it on a "greatest hits" compilation or discussed as a "desert island disc." But the first time I noticed it is through Gary Giddins, who referred to it as a "roots of rap" number both in his book Satchmo and a later column that made it into the book Weather Bird. The Giddins mentions made me pay attention to the vocal, which, I always enjoyed. But what about the rest? Really, what else is there? The knock on the Decca recordings was woeful band + boring arrangements + weak soloists + novelty/commercial material = forgettable Louis Armstrong.

Enter John Wriggle. John joined the Rutgers Jazz History and Research program midway through my first year and immediately stood out. He had fully explored jazz history--especially the early stuff. He was not easily impressed, yet his droll wit was laugh-out-loud hilarious. And he was introduced to the class as "The World's Authority on Chappie Willet."


If you don't know Chappie Willet, well, don't feel bad, the majority of Americans don't--but that hasn't stopped John from trying. Instead of allowing me to explain who Chappie is, I'll let John do it. This is the link to a PDF of John's fabulous 2009 Annual Review of Jazz Studies piece, "Chappie Willet: Swing Era Arranger." If you click that link, it starts on page 101 and runs through 170; the 237 (!) endnotes run from 170-188. It'll perfectly whet the appetite for John's upcoming book, Blue Rhythm Fantasy: Big Band Jazz Arranging in the Swing Era (University of Illinois Press). (And if you'd like some video to accompany your reading, John has expertly transcribed many of Chappie's charts and hosted big band concerts devoted to performing them live. The great Michael Steinman captured one such 2009 evening here and here.)

Anyway, back at Rutgers, John did a Chappie Willet presentation and mentioned that he wrote many arrangements for Louis's big band: "Jubilee," "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "You've Got Me Voodoo'd" and more. John discussed some of Chappie's trademarks--minor interludes, marching trombones, whole tone passages--and illustrated them with audio. And when he played "You've Got Me Voodoo'd," it was like the first time I had ever heard it. All of a sudden, I was appreciating Willet's excellent craftsmanship, but also the dynamite swing of the band, Pops's proto-rapping vocal and the dramatic trumpet solo that brings it to a close. This is some record! 

Before rolling up my sleeves and tackling the audio, a couple of quick notes. First, "You've Got Me Voodoo'd" is credited to Louis Armstrong, Luis Russell and Cornelius C. Lawrence. We know Louis and of course, Luis Russell ran the band, but Giddins discovered that Lawrence was "an obscure playwright, actor, and lyricist who also wrote songs with the intriguing titles, 'Curfew Time in Harlem' and 'Ink Spink Spidely Spoo.'" Alas, Louis never spoke about this song or how this motley crew got together, so we don't know how much Louis actually contributed (but I can see him tossing in a few rhymes).

But "You've Got Me Voodoo'd" was the second song recorded that day. The first one, "Hep Cats' Ball," is also worth examining as a roots of hip hop example. "Hepcat" language was riding high in March 1940. Cab Calloway was one of the most popular entertainers on the planet, especially with songs like "The Jumpin' Jive," which he recorded in July 1939. That same year, Calloway published his famed Hepster's Dictionary, full of "jive" terminology. Well, Louis Armstrong was one of the kings of introducing slang into the jazz world: "cats," "swing," "every tub," "chops," "Gate," on and on and on. I think one of the goals of the March 14, 1940 Decca session was to brand Louis as the OG hepcat. With that in mind, let's listen to the session opener, "Hep Cats' Ball":

"Hep Cats' Ball" features Louis doing his best Cab impression, talk-singing another roots of rap vocal that drips with slang. But who are the composers? Louis Armstrong and Jack Palmer. Jazz fans might know Palmer as the co-composer (with Spencer Williams) of jam session favorites "Everybody Loves My Baby" and "I've Found a New Baby." But at the time of this session, he was composing jive-heavy songs with none other than Cab Calloway, including the aforementioned "Jumpin' Jive" and 1940's "Boog It" (covered by Louis and the Mills Brothers after the March 14 session). So Pops was going straight to Calloway's guy to help incorporate some more "jive" into his music, though again, Armstrong wasn't the kind of bandleader to put his name on every composition so he must have done something to contribute. [Note: The Mosaic set lists the great Willard Robison as another co-composer but I've never seen that anywhere else and it's not listed on the original 78 label so I'm sticking with Armstrong and Palmer.] Here's how it came out:

[Prologue, with the band responding instrumentally to Louis's questions]
Are you ready? Jump steady!
Now, I've got the stuff on the mellow side,
Let me be your worthy guide.
Are you ready? Then jump steady!

Now the Hep Cats' Ball is a jive affair,
Yep, yep, yep, you better be there.
So lace your boots and dig your fill,
Beat up your chops from 10 until.

The Hep Cats' Ball is a foxy hop.
Yep, yep, yep, it just won't stop.
You'll get hep when the cats come on.
That'll git it when it's almost gone.

If you don't collar all this jive,
You just a square on the uphep side.
So send yourself and spread some joy,
And if you can't make it, just send a boy.

Now the Hep Cats' Ball is a solid mess [mezz?]
Yep, yep, yep, it certainly 'tis.
So take it, Gate, come right on.
That'll git it when it's really gone.
(Yeah, man!)

It really does feel like a collaboration with Palmer mixing Calloway-associated phrase like "lace your boots" with pure Pops-isms such as "Beat up your chops." But Giddins's original point holds up: the way Armstrong talk-sings his vocal definitely points the way to hip hop and even a lot of today's pop music that features more talking than singing (looking at you, Ke$ha).  Combining the talking vocal with the relentless barrage of slang? Hey! Here comes Rappin' Louie!

Besides the vocal, "Hep Cat's Ball" features an excellent middle tempo in a Jimmie Lunceford groove, propelled by Sid Catlett's juicy cymbals. The chord changes aren't much, mostly just a descending line a la Lunceford's "For Dancer's Only." Wriggle doesn't think Willet did the arrangement and sure enough, there's none of his trademarks in it, but there is a neat little conversation between the repeating reeds and the mellow trombones that serves as an interlude between the vocal and the trumpet ending.

When Louis grabs his horn, he's in relaxed mode. Armstrong motto in life was to "play the melody" (and as discussed recently, Decca's mantra was "Where's the melody?") but without much of a melody to bite into, Louis goes for himself from the start. A short, almost hidden gliss launches him into a string of quarter notes, which Louis could play like no other. The arrangement smartly leaves room for Louis to take breaks, each one steeped in blue notes. Armstrong's improvisation is extremely singable (like everything else he ever played). 

During the bridge, the roles reverse and the band takes the lead with Armstrong answering their shouts with some piercing high Ab's of his own. His phrasing is masterful, too. The Ab's come in all shapes and sizes: he holds some, plays others in groups of three, there's another quarter-note episode. It's one of my favorite moments of the record.

The band gets a break coming out of the bridge and jumps into the final A section, giving Pops a short rest after that heroic bridge (Catlett's cymbals!). Louis comes back swinging, still in conversation with the band, but now playing a short row of repeated Bb's, warming up for the big ending. Louis is back on that Ab kick, repeating it over and over like a diver on a springboard before he launches himself skyward for that final high concert Eb (F on the trumpet, very near the top of his range). Yeah man, indeed.

And NOW, after the world's longest prologue, let's listen to "You've Got Me Voodoo'd":

Now THAT is a Chappie Willet arrangement. The whole exotic minor-keyed opening, complete with Catlett's jungle drums, is a Willet specialty. It doesn't have much to do with the tune, except for the minor-key thing, but it sure is an interesting way to start a record. But 30 seconds in, Pops steps up to the mike and starts dropping the rhymes:

Just like some magic potion,
You fill me with emotion
You control my very soul, 
You've Got Me Voodoo'd.
You knew the goddess Venus
Would start this love between us.
You inspired me with desire,
You've Got Me Voodoo'd.
You knew you had the power
And even picked the hour,
When the full moon was up above
I was hypnotized when I looked into your eyes,
My heart was filled with love.
Just like the siren Circe,
You've got me at your mercy,
Always to be brave and bold,
Mama, You've Got Me Voodoo'd. 

I love that vocal--and so have the classes I've played it for in the past few months. (More on that in a bit.) Louis splits, the band romps and Rupert Cole steps forward with a hot 16 bars before the band takes over for the final 8 of the chorus.

But just when you expect Pops to swoop in, Chappie intercepts with another prototypical interlude: minor-key, jungle drums, marching trombones, whole-note's Willet 101! (A course only John Wriggle is certified to teach.) It's a great little spot, reprising the mysterious opening and setting up some tension for when Louis finally enters.

And when he does, watch out! Louis always thrived in minor keys and "You've Got Me Voodoo'd"
is no exception. If you weren't able to pick out the melody during the mostly spoken "vocal," Louis plays it on the horn, a catchy riff that reminds me a bit of "It Ain't Right" (recorded by Stuff Smith a few years earlier). But with only a chorus to preach, listen to how Louis unfurls his solo. The first eight bars is mostly written melody, getting a little looser towards the end. In the next 8, he starts with the melody, but now starts turning it inside and out, gets in a little chromatic phrase and ends with a perfectly logical--and singable--swinging little phrase.

For the bridge, he goes way up to a concert Bb and skips down in half-steps before unraveling one of his pretty arpeggios. The second half of the bridge finds Louis pointing the way to the future with a few eight-note runs, in total command of his horn. For the final "A" section, he again phrases the main melody riff yet another different way before making his way towards the finish line, Catlett breaking out his toms toms one more time. But Chappie has another neat touch in store as the band holds a minor chord and Cantor Armstrong responds with some passionate playing before an operatic ending, holding the G before ending on a crystalline high C. Swing, Hip Hop, Blues, Jewish, Opera - that's Louis Armstrong!

But to bring everything full circle, I've found myself talking about Pops in many different classrooms since February, split between high school and college, mostly music majors, but many with no musical inclination at all. So I have to go in there and tell them why Louis Armstrong is important. It's not hard and they usually get it pretty quickly. But it's 2015 and playing the "Potato Head Blues" solo and saying, "How about THAT?" doesn't cut it anymore. I find myself playing lots of other 1920s music, then dropping Louis in the middle of it to see how he stood out.

But lately, the biggest reaction comes when I go down the hip hop road. I start by asking what are some of the themes of today's hip hop? Here come the answers: sex, violence, drugs, love, etc. No problem: I play them a junk of the original "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You" ("I'll be standing on the corner high, when they bring your body by" would be most appropriate in 2015.) So that covers the thematic content. And then I'll play them the talk-sung vocal on "You've Got Me Voodoo'd" to show them Armstrong, the master of rhymes. They get it. But I tell them that I know that this is old-sounding music and it might be difficult to hear what he's doing rhythmically. So I bring out the big guns, courtesy of YouTube. For the film, New Orleans, Louis recorded "Where the Blues Were Born in New Orleans." It's a fun "introduce-the-band" number but the lyric is once again, half-spoken, half-sung and just filled with short choppy rhymes. Here's the New Orleans clip:

And to make the point with a sledgehammer, YouTube user "carlfoshizi"took "Where the Blues Were Born in New Orleans" and put the vocal over a simple hip hop beat. Simply titled, "Louis Armstrong Rapping," this has almost 50,000 views since the original 2007 upload and it breaks me up every time:

And THAT is when it all comes together and they hear it: the themes, the rhymes, the spoken vocals, the rhythm--Louis Armstrong was one of the first rappers, too!

Some who hate today's hip hop might shake their head at such a sentiment but it's all in good fun and just another example of how you can trace every strand of 20th and 21st Century popular music back to Louis Armstrong in some way, shape or form.


[I just dropped the mike....]

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