Tuesday, April 7, 2015

80 Years of "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me"


Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded April 5, 1930
Track Time 3:08
Written by Jimmy McHugh and Clarence Gaskill
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ed Anderson, trumpet; Henry Hicks, trombone; Bobby Holmes, clarinet, alto saxophone; Theodore McCord, alto saxophone; Castor McCord, tenor saxophone; Joe Turner, piano; Bernard Addison, guitar; Lavert Hutchinson, tuba; Willie Lynch, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41415
Currently available on CD: It’s on the JSP two-disc set The Big Band Sides, 1930-1932
Available on Itunes? Yes

This is one of my long-time favorite Louis Armstrong records and I'm surprised it has taken me this long to get around to it. I originally wanted to publish this on April 5, the actual 80th anniversary of Louis's recording of "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me" but I had to wait until the 7th, which seems appropriate as this is Billie Holiday's centennial birthday and this is one of her best-loved songs.

Billie wasn't alone. It seems like everyone has recorded this number at some time: a simple YouTube search of the title immediately calls up versions by Anita O'Day, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Dean Martin, Louis Prima, Artie Shaw, Bing Crosby, Django Reinhardt, Sidney Bechet...you name it, they've recorded it. (Anyone remember its 1950s revival in the fantastic Humphrey Bogart film, The Caine Mutiny? That's actually where I first heard it, being an old movie buff before a jazz fanatic.) But like everything else, it was Pops who put it on the jazz map.

He didn't put it on the overall map, though. "I Can't Believe That You're in Love With Me" (gee, that's a damn long title to keep typing) was written by the great Jimmy McHugh and Clarence Gaskill and published in 1926. McHugh was then writing songs for the Cotton Club and hadn't been teamed with Dorothy Fields yet. For Louis nuts, the name Clarence Gaskill might sound familiar as he's the one who wrote "Laughin' Louie" in 1933. Recordings started trickling out in 1927, with Roger Wolfe Kahn having the hit with his uptempo dance band arrangement:

How about that? I love 1920s dance band music but I have to admit the effect is a little jarring, especially considering how many artists have treated it as a ballad. Even the ones who took it up, like Jimmy Rushing, always swung like mad but this is in the standard two-beat feel of the day. But it's a peppy recording with a lot going on; they don't play the verse until 1:37 in. And how about that lead trumpet taking the melody? Oh, pre-Armstrong world, you were really something else. One thing, though, is I've always found this to be an absolutely lovely melody but at this tempo with the clipped phrasing of the opening trumpeter and later, the violins, it really loses its beauty. 

But Kahn wasn't alone in his approach. This was obviously the way the song was being performed in the period, as can be heard again in this 1927 record by Jack Payne, complete with pre-Armstrong vocal where the lyrics are sung just as written without as much as a single beat out of place:

Another peppy outing, with a little Bixian trumpet to boot. Not enough for you? Here's another one by the Devonshire Restaurant Dance Band (listen to the intro and remember it!):

As far as I can tell, there weren't any "jazz" versions until Louis waxed it for posterity 80 years ago this week. Louis recorded it during his early days as a single act. After splitting with Carroll Dickerson in 1929, Armstrong began traveling the country, fronting other orchestras for a few years before he solidified one under his own name back in Chicago in 1931. In the spring of 1930, he was fronting drummer Willie Lynch's Coconut Grove Orchestra, which later morphed into the Mills Blue Rhythm Band. There's some good names in the band, including pianist Joe Turner and guitarist Bernard Addison.

The one thing we don't know is why Louis was recording a song that was already four years old at the time of this session. It might have been the McHugh connection; he had a big hit with "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" in 1929 and would record McHugh's "Exactly Like You" one month later with the same band. Armstrong also wasn't averse to performing and recording older numbers; the April and May sessions with the Coconut Grove band also found Louis digging back to "Dear Old Southland" (recorded the same day as "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me"), "Dinah" (which I hope to write about next month) and a real good old good one, "Tiger Rag." Armstrong also recorded "Indian Cradle Song" which we know he was performing with Dickerson in 1929. So it's possible that he had been playing this for a couple of years and finally got the opportunity to record it. Anyway, here's how it came out:
First off, did you hear that introduction? It's identical to the one we heard from the Devonshire Restaurant Dance Band, so this is clearly a doctored stock arrangement Louis is playing. Unlike the Devonshire band, Louis's arrangement leaves holes for him to state his case, which he does, relaxed and swinging from the start. Ah, swing! There it is. Louis finally turns down the tempo and in the introduction alone, it's an entirely different feel from the 1927 recordings. 

After the intro, Castor McCord takes the melody on the tenor. Interesting that Louis doesn't grab it for himself but I like McCord's outing. He's clearly been listening to Louis and rephrases the melody so that, for the first time, we can really appreciate the catchiness of the melody (there's a couple of nice breaks in there, too). I also love the almost ragtag rhythmic feel of the band. The horns swing out with some simple riffs, guitarist Addison offers some counterpoint, Lavert Hutchinson's tuba keeps it grounded and drummer Lynch really works the cymbals, offering some early "splang-a-lang" (as the kids call it).

Finally, at the bridge, Louis reminds us that it's his record, with another relaxed, loose outing; God, his time feel is just something to behold. He lets McCord take the final 8 but he's off-mike so it kind of sounds like the band just shuffling along aimlessly for a few seconds.

But then we get the vocal. And what a vocal! I've praised the melody over and over and kidded the 1927 singers for how they stuck to it. But here Armstrong uncorks something entirely different than what's written and it works like a charm. The whole appeal of the song is the whole descending motif:

D-C-A, D-C-Ab, D-C-G, etc.

Armstrong eschews it and builds his vocal around the D instead of the descending half-notes, repeating different D-C-D combinations until it sounds like a new song. In the second eight, he changes it up even more: listen to how the equal parts insistent and hesitant way he sings "You're telling everyone I know." For the bridge, Armstrong's voice goes way up for the little "Oh baby" and way back down when he scats his own obligato after the line "far above me." And listen to the way he gets out of the bridge, repeating "love me" to fit the chords changing underneath him. 

For the third and final A section, Armstrong approaches it a third and final way, this time now focused on the E higher than the D he was fixated on earlier. And the same thing when he sings that long-ass title again, coming up with another brand new way to phrase it, ending with a string of quarter note E's before finally landing on the tonic C. That is some  vocal (And props to Addison and Turner for their nonstop, but non-intrusive playing behind him throughout.)

Trombonist Henry Hicks now takes over, mostly sticking to the melody but with a jubilant tone and feel that carries over the joy of Armstrong's vocal. (And again, Willie Lynch is whipping those cymbals!) It's now showtime and Armstrong makes a dramatic entrance with a break that goes up chromatically from a high E. Instead of the bridge, Armstrong goes back to the beginning so he can improvise over a full 32-bar chorus. It's one of his most singable solos; seriously, listen to it a few times and sing along with the recording and you'll be shocked at how much you're swinging (those quarter notes, man!).

The bridge is another highlight as the rhythm shifts behind him, the reeds accenting two-and-four. Armstrong responds by playing with the rhythm, taking chances with his phrasing in accenting just about beat other than two-and-four, creating tension and loosening up the equilibrium until he centers everything with a dazzling break that always reminds me of one of his scat episodes.

Heading into the final 8, Armstrong finally toys with the descending half-step motif, but does so in his own way. The written melody starts with the high D-C and accents the descending note (A, then Ab, then G) but Armstrong starts with the lower notes and uses them as springboards to higher E's, the note he was emphasizing in the last 8 bars of his vocal. On top of the F chord under him, the E is a major7th interval, a favorite of Louis's ("Struttin' with Some Barbecue" and "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" rely on them) and a very pretty effect. 

After that exciting bridge, Armstrong gets back to relaxed territory before syncing with the band for the neat arranged ending, where Armstrong blazes up to a high C. Bravo, Pops!

We don't know if this played a big role in Louis's live repertoire of the day but there are surely no mentions of it that I have found from 1930 or beyond. But Louis wasn't quite done with it, revisiting one more time in 1956 as part of the epic Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography sessions. Here's the remake:
For most of the Autobiography, arranger Sy Oliver followed the patterns of the original recordings, adding in his own touches where fit. But for "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me," he really created something new. First, the original stock intro is out as is another instrumentalist taking the lead. Now it's Pops from the start, backed by All Stars Edmond Hall and Trummy Young while Oliver's reeds hum the harmonies below. 

One thing has definitely changed: Armstrong now seems to relish the lovely melody and sticks closer to it in his opening statement, imbuing it with that trademark warmth of his. I'm not saying he's a slave to it like those 1927 dance bands; just listen to the repeated quarter notes at the end of the first 8 or how he fills in the cracks in the turnarounds. Young and Hall back off for the bridge, but rejoin for the end, Hall taking a typically spiky break as Louis gets to the microphone.

And again, Armstrong is much more respectful to the written music. To Armstrong, this was a sign of maturity. As I recently wrote in my "Irish Black Bottom" entry, Louis in the 1950s sometimes listened back to his recordings from the 1920s and disapproved of his own playing and singing, saying he was just playing "obligatos" and remember the Decca mantra of "Where's the melody?" In the 1956 version, you can't miss the melody and since that's one of the reasons the song has become such a chestnut, it's nice to hear how the mature Armstrong treats it. 

Still, there's some trademark Armstrongian touches: the larger-than-life "yes" at the end of the first A section, the way he still uniquely phrases "you're telling everyone you know," the "Oh baby" leading into the bridge, the quiet "oh" to mark the chord change in the middle of the bridge, the way he goes up for the final "to think that I'm the lucky one" and so on. Not as jaw-droppingly wild as 1930 but still the best vocalist in the game.

Trummy Young gets the post-vocal break before we have an entirely new treatment for the final chorus. Sy Oiver has his horns shout a series of repeated two-note riffs, while Louis floats around them, setting up a series of breaks. For the first one, Louis jumps right up to the high C he original ended the 1930 recording and repeats it a few times, demonstrating as he did throughout the Autobiography his better command of the upper register of his horn, before ending on a twisty little phrase. 

In the second 8, Oliver's writing gets a little intrusive. The horns continue riffing and All Stars pianist Billy Kyle starts hammering out some exciting chords but if you listen through it, you can hear that Louis is still in a relaxed mode, which is obscured a bit by the business around him. Still, he sounds great and manages to insert his favorite Drdla's "Souvenir" quote into his second break. 

Louis takes the lead for the bridge with Oliver's horns playing a different swinging riff over his signature two-beat feel. I love the break Louis takes here, repeating descending half-steps to perfectly set up the first chord change of the final A section. From here, the record resembles the 1930 version with Louis working over that pretty E and and reprising the original spiraling ending, with Louis hitting that final high C right on the nose. 

So there you have it, two different but wonderful versions of a song with a title too long to type yet again. I love them both but that 1930 recording is really something to behold, possibly because of the rhythmic feel and playing of the band, which would be rendered obsolete in a few more years. But I'm not done with the Coconut Grove Orchestra and will return to them in May to celebrate the 80th anniversary of their landmark May 4 session. 

1 comment:

Dan said...

Pops sounds SO relaxed and seems to enjoy the very pretty tune so much that it is surprising he never incorporated it into his live performances, at so far as I know. Any live performances from the 50's that you know of, Ricky? The same holds for "Blue Turning Gray Over You" from the Fats Waller LP: also a no-show in public?