Sunday, May 3, 2015

60 Years of Satch Plays Fats

My hero, Dan Morgenstern, once said, "I think there's no better way to begin one's day than listening to either a Louis Armstrong or Fats Waller recording." This might be the greatest advice in the history of advice. But between the two of them, you'd have literally thousands of choices to begin each and every morning of your lives. Or you could make the decision easier and start your day with Satch Plays Fats.


I love Louis Armstrong. I love Fats Waller. I love Satch Plays Fats. So please allow me to go into full-blown gush mode in talking about the 60th anniversary of one of my favorite albums.

Satch and Fats lived to bring joy, through their music and their personalities. The latter has always been something that irked the more serious folks in the jazz community. To them, Louis and Fats were serious artists at heart but they were forced to compromise their integrity and smile and tell jokes to make white audiences happy. This, of course, is BS. Louis and Fats were both capable of making serious, dramatic, touching music, but they really lived to make people happy--on and offstage.

Of course, Fats Waller didn't live long enough to have his reputation dragged through the mud, like Louis's. Fats died in 1943--before bebop, before TV, before The Ed Sullivan Show, before he could really make a mark on film. I'm usually not so pessimistic but I fear that if he had lived past 1943, he would have faced the same knocks Louis took in the 1950s and 1960s from jazz fans and members of the African-American community.

Because Waller died so young, he wasn't given the opportunity to speak about Louis often, if at all (in print), but we know that they hit it off when Louis first went to New York to join Fletcher Henderson in 1924. Louis loved Fats's sense of humor and was fond of quoting a line Waller dropped on a bunch of Chicago musicians in the mid-20s, "What key you all strugglin' in?" Louis took to Waller's music immediately and recorded the following Waller compositions during Waller's lifetime (in no particular order):

1. Ain't Misbehavin'
2. Blue Turning Grey Over You
3. Black and Blue
4. Keepin' Out of Mischief Now
5. Squeeze Me
6. Alligator Crawl
7. That Rhythm Man
8. Georgia Bo-Bo
9. I Hate to Leave You Now
10. Sweet Savannah Sue
11. I'm Goin' Huntin'
12. Get Some Cash for Your Trash

Only Hoagy Carmichael ties Fats in that same period (I count 12 Hoagy compositions recorded by Pops in the 1920s and 30s with two more--"The Nearness of You" and "New Orleans"--added in 1956 and 1960 respectively).

(UPDATE: I forgot to mention Louis and Fats's summit meeting on Martin Block's radio show in December 1938. For the full story--and audio--click here!)

So Fats, the man and his music, meant a great deal to Louis, as the trumpeter expressed when asked to comment on Waller's passing in 1943: "Yeah, Fats is gone now....but to me he's still here with us. His very good spirit will keep him with us for ages. Right now, every time someone mentions Fats Waller's name, why, you can see the grins on all the faces as if to say, 'Yea, yea, yea, yea, Fats is a solid sender, ain't he?"

Louis never stopped feeling that way. Sinclair Traill once made a montage of photos of Louis and Fats in a similar dancing pose. Armstrong told Traill he had it up in his Corona, Queens home and "he just loved that picture 'cause it always brought Fats to mind, and when he thought of that man it just naturally made him feel good all over."

After Armstrong's passing in 1971, Traill devoted part of his obituary to comparing the two giants: "There has only been one other jazzman with this capacity to please all of the people, all of the time, namely Thomas 'Fats' Waller--a fact borne out by Armstrong himself. It was during a visit to Louis' dressing room in a Paris theatre, some years back, in company with my old friend Ed Kirkeby that our cover picture was taken. It has long been one of my favorite shots of the great man, showing him s it does, relaxed and completely himself. Ed and Louis hadn't at the time met for quite a while and naturally enough the talk centered around Fats Waller. 'I just miss that man, most ever day,' said Louis, 'he gave us so much laughter you know. He was always in there muggin', an 'he gave happiness to everyone.' Well, that might just as truthfully have been said by Fats about Louis, for they are two of a kind."

Indeed they were, which is one of the reasons Satch Plays Fats works on so many levels. For the full details on every aspect of this session, let me gently call attention to my book on Louis. For blog purposes, I'll speed it up a bit and liberally borrow from some past postings on various tracks from the date.

Satch Plays Fats was the sequel to Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy, my favorite album of all time and one I blogged about during its 60th anniversary last summer. That was the brainchild of the great producer George Avakian, who cleverly convinced Armstrong's manager Joe Glaser to let him record one album for Columbia when Armstrong was reaching the end of a five-year exclusive contract with Decca. The album was a commercial and critical success and Glaser decided to have Columbia and Decca take turns recording his prized client over the past year. Milt Gabler of Decca had some successes--notably the marvelous evening At The Crescendo--but in his efforts to get Armstrong a hit, he was now having him record rock ballads like "Pledging My Love" and "Sincerely" and duets with Gary Crosby on things like "Ko Ko Mo."

Avakian, meanwhile, saw Armstrong as an artist of the highest caliber and wanted to continue to feature him on a series of long-playing albums that would spotlight the work of a single composer, interpreted by Armstrong's All Stars. After Handy, Avakian dreamed of Louis Plays King Oliver.....Duke Ellington.....Jelly Roll Morton and more, but Fats Waller was the next logical step.

Quick sidebar: When I first met George in 2002, I was a stammering college student scared to death of approaching him at the bar of Birdland, where he was watching David Ostwald's Louis Armstrong Centennial (now Eternity) Band perform. I worked up the nerve and couldn't get over how approachable he was. He wrote down his e-mail and told me to drop him a line because he wanted to send me something. I did as soon as I got home and he responded with a real treasure: his unpublished liner notes to the 2001 Sony reissue of Satch Plays Fats! I won't get into the drama but Sony did reissue it for the Armstrong Centennial and George planned a real in-depth set of notes, much like he did for the label's 1997 reissue of the Handy album. But for whatever reason, the label chose not to use them and simply reprinted George's original 1955 sleeve notes, which embarrassed him because they were full of mistakes. Well, I still have George's notes and will quote a bit from them throughout this piece to put the album in further context. So here's George on the choosing of the repertoire to be recorded:

"As with the 1954 W. C. Handy album, Louis and I began by chatting about possible repertoire during one of the many long afternoons we spent just hanging out in his den on the top floor of his home in Corona, not far from LaGuardia Airport in Queens....For his second Columbia album, Louis quickly embraced my suggestion of an album of Waller compositions. With some regret, we decided against including the earliest Waller tunes Louis had recorded (the classic 'Georgia Bo Bo' and the rollicking 'I’m Goin’ Hunting') because they wouldn't fit in with the better known songs which of course had to be the heart of the project. This led to Louis reminiscing about Fats's first pop efforts. 'You know, Fats had kind of a hit back then. I used to play it and Bix recorded it "I'm More Than Satisfied."' Pops took out his horn and blew a few bars. 'Oh my, Bix played it so pretty!' His eyes sparkled. (Pops was as animated at home as he was on stage. What you saw was always what you got.) Then his shoulders drooped. 'But it won't go with "Ain't Misbehavin’" and those later ones.'"

"We discussed some of Fats's great instrumentals, like 'Minor Drag,' 'Zonky' and 'Stealin' Apples.' (Andy Razaf had even written lyrics for the last two.) But we decided against doing any instrumentals, agreeing that they would break the mood we both felt the album should create. Of Fats's pre R&B novelties, we rejected 'The Joint Is Jumpin'' ('Only Fats could pull that one off just right,' said the ever modest Pops), but 'All That Meat and No Potatoes' was a natural for a duet with Velma Middleton. We chose eleven songs the nine we eventually did, plus two we finally omitted: 'I Hate to Leave You Now,' recorded by Pops with his 1932 big band, and 'Willow Tree,' plucked by Mildred Bailey in 1935 from the 1928 Waller Razaf score for Keep Shufflin."

I pause for a moment of solace, still trying to wrap my brain around the 1955 Armstrong playing "I Hate to Leave You Now," "Willow Tree" or any of the other tunes mentioned in those previous two paragraphs! (When I interviewed George separately for my book in 2007, he added "Clorinda" to the list of tunes discussed.) Okay, okay, okay, beggars can't be chooses. Exhale, Ricky, exhale, the album is great as it is.......okay, I'm better now.

When Avakian and Armstrong solidified their list, they had nine songs. Five of them were remakes from Armstrong's golden 1928-1932 OKeh period: "Squeeze Me," "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Black and Blue," "Blue Turning Grey Over You" and "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now." The four "new" selections all fit Louis like a glove: "I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby," with its delightful chase chorus by Pops and Trummy; "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling" with Avakian having Louis overdub a scat obligato on top of his vocal, like he did with "Atlanta Blues" on the Handy date; and two fun duets with Velma on "Honeysuckle Rose" and "All That Meat and No Potatoes."

The nine songs were recorded over a week with sessions held on April 26, 27 and May 3. But though the album is now recognized as a smash classic, when I spoke with George about it in 2007, I could sense some disappointment. The All Stars were performing at night at Basin Street East and were exhausted at the sessions. Avakian and David Ostwald requested the session tapes to make the aforementioned 2001 reissue and generously shared them with me when I was putting together my book. Though they're fascinating--and there's lots of great stuff--there's also some tired playing here and there. Barney Bigard, especially, is on fumes from start to finish and it's a miracle Avakian was able to issue anything coherent from the clarinetists mouth. On many takes, the rhythm section was similarly lulled to sleep by Bigard's offerings and simply offered quiet support. Only after some playbacks and consultations with Avakian did the rhythm section of Billy Kyle, Arvell Shaw and Barrett Deems step it up with some powerhouse playing, especially when Trummy Young soloed.

Avakian had to do a LOT of work to make the band sound good, which he admitted in a letter to Joe Glaser shortly after the sessions ended, writing, "The results are very good although the sidemen were not tremendous by any means and I had to do a great deal of splicing and editing to produce really good tapes. Louis himself was, as always, truly wonderful. The album is one we can all be very proud of."

The jazz world agreed, even if not with the same enthusiasm that met the Handy release. Nat Hentoff gave it four stars in Downbeat (he gave five to Handy) and wrote, "Unfortunately, it is not equal in quality to the first Louis special--the magnificent album of W. C. Handy compositions. First of all, the presence of Velma Middleton on three numbers in unjustified. She's just not that good a singer, especially when measured against Louis. Then the members of Louis' band let him down in this set. The rhythm section is stiff; Barney Bigard contributes little of interest, and even the rugged Trummy Young could have been more imaginative in several places. But Louis is fine, and for that reason, the set is well worth being.....The album's recommended for Louis' work. With more energetic assistance from his men, Louis would have had a really outstanding set."

I love Nat but even with some of the slight drawbacks, to me, Satch Plays Fats IS an outstanding set. I wish I had time to write 20,000 words on everything I love about it--and who knows, that time might come some day. Readers will be happy to know that last Wednesday, Scott Wenzel and I did a presentation on last year's Mosaic set at the Institute of Jazz Studies. Over dinner beforehand, I presented him a printout I had made of my next plan: Columbia and RCA Victor STUDIO Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars, which would encompass the master takes--and MANY alternates--from Handy, Fats, The Real Ambassadors, the "Mack the Knife" session and more. The bad news: we just did a Louis set and Mosaic wouldn't probably go for another one for 4 or 5 years. The good news: the Louis set is selling so well ("off the charts" in Scott's phrase!) that he's sure they'd love to do it someday. Fingers crossed!

But I have to leave you with some so here's a few "greatest hits" from blogs of yore. First off, "Blue Turning Grey," a high point in western civilization.

Even with his reservations about the finished product, George told me that he was just proud to have done the album for two tracks alone: "Black and Blue" and "Blue Turning Grey Over You." He has every right to be proud of "Blue Turning Grey Over You." Unlike the original, which was on the more medium side of the tempo scale, the song was slowed down dramatically for the 1955 reading. And it's Armstrong's show from start to finish: one chorus muted, a beautiful vocal and a dramatic open horn chorus at the end. It's one of the best testaments to Armstrong's work in his later years. Yes, the later Louis might not have been able to execute the daring runs and breaks the younger Armstrong did with ease; but the younger man could not interpret a ballad with as much maturity and feeling and soul as the elder. Listen for yourself...and you might want to have a box of tissues nearby:


Absolutely exquisite music. It's the kind of recording where I kind of feel that it's useless to go on and on for a thousand words because the music speaks for itself. So here's a few highlights that move me every time:

*Armstrong's opening pickup; four simple notes that perfectly set the tempo and definite slow swing

*The entire opening chorus, where Armstrong simply gives a master's class in how to play a melody. He keeps it front and center, yet rephrases it just enough to make it his own, filling in all the cracks and turnarounds with all sorts of vocal-like improvisations (I love the repeated G's at the end of the first eight bars and again at the bridge)

*The simple, understated backing by the All Stars: lovely harmonies by Young and Bigard, suitable fills by Kyle, throbbing bass by Shaw and tasteful brushwork from Deems

*That vocal! In 1930, Armstrong tried really hard to sound serious, a la "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," but his voice then couldn't convey the warmth of the gravel pit of later years. Every scat break is a thing of perfection (some are lifted verbatim from the original record). But just listen to the actual singing; the way he sings the word "found" in the last eight bars gives me chills. And you gotta love the New Orleans accent turning it into "Blue Toining Grey Over You"!

*Through the magic of editing, Armstrong's trumpet immediately follows the vocals, playing the same pickup to announce to any and all listeners that something special is about to take place. And it does.

*Listen to Armstrong's rhythms, especially on the double-timed runs. The urgency of the 1930 version isn't there, but he's in greater command of his instrument (remember when he kind of fluffed that one high note on the OKeh) and from a rhythmic standpoint, he's almost more free-floating than ever before in 1955. I wrote the other day about how the younger Armstrong tended to approach slower tempos with more fleet-fingered playing. I should have added the same as sometimes true of the later Armstrong: listen to "That's For Me" from 1950, "You Can Depend On Me" from 1951 and this track for some great examples.

*That bridge! With the All Stars turning up the heat in their rhythmically accented backing, Armstrong responds by completely rhapsodizing with his improvisation, leading into a stunning break, started with a gliss to a high B before another string of G's that shake me to my core.

*Again, listen to that ridiculous spiraling downward run in the last eight bars, the rhythmic flow to it and how he stops on a time and shoots to a surprising higher C, giving a little shake to wring out every last bit of emotion.

*I mentioned in my blog on the 1930 version that I didn't like the ending of the 1930 recording but this one is perfect. It's standard Armstrong, building up to a long, held high C, shook for all its glory. Put it in the time capsule...

If you really feel like starting an argument, you can say, "But wait, Rick, the original was one solid take while Armstrong's 1950s' Columbia recordings featured songs and solos pieced together from various takes by George Avakian...that shouldn't count!" True enough, the pioneering Avakian did do a lot of editing and splicing on his albums but I say so what? All of his artists were thankful for it and the end results George got more than speak for themselves.

The aforementioned session tapes of the album contain about 25 minutes of takes of "Blue Turning Grey Over You." I can attest that Armstrong played brilliantly throughout all the takes and especially throughout all the sessions; George must have had a helluva time editing it all together because Armstrong gave him a lot of gold to choose from (not so with Bigard; it's a miracle Avakian was able to make him sound like a coherent musician after hearing some of his work on the tapes).

After running through the arrangement, the band still didn't have things down cold when Avakian began rolling the tapes for takes 1 and 2, each of which breaks down (Louis can be heard practicing his first scat break during one of the breaks; it's one he originally sang on the 1930 version so I wonder if he had listened to it to keep it fresh). Finally, on take 3, everything clicked and the band was well on its way to making a perfect take when it all fell apart during the final bridge as the band couldn't exactly get the rhythms straight on how they wanted to back Armstrong. Armstrong asked, "Is the rest all right?" causing Avakian to respond in awe, "Oh, the rest is beautiful!"

George knew they had something special so capitalizing on it, he called for another take to begin from Armstrong's concluding solo. From the sixth bar through the finish, Armstrong played what appeared on the final record (you can barely hear a splice at the 3:34 mark on the master). Thus, that final masterpiece of a solo is almost entirely one take so I don't want to hear anything about it being the work of an editor. Got it?

Happy, George still called a few more takes to have some vocals and opening choruses to choose from. Louis, ever the professional, knows when things aren't right; he calls off one take when his voice doesn't quite make a high note during a scat break and he calls off the fourth full take when the band takes too long to enter after one of the breaks. George finally got a perfect vocal on take 5 and another damn good trumpet solo, to boot (more on that in a minute). Arvell Shaw complained of a "goof" at the end of the take and Armstrong brought up something else that didn't go quite right but George brushed it off, saying that there was plenty to splice from the other takes.

So yes, the opening solo is from one take, and the vocal is from take five and the solo is almost entirely the insert take after the third attempt...again, who cares? The final result more than speaks for itself. It's an absolute masterpiece, one that we could not have enjoyed if George Avakian hadn't recorded and edited it...and if Louis Armstrong and his All Stars didn't play it with such feeling!

In 2000, Sony finally reissued Satch Plays Fats and included four "edited alternate takes" on the album but didn't make any attempt to explain what they are. They included one of "Blue Turning Grey Over You" and I personally think it's another masterpiece, another example of how much greatness poured out of Armstrong on this session.

Being an "edited alternate take" means just what it says: this take is all of take three until it broke down at the final bridge. From the bridge on, it uses Armstrong's concluding solo from the fifth and final take. Armstrong's scat break is a "gassuh" (I love that "Yeah, man!") and if you can stand it, there's even more dramatic passion from the trumpet. Here's the "edited alternate," edited by David Ostwald:


See what I mean? I could only imagine how tough it was for George Avakian to make his final editing choices. But George, God bless him--he just turned 96--made the right choices so let's be thankful for that. And let's be thankful to Fats Waller and Andy Razaf for writing such a beautiful song.

Okay, one more bonus for my 2015 readers: "Ain't Misbehavin'," a natural for the album, positioned as the final track, a fitting climax to a marvelous piece of work. In his original liner notes, Avakian wrote, “Louis recorded it in exactly the length of time it takes to say ‘Pops, wanna do ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ next?,’ followed by a quick nod to the band and a warning to the engineers to keep the tape machines rolling. We didn’t even have to play this take back.” It’s a good story and perhaps on the issued take, they didn’t have to play it back. But truthfully, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was tackled three times, perhaps once at each of the album’s three sessions before the All Stars hit it out of the park on the third and final try. One of the alternates was released by Columbia in 1986 when they first issued Satch Plays Fats with almost exclusively alternate takes. However, the other alternate has been stuck in Columbia’s vaults for decades…until now. (Cue dramatic music)

Once again, this comes from those session tapes. No one knows the exact date of this first attempt. This track opens with the voice of Avakian reading off the matrix number 53253, before he catches himself and reads off the correct one, 53254 (“Too many God-damned numbers,” he says!). CO 53253 was the number for “Honeysuckle Rose,” the third tune recorded at the album’s first April 26, session. Thus, this take could be the final tune from that session or the first one done at the following day’s second session. Regardless, here’s how it came out:


That’s the take Columbia used on their first 1986 CD reissue. You’ll notice the relaxed tempo and the almost unsure way Deems enters during Kyle’s intro, making me wonder if this was meant to be a run-through and Avakian just recorded it in case he heard a good solo he needed to use later on in editing. Armstrong’s vocal is a good one, ending with a resounding, “Take it, Trummy Young” before Trummy swings out for a half chorus. Barney then takes the bridge, offering almost no power; Deems has to switch to playing quietly as not to overpower him and Armstrong’s supposed background fills immediately become a foreground lead. Armstrong sounds dynamite in the closing ensemble, getting off all the old ideas as well as uncorking some brand new ideas, the band really picking up steam as it heads down the home stretch. The track ends with the long coda, Armstrong supported by Deems’s cooking drums. Remember way back when when I shared a live broadcast of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” from 1935 and said it most resembled the Satch Plays Fats version? Now you can hear it for yourself; this is a long ending, Armstrong taking his time, building higher and higher, probably just as he did two decades earlier. A good take, but not quite ready for release.

Now, onto the unissued material. Again, this could either be from the April 27 second session or—the most likely scenario—the final session of May 3. Here ‘tis:


To me, THAT sounds like a run-through take. Well, first there’s the breakdown as Kyle hit a jarring chord and Pops got off on the wrong foot. Once situated, the band turned in a fine opening ensemble, though Trummy’s phrase leading into the vocal is a bit awkward. After the vocal, Trummy’s awkwardness continues in a solo that was probably best left in the vaults. Barney at least stays in tune this time, but he’s still a shadow of his former self. Almost to make amends for his sloppy playing, Trummy charges back in and swings violently for his final eight. Armstrong’s the iron man again, and completely nails his final chorus and the extended ending. Armstrong could do no wrong on these sessions.

Finally, on the May 3 session, the band tackled “Ain’t Misbehavin’” one last time and knocked it out of the park. Someone suggested that the tempo be raised a bit and those few extra beats of tempo made all the difference in the world. This is a seriously smoking version, my favorite one behind the original and the Town Hall outing. Dig it:


Yeah, man! By this point, I don’t think I need to analyze it too fully other than to say that the rhythm section is completely locked in and Trummy plays like a man possessed; nothing awkward here! His shouting solo is the epitome of everything he represented during his 11+ year tenure with the band. (Barney’s still going through the motions but it’s only eight bars, so who cares?) Armstrong’s in command yet again but just listen to the raw power and swing of the group as a whole as it comes out of the bridge and heads for the final eight. It’s only about five seconds long, but those five seconds contain some of the most joyous, heart-pounding, swinging moments of the history of the All Stars. I love it, especially when listening to the album as originally programmed; as the final track, it’s an unmatchable ending. Of course, there’s still the Armstrong-and-Deems ending, which is great, though honestly, I think I prefer Pops’s repeating of the final high notes on the slower first take. Whatever, it’s ALL great, as is the entire album.

So on this, the 60th anniversary of the end of the sessions, spin Satch Plays Fats. Spin it in the morning, too and take Dan's advice. Celebrate those two solid senders EVERY day!

3 comments:

baz said...

You've likely already written about it, but no mention of Pops and Fats should go without a nod to the 1937 aircheck of the two of them playing together. The energy generated could have powered the East Coast through Christmas!

Brian R. Sheridan said...

There is no better record! Thanks for such a deep look at it.

Dan said...

So amazing to hear the small, telling differences in Louis's playing between the takes of ALL the material here. For those of us who have memorized the original, it's a little like looking at the Beethoven sketch books for the cross-outs. "Satch Plays Fats" was the first "late period" recording I purchased (at age 12). My only disappointment in it came retrospectively after hearing the Handy and Ambassador albums, both of which suggest at least (but surely do not replicate) that HUGE, magisterial trumpet sound in a way that the Fats LP, with its disconcertingly treble-dominated acoustic does not. Louis sounds oddly "thin" on the Fats recording.