Wednesday, August 19, 2015

85 Years of "Confessin'" and "If I Could Be With You"

Last month, I kicked off my celebration of Louis Armstrong's 1930-31 California recordings with a post about the first two tracks Louis recorded under his own name out west, "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy (from Dumas)" and "I'm in the Market for You." Not a bad start! After spending a few weeks slaying the Hollywood elite nightly at Sebastian's Cotton Club in Culver City, Louis returned to the studio on August 19 to wax two more classics, "I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)" and "If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)."

This is a crucial session, in my opinion. In the 1950s, jazz critics started frowning at Louis being given tunes like "La Vie En Rose" and "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" to record. "Commercial!" they shouted (and in some parts of the world, still shout). But here he is in 1930 singing two true love songs. And let's not beat around the bush: this is a 29-year-old black man recording for OKeh's popular series (not race), coming right out and singing lyrics like "I'm Confessin' that I love you, tell me that you love me too" and "If I could be with you, I'd love you strong / If I could be with you, I'd love you long." This is sexual stuff, folks, and I can't think of many (any?) other black artists before Nat King Cole who could sing so passionately of love and desire on records.

As I mentioned, in his later years, Louis took quite a bit of heat for recording pop tunes and love songs, seen by some in jazz circles as having gone "commercial." But Louis addressed this issue towards the end of his life by tying it in with "Confessin'" in what is one of my all-time favorite quotes: "I came off one night after playing 'Tenderly' I think it was, and this man got all steamed up with me. He said, 'I heard yuo playing that love song, and I'd hoped you were going to play some of the great old jazz tunes you did in the 1930's.' 'Hell,' I said, 'I recorded "Confessin'' about that time and that sure ain't a hate song.'" Amen, Pops...

So let's start with "Confessin'," which I originally tackled in a series of blogs in 2010 (I'll post links in  bit). This became one of Louis's signature tunes and one he would perform for 40 years (his last known public performance of it is a charming version sung to his wife Lucille on the "Mike Douglas Show" in 1970). The song was written by Ellis Rynolds and Doc Daugherty with lyrics by Al J. Neiburg, the man responsible for "Under a Blanket of Blue" and "It's the Talk of the Town" to name two standards.

But as many hardcore fans of early jazz might now, these songwriters must have been big fans of Fats Waller. The previous year, Waller recorded a song titled "Lookin' for Another Sweetie," which I've seen credited to the team of "Smith and Grant." I've also seen it credited to Waller and Fred Saintly. Either way, it's a carbon copy of "Confessin'" and it was recorded in 1929 while "Confessin'" wasn't published until 1930. Clearly, there was some dirty work afoot. The Waller performance, though it boasts a sad vocal by Orlando Roberson (the more "neutered" type of black vocalist commonly singing love songs before Louis brought a new level of passion), is a classic featuring a remarkalbe group with Red Allen, Leonard Davis, Jack Teagarden, J.C. Higginbotham, Albert Nicholas, Charlie Holmes, Waller, Pops Foster, Kaiser Marshall and others (Jesus, my fingers started sweating as I typed those names!). If you've never heard it, you can listen to it now here:

Alas, "Lookin' for Another Sweetie" went nowhere (though some folks, such as Lonnie Johnson, continued to perform it instead of the newer ripoff) and when "Confessin'" came around a few months later, it was a bona fide hit thanks to versions by Rudy Vallee and Guy Lombardo. In fact, let's take a second to hear Vallee's version:

There you have it, 1930s crooning at its finest (or at least its most popular). I admire this stuff from a period perspective and I admire Vallee for his championing of Armstrong but I have also discovered that when I address young folks in 2015, when I play a Vallee vocal, it usually elicits laughter and fake snoring (sometimes real snoring) and when I play Armstrong singing the same song, it causes an eruption of cheering and smiles. I've said it before but it's like Louis came from another planet.

And again, just for context, here's Guy Lombardo's hit version:

Louis worshipped Lombardo and had already encountered him during his Chicago years so he must have sought out this record. The tempo has a bright bounce to it with a stately trumpet reading of the melody and some very nice guitar playing but the vocal is once again bland city.

OKeh records had been getting quite comfortable in passing along the latest pop hits for Louis to record and in "Confessin'" they had a tune that was a perfect fit. Armstrong recorded it in California on August 19, 1930 with Leon Elkins's band from Sebastian's Cotton Club, a band that included youngsters Lawrence Brown on trombone and Lionel Hampton on drums (not bad!).

Louis's record of "Confessin'" contains what some might deem a slightly bizarre accompaniment courtesy of Ceele Burke's Hawaiian guitar. Many jazz purists have scratched their heads at this novelty addition but I don't know, after listening to this recording about a thousand times, I find it charming. The only explanation I can muster for its presence is that earlier in the year, Louis recorded "Song of the Islands" for OKeh with violins. Perhaps it sold well and OKeh though Louis should record something else with a Hawaiian element so they asked for some steel guitar. Who knows, but I'll let you decide whether or not it works. But steel guitar aside, this is one magical recording. Listen for yourself:

Lovely, lovely stuff. After Burke's intro, Louis comes right in with the vocal, and it's a damn touching one. It really unfurls like one of his classic solos; he opens by sticking pretty close to the melody before he gradually begins to take more chances with it, throwing it snatches of scat and eventually rephrasing it with a tremendous passion. Great moments: Louis boiling down "But your lips deny they're true" to one pitch; his repetition of "making them blue"; the little two-note descending scat motif in the middle of the bridge. and the aforementioned passionate rephrasing of the final eight bars, bubbling into an ecstatic bit of scat. A fantastic vocal, and I repeat, it must be a somewhat historic one as it's a black man coming right out and singing the phrase "I love you," something that I don't think was very common back then. You just couldn't stop Louis...

The vocal leads into a nifty trombone solo by Lawrence Brown, his sound and style already formed at age 23. Then it's time for Louis, who enters with an almost fragile hesitation to his playing, riding one note for a while and finally letting it all come together in a break that Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton would "borrow" a few years later in the tune "Pick-A-Rib." Don't believe me? Here's Louis's break:

And here's the "head" of "Pick-a-Rib":

How many Armstrong improvisations crept their way into Swing Era compositions, arrangements and solos? Countless...

After Louis's shining eight bars, one of the saxophones picks up the bridge, playing with some passion but with also plenty of the dated mannerisms of other saxophonists of that era. Fortunately, our hero is there to swoop in and save the day with eight bars of bravura melody. You can hear Louis's mature style evolve with each passing bar; he keeps the melody front and center but what he plays in between it is mind-boggling. At such a slow tempo, he's swinging like mad, playing in the upper register before reeling off a dazzling break that actually ends in the lower register of the horn.

And with that, a masterpiece was born and jazz had one of its first great ballad recordings. I forget the story (I think it's in a Stanley Dance book), but decades later, a group of top Swing Era trumpeters were joking around during rehearsal when someone mentioned Louis's "Confessin'" solo and everyone of those musicians--years and years later--sang Louis's solo together with note-for-note perfection. This was some influential stuff.

(And if you'd like to continue "Confessin'" here's the links to my 2010 series, starting with Part 2 - The Big Band VersionsPart 3 - The 1940s Small Group Versions and finally Part 4- The All Stars.)

Next up was "If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)," written by the top team of James P. Johnson and Harry Creamer. It was published in 1926 and a piano roll was cut in 1927 featuring none other than Johnson and pupil, Fats Waller! It has some of the typically mechanical feel of piano rolls but there's still some nice stuff, including the different rhythmic feel in the last chorus:

The first record of "If I Could Be With You" was done in 1927 by Clarence Williams's Blue Five with a vocal by the great Eva Taylor and some excellent cornet work by Jabbo Smith:

That's a great little recording. Everything you need is all there but for some reason the song didn't take off. In 1929, Coleman Hawkins gave it a first-class ballad treatment on the classic Mount City Blue Blowers version, "One Hour," but the song didn't really take off until 1930 when McKinney's Cotton Pickers recorded it in January 1930. Here's their pretty version, with vocal by George "Fathead" Thomas:

Thomas's vocal sure doesn't represent the future of jazz singing but I still like it. Apparently, so did the world; chart information is notoriously unreliable for this era but apparently McKinney's version of "If I Could Be You" hit the #1 spot. That was enough for the recording companies to take notice; a simple YouTube search of "If I Could Be With You" 1930 calls up versions by Ruth Etting, Hal Swain, Tom Gerun, Jack Albin and Gene Austin. I know I'm getting carried away but I think I should share the Gene Austin version since he was the preeminent pre-Crosby crooner and a good example of American popular singing before full exposure to Louis Armstrong:

Charming and harmless but kind of a limp reading of the melody, note-for-note as Johnson wrote it. Zzzzzzzz......

Wake up! Time to hear Louis Armstrong transform this number, teaching the world a little about love and passion along the way:

Hoowee, is it getting hot in here? Just the introduction alone is unlike anything we've heard in the previous versions. The band hits a dramatic chord, Louis oozes his way up to the mike and moans, "Ohhhh baby.....mmmmm baby.....I want to be with you to-NIIIGHT....." The record is ten seconds old and Louis has let the listeners know what his intentions are (can you say "the vonce"?).

After a somewhat dramatic piano interlude by Harvey Brooks, Louis picks up his horn and caresses the melody ofter an old-fashioned two-beat rhythm. He had more or less moved past this feel--tuba on one and three, banjo chunking on two-and-four--but it works here. He sticks to the melody for about four bars before he starts in with the very pretty variations. He works his way up to a high concert G at the midway point, works it over a few times them bursts into one of those ascending-and-descending chromatic runs he had played on "I'm in the Market for You" the previous month (and as I mentioned there, something that became part of Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie's vocabulary).

For the second half of the first chorus, Louis takes his time, working his way down from that explosive burst with some almost "Pretty Baby"-like phrasing, heading down south. He continues in this vein for a few bars, letting loose with a wild flurry of descending notes that's a little sloppier than we might expect from Pops but he catches himself and again piles on the lyricism; my, my, how you can (and should) sing his solos. He ends his chorus with a smooth run up to an Eb, the band with him; if the record faded right there, it would still be a dandy!

Fortunately, it doesn't end. Another dark interlude by pianist Brooks sets up one of Louis's finest vocals of this or any other period. As was his wont, Louis creates a brand new melody, trading in Johnson's chromatic episodes for more single-pitch excursions. On top of the new melody, there's his phrasing, so relaxed, so conversational. When he pauses and sings, "I want you to know, I wouldn't go," he sounds like he's speaking.

In the second half of the vocal, he really emotes, again singing the titular phrase on a single pitch but with such declamatory urgency; he is pleading for that one hour tonight! When he follows by singing, "If I were free to the things I might," he kind of repeats/mumbles "things I might," to hammer home the delight he gets from thinking about such "things." A few bars later he goes one step further; had anyone ever sung "Mmmmmm, baby" quite like Louis Armstrong before this record?

Like most of the great California recordings, the next voice we hear is the trombone of Lawrence Brown, scoring another bullseye with prodding by the suddenly walking rhythm section and the riffing horns. Brown gets a full chorus before turning it over again to one of the saxophones (Leon Herriford or Willie Stark), who gets bluesy over a different backing feel.

It's very generous for Pops to hand over so much time to his sidemen (and hearing Brown is a delight), but the time is ticking and we eagerly await his return. Finally, with half a chorus to go, Louis swoops in, taking the melody up an octave for a bit, working over a strong descending motive and finally charging up and hitting a high concert Bb smack on the nose, holding it like he great opera singer he was. He continues playing passionately until a little arranged ending where he leaves some spaces for Lionel Hampton's snare drum rolls. The band hits the final chord and Louis plays a little F-G-Bb-G-F-F phrase that, too, would become part of the standard Swing Era vocabulary.

A beautiful record but alas, the song doesn't seem to have ended up in Louis's regular repertoire. Fortunately, he revisited one more time in 1956 for Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography and the result is a gem:

No surprise that he's still getting it done in 1956, right?  The tempo is slower but overall this one sticks very close to the original, from the opening "Baby" moaning and the passionate trumpet melody (no chromatic burst but almost a more relaxed, lyrical approach throughout, showing his maturity) to the delicious vocal (the declamatory title phrase and the sexy "mmmm, baby" are still there) and the operatic ending, complete the with the powerful high Bb and arranged ending (Billy Kyle getting little snatches of "Louise" in the cracks).

So there you have it, Louis the crooner, showing the world how to infuse a love song with passion, swing, heart and eroticism, all the way back to 85 years ago today on two numbers that sound just as exciting and heartfelt today as they did when they first released. That's the magic of Louis Armstrong.