Are you an OKeh kind of person, heavily into the Hot Fives and Sevens and those wonderful early 30s big band sides?
Maybe you prefer RCA Victor, with the superhuman 1932-33 sides and the first memorable All Stars recordings of 1947?
Or are you a Verve junkie, most satisfied with hearing Louis with Ella or Oscar Peterson or Russell Garcia, waxing definitive versions of the best of the Great American Songbook?
I wouldn't blame you if you you only dug Columbia Records, starting with Fletcher Henderson and Bessie Smith in the 1920s, hitting the highest peaks of the 1950s with George Avakian and coming back to team Armstrong and Brubeck in 1961. How does that sound?
So many choices, so much great music. And I wouldn't fight you on any of them (well, maybe if you chose Avco Embassy). But me? If you really put a gun to my head and forced me to choose, I think I'd say I'm a Decca guy. And it all started 80 years ago today.
How did Louis get to Decca? The October 3, 1935 session was Louis's first American studio date in two-and-a-half years. Armstrong spent much of that time in Europe and when he returned to the States in early 1935, he was a man without a manager, without a band, without a recording contract and even without a lip. He took six months off the horn to restore his lip, hired Joe Glaser as manager, hijacked Luis Russell's Orchestra (after a short stint fronting Zilner Randolph's aggregation in Chicago), got booked in New York for the first time in five years and got signed by Jack Kapp to his new label, Decca Records, joining the likes of Bing Crosby, Jimmy Dorsey and the Mills Brothers. Over the next 25 years, he'd jump ship to RCA Victor, Columbia, Verve and Audio Fidelity but until at least 1960, he continued to proudly tell interviewers that he was a Decca artist (even though he made his final sides for the label in 1958).
Oh, Decca. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways! (Warning: reading may cause exclamation point fatigue.)
*Let's start with the early years. The very first Decca recording was "I'm in the Mood for Love"--what a start! And that same day, he took "modern" solos on "You Are My Lucky Star" and "Got a Bran' New Suit" to let everyone know who was the real King of Swing (Benny Goodman blew up the Palomar two months early, unofficially starting "The Swing Era" but we know the Swing Era really began when Louis was born!). Oh, and he scatted like a demon on an infectious "La Cucaracha." Off to a great start!
*Old Man Mose! It's almost Halloween, give it a spin!
*All those beautiful 1930s pop tunes like "Was I to Blame for Falling in Love With You," "Thanks a Million", "Solitude," "Shoe Shine Boy," and "If We Never Meet Again," sung with that unusually clear Armstrong tenor voice!
*The remarkably exciting trumpet solo that climaxes the remarkably dumb "I Come From a Musical Family"!
*Every second of music recorded on May 18, 1936: "Lyin' to Myself," "Ev'ntide," "Swing That Music," "Thankful," "Red Nose" and "Mahogany Hall Stomp"!
*Jimmy Dorsey's band swinging behind Louis on "The Skeleton in the Closet," "Dipper Mouth" and the exciting remake of "Swing That Music" with Ray McKinley on drums!
*The first Louis Armstrong-Bing Crosby recording, "Pennies from Heaven"!
*Louis Armstrong goes HAWAIIAN! I worship Armstrong four 1930s Hawaiian sides and think "On a Coconut Island" should be the National Anthem.
*Louis Armstrong and THE MILLS BROTHERS! Some of the most perfect, charming records of the 1930s or any other decade. Pick your favorite: "Darling Nelly Gray," "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree," "Flat Foot Flooge," "My Walking Stick," "The Song is Ended," "Cherry"--all are simply wonderful!
*"Latin Louis" on "Cuban Pete," "Mexican Swing" and the glorious "She's the Daughter of a Planter from Havana"!
*The team Louis Armstrong and Ben Hecht, joining forces to compose "Red Cap"!
*The gruff-voiced pathos of "Yours and Mine"!
*The first American issue of "On the Sunny Side of the Street" with a new trumpet solo and shimmering drumming by Paul Barbarin!
*Chappie Willet's dynamite arrangements, starting with "Alexander's Ragtime Band."
*Louis's unbelievable January 12, 1938 session with "Jubilee" (Paul Barbarin!) and Willet's arrangement of "Struttin' with Some Barbecue"!
*J. C. Higginbotham almost stealing the show on "I Double Dare You"!
*More touching love songs like "True Confession," "Sweet as a Song," "Once in a While" and "It's Wonderful"!
*The first jazz recording of "When the Saints Go Marching In"!
*Reverend Satchelmouth sings "Nobody Knows De Trouble I've Seen" backed by Lyn Murray's mixed choir!
*Armstrong recreating two of Bert Williams's "Elder Eatmore" sermons!
*Big Sid Catlett enters the scene with "Jeepers Creepers" and "What Is This Thing Called Swing"!
*Louis revisits his 1920s glories with up-to-date versions of "Hear Me Talkin' to You," "Rockin' Chair" (with the Casa Loma Orchestra!), "Save It Pretty Mama," "West End Blues," "Confessin'," "Our Monday Date," I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "Ain't Misbehavin'," and "Sweethearts on Parade"!
*That dramatic final trumpet climb on "Shanty Bot on the Mississippi"!
*Another top-notch session on December 18, 1939 with "Poor Old Joe," "You're a Lucky Guy," "You're Just a No Account,"and "Bye and Bye"
*"Rappin' Louie" offers up some true "roots of rap" vocals on "Hep Cats' Ball" and "You've Got Me Voodoo'd!"
*The glory that is the 1940 version of "Wolverine Blues"! Sid!
*The reunion with Sidney Bechet, resulting in some fireworks on "Down in Honky Tonk Town"!
*The charming new "Hot Seven" sessions from 1941 with lovely versions of "I Cover the Waterfront" and "In the Gloaming," an intense "Now Do You Call That a Buddy" plus some marvelous Louis and Sid on "Long, Long Ago"!
*An instrumental version of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" that takes my breath away!
*The heartbreakingly passionate instrumental lament to Louis's failed marriage to Alpha Smith, "I Used to Love You"!
*Big Sid, pushing Louis hard on "You Rascal You" and "I Never Knew"!
*Swinging big band versions of older tunes "Coquette" and "Among My Souvenirs"!
*The mid-40s big band (with Dexter Gordon!) spurring Armstrong to great heights on "Groovin'" and "Baby Don't You Cry"!
*The arrival of Milt Gabler--"Angel Gabler"--who produced the rest of Armstrong's remarkable Decca output starting in 1944!
*Two words: "I Wonder," one of the most beautiful records of Armstrong's entire career!
*The very first Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong date in 1946--"You Won't Be Satisfied" and "The Frim Fram Sauce"--plus later Ella and Louis dates, including, in my opinion, their finest moment: "Dream a Little Dream of Me"!
*November 30, 1947: "Satchmo at Symphony Hall"! (Remember, now available in COMPLETE form, co-produced by yours truly!)
*All the great hits: "That Lucky Old Sun," "Blueberry Hill," "La Vie En Rose," "C'est Si Bon," "A Kiss to Build a Dream On," "I Get Ideas" and more!
*All the great pop tunes that didn't become hits but I still love them because they're great! Songs, mostly with Sy Oliver arrangements, like "I Laughed at Love," "Because of You," "April in Portugal," "Ramona,""I Keep the Lovelight Burning in My Heart," "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Congratulations to Someone" and more!
*And speaking of "Your Cheatin' Heart," there's another "country style" cover by Pops of Hank Williams's "Cold Cold Heart"!
*GORDON JENKINS! All those lovingly crafted arrangements like "If," "Chlo-E," "Indian Love Call," "Trees," and the touching remake of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South"!
*The April 1950 sessions that made up the eventual albums "New Orleans Days" and "Jazz Concert," with classic All Stars performances like "Panama," "Bugle Blues," "New Orleans Function," "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It," "Twelfth Street Rag," "I Surrender Dear" and the true desert island disc, "That's for Me"!
*"Satchmo at Pasadena," capturing a terrific evening by the Jack Teagarden-Earl Hines edition of the All Stars!
*The only studio session of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday!
*The only studio session of Louis Armstrong and Louis Jordan!
*The only studio sessions of Louis Armstrong and Gary Crosby! (Eh, nobody's perfect.)
*The remarkable October 22, 1953 date with Armstrong and Tutti Camarata's Commanders, with truly epic renditions of "Someday You'll Be Sorry" and "The Gypsy"!
*And speaking of "The Commanders," all the great Louis Armstrong Christmas songs are on Decca! "Cool Yule," "Zat You Santa Claus," "Winter Wonderland," "White Christmas," "Christmas in New Olreans" and "Christmas Night in Harlem"!
*Louis's dabble with 1950s rock and roll provides some nice moments on "Ko Ko Mo" (that trumpet solo!), "Only You" (arranged by Benny Carter!) and "Sincerely"!
*The multiple recordings of the soundtrack to The Glenn Miller Story, featuring the All Stars tearing apart "Basin Street Blues" and "Otchi-tchnor-ni-ya"!
*The explosive trumpet on "Skokiaan," a song that has grown in popularity in recent years!
*One of the All Stars's finest live recordings, 1955's "At the Crescendo"!
*All hail one of the great works in the history of civilization: "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography"! Too many highlights to list but worth it for "When You're Smiling" and "King of the Zulus" alone!
*"Louis and the Angels," another masterpiece that reeks of commercialism but contains some of the finest singing and trumpet playing of Louis's entire career (just check out "Angel Child")!
*Louis's final album, Louis and the Good Book, containing more explosive trumpet ("Go Down Moses") and some seriously emotional preaching by the reverend (like "Rock My Soul")!
Phew! Those are some--but not all!--of my favorite Decca moments. What did I miss? Feel free to add some in the comments!
I cannot lie, if you combine the OKeh recordings with the Columbia recordings (as Columbia started reissuing them in 1940), then the Columbia holdings are more influential, especially on the history of jazz: the Hot Fives, the Hot Sevens, Earl Hines, "Stardust," all the future standards, then flashing forward to W.C. Handy, Satch Plays Fats, Ambassador Satch.....wow. If those were the only recordings Louis made, his stature would be unchanged.
The Decca recordings didn't change the world but I think I prefer the catalog overall because of the versatility. I love the song choices but especially the settings: Louis with a big band, Louis with the All Stars, Louis live, Louis with the Mills Brothers, Louis and Sidney Bechet, Louis and a gospel chorus, Louis duetting with all those great vocalists, Louis the crooner, Louis with strings, Louis and Gordon Jenkins, Louis doing South African songs, Hawaiian songs, Mexican songs, Russian songs, Louis topping his younger self on the Musical Autobiography and so much more. If you want to hear everything Louis could do, just check out his Decca materials.
How to do that, you might ask? It's not as hard as it once was...especially if you have a little patience. First, the good folks at Mosaic Records put out an absolutely essential boxed set containing every Armstrong Decca recording made between 1935-1946 so half the battle can be found in one box. And I'm happy to announce (slightly unofficially so details are still changing) but Universal has asked me to help them do a set of Complete Decca Pop Singles 1949-1958 that will finally have all the great singles--arranged by Sy Oliver, Gordon Jenkins, Tutti Camarata, Jack Pleiss, Benny Carter, etc.--and all the great guest vocalists in one spot! It's looking like it might be a "download only" release but you never know. More details to come as I get them but hopefully it'll be ready late next year.
So that would just leave the albums. I'm also pushing Universal to revisit Satchmo at Pasadena and especially At the Crescendo but both can be downloaded on the 1992 set "The California Concerts". Avid in the UK recently reissued "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography" over two budget-priced sets with liner notes by yours truly so don't miss that one. Louis and the Angels and Louis and the Good Book fit on a single CD so you can find it like that as an import or you can download/stream the officially sanctioned releases separately. And some of the finest early 1950s studio All Stars dates are on New Orleans Nights.
That gets you pretty darn close. So grab them all and enter a state of Decca euphoria with me, okay? Thank you Jack Kapp, Milt Gabler....and Louis Armstrong for always being yourself no matter the song or the setting.