Thursday, March 17, 2016

You're Lucky to Me

Louis Armstrong and His Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra
Recorded October 16, 1930
Track Time 3:31
Written by Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf
Recorded in Los Angeles, CA
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; George Orendorff, Harold Scott, trumpet; Luther Craven, trombone; Les Hite, alto saxophone, baritone saxophone conductor; Marvin Johnson, alto saxophone; Charlie Jones, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Henry Prince, piano; Bill Perkins, banjo; Joe Bailey, bass; Lionel Hampton, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41478
Currently available on CD: It’s on the JSP two-disc set The Big Band Sides, 1930-1932. The alternate take in on an old Columbia disc Volume 7: You’re Driving Me Crazy.

In 2015, I began what I hoped would be an extended series celebrating the 85th anniversary of all the great songs Louis Armstrong recorded while in California from July 1930 to March 1931. Alas, my wife's pregnancy and the ultimate arrival of Baby Lily put an end to that but anniversaries be damned, I still want to celebrate these sides so I'm soldiering on.

On October 16, 1930, Armstrong and Les Hite's Orchestra recorded two numbers composed by the great team of Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf for "Lew Leslie's Blackbirds." The first one was "Memories of You," which I've covered in the past, but the second one is new to this blog: "You're Lucky to Me."

Ethel Waters introduced it in "Blackbirds" and according to Elmer Snowden, she "hit the ceiling" when "Memories of You," sung by Minto Cato, became the show's big hit. Waters got to it first on recording waxing it on September 1, 1930. Here's her version, opening with sweet strings and the verse:

Waters treats it as a passionate love song for the first half of the performance before she swings out gently in the second half, backed by some pretty athletic piano playing (is that Eubie? He backed her on it during the show so it would make sense).

Though "Memories of You" became a bigger hit (and better-known standard), that didn't stop "You're Lucky to Me" from being recorded by a variety of musicians in late 1930. The first jazz recording I can find is this stomping version by the Charleston Chasers done on September 30, 1930 and featuring Phil Napoleon, trumpet, Tommy Dorsey, trombone, Jimmy Dorsey, clarinet and alto, Frank Signorelli, piano and Stan King on drums--dig King's press rolls!

The Charleston Chasers version demonstrates that jazz musicians already found it an appealing song to rough up a bit but remember, jazz was still not "America's popular music" quite yet. To get a taste of what was still selling the most records in 1930, here's a dance band treatment byJustin Ring and His Dance Orchestra with a typical vocal for the period by Irving Kaufman. Really let this sink in--the muted straight reading of the melody by the trumpet, Kaufman's don't-change-a-note vocal, everything:

Okay, got that in your head? Now let's listen to Louis Armstrong and His Sebastian Cotton Club Orchestra romp on October 16, 1930:

I say it all the time, but it's like he's from another planet (my real favorite example of this comes on "You're Driving Me Crazy," which I'll update and post something about it the hopefully not too distant future). After the neat little arranged opening, Louis is on his own to deliver the melody as only he could; in fact, it almost sounds like he's playing the melody and an obligato at the same time, as he answers the melody statements with perfect little responding phrases (the descending arpeggio leading into the bridge is classic Armstrong vocabulary). The rhythm section swings behind him, Lionel Hampton keeping it swinging on drums while guitarist Bill Perkins plays such an attractive countermelody, it could almost be considered a trumpet-and-guitar duet.

The band takes a short interlude to allow Louis to step up to the microphone to deliver another one of those classic early 1930s vocals that drove the likes of Irving Kaufman into a new line of work.  Perkins's guitar still doesn't quit but the main attraction is Louis who immediately enters by singing a new melody rather than the one Blake had written. Except the the moan before the second eight bars, the "oh baby" before the bridge and the "Nowwww" before the last eight bars, Louis is very respectful from a linguistic standpoint, actually singing Razaf's lyrics and not breaking into any scat detours. Still, someone should transcribe the melody Louis sings and compare it with Blake did because its really its own marvelous creation.

After the passionate, soulful end to the vocal, it's time for another instrumental soloist to step up, this time bandleader Hite and his baritone saxophone. The solos on these California recordings never bother me, mostly because the soloists are good (though Lawrence Brown had left by this point) and the rhythm section swings like mad (take a bow, Hamp). Hite burps and croaks effectively while the other horns riff simply, but swingingly. I wonder if they even had an arrangement on this one; beside the introduction and the setup to the vocal, everything is very sparse and sounds like a "head" creation. Piano takes the bridge, or should I say "pianos"; discographies list Henry Prince and Harvey Brooks as pianists on this session. Does anyone hear two pianos? It's possible but I'm not quite sold.

Hite finishes the chorus before Louis enters with a perfectly placed single note, foreshadowing late such entrances on records like "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues." Louis is so ultra relaxed here, swinging easy, but he wakes up for a surprising, twisty break before resorting back to the lower register for more floating, including a mini-gliss. His second break contains more prime Armstrong language but he fluffs one note and it doesn't quite come off as he intended.

We're halfway through the final chorus and though Louis's playing is wonderfully loose, he hasn't quite flexed the muscles yet. In fact, he sounds like he's conserving his strength for the end of the record. He hits a few high ones in the bridge but leaves an awful lot of space; it's a nice dramatic effect, building up the tension. For a minute, one might wonder, "Hm, are his chops hurting?" Just keep listening: he comes out of the bridge with a dazzling break, ends up in the upper register and powers through the melody an octave higher building up the the big ending where he glisses up to a high concert F for the first time on record. It's a bit of a squeak but he hits it. It's a good example of Louis gradually starting to expand his register; that high F would be super fat and crystal clear in just a short time.

As if to emphasize their leader's super ending, the band shouts, "Gate!" in unison, something, again, sorely lacking from many dance band records of the time. "You're Lucky to Me" went on to be a moderate standard in the jazz world, once again, thanks to Louis, but I don't think he ever returned to it (the flip side, "Memories of You," had a longer association in his career). Still, there's no duds in Armstrong's California bunch, something proved next time out when I finally tackle "Sweethearts on Parade" for the first time in the nearly nine-year history of this blog. Stay tuned!