The Complete Mercury Recordings of Louis Armstrong
[Note: These are my liner notes to Universal's new digital-only expanded reissue of the 1966 album Louis. You can find it on iTunes here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/louis-expanded-edition/id1199679153 By including the complete surviving session tapes with alternate takes, rehearsals, unissued recordings and mono-mixes of one single, this represents Louis's complete output for Mercury. If you're reading this, you can find this release at the iTunes Store, through Apple Music, on Amazon Music and on Spotify. Follow me on Facebook for all relevant links. If you'd prefer a clean PDF download of these notes, you can download them by clicking here http://bit.ly/2k7w072 and clicking "Download" in the top right corner. Enjoy!]
It might now seem incredible to fathom, but when Mercury Records started recording the 63-year-old Louis Armstrong in September 1964--his sessions supervised by none other than Quincy Jones--the label showed no interest in recording an album aimed at jazz fans. No, they wanted Louis Armstrong, the world’s oldest pop star and the first man to knock the Beatles off the top of the charts during the height of Beatlemania.
In some corners of the jazz world, the phrases “Louis Armstrong” and “pop star” should never be combined but in reality, Armstrong was always more of a pop figure than a solely jazz artist. He began recording pop tunes in a variety of settings in the 1920s, became a multi-media superstar by the 1930s and had hit records in every decade, often with unlikely source material such as “Mack the Knife” and “Blueberry Hill” and “Hello, Dolly!” Especially “Hello, Dolly!”
When Armstrong recorded that Jerry Herman song for Kapp Records on December 3, 1963, he hadn’t stepped foot in a recording studio in over two years. To his longtime manager, Joe Glaser, Armstrong no longer needed a hit record for marketability. Armstrong had become an out-and-out icon and was now making more money in live performances than he ever made in the recording studio. After a steady string of pop singles for Decca in the 1950s, Armstrong began recording sporadically for a variety of labels, often turning out product aimed at jazz fans of different interests. His Audio Fidelity album with the Dukes of Dixieland in 1960 was for the moldy figs, his collaboration with Duke Ellington on Roulette in 1961 was for fans of straightahead swing and his moving performance of Dave and Iola Brubeck’s original work, The Real Ambassadors, for Columbia in 1961 resulted in the most “modern” album of his career.
None of those albums were big sellers but it didn’t matter. He was still a tremendously popular live attraction, touring the world and playing a seemingly endless succession of one-nighters in front of sold out crowds. The recording industry was aiming its output towards a younger and younger market and there just wasn’t much interest in Louis Armstrong as a pop artist anymore, to the point where five record companies turned down the opportunity to record “Hello, Dolly!” before Kapp Records took a chance that fateful day in December 1963.
The result was an explosion felt all across the music world. The fact that it would end up on the charts at all seemed like a long shot at the time of the recording date (Armstrong famously forgot he even recorded it and after getting so many requests for it, needed to listen to the Kapp single to familiarize himself with it). Just making it onto the charts in early 1964 was enough to solidify it for a hit, with a cocky Joe Glaser telling Billboard on April 11, “I wanted Louis to do the single because I wanted to prove a point; namely, that Louis could come up with a smash single if he had the right material. Nobody wanted to cut singles with him. So Jack Lee and I talked to Dave Kapp, and we got the single. Kapp is to be commended. He helped us prove our point.”
That same week, Armstrong and his regular small group, the All Stars, recorded a full-length album to capitalize on the success of “Dolly.” They recorded definitive versions of long-time Armstrong favorites like “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” “Blueberry Hill,” “Jeepers Creepers” and “Someday You’ll Be Sorry.” But Kapp, realizing that perhaps it was “Dolly’s” showtune background and prominent banjo that led to his status, filled out the rest of the disc with Broadway and film favorites like “You Are Woman, I Am Man” from Funny Girl and “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in addition to adding Glen Thompson’s banjo and guitar to Armstrong’s working group.
The formula worked. The single of “Hello, Dolly!” hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 on May 9, knocking the Beatles off the top of the charts after 14 straight weeks of number one hits. The album was released the same week and by June 13, was the number one LP in the country, stepping over works by the Beatles, the Dave Clark Five, Andy Williams and Barbra Streisand.
Louis Armstrong, at almost 63-years-old, was now one of the hottest acts in the music business. This gave Joe Glaser unprecedented power. Though he correctly gave Dave Kapp credit for making “Hello, Dolly!” into such a sensational smash hit single and album, Kapp Records was a smaller label. Whoever was going to record Armstrong next was going to have to be a major label. And they were going to have to pay.
Glaser spent the summer of 1964 negotiating and finally landed a deal with Mercury Records President Irving B. Green. Armstrong would immediately begin recording singles for the label, with an album to follow. Mercury was an attractive place for Armstrong to wind up. His sessions would be overseen by budding superstar Quincy Jones, a great admirer of the trumpeter. The label made great out-and-out jazz albums, such as that season’s Oscar Peterson Trio + One featuring Armstrong favorite Clark Terry, but they also had a respectable pop line featuring Lesley Gore, Brook Benton and Johnny Mathis.
With this background and especially with Jones’s vision, one might have been tempted to imagine the exciting possibilities of an Armstrong marriage with Jones and Mercury. (The thought of an all-star big band album with arrangements by Jones is the stuff daydreams are made of.) But instead, Mercury played it safe and decided to ape the Kapp formula to a tee. On September 3, 1964, he assembled Armstrong’s All Stars, added Everett Barksdale on banjo and had another showtune waiting for them: “So Long Dearie,” from--you guessed it--the score of Hello, Dolly!
And once again, the formula worked. The rehearsal and alternate takes show it took some time for Armstrong and the All Stars to master the intricate song but once completed, the end result proved to be a highlight of Armstrong’s 1960s recording sessions, even though he doesn’t play a single note of trumpet. What makes the record work is Armstrong’s enthusiastic singing, the intense swinging of the All Stars and a different song structure that allows for some exciting shifts in momentum.
On the rehearsal take, you can hear the voice of Billy Kyle at the start, shouting out instructions to the rest of the band. Kyle was the band’s biggest asset in this department, able to construct arranged passages on the spot. Trombonist Russell “Big Chief” Moore joined just after “Hello, Dolly!” was recorded, but he was able to make the sessions that made up the album based around that single. Clarinetist Eddie Shu was making his first recording session with Armstrong, having joined the band at the beginning of July. Moore and Shu couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds--Moore was a mainstay on New York’s Dixieland scene while Shu was a multi-instrumentalist comfortable playing boppish solos with the likes of Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton--but they mesh together nicely behind Armstrong’s vocal.
Right from the start it’s like listening to “Hello, Dolly – The Sequel” as Everett Barksdale’s banjo plays a prominent role in the introduction. Ironically, Armstrong hadn’t played with a banjo since about 1928, but after “Dolly,” the majority of his recorded output--including everything he made for Mercury--all featured that instrument! Even when Armstrong recreated the Hot Fives and Sevens for Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography, he used George Barnes on electric guitar rather than bring back a banjo. Regardless, used in tandem with Billy Kyle’s piano and the dynamic team of Arvell Shaw and Danny Barcelona, the rhythm section swings throughout.
Armstrong sounds effervescent, obviously digging the pretty chord changes that enter a minor territory on more than one occasion. And how could he resist a lyric that already had the phrase “you dog” built in? At one point, he inserts the word “chick” and laughs heartily but at the end, he brings everything back to his monster hit of earlier that year, slyly saying, “So long, Dolly” and finally singing, “Wave your hand and whisper, So Long, Louis.” Referring to himself as “Louis” was a big part of “Dolly’s” charm so it couldn’t hurt to try it again.
For the flip side, it was decided to feature the famed Armstrong trumpet on a song he co-wrote with Kyle, “Pretty Little Missy.” This choice probably has a lot to do with Joe Glaser. Armstrong stopped composing new tunes regularly years earlier but by the mid-50s, Glaser set up a publishing house, International Music, that handled all of Armstrong’s compositions, as well as songs by Lil Hardin Armstrong, King Oliver and many Associated Booking artists. Decca recorded Armstrong’s “Someday You’ll Be Sorry” in 1953 and “Pretty Little Missy” in 1955, while Glaser managed to get the traditional spiritual “Bye and Bye” published by International Music after it was recorded by Decca in 1954. When Armstrong switched to Columbia, the flip side of “Mack the Knife” was Armstrong’s “Back O’Town Blues,” co-written by Luis Russell (Russell’s daughter, the fabulous singer Catherine Russell, told me “Mack the Knife” sold so many copies, the royalties from “Back O’Town” were enough for Russell to buy the family a new Cadillac!). Glaser even got in war with Columbia producer George Avakian over placing “The Faithful Hussar” and its vocal version, “Six Foot Four,” with International Music in 1956.
But after 1956, Armstrong’s singles output declined and Glaser didn’t push these numbers as hard. Thus, “Hello, Dolly!” was originally supposed to be the flip side of “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” from Bye Bye Birdie, neither song represented by International Music. Glaser, always on the lookout for more money, wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass him by again. Part of Armstrong’s Mercury deal must have stipulated International Music songs be recorded as often as possible; Glaser wasn’t taking any chances. (And in his will, Glaser left all of his shares of International Music to Armstrong, ensuring a revenue stream that took care of him and eventually his wife Lucille through her widowhood.)
Thus, “Pretty Little Missy” got the call. It was a hip tune based on Kyle’s “Perdido” solo, complete with more arranged horn lines by Moore and Shu behind the vocal and an entire half-chorus based on Ralph Finegan’s “Hot Toddy.” In short, the opposite of a “Hello, Dolly”; even the banjo sounds out of place here. But Armstrong powers through it all, taking a fun vocal (always trying to slip in a rhyme with “pucker” that surely would have gotten the record censored!) and playing some strong horn, especially on that final bridge. Quincy Jones proved to be a bit of a perfectionist as producer, calling for multiple takes of both “Dearie” and “Missy” when some of the alternates surely would have sufficed. Still, it’s interesting to hear the entire contents of the session for the first time, to appreciate Armstrong’s subtle changes from take-to-take but also to admire the All Stars’s consistency and professionalism (and hearing Armstrong flub the lyrics from time to time proves that maybe he was human after all! Maybe.).
Mercury rushed the release of the single onto the market, as Billboard reviewed it on September 19, just 16 days after it was recorded. Billboard’s review ran in the “Pop Standard Spotlights” section, reading, “Louis again dips into the score of the hit musical ‘Hello, Dolly!’ This, too, is a lively swinger featuring a rousing Satchmo vocal.” The same issue even had a news article, “New Single by Satchmo,” which stated, “Mercury Records is rushing out a single by Louis Armstrong titled ‘So Long Dear’ [sic] from the Broadway show ‘Hello, Dolly!’ Armstrong will do the tune on the Ed Sullivan show Oct. 4. The disc was cut by Mercury’s long-time a&r great Quincy Jones. A Mercury spokesman said an album will probably follow the single.”
On October 3, “So Long Dearie” entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number 94. The next night, Armstrong appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and did both salutation specialties “Hello, Dolly!” and “So Long Dearie.” The exposure helped as on October 10, “Dearie” jumped to number 68 and was designated a “Star Performer.” In the same issue, it was number 13 on the “Pop Standards Chart,” behind Frank Sinatra’s “Softly As I Leave You,” Dean Martin’s “The Door is Still Open to My Heart,” Tony Bennett’s “Who Can I Turn To” and other songs by the likes of Andy Williams, Nancy Wilson, Nat King Cole, Bobby Darin and Al Hirt.
By this point, Mercury must have been sure they had another “Hello, Dolly!” on their hands. For the October 17 issue of Billboard, the label placed a large advertisement on the front cover featuring a photo of Louis and the caption, “Louis Armstrong has pressed the hit button again. This time he is ringing the Mercury Hot Line with his smash single, ‘So Long Dearie’--another chart-buster from the hit Broadway show, ‘Hello, Dolly!’” It was now number 61 on the Hot 100 and still 13 on the Pop Standards chart.
On October 24, Billboard changed the “Pop Standards” name to “Middle-Road Singles,” described as “not too far out in either direction.” “So Long Dearie” held the number 9 slot on the new chart, right in between Barbra Streisand’s “Funny Girl” and “The James Bond Theme” by Billy Strange, while it moved up to number 59 on the Hot 100.
The following week, Mercury ran an ad of their current hits, including “So Long Dearie” alongside Lesley Gore’s “Girl Talk,” Brook Benton’s “This Bitter Earth,” Oscar Peterson and Clark Terry’s “Mumbles” and Johnny Mathis’s “This is Love.”’ It moved to number 56 on the Hot 100.
Joe Glaser couldn’t have been happier. He green-lit another Mercury session for November 3, 1964 as “Dearie” continued its ascent. Around this time, Glaser was visited by Jimmy Breslin, who wrote a wonderful profile, “A Normal Day With Joe Glaser,” that ran in the New York Herald Tribune on November 15. Breslin wrote, “[Glaser] got up and went over to the record player. He put on the record and stood in the middle of the floor. Louis Armstrong's voice came out of the machine. He was singing 'So Long, Dearie.' 'Not a note on the trumpet,' Joe said. ‘He don't blow a note on the trumpet. I said in 1939, when everybody said his lip was shot and he couldn't play anymore and I wouldn't let him hit 100 high C's in a night, that one day Louis Armstrong wouldn't even have to play the trumpet. Here it is. Sold 500,000 copies already.’ Joe's fingers started to snap and he began to jiggle. Then he started to turkey trot around a leather chair, fingers snapping, feet shuffling, his voice, perhaps the worst voice in all of America, mumbling along with the song."
For the November 3 date, Jones decided to stage “Hello Dolly - The Sequel to the Sequel.” Once again, a showtune was selected and once again, a banjo would added to the All Stars (now played by Walter Raim), but this time Jones went “the full Dolly” by selecting a song from a Broadway production that hadn’t even opened yet. The song was “Faith” and the musical was I Had a Ball, starring the comedian Buddy Hackett. I Had a Ball was getting positive reviews in Detroit and Philadelphia and was slated to open on Broadway on December 15. Having Armstrong record “Faith” in advance of the show’s official open wasn’t just a page out of the “Dolly” playbook, it was the “Dolly” playbook.
As the session takes show, Armstrong went into the studio cold, learning “Faith” on the fly, which led to some difficulty with the song’s jumble of lyrics. In the play, it was an uptempo, revivalist-type number, complete with “Hallelujahs.” Armstrong and the All Stars give it a strutting kind of groove, still keeping it in church but one with a more down-home congregation. (Jones deserves credit for calling for the band to slow it down a hair after the too-brisk first attempt.) Armstrong’s chops are in good form and he improvises different solos on each take, making the most of what wasn’t exactly a melody for the ages.
For the flip side, Glaser once again dipped into the International Music files and had Armstrong record “Bye and Bye” for the fourth time in his career. After versions with his big band, Gordon Jenkins’s choir and orchestra and the Dukes of Dixieland, Armstrong finally tackled the old spiritual with his All Stars. It’s a fantastic version and one of the highlights of Armstrong’s Mercury years, mainly because of the glorious trumpet playing. He takes two choruses up front and leads two more ensemble choruses at the end, improvising all the way. He’s not quite as fluid as he once was, but the power is still there, as evidenced in the gliss in the second chorus, the patented held “shake” on the high notes and the repeated high C’s at the end. Even taskmaster Jones knew this was the one, needing only one complete take (it was actually recorded first and perhaps Jones knew “Faith” was going to eat up the bulk of the four-hour session).
“Faith” was now being prepped for a release but if Glaser or the Mercury executives picked up Billboard on November 7, they were bound to be disappointed: “So Long Dearie” had gone down from 56 to 63 on the Hot 100. The following week, it was off the charts entirely. “So Long Dearie” was a modest hit (or more, if Glaser’s boast of it selling “500,000 copies” was accurate) but it fell well short of the “Hello, Dolly!” goal.
On December 5, Billboard reviewed “Faith” in the newly renamed “Middle Road Spotlights” column. “Show-stopper from Broadway’s ‘I Had a Ball’ is given an added shot-in-the-arm via this fine Armstrong style,” said Billboard. “Much in the vein of his ‘Hello, Dolly!’” It turned out Mercury had quite a bit invested in I Had a Ball, recording the official Broadway Cast Recording, as well as an album of jazz versions of the musical’s score on its Limelight Records subsidiary label.
The gamble didn’t pay off. I Had a Ball received mixed reviews when it opened on Broadway, only running 199 performances, and the score didn’t provide any breakout hits. It was far from Hello, Dolly! and as a result, Armstrong’s single of “Faith” sank without a trace.
Any plans to record an immediate album for Mercury were put on hold. Glaser didn’t mind since the All Stars were about to embark on a lucrative international tour including Japan and Australia at the end of 1964, followed by a high-profile tour behind the Iron Curtain in March 1965 (recordings of “So Long Dearie” survive from Australia and Prague; it was officially part of the repertoire). Armstrong then took six weeks off to recover from major dental work, followed by another trip to Europe in June and more one-nighters commencing later that month.
Thus, Armstrong was out of the recording studio for ten full months until Mercury gave him another chance in September 1965. Armstrong discographies have long given a date of September 10, 1965 and a location of New York City for this material, but the original tape boxes show everything was recorded in Hollywood over two days, September 9 and 10. (The original tape for the September 9 session is unfortunately missing so an old reference copy originally made for the late Armstrong discographer Jos Willems is used for the alternate takes of “Short But Sweet” and “The Circle of Your Arms,” resulting in the inferior sound of those tracks.)
The All Stars now featured three new members: Tyree Glenn, who makes his presence felt both on vibraphone and his specialty wah-wah trombone playing; clarinetist Buster Bailey, Armstrong’s old friend from the King Oliver and Fletcher Henderson days; and young bassist Buddy Catlett. Catlett was fond of talking about this session because after three months of touring with Armstrong, this was his first recording session and he expected the trumpeter to be a little more subdued in the studio. Instead, Armstrong recorded each number as if on stage, complete with all the facial and hand gestures that went with it! None of it was an act but rather, his only way of connecting with the material.
Quincy Jones’s voice is not heard on the session tapes but he was still the a top A&R man at Mercury at the time so it must be assumed he had input into the selections recorded in 1965. On the other hand, Mercury’s other A&R man, Hal Mooney--who ended up with full producer credit on the eventual final album Louis--might have taken over at this point. Either way, the label just could not shake the “Hello, Dolly!” sound so John Gray was added on banjo and guitar. But this time, maybe feeling burned by “Faith,” the label didn’t lean so heavily on a current Broadway selection. Instead, a mixed bag was presented to Armstrong, who, as usual, improved all of material on hand just by the sheer force of his personality and musicality.
“Short But Sweet” has Joe Glaser’s fingerprints on it because in addition to unknown composers “T. Puglisi” and “S. Rosen,” a third composer is listed: Louis Armstrong. I have no idea who Puglisi and Rosen were but Armstrong wasn’t writing any more tunes at this point so it sounds like the old music business habit of grafting a bandleader’s name onto a song’s composer credits was utilized here (along with publishing it with International Music).
Regardless of the song’s background, “Short But Sweet” is undoubtedly a highlight of Armstrong’s 1960s output, though it might only be known to die-hard Satchmo aficionados. (Armstrong’s close friend Jack Bradley didn’t remember it until I sent him a copy in 2010; he called me on the phone, still screaming--and cursing--with delight as he had no recollection of it whatsoever.) The pretty changes suggest a blues ballad with a bridge and the wistful lyrics are giving a moving rendering by Armstrong. But rivaling the riveting vocal is the stunning trumpet playing, first the understated muted reading of the melody followed later by the dramatic bridge played way up in the stratosphere.
However, the session tapes show that this was not an easy accomplishment. Armstrong’s trumpet playing was never quite the same after his dental surgery in the spring of 1965, but he was understandably not willing to accept this at first. Back on the road and more popular than ever, he was no longer able to pull off the superhuman feats of playing he was able to do just months earlier. This depressed him terribly and he couldn’t hide an ominous streak that showed up in interviews that summer with Patrick Scott and Richard Meryman. The alternate takes show a proud and defiant Armstrong who knows exactly what he wants to play on that final bridge, but he just can’t execute it cleanly on the first few attempts. Finally, an insert take is called and he nails it, but one must wonder what was going through his head. By the following year, he no longer even attempted such brave excursions into upper regions of the horn.
But in September 1965, even with the sometimes shaky spots on the alternate takes, he always rallies and the playing on the master takes of “Short But Sweet,” “The Circle of Your Arms” and the next day’s “I Like This Kind of Party” is of high caliber, singled out for praise by astute critics--and Armstrong fans--Hugues Panassie and Dan Morgenstern. In writing about Armstrong’s trumpet playing of this period, Panassie pointed out that Armstrong never recorded a full 32-bar solo after 1964. “It is even more regrettable, for Louis’ short solos recording during these years (1965-68) are not only superb but they are completely different from anything in the past; the simultaneous presence of an expressive power plus a supreme relaxation give to his playing an accent beautifully serene and at the same time poignant, which put the listener in a state of musical ecstasy,” Panassie wrote in his book, Louis Armstrong. “Similarly, the melodic line of Louis’ solos is more concentrated, and his increasingly precise phrases are shaped in a way that leads, more than ever, to a swinging way of playing. ‘I Like This Kind of Party’ is a striking example of this.”
Unfortunately, though Armstrong’s solos are noteworthy, neither “I Like This Kind of Party” or “The Circle of Your Arms” is an exceptional tune. “The Circle of Your Arms” at least came two top-notch composers, Carolyn Leigh (“Witchcraft,” “The Best is Yet to Come”) and pianist Jack Segal (“When Sunny Gets Blue,” “Scarlet Ribbons”), though it’s not their best work. Glenn’s muted trombone work is especially effective and Armstrong delivers the vocal with panache, especially the cute final repetition of “for me,” added on an insert take.
The next day’s session began with the only romp of the batch, “I Like This Kind of Party,” which might be one of the dumbest songs Armstrong ever had to record. Written by Jack Keller (the man behind hits by Connie Francis and Brenda Lee, plus the composer of the TV theme songs for Bewitched and Gidget) and Tony Powers (composer of the Exciters’s 1963 hit, “He Got the Power”), the song barely features a melody, includes an unending stream of corny lines (“Everybody’s moving and everybody’s grooving!”) and runs out of gas by the finish, the last eight bars being eaten up by the phrase “I Like This Kind of Party” repeated twice. Yet only Armstrong can make something listenable out of this mess, using all of his acting abilities to make the finished product sound like a party well worth attending. And when he picks up the trumpet, he eschews what melody there is and creates something fresh on each take, in terrific form throughout.
The September session ends in a laid-back mood with the charming, “The Three of Us,” written by Richard Adler, who did The Pajama Game on Broadway in 1954. He wrote the song for Jimmy Durante in 1964 and though Durante used it in his act, he never recorded it. Armstrong was a similarly beloved performer (he and Durante made a memorable appearance together on The Hollywood Palace earlier in 1965) and it must have been figured that was good for Durante was good for Armstrong. Indeed it was, but for some reason, Mercury rejected it and it wasn’t formally issued in the United States until a Verve compilation included a take in 1995. (Interestingly, Adler added it to a 2006 revival of The Pajama Game so it has had a second life in the past decade.)
There were some really fine moments on the September 1965 sessions, but overall, the material was pretty weak, even if Armstrong did his usual heroic job in overcoming it. Milt Gabler was the master of always choosing the right pop tunes to record during Armstrong’s long association with Decca in the 1940s and 50s. Quincy Jones might have been a genius with the Midas touch in those days (look what he did for Frank Sinatra with 1964’s It Might As Well Be Swing) and Hal Mooney might have had success with his works for vocalists like Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington but neither had a well thought-out vision for how to present Armstrong. All four September 1965 songs were new, so clearly Mercury didn’t want Armstrong solely performing the hits of yesteryear, but at the same time, more intelligent song choices could have produced some truly memorable performances of contemporary songs. (Coincidentally, this Mercury album of Louis was released the same week in 1966 that the Beatles released Yesterday and Today. After Louis Armstrong died, Lucille Armstrong told a reporter that one of his only regrets was never getting to opportunity to record John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday,” a song he really loved. Now that would have been a lot more durable than “I Like This Kind of Party.”)
Mercury only released one single from the September 1965 material, “The Circle of Your Arms” backed by “Short But Sweet.” Billboard optimistically put it on their “Predicted to reach the Hot 100 Chart” list on October 23 but it disappeared almost immediately, not even garnering a review in that magazine. “I Like This Kind of Party” was held back and “The Three of Us” was rejected.
After jumping out of the gate with the modest hit “So Long Dearie,” Mercury was on a losing streak with “Faith” and “The Circle of Your Arms.” Still, Joe Glaser gave them one more chance in 1966, hot on the heels of a Life magazine cover story on Armstrong that ran on April 15. Once again, the label didn’t see the need to mess with the “Hello, Dolly!” formula. In fact, with either Jones or Mooney running the show, Mercury prepared to copy it more blatantly than ever before, if that was even possible.
For his follow-up to the smash hit musical Hello, Dolly!, Jerry Herman selected the popular novel and film, Auntie Mame, for the basis of his next production. Simply titled Mame, the show was due to open on Broadway May 24, 1966. Word must have traveled fast to Glaser and Mercury as it was decided Armstrong should record the title tune a month before the show opened, just as he did with “Dolly.” On April 20 and 21, the All Stars, in the middle of a stretch of one-nighters, recorded “Mame” and four other songs at Gateway Sound Studios in Pittsburgh of all places. (Louis’s date book for 1966 shows multiple performances in Pittsburgh but no recording dates for that week, illustrating the slapdash nature of the sessions). The idea would be to rush out “Mame” as a single and combine everything else Armstrong recorded for Mercury onto an album, hoping to cash in on the publicity from the Life story (Mercury even worked out a deal to use the exact same Phillipe Halsman photo of Louis used on the Life cover to be used again for the album cover).
Unfortunately, 1966 was something of a down year for Armstrong. As we’ve heard, Armstrong struggled a little more after his dental work but was still able to push through the pain and hit the high ones into the end of 1965. But almost everything that survives from 1966 shows that Armstrong might have finally blown himself out. Whether on television, in concert or on the Pittsburgh Mercury sessions, his playing is weaker and more tired than ever before. He would eventually come to grips with his diminished chops, eliminating several demanding numbers from his live shows and pacing himself better, which led to some of his last examples of really strong trumpet work in 1967 and 1968. But for Mercury, the Armstrong of the April 1966 sessions is a long way from the Armstrong shooting out the lights on “Pretty Little Missy” and “Bye and Bye” just a year-and-a-half earlier.
Perhaps because of the weakened state of his trumpet playing, Armstrong leaned heavier on his singing and showmanship to get through these sessions. For “Mame,” he took a page from “So Long Dearie” and didn’t play a single note, leaving the hornwork to Tyree Glenn’s plunger-muted trombone. Instead, he sang the catchy Herman tune with great enthusiasm, even throwing in two references to himself, once as “Satchmo” and once, to the chagrin of many, as “Louie.” The “Louie” vs. “Louis” debate has raged on for years with most of the “Louis” folks always pointing to Armstrong’s “It’s Louisssss, Dolly” on “Hello, Dolly!” as the deciding factor. While it’s true that Armstrong always gave his name as “Louis” and made a point of saying his mother never called him “Louie,” many friends, musicians and even wives called him “Louie,” so he obviously didn’t mind it. Thus, on “Mame,” score one for the “Louie” crowd. And to keep the “Dolly” vibes going, yet another banjoist was added in the form of the unheralded Alfred Di Lernia, a local Pittsburgh musician who contemporary newspaper accounts show normally played bass! Talk about a rushed couple of sessions..
Of the five songs recorded in Pittsburgh, it was decided to do two long-time staples of the All Stars repertoire, “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Tin Roof Blues.” Armstrong put the “Saints” on the map in 1938 and though he performed it nearly every night of his career, he didn’t make another studio version until this one in 1966. Alas, it was a long way from 1938 and Armstrong’s chops in the opening choruses sound exceptionally weak. Once he starts singing, he springs to life, introducing each member of the group (something he first did on 1925’s “Gut Bucket Blues”) but the band sounds a little stiff, trying to keep a forced two-beat feel for much of the proceedings. “Tin Roof Blues” was an interesting choice because it was always a slower-than-slow instrumental on which Armstrong never took a solo, only sticking to stately lead playing. This version follows the live routine with solos but Glenn and Bailey’s solos instead become obligatos to an impromptu fun Armstrong vocal that sounds like a distant relative of “Back o’Town Blues.” It’s always great hearing Armstrong sing the blues and his two choruses on “Tin Roof” enliven what could have been a fairly forgettable recording.r
And then there’s “Cheesecake.” If you only appreciate the 1920s masterpieces like “Potato Head Blues” and “West End Blues,” it’s easy to point to “Cheesecake” as evidence that Armstrong was creatively spent and officially nothing more than a clown by 1966. Of course, if you appreciate Armstrong’s clowning on “King of the Zulus” and “Heebie Jeebies” and read the live reviews of his 1920s performances that lauded his megaphone singing, Charleston dancing and drag routines, you’d know his career was really just one long continuum.
Having said that, “Cheesecake” is pretty silly stuff. It’s from the pen of pianist and composer Irving Fields, who passed away in August 2016 at the age of 101, still performing until the end. As Fields told it in his autobiography, The Pianos I Have Known, a bicycle ride after particularly delicious cheesecake he had for breakfast at famed New York City eatery Lindy’s was the inspiration behind this masterpiece of songwriting.
“The pavement was all cobblestones,” he wrote. “My wheels went ‘bumpity bumpity bumpity’ against the road. I started to sing a melody to the rhythm of the tires. I was still thinking of that wonderful cheesecake I’d had at Lindy’s, so I sang to myself, ‘Cheesecake, munchin’ on a cheesecake, munchin’ on a cheesecake. Cheesecake.’ I suddenly had both lyrics and a rhythm….I liked ‘Cheesecake’ so much that I got a group of musicians into a studio to record a demo. The drummer liked to fool around with a great Louis Armstrong impersonation, so I said, ‘Let’s try ‘Cheesecake’ as if Louis Armstrong were doing it.’ he sang it just like Satchmo!”
Fields took the demo record to Joe Glaser, with almost disastrous results. “He thought it was Louis singing!” Fields wrote. “He said, ‘You’ve got some goddamn nerve, getting a hold of Louis behind my back to record a song!’ Once I told Joe that it was just an imitator on a demo, he got so excited about the song that he immediately had the real Louis Armstrong record the song, which became something of a hit.”
(What Fields omitted is that once again, Joe Glaser added Armstrong’s name as co-composer and made sure to have “Cheesecake” published by International Music. It was eventually released as a single with International Music’s “Bye ‘N Bye” on the flip, Glaser trying to maximize profits at every turn.)
And while the musicologists might scoff at a novelty like “Cheesecake,” the musicians obviously had a fun time recording it. When I interviewed Armstrong’s drummer Danny Barcelona in 2005, I asked him what was his favorite recording that he made with Armstrong--the one with Ellington? “Hello, Dolly”? The Real Ambassadors? No, he answered, “There was one that I liked a lot...It was called ‘Cheesecake.’ Yeah, man, we did one take and that was it! Quincy was the A&R man, Quincy Jones.” “Cheesecake” was added to the repertoire and even performed on The Hollywood Palace with Bing Crosby getting in on the action in a version that aired in April of 1967.
The fifth and final tune recorded in Pittsburgh was “Tyree’s Blues,” an original tune credited to trombonist Glenn and Armstrong (and yes, published by International Music) that most likely was cooked up on the spot. It features a catchy, almost comical melody with its namesake in the lead though it’s effectively mimicked by Armstrong’s trumpet and even better, his scat chorus, complete with a shoutout to Glenn’s home in Teaneck, New Jersey (bassist Buddy Catlett vividly remembered Armstrong’s facial expressions and mannerisms in putting over this vocal in the cold confines of the studio). It’s a cute little number, it not a real standout.
With five songs in the can, it was time for Armstrong to go back to work and for Hal Mooney to rush out the single of “Mame.” Mercury decided to secure some insurance and once again invested in purchasing advertising space on the front cover of the May 14 issue of BIllboard.
The “History Repeats Itself” might have been an attempt at a wishful self-fulfilling prophecy but “Mame” was immediately named a “Regional Breakout” and entered the newly renamed “Easy Listening” chart at number 26, right behind Frank Sinatra’s brand new “Strangers in the Night.” One week later, it was number 20 on the Easy Listening chart and broke into the Hot 100 at number 85.
However, unlike “Hello, Dolly,” Armstrong’s “Mame” had some competition from Bobby Darin, whose version was released just ahead of Armstrong. Thus, on May 28, as Armstrong’s “Mame” hit number 16 in Easy Listening and number 81 on the Hot 100, Darin’s version was at number 7 and 56 on those respective charts. “Mame” would not be another “Hello, Dolly” but it was still an impressive enough feat for the nearly 65-year-old Armstrong to once again be in the Hot 100. “Mame” never did break number 81 but it continued moving up the Easy Listening charts, eventually hitting number 7 on June 18.
Upon its release, the song immediately entered Armstrong’s live repertoire as Billboard mentioned it being “well received” in a review of Armstrong’s performance at Union College in Schenectady, New York on May 14. Armstrong was in the middle of a slew of college appearances--Billboard also reviewed his show at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville on May 13--and “Mame” soon became a favorite, leading Armstrong to mention in his introductions to live versions, “All the students all over the world in all the colleges like this number.”
By June 25, the accompanying album was ready for release. Simply titled Louis, it collected all of Armstrong’s Mercury recordings except for “The Three of Us” and used the same Philippe Halsman photograph that graced the cover of Life two months earlier. A small square box blared, “This album contains the hit song MAME from the new BROADWAY SHOW.”
Billboard approved, reviewing it on July 2 and writing, “Louis Armstrong is apparently indestructible. In ‘Mame,’ the featured song in this album, he has another hot show tune that will be long-lasting. Other songs in the set are in varied moods but the Armstrong mark is on all of them.” The release must have given the single a bump as Armstrong’s “Mame” finally overtook Bobby Darin’s version on the Easy Listening charts on July 2.
After that, “Mame” began its descent even on the Easy Listening chart but it was still a pretty successful two months. (Year end charts would rank it Number 33 overall on the list of top Easy Listening singles of 1966.) An interesting article appeared in the July 16 issue of Billboard. Titled “Chasm Between Jazz and Popular Music Narrows” it detailed how the sounds of jazz were being rolled into pop music. “Jazz, with almost as many divergent directions as there are jazz musicians, appears headed toward a single path regarding the source of repertoire,” wrote Billboard’s Hank Fox. “The trend is toward a form of commercialism closely associated with popular and rock ‘n’ roll music. Many jazz musicians are shying away from original compositions. According to John Levy, personal manager of Herbie Mann, Joe Williams, Cannonball Adderley, Ray Bryant and the Three Sounds, jazz artists are hitting solid broad-based popularity only when they enter the mainstream of popular music. This was nothing new for Armstrong, who had been a staple on the pop music charts for decades, much to the chagrin of many jazz critics and purists. Fox added, “Now, Ella FItzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Ramsey Lewis are the forerunners of the pop sound with jazz interpretation. People who aren’t jazz fans go for their material.”
This was true then and it is true now. Most of the jazz community wasn’t paying much attention to Louis Armstrong 1966 but he did have one advocate: Dan Morgenstern, then Downbeat’s New York Editor shortly before becoming the Editor-in-Chief of the “bible” of jazz. Morgenstern reviewed Louis in the August 25, 1966 issue and gave it five stars. His thoughtful review rightly praises the best parts of Armstrong’s association with Mercury but also correctly laments what could have been. It is worth quoting at length:
“New albums by Armstrong are too few and far between to allow for indulgence in that favorite critical sport, nitpicking. That this very great man, after 50 years of making music, still gives of himself so unstintingly is something to be thankful for, and this album is a potent reminder of this elementary fact. A single golden note from his horn is worth a shelf-full of everyday jazz records, and there are moments on this album when he proves beyond debate that his genius continues to shine as brightly as ever.”
“Armstrong is a past master of the art of triumphing over any kind of material; he proves this once again, for example, on ‘Party,’ a piece of trivia he adorns with a brief but fabulous trumpet solo. His solo is a complete abstraction--this is no real melody to improvise on--but it is also totally melodic. Players of great repute have said less in 20 choruses than Armstrong does in a few bars here. And with this comes that majestic sound, still unsurpassed, still up there where it takes chops to make those notes.”
Morgenstern added, “But these dates, done during brief pauses in the Armstrong All-Stars’ heavy road schedule, apparently did not allow for the considerations of circumstances that should be the rule for an artist of this caliber….The choice of material is further indication of a lack of thoughtfulness.” Morgenstern’s conclusion was right on the money: “Yet, it is obvious that the time and care devoted to, say, a Barbra Streisand album production is missing. A first-class arranger (Benny Carter, for instance), a larger group, well-planned programming, adequate time for preparation, and a relaxed, non-rush recording atmosphere could make a framework for truly marvelous music from this great artist. It’s about time somebody realized and acted accordingly.”
It was a passionate, truthful call to arms but it fell on deaf ears. Armstrong continued to make erratic recordings in varied settings until the day he died. A couple of weeks after Morgenstern’s review, Armstrong was back in the studio recording yet another new showtune, “Cabaret,” this time for Columbia and surrounded by strings (and a banjo). The following year, 1967, saw a sad cover of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream” for Brunswick, four songs Armstrong sang completely in Italian and a little something called “What a Wonderful World.”
The pattern never let up but Louis Armstrong never seemed to complain and always brought everything he had to everything he recorded. Thus, Louis is an insightful look at Armstrong at the peak of his popularity, his chops starting to fade, staring down an erratic set of tunes in the middle of a grueling schedule and still creating music that is well worth revisiting and celebrating in 2017 (and beyond).
Ricky Riccardi is the author of What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years and is the Director of Research Collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum. He co-produced this set with Harry Weinger.