As already mentioned, this entry will focus on the six Christmas records Armstrong made for Decca in the 1950s. And when I say records, I don’t mean long-playing discs but rather, six three-minute singles. It might seem odd that someone who brought more joy to the world than Santa Claus would have so few yuletide classics in his discography, but alas that’s the case. In fact, Armstrong didn’t get around to recording his first Christmas song until 1952, unless, of course, you count Armstrong’s two versions of “Santa Claus Blues” from 1924 and 1925 (still a subject for a future blog!).
When Decca finally corralled Armstrong into the studio to record some Christmas cheer, they gave him first-class treatment by backing him with the lush arrangements of Gordon Jenkins. Jenkins’s sentimental string and voices sound revived Armstrong’s recording career with the 1949 hit “Blueberry Hill.” By the early 1950s, Jenkins was a veritable recording superstar. Anything with his name on it sold tremendously so it made sense for Decca to pair him with label stars like Peggy Lee and Armstrong. On September 22, 1952, Armstrong and Jenkins teamed up for their fourth session together. On one of their sessions, from February 6, 1951 Jenkins jettisoned his strings and turned in some very fine small-big band arrangements but for the 1952 session, the strings were the whole show on the Christmas number, though current All Stars Bob McCracken, Marty Napoleon, Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole were in the studio band that day (as was guitarist Art Ryerson, who would do many post-“Hello, Dolly” sessions with Pops in the 60s).
Both of the Jenkins Christmas numbers are unusually low-key. They feature no trumpet and no surges of emotion or anything. They’re very sober but the best word to describe them has to be “warm.” Pops is at his most tender, singing as if he’s whispering a loving lullaby to a small child. “White Christmas” is up first and, of course, was property of Armstrong’s friend and disciple, Bing Crosby. From the opening seconds, we know we’re in Gordon Jenkins country. “White Christmas” demonstrates that many of our best-loved Christmas songs feature quite a range of notes and you can hear Pops stretch here and there, but I always loved his tenor voice—as well as that basso profundo he would break out when necessary. Both are needed on “White Christmas,” which finds Pops reaching for a high D on “the ones” to the C an octave lower on “children.” On the final “be white,” Armstrong goes down to a low B on the coincidental word “be.” Where you’d expect a scat break or a “oh babe,” Pops lays out, leaving the gaps to be filled by Jenkins’s beautiful strings. After a brief string interlude, Armstrong reenters with the final eight bars, featuring, I think, some of his most touching singing. You can hear him smiling as he sings “and bright.” Again, he goes way down for that final “white,” holding it for an impressive amount of time. Very pretty stuff. Enough from me, enjoy it for yourself:
“Winter Wonderland” is up next and it’s more of the same. Though most performers do this one at an uptempo, Armstrong and Jenkins give it the same gentle ballad treatment as “White Christmas.” Again, Pops rarely deviates from the melody but he doesn’t have to, he’s singing it so sweetly. Am I weird for actually feeling warmed by the way Pops sings “as we dream by the fire”? Jenkins goes back to the bridge for another one of his trademark sounds. Marty Napoleon plays the melody in single notes an octave lower than you’d expect. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but hey, this was popular music in 1952 and it gave Jenkins an identity. Pops reenters for the final eight with a cute extended coda. Armstrong repeats the word “walking” while the pizzicato strings “walk” gingerly behind him. Finally, Armstrong unleashes a little bit of scat and the record comes to a mellow conclusion. Dig it:
Decca released the results of the September session on November 15, once again garnering positive notices in Billboard. “There have been scores of waxings of the Berlin favorite but this one could move up with the top sellers this Christmas,” the magazine said of “White Christmas.” “Satchmo sings it as only he can, and the Jenkins ork provides a beautiful accompaniment. This one should grab loot and keep the deejays busy in December.” It was the same story for “Winter Wonderland”: “The lovely Jenkins ork arrangement provides a fine showcase for Louis to agreeably tell, in his own wonderful style, about a snowy winter on this delightful waxing of the oldie. Side will grab bundles of spins starting the end of November.”
And just one column over, the magazine named the single one of the Top Picks of the Week, writing, “Dealers, operators and deejays should get a lot of action out of both sides of this new platter come the start of the Christmas season. Fine tunes, and Louis’ vocals could make it a big holiday disking.”
Needless to say, this wouldn’t be the last time Armstrong encountered some Christmas music for the label. And the next time out, he’d romp instead of croon.
If Jenkins’s Christmas records make you a little sleepy and ready to curl up by the fire, here comes Toots Camarata’s Commanders to violently wake you up, visions of Ed Grady’s cymbals ringing in your head. I devoted an entire entry to this session in October 2013 because I believe it's one of the greatest dates Armstrong ever did in his entire career. The Commanders were a ferocious studio band co-led by arranger Camarata and drummer Grady. Camarata was a trumpet player himself and a huge devotee of Armstrong. In fact, on his 1957 album Tutti’s Trumpets, he contributed an original titled simply “Louis,” that is a beautifully written and played (by Mannie Klein) tribute to Pops (Camarata later oversaw Armstrong’s album of Disney songs). Grady apparently was a child star on drums and eventually played with the likes of New Orleans trumpeter George Girard’s small group with Pete Fountain and Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra in the early 50s. As he grew older, he settled into steady work as a session drummer (a quick search shows a Benny Goodman Capitol date in 1954, a famous rockabilly date with “The Rock and Roll Trio,” as well as a Jackie Paris session with arrangements by Neal Hefti).
If Jenkins’s Christmas records make you a little sleepy and ready to curl up by the fire, here comes The Commanders to violently wake you up, visions of Ed Grady’s cymbals ringing in your head. They were brass heavy—three trumpets, four trombones and only two reeds—and featured a peerless rhythm section propelled by Carmen Mastren’s rhythm guitar and Grady’s earth-shattering big band drumming. The October 1953 session began with two Christmas songs and both are a lot of fun. After trying out a few standards on the Jenkins sessions, Decca gave Armstrong a few novelties to cut up on and he does just that, infusing these two trite, silly songs with such enthusiasm that they’ve in turn had a shelf life of over 50 years of being listened to and enjoyed. First up: "Zat You Santa Claus?"
Right off the bat, you can hear that Decca gave their sound effects man some extra work on the date and the record starts off with howling winds and jingle bells. Grady’s drums “knock” on the door (how often did he have to change his snare head?), Pops asks the title question and we’re off, the reeds falling into a standard descending minor vamp. The lyrics are back in the “Old Man Mose” mold as Pops, frightened by the outside noises (cue the sound effects guy), hopes it’s Santa Claus making that racket and not someone sinister. The song does have a great bridge and the Commanders swing through it easily. The lyrics really are kind of goofy, but man, Pops sounds like he’s having a ball, which in turn, spreads to the listener. After one chorus, the band takes over, trading four bars with Pops and playing with such force, it threatens to become the most badass Christmas song ever recorded. Pops’s vocal on the trades grows more nervous and frantic, adding more fun to the proceedings. But perhaps the highlight of the record comes during the coda when a clearly petrified Armstrong pleads, “Please, a-please, a-pity my knees!” I love the way he sings that word “please.” The song ends with a big ending and after another “knock” from the drums, Pops yells, “That’s him all right,” while more sound effects take us out. It’s not “White Christmas,” but it’s very atmospheric and it’s easy to get swept away by Pops’s vocal.
Next up was “Cool Yule,” lyrics and music by comedian and television talk show pioneer Steve Allen. In fact, the demo recording given to Armstrong for him to learn the tune from featured a live performance of "Cool Yule" by Allen as broadcast on his TV show. Due to its use in a few recent movies, “Cool Yule” has probably become Armstrong’s best-known Christmas recording. During my 50 trips to the mall this season, it’s sometimes hard to hear the piped in Christmas music, but man, that Armstrong horn during the bridge always manages to cut through the noise! (2017 update: this still applies, now that I have kids. My daughter Ella hears it at the mall and shouts to me, "Louie!") Allen’s trademark sense of humor infuses the lyrics with all sorts of funny psuedo-hip references and Pops again, sounds like he’s having a ball. Here 'tis:
The song begins with more jingle bells before the band enters with a sprightly shuffle beat—wait a minute, is this Louie Prima or Louis Armstrong? The changes are fairly simple: “rhythm changes” for 16 bars, then a modulation for more “rhythm changes” in the bridge, kind of like Count Basie’s “Easy Does It.” Only the second half of the bridge doesn’t have “Rhythm,” as it’s punctuated by giant accents by the band on two and four. Again, Pops sings wonderfully but dig that band. Every drum hit, every brass punch, every note of the instrumental interlude…it’s so precise, so explosive, so swinging. I wish Armstrong made a dozen albums with the Commanders. After eight bars from the band, Armstrong picks up his horn for the first time during the session and it’s a preview of the tremendous blowing that was to be the hallmark of the date. Though the song has nothing to do with the blues, Pops instills his entire solo with more blue notes than you might expect. He gets downright funky with some of his note choices and I can never refrain from giving a “Yeah,” when he gets into that bridge. The highlight of the trumpet solo comes in the bridge when plays the melody phrase like a human being, then skyrockets an octave higher to play it again, ending it on a high concert D. After the vocal, Pops still has time to sing another entire chorus and he does so with even more enthusiasm than the first time, especially on the bridge (and listen to Grady on the final A section). Pops legitimately breaks himself up by yelling “Cool Yule” at the end and if you’re not smiling, you’re surname must be Scrooge.
Decca had everything ready to go in less than a market, leadingBillboard to review it on November 21, writing of “Cool Yule, “Jazz Christmas greetings from the voice and trumpet of the fabulous Louis is quite a production. His fans will want.” If they did want it, they didn’t buy many copies as it was never mentioned in Billboard again that year. But as any artist with a solid Christmas song knows, the sales never really stopped and if anything, both side have become more ubiquitous in the 21st century than ever before, staples of holiday film (and shopping mall) soundtracks. Like everything else Armstrong recorded, these records will never disappear.
Anyway, Decca wasn’t finished yet and two years later, on September 8, 1955, they brought Armstrong in to record two more Christmas songs, this time backed by a studio band arranged and conducted by the great Benny Carter. This has become one of those forgotten Decca sessions, never reissued on C.D. by the label itself but it is available on the Ambassador label’s Moments to Remember disc, which collects all of Armstrong’s Christmas work for the Decca, the entire Commanders session and other odds and ends that are hard to find on compact disc or Itunes. Carter wrote a great arrangement for Armstrong on The Platters’s “Only You” and Armstrong manages to sound quite tender on the Four Lads hit, “Moments to Remember.”
The first Christmas song that day was Dick Sherman and Joe Van Winkle’s “Christmas In New Orleans.” In 2016, New Orleans Gambit writer “Blake Pontchartrain” discovered that “Dick Sherman” was really Richard M. Sherman of the famed Sherman Brothers who began writing so much classic music for Walt Disney films in 1958. Sherman was 27 at the time and was already writing songs before teaming with his brother.
Carter’s arrangement begins with a hardened “Jingle Bells” quote that sounds like it belongs in an episode of Dragnet (remember, Carter was doing a lot of film work at the time). It soon settles into a gentle two-beat that really works for this song. The lyrics are almost a waste of time with their references to stuff like a “Dixieland Santa Claus,” but as always, Pops sounds like the happiest guy in the world. And how could he not? He loved Christmas and he loved New Orleans so any song that combined the two, even with dopey lyrics, was bound to inspire him. What’s truly inspired, though, is the trumpet solo. The tune starts off kind of like “Basin Street Blues” before it goes its own way but the changes obviously had enough meat for Armstrong to sink his chops into. This isn’t one of those grandiose high-note extravaganzas; however it is a good time to appreciate Armstrong’s rhythmic mastery.
It’s one of those solos that I always enjoyed but never really devoted 100% attention to until an afternoon I spent in Joe Muranyi’s house. Muranyi recorded “Christmas In New Orleans” for his Jazzology C.D., Joe Muranyi With The New Orleans Real Low-Down. For the disc, he transcribed Armstrong’s solo to be played in unison by his clarinet, Duke Heitger’s trumpet and Tom Baker’s tenor sax. You get so used to hearing horns playing unison lines on bop heads and the like, but not on Armstrong solos and all of a sudden, this solo that I kind of took for granted, became a whole new thing. While listening to it with me, Muranyi said, “It’s tough to notate this part. I worked so hard on it. What you do is, I did it and then I put it away. I mean, I had done it maybe two or three years before this and when I took it out again and refined it, you keep finding little things. It’s not easy. It’s interesting to hear it in this context. It sounds more complex than when he plays it.” It really does. Here's Muranyi's performance:
For the final track on the date, Decca reached back and picked “Christmas Night In Harlem,” written by Mitchell Parish and Raymond Scott for the “Blackbirds of and 1934 and memorably recorded by Paul Whiteman with a vocal by Jack Teagarden and Johnny Mercer. Carter’s arrangement begins with another Christmas quote—Billy Kyle playing the beginning to “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”—before the horns punch out a descending line that reminds me of a Ray Charles record (I think I’m thinking of “Greenback Dollar Bill”). Armstrong sings the first chorus harmlessly—it’s a pretty repetitive melody and he does his best with it. Carter’s arrangement swings after the vocal and you can hear Barney Bigard holding a high note. (This was Bigard’s next-to-last session with the All Stars as he would be replaced by Edmond Hall in a matter of weeks.) Armstrong’s trumpet solo is curiously low-key. He more or less sticks to playing the melody in the middle register. Naturally, the Armstrong sound makes it worth listening to, but he doesn’t really blow with any force until the last eight bars. It’s a fine solo but I think that Pops could have maybe used one more take to wail a little more. After the low-key solo, Pops returns to sing the bridge, which features a very funny moment. Armstrong sings, “Everyone will be all lit up,” and laughs to himself, “lit up” clearly having a different meaning to him than most. He swings the lyric on the final A section, boiling it down to one note, but the arrangement is now too polite; where’s Ed Grady’s drums to wake things up? The highlight of the record is Pops’s eloquent scatting and singing as the record fades. A charming record, but not my favorite Louis Christmas song.
Armstrong was happy after the session, writing to Joe Glaser, “The next day, which was Thursday, we did the recording date at Decca, with the Benny Carter Arrangements...Oh boy, but good...He made some very fine arrangements and all the Decca Lads, were very much elated….’Yass They were...”
And that ends this tour of Louis Armstrong’s Christmas recordings for Decca. Of course, Armstrong wasn’t completely done recording yuletide music as in 1970, he performed “Here Is My Heart For Christmas” for RCA. And Armstrong’s very last recording is a reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” that is quite charming and is one I also wrote about in great detail in this blog from 2015. Long story short, include some Louis Armstrong in your holiday music mix and you can't go wrong!
Merry Swiss Kriss, everyone!