Big Butter and Egg Man

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Recorded November 16, 1926
Track Time 3:01
Written by Percy Venable
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Hardin, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo;
Originally released on OKeh 8423
Currently available on CD: It’s on any of the various complete Hot Five box sets, as well as a number of compilations
Available on Itunes? Yes

Today’s entry is on “Big Butter and Egg Man,” a number that Louis Armstrong approached in a few different ways over the decades, but each time managed to create something memorable. But first: what exactly is a “butter and egg man”? Ah, thank God for the Internet, which makes such quests for useless knowledge as easy as typing in the word “Google.” Apparently, people began using the term “butter and egg man” in the late 1890s, but back then, it was used quite literally to describe someone who (wait for it) sold butter and eggs. However, nightclub performer Texas Guinan is usually credited with popularizing the phrase by giving it a slightly different meaning. To quote the Oxford English Dictionary, the slang term “butter and egg man” refers to “a wealthy, unsophisticated man who spends money freely.” Nothing about farm products in that definition!

After Guinan coined it in 1924, it became the title of a George S. Kaufman Broadway play in 1925. Thus, it was ripe material for song lyrics, which Percy Venable produced in 1926. Venable, the uncle of Lucky Millander, was the choreographer at the Sunset Café in Chicago, where Louis and Lil performed (he later became choreographer for Chicago’s Grand Terrace Ballroom). As a songwriter, Venable wrote four songs that Armstrong performed with the Hot Five: “Sunset Café Stomp,” “Irish Black Bottom,” “You Made Me Love You,” and of course, “Big Butter and Egg Man From The West,” which is how the title appeared on the original OKeh 78.

(Note: the great majority of books, web sites and even C.D. notes credit “Butter and Egg Man” to Venable and Armstrong. However, Jos Willems’s All of Me credits only Venable and since Gosta Hagglof helped with crediting the songwriters, I can’t dispute that team!)

Armstrong recorded “Butter and Egg Man” the same day he recorded Venable’s “Sunset Café Stomp.” Both tunes feature vocals by May Alix (Armstrong spelled her name “Mae,” as we’ll see in a minute). The Hot Five recording of “Butter and Egg Man” has been enjoyed by listeners for over 80 years but many fans of the record probably have no idea who Alix was or why she even appears on the record. I could stiffly answer this but I’d rather let Pops do it himself. Here he is writing in his unpublished memoir, “The Armstrong Story,” written in 1954 (and now available in Louis Armstrong In His Own Words). This story takes place when Armstrong and Lil were still part of King Oliver’s band, playing at the Lincoln Gardens and getting to know each other better every night:

“One night we were alone talking over different things and trying to think of some place to go. I told Lil there was something I wanted to ask her to do. Take me to see Ollie Powers, a tenor, swing singer, and Mae Alix. Ollie was a light [skinned] heavy built fellow. He had just come off the Road with Shelton Brooks, a comedian who reminded you of Burt Wiliams. Ollie was working at the Dreamland with Mae Alix. They were both young at that time, especially that Mae Alix—some vivacious. In all they were great in their field.”

After praising Powers for a paragraph, Armstrong goes into further detail on Alix, writing, “Mae Alix was an attractive, high yellow gal. She had a good voice herself, but she made most of her money in tips. All the big time Pimps, hustlers, and good time Charlies would visit the Dreamland. They would line up a big line of dollars across the floor and Mae would take a long running split and pick up all of those dollars. Sometimes she would have a whole basket of dollars. Those cats would keep her splitting. The dollars would come in so fast sometimes Mae would over look some of the money and the musicians would call her attention nwith the horn and show her all the money she had missed. I was on the edge to meet Ollie and Mae. So one night we got off early and Lil suggested we go over so I could meet them in person. This was a thrill.”

As Armstrong tells the story, when he and Lil met Powers and Alix, Armstrong gave power a dollar to sing a song and gave another dollar to Alix to do a split. “Gee, I thought I was somebody, sporting the up. Two dollars, boy, was I something.” Feeling like a big shot, Armstrong rushed back to tell Joe Oliver what he did. “When I told Joe Oliver, he looked at me and said ump, ump. As if he wanted to say, ‘Why you country so and so.’” Hmmm, what was that definition again of “butter and egg man”? “A wealthy, unsophisticated man who spends money freely.” Sounds like Pops might have had himself in mind when he recorded “Butter and Egg Man”!

Anyway, a few years passed and by November 1926, Armstrong was great friends with Alix and Powers. Thus, it was no surprise to see Alix on the Hot Five 78 coupling of “Big Butter and Egg Man From The West” and “Sunset Café Stomp.” As always, the Red Hot Jazz Archive makes life easier by providing a link to “Big Butter and Egg Man” on their website. Thus, if you’d like to listen along as I give it the blow-by-blow, click here.

Armstrong and the Hot Five start off “Butter and Egg Man” in joyous New Orleans fashion, jamming in ensemble fashion for a full 32-bar chorus. It’s textbook New Orleans: Ory tailgates, Dodds bubbles over the top and Pops sticks the melody as Lil and St. Cyr chug along merrily. Alix then sings a chorus, belting it out with a purely vaudeville, pre-microphone style (and hey, crank up that hi-fi and dig St. Cyr’s tasty banjo playing while you’re at it):

I want a Butter and Egg Man
From way out in the west,
Cause I’m getting tired of working all day,
I want somebody who wants me to play.
Pretty clothes have never been mine,
But if my dream comes true, the sun’s going to shine.
Cause I want, a Butter and Egg Man
Won’t some great Big Butter and Egg Man want me?

Alix’s vocal is harmless enough but can’t compare to Armstrong’s vocal offering, which follows immediately, announced by a down-home, “Here, here!”

Now mama, I’m your Big Butter and Egg Man,
But I’m different, honey, I’m from way down in the south.
Now listen baby—I’ll buy you all the pretty things that you think I need,
As long as I can keep this cornet up to my mouth.
Oh, I’ll play you a little a little minor in G,
And if you say it’s necessary baby, why I’ll even hit high C (ha ha ha ha)
Cause I’m your Big Butter and Egg Man—come here baby and kiss me,
Big Butter and Egg Man from way down south.

Armstrong’s vocal is a gas but it’s not the genius who later completely transformed casual pop tunes and film songs into standards of the Great American Songbook. It’s a vocal of a very vaudevillian nature and, as I’m not the first to point out, shows a great Al Jolson influence. It’s more proof that Armstrong had big ears. The Jazz Singer was still a year away and there’s no evidence that Armstrong ever saw Jolson perform live (though he very well might have in New York during his stay with the Fletcher Henderson band). Anyway, that “Come here baby and kiss me” is pure Jolson, as are the little laughs and spoken phrases. A fun vocal.

However, the trumpet solo that follows is pure Armstrong. Here we see jazz being transformed from an ensemble-oriented music into a soloist’s art: 32 bars of improvisation backed only by a piano and a banjo. Now, this is one of the seminal Armstrong solos of the 1920s and it has been analyzed for decades. Martin Williams selected it for the Smithsonian History of Classic Jazz and in his short write-up of it, he quotes Andre Hodeir (“It is impossible to imagine anything more sober and balanced”) and Gunther Schuller (“No composer, not even a Mozart or a Schubert, composed anything more natural and simply inspired”). So really, what more can I say about it? This is why I feel that writing about the classic Hot Five and Seven recordings in the 21st century is almost a futile project. Really, what else can be said about these wonderful, world-changing records? If I ever have to write about “West End Blues,” I’ll probably spend more time on the 1950s versions than the groundbreaking original!

But of course, I can’t completely shut up. Has there ever been a more perfect opening to a solo to the simple three-note motive Armstrong works over three times at the start of his “Butter and Egg Man” outing? So simple, so relaxed, so perfect. The repeated concert D’s at the start of the bridge are thrilling, starting out speedy and gradually puttering to a triplet pattern, sounding like a car about to run out of gas. And the darting in-and-out phrase that connects the end of the bridge to the last eight bars always catches me by surprise, a daring maneuver that sticks out in an otherwise superbly seamless solo. Alix then comes barreling back in for eight bars, making sure those in the back of the theater can hear her voice (did anyone tell her this was for a record?), and the ensemble takes it out for eight joyous bars. An infectious record from start to finish.

Flash forward 21 years. Though “Butter and Egg Man” was probably a regular staple of Armstrong’s Chicago performances of the mid-20s, it does not seem to have lasted into his big band leading days. There are no broadcasts of it, nor are there any mentions of his playing it live in the years that followed. But on May 17, 1947, Louis Armstrong found himself onstage at Town Hall, playing with a small group instead of a big band and focusing on “the golden OKeh days,” in the words of the evening’s emcee, Fred Robbins. Armstrong opened the evening back just by a rhythm section consisting of Dick Cary on piano, Bob Haggart, bass and Big Sid Catlett on drums. After burning through “Cornet Chop Suey” and “Our Monday Date” at the top of his game, Pops turned in a reflective “Dear Old Southland” before setting his sights on “Big Butter and Egg Man.” However, this performance produced an unintentional bit of comic relief as a possibly still nervous Armstrong waited for Cary’s introduction, picked up his trumpet and…forgot what song he was about to play! He played the first note of “Butter and Egg Man” but quickly turned it into the melody of “Our Monday Date,” which he had already played. Thankfully, Armstrong was surrounded by quick-witted musicians, who, after a beat of confusion, started comping the changes to “Monday Date,” even though Armstrong was now playing it in Ab (the first version was in Bb). Armstrong takes “Monday Date” all the way into the bridge when he finally realizes his mistake. He calls out “Butter and Egg Man” to the other musicians, who keep right on playing in the correct key. Armstrong runs up to the mike and says, “We’re going to swing into ‘Butter and Egg Man,’ folks,” getting a big laugh from the audience. Catlett sets him up and finally after almost a full minute, Armstrong launches into the correct “Butter and Egg Man.” In his insipid Armstrong biography, James Lincoln Collier tried pinning the confusion on pianist Cary playing the “wrong introduction” but that’s nonsense. Cary’s in the right key, Ab, but Armstrong had a simple brain fart and started playing the wrong song. Even geniuses can make mistakes!

However, Armstrong wasn’t through making mistakes on this version of “Butter and Egg Man,” though again, his second mistake results in more laughter. Since he hadn’t probably sang the song since the Sunset Café days, it’s clear that Armstrong didn’t remember the lyrics of the bridge. Like a trooper, Armstrong sings on, making up the words as he goes along:

Pretty clothes, hmmm, the pleasure is mine
Get some work, we’ll both have a time!

Armstrong cracks himself up with his quick thinking but he finishes the vocal and turns it over the Dick Cary, for a swinging solo. Ah, Dick Cary…I know it sounds sacrilegious, but I prefer Cary with the All Stars than Earl Hines. I prefer Hines as a pianist, but Hines didn’t fit the band as well, though he was an “All Star” name. Pops always played better with team players and that’s just what Cary was. He was a sensitive accompanist and a swinging soloist and I cherish all of Cary’s work from his very short stint in the band. Even when Hines joined, Pops played an engagement with Hines and Cary playing two pianos, but Armstrong’s road manager, Pierre Tallerie, known as “Frenchy” but better known as “that asshole Frenchy,” convinced Joe Glaser that Cary was a drug addict, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Cary was let go and Armstrong was forced to deal with Earl Hines headaches for the next four years. It’s another reason why the All Stars were always better with team players. I’m a Yankees fan (which will surely infuriate some of my Massachusetts friends!) and I daydream every day about the glorious, star-free teams of 1996 and 1998. For the last few years, we’ve had every star known to man, and we have nothing to show for it. Am I saying that Earl Hines is A-Rod? Hmmmmm……

After Cary’s full chorus (with great Catlett accents), Pops picks up his horn for two choruses that just knock me out. Okay, sacrilegious time, part two. I love, love, love, love the 1926 original “Butter and Egg Man” and that solo was one of Armstrong’s finest of the period. I’ll never disagree with the likes of Schuller and Hodier on that matter because it’s such a great solo. But—and stone me if I’m wrong—I prefer Armstrong’s Town Hall solo. I realize it’s not as “important” to Armstrong’s career as the original, which was positively revolutionary in 1926. Armstrong’s Town Hall concert came at the same time the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Fats Navarro were changing the way the trumpet was played forever so it’s not a historically important solo. And it wasn’t even released until 1983, so it’s not a track that historians and critics have been able to analyze for 50 years. I’m just saying I prefer it to the original. He opens with the same classic three-note motive, a nod back to his original solo. But once he gets past it, he creates something totally new and fresh. If you have a copy of the Town Hall Concert nearby, pop it in and just listen to the five seconds of trumpet playing from 2:55 to 3:04. It’s not a funny quote or a searing high note. It’s just some of the most rhythmically advanced playing I’ve ever heard. It begins as a simple Armstrong-esque phrase, but then there’s a quick smear downward and another “normal” phrase, followed by a quick tumble into the lowest region of his horn. He follows it with another slippery phrase with some interesting harmonic choices thrown in for good measure. It’s only eight bars and it’s not “West End Blues” but I think it’s some wonderfully creative playing. The bridge is very relaxed, as is the final eight bars, which feature a conspicuous lack of high notes…until wammo! A high Ab leads into a fierce final chorus as Armstrong sticks to the upper register, eating up the chord changes and swinging like a man possessed. He hits some high C’s in the bridge but everything builds to the climactic final eight bars. With Big Sid laying down his favorite backbeat, Armstrong takes the melody an octave higher, beginning on a high C, with a climb to a freakish high Eb, which smoothly glisses back down to a C before a quick, improvised ending. Again, I mean no disrespect to the 1926 version, but man, this is a smoking solo!

Armstrong next encountered “Big Butter and Egg Man” at a Decca recording date on February 6, 1951. The date was arranged by Gordon Jenkins, then one of the most popular arrangers in the country, having arranged four of the top six records in the country in July 1950. Jenkins, a life-long admirer of Armstrong, already gave Armstrong’s recording career a jumpstart by placing Pop’s sandpaper vocal chords over a heavenly sound of strings and voices. The combination produced “Blueberry Hill” and “That Lucky Old Sun” in 1949, Armstrong’s most popular record in years. Though he was a huge name at the time, Jenkins was in awe of Armstrong during that session. “I cracked up,” he remembered. “I walked into the studio, looked over there, saw Louis and broke down. Cried so hard I couldn’t even see him. Later that night I came home, and I was so excited I couldn’t eat my dinner. Then I started crying again. I took it pretty big.” Jenkins managed to arrange a number of Armstrong Decca sessions until 1954 and I enjoy all of their work together. Jenkins always presented lovely backdrops for Armstrong’s vocals, always peppering tem with patented Armstrong phrases. “All the stuff with the strings, I tried to take all of his old licks that he used—and which everybody has used since—and write ‘em for strings,” Jenkins said. “Paraphrase ‘em a little bit for his personal benefit. It broke him up. Broke a lot of people up.”

The February 1951 Jenkins date is an anomaly because it features absolutely zero strings. Instead, Jenkins arranges for a small big band, with friends of his such as Chris Griffin, trumpet, Charles LaVere, piano and Nick Fatool, drums. On the lovely “If,” one of my favorite Armstrong Decca records, Jenkins really indulges in some Pops licks in his arrangement. At the end of the three-tune session, Armstrong remade “Butter and Egg Man.” Jenkins didn’t have much to do on this one, writing a four-bar introduction and staying out of the way as Pops and Velma Middleton sing three choruses. Jenkins slows down the tempo from a jaunty jam to an almost Basie-ish medium groove (Allan Reuss’s guitar pumping along like Freddie Green).

Middleton was a natural fit for this song, namely since it had been introduced by a female in Alix. This brings up one of my pet theories: critics were very unkind to Velma in her nearly 20 years with Pops. They made fat jokes, criticized her singing, held their noses at her and Louie’s comedy routines and nearly threw up when she did her splits. Even Laurence Bergreen’s Armstrong biography from 1997 piled on, writing that it was Middleton who “pulled Louis into endless vaudeville routines.” Of course, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Armstrong loved Velma like he loved a family member. Besides, look at the entertainment Armstrong loved in the 1920s: he sang comic duets with Lil, he accompanied Butterbeans and Susie on another date and of course, invited Mae Alix to accompany him on “Butter and Egg Man.” Yes, the same Mae Alix who did splits! Armstrong clearly had a great love for female performers in every capacity: females who sang blues, females who sang ribald songs, females who engaged in vaudeville patter with men and females who embraced showmanship such as doing splits. And in Velma, Pops had all of that wrapped into one big, beautiful human being.

So Velma opens the 1951 remake by singing (not shouting a la Alix) the lyrics, with Pops playing a nice trumpet obbligato behind her. It’s a smooth outing but the fun stuff is still ahead. Much like the original from 25 years earlier, Pops take second chorus, opening with “Look here,” instead of “Here, here” and once again, he sells himself in a semi-spoken word style. Velma answers him (what chemistry these two had) and Gordon Jenkins, who always liked to write special lyrics, probably suggested some of the new lines Pops sings. He promises her all the jewelry that’s “Wool-worth” the money, a play on “well worth” and adds some hip slang such as this example:

Now I’ll buy you, a real sharp vine
Providing what you told me the other day, just don’t change your mind.

Pops and Velma laugh together, leading to a final chorus, where Velma sings straight while Pops scats around her, bringing to mind yet another female singer Pops accompanied in the 20s, Lillie Delk Christian, whom Pops steamrolled with some scintillating scat singing on “Too Busy.” What Armstrong does to the word “pretty” is something to marvel at. To close the record (which is available on Satchmo in Style), Jenkins borrows the ending the All Stars used on Velma’s feature on “I Cried for You.” Velma sang more standards in the early days of the All Stars than she later would but even after “I Cried for You” disappeared, it’s ending lived on in future versions of “Butter and Egg Man.” There are numerous live ones to discuss but I won’t give the detailed analysis of each one since the routine rarely changed. Gösta Hägglöf’s Ambassador label has a wonderful release, When You and I Were Young Maggie, that collects some rare performances from the early days of the All Stars, including a “Butter and Egg Man” from Chicago on July 5, 1951. The All Stars adapted Jenkins’s arrangement, speeding it up a hair and including a full chorus by the ensemble at the start, with Pops taking the lead. The routine then follows Jenkins’s as Velma takes the first chorus, Pops takes the second and the two duet in third chorus. Pops now has a new line in the second eight bars. In the 1926 original, he promises to buy all the pretty things as long as he can keep the cornet up to his mouth. On the Jenkins version, he promises her jewelry, “if you’ll just put your arms around me and sort of call me honey.” By the July broadcast, he promises her all the things that she “thinks” she’ll ever needs, “as long as I can keep this great big cigar in my mouth.” After their third chorus duet, Pops shouts, “Take it, Velma” (on the record, it’s “Take it, Gordon Jenkins!”) before Jack Teagarden takes a 16-bar trombone solo. Pops takes the bridge and Velma comes in for a reprise of the last eight bars, the horns playing the “I Cried for You” ending.

There aren’t many broadcasts of “Big Butter and Egg Man” from the succeeding few years but there’s at least four from the period between September 1954 and January 1955. Again, they’re all very similar so it’s not worth heavy analysis but there’s some new stuff. The “Wool-worth” line from the Jenkins record is back and included in every version. Instead of just being a “big fat cigar,” Pops now sings about a nickel “John Ruskin” model. And instead of being a “great big butter and egg man from the south,” Pops now proudly announces that he’s from “Galilee,” as he often referred to the south (and not the south of Israel). And after shouting “Take it, Velma,” the trombone doesn’t take it anymore. Instead, Pops plays lead for 24 bars, usually the highlight of the performance (he’s in scorchingly good form on a New Year’s Eve broadcast from the Down Beat club in San Francisco, available on the Storyville disc Louis Armstrong and His All Stars, available on Itunes), before Velma takes the final eight and they go out. There are some funny little asides that demonstrate the joy Louis and Velma had performing together. On a second broadcast version from the Basin Street nightclub, Pops picks up the horn during the last chorus, causing Velma to exclaim, “Come on home, fat boy!” And during swinging version from the Crescendo Club (available on The California Concerts), Pops eschews the “Galilee” reference, sings that he’s from the “south,” then verbally tells Velma, “Let it come out of your mouth.” I listened to all four versions in a row while preparing this entry and can attest that none of them are exactly the same, in terms of Armstrong and Middleton’s patter and even the closing trumpet lead. Also, after listening to these four versions in a row, I can also attest that I don’t want to hear them again until at least the end of the weekend!

But Pops wasn’t done yet, which means I’m not either. As the All Stars hit their popularity peak around 1956, 1957, Armstrong began playing more and more concerts and festivals, which usually only allowed Velma to sing three or four numbers a night. Thus, many of Velma’s early specialties, including “Butter and Egg Man,” disappeared, though they likely reappeared during longer nightclub engagements or dances. But in 1959, Armstrong recorded the Satchmo Plays King Oliver album with the All Stars for the Audio Fidelity label. I’ve written a little bit about this album’s stupid title before since only a handful of the album’s tracks have anything to do with Oliver. Nevertheless, all the material is fresh and Pops is at the top of his game. “Butter and Egg Man” survives in two takes of varying lengths. The originally issued take is 3:41 while a meatier alternate clocks in at 5:21. Both are great and it’s a pleasure to hear Pops tackle the song by himself and without the customary female assistance (Town Hall doesn’t count since he forgot the words!). Both takes open with a great Billy Kyle introduction before Pops leads the ensemble (with Trummy Young and Peanuts Hucko) for a full chorus, much like the live versions. After the first chorus, however, it breaks into a mini-jam session. Kyle takes eight bars, bassist Mort Herbert takes eight, followed by eight more from Trummy and a final eight by Peanuts, opening with a “My Sweetie Went Away” quote. Pops scats a break and sings the title phrase before Danny Barcelona takes a four-bar drum break. Pops never does sing a full chorus but the trading with the drums is exciting, especially how Pops usually sets up the drum fills with an exuberant scat lick. Hucko and Young riff nicely behind the vocal and after one more drum break Pops, leads the rideout with some brilliant playing. It’s been 12 years since Town Hall and he’s not quite as daring, but his tone is full and his upper register is in beautiful shape, with some strong high notes in the final eight bars (and a “Dixie” quote leading into the final drum solo in the bridge). And even though Velma’s not in the studio, the band plays the “I Cried For You” ending anyway, sounding tight.

It’s a fine version but kind of rushed, which is why the 5:21 alternate is my preferred one. It follows the same pattern as the issued but after the opening ensemble chorus, everyone stretches out a bit more, 16 bars each from Kyle and Herbert before the vocal. And this time, Pops sings the full chorus and it’s a delight. Hucko, not content to wait for his own solo, plays the “My Sweetie Went Away” quote behind Pops’s vocal. After Armstrong’s emphatic ending, Trummy takes a break and launches into a swinging 16-bar solo that highlights the Barcelona-Herbert rhythm team, which swung infectiously at tempos such as this. I don’t care what mood I’m in, it’s one of those things that as soon as I hear Trummy shouting over Herbert’s walking lines and Barcelona’s backbeat clicks on the snare rim, I’m immediately smiling and nodding my head. Peanuts also takes 16, repeating some of the motives he worked out on the issued take. And with everyone relaxed and swinging, Pops trades his fours with Barcelona, but instead of singing his lines, he scats every time, playing with the word “pretty” again and shouting out a triumphant “butter and egg man!” Barcelona excitedly builds up to a roar and Pops shows the way out with some more great lead playing.

“Butter and Egg Man” stayed in the repertoire until Velma’s death in February 1961 and then it was gone for good. But while it lasted it provided plenty of great moments in plenty of different settings: trailblazing Hot Five record, smoking live remake with just a rhythm section, an arrangement by Gordon Jenkins, live fun with Velma and finally, a jam session showcase for the All Stars. Anyway, you like it “Big Butter and Egg Man” is pretty entertaining, but then again, so is just about anything Louis Armstrong ever performed! And now, after five entries in five days, I think I need to take a few off. Have a great weekend and I’ll try to be back on Monday with more ruminations on all things Pops!


Anonymous said…
Astonishing analysis!

I've loved this song for thirty years; you write with depth, passion, and understanding.


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