80 Years of St. James Infirmary

Louis Armstrong And His Savoy Ballroom Five
Recorded December 12, 1928
Track Time 3:14
Written by Joe Primrose
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Fred Robinson, trombone; Jimmy Strong, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Don Redman, alto saxophone, clarinet; Earl Hines, piano, celeste; Mancy Carr, banjo, guitar; Zutty Singleton, drums
Originally released on OKeh 8657
Currently available on CD: It’s on any complete Hot Five/Hot Seven box sets and a bunch of compilations
Available on Itunes? Yes, a search of “Armstrong Infirmary” turns up 45 MP3s

As I started off my blowout post on “Basin Street Blues,” December 1928 was a fertile time for Louis Armstrong and OKeh records. I decided to celebrate the 80th anniversary of “Basin Street” last week and I’m celebrating the 80th anniversary of “St. James Infirmary” today, but really, if I felt crazy, I could have kept going and celebrated the 80th anniversary of EVERYTHING Armstrong recorded in December 1928: “No, (Papa No),” “No One Else But You,” “Beau Koo Jack,” “Save It Pretty Mama,” “Weather Bird,” “Muggles,” Heah Me Talkin’ To Ya,” “Tight Like This” and a Lillie Delk Christian session featuring a beautiful “I Must Have That Man.” It really hurt me to not do anything on “Beau Koo Jack” and “Tight Like That” since those are probably both on my list of top 10 favorite Armstrong records (I say probably because truthfully, my top 10 list has about 30 titles on it).

But in the end, I selected “Basin Street” and “St. James Infirmary” because they both remained in the Armstrong repertoire. And because of the kindness of some of my readers, I have some very rare recordings in my possession that I’d like to share with my fellow Armstrong nuts from around the world. Anyone can listen to “Beau Koo Jack,” dig it, pick up Gunther Schuller and analyze it...what more can I add? But for something like “St. James Infirmary,” I think I might have some nice surprises to listen to so don’t go anywhere.

Whenever I start one of these blogs, I always do a quick Internet search to see what background information I can gather about the song I’m about to dissect. Well, today, I found some online jewels and truthfully, I don’t want to go any further because these guys have EVERYTHING covered. First, there’s Robert W. Harwood, who recently published a book on the history of the song for Harland Press, titled quite naturally I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. Go here to read all about it.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg (or “ice-boig” as Pops might say). As I have mentioned before, even though I’m writing my book on Armstrong’s later years, the blog isn’t going anywhere. The blog allows me to share rare treasures, make bad jokes, share new information and go into the kind of sickening detail that would probably force my editor to tear up my contract. Mr. Harwood, too, has a blog and it’s a fascinating treasure trove of music, lyrics, research, pictures and even advertisements, including one for the Armstrong record we’re about to hear. He started it in August and has already amassed 30 entries. Please go here and check it out, then buy the book.

But I only found out about Harwood’s work through Robert Walker, author of Letters From New Orleans, and a St. James Infirmary historian in his own right. Walker has a similar blog, NO Notes, which has even more information on the tune, including an interview with Harwood. Check out Walker’s work by clicking here. I’m going to put links for both blogs in my list to the right of the screen so check ‘em out and I guarantee you’ll be addicted for days.

And finally, the massive pre-war blues site, “Honey Where You Been So Long” has a massive list of 121 versions of the tune, each one with a link so you can listen a long. Positively stunning. We’re going to come back to that one a little later because it includes an Armstrong version that I somehow don’t have (unbelievable!). Check it out here.

But our focus today is Pops. Again, I’m not even going to touch the long history of the song, but it does seem as if Armstrong’s record was the first to go by the title of “St. James Infirmary.” How’d Armstrong get it? Well, it’s possible that he heard it or even played it in New Orleans, but the man responsible for the record was Don Redman. Here’s Harwood, interviewed by Walker: “So, what Redman brought to Chicago was a version of the song worth recording. The song was making the rounds of the dance halls in the North, and Redman liked what he heard one December night in Detroit’s Graystone Ballroom. He took that arrangement with him to Chicago, although he no doubt altered it considerably. So he was the man responsible for Armstrong recording that song on December 12th.”

This is something that Armstrong himself admitted during the Voice of America interviews of July 1956, which I already posted a couple of samples of in my “Basin Street” entry. Armstrong played DJ for the session and before introducing “Tight Like This,” this is what he said: “It strikes me that this was a beautiful recording date because Don Redman came over from Detroit where he was playing at the Greystone Ballroom with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. In fact, he was the arranger and the leader of that band. And Don, to me, was one of the greatest arrangers I’ve ever met. And in fact, he was one of the first one that I knew that arranged music until I got with Fletcher. We didn’t pay no attention to reading a whole lot of music other than brass band and things like that. And Don Redman came over from Detroit with this tune, ‘Tight Like This.’”

From there, Armstrong talks about “Tight Like This” and how everything was written into the arrangement, including the humorous dialogue. After playing that tune, Armstrong introduced the first “St. James Infirmary.” He gets nostalgic talking about Jack Teagarden’s love of the number, which we’ll get to a little later. But here’s DJ Louie, talking about the tune and introducing the original:

With that intro out of the way, let’s listen to it by clicking here.

Yeah, man. It’s a helluva arrangement, as it takes almost the entire record, but it’s good enough to make the listener not miss any Armstrong improvisation. After a spooky minor-opening with remnants of a funeral march lurking in the harmonies (listen to Zutty beating those toms), the group plays 16-bars of melody, Armstrong’s lead sobbing with sadness while a clarinet weeps and shrieks in the background. After this arranged chorus, Earl Hines takes a typically dazzling chorus, back by Zutty playing the signature brushes-on-snare-drum pattern that’s still the norm 80 years later.

Then it’s time for Pops’s vocal, singing the three most famous choruses with a lot of feeling, reaching up for some high notes and hitting. There’s no trace of a smile or any scatting in this vocal, that’s for sure. A brief interlude by Hines allows the horns to get their chops together to play Redman’s next arranged passage. Robinson’s trombone solemnly moans the melody while Armstrong and the two clarinets plays a dazzling countermelody around Robinson’s lead. Armstrong breaks out of the arrangement (or does he?) for an authoritative break but after another short interlude, comes back to play another arranged variation on the melody. In the final chorus, Armstrong dramatically holds an F before topping it with a concert Ab, a device he repeats twice before the sober ending.

All in all, it’s a classic record, though it’s arguably not a classic Louis Armstrong record because of its lack of improvising. But who I am kidding, I think Pops did a wonderful job singing the tune and nailing the arrangement, his unique tone and throbbing rhythm really conveying the song’s doleful mood appropriately.

Well, the Armstrong record must have sold quite well because a score of “St. James Infirmary” records hit the market in 1929 and 1930, many of which can be listened to at the Red Hot Jazz Archive or traced through the aforementioned websites.

Four years later, Louis Armstrong was in a different place. The “St. James Infirmary” session was Armstrong’s last in Chicago before he went to New York in 1929 and began taking over the world, singing “Ain’t Misbehavin’” on Broadway and recording pop tunes for OKeh. By 1932, Armstrong was in the middle of a vicious war for his services between OKeh and Victor. Victor won out and almost immediately, in their second session with Armstrong, had the trumpeter record two medleys of hit tunes. They would be 12-inch discs so they could accommodate 4 1/2 minutes of music. For one, Armstrong did “You Rascal You,” one of his greatest versions of “Sleepy Time Down South” and “Nobody’s Sweetheart,” a tune he had never previously record. The other medley consisted of “When You’re Smiling,” “St. James Infirmary” and “Dinah.” You can listen along by clicking here.

The medley opens with a happy chorus of Armstrong singing “When You’re Smiling” before the mood changes completely for “St. James Infirmary.” Or does it? I have to admit, this is a pretty righteous version of the tune. The band (a Philadelphia theater orchestra with a young Louis Jordan on alto saxophone) tears into the melody at a tempo faster than the OKeh (probably because they only had a minute-and-a-half to do it). After a chorus of melody, with Armstrong cheerleading in the background, Armstrong sings a couple of stanzas. Remember what I said about him not smiling on the 1928 record? Well, that’s out the window! This is Armstrong as Armstrong, on fire, in pure early-30s “lunatic” mode, changing lyrics (“Hot Papa!”), adding extra words (“Oh!” “Look here!”), swinging like hell and even breaking himself up at the end of the vocal. Nothing solemn about that!

Then it’s trumpet time and, though it’s too short, it’s a great glimpse of Armstrong in his relaxed prime. One can almost see him onstage, playing those repeated notes and devilishly walking away from the band towards the microphone. Armstrong builds slowly and surely to the hollering high Ab that marks the halfway point of solo. After that, he relaxes and stays content to float around the band’s stomping reading of the melody. This could be Armstrong at his most free or Armstrong watching the chops. December 1932 was a rough time for him as Mezz Mezzrow recounted the trouble Armstrong’s lip was in during his first Victor session, just 13 days earlier. And an alternate take survives of this medley where Armstrong plays a different, slightly more cautious solo and fluffs the transition over to “Dinah.” Regardless, it’s a short, but powerful statement and that vocal is pretty fantastic.

I don’t know if “St. James Infirmary” stayed in the repertoire for any length of time as there are no known surviving version after the 1932 Victor until the famous Town Hall concert of May 1947...and on that version, Armstrong doesn’t even blow or play a note! Still, I must share it because it’s one of the great moments of a concert that was filled with nothing but great ones. Armstrong finally took a break and let trombonist Jack Teagarden take over to do, as he calls it, “One of the oldest blues I know.” Teagarden plays it ferociously there before drawling out the lyrics that seemed written specifically for his bourbon-soaked Texan voice. A brief interlude by the rhythm section allowed Teagarden to prepare for one of his great party tricks: the removal of the bell of his horn, to be replaced by an empty water glass. The completely ethereal sound has to be heard to be believed (and it really should be seen, too, as I did once when Vincent Gardner recreated it during one of David Ostwald’s Wednesday night Birdland extravaganzas). Here’s that legendary moment:

Naturally, it became part of the show, as you heard Armstrong mention during the Voice of America interview earlier. A few months later, Teagarden replicated it at Carnegie Hall in an unreleased version. The routine is almost identical to Town Hall, but now there’s a tiny bit of Armstrong in the opening ensemble. Enjoy this rarity:

Now comes something that will probably get me thrown in the loony bin. In the Jos Willems Armstrong discography “All of Me,” I was always mesmerized by the listings of four concerts from the State Theater in Cincinnati in April 1949. There seemed to be a lot of great material and some songs the All Stars never played before or after. I wrote to Jos to see about hearing something from these dates and he wrote back that he was only going to send me one because they possessed the world’s worst sound quality. But really, how bad could they be? Well, be prepared to hear the world’s worst sound quality. Many of you will click this link, get blasted by an overstimulation of static, shake your head and immediately stop it. But for those who can muddle through, listen through the noise and behold Armstrong’s obbligato (yes, I know the sound drops out for a second). Two years had gone by and now Pops, after playing nothing at Town Hall and a little bit at Carnegie Hall, now contributed a very nice backing to the vocal. Teagarden’s almost inaudible and the whole band is muffled but Armstrong shines through. Give a listen...if you dare!

I know, I know, that probably wasn’t worth sharing but I’m sure there’s some fellow nut out there who got some kicks from it.

After Teagarden left the band, “St. James Infirmary” left with it, though as Armstrong said in the Voice of America interview, he continued to get requests for it. I don’t know how often he honored those requests but one surviving version exists from Armstrong’s 1955 tour of Europe...but please don’t get too excited. On that tour, Armstrong let Arvell Shaw sing “St. James Infirmary” as a feature and apparently two versions survive. I have one, from Amsterdam on October 30, the concert Columbia recorded for Ambassador Satch (but Sony refuses to release...come on!). Now, Arvell had a very good singing voice but this had to have been a joke. He sings the whole thing in this ridiculous over-the-top, almost Robeson-like baritone-bordering-on-bass-profundo, even cracking a bit when he sings a higher note. I know my Boston Louis nuts Dave Whitney and Phil Person get some laughs from it and hopefully you will too:

Finally, though, after all these detours, we come to Armstrong’s next studio version of the tune, a 1959 masterpiece from the Audio Fidelity album Satchmo Plays King Oliver. The final album would be something of a mixed bag but there’s no denying that “St. James Infirmary” is one of the highlights. The tempo couldn’t be any slower and mood couldn’t be any more mournful. This is funeral music of the finest pedigree. Armstrong plays the melody somberly while trombonist Trummy Young and clarinetist Peanuts Hucko moan behind him. I also love the little vocal harmonizing before Armstrong sings the vocal. Armstrong then delivers a vocal that’s somewhere between the 1928 and 1932 versions; it’s appropriately somber, but he can’t help smiling at times and throwing in little likes like the humorous “bragging” and “John B” asides. Like the Victor, he even laughs at the end, as if to prevent the listener from really wanting to kill themselves.

But there’s nothing funny about the closing trumpet playing. Remember, Armstrong was just recovering from a heart attack he suffered in Spoleto, Italy...this was only a few months later. Just listen to that final chorus and the little cadenza at the end. Like the 1928 version, Armstrong holds high F’s in the final choruses, before resolving them to higher A’s (this version is in Dm, the original was in Fm). The closing C# to freakishly high concert D gives me the chills every damn time I listen to it. Hopefully, it’ll do the same to you:

But even with such a great version in the can, “St. James Infirmary” didn’t become a regular part of Armstrong’s repertoire until 1966. By that point, Armstrong’s chops were on the decline and it’s interesting comparing the final five versions of I have because they all differ in length (from 1:47 to 4:11) and that’s because of the amount of trumpet playing done on each one. Armstrong was no dummy and he knew when his chops weren’t going to respond like he needed them to. So let’s compare and contrast five final versions from about an eight month span. First, an unissued concert from the Arie Crown Theater in Chicago, December 1966. This is an edition of the All Stars that isn’t well documented, featuring Buster Bailey on clarinet. You’ll hear that the tempo is similar to the 1959 version we just heard. Pops is very somber in the first chorus but then he really turns up the hear and roars in the second eight bars, sounding incredible. Unfortunately, the sound isn’t A-1 but it’ll convey Armstrong’s power at this late stage quite well:

After that trumpet solo, you can hear Armstrong sing the hell out of the song (with some humorous help from Tyree Glenn), building up a big crescendo at the ending. Very nice stuff...but what if Pops felt like blowing some more? Let’s flash forward to June 1967 and Sandusky, Ohio. Buster Bailey died and Pops had to take some time off due to bronchio-pnuemonia. He reformed the band with Joe Muranyi on clarinet in June 1967 and immediately started touring. The Sandusky version was from Muranyi’s second night in the band and features Armstrong sounding good, but still getting back to working shape after his layoff. This version was issued on an LP years ago and I, alas, do not have it but the aforementioned archive at “Honey, Where You Been So Long” contains it and I was thrilled to hear it for the first time in preparing for this entry. Armstrong’s first two choruses aren’t as thrilling as the Chicago version but after the vocal, he comes back for two more so you know he was ready to blow (there’s definitely some confusion regarding Armstrong’s reentrance so perhaps the band didn’t do this often prior to this performance). Armstrong’s not 100% but he’s bluesy as hell. He even holds the F’s and hits the A’s as in the other versions, but he’s an octave lower and has trouble with the first F. Still, he manages to make a heroic climb to final high A, capping off a very good performance. To listen to it, click here.

Just six days later, the All Stars played Ravinia Park in Highland Park, Illinois. Only about 30 minutes of (unissued) music survive from this appearance but there’s some pretty incredible moments. Anytime, Armstrong played Ravinia, it seems he brought his A+ game, possibly because old friends showed up from his Chicago days. In fact, at this same show, Armstrong introduced his second wife, Lil Hardin, who was sitting in the audience. So perhaps wanting to calm any doubts about his playing after his illness, Armstrong blew like a man possessed. This has to be my favorite live Armstrong “St. James” as he’s in control throughout, almost sounding angry at times, snarling darkly through his trumpet. Give it a listen:

Incredible stuff. The second chorus up front is pretty damned dirty but listen to how good he sounds after the vocal, much better than Sandusky. He still has to play the high notes an octave lower, but it works, right down to the high note ending. I played this version for Muranyi and he was completely blown away, though he said that he didn’t remember the tune lasting very long during his stay in the band.

Sure enough, less than a month later Armstrong hit a bit of a rough patch during a trip to Europe, producing some very erratic trumpet playing. In Copenhagen, Armstrong started off by playing the melody but obviously sensing something’s not right, he abandons it, sings the vocal and ends it right there. Here ‘tis:

And the following day at Juan-Les-Pins, Armstrong opened with “Sleepy Time” and “Indiana,” but perhaps feeling a little tired, didn’t even bother picking up the trumpet. Here’s all 107 seconds of this version:

It’s still a great vocal but at such a short length of time, it probably didn’t make sense to keep it around any longer. He apparently did play it again at a concert in Miami in November 1967, but I have not heard this concert and cannot attest to what he did or how he sounded. After that, “St. James Infirmary” disappeared, almost 40 years after that legendary first OKeh recording. I hope you enjoyed this spin through Armstrong’s history with “St. James Infirmary” on today, the 80th anniversary of that first recording. Hopefully, you’re not too depressed--you can always go to a funeral home or a hospital if you’re feeling awful sad--but after listening to so much good music, I’m feeling pretty damn good right now. That’s all for now, but I’ll back Sunday with yet one more anniversary posting.


Anonymous said…
Great post for a great song. Thanks for putting this together...
This is an incredible post! Well written, wonderful information, really interesting stuff. I'm going to link to this on my blog; I'll certainly be keeping an eye out for your book. Thanks!
Anonymous said…
This was very interesting and entertaining website. I would like to put this website as one of my favorites so I can come back and read and listen. Thank you.
A little story: My older brother, born 1948 and his best friend at that time, went to one of the best Photo Ateliers in Stockholm about 1963. They both played trumpet and their big idol was of course Louis A. And when he was in Stockholm for a concert (I was there too), they handed over two photos to Mr Satchmo, signed with my brother's and his friend's own autograph. Mr Louis A. was very grateful and handed over a photo with his own autograph. He didn't laugh, he just smiled.
Richard Basi said…
Another astonishing essay. Incredible document.

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