80 Years of Ain't Misbehavin': The 1920s Versions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded July 19, 1929
Track Time 3:20
Written by Fats Waller, Andy Razaf and Harry Brooks
Recorded in New York, NY
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Homer Hobson, trumpet; Fred Robinson, trombone; Jimmy Strong, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Bert Curry, alto saxophone; Crawford Washington, alto saxophone; Carroll Dickerson, violin; Gene Anderson, piano, celeste; Mancy Carr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba; Zutty Singleton, drums
Originally released on OKeh 8714
Currently available on CD: Hot Fives and Hot Sevens Volume Four (as well as a thousand compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

80 years ago today, Louis Armstrong officially crossed over. That almost sounds ominous doesn’t it? Crossed over...to where? To the other side? Well, yes, in a way, if the hellacious “other side” refers to the world of popular music and that of being a popular entertainer. For it was on this day that Louis Armstrong waxed the number he had been slaying audiences with for weeks in New York City--uptown and downtown--”Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Music fans, theater-goers, vaudeville junkies, stuck-up writers...once confronted with the ebullient horn and jubilant voice of this natural, ferocious entertainer, there was no denying it: this man was a star.

Of course, to many jazz purists this the beginning of the end. “Why!?” they shriek. “Why did the world have to discover our hidden treasure!? They tainted him! They fed him pop tunes, made him smile a lot and made him forsake his jazz ways! Damn you, Connie’s Hot Chocolates!”

And of course, that’s nonsense, though some people still feel that way. The truth is Armstrong never changed a damn thing in those early days. He sang and entertained in New Orleans. He did preacher impressions with Fletcher Henderson in New York (Henderson rarely let him sing, though). He broke it up onstage in Chicago by scatting on “Heebie Jeebies,” impersonating Bert Williams and performing features on “Poor Little Rich Girl” and the “William Tell Overture.” In the recording studio, he made small group recordings and for every “West End Blues,” there’s an “Irish Black Bottom” and for every “Potato Head Blues,” there’s a “Don’t Forget to Mess Around.”

It was Tommy Rockwell of OKeh records who arguably was the first to spot something in Armstrong that could spread to the masses. In March 1929, Rockwell arranged for Armstrong to come to New York to perform and record with Luis Russell’s big band. Rockwell decided to sneak in a pop tune, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” The results (discussed in another blog of mine from this past March) were magical and signaled to Rockwell that Armstrong might be ready for bigger and better things in New York City.

What happened next has been recounted in countless Armstrong biographies so I won’t go into graphic detail on it right now (though I am excitedly waiting for Terry Teachout’s refreshing take on it when his Armstrong bio, Pops, hits shelves on December 2). To sum it up, Armstrong was still playing with Carroll Dickerson’s orchestra in Chicago when Rockwell booked Armstrong to perform in a Vincent Youmans production, “Great Day.” However, Armstrong was loyal to the Dickerson men and didn’t want to leave them. Without telling Rockwell, he decided to bring the entire Dickerson band to New York with him!

Naturally, Rockwell, having sent for only Armstrong, blew up but Armstrong calmly told him, “Just the same Mr. Rockwell, we’re here now--I just couldn’t leave my Boys ‘that’s all--I know you can Book us ‘Some place.” To make matters worse, “Great Day” was in shambles and Armstrong was cast out of the show before it even opened. The band scuffled for a while before Rockwell landed them a plum spot playing for the floor show at Connie’s Inn in Harlem.

The “Connie” in Connie’s Inn was Connie Immerman, who, along with his brother George, ran the popular Harlem nightspot, second only to the Cotton Club. Immerman had just introduced a new revue at his club, titled “Hot Chocolates” with music by Fats Waller and lyrics by Andy Razaf. The show was so popular that Immerman decided to try it out simultaneously on Broadway, opening at the Hudson Theater on 44th Street on June 19.

After the scuffling of the previous months, Armstrong now had more work than he could have dreamed of. He would begin his nights on Broadway, playing the show as a member of Clarence Black’s band. As soon as it was over, he’d race uptown to reprise the show, this time with Carroll Dickerson’s group. When that was over, he’d make his way and do a late, late show at Harlem’s Lafayette Theater.

With Armstrong aboard, he started getting featured on the show’s theme song, “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” The history of the song has always been shrouded in legend. Waller himself used to like to say that he wrote it while in jail for failure to pay alimony. Some biographers have taken this as fact, but Razaf himself cleared up the mess in a 1966 letter to Bob Kumm, writing, “There is no truth to the widely circulated erroneous story about ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ being written while Fats was in prison. The song was written by Fats and myself at his West 133rd. St. home in Harlem. The title and words are entirely mine. An hour after we wrote it we went to the 44th St. Theatre and demonstrated it for the show rehearsal. It was selected to be the theme song of the show. After Paul Bass and Margaret Simms sang it as a love duet, I suggested that Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong sing and play a chorus from the orchestra pit. When he did, it became a terrific hit.”

[Side note: “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and the rest of the “Hot Chocolates” score is also credited to Harry Brooks but no one quite knows how his name got there. The tunes were strictly Waller and Razaf’s.)

In addition to Sims and Bass, the song was also sung by Russell Wooding’s Hallelujah Singers. But once Pops put his imprint on it during the entre’act, the song became his for keeps. Armstrong liked the tune itself and later wrote in his first autobiography, “It was in ‘Hot Chocolates’ that I introduced the song, ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’, playing a trumpet solo in the high register. From the first time I heard it, that song used to ‘send’ me. I wood-shedded it until I could play all around it. It was like ‘Heebie-Jeebies’ and ‘Chinatown’ and ‘Treasure Island,’ one of those songs you could cut loose and swing with. When we opened, I was all ready with it and it would bring down the house, believe me!”

Indeed it did. A reporter in The New York Times took note, writing “A synthetic but entirely pleasant jazz ballad called ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ stands out and its rendition between the acts by an unnamed member of the orchestra was a highlight of the premier." Soon enough, those in the audience had no choice but to know the name of this "unnamed member of the orchestra": due to the popularity of the performance, Armstrong was moved from pit to the stage and given a featured billing. He was officially a Broadway star.

On July 19, almost a month to the day of his debut, Armstrong got the chance to wax his star-making performance for OKeh records. He wasn't exactly alone. Due to the popularity of the song, all the major record labels started issuing versions of the tune. I did some quick research online and here's a list I compiled:
July 9 - Leo Reisman - Victor
July 18 - Jimmie Noone - Vocalion
July 19 - Armstrong - OKeh
July 28 - The Charleston Chasers - Columbia
July 28 - Abe Lyman's California Ambassador Hotel Orchestra - Brunswick
July 30 - Gene Austin - Victor
August 2 - Fats Waller - Victor
August 20 - Ruth Etting - Columbia
August 22 - California Ramblers - Edison
August 23 - Seger Ellis - OKeh
September 4 - Irving Mills's Hotsy-Totsy Gang (vocal by Bill Robinson)
September 20 - Fess Williams and His Royal Flush Orchestra - Victor
According to Joel Whitburn's not-always-accurate system of rankings, Leo Reisman had the biggest hit with the song, possibly because he had the first crack at it. The good news: you can hear this peppy dance band version at YouTube. The bad news: embedding is disabled to I can't share it here. Instead, I can offer the link so click here, give it a listen, then come back for Pops.

I like Reisman's bouncy, harmless version, with a typically neutered vocal by Lew McDonald (more on him in a bit). It has all your 1920s tendencies, including going to the verse after playing a chorus of melody. It's a solid period performance...and perfectly compliments the daring virtuosity we're about to hear in Armstrong's record of it.

[Side note: if you have all the time in the world, you can hear all of the above records at either RedHotJazz.com or YouTube. You'll nead YouTube for Reisman, Austin and Ruth Etting but the rest are at the always valuable Red Hot Jazz site.]

A few notes about the Armstrong record before listening to it. We like to think of jazz as always being a completely spontaneous art but that's just not the case, especially when dealing with the early generations of jazz musicians, who used to work on solos until they were satisfied with the result, offering "set" solos that were guaranteed to work instead of trying something different every night. No one would doubt that Armstrong was a genius at improvising; but he also approached his solos like a great composer and often worked on them until they became somewhat set, something he got crucified for in his later years. Thus, when you listen to every perfect note of his "Ain't Misbehavin'" solo, remember the quote I shared earlier about him "woodshedding" [practicing] on it, then combine that with the fact that he played it at least two times a night for a full month. Thus, it's no wonder that every aspect of the recording works so well. Without further ado, here's Louis Armstrong's "Ain't Misbehavin'," recorded 80 years ago today:

Quite the classic record. The Dickerson band was a good one and could swing mightily when called upon (dig "That Rhythm Man" from three days later) but the "Ain't Misbehavin'" arrangement does them no favors. When you listen to Armstrong's recordings chronologically, "Ain't Misbehavin'" is usually preceded by the looser Luis Russell band driven by Pops Foster's walking bass on "Mahogany Hall Stomp," a fine ancestor to the Swing Era. But "Ain't Misbehavin'" sounds almost too old fashioned. The two-beat bounce is straight out of Reisman while the banjo and tuba combination makes for quite an outdated rhythm section compared to Russell's group. Dickerson's violin, backed by orchestra bells (or celeste?), also takes the jazz realm.

But really, everything I just listed makes Pops's contributions that much more remarkable. His muted reading of the melody is fairly straight, yet still conveys a cozy warmth. After Dickerson's interlude, the band swings a bit for eight bars (Gene Anderson's piano sounds good and bluesy in background) setting up time capsule moment number one, Armstrong's vocal. I know it's a cliche, but this is a tour de force, my friends. Armstrong barely touches the written melody. The closest he comes is his opening lines, but it's kind of barked out, rather than sung, so I don't know if that counts. Otherwise, he completely recasts the melody in a new light (maybe he should have gotten third co-composer credit instead of Harry Brooks), infusing it with the blues and leaving plenty of room for breaks. He double-times the first one, conjuring up thoughts of his trumpet playing while on his second break, he moans, "Oh baby, my love for you," practically inventing soul singing in the process. The bridge is quite ferocious, ending with one of his patented licks, "Doddle-doddle-doddy!" Also note that he controls the tempo in his breaks and at some point, the band re-enters at a slower gait; compare the start of the record to the midway point to see how the tempo drops.

After Pops's righteous final bars, a saxophone break sets up time capsule moment number two, the trumpet solo. Again, the solo is so beautifully constructed, so logical in its choice of notes, that it has to be the end result of weeks of tinkering and playing it over and over again. After a tension-filled opening, Armstrong plays one of his all-time great quotes from "Rhapsody in Blue" in his first break, melding it beautifully with the first note of the second A section. It's a rhythmically complex solo that daringly balances lyrical moments with surprising double-time escapades. And listen for the similarities to the vocal: Pops's double-time break mirrors his double-timed scat in a way and he closes the heroic bridge by playing the same "Doddle-doddle-doddy" lick he sang just seconds earlier.

Armstrong's final eight bars are a strutting good time, accenting his notes with the kind of feel and rhythmic placement that would be common in most Swing Era arrangements just a few short years later. The band is very muddy behind, but he rides over it beautifully, playing them no mind. The stop-time coda ending, with an exciting climb to the high note, would be a part of most succeeding Armstrong versions of the tune. Classic, classic stuff...and can't you see how audiences ate it up?

One month later on August 23, our pal Seger Ellis (see last month's posts on "S'posin'" and "To Be In Love") was given a crack at "Ain't Misbehavin'." Once again, Ellis was allowed to select the personnel and once again he demonstrated his good taste in musicians, bringing back Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey and Stan King from his earlier session and adding the likes of pianist ARthur Schutt and the timeless team of violinist Joe Venuti and guitarist Eddie Lang. Armstrong doesn't have too much to do on it other than playing the melody and taking a neat break in the middle but it's still worth a listen:

From the start, you can feel that this version is slightly slower than Armstrong's. Unlike Pops's take on it, Ellis sings the verse first, Armstrong playing an obbligato behind his polite vocalizing. I hammered Ellis's voice last month and there's no need to start throwing insults around again. It's pretty painful from a 21st century perspective but hey, this is how popular music sounded pre-Crosby and we should still absorb it. And besides, like my pal David Sager pointed out, Ellis, a pianist, had some innate musicality and managed to rephrase the melody a bit in his second chorus, even throwing in a few blue notes. And the doubled-timed ending, in long meter, is a nice touch (this is how David Ostwald usually performs the song).

But just listen to that first Ellis chorus again. Then listen to Pops. It's another world! Actually, let me make it easier for you. For my lecture at the National Jazz Museum last week, I made a mash-up of Armstrong and Ellis's vocals, juxtaposing eight bars of each man's singing. It broke up the crowd there and I think it's a terrific example to demonstrate just what Armstrong brought to the popular music world of the 1920s. This is a lot of fun. Here's "Ain't Misbehavin'," Armstrong vs. Ellis:

So that's the story of "Ain't Misbehavin'" in the 1920s. As Pops wrote, "I believe that great song, and the chance I got to play it, did a lot to make me better known all over the country.” Indeed, it gave Armstrong crossover appeal and nothing was really ever the same...only it was. Armstrong kept doing what he always did but now he had mass appeal, something that still continues to this day. This will be a multi-part look at Armstrong's relationship with the tune so be sure to come back in a day or two where we'll listen to three surviving versions from the 1930s, including two broadcasts. Til then!


Sebastian said…
Wonderful, this is still one of my all-time favourite records. I first heard it when I got my first two jazz LPs as a 8-years-old boy. One of them was a brilliant package of Louis Armstrong 1928/29 recordings - including West End Blues and Ain't misbehavin'.

[By the way, the second one was a 2-LP with the timeless Victor piano solo recordings by the great Fats Waller. Maybe the weakest interpretation - if I may consider something made by Fats as weak at all - is the one you mentioned in the blog, his Ain't misbehavin' solo recording from August 1929. It seems he wasn't as much familiar with his own tune as Satchmo was (didn't he wood-shedd enough? :-). Every later recording of this tune by Fats has more of inspiration than the first one - escpecially the gigantic 1943 version with Zutty Singleton from the Stormy Weather movie.]

To me Armstrong's "cross over" is much more represented by the earlier I CAN'T GIVE YOU recording, which is really a pop recording. In my opinion AIN'T MISBEHAVIN' is the first example of a pattern how Pops approached to sentimental ballads and pop tunes: acting against a very "schmaltzy" background arrangement. Dickerson's band acts here in the way as e.g. the sweet saxophone arrangements of SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE (1931) or RED SAILS IN THE SUN SET (1935) or Gordon Jenkins' choir in BLUEBERRY HILL or his strings in INDIAN LOVE CALL.

There is a second type of approach to sentimental ballad stuff in Armstrong's recording carreer - to interprete them with a much more jazz-oriented ensemble, like e.g. Benny Carter's Band in ONLY YOU or is own All Stars in THAT'S FOR YOU - to mention few of the tunes discussed recently in this blog - or much of the ANGELS LP stuff.

I prefer in most of the cases the first type: It seems that the role as kind of a "contrapunctus" to the soft background gives Armstrong more freedom to "jazzify" the sentimental stuff. So, curiously, the recordings of pop tunes with a pop-oriented band or ensemble often contain more jazz flavour.

So, to me, AIN'T MISBEHAVIN' is not only a pop but also a brilliant jazz recording (you pointed out the mastery of improvisation and phrasing in his very free singing and playing). And it's a good evidence for the fact that you don't need flatted fifths and hectic hi-hat or cymbal beats to make jazz...

I'm looking forward to your next blog entry concerning AIN'T MISBEHAVIN' in the 30s. And I hope you will write a follow-up concering the 40s and 50s - including one of the most brilliant recordings of the tune, Satchmo's 1947 Town Hall live version ...

With best regards from Germany,
Dick Dienstag said…
In the larger context of American culture, perhaps an even more significant crossover date in Armstrong's career is July 16, 1930, when, in Los Angeles, he recorded "Blue Yodel Number 9" with Jimmie Rodgers. This is the earliest example of a recording by major stars which could be marketed to both white 'hillbilly' and black 'race' music buyers.

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