80 Years of Ain't Misbehavin': The 1930s Versions

Today I'm going to continue my four-part look at Louis Armstrong's long, storied history with "Ain't Misbehavin'" by focusing on some of the surviving versions from the 1930s. But before I get started, I just wanted to say a quick hello and thank the new friends I met at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem over the past three weeks. I was blessed to have great crowds each week, made up of dedicated people who trudged through rain (last night) and shine (last week) to hear the gospel of Pops. It was great meeting so many new people (including the great Morris Hodara...who was at Armstrong's Town Hall concert!) and almost all of them took my business card so if this is your first time checking out the blog...welcome! Don't be afraid of my in-depthness, either...it's all in good fun, and there's plenty of good music to be heard so stick around and bask in Pops a little long.

Anyway, onward and upward with "Ain't Misbehavin'." In my first post on the subject, I made my argument that "Ain't Misbehavin'" represented Armstrong's big "cross over" from just a jazz musician to a bona fide popular star (who played the greatest jazz ever heard). Fortunately, I have very intelligent readers and you can go back to that entry and read the enlightening contributions by readers Sebastian Claudius Semler of Germany and Dick Dienstag. Sebastian loves "Ain't Misbehavin'" but feels that "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" represents Armstrong true crossover moment. Naturally, I agree about the importance of Armstrong's recording of that tune (I wrote thousands of words on it back in March) but I don't think it propelled him into stardom as much as "Ain't Misbehavin'." To me, the pattern began developing in late 1928, with Armstrong's heartfelt vocal on the ballad "Save It Pretty Mama" and his swinging turn on "No One Else But You." Those vocals represented a different quality than the shouting, scatting rascal of the Hot Five sessions and I believe Tommy Rockwell's ears heard something worth exploring.

Flash forward to March 1929 and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love." That song was already established by the time Armstrong recorded it, having made its debut on Broadway in January 1928. Even Armstrong backed Lillie Delk Christian on her version of it that same year. Thus, it wasn't exactly brand new material, but there's no doubt that it was giving the pop song treatment, complete with, as Sebastian put it, a "schmaltzy" arrangement. It's a landmark Armstrong recording in terms of importance but when you look at Joel Whitburn's not-always-to-be-100%-trusted charts from the period, Armstrong's version doesn't even rank, beat out by Gene Austin, Ben Selvin and ever our pal Seger Ellis. But still, it was a huge step in the right direction.

The right direction led Armstrong to "Ain't Misbehavin'" and that, according to Whitburn, Armstrong's recording of it was the second most popular of the period, right behind Leo Reisman. Combine that with Armstrong's performances of it on Broadway and there can be no denying the exposure to an entirely new audience. All of a sudden, the New York Times is singling him out for attention and he becomes so popular, he's moved from the pit to the actual stage. It was a star-making performance and Armstrong himself admitted as much in that Swing That Music quote I used towards the end of my last blog. Thus, I'll never argue with anyone who champions Armstrong's "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" as his first crossover pop recording. But I still feel that "Ain't Misbehavin'" had a bigger impact and thus, truly made him a crossover star in an even bigger way.

And reader Dick Dienstag made a case for 1930's "Blue Yodel Number 9," Armstrong's classic backing of country pioneer Jimmie Rodgers as that record was marketed for fans of hillbilly music and race music. Again, I cannot deny the importance of this record and Dienstag makes a great point in that it introduced Armstrong's music to a new, entirely different audience. However, the only thing I will say is that Armstrong's name did not appear on the original label and for years--even decades--people argued about whether or not is was really him. Armstrong himself finally confirmed it I believe in the 1960s (and REALLY confirmed it by talking about it and playing it with Johnny Cash on their immortal 1970 television appearance). Thus, while a historic record, I don't know how many of the country music fans who originally bought the record knew that they were listening to Louis Armstrong.

As you can see, I love these little debates and discussions so as always, please hit me with comments and e-mails whenever you feel like it. I'll admit, since little Ella arrived, I've been terrible at responding to e-mails but I always appreciate them and do try to respond to them...usually between diaper changes and feedings!

But on to the 1930s! There are no surviving versions of Armstrong playing "Ain't Misbehavin'" until 1935. If you know the saga of Satchmo, then you know that 1935 was a major year. If you don't know it, I'll quickly sum it up by saying that Armstrong had pretty much hit rock bottom around this time. Beat to the chops, he rested in Europe for a while before returning to America without a band, without a recording contract, blacklisted from certain venues and still in a bit of trouble with the mob thanks to past managers. He hired Joe Glaser at this point and, say what you want about Glaser, he made all of Armstrong's troubles disappear. Not only did the mob stuff go away, but Armstrong soon had a new band organized by Zilner Randolph and a new recording contract with Decca. However, when a booking arose in New York, Armstrong couldn't take Randolph's Chicago-based band with him due to union troubles. He decided to front Luis Russell's New York orchestra, starting a partnetship that would last into the 1940s.

On October 3, 1935, Armstrong made his first Decca recordings with the Russell band (quick note: it took me some time, but I finally ordered Mosaic's new Armstrong Decca box set and I've been savoring it for a few weeks; look for my in-depth review sometime in August). Now, Russell had his own thing going on for years and now had to adapt to an entirely new book of arrangements. Thus, their performance on those early Deccas could be a little shaky, to say the least. But two days after the session, Armstrong appeared on the Shell Chateu Radio Show, hosted by none other than Walter Winchell. Instead of trying out any of the new material, Armstrong showcased two specialties, "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "Ain't Misbehavin'." If you haven't heard it in a couple of days, go back to my last blog and listen to a few seconds of that original 1929 recording. Now listen to how Pops was jumping it in 1935:

Immediately, you can hear that we're in a different stratosphere. The tempo is way up and Pops sounds like he's digging it, growling through the first eight bars as the band plays (apparently, this was a studio band led by Victor Young, sounding just as shaky as Russell's group at times). Armstrong's vocal is effervescent, complete with breaks that would be part of all of his future interpretations. Clearly, he had been singing it for years at this point, and had that vocal down pat. The tempo is so fast, he's forced to skip a few words (Jack Horner has been reduced to simply his surname) but the spirit is quite contagious. Armstrong's bubbles out of the bridge and contain himself from shouting a bit in the final A section. To get his chops together, another trumpeter takes eight-bars...what a daunting task!

Finally, Pops picks up his horn and starts his climactic solo, full of new ideas for the first eight bars, but once he gets to the spiraling downward break, he uses a lot from his 1929 vintage solo (why mess with perfection?) including the "Rhapsody in Blue" quote. He uses stop-time effectively during the bridge before working over a two-note clarion call in his final eight bars. The song is practically over...but we're only 90 seconds in! On the original record, Armstrong concluded with a short unaccompanied cadenza. But by 1935, he had turned this cadenza into a performance of its own. Backed only by some rumbling drums, Armstrong creates a dazzling, exotic, free-floating escapade, ending with a slow climb to the performance's final high note, the band cheering him along every step of the way. A very exciting performance (and for those of you familiar with the terrific version from 1955's Satch Plays Fats album, this one is a clear precursor to that gem).

By the time of Armstrong's next visit to "Ain't Misbehavin'" in 1938, his life had REALLY changed. The Decca records were a success, Armstrong's live shows broke box office records, he became a film star and also the host of a nationally-sponsored radio show, The Flesichmann's Yeast Hour. Not only was he a star, he was also a legend and what else is there to do with a legend other than have him revisit the things that made him legendary in the first place? Thus, beginning in 1938 and hitting its peak in 1939, Armstrong began remaking many of his best-loved OKeh numbers, including "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "West End Blues," "Confessin'," "Savoy Blues" and more. Naturally, "Ain't Misbehavin'" was placed on the remake docket and was waxed on June 24, 1938.

Unfortunately, the Russell band--which sounded great on the Fleischmann shows, as well as on some of the 1938 Deccas--was left home for the session. Instead, Armstrong was backed by a small group of white studio musicians. The musicians were very good but they were given some very bland arrangements to work with. Armstrong sounds lovely throughout the four-song session but it's never been one of my favorites due to the stilted nature of the charts. Anyway, here's how "Ain't Misbehavin'" came out:

See what I mean? Even the short introduction is kind of corny; it's almost cute in a certain bland way. Fortunately, Armstrong comes in with the vocal, sounding great as usual (he owned the tune). The breaks are omitted, forcing Armstrong to come up with some new variations on a song he had been singing for almost a decade. He still swings like mad in the final eight-bars before handing it over the band, for some written, quasi-Dixie playing, in trade with the fine trombonist Al Philburn (drummer Sam Weiss does sound very good throughout). Pianist Nat Jaffe takes fine eight-bar bridge but then something weird happens: the arrangement goes back to the beginning and Pops comes in for an entire chorus, meaning the band interlude only lasted an uncommon 24 bars...which, to me is about 24 bars too long.

But I can't complain once Pops enters. He starts off with the melody before going for himself. And notice, though many aspects of his playing on "Ain't Misbehavin'" were set, the man could still improvise with the best of them. Thus, the breaks are eliminated on this performance, meaning no downward spiral and, even more shocking, no "Rhapsody in Blue." Instead, it's an entirely new solo and a fine one at that. There's nothing exhibitionistic at all; it's lyrical from note one and as Dan Morgenstern writes, it "flows." At the conclusion, Armstrong gets into a little duet with Weiss's tom-toms, hinting at Armstrong's live routine but it doesn't last for very long. So, corny arrangement aside, it's a great record for Pops's vocal and completely fresh solo.

Our tour of Louis's 1930s "Ain't Misbehavin'" renditions ends with an October 14, 1939 broadcast on CBS's Saturday Night Camel Caravan. Of course, to Swing Era nuts, "Camel Caravan" only means one thing: Benny Goodman. For this broadcast, Armstrong decided to play the tune with Goodman's sextet. So in another jazz history dream matchup, you'll hear Louis Armstrong backed by Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Fletcher Henderson, Charlie Christian, Artie Bernsein and Nick Fatool...it's almost ridiculous! I've included Armstrong's introduction in this clip, as he came out unannounced by blowing a variation of his famous "West End Blues" cadenza (I didn't chop anything out, he opened with the gliss to the high note instead of the standard descending notes). An unintentionally hilarious moment occurs when the announcer refers to Pops as "Satch-o" (what was he, the lost Marx Brother?) before Armstrong and Goodman go into a dialogue. The two kings of swing didn't really get along well, even at this early juncture, which I think I'll save for the book (gotta save SOMETHING folks!). Anyway, here 'tis:

Isn't that great? I think that might be my favorite of the 1930s batch. The tempo is relaxed, almost back to 1929-style and similar to the 1938 Decca remake, but looser and more swinging (thanks to Charlie Christian chunk-chunk-chunking away). We're back to the set routine for this performance and as usual, it kills. Armstrong's vocal is a "gassuh" (he's less gravelly than on the Decca), getting enthusiastic backing from both Hampton and Goodman. After short breaks for vibes and clarinet, Armstrong picks up the horn and takes it out in strutting style, complete with breaks ("Rhapsody In Blue" up first, but no descending spiral, instead replaced by something new and exciting). During the bridge, the rest of Goodman's horns join in and Pops starts preaching (Hamp's riffing, too, playing a slight proto-type of what would become "Flying Home's" rideout riff). For the closing cadenza, Armstrong gets as close to the 1929 one as he ever would and it's terrific. A great slice of Swing Era magic.

S'all for now. I hope to be back in a couple of days to take you through the 1940s versions of the tune, including big band treatments (featuring Dexter Gordon!) and some classic small group takes on it (two words: Town Hall). Til then!


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