80 Years of Ain't Misbehavin': The 1950s Versions

And we’re back to the land of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” folks, over a month after I began this endeavor by examinging Armstrong’s various takes on the Fats Waller classic in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Today, I’ll finally conclude this exhaustive (exhausting?) look at the tune by focusing on Armstrong’s 1950s versions.

We’ll start with a recording for the film The Strip, a Mickey Rooney B-level piece of noir that’s best known for Armstrong introducing “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.” Armstrong and the All Stars (the Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard, Earl Hines, Arvell Shaw, Cozy Cole edition) recorded a bunch of tracks for the film in December 1950 but not all of the material was used. However, the good people at Rhino swooped in and saved this version of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” from the cutting room floor:

I like this lightly swinging version, with Cole playing almost inaudible brushes. The tempo is up and Pops takes a nice break in the shortened first chorus. By this point, as discussed in the 1940s entry, Armstrong’s approach to the vocal was pretty much set in stone but it works, so why complain? Teagarden follows with a mellow outing with Barney’s clarinet taking the bridge, a standard part of the All Stars’s arrangement. But please listen to that final chorus for some outstanding improvising by Armstrong. He opens with his patented break but then goes for himself (no “Rhapsody in Blue”), which seems to throw the band off during his first break. He’s very relaxed and the ideas just seem to flow effortlessly from his horn. The closing coda is a bit shortened but Armstrong’s final high note is thrilling. We’re off and running!

You might think that that version represents how the All Stars usually approached “Ain’t Misbehavin.’” But there was always more than meets the eye when it came to this group. Critics complained that they played the same songs every night and sure, there were a lot of repeats. But listen sometimes to how they approached them differently each time out (“Sunny Side of the Street” had three distinct tempos, depending on Armstrong’s mood and his reading of the audience). So with that in mind, here’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” again literally one month to day after the version we’ve just heard. It’s an All Stars show in Vancouver (I think it might have been a dance, too) and this is how Pops called it:

Why, it’s practically a ballad! Okay, not quite; but this walking-and-swinging tempo is pretty far removed from the 1950 version. Armstrong only plays eight bars up front before going to into the vocal (which features a different scat break…I guess I spoke too soon about it being set in stone!). After Armstrong alerts his trombonist to “Take it, Mr. Jackson,” listen carefully to Armstrong say something about “We’re going out.” There’s a bad edit in the version I have but sure enough, Pops reenters at the bridge of Teagarden’s solo and takes the piece to its conclusion, complete with a great cadenza. Perhaps he gave it that treatment to suit the dancers? Or maybe, he just felt like cooling it a bit. Regardless, it’s still a good version to have and more proof to never take the All Stars for granted.

If there’s one thing that I’ve preached in the previous entries in this series, it’s that “Ain’t Misbehavin’” represents a crucially important song in the Armstrong canon as, to me, it signaled the beginning of his crossing over from being viewed as just a hot jazzman to being viewed as a great, popular entertainer. And as we’ve seen, he sure played the hell out of the tune in the 30s and 40s, using it often on the radio and even in a film. But interestingly, after the original nucleus of the All Stars broke up in 1951, Armstrong rarely performed the song and if he did, he usually announced it as a request. I really don’t have a reason for this, but it also happened to another one of his early hits, “Confessin’,” which he recorded and broadcast numerous times in the 1930s and 1940s, but only trotted out sporadically with the All Stars.

Thus, the next surviving version, from an Oslo on October 5, 1952, has the feel of a jam session, rather than being as tight as some of the other ones we’ve heard. Here’s the audio:

By this point, Armstrong was fielding almost an entirely different band. Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole remained but otherwise, Marty Napoleon now played piano and Bob McCracken and Trummy Young handled the clarinet and trombone responsibilities respectively. You’ll hear, Napoleon sounding like he’s about to take a 16-bar intro, but Pops steamrolls him after eight, causing a slight clash. But these were professional musicians and the first chorus jam sounds fine as wine. Before the vocal, Armstrong announces that this is a request, which becomes clear during Armstrong’s scat breaks: old hands Cole and Shaw properly stop playing; new guys McCracken and Napoleon keep playing a bit! On his second break, Armstrong’s voice disappears for a second as I think he must have admonished them and emphatically signaled to stop for a break.

After the vocal, the old routine is switched up as McCracken takes the lead with Trummy jumping in for a slightly unsure bridge and a swinging final eight. But by the time of Pops’s triumphant arrival, all is right in the world: the band catches all the breaks and Armstrong blasts out his old solo like he’s a young man again, Cozy Cole really digging in at the end (no polite brushwork here!). However, the ending is the key to realizing this was a spontaneous affair: realizing that the new guys in the band probably don’t know about the whole extended coda ending, Armstrong plays it safe and leads the charge towards a typical All Stars conclusion. I like this version because it’s a great example of the professionalism of the group, taking a tune they rarely, if ever, played anymore at this point and turning in a pretty jumping little performance.

The saga of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” yields zero surviving versions from the years 1953 and 1954, but when we get to 1955, we hit the motherlode: Armstrong’s Columbia album Satch Plays Fats. This album, the brainchild of producer George Avakian, was a natural for Armstrong and the All Stars and the result was one of Pops’s finest albums of the 1950s. By this point, Barrett Deems was on drums, Billy Kyle had taken over the piano chair and Barney Bigard returned to the clarinet post. Unfortunately, Barney was on fumes and his playing on Satch Plays Fats is pretty woeful. I’ve heard the existing session tapes and trust me, George Avakian deserves a medal of honor for editing it in such a way that Barney even sounds coherent.

Naturally, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” would be performed on the album, positioned as the final track, a fitting climax to a marvelous piece of work. In his original liner notes, Avakian wrote, “Loouis recorded it in exactly the length of time it takes to say ‘Pops, wanna do ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ next?,’ followed by a quick nod to the band and a warning to the engineers to keep the tape machines rolling. We didn’t even have to play this take back.” It’s a good story and perhaps on the issued take, they didn’t have to play it back. But truthfully, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was tackled three times, perhaps once at each of the album’s three sessions before the All Stars hit it out of the park on the third and final try. One of the alternates was released by Columbia in 1986 when they first issued Satch Plays Fats with almost exclusively alternate takes. However, the other alternate has been stuck in Columbia’s vaults for decades…until now. (Cue dramatic music)

Thanks to the generosity of George Avakian, I have the unedited takes of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and would like to share them right now. No one knows the exact date of this first attempt. This track opens with the voice of Avakian reading off the matrix number 53253, before he catches himself and reads off the correct one, 53254 (“Too many God-damned numbers,” he says!). CO 53253 was the number for “Honeysuckle Rose,” the third tune recorded at the album’s first April 26, session. Thus, this take could be the final tune from that session or the first one done at the following day’s second session. Regardless, here’s how it came out:

That’s the take Columbia used on their 1986 reissue. You’ll notice the relaxed tempo and the almost unsure way Deems enters during Kyle’s intro, making me wonder if this was meant to be a run-through and Avakian just recorded it in case he heard a good solo he needed to use later on in editing. Armstrong’s vocal is a good one, ending with a resounding, “Take it, Trummy Young” before Trummy swings out for a half chorus. Barney then takes the bridge, offering almost no power; Deems has to switch to playing quietly as not to overpower him and Armstrong’s supposed background fills immediately become a foreground lead. Armstrong sounds dynamite in the closing ensemble, getting off all the old ideas as well as uncorking some brand new ideas, the band really picking up steam as it heads down the home stretch. The track ends with the long coda, Armstrong supported by Deems’s cooking drums. Remember way back when when I shared a live broadcast of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” from 1935 and said it most resembled the Satch Plays Fats version? Now you can hear it for yourself; this is a long ending, Armstrong taking his time, building higher and higher, probably just as he did two decades earlier. A good take, but not quite ready for release.

Now, onto the unissued material. Again, this could either be from the April 27 second session or—the most likely scenario—the final session of May 3. Here ‘tis:

To me, THAT sounds like a run-through take. Well, first there’s the breakdown as Kyle hit a jarring chord and Pops got off on the wrong foot. Once situated, the band turned in a fine opening ensemble, though Trummy’s phrase leading into the vocal is a bit awkward. After the vocal, Trummy’s awkwardness continues in a solo that was probably best left in the vaults. Barney at least stays in tune this time, but he’s still a shadow of his former self. Almost to make amends for his sloppy playing, Trummy charges back in and swings violently for his final eight. Armstrong’s the iron man again, and completely nails his final chorus and the extended ending. Armstrong could do no wrong on these sessions.

Finally, on the May 3 session, the band tackled “Ain’t Misbehavin’” one last time and knocked it out of the park. Someone suggested that the tempo be raised a bit and those few extra beats of tempo made all the difference in the world. This is a seriously smoking version, my favorite one behind the original and the Town Hall outing. Dig it:

Yeah, man! By this point, I don’t think I need to analyze it too fully other than to say that the rhythm section is completely locked in and Trummy plays like a man possessed; nothing awkward here! His shouting solo is the epitome of everything he represented during his 11+ year tenure with the band. (Barney’s still going through the motions but it’s only eight bars, so who cares?) Armstrong’s in command yet again but just listen to the raw power and swing of the group as a whole as it comes out of the bridge and heads for the final eight. It’s only about five seconds long, but those five seconds contain some of the most joyous, heart-pounding, swinging moments of the history of the All Stars. I love it, especially when listening to the album as originally programmed; as the final track, it’s an unmatchable ending. Of course, there’s still the Armstrong-and-Deems ending, which is great, though honestly, I think I prefer Pops’s repeating of the final high notes on the slower first take. Whatever, it’s all great…

Even thought Satch Plays Fats was well-received by critics and a big seller for Columbia, it still wasn’t enough for Pops to make “Ain’t Misbehavin’” a regular part of the All Stars’s repertoire. Only two Armstrong versions of the tune survive after the 1955 studio outing and I’m not going to share the 1958 one because it’s sadly incomplete, the original tape having run out after Armstrong’s vocal (a pity because Armstrong was in superhuman form that night in North Bay, Ontario). And the final version I’m going to share is unfortunately in subpar sound quality.

But we must remain optimistic, right? It’s from November 1957 and features the All Stars during their triumphant tour of Buenos Aires. Most importantly, Barney Bigard’s long gone, replaced by the incredible Edmond Hall. (THIS is the band that should have recorded the Fats Waller and W.C. Handy albums for Columbia.) Here’s where our tour ends:

For more proof that the All Stars didn’t play this tune very often, listen to Billy Kyle’s piano introduction which a) goes through about three tempo changes, Armstrong probably setting him straight and b) goes on for a few bars longer than anticipated. No matter, as soon as he picks up his horn, it’s clear Armstrong’s chops are in phenomenal shape and though the sound quality is less than ideal, it’s great to hear the powerful front line of Pops, Trummy and Edmond Hall. The vocal is great, as usual, my favorite part being Armstrong’s singing of “Hay-vin’,” a perfectly swinging truncation of the title, eliminating both the “Ain’t” and the “Mis”! Trummy sounds good and Hall makes his presence felt before Armstrong takes us on one final tour of his old solo, still killing it almost 30 years after he first began performing it on the Broadway stage. And the pacing of the extended ending is exquisite. A fitting farewell to our look at Armstrong’s history with “Ain’t Misbehavin.’”

But why say farewell in 1957 when Armstrong died in 1971? Truthfully, I think the trumpet work in “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was pretty damn demanding and after his heart attack in Spoleto, Italy in 1959, Armstrong probably retired the song for good. He sang it on The Mike Douglas Show in 1964 but didn’t play on it. Of course, he toured so much and so many shows don’t survive that I could very well be wrong. Maybe he got requests for it every month and still played the hell out of it. Maybe he didn’t. We might never know but at least we have over 20 surviving versions to savor from throughout the course of his great career.

But don’t go anywhere yet! If you’re still with me at this point, you’re either a trooper or your nuts, but I must reward your patience with a little of what folks in New Orleans like to call lagniappe. In 1959, Look magazine featured a promotional record of Armstrong, Bing Crosby, The Hi-Los and Rosemary Clooney talking and singing about Remington electric shavers. I’m proud to own a copy of the record—“Music to Shave By,” as it was called—but happier to share this YouTube video of it, guaranteed to make you smile. Not only does Pops play some powerhouse horn but dig those words and try not to laugh…”Ain’t misbehavin’, I’m shaving myself for you!” Enjoy!


Rich said…
Thanks for all this info. I came across this post looking for anyone commenting on Barney Bigard's subpar playing on this album. It sounds like his doctor told him he had cancer right before walking into the session, and he's a solid player.

Do you have any more info. on what may have been happening with Barney on these dates? Maybe he was sick... or did get some bad news.


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