When You're Smiling - The Early Versions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded September 11, 1929
Track Time 3:31
Written by Mark Fisher, Larry Shay and Joe Goodwin
Recorded in New York, NY
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Homer Hobson, trumpet; Fred Robinson, trombone; Jimmy Strong, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Bert Curry, Crawford Washington, alto saxophone; Carroll Dickerson, violin; Gene Anderson, piano, celeste; Mancy Carr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba; Zutty Singleton, drums; Carroll Dickerson, conductor, violin
Originally released on OKeh 41298
Currently available on CD: It's on the JSP disc Hot Fives and Hot Sevens Volume Four (as well as a thousand compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

The 1920s and 1930s were obviously a most fertile period in American popular song, with future standard after future standard being pumped out at almost alarming rates from the confines of Tin Pan Alley. I can sit here and about a thousand such songs, but in preparing for this blog, I began wondering to myself, are there any songs from that period as universally known as "When You're Smiling." Perhaps "Star Dust" still resonates, but I'm not sure if a great number of people under 30 know about Hoagy Carmichael's masterpiece. Yet Michael Buble has recorded "When You're Smiling" for the young nostalgists that make up his audience. It's still featured in movies and in television commercials. Traditional jazz bands play it, country groups have recorded it, it knocks 'em dead in senior citizen facilities (I know from experience). In the jazz world, it's been recorded musicians from Art Pepper and Lester Young to Lionel Hampton and the Dukes of Dixieland. New Jersey public access television legend Uncle Floyd Vivino uses it as his closing theme. So did Leadbelly. Judy Garland sang it at Carnegie Hall in 1961 and Rufus Wainwright recently sang it at his tribute to that event. Run 'em on down...Frank, Billie, Dean, Nat, Louie (Prima), Bing, they all lectured about the causes and effects of smiling vs. not smiling.

But it was Louis Armstrong who put the tune on the map with his epic recording of it 80 years ago. And it's his versions that have never been topped.

"When You're Smiling" was written in 1928 by the team of Mark Fisher, Larry Shay and Joe Goodwin. All three men were professional songwriters and frequent collaborators but as far as my exhaustive Internet search shows, they never came up with anything on the level of "When You're Smiling." Popularity level, I'm speaking of. As a song, "When You're Smiling" isn't exactly a revolutionary piece of art. The changes are basic, with a slip into minor during the bridge. The melody is a good example on how to take a four-note motive and drill it into the listener's head by shifting it around for 32 bars. The lyrics are simple and straightforward, with none of the wit or poetry associated with the finest Great American Songbook entries ("But Not For Me" it ain't).

But it works. The melody is simple and repetitive but it's catchy, something that most popular music still aspires to be. The
lyrics are easy to remember and come straight from the heart. They make you feel good. They make you smile. And in Louis Armstrong's ever-smiling voice, they make you positively beam.

Elsewhere on the Internet, I've seen people write that "When You're Smiling" was a cheer-up anthem of the Great Depression. Perhaps that's what it turned into but it was originally published in 1928, when everything was swinging. Even Armstrong's mellow, reflective version, was recorded over full month before Wall Street laid its egg. Thus, here's how it sounded as recorded by the Louisiana Rhythm Kings (a studio group usually led by Red Nichols but here, featuring many members of the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks):

Fun stuff, right? According to the Internet machine, the first major recorded version of "When You're Smiling" was done by our pal Seger Ellis, who hired Armstrong to back him up on three records earlier in 1929 (all of which I covered this past summer). I would love to hear what Ellis did with the tune but it's not up on YouTube, nor has it been issued on any CDs or in MP3 form (am I the only demanding Sony to open their Seger Ellis vaults?).

So let's skip the formalities for now and jump right in head first and listen to Armstrong's first, legendary recording of "When You're Smiling":

Smiling yet? That's the point! The first thing you'll hear is, though, might be a little jarring. If you're expecting a swinging big band, slashing high-hat cymbals, pulsating bass lines...you're going to be disappointed. Louis Armstrong might have invented the Swing Era but it took a while for the era to catch up to him. Thus, you'll hear crooning saxophones, a plinkling banjo and a plodding tuba. If you didn't know any better, you might as well be listening to Guy Lombardo.

And that, too, is the point. Jazz critics have been suicidal about the following point for 80 years now but I have to repeat it, even if the truth hurts: Louis Armstrong loved Guy Lombardo. Adored him. Said Lombardo was his "inspirator." I already covered this a bit in my last entry on Armstrong's only recorded meeting with Lombardo but it's on records like "When You're Smiling" where you REALLY hear the Lombardo influence, especially in the saxophone. It's pure melody and though it hasn't aged well over the decades, be sure that Armstrong himself was beaming in the studio while listening to the sweet sounds emanating from Carroll Dickerson's orchestra (that's Dickerson taking the bridge with his violin...Stuff Smith he ain't).

(If you don't know what I'm talking about, here's a later recording of Lombardo doing "When You're Smiling." Never mind the peppy tempo and corny melody, listen to that first chorus of melody...it's almost the same arrangement!)

After a minute of melody, a "boop-boop-a-doop" lick sets up Armstrong's delicious vocal. Listen to how Armstrong transforms the repetitive motive of the melody into something more genuine, something more warm. As written, the title phrase is an ascending one. But Armstrong comes in by singing the "When" and the "you" (he ALWAYS sang "when you smiling") on the same pitch before descending for the word smiling. And what does he do for the identical next line? He starts even higher before another descent. The next line? Even higher. It's almost as if he had the sheet music upside down or something. But my God does it work, right down to the "babe's" and quiet scatted asides. (And that's why Armstrong's still associated with the song...and I'm scouring the Internet for Seger Ellis records).

After the vocal, pianist Gene Anderson (Earl Hines's replacement in the Dickerson outfit) takes eight bars (little shaky) to allow Pops to get his chops together. And boy, are they together. It's one of Armstrong's most famous solos and he barely improvises a note on it. It's all melody but here's the rub: he plays it an octave higher than expected. It's startling from the beginning but the drama only grows as he goes on, especially into the bridge. "Is he gonna make it?" you might find yourself wondering. Well, as Armstrong liked to say, he had it in his pocket the whole time.

Armstrong's love of opera and his love of melody are really in the forefront here. The solo also has a very vocal quality. His only improvisations are the tossed off descending phrases after the main melody statements, exactly echoing his scatted asides during the vocal. But what it comes down to is a test of endurance, 72 seconds of upper register madness, with plenty of long, held notes, all done over a slowish tempo. Amazing.

So where did Armstrong come up with the idea of playing "When You're Smiling" an octave higher? From this man:

That's trumpet virtuoso B.A. Rolfe, a popular performer in the 1920s. Rolfe isn't very well known these days but he did make a series of records for Edison featuring a pretty hot dance band of the period. Rolfe wasn't a jazz player (though he was good with a mute), but he was definitely a virtuoso. There are plenty of examples of his playing on YouTube. Here's one, "Talking to the Moon":

Not bad, eh? Armstrong always delighted in telling the story of how he came to be inspired by Rolfe to include more forays into the upper register in his own playing. As the story goes, Armstrong saw Vincent Lopez's dance band with Rolfe featured on trumpet. Rolfe played a pop tune from 1915, "Shadowland," but the catch was he played it an octave higher than expected. Armstrong was blown away and responded by doing the same thing on "When You're Smiling."

It's a great story, but I can't do it justice. Here's Armstrong during a series of 1956 Voice of America interviews telling the story and even singing a bit of "Shadowland." (The VOA interviews featured Armstrong playing disc jockey, spinning some of his favorite records and tellings lots of priceless stories. Thus, you'll hear him open this clip by mentioning the record that just finished, Fletcher Henderson's "Mandy, Make Up Your Mind.")

Armstrong's insights into music are always fascinating; even the greatest of them all wasn't above from getting ideas from other ("I always wanted to hear the other fella"). I hoped and prayed that maybe Rolfe recorded some forgotten version of "Shadowland," but alas, it never happened. We already heard Armstrong sing a bit of it, but here's how it probably sounded when Armstrong heard Rolfe, in this version by the Castlewood Marimba Band:

Enough with "Shadowland," let's head back to September 11, 1929 for an alternate version of "When You're Smiling." Back then, record companies occasionally recorded non-vocal versions of tunes specifically for international audiences. Thus, the "When You're Smiling" alternate doesn't include Armstrong's glimmering vocal but what's in its place is just as exhilarating: a half chorus of Armstrong improvising on the trumpet. He doesn't knock himself out (probably saving himself for the grand finish), but it's a tour de force in how to develop a motif rhythmically. Armstrong comes up with one simple phrase and messes around with it for almost the entire solo. Remember what I said before about this record not swinging? I take it back. Armstrong's simplicity swings like mad, Zutty Singleton laying down a fat beat with his brushes. A wonderful interlude. Listen for yourself:

As you can also hear, Armstrong nails the high-note playing again at the end. Most trumpet players back then couldn't have played that solo twice in their lives, never mind twice back-to-back. But if you notice, the tempo is a shade faster, saving Armstrong about 13 seconds of chop-busting.

Well, Armstrong's "When You're Smiling" came out and soon became a bona fide hit with Pops becoming immediately associated with the tune. In fact, when Armstrong left OKeh and headed to Victor in 1932, one of the first things Victor did was have Armstrong record two medleys of hits. Naturally, "When You're Smiling" led off one of the medleys, though it's a vocal-only version that barely lasts a minute. But even without the trumpet playing, Armstrong's personality is through the roof. Enjoy 'When You're Smiling" but stay for "St. James Infirmary" and "Dinah" to really hear a genius in his prime:

On top of being a hit with the general public, Armstrong's treatment of "When You're Smiling" became all the rage with musicians. Here's trumpeter Taft Jordan discussing it in Stanley Dance's The World of Swing:

"Later on, I heard [Armstrong's] recording of 'When You're Smiling,' and every trumpet player around Norfolk tried to play that, but they'd begin petering out when they got around the last eight bars. The best of them even put out a rumor that Pops (Armstrong) was playing a special kind of trumpet, that it was the instrument and not the man."

Jordan continues by discussing an appearance Armstrong made in Norfolk soon after "When You're Smiling" caught on: "And he played and played. And people kept asking for 'When You're Smiling.' That was the big thing then. All the trumpet players around town were there, and I knew 'em all, but they didn't know me because I was still in the school band. They were all standing around with their horns, watching the way he fingered his. They thought it was probably not the same one he played 'When You're Smiling' on, but they kept asking him to play the song."

"'Okay,' he said. 'I'l play it for you later.' Well, right after intermission, they went into 'When You're Smiling, and the house as in an uproar. And just as suddenly it quieted down, because everybody wanted to hear this. After Louis got through singing it, the saxes came in for eight bars, and then he played, and they screamed again-and came right back down. Then he really got into playing 'When You're Smiling"! He had a great big Turkish towel around his neck, and perspiration was coming out like rain water. when he got to the last eight bars, he was getting stronger and stronger. Then he hit that top note and completed the tune."

Jordan then remembers the other trumpet players asking to see Armstrong's horn. After fingering scales on their instruments and Armstrong's, Jordan said, "It was all the same. It was no trick horn. It was just the man, the difference of the man."

"Nobody bothers with 'When You're Smiling' now," Jordan continued in this interview from 1971. All these high-note specialists, all these strong-lipped fellows--they jump over that. The feel Pops had on that tune, the way he delivered it....Even the fellows who played much higher than Pops ever recorded--and I've heard him play extremely high in practice--no one of them bothered with 'When You're Smiling' at that tempo. I've heard guys play it fast, but they're cheating it. Pops sang it, you know, on trumpet."

For the record, Jordan played Armstrong's "When You're Smiling" conception twice and "never cheated on it" but it became too grueling the second time around. "There was a physical thing involved. Pops was so powerful, and a little guy like me....I could do his other stuff,but when it came to something like that, it was too tough." K(eep that in mind when I cover Armstrong's 1956 version in the near future.)

If you're still with me (and God bless ya, if you are!), I'll close with a few treats: other recordings of the "When You're Smiling" from the period. First off, Armstrong's mentor, King Oliver. Oliver's chops were pretty much finished by this point but he knew how to hire good men to the job. In this case, it was Bubber Miley and Red Allen...nuff said. But listen to how similar the feel is to the Armstrong version, right down to the violin. And who is playing that violin? The same Carroll Dickerson who was leading the band for Armstrong's version! Also, the vocal by Frank Marvin is unintentionally hilarious. Speaking of unintentionally hilarious, listen to the last eight bars. There are three of the greatest trumpet players in jazz history, all surging with confidence that they might replicate Armstrong's high note ending. But once the going gets tough, they all head south! They're all playing different notes and though they end on an impressive high one, it's pretty funny to hear them approach Armstrong's heights only to back away screaming for their lives. Dig it:

For blatant Armstrong imitations, here's Duke Ellington's version, recorded in the beginning of 1930. Freddy Jenkins does a great job with the octave-higher stuff but notice that tempo is twice as fast...literally (Jenkins does in 35 seconds what Armstrong did in 72, and he muffs his final note). Here's Duke:

But the award for best Armstrong imitation has got to go to Lammar Wright for his work on Cab Calloway's version of May 21, 1936. Again, the tempo's faster than Armstrong's so Pops is still the champ but Wright nails it in every other way, including an Pops-ian coda:

And that ends this look at the early history of Louis Armstrong's relationship with "When You're Smiling." I made it a meaty entry because, these days, I don't know when I'll have the time to write again, so savor it until I come back. And you're not going to want to miss it because Armstrong's 1956 version of "When You're Smiling" is one of the great moments of his entire career. Til then!


The whole world smiles with you (and with Louis)! Thanks, Ricky!

Michael Steinman
Anonymous said…
Ricky, loved this blog post. Of course, When You're Smiling in any version he recorded is one of my all-time favorite Pops tunes.

The antipathy Armstrong fans might have for Guy Lombardo reminds me of the similar antipathy Sinatra fans have towards Mel Torme (the Velvet Fog, or Frog, if you prefer).

While I might find Lombardo quaint-sounding, at least I can still listen to him for a while before I tune out. Mel Torme has me reaching for the skip button the way a fighter pilot in trouble reaches for the eject handle.

Different strokes for different folks. Pops was obviously a modest man who didn't care what people thought, so long as they didn't find him to be vain or boastful.
Mike T. said…
Almost five years after you wrote this, I discovered this post as I was listing to Pops' 1956 version... and I am buying your book right away. It's too bad a book can't have the audio tracks embedded in it too!
I never knew how many early versions of it there were.
I say THANK YOU for your terrific research and eloquent prose, on behalf of my father, uncle and grandfather who got to see Louis in person and passed on the love of jazz to me.

-Mike T.
Kalamazoo, MI
Mike T. said…
Almost five years after you wrote this, I discovered this post as I was listing to Pops' 1956 version... and I am buying your book right away. It's too bad a book can't have the audio tracks embedded in it too!
I never knew how many early versions of it there were.
I say THANK YOU for your terrific research and eloquent prose, on behalf of my father, uncle and grandfather who got to see Louis in person and passed on the love of jazz to me.

-Mike T.
Kalamazoo, MI

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