80 Years of "Tiger Rag" - Part Five - Ambassador Satch

Louis Armstrong and The All Stars
Recorded December 20, 1955
Track Time 3:38
Written by Nick La Rocca
Recorded in Milan, Italy
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, talk; Trummy Young, trombone, talk; Edmond Hall, clarinet; Billy Kyle, piano; Arvell Shaw,b ass; Barrett Deems, drums.
Originally released on Columbia CL 840
Currently available on CD: It’s on Ambassador Satch.
Available on Itunes? Yes

As discusessed at the end of my last entry in this never-ending series, "Tiger Rag" did not seem to be a big part of Louis Armstrong's live performances in the late 1940s and for the first half of the 1950s. That all changed in 1955 with the recording of a version of the tune for the album "Ambassador Satch." As always, a little backstory...

Louis's career was riding high towards the end of 1955: Beginning in September, George Avakian would control Louis's recordings for Columbia for nearly an entire a year. At a September 28 session, Louis recorded "Mack the Knife" and had a huge hit with it. That session was the first with new clarinetist Edmond Hall, who's firey playing catapaulted the All Stars into their peak edition. Plus, Louis was receiving momentous publicity for a three-month tour of Europe with articles appearing in the "New York Times," "Time" magazine, "U.S. News and World Report" and more. Edward R. Murrow, on the sugestion of Avakian, caught up with Louis during this tour and filmed some of it to be shown on a December 13 edition of "See It Now." Pops was hot!

The overseas stuff was really killer and Avakian wanted to make that the focus of Louis's next Columbia recording. He headed to Europe and on October 30, recorded an entire All Stars concert at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. As someone who is fortunate enough to have heard this show, I can attest that it's a fantastic evening with the All Stars. But George Avakian had a restless quest for perfection. Thanks to Chris Albertson, Avakian's handwritten notes on this concert have survived and they show his unsatisfied with many of the tunes, usually for small reasons (muffed note, too long of a bass solo, etc.).

At the same same time, Decca had released three live sets by Louis in the previous five years: "Satchmo at Symphony Hall," "Satchmo at Pasadena" and "At the Crescendo." Decca had a five-year restriction on other labels recording any numbers released on those sets. Louis had a pretty big band book but about half the material he played in Amsterdam was recorded earlier that year at the Crescendo and thus, would be unusable.

George knew if he wanted to get achieve the high standards he was noted for--perfect performances of different material--he'd have to do it the old-fashioned way and treat the rest of the album like a studio session. He was happy with "Tin Roof Blues," "Dadanella," "Undecided" and "Muskrat Ramble" from Amsterdam but he needed more.

On December 20, 1955, Avakian caught up with Louis in Milan, Italy where Louis was playing three--THREE!--shows in one day. Avakian decided to do his recording that evening...or should I say morning, since Louis remembered them recording at five o'clock in the morning. Avakian rented an empty movie theater that would give a live ambience and invited a group of enthusiastic Italian fans, as well as members of Louis's entourage, to act as an audience. Now, Avakian could take his time and treat this like a session, with rehearsals and time for multiple takes.

You'd think Louis was beat, but he was really just warmed up. After starting off with a run-through of "Indiana," Louis recorded a stirring rendition of "West End Blues" that made it onto the final album. Then after a bit of rehearsal, it was time for something new so they tackled a song Louis liked when he heard it in Germany, "The Faithful Hussar." The results were great, ending up on the album and giving Louis a pet favorite tune to perform live into the late 1960s.

Needing something else, clarinetist Edmond Hall suggested "Tiger Rag." Because the band hadn't played it in years, some rehearsing would be necessary. Seeing a chance for a gimmick of sorts, someone--probably Avakian, possibly Louis--came up with the cute idea to have Trummy Young's trombone act as the "tiger." With each roar, Louis was react verbally. Then later, Trummy and Louis would team up for some hokum about
the tiger biting them. It was all a lot of fun (later, after the record was released, Louis broke himself up with laughter in an interview recounting his lines with Trummy about "Where did he bite you?").

Through the kindness of my European friends, I have been able to obtain some of the surviving takes of the tunes recorded that evening in Milan. Avakian's custom was generally to only record full takes but on "Tiger Rag," he let the tapes roll to catch a bit of the rehearsal. Here it is, made public for the first time in 55 years:

Immediately, you can hear Trummy and Louis working on their routine featuring Young's growl. As soon as it's straight, you can hear the other muscians offer a "Yeah!" of approval. They were clearly digging it. Edmond Hall can then be heard playing the "Hold That Tiger" riff in Ab while Louis starts fingering the opening strain in Bb. (At this point, the first 15 seconds repeats itself; don't let it throw you.) There's a discussion about keys--"verse in Bb"--as Trummy keeps working on his growl. Louis imitates a wetter, wider growl and Young immediately responds. Louis sings his "Hold that tiger" bit while drummer Barrett Deems gives a taste of what's about to occur ("Yeahhhh, man," Pops says in approval).

Avakian then recorded another rehearsal take, this time with actual music. Louis and Trummy's bit leads into a roaring Barrett Deems drum solo before the band takes off with the verse. This take breaks down after two minutes but it's still fascinating listening:

After Deems's drum solo, the band plows through the opening strains with tremendous vigor. Arvell Shaw's bass lines sound a little hesitant and there's a couple of bad clashes, especially in the sequence before the main "Hold That Tiger" strain (though Hall sounds fantastic throughout). Once they get to the main strain, there's a little confusion over who's to take the first break, resulting in silence but otherwise it's tight with Trummy doing an excellent job with his slides. However, Louis's chops seem to slowly run out of gas towards the end of the ensemble chorus--remember, it's 5 a.m., he's played three shows and already recorded "Indiana," "West End Blues" and "The Faithful Hussar." Apologies to Robert Downey Jr., this is the real Iron Man!

Neverthesless, Louis bursts out of the ensemble into a cooking solo, full of great ideas. However, he sticks to mainly the middle register--the one highish note he attempts cracks a bit--and by the end, he sounds like he's running out the clock. Seconds later, as Hall picks up the ball, the take breaks down.

Though it was only a rehearsal take and didn't require Louis to blow like mad, he probably knew that he wouldn't be able to unleash exhibitionist side. Thus, the finished "Tiger Rag" from Milan is rare in that Louis never takes a solo.

However, for ensemble playing, this one is tough to beat. As I alluded to earlier, this is my favorite version of the All Stars. As Arvell Shaw once said, that front line of Armstrong, Hall and Young had the power of a big band. It really comes through on "Tiger Rag."

So with the rehearals out of the way, it was time to attempt a take. This one didn't make the final cut but if you're a European who bought certain Philips 45 rpm singles of this record, you've probably heard this take as that was the only way it was issued. Here's take 1:

Honestly, that's a pretty good performance for a first take; I see why Philips would have had no worries about releasing it. The Louis-and-Trummy bit is fine and everybody blows excitingly in the ensembles. Hall gets the only solo and it's a doozy, opening with a gut-wrenching (in a good way) swoon.

But perhaps rembering those drum-heavy 1940s versions I shared earlier in the week, the real spotlight shines on Barrett Deems with his various breaks and long solo in the middle. During the solo, Pops yells "Watch that tiger, boy!" and you can really hear the small crowd of rabid fans screaming themselves silly. The closing ensemble is wonderful, with Pops still sticking around the upper middle-register of his horn, though after Deems's break, he ends on a high one.

Take 1 came off beautifully but Avakian asked for one more just to have something to compare it to. Once completed, he asked for an encore chorus. Encores were a standard part of Armstrong's shows and I think it's something that came with him from his New Orleans days as he remembered Joe Oliver taking encores on numbers that received large hands. There are many unissued and issued performances from the 1955 tour and off the top of my head, I can think of Louis playing encores on "Twelfth Street Rag," "Royal Garden Blues," "Bucket's Got a Hole in It," "Basin Street Blues," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "Margie," "The Man I Love," "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" and probably a few more. Thus, to make "Ambassador Satch" feel more like the real thing, Avakian asked for encores on "The Faithful Hussar," "Tiger Rag," "Royal Garden Blues, "That's A Plenty" and You Can Depend On Me" (though the later two never made the final album).

So for those of you accustomed to hearing this performance only on the final, issued album, here's how the issued take of "Tiger Rag" went down. You'll hear that the encore wasn't immediate as there's a bit of silence in between. And you'll also hear the crowd yelling for the drums, but not nearly at the volume of the issued version, thanks to Avakian sweetening the applause to make it seem more live.

Even without a solo from Louis, it sure is a hot recording, one of my favorite examples of that Armstrong-Young-Hall partnership. Louis's lead playing is especially forceful (his entrance after the drum solo always reminds me of "From the Hall of Montezuma"). The applause and laughter from Trummy at the end indicates that everyone was quite happy with that take. Avakian calls for the encore and it picks up right where the issued take left off as the band steams through another chorus, another Deems break and another high-note ending. Avakian was pleased and it was time to move on to "Royal Garden Blues."

Now, I sincerely hope all of the above has been a treat to my readers, but it's all been a build-up to the issued take. And though we just heard it in its primitive state, here's "Tiger Rag" in much better fidelity (with Avakian's added applause) as it appeared as the final track of "Ambassador Satch":

So there you have it. As I mentioned "Royal Garden Blues" was next and was a hit, making for a scorching opener. Avakian's attempts to record versions of "You Can Depend on Me," "Lonesome Road" and "That's a Plenty" all failed, however, though they all have some wonderful moments (enough to be issued by Sony....COME ON!). Pops was finally out of gas by the end of "That's a Plenty" and the session ended with a few attempts to nail down Edmond Hall's feature on "Dardanella" which didn't require Louis (and in the end, Avakian still ended up using an earlier version from Amsterdam).

Still not satisfied, Avakian called for one more session in Los Angeles in January, at which he recorded "All of Me" and "Twelfth Street Rag," the final two songs for the album. When "Ambassador Satch" was issued in 1956, Louis was ecstatic. When an interviewer complimented his live recording from the Crescendo Club, Louis told him that his new record, "Ambassador Satch," was even better and bragged about wailing on "West End Blues" at five o'clock in the morning. Then he added, "And ‘Tiger Rag,’ you ain’t never heard ‘Tiger Rag’ in your life like them cats, the longer they played it."

Louis was proud of this "Tiger Rag" and realized that it was maybe time for it to re-enter his band's live performances. At this point, I'll cut it off, wish everyone a happy weekend and I'll see you back here for part six next week!


Dan said…
The last two bars (or perhaps even the last four) before the four-bar drum solo just before the end the first time around as it appears on the "Ambassador Satch" album were spliced in by Mr. Avakian from an earlier take. The version in "low=fi" has a slightly bungled end at that point: a good call by G.A.

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