Old Man Mose

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded November 21, 1935
Track Time 2:30
Written by Louis Armstrong and Zilner Randolph
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken, Louis Bacon, trumpet; Harry White, Jimmy Archey, trombone; Henry James, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Bingie Madison, Greely Walton, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Originally released on Decca 622
Currently available on CD: All three 1935 takes are available on Mosaic's boxed set of Armstrong's Complete 1935-1946 Decca recordings.
Available on Itunes? Yes

Happy Halloween everyone! Since I started this blog in 2007, I've always enjoyed celebrating today's holiday with some "spooky" Armstrong performance. I kicked it off with "Old Man Mose" but those were the days before I knew how to upload audio. Now that I'm a pro at such matters, I'm updating the original, with links to just about every surviving version of "Mose" known to man. So here I again some words on this very fun novelty tune, the kind that made the jazz purists shake their heads with disappointment. Not me, of course, as I think it’s quite hard to keep from smiling while listening to any of “Old Man Mose’s” many incarnations.

Louis Armstrong returned from his European sabbatical in February 1935. Joe Glaser had taken over his career and Armstrong soon began performing with a big band once again headed by trumpeter Zilner Randolph. It must have been during this period when Armstrong and Randolph teamed up to write “Old Man Mose” but, unfortunately for Randolph, he never got to record it with his boss. Most of the band was based in Chicago and when Armstrong got an offer to play an extended engagement at Connie’s Inn in New York, union rules made it just about impossible for them to transfer to another state. Thus, the band disbanded and when Armstrong hit New York, he began fronting the struggling Luis Russell band. This information comes courtesy of Jos Willems’s All of Me and I’d like to quote Willems, who writes about the Russell band’s quick hiring, “…[T]hat also explains why they sound so bad (aside from wonderful Pops) on the earliest Decca’s. They had to learn a whole new book and style. It’s a pity that the Chicago band never got to record.”

Armstrong began recording for Decca in October of 1935 and after tackling five straight pop tunes, Armstrong got to record “Old Man Mose” during his second Decca recording session. You can listen to how that first take of the tune went down by clicking here:

There’s a “spooky” introduction before the band plays the melody pretty statically. Armstrong’s trumpet is nowhere to be found but he sings the lyrics with enthusiasm. I always like copying the lyrics here so here goes (and in parentheses, I’ll include the band’s answers):

Once there lived an old man, with a very crooked nose
He lived in a log hut, and they called him Old Man Mose (Yeah!).
Early one morning, I knocked at his door,
And I didn’t hear a single sound, I ain’t goin’ do it no more.

‘Cause, I believe (Old Man), I believe (Old Man)
I believe (Old Man), that Old Man Mose is dead,
Tellin’ you, I believe (Old Man), I do believe (Old Man)
I believe (Old Man), that Old Man Mose is dead.

Now, (We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket, (We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket,
(We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket, we believe he’s dead.
(We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket, (We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket,
(We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket, we believe he’s dead.

Now lookee here!

I went around to the side, and I peeped through the crack,
I saw an old man laying flat on his back (Yeah!),
If Old Man Mose was dead asleep, I did not know,
Boy, after looking through that window—Mm—I ain’t goin’ do that no more.

‘Cause, I found out (Old Man), I found out (Old Man),
I found out (Old Man), that Old Man Mose is dead,
Yessir, I found out (Old Man), I found out (Old Man),
I found out (Old Man), that Old Man Mose.

Now, (We Found Out), Mose kicked the bucket, (We Found Out) Mose kicked the bucket,
(We Found Out), Mose kicked the bucket, we found out he’s dead,
(We Found Out), Mose kicked the bucket, (We Found Out) Mose kicked the bucket,
(We Found Out), Mose kicked the bucket, we found out he’s dead,

Old man……oh bay-beh, bah dah doz, zait….is dead!

It’s not Cole Porter, but I dare you to try and listen to it and not sing along with the “We believes” and “We found outs.” Anyway, it’s a fine version but Pops must have known something was wrong: the tempo drags a little bit, the arrangement is corny and the vocal doesn’t carry the maximum amount of oomph.

Here’s where it gets confusing: two more takes of “Mose” were released, takes D and E, with E being the master. However, they both feature completely different arrangements. The tempo’s now faster, Russell plays a great introduction and Pops takes a half-chorus on the trumpet, while the reeds simply play minor-tinged harmonies behind him. Some places, such as the Satchography website and Gösta Hägglöf’s 1935 Ambassador C.D., assume that the “Mose’s” come from two different days since “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed” also was attempted once and redone and issued in different sound. However, Jos Willems claims he obtained the original MCA files and there was only one date, November 21, 1935. It’s hard to argue with the files, but I think I side with those who argue for two different dates. To cut a take with one arrangement, scrap it, revise it, rehearse it and record two more takes suitable to be issued seems like a lot to be done in one day—especially when three other songs were recorded that day!

Anyway, I guess we’ll never know, but for your listening pleasure, here’s take D. This was originally issued in Australia and it sometimes crops up on Armstrong compilations as the original master take, but it’s not. Here's the take:

Immediately, you can hear that someone had a very good idea by substituting Pops’s trumpet in the beginning instead of the stilted arrangement. Armstrong creatively sticks to one not for most of the outing and he creates some searing lines in the second half. The vocal, with more pronounced striding from pianist Russell, has more energy, as well. By the time of take E, the original master, the band had the song down pat. Here goes:

Armstrong’s trumpet is even more assured this time around and his storytelling abilities as a vocal really shine. And Armstrong always remembered the final note he sang on the record. When asked to discuss Billy Eckstine’s recording of “Goodbye” for a Leonard Feather blindfold test, Pops heard a note and exclaimed, “Ah, that thirteenth! That always sounds good…that’s the thing I hit on the end of ‘Ol’ Man Mose,’ remember?”

As I mentioned in the beginning, “Old Man Mose” is the kind of novelty that made the Hot Five and Seven devotees cringe but it became something of a hit and after the record’s release on December 16, 1935, it was already being covered by the likes of Armstrong disciple Wingy Manone the following month (Manone’s version can be heard on the excellent Mosaic Records Manone and Louis Prima box). Bob Crosby recorded a transcription of it a month after Manone (issued on a Storyville compilation) and others continued: Bunny Berigan, Nat Gonella, Ella Fitzgerald, the Ink Spots and many more. Comic singer Betty Hutton even sang it during a short that featured Vincent Lopez’s Orchestra in 1939:

Hutton even recorded a follow-up titled “Old Man Mose Ain’t Dead,” which is also available on YouTube. In fact, a search of “Old Man Mose” shows how far this song traveled from its original Armstrong origins. There’s a version by banjo player Lew Dite that begins with the heading, “Songs Skiffle Taught Me to Love.” There’s even a truly bizarre Gospel-Meets-Hippies version by the Les Humphries Singers of Germany from 1972. And a glance across the Internet shows 1950s versions by the likes of the late Teresa Brewer and Connie Francis…we’ve come a long way from St. Louis (Armstrong, that is)!

But Armstrong is the focus of this entry, so I’d like to continue with a few more of his forays into the world of “Old Man Mose.” Naturally, the song became a staple of Armstrong’s big band repertoire and some broadcast performances are available on C.D. On volume six of the Ambassador series, there’s a version taken from an ASCAP 25th anniversary Carnegie Hall concert from October 2, 1939. Here's the audio:

It’s a great version but the guy who steals the show is Sid Catlett, whose slashing hi-hat cymbals, bass drum accents and humorous “knocks” demonstrate why he was Armstrong’s favorite drummer. By this point, the band’s other comedian, trombonist George Washington, began adding some of his own shouted responses to Armstrong’s lyrics. In 1943, Armstrong broadcast “Mose” as part of a Jubilee broadcast, now issued on a Storyville C.D. Here's how it turned out:

It’s been eight years, but Luis Russell plays the exact same piano part. Pops’s trumpet solo isn’t really different, either, but the reed section sounds a little fatter behind him. Big Sid was gone by this point and Chick Morrison, though a fine drummer, doesn’t compare. Washington now interrupts Armstrong’s final scat coda, receiving a humorous “Shut up, boy” from the leader.

“Old Man Mose” never became a staple of the All Stars’s repertoire, but versions survive from the 40s, 50s and 60s so it’s possible that it was performed more often than it was recorded. It first shows up during an August 5, 1949 broadcast from the Click in Philadelphia, issued privately on a Crabapple Sound C.D. (available at crabapplesound.com). Here 'tis:

This version sounds like it was done as a request as you can hear Pops quickly blow part of his opening solo while the announcer is still introducing the song. Earl Hines and Cozy Cole begin at two different tempos but soon lock in and the band swings mightily for those 16 instrumental bars. Perhaps knowing that the other band members had never performed the number before, Armstrong kind of coaches them along, singing his part and their responses, such as the “Yeah” in the first stanza. The band’s with him for the “Old Man” repeats (Velma Middleton can be heard in the background) but Pops decides to tip them off to when it changes to “We believe” by singing that line himself! For the rest of the performance, the band has the routine straight except where there’s supposed to be a drum break, Earl Hines starts playing a solo. However, Pops probably signaled to Cole to take and Cozy steamrolls right over the “Fatha” with the drum break, though he begins going back into fast swing time when Pops begins his extended scat coda. Scared the band is going to come in too early, Pops manages to cleverly insert the word “Wait” into his scatting and turns to Teagarden and quickly asks him, “You got that chord?” The rest of the band comes in with the final “is dead” and the piece ends happily, even if it was a little shaky at times.

In January 1955, Decca recorded three long sets by the All Stars at the Crescendo Club in Hollywood. Armstrong, knowing Decca probably wanted some different items, reached into his deep bag of tricks and pulled out some different numbers, including “Old Man Mose.” Both of these versions are on the four-disc California Concerts and both are worth hearing. Here's the first attempt, performed towards the end of the second set:

After Pops introduces the first version, pianist Billy Kyle begins comping an introduction at a too-slow tempo, causing Pops to says, “Pick it up a little.” He does and the tune settles into a nice groove. The band attacks the instrumental portion with gusto and, unlike the 1949 version, Pops doesn’t have to show the way. This time, that distinction belongs to Arvell Shaw, who had been playing it since his days in Armstrong’s final big band. A few times, you can hear Shaw’s lone voice shout the comeback line, followed by the rest of the band the next time around as if they were following his lead. And when Pops gets to the “We found out” part, someone in the band, sings “We found out,” while someone else correctly sings “Old Man.” It’s barely noticeable but it was enough for Pops to call a second version in the next set. He dedicates it to a party who requested it, but it’s possible he wanted to do it again to smooth out any rough spots. This time around, the band sings its part without a problem but now, Armstrong screws it up! Listen for yourself:

Instead of singing “knocked on his door,” he sings “peeped through the crack.” Realize what he did, he immediately starts laughing in a hysterical high-pitched rasp. Ever the professional, he signals to the band to start from scratch and, ever the professionals, they do just that. The rest of the performance goes off without a hitch, right down to the scat ending, where the rest of the band provides some vocal harmony beneath Armstrong’s scatting. When the song ends, Armstrong must have said something because Trummy Young starts cracking up. Armstrong announces a request for “The Bucket’s Got a Hole In It” and while Billy Kyle plays the piano intro, Young says something about getting the Hall Johnson choir, causing other members of the band to break up. When originally issued on vinyl, Decca made a composite of both performances but you can hear all of the hilarity on the California Concerts C.D. issue.

That’s actually the last known recorded performance of the All Stars doing “Old Man Mose” in a live setting, but it wasn’t the last time they performed it. In October 1962, Betty Taylor wrote a story titled, “Rehearsal Session…With Louis ‘Pops’ Armstrong At Steinway Hall.” In it, she details a rare rehearsal the band had at Steinway Hall in preparation for an October 21 performance for President Kennedy. Only four people were in attendance: Jack Bradley, his girlfriend at the time, Jeann Faillows, alto saxophonist Lem Davis, and Taylor. Taylor writes about some of the numbers being rehearsed, including “That’s a Plenty.” She also mentions “Old Man Mose, writing, “Jack Bradley had brought along some old collectors’ items on 78’s. Louie had him play a 1935 Blue Label Decca version of ‘Old Man Mose Is Dead.’ There was a lot of background vocal harmony on the record, so the fellows listened four or five times, and then they worked on it. ‘I believe, I do believe, that Old Man Mose is dead,’ sang Jazz’s Greatest, while the boys backed him up.” Thus, it was probably performed shortly after that rehearsal. We also know it was performed by the All Stars on an episode of the Mike Douglas Show in 1964. That's one that I have video of and it's a gassuh but alas, I can't share it here. It’s safe to assume that “Old Man Mose” was never part of the regular All Stars shows in the 1950s and 1960s but Pops probably always had it ready in case anyone requested it and if it was a particularly long show or a dance, it might have been played. So, Halloween might only be a 24 hour holiday, but I can enjoy listening to “Old Man Mose” 365 days of the year. Happy trick or treating!


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