75 Years of Louis Armstrong's Unbelievable May 18, 1936 Decca Session

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded May 18, 1936
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken, Louis Bacon, trumpets; Jimmy Archey, Snub Mosley, trombone; Henry Jones, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophones; Bingie Madison, Greely Walton, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Currently available on CD: The entire session is on Mosaic's essential box, "The Complete Decca Recordings of Louis Armstrong, 1935-1946."
Available on Itunes? Yes, all are around, you just have to look for them.

Back in February, I spent a few weeks on a single session in Louis's life, when he recorded six songs in one day with his Hot Five on February 26, 1926, including landmarks like "Heebie Jeebies," "Cornet Chop Suey" and "Muskrat Ramble." But back then, I said that it wasn't the only time Louis attempted such a feat. 75 years ago today, Louis recorded six songs in one day for Decca in a session that is positively superhuman. There used to be an old LP with the contents of this session on it; the simple title of the LP was "May 18, 1936," and to Louis fans, that was all they needed to know. Each one of these tracks is a gem. The fact that they were all recorded in one session? Mind-blowing.

This was Louis's eighth Decca session and found him still fronting a big band led by Luis Russell. A year earlier, he was at rock bottom, coming back to America without a band or a recording contract, hiring Joe Glaser and hoping for a comeback. By May 1936, he was recording for Decca and about to have a featured role in "Pennies from Heaven" and publish his autobiography, "Swing That Music." His records must have been doing well and Decca obviously wanted to capitalize on his rising popularity, hence this mammoth session.

Decca was all about recording plug tunes, which led Louis to record a dog every now and then, but the May 18 session got off to a terrific start with two new songs by Hoagy Carmichael, "Lyin' to Myself" and "Ev'ntide." I know I've written this before but if anyone lives in Spain and wants to start a bootleg CD company with no regards to copyrighted material, a "Satch Plays Hoagy" disc is a natural. Everybody knows the biggies--"Lazy River," "Star Dust," "Georgia on My Mind," "Rockin' Chair," etc.--but "Lyin' to Myself" and "Ev'ntide" are near to my heart because they are pretty much the sole property of Louis. And he performs them both beautifully. Let's start with "Lyin' to Myself":

Well, we're off an running! In fact, Louis sure is, right from the first note, diving right in with the attractive melody at an easy loping tempo that has become an endangered species these days. Louis sticks to the lower register for much of the first half, grumbling a bit like his homeboy (and future bandmate) Red Allen. He turns up the heat during the bridge and ends with a searing gliss, but then passes it over to Luis Russell's orchestra as he prepares himself for the vocal.

And what a vocal it is! Man, this is as good as it gets and it really demonstrates Louis's ability as an actor. Can't you see him featuring this in a film or at the very least, on stage? I love his opening lines and the sense of despair they convey. He sings beautifully without a trace of gravel, but throws in a few asides that almost remind me of Fats Waller. The bridge is high but the tenor Louis of 1936 handles it charmingly for the first half before barking out the second part. Just a delightful vocal from start to scat-infused finish.

Unfortunately, we're already at the 2:30 mark so you know there's not going to be much blowing, but Louis makes the most of it, swinging out with some declamatory melody before one of his patented Decca-era endings. This is one of the longest ones I know of, clocking in at almost 40 seconds before that beautiful final high concert Eb. Bravo, Pops.

"Lyin' to Myself" is a great opener, but the next one is even better (not that this is a competition...everything recorded on this day was a winner). "Ev'ntide" is a Louis masterpiece and I like to think that so few people have ever attempted it since because how can you top perfection? Don't know what I'm talking about? Don't go anywhere for the next 2:53....

See? After an atmospheric intro by pianist Luis Russell (one of his most memorable to me, maybe because I've listened to it thousands of time), Pops opens with the vocal. The same qualities that made "Lyin' to Myself" such a winner are apparent here. He's utterly charming and completely sells the song, clearly in love with the song's many three-note repetitions. The bridge is very dramatic...you can tell that this song was made for him and can only wait to hear what he does with it on the trumpet.

Fortunately, that's right around the corner. Unlike "Lyin' to Myself," the vocal is out of the way fairly quickly in "Ev'ntide" leaving a full 90 seconds to listen to Satch and his little Selmer trumpet (bless its heart). He takes a full chorus and again, credit to Carmichael for creating such a wonderful song with built-in drama. All Louis has to do is play the melody, with occasional variations in and around it, and it's a masterpiece. Naturally, the bridge is a killer, Louis topping it off with several repeated A's before a high C and swooning descending gliss. Carmichael's composition is also noteworthy for an entirely different melody after the bridge (no going back to the "A" section this time) and Louis milks it for all its worth before another out-of-tempo cadenza ending on a high C. Two for two!

At this point, it was time for the main event, in my opinion, "Swing That Music." I fell all over myself in writing about this tune a while back so if you don't mind, I'm going to plagiarize myself on this original recording. Because seriously, this one is not for the feint of heart. If you take blood pressure medication, take it before proceeding. If you have a bad back, now is a good time to strap yourself in tight to your chair. If you have bad breath, chew some gum for heaven’s sake. Okay, all ready, kids? Let’s proceed with (drum roll please) “Swing That Music.”

Really, is there a more exciting tune in the Louis Armstrong discography than “Swing That Music”? I’ve never been able to listen to a single version of it without it resulting in my heart pounding through my chest or a bucket of sweat dousing my face. I once listened to it on a treadmill at the gym and somehow managed to run a three-minute mile. It’s that exciting...and then some.

The song co-written by the mysterious Horace Gerlach (and according to a copy of the original handwritten lead sheet at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, the original title was the less-than-catchy "My Heart Gets a Chill," more of an ode to arrhythmia than swing music). Not much concrete information is known about Gerlach but he did co-write with Armstrong three songs that resulted in fantastic records of the Decca period, “If We Never Meet Again,” “Heart Full Of Rhythm” and “What Is This Thing Called Swing” (note the phrasing: these are not exactly fantastic songs, but what Armstrong did with them is truly marvelous, though “If We Meet Again” is quite lovely). Gerlach also wrote the Mills Brothers’s hit, “Daddy’s Little Girl” as well as “Love In the Air” with Jimmy Van Heusen.

This info on Gerlach comes from Dan Morgenstern’s forward to Da Capo’s 1993 reprinting of Swing That Music. Morgenstern also writes, “In a letter to [clarinetist Joe] Muranyi, [Gerlach] insisted that he was the sole author of this book’s title tune. That may be so; it would not be the first instance of a famous band leader getting his name on a copyright, though it seems unlike the Armstrong we knew. ON the other hand, a man capable of writing (about Armstrong’s trumpet playing) that ‘by skipping up or down in natural sequence, from one note to the next in position, he produces concordant melody’ is not to be trusted! Don’t get me wrong, Gerlach undoubtedly meant well, and in 1936 he was only 25, clearly caught up in the budding Swing craze of which this book was a product.”

So with that out of the way, let’s concentrate of the first recording of “Swing That Music." Remember, this is the third of SIX songs to be recorded that day! How he didn’t destroy his lip for good that day is a miracle...hell, how he didn’t destroy it on “Swing That Music,” the date’s third tune is a miracle in itself! Without further ado, here's "Swing That Music":

Now, Gerlach claimed he also wrote arrangements for the band and it’s possible that he did this one. What’s interesting is that the melody statement by the horns and reeds barely swings; instead it’s kind of stiff and corny but please, please, please, dig that rhythm section, especially the bass work of the great Pops Foster. Anyone who thinks jazz bass playing in the 1920s and 30s was just two-beat or straight quarters should give Pops a listen. He’s a one-man band throughout and he really drives the music. After one chorus of melody, Pops sings the lyrics, which are also rather dumb, but he sure sounds heartfelt. And listen to that pure tenor voice, without a trace of gravel. I once wrote many moons ago that I didn’t hear the real roughness start in Armstrong’s voice until 1937 and recently, I learned in Jos Willems’s All of Me that Armstrong went in for throat surgery in early 1937 so it is indeed possible that that’s when the gravel became a permanent part of the Armstrong vocal sound.

After the vocal chorus, it’s time for the reeds to step to the forefront with a tricky arranged passage that they execute quite well (this is somewhat reminiscent of that other, earlier trumpet showpiece, “Chinatown, My Chinatown” where Armstrong’s trumpet enters after a similar saxophone chorus).

Well, if you’ve made it through the first 1:12, you’re probably enjoying the tune, but you don’t know what all the hubub is about. Have no fear, dear reader, because the record still has 1:41 left and Louis Armstrong hasn’t even put his trumpet to his lips. Once he does, well, good night, nurse. This is one of the great Armstrong recorded solos of all time. It’s melodic but it also displays his free form sense of rhythm as it often floats above the frantic beat. Armstrong’s endurance is something to marvel at and the high note exhibitionism at the end is literally and figuratively jaw-dropping. Let’s go chorus-by-chorus, shall we?

Chorus 1: Armstrong enters after a modulation into Eb, playing the melody fairly straight. Yes, the rhythm section does seem to speed up a bit but I think that might have been planned, as will be seen when I get to discussing other versions. The little tumbling phrase at 1:23 is neatly executed but what’s better is the space he leaves after it before rushing in and rephrasing the second half of the melody.

Chorus 2: Here come the “variations,” as Armstrong might put it. It opens with two simple notes, Eb to G, still not stretching into the upper register, but definitely telling a story. He soon works out a five-note descending motif which he plays three times in a row, glissing up to the first note on the second and third times. Even those little glisses can be missed if you’re not paying attention but they’re extremely difficult to play and Armstrong tosses them around like confetti. Armstrong hits his highest note of the solo to this point at the 1:44 mark, a high concert C, the sixth of key of Eb and a favorite note of Pops (and Lester Young). Armstrong’s playing is very melodic but that lightning quick run at the 1:49 mark is almost proto-bebop. The second half of the chorus is filled with more delicious two-note motives, focusing on the Bb and Gb, the second note being the minor third of Eb, giving a little bluesy quality to playing. At the 1:57 mark, Armstrong reminds the listener of the tune he’s playing by inserting a snatch of melody, but after a pause for dramatic effect, he nails a high concert Bb, heralding the arrival of a new and even more exciting third chorus.

Chorus 3: Like the second chorus, this one also begins with two notes, but they’re quite a bit higher: Bb and C, that sixth again. The band is positively cooking behind him but Armstrong remains calm; just listen to his rhythmic mastery as he repeats those Bb’s, descending chromatically to a G. As the chord changes to Cm, Armstrong shoots up, playing a three-note phrase consisting of C, D (the ninth of Cm) and a lower G at the 2:08 mark. Then comes the biggest gliss of the record, rising like a tidal wave to another high concert C. The second half of the chorus features more stuff to marvel at, more short, seemingly simple motives that stick with the listener long after the record finishes. He’s so in control it’s scary, tossing off one phrase after another, each one landing on a different but perfectly placed and chosen high note. The band hits the dominant fifth chord hard, creating a tremendous sense of urgency and excitement as Armstrong responds with a crystal clear high C. Is he really going to do it? Does he have enough in the tank for one more chorus? Do you believe in miracles?

Chorus 4: Yes! Here’s where you call the kids over to the computer because Armstrong’s fourth and final chorus is something that the whole world should appreciate. Stories abound from Armstrong’s crazy days in the late 1920s and early 1930s where he would hit hundreds of high C’s each night as a means of impressing the audience. But after doing almost catastrophic harm to his lips, Armstrong cooled off during his European exile and when he returned, he claimed to put that stuff in the past and concentrate on pleasing his audiences, which didn’t necessarily want to hear 100 or 200 high C’s. However, on his first recording of “Swing That Music,” Armstrong closed that chapter of his career with a triumphant bang. Over 40 “bangs,” if you will. In fact, every time I listen I come up with a different number but tonight, counting the high C he plays to enter the final chorus, I count 41 high concert C’s, before resolving up to a D and a final high Eb (in trumpet terms, these would be high D’s, resolving to a final high F!). Now some might frown at such carrying on and one can even argue that the 41 high C’s don’t exactly swing. But who cares? Every human has a little gawker inside of him or her and this is, plain and simple, something to be amazed by. I still think it’s Armstrong’s most exciting solo on record.

Thank you Ricky Riccardi of 2008; now let's turn to the Ricky RIccardi of 2007 for the next tune recorded that day. “Thankful” was up next and I think at that moment, the thing Pops was most thankful for was that chunks of his lip hadn’t come flying off during “Swing That Music.” But “Thankful” is a lovely record and you can listen along by clicking here:

Behind Pops Foster’s huge bass sound, the band staggers through a two-beat introduction, before Pops comes in with a beautiful vintage 1936 vocal. He sings with a lot of feeling and doesn’t feel the need to add much. After the bridge, he sings a nice deep-throated “baby” that almost sounds like half-scat with a neat little “Mm-mm” coming a few bars later. The vocal ends, the band modulates and looking at my C.D. player, there’s a solid 91 seconds of trumpet ready to brew. He starts with some pure melody, adjusting the phrasing to achieve a more relaxed swing at times. He bridges the two A sections with a perfect adjoining phrase before he starts opening up his solo for more improvising. He begins the next eight bars by playing the exact four-note phrase he sang as “Thankful, baby,” another example of the link between his singing and playing. He continues on in those eight bars with snatches of melody, followed by his own obbligato, always a winning combination.

The bridge is the main event of the song. The band goes into stop-time and Pops proves ready for the challenge with some nimble double-timing at the start. But why settle for just double-timing when you have a sense of rhythm unlike anyone else in jazz? All of a sudden the notes and phrases start almost stuttering along (I’d hate to transcribe this stuff), though he slightly cracks a couple of notes, probably leftover remnants of the strain of “Swing That Music.” However, he fights it off with a stirring gliss up to a high Bb. He then plays something that reminds me of Red Allen as he works out a tension-filled motif on a high Ab. In a series of two-note phrases, he plays an F# leading to the Ab, an F leading to the Ab, then an E natural leading to an F# before resolving on an Eb and moving on from there. It’s exciting stuff and a little “out” for a Louis Armstrong record of 1936.

But even after that daring bridge, Pops proves he has more in the gas tank by going up for the last eight bars for a series of high Bb’s. He eventually comes back down to earth to stick to a little more melody as the band plays is in a stately fashion behind him. Cue up the patented Decca coda ending and what you have is a neat little record.

Any normal human being would have called it day right then and there but instead, Louis still had TWO more songs to go. First up is "Red Nose," another forgotten tune, though not quite the gem as Carmichael's offerings from earlier in the session. Still, you have to give credit to Pops for treating everything like it could be a masterpiece; and when he's done with 'em, they are. Here's "Red Nose":

A lovely record. Louis shows off his range during the see-sawing vocal, which has a very passionate bridge. Once again, there's about 90 seconds left for a trumpet solo but after the pyrotechnics of "Swing That Music" and that wild stop-time bridge and high-note ending on "Thankful"--and knowing that "Mahogany Hall Stomp" was next--Louis contributes his most relaxed solo of the date on this track. It's not a world-changer but it sure is excellent, tasteful music making. Louis clearly feels the tempo, swinging along with quarter notes whenever he can. He gets excited for the bridge and hits a high note towards the end, though he cracks it slightly, fatigue setting in a bit. He redeems himself with a higher note hit on the nose a few seconds later; had it in his pocket the whole time, as he might say. But just when it's over comes my favorite part, a relaxed little coda where Pops puts a mute in his horn and simply swings his was to a dreamy little ending. No opera here, just a charming performance.

Okay, with one song to go, it was time to leave everything in the studio with "Mahogany Hall Stomp," Louis's third studio recording of the tune in seven years. I blogged about a bunch of "Mahogany Halls" over a series of blogs back in 2009. In the first part, I discussed “Mahogany Hall Stomp’s” relationship to the other big band music of the period. The 1929 version was a glimpse into the future, Armstrong dragging Luis Russell’s band behind them, imploring Pops Foster to walk the hell out of his bass and improvising figures that no doubt inspired future Swing Era arrangers. By 1932, the band was finally swinging on an even keel with Pops but there was a rough and ready feeling to the proceedings, almost a little reminiscent of some of Bennie Moten’s uptempo numbers (recorded in the same studio).

But while Pops was in Europe, the Swing Era “officially” began (take a bow, Mr. Goodman, though we all know it REALLY began when Pops joined Fletcher Henderson in 1924...but who’s keeping score?). Thus, the 1936 version just sounds like an above-average big band instrumental of the day. Pops makes it quite special but the rest of the music world finally caught up. Took ‘em long enough...

Once again, Armstrong’s backed by Luis Russell’s group, which he began fronting full-time in 1935. Russell, Charlie Holmes, Pops Foster and Paul Barbarin were all veterans of the original recordings and were back for the remake (Albert Nicholas and J.C. Higginbotham rejoined the following year). Enough from me, give a listen to the 1936 Decca recording:

The arrangement is fairly similar to the Victor one, though a wee bit slower. Pops takes his lead, as usual, though he hits some nice, dark lower notes. The band also gets a short interlude before Pops takes one chorus of blues. Jimmy Archey boots one out before a somewhat out-of-date tenor solo probably by Bingie Madison (Budd Johnson sounded more hip in 1933). Then it’s time for Pops’s solo:

Interestingly, after coming up with some brand new ideas in 1933, Armstrong falls back on his 1929 solo, playing it almost note-for-note in exactly the same fashion. I’m guessing that sometime in between 1929 and 1936, the solo became officially known as a bona fide classic. Perhaps that caused Pops to dig out the old record and re-learn it. Regardless, he nails it once again, spurred on by some hard-charging riffing from the band. And once again, please give the track another listen and try to block everything out except for Pops Foster. Foster was a swinging rock in 1929 but he was much more creative in 1936, coming up with all sorts of funky variations instead of just playing time, much as he did on that day’s “Swing That Music.” A lot of people think 1930s bass players could be a little stiff (I’m looking at you John Kirby) but Foster is as hip as they come. Dig him.

Charlie Holmes follows Pops with a strong alto solo (again, listen to Foster) before Pops comes back, dramatically wringing one note for all its worth. He’s in superb command of his horn, not quite as acrobatic as he was in 1933 but still telling a helluva story. In all , it’s a very swinging record, one that had an influence on our pal George Avakian. George had some of the Deccas but took a liking to “Mahogany Hall Stomp” because of its swinging, instrumental quality. When his friend Lester Koenig started playing George some Armstrong OKehs, George responded to qualities he already knew from the Decca “Mahogany Hall Stomp” and not the Decca pop tunes. The rest is history...

And that, my friends, is that. Who knows if Pops had to go out and play a show that day; I think he would have been happy to go home, light up and relax, able to look back on a day's output that many musicians would kill to equal in a lifetime. 75 years is a longtime but it's safe to say that the music Louis created on that momentous May 18, 1936 session will be around forever.


ahhhhhhhhhhhh, so fine music. I have it all on a old LP.
But sorry to sáy, the last tune here was not "full time".
Some accident? Guess you can repair it?!
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the music and the perceptive comments. It may be my Mac, but the last clip -- "Mahogany Hall Stomp" -- is just 40 seconds long and messed up a bit.
Ricky Riccardi said…
Hi all. The last clip is just an excerpt of Louis's solo from that version of "Mahogany Hall Stomp." It's meant to be only 40 seconds long, just in case you only want to hear the solo. The complete performance is the link right above it. Thanks for checking out the blog and hope you keep coming back!

bluesblog said…
Brilliantly perceptive as always Ricky. You are a veritable mine of information!
Uwe Zänisch said…
Wonderful post! After listen to this music in the exact sequence I realise how great this Decca session was. Is there any suggestion of who plays the trumpet obligato behind Louis's vocals in "Red Nose"? Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken or Louis Bacon? Pity that the orchestra in the background is nearly faded out at this point.
Bo S said…
Thank you! A wonderful idea of yours to collect all performances from one day in the life of Louis Armstrong gives me the impression to be there, almost. An intimite approach to a legend with such heartwarming features. You can't get enough of him, can you? 1936, another good year. Your info gives added value, esp. your comments on Pops Foster, certainly a great bass player in his days!
Håkan Forsberg said…
Yes Ricky, a wonderful session! - Almost as great as the session of January 26, 1933 when nothing could stop our Pops! I hope you will cover that session as well - and before 2013!!!!
But there are so many wonderful Satchmo sessions - including those of mid July 1954 (the Handy sessions of course) that will never be forgotten!

The best - and much power to you!
Håkan Forsberg
gaston said…
I have started a new blog ( the older one had be silent for two years !!) under the name "a caddy for daddy". I talk about you, my man , in my last post so, by courtesy, I give you below the link to the blog.Infortunately it's only for the french audience.
have a good day.

Ken Mathieson said…

There's an interesting document in the Hoagy Carmichael Collection at

It's a lead sheet for Ev'ntide with suggestions to Louis' arranger in Hoagy's own writing about how to handle the turnaround at the end of each chorus in order to get back to the first chord of the new chorus.
The piece is tonally quite ambivalent for its first 8 bars. In the usual horn key of Eb concert, the first 8 could be in either F or Bb and it's only in bar 8 that Eb starts to emerge as the home key. I haven't checked to see if Louis' record uses Hoagy's suggestion, but there are lots of different and interesting ways of making the modulation. Hoagy's compositions often had quirky and unpredictable twists of melody and harmony, which made his songs so popular with jazz musicians.
Incidentally, another piece from that session, "Thankful" is a favourite of Gunther Schuller. He transcribed Louis solo in his book "The Swing Era."

Ken Mathieson

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