Angel Child

Louis Armstrong With Sy Oliver's Orchestra
Recorded January 29, 1957
Track Time 2:54
Written by George Price, Benny Davis and Abner Silver
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet;Geoge Dorsey, Phil Urso (alto saxophone, flute); Lucky Thompson; tenor saxophone; Dave McRae, baritone saxophone; Billy Kyle, piano; George Barnes, guitar;Sid Block, bass; Rudy Taylor , drums; Unknown, harp; Unknown strings, Unknown choir - three male and four female - vocals; Lillian Clark, lead vocal; Sy Oliver, arranger, conductor.
Originally released on Decca DL 8488
Currently available on CD: On Louis and the Angels"
Available on Itunes? Yes

Thought I was through with "Louis and the Angels," huh? Never! In case you don't know what I'm talking about, two weeks ago I posted an appreciation of Louis's 1957 Decca album of angel-related songs, one that can be read here. In it, I chose four representative songs from the album and basically said that if you like these, check out the rest of the album and you'll love it. The end.

But almost as soon as I hit "Publish Post," I had regret because I didn't include "Angel Child." That's always been one of my favorite tracks on the album and I originally wanted to include it but as is often the case in my life, I had a three-hour window with my daughters sleeping to pump out that blog and I had to be happy with four songs. Thus, "Angel Child" got the axe.

Two days later, I had to drive to Queens to give a lecture on Louis for the Queens Historical Society. On the way there, I listened to "Louis and the Angels" again. And for some reason, this time "Angel Child" nearly made me drive off the road. I had heard it dozens of times and always loved it but it was like someone was telling me to PAY ATTENTION. I couldn't believe the power and glory of that trumpet and couldn't believe I didn't write about it. Especially after I listened to it five times in a row on the way home....

So it was settled, I'd write about "Angel Child." And then life began and I was drowning, putting the blog on the back burner, except for a rehash of my annual "That's For Me" post. I wanted to write about "Angel Child" but I needed a kick in the butt.

Cut to Valentine's Day and a groggy Ricko getting home at 8:10 in the evening, 15 1/2 hours after I left. I checked the mail and there was a letter waiting for me, a handwritten letter written by Reverend Harry S. Finkenstaedt, an 88-year-old Episcopal Priest, who was knocked out by my book. I cherish every complimentary e-mail and Facebook comment I get about the book but there's something about a handwritten, mailed letter that is extra special.

And Rev. Finkenstaedt's letter was extra special in every way. In addition to simply telling me how much he enjoyed the book, he added some personal touches: he met Louis and Lucille in Honolulu in 1954, right after Lucille was arrested for marijuana possession. He became friendly with them and enclosed a typed transcript of a beautiful, personal letter Louis wrote to him in April 1955, thanking him for his support during Lucille's ordeal, detailing a gig with Guy Lombardo and bragging that he had lost 77 pounds. "Lucille said to be sure and give you her fondest regards," Louis concluded. "And the love's for me also. I have your address in my personal address book. So you might here [sic] from me almost anytime. I am so happy since I had time to at least say hello, to you. I shall be praying for you everyday, that you're safe + sound and happy. Always your boy, Louis Satchmo Armstrong."

I was nearly shaking when I went over the contents of Rev. Finkenstaedt's package again and again. But there was one line that jumped out at me. In an e-mail to Brian Peerless, Rev. Finkenstaedt wrote about how he had dinner with Louis and Lucille in Corona on January 1, 1956 and Louis, in turn, invited him to his upcoming Decca recording sessions for "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography" and "Louis and the Angels." In the margin of this page, Rev. Finkenstaedt wrote to me, "Also I stood right behind him when he was recording 'Louis and the Angels'--the numbers 'The Night a Sinner Kissed an Angel' and 'Angel Child.'"

Okay, it was a sign. The craziest part was I knew he was the real deal. We have a photo in the Jack Bradley Collection at the Louis Armstrong House Museum of Louis signing an autograph in a recording studio. The recipient of the autograph's head is cut off in the picture but Jack's ex-girlfriend Jeann Failows wrote on the back of the photo, "Louis at Decca's recording sessions of January 1957, just after 'Heebie Jeebies' signing autographs for a clergyman fan." Well, I had to e-mail Rev. Finkenstaedt and I sent him a copy of the picture....and sure enough, it was him! And when I looked deeper in the Archives, I found a handwritten letter he wrote to Lucille in 1975, one that Lucille saved until her death in 1983. Wow!

After I wrote Rev. Finkenstaedt this morning, I went back to work, a very busy day. But when I got back to my e-mail, there were all sorts of goodies waiting for me: more stories, photographs, scanned Louis autographed photos....and even a blog comment on my "Louis and the Angels" post. It read, "I was right there with Louis,standing behind him, and apart from his 'attack' or power, I was impressed by his control of the music that he was coping with on the stand in front of him. Sy Oliver was there and I wondered if he had an influence in how that music swings, being such a great arranger. Louis was reading off the sheet too. It was not just improvising totally, Made me realize what a master musican! What beautiful Harmony and Control,.That was an unforgettable evening as was at the' Satchmo Autobiography" Harry Finkenstaedt, {a friend of Louis..)."

Well, that sealed the deal. I look forward to much more cherished correspondence with Rev. Finkenstaedt but for now, I think I HAVE to write about "Angel Child." But first a little background: what the heck is "Angel Child"? Well, the song was written in 1922 and popularized by the great Al Jolson. Jolie gave it a peppy uptempo treatment and I think it's great:

But other than a few "society band" recordings of it, there was nothing until Glenn Miller, gave it a spin, slowing down the tempo and giving it a more romantic, yet swinging feel:

And that was that. The song never seemed to become a standard and goodness knows if anyone else performed it after Miller. But someone remembered it when choosing songs for "Louis and the Angels" and it's a good thing they did! If you're the type of person who gets uncomfortable hearing Louis in a "commercial" setting, sit tight through the utterly charming vocal choruses and make sure you're sitting down for a trumpet solo that could move a mountain. Don't say I didn't warn 'tis:

Right? Did you get the message? Holy geez, that is some powerful stuff. But first, there's the vocal choruses, which are really sweet. Louis sings right from the start, obviously enjoying the melody and giving the "shadows of gray" line a lot of emotion. Meanwhile, arranger Sy Oliver gives the proceedings a nice two-beat bounce with the strings popping in and out without ever becoming overbearing. Then the chorus shares the lead for the next go-around, with Louis taking more liberties with his phrasing. I'm sure there are people out there who hear the choir, get violent flashbacks to 1950s pop music and lament the fact that Louis "West End Blues" Armstrong had to suffer such an indignity. I pity those people....

Because after a brief Billy Kyle modulation, it's time for the main event. From his opening notes, you know he's going for it, he's going to play the melody an octave higher like he would have in 1929 or so. He hits every note right on the button--his "attack," as Rev. Finkenstaedt is something to marvel at. And Oliver's arrangement, even with the strings and voices, swings like nobody's business (notice that Rudy Taylor, not Barrett Deems, is on drums; no knock on Deems but Taylor sounds great throughout the album). As Louis approaches the halfway point, you might expect that maybe he'll pass the ball to Trummy Young or Kyle for a few bars to recuperate a bit. But nah, he just keeps going, higher and higher, stronger and stronger, changing up the phrasing, hitting and HOLDING those notes, right up until the perfect high-note ending. Bravo, Pops.

And bravo Reverend Finkenstaedt for sharing your memories of what it felt to be right behind Pops as he recorded masterpieces like this. But how many people know its a masterpiece? That's the sad fact, my friends: recordings like this have slipped under the radar for 55 years. Before writing this, I did a quick Google search for "Louis Armstrong Angel Child" to see if someone--anyone!--ever wrote about it. Couldn't find a word. Went to Google Books, searched magazines. Nada. Okay, how about YouTube? Ah, there it is....291 views. Hmmm, maybe it was recently uploaded? Nope, 291 views in TWO YEARS!

Well, hopefully others out there are as excited about performances like this one as I and Rev. Finkenstaedt are. If you are, again, please write in and let me know so I don't feel like the only nut out there! Thanks Rev. Finkenstaedt....and thanks Milt Gabler, Sy Oliver and Pops for making such a beautiful record in the first place.


Lou said…
Ricky -

What can I say but another great one from the Great One!

Mille Grazie!
Hi Ricky- The whole album is a winner,but that solo is a knoskout!
Yours,Dave Whitney.
jm said…
i heard the song had my mind blown and went straight to i tunes and downloaded the album !!!!
unbelievable . i love the voices with Louis's .
Sirjuandabicho. said…
Louis and the Angels, ¡espléndido álbum!. Tuve el placer de escucharlo y grabarlo completo en mi casetera luego de que lo transmitieran en la radio local, eso fue hace 7 años, y sin duda mi grabación favorita es "Angel Child".

Muchas gracias Ricky por escribir al respecto, Y felicitaciones por tu blog.
Phil said…
Excellent blog again, great story about the Rev, and Louis's singing and trumpet-playing is out of this world... (with the angels perhaps?)
Alan N. said…
I bought this album in a remainder bin for less than a dollar when I was about thirteen. Still knocks me out. Having been lucky enough to play in some Lombardo styled bands, I can only hope that we have finally put the odd views of fifties and sixties critics to rest for ever! Good music is good music and getting to hear Pops play different melodies is the greatest lesson any musician could have.

Popular Posts