75 Years of Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers's First Session

Recorded April 7, 1937
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Harry, Herbert, Donald and John Mills, vocal; Bernard Addison, guitar
Originally released on Decca 1245
Currently available on CD: On the essential Mosaic Records box of Louis's 1935-1946 Decca recordings.
Available on Itunes? Yes.

Louis Armstrong signed with Jack Kapp's Decca label in 1935 and immediately commenced a series of recordings of pop songs and jazz favorites backed by Luis Russell's big band. Towards the end of 1936, Kapp began mixing and matching Armstrong with other Decca labelmates including a session with Jimmy Dorsey's orchestra, a recording of tunes from the Pennies From Heaven soundtrack with Bing Crosby and Frances Langford and two, count 'em two, Hawaiian-themed sessions, one with The Polynesians and one with Andy Iona and His Islanders (there should have been 20 more; see my entry from March 24 celebrating the Iona session). In April of 1937, Armstrong was teamed with the very popular Mills Brothers. Originally billed as "Four Boys and a Guitar," the brothers Mills suffered a serious setback the previous year when guitarist John Jr. passed away. Their father, John Sr., joined the band and for a short time, jazz guitar great Bernard Addison filled in on guitar.

The combination of the Mills's hornlike voices and the mellowness of Armstrong's tenor during this period proved quite natural and the combination would be repeated three more times in the Decca studios, as well as on numerous radio broadcasts. What's odd about their first pairing was the choice of material: "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny" and "Darling Nelly Gray," two songs that harkened back to the days of slavery. "Virginny" was written in 1878 by James A. Bland, a black man, and contained lines such as "There's where this old darkie's heart does long to go" and "There's where I labored so hard for dear ol' massa." I know...yikes. The folk music period was just getting off the ground and this were clearly thought of as a folk song but having two of the most popular black acts in America cover it was pretty risky. Let's listen and see how it turned out:

i guess the outcome was never in doubt, huh? The Mills Brothers open with some touching, old-fashioned harmonizing; is this going to be a nostalgia trip back to the ol' plantation? And then Pops enters with a spot-on scat break...hello, 20th century! Armstrong sings sweetly, but with a sense of urgency, spurred on by the rhythm guitar and the lovely carpet of sound provided by the Mills's. Armstrong sings the word "darkies" as is, but when he gets to "ol' massa," he smooths it out and pronounces it "old master" without a trace of dialect. 14 years later, Armstrong sang the word "darkies" on the original issued take of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" and suffered such a serious backlash, it was the beginning of the abandonment of him by the black audience. But in 1937, Armstrong and the Mills sang it and there was no uproar. I'm not saying it's right, heaven forbid, but this was a period when both acts were seen as heroes in the black community, especially with Armstrong poised to make radio history by becoming the first African-American to host a nationally sponsored radio show when he would take over the "Fleischmann's Yeast Show" from Rudy Vallee just two nights later. Progress was being made and no 1878 lyrics were going to slow it down.

Armstrong's first run-through sticks rather close to the melody. When the Mills step up to the plate, they add a little more rhythmic life to it (not that Pops wasn't swinging), taking some liberties with the phrasing (though they do sing "massa"). The session's other voice then speaks up, Louis's trumpet, with mute in for a very fluent outing; no opera, no high notes, just pure lyrical swinging.

After the trumpet solo, the Mills's voices form their own riffing trumpet section, vamping until Pops gets ready for the final vocal chorus. Now he's in preaching mood; the earnest mood of the first chorus is gone; Virginny 1878 has been transformed into Harlem 1937 and Pops more or less creates an entire new melody on the spot. The proceedings swing like mad until the Mills's put on the brakes and revert back to the quaint harmonies that opened the record....abetted by some delicious scatting by Armstrong, his last lick being one of his favorites. Wow, what a record, huh?

As for "Darling Nelly Gray," the other tune recorded that day, it was written in 1856 by Benjamin R. Hanby, a white man, and tells the emotional tale of two slaves whose love affair is ended one one is sold. According to the website "Owen Sound's Black History," "It is believed this little song was a major force in shaping public opinion on the issue of slavery, leading to the great Democratic victory of 1860 and the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States." (http://www.osblackhistory.com/nellygray.php) The song is only 16-bars long but that never stopped Armstrong (look at what he did with 16 bars of "Mack the Knife"). Two charming takes survive and it's amazing how similar they are (I write this with my wife staring at me in disbelief as I have one headphone from my Ipod in my left ear playing take 1 and one headphone in my left ear, playing take 2!). Let's start with the first take:

"Darling Nelly Gray" starts out with one of my favorite lost sounds in jazz: the acoustic guitar, here played by Bernard Addison. The Mills then sing the melody fairly straight, sounding as lovely as ever. Then Armstrong comes in, also sticking fairly close to the melody, with an added emphasis on the word "they" and a perfectly placed "oh babe." Behind him, the Mills hum on the first and third beats of every measure, a technique often employed by the horns on some of Armstrong's earlier big band recordings (think "Stardust" behind his trumpet). The trumpet solo is a model of relaxed swing, with the brothers effectively backing him with more hornlike rhythmic punctuations. The Mills's start singing again while Armstrong keeps blowing, starting with five repeated concert C's. Not technically an obbligato, it sounds more like Armstrong continues soloing over the vocal. Finally, he puts down the horn and says, "Now boys, what you think of this?" He then infuses the final chorus with infectious spirit, finally ditching the written melody and creating something much more swinging. The scat break is Armstrong 101 and he even has fun with the lyrics, changing it from "I'm sitting by the river and I'm weepin' all the day" to "I'm sitting by the river and I'm all in a shiver." The cherry on top is a scat cadenza where Armstrong's first phrase is exactly the same as the one he sang during his break just a few seconds before (if it works, it works!). The break grows increasingly more complex as it continues; one can imagine the Armstrong horn pushing the same phrases out. The Mills Brothers might have sounded more like an actual horn section, but no one could swing out trumpet licks with his voice as Armstrong! The closing scat takes up 29 seconds and I would gladly pay to hear it go on for a few hours.

Another take was made and as I already wrote, the similarities are striking even if the tempo is a shade slower. Here it is:

There's a slight difference in Armstrong's vocal phrasing with a pause after the phrase "And I'll never" and an added emphasis on the first syllable of the word "darling." Remembering his repeated C's on his second trumpet chorus on take one, he begins his solo on the alternate with six C's. Otherwise, the rest of his first chorus is almost identical to take one, right down to the little blown asides and even the closing phrase before the Mills reenter (featuring an Ab over a C chord, a nice use of a flatted 13th). When the Mills come back in, he added a little pause after the first two C's, setting up a little tension and then plays more of an obbligato this time. Otherwise, when he reenters vocally, Armstrong repeats what he did on the first take, even singing the scat cadenza exactly the same note-for-note! It's a toss-up, but I actually like take 2 a little better, though there's nothing wrong with the originally issued first take.

And now a bonus! On May 21, 1937, Louis hosted his fifth episode of the "Fleischmann's Yeast Show" with special guests, The Mills Brothers. They reprised "Darling Nelly Gray" which must have just been released. Here's how it came out:

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the live version is very similar to both studio versions. These were professional entertainers my friends; they worked on it until it clicked and then were able to deliver the polished goods each time out. No use analyzing every note, just be thankful it survived!

There's one more rendezvous with "Nelly Gray" out there but it's a live version with Louis's big band from a few years later. I thought of sharing it here but I didn't want to disrupt the beautiful partnership of Louis and the Mills Brothers. I'll quit this 75th anniversary look at their first meeting while I'm ahead but don't worry, there's a few more sessions out there to cover from this tandem and I'll gladly continue to do so in the future. Because remember: Louis Armstrong + The Mills Brothers = Great Music. Simple as that...


I must admit that I have lost touch with your most excellent blog, and very happy to have found it again. Congratulations on publication of your book - I have ordered a copy and look forward to reading it!

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