85 Years of the Hot Seven: Keyhole Blues

Recorded May 13, 1927 
Track Time 3:29
Written by Wesley "Kid" Wilson
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; John Thomas, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba; Baby Dodds, drums
Originally released on Okeh 8496
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes 

Phew, that was a long layoff, but I'm back! Yes, it's been a month since my last post, but I have a good excuse this time. As some of you might know, I live in Toms River, NJ. And if you hadn't hear of Toms River before, you probably did a few weeks ago when we were in the middle of Hurricane Sandy. I'm happy to report that my home suffered no damage or flooding--we were VERY lucky--but we did lose power for about 12 days. On top of that, we moved into a new home the day before the storm and then were forced to live on the run during the aftermath of the storm, staying with various friends and family members who had electricity. Finally, everything returned to normal, but we still had to unpack. Thus, never mind electric; my iMac with my library full of Armstrong goodies was packed up on October 26 and didn't get unpacked until Friday, November 16! And though I love this blog, I wasn't going to write one of my missives on an iPhone (as I've mentioned before, I am on Facebook and post short things about Pops there almost daily so if you're in the need for quick fixes in between blogs, look me up there).

Anyway, that's my story and I'm happy to be back, STILL writing about the Hot Seven's after all these months. Fortunately, the finish line is in sight as after today, all I'll have is a duel posting on "S.O.L. Blues" and "Gully Low Blues" and a finale on "That's When I'll Come Back to You." I'm feeling a bit inspired these days and if time permits me, I'd like to close out the year with an 85th anniversary tribute to "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," and 80th anniversary post on Louis's first Victor session with Chick Webb and most importantly, a definitive account of all the releases of Louis's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens with audio samples so you, the reader, can decide what's the best bet for you.

But for now, let's go back to 1927 and pick up where we left off with "Keyhole Blues." When we last left our hero, he had just turned Twelfth Street Rag inside out, an interpretation so daring (and perhaps a little too comedic in places) that OKeh sat on it until young George Avakian rescued it in 1940. Two days later, the Hot Seven reconvened again to record two more numbers. I find it fascinating that the most the Hot Seven ever recorded in a single session was three songs. Isn't that bizarre? These were supposed to be loose sessions, everybody jamming on tunes they just made up to make some extra scratch. But hopefully if you've been with me for this series, you've realized that these were pretty tricky numbers to begin with and the Hot Seven had their routines down tight. So perhaps it was extra preparation that led to the diminished number of results but an average of two per date was very low considering the Hot Five had recorded as many as six in one day just a year earlier. 

"Keyhole Blues" was composed by Wesley Wilson, better known as "Kid Wilson" in the legendary vaudeville blues team of Coot Grant and Kid Wilson. Louis met the husband and wife team in New York during his tenure with Fletcher Henderson. In October 1925, Louis backed Grant and Wilson on four numbers for Paramount Records. Pianist Wilson was also a gifted songwriter, the man behind "Prince of Wails" (which Henderson recorded) and Louis's later Decca recording, "Do You Call That a Buddy," as well as Bessie Smith classics "Do Your Duty," "I'm Down in the Dumps" and "Gimme a Pigfoot." Wilson obviously admired Armstrong, penning the number "Toot It, Brother Armstrong," which, alas, was never recorded by Pops.

We're going to leave the chronology a bit and listen to Coot Grant and Kid Wilson do their version of "Key Hole Blues" on Columbia, recorded September 27, 1928:

There you have it. I find that stuff a lot of fun and you just know that Louis LOVED it and did his best to recreate such duets with Velma Middleton in later years. But as a song, it's a pretty standard blues without much of a distinctive melody.

That differs from the Hot Seven version. Again, instead of just jamming on the blues, Louis and his crew put a little effort into coming up with a routine with small arranging touches. Listen for yourself and then we'll discuss:

The record opens up with the horns playing an arranged, descending passage, with a faint whiff of "Melancholy Blues," recorded earlier in the week. The rhythm section kicks in and plays the concluding four bars together, setting up a slightly woozy atmosphere reminiscent of similar feels on other Hot Seven numbers such as the aforementioned "Twelfth Street Rag," "Melancholy," and "Alligator Crawl." The introduction leads to Armstrong playing the first strain (is it a verse?) accompanied only by the rhythm section. The first part of this strain is in a minor mode, which Louis always thrived in. It eventually turns major but there's a built-in spot for a break, which Louis takes full advantage of, starting off strong and high before getting a little more skittish around the horn. Then it's back to the minor section, Louis playing a three-note phrase that would come back later in the year as the basis to "Savoy Blues." Armstrong's phrasing grows more and more relaxed as he goes on, a nice touch.

But before he puts you to sleep, a hurried double-time ascending run calls everybody back in to jump on the descending melody heard in the introduction. Like the intro, everybody jams together for four bars, until Louis jumps out with an absolutely funky, dirty, nasty, bluesy break. Back to the descending melody, Louis breaks free from the other horns and offers his own behind-the-beat phrasing, setting him apart from the others for a few seconds. After some more ensemble, Johnny Dodds sets off on an effective double-timed break of his own. Then yet another little arranged transitional interlude allows John Thomas to take a simple, short break.

Thomas's efforts are soon forgotten as Louis steps up to the mike (remember, they were recording electrically by now....no more recording horns!) and takes a scat solo that is a gassuh. What I love about it is he does so much with so few pitches. The first SIX bars of the vocal feature nothing but an F! That's it! He takes the pitch and just swings his butt off, bouncing back and forth between F's an octave apart, but laying out a simple, but effective rhythmic motif that masks any sense of limitations in his choice of notes. Finally, in bar 7, Louis gets bluesy, his voice becoming more and more an approximation of his horn: the descending slides (gliss?) in the first break, the trickier phrases and blue notes and finally, a double-time break that is the verbal equivalent of a string of exclamation points. 

Another thing to point out: Wesley Wilson wrote this song....right? Because I played the Coot Grant-Kid Wilson record first and it was nothing but a fun 12-bar blues. But this, though it has the word "blues" in the title is, like almost every other Hot Seven "blues," NOT a blues. The main strain is 16 bars in the key of Bb: two bars of F7, two bars of Bb, two bars of F7, two bars of Bb, two bars of G7, two bars of C7, two bars of F7 and two bars of Bb. And that's it. Nice changes (the switch to G7 in the middle almost gives it a bridge-like feel) but it ain't no blues. Why would Wilson copyright this song and then record something so basic? Hmmm, there must be something missing to the backstory but damned if I know what it is. 

Johnny Dodds is right on Pops's tail and his slightly energetic entrance seems to upset the equilibrium momentarily. Pete Briggs's tuba finally finds the "one" and everything tightens up. After Dodds's bluesy chorus (with two breaks) comes the main event: Louis's rideout lead. Unlike Dodds, who entered nervously and a bit unsure, Louis sounds three triumphant notes confidently, sure of himself and his ability to bring this thing to a rousing finish. Almost like "Twelfth Street Rag," Louis takes three notes (ascending instead of descending this time) and makes a riff out of them; how many Swing Era arrangements were written from such phrasing? But as swinging and solid as the riffs are, Louis tops himself with a daring break that needs to be heard to be believed. This is young Louis, taking chances, throwing himself on the tightrope and hoping he'll make it to the other side. He takes those same three notes and just spins them around and around like a juggler (any more circus metaphors out there?) before shooting himself into a downward spiral (a much better thing than it sounds). He lands on his feet and continues leading the closing ensemble with bravura, throwing in snatches of double time and some more searing high notes before winding down with some down home quarter notes. A Baby Dodds cymbal clasp closes the time capsule on another great Hot Seven record.

As great as it is, "Keyhole Blues" is usually known as one of the "lesser" Hot Sevens. Gary Giddins has called it "relatively ordinary" and I suppose it is when you consider that some of the other songs in the series seriously changed jazz history and are still taught and dissected 85 years later. But it still has some marvelous moments, doesn't it? And you never know what song is going to be the one to change someone's life. In this case, it was listening to "Keyhole Blues" that short-circuited the brain of 13-year-old Wycliffe Gordon and led him on the path to becoming a marvelous jazz musicians and a proud bearer of Pops's torch. 

Last year, Gordon made a lovely CD tribute to Louis titled "Hello, Pops." After years of trombone dominance, Gordon picked up the trumpet for this disc and to the surprise of no one, showed that he mastered that tough brass instrument as well. In tribute to the song that did it for him, Gordon recorded "Keyhole Blues" in a version that is pretty much a note-for-note recreation of the original. Gordon does go for himself in the scat vocal, throwing in an "Oo-bop-sh'bam" to make it clear that the boppers wouldn't have had their language without Louis. Here's Gordon's version:

So there you have it, "Keyhole Blues" still having the power to move listeners 85 years later. Not a track that changed the world but there's no duds in the Hot Seven bunch so it's just as worth celebrating as the others. Next time--and barring any more natural disasters, it won't take a month!--"S.O.L. Blues" and "Gully Low Blues" step up to the plate. Til then!


Phil Lynch said…
I wish my "ordinary" approached anything near that. Love that tuba and the beat it supplies, too.
Joseph Scott said…
"Wesley Wilson wrote this song....right?" Wrong. They're two different tunes that have the same title, and the label of Louis's record doesn't credit anyone (such as Wilson).

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