85 Years of the Hot Seven: S.O.L. Blues/Gully Low Blues

Recorded May 13 and May 14, 1927 
Track Time 2:58 for "S.O.L. Blues" and 3:20 for "Gully Low Blues"
Written by Louis Armstrong
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 8474 ("S.O.L. Blues" was Columbia 35661)
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 

We in the home stretch of my year-long tribute to the Hot Seven, tackling two great numbers for the price of one in this post. One point I've made a number of times thus far is the Hot Seven recorded a LOT of songs with the word "Blues" in the title but only one was an out-and-out 12-bar blues and that's the one we're dealing with today....and even it doesn't follow the form for the entire course of the record.

You've probably noticed by now the two different titles for what's essentially the same number, "S.O.L. Blues" and "Gully Low Blues." Here's the legend: Louis and the Hot Seven record "S.O.L. Blues" on May 13, 1927, it gets approved and everyone goes home. Then the next day, someone from OKeh catches on that S.O.L. stands for "Shit Outta Luck," raises hell and demands the Hot Seven record the number again under a new title and with different lyrics. They do and "Gully Low Blues" is the result, released soon thereafter. 15 years later, young George Avakian stumbles over "S. O.L. Blues," deems it a lost treasure (which it was) and has it issued on Columbia. 

Something has always smelled a little funny to me. As you'll hear in a minute, Louis sings nothing naughty on "S.O.L. Blues," singing "out of luck" but nothing about the "shit" part. Maybe the title could have been deemed risque....but so what? Change it! The Hot Five would later record "Ory's Creole Trombone" but they submitted the name "Slidin'," which is how it was labeled when Avakian discovered it. Avakian knew better and "Ory's Creole Trombone" was slapped on its first issue, also in 1942. So changing a title would have been no big deal.

No, I think, "S.O.L. Blues" survives as a true rarity: a half-baked alternate take by the Hot Seven. In the original Columbia files, "S.O.L. Blues" bears a matrix number of 81126 B, which doesn't make much sense since the date's previous offering, "Keyhole Blues," has one of 80876. But "Gully Low Blues" has a Matrix of 80877 D. According to the late discographer Jos Wilems, "The matrix number of 'Gully Low Blues' is in sequence with 'Keyhole Blues,' but there's a jump in the numbering for the next title, 'That's When I'll Come Back to You.' The original file card of 'Gully Low Blues' shows two takes, 80877-D and -E. Therefore it can be suggested that the day before, three takes of this tune--but under the title of 'S.O.L. Blues--had already been made (matrix 80877-A, B and -C.) he theories why those first three takes ('S.O.L. Blues') were rejected are many."

So "S.O.L. Blues" was something the Hot Seven tried three times on May 13 but couldn't nail. The second effort, take B, was the best and was probably saved but with session time booked the following day, they resumed recording the number with some changes and knocked it out of the park on take D, the overall fourth attempt, counting the three from the previous day. This is all speculation but it makes more sense to me than having to record the number from scratch because of a risque title. 

Well, now that all but the discographers in the crowd are asleep, let's press on with some music. Let's listen to the first attempt, "S.O.L. Blues":

I mentioned that the Hot Seven just couldn't play a blues all the way through from start to finish. Case in point: the entire opening section, which is based on a song that some New Orleans jazz fans might know as "Do What Ory Say" or "South" but really had its origins in the Crescent City during cutting contests, where it got its original title of "Kiss My Fuckin' Ass" (sorry this has been such a bawdy post!). Louis opens the record with a dazzling unaccompanied introduction before the band swings into these changes, Briggs's tuba pushing everyone forward as Louis takes another stirring break in the middle. Then Johnny Dodds takes a solo, also on these changes but when he gets to the break, he cuts the tempo in half and when he emerges, the band is now playing a slow 12-bar blues! A pretty neat little arrangement. 

Dodds wails the blues for an entire chorus and then Louis sings:

Now I'm with you sweet mama / as long as you have the bucks
(Bucks, bucks, bucks....I mean money, mama!)
I'm with you sweet mama / as long as you have ba-rucks, bucks, bucks
When the bucks run out, sweet mama you're out of luck (out of luck, luck luck).

One chorus and it's an effective one. Louis sometimes doesn't get credit as a blues singer but like everything else he did, he's pretty great (check out "Lonesome Blues" and "I'm Not Rough" for two other shouting blues vocals from this era). Dodds then comes back for a second helping, this time exploring his lower register (poor John Thomas never gets a solo). Then it's time for the main event, one of Louis's greatest--and most imitated solos. The motif might seem simple on paper but is murder to execute: a searing high concert Bb, held for all its glory, followed by a tumbling arpeggiated phrase. Lather, rinse and repeat. But Louis's high notes are so dramatic and the arpeggiated phrases are so tricky and skillfully executed that the whole 12 bars becomes the stuff that legends are made of. However, Louis does seem to get a tad stuck on some of the lower runs, not playing anything wrong, but sounding a tad hesitant as he goes on. Still working it out, I presume. 

Louis calls everyone home with about as down-home of a phrase as you can get (based mostly on a repeated note but the rhythms are irresistible) and then he preaches, still getting around his horn but leaving lots of space for Johnny Dodds to have his say (Thomas, again, sticks to quiet glisses....with his contribution, this record should have been billed as by the Hot Six-and-a-Half). Armstrong gradually builds down in terms of intensity; he seems to have been emotionally spent after that stirring solo and is now content to simply play the blues like a mortal. Everyone ends on a tight-note but there's still a little arranged tag...and it just doesn't come together. Dodds sounds ultra hesitant and no one seems quite sure of how it goes. 

People have been enjoying "S.O.L. Blues" now for 70 years and if it came out in 1927, I'm sure it's place in the pantheon would be safe. But when you really examine it--Louis possibly unsure of the lyrics ("ba-rucks"?), his somewhat hesitant playing towards the end of the solo, the botched tag--I can see what they'd want to do it again and why it would have nothing to do with the title.

The next day, the Hot Seven reconvened and tackled this number right off the bat. Armed with new lyrics (and the realization that they had time for an extra vocal chorus) and a new title, the group added to posterity with "Gully Low Blues":

Now isn't that more like it? Sure is a perfect record, as Louis might say. There's not much for me to add to my original analysis except to hammer home one of my long-running themes: Louis Armstrong was a great improvisor but he was also one who liked "routines" and when he got one that worked, he didn't change it. From his opening unaccompanied introduction to the epic high-note-centered solo, the framework was in place on "S.O.L. Blues." 

But Louis was still an improviser at heart so some of the note choices and turns-of-a-phrase differ (the breaks he takes on the fast section are completely different). But I look at "S.O.L. Blues" as him creating the framework and "Gully Low Blues" as him perfecting the execution. Even the tempo is a little more up on the fast section, everyone sounding more comfortable with Louis taking an even more dazzling break. And when it comes time to sing, Louis takes two choruses, each featuring brand-new lyrics (asides in parentheses):

Now, mama, mama, mama, / why do you treat me so?
Ah, mama, mama, mama, why do you treat me so?
(I know why you treat me so bad.)
You treat me mean, baby, just because I'm gully low.

Now, mama, if you listen baby / I'll tell you something you don't know.
(You don't know.)
If you just listen to me honey / I'll tell you something you don't know.
If you just give me a break and take me back, I won't be gully no mo'. 
(Gully no mo'.)

The first time around, Louis made himself the butt of the joke, in a relationship with his lady just for the money but this time, he's singing like a man truly scorned by his "mama/baby/honey." This is lowdown blues...gully low, if you will. I also love the spoken and sometimes sung asides (the way he sings "You don't know" is just beautiful). 

And when it comes to Louis's triumphant solo, though he follows the same pattern, those falling phrases are much more sure-footed. The first few are almost identical but just where the hesitancy crept in on "S.O.L. Blues," he responds with some supremely confident, perfect choices. His lead in the closing ensemble is stronger, too, winding down a little bit after that first chorus (how could it not?) but still featuring a swaggering edge. And when they get to the tag, this time they nailed it. What a record!

Naturally, Louis's solo became something that all the hip musicians had to learn and eventually it started cropping up on some records. Here's Count Basie's "Blues in the Dark" from 1938. At around the 1:20 mark, while Jimmy Rushing is singing, listen in the background to trumpeter Ed Lewis playing the solo beautifully:

And for proof that not only trumpet players got stuff from Louis, here's a tremendous record from a little later, 1944's "Blues at Blue Note" by Edmond Hall. At 2:30, Vic Dickenson devotes his entire trombone solo to playing Louis's "Gully Low Blues" chorus:

Even Louis himself used that solo for inspiration when he recorded "Beale Street Blues" on the timeless 1954 album Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy. But I'll save that one for another day and instead close on the exact remake Louis did of "Gully Low Blues" 30 years later for Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography. Here 'tis:

He's still got it! The routine is identical with Louis knocking out his original intro and first break with no problem (tempo is a little slower, more in the "S.O.L. Blues" range than "Gully Low"). Edmond Hall picks up the solo on the "Kiss My You-Know-What" chorus and like Dodds, masterfully turns it into a slow blues. The original was slow but this is SLOW; though the arrangement is the same, the slower tempo adds some extra time to the remake. 

Louis sings beautifully, following the original "Gully Low" lyrics--and asides--to a tee, though it's not as wild and wooly as the earlier recording. Louis improved as a singer as he got older but his vocals on the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens were so animated, they could border on vaudevillian at times (not a bad thing), something he got away from by the mid-1930s.

After the vocal, Trummy Young takes a real mellow muted chorus, sounding fabulous (and hey, at least he got a solo unlike poor John Thomas). Then it's Louis's turn. Interestingly, arranger Bob Haggart pulls a switcheroo (musicology terminology) on the 1927 recording. On that one, Louis knocked out his solo and then led the ensemble for one chorus, playing beautifully, but a little more reserved from the mountain he just climbed. 

In 1957, Haggart reverses it and has Louis lead the ensemble first and THEN hit the high note chorus. Louis reaches way back to one of his favorite blues choruses, featuring an opening phrase he used on "Gut Bucket Blues" and about a dozen others (Jack Teagarden was fond of that opening as well). Perhaps realizing he already recorded a remake of "Gut Bucket Blues" (the day before), he gets off of it and improvises some real lowdown phrases. I always like to think of teenage Louis playing the blues all night in the honky-tonks of New Orleans. He must have had so many blues choruses minted that he could fall back on them for the rest of his life. 

Anyway, Haggart's reversal proves to be a stroke of genius in my mind. As Louis builds and builds, Trummy and Ed Hall with him all the way, it reaches a more emotional climax by building towards the high note chorus. And how does 56-year-old Louis handle it? Another home run on an album full of them. Those high Bb's are just as dramatic as ever and even more surprisingly, he's still pretty fleet-fingered on the descending runs. As anyone who knows anything faintly about me, I'm Mr. Latter Day Louis Armstrong (name change pending) but though I often faint at the power and swing of his 1950s playing, I'm the first to admit, he had to sacrifice a few miles off the fastball to keep the rest of his style at such a high level. So to hear him making those fast little figures around his horn a this date is a nice touch.

But like the original, Louis eventually settles down, trading in opera and drama for some sadly lamenting blues playing. But it wouldn't be "Gully Low Blues" without the tag and they toss it off without a problem. In fact, at the slower tempo, it comes off as a more melancholy ending whereas in the original, it was almost a humorous novelty of sorts. 

And that's it for Louis's history on "S.O.L. Blues" and/or "Gully Low Blues." There's only one more Hot Seven to go and if you thought Louis singing about a toxic relationship was bad on this number, wait til you hear "That's When I'll Come Back to You"!


Sean Savage said…
Great stuff. I hope this means you're going to come back around to the Hot Fives and do the "Hotter Than That" flip, "Savoy Blues."

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