80 Years of "That's My Home"

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 8, 1932
Track Time 3:14
Written by Otis Rene, Leon Rene and Ben Ellison 
Recorded in Camden, NJ
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Louis Bacon, Louis Hunt, Billy Hicks, trumpet; Charlie Greene, trombone; Pete Clarke, clarinet, alto saxophone; Edgar Sampson, alto saxophone; Elmer Williams, tenor saxophone; Don Kirkpatrick, piano; John Trueheart, guitar; Elmer James, tuba; Chick Webb, drums 
Originally released on Victor 24200
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Time for an anniversary post that's NOT about a Hot Seven tune! Instead, I'm celebrating one of favorite Armstrong tunes, a song that survives in four versions, each one an absolute grand slam. And it's a song that's filled with important double meanings for me: as Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, this song is an anthem of sorts, one we play an excerpt of in a video we show before each and every tour. And as I mentioned before, last month, my wife and I and our little girls moved into a new home in Toms River, NJ--and not just any home, but the one I grew up in. So when I hear Louis sing "That's My Home," I'm usually thinking about his life, his home in Corona or my home in NJ and it's not to get emotional about ONE of those!

"That's My Home" was written by the Rene brothers, Otis and Leon, (along with Ben Ellison, who co-wrote a few other tunes but none worth mentioning). The Rene brothers were already responsible for "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," which Louis recorded the previous year and immediately turned into his theme song. Sensing the popularity of that number, the Rene's wrote this one as a sequel, covering many of the same themes about longing for the great, glorious South (in 1932...yikes). But even if the lyrics cover familiar ground, the melody stands on its own as quite a lovely one. 

As for Louis, "That's My Home" was the start of a new recording chapter for him. Earlier this year, I wrote about Louis's final session for OKeh on March 11, 1932. By the time of that session, Louis's offstage life was in turmoil, mostly due to his manager Johnny Collins, who had Armstrong in hot water with the mob. Tommy Rockwell, who really started the ball rolling for Louis's career as a "pop star" on OKeh, was suing Collins publicly--but also behind some very private threats to the trumpeter's life. When "Time" magazine profiled Louis in the summer of 1932, it made mention that OKeh and Victor were at war over Louis's recording services. 

Armstrong just wanted to play the horn and wanted to get away from this mess so Collins did the best thing for him and booked him for three months in England. When Louis returned, he didn't have a band or any immediate engagements lined up, but he did have something to be happy about. "
Here's some more good news for ya," he wrote to Mezz Mezzrow on September 18. "The Victor Record Co., has just won the case from the Okeh Recor Co. and wired Mr. Collins that all's well and I can start on my new Victor contract which replaces the Rudy Vallee anytime. Gee, Gate, what a victory from our boy Rockwell. Looka heah, Looka heah. Now just watch those good royalties--dividends--shares--'n' everything else. Ha. Ha. And the contract pop's (MR. COLLINS) made with these people for me, why you've never heard of one like it before. And that includes the ole King of Jazz himself Paul Whiteman. Nice, eh?"

It was but after a solid year-plus run with a band of his own (under the direction of Zilner Randolph), Louis was starting from scratch again. He got booked to appear in "Connie's Hot Chocolates of 1932" at the Pearl Theater in Philadelphia, where he was fronting the great Chick Webb Orchestra. Armstrong hadn't made a recording since that March date so on December 8, 1932, he toted Webb's band with him down to Camden, New Jersey to record at Victor's legendary church-turned-studio.

Louis brought his pal Mezz Mezzrow to the date. Louis and Mezz were close; Mezz provided him with "arrangements" (hint: you couldn't play them but you COULD smoke them....) but also wasn't afraid to offer his opinions on music (he also wasn't afraid to play the clarinet.....topic for another day....). Mezz paid attention that December day (though he misremembered the date) and wrote about it in his later autobiography, Really the Blues.  The recordings Louis made in Camden have long been one of my favorites but after reading Mezz's words, they're even more astounding. Take it Mezz:

"[Armstrong] had a terrible sore lip, in addition to being dogtired, and that day he had played five shows and made two broadcasts. We started off for the Camden recording studios at 1:30 in the morning. I didn't see how poor old Pops was going to blow note one. In the dead of night we drove up to a large red brick church. I wondered if we were going to have a special prayer service to make sure Louis go through this grind, but when we went through the chapel door I saw it was a recording studio....
They wouldn't let Chick Webb use his bass drum on this date, mainly because Louis' lip was in such bad shape and without the bass he wouldn't be pushed so hard."

Yes, this was the period when Louis had to conjure up every ounce of strength and guile to get through his performances. Mezzrow's book also includes famous stories of Louis picking dead skin out of his lips with a needle and bursting his chops onstage one night until blood streamed down his tuxedo shirt. All of that happened just weeks after Louis recorded with Webb. 
Thus, when you hear these performances and think about what he had to go through to sound like this...well, it's awe-inspiring, that's all. 

"That's My Home" survives in two takes. One was officially designated the master and issued immediately but the other take was also issued by Victor subsidiary Bluebird during the 78 era. As Dan Morgenstern has pointed out, listeners are usually more partial to the take they hear--and fall in love with--first. Thus, Dan, and I'm sure many others, have a soft spot for the alternate. I think both are magnificent so let's jump right in with the master take first:


Magic. The first thing you hear is the absolutely beautiful recording quality of that Camden studio. No loves Louis's OKeh big band recordings more than me, but the sound of that label's Chicago studio wasn't too great. Armstrong's Victor sessions simply sound beautiful.

And so does Pops. As I've said before, these 1932-1933 Victor sessions are special favorites of mine. Even with his lips in increasing duress, he managed to do thing on his horn in this period that didn't (couldn't?) do before or after. It's the perfect melding of the young, hot, fleet-fingered daring cat and the later, operatic master of the high note climax. And again, Victor's engineers captured that sound beautifully.

Sound quality aside, the other first thing (does that make sense?) you hear is a rather elaborate arranged introduction, complete with orchestra bells and a trumpet (Louis Bacon, perhaps), playing a snatch of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," erasing any doubts that this is a sequel to that song. 

Mezzrow also recounted that he made some suggestions to the arrangement, including changing the tuba part. It all sounds good to me, so I guess we'll have to credit Mezzrow for that. But speaking of the tuba, that was an instrument quickly on its way out so it's a little weird hearing it here since Armstrong's Chicago recordings for OKeh featuring the big-toned walking bass of John Lindsey. Maybe it was a New Orleans thing since Pops Foster walked and swung beautifully behind Louis on the trumpeter's 1929-1930 recordings with Luis Russell. But the combination of the tuba and drummer Webb's almost straight quarter note brush strokes leads to an incessant marching, rather than swinging feel. It doesn't impede Louis in the least bit but it's proof that the entire world hadn't succumbed to Louis's relaxed feel just yet (but help was on the way--just five days later in the very same Camden studio, Bennie Moten's band, with Count Basie and Walter Page, waxed ten seminal numbers that officially taught rhythm sections the way to swing from that day forward).

Anyway, back to the recording, Louis puts his heart and soul into the vocal, as he always did when it came to singing about the south. Louis saw a lot of hell down there but he loved New Orleans and the hero's welcome he received upon his return in 1931 sounds like it inspired his vocal passion ("I'm always welcome back, no matter where I roam...."). 

After the vocal, a four bar modulation from Ab to Bb allows Pops to get his chops together before he embarks on his first solo. I wonder if the arrangement originally featured him trading fours with saxophonist Elmer Williams or if the shape of his chops dictated a little breathing room to save some in reserve for the climactic portions. He sounds hesitant at first, one of his low notes barely coming out, before he gets comfortable. By his second set of fours, he's soaring, all the way up to a beautifully full high concert Bb. Pleased with himself, you can hear Armstrong humming and singing immediately after, as Williams wraps up this portion of the record.

Now it's melody time. Armstrong enters squarely with a D on the nose and then relaxes. Oh, what human beings could learn from his sense of time! This is one of those moments where that incessant, marching rhythm section actually comes in handy because it allows the listener to further appreciate Armstrong's ability to float. He keeps the melody front and center but also adds in his variations, especially in the second eight, which starts with a grandiose gliss to a high Bb, before he starts  throwing around those snake-like phrase, the past and future Armstrong converging in the present. 

Louis piles on the drama as he heads to the bridge, thriving on the change from major to minor with another giant gliss to a Bb and then descending chromatically from Ab to Gb, holding it and shaking the hell out of it. He beautifully distills the melody to three descending half notes (remember, this is a wordy section in the vocal), before holding the last F and passionately blowing it up to a G. He floats through the rest of the bridge, playing a bit of the melody before getting ready for the climax: a series of high Bb glisses (the famed high C on the trumpet) while the band plays the melody in and around him. When he gets to the close, he gets even higher (possibly in more ways than one), hitting a higher concert C and at the climax, two sky-high D's before ending back on that big, fat Bb. 

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury.....THIS is a man with chops troubles?????

Even if Louis heroically pushed through it to create that magnificent performance, did he have it in him to do it again? Listen to the alternate and find out: 

Yep, he did it again! The alternate is very similar to the master so no need for the strict blow-by-blow account. There are some differences, though. The vocal is just as passionate but I like the almost exaggerated "bay-bee" replacing the "babe" early on. In the trading with saxophonist Williams, Armstrong's lines follow a similar line of thinking as on the other take, but there's some differences in phrase and though he doesn't sound as hesitant at the start, his tone gets a teeny bit thinner here and there. But he still works his way up to that gorgeous high Bb (and still sings his approval in the background).

When the trading is over, Armstrong enters with a chromatic run up to an F, different from the D he started squarely on in on the master.   Armstrong takes a few more chances with the melody this time around, really coming up with some different phrases in the second eight, working over an alternating note motif that might be the highlight of the alternate take, especially when he resolves it with three chromatically descending, searing quarter notes. 

Even the bridge is different. That dramatic chromatic phrase that heralded the change from major to minor the first time around. In its place, Louis just glisses up to that Bb, hits it, holds it longer and then does his half-note descent to the F, still wailing up to that G for good measure. One has to wonder if this was part of Louis's repertoire before he entered the studio. Certain patterns are set but his improvised chorus is so different from take to take, he might be coming up with some of these variations for the first time. Either way, I can see when, hearing moments like this, Dan Morgenstern still prefers this take.

Heading home, Armstrong follows the pattern of the high Bb's, but instead of just launching them up as part of gliss grenades, he repeats the Bb a few times at one point, either feeling in the mood for something a little more rhythmically vibrant or maybe knowing the gas tank didn't have enough for another demanding gliss. Whatever the reason, he saved just enough in reserve to nail the slow ending again, complete with those angelic high D's. Bravo, Pops!

I believe "That's My Home" followed Louis to Europe in 1933 but alas, there are no live recordings of it from Louis's big band period. When the All Stars were formed in 1947, "That's My Home" wasn't part of the repertoire, but Louis did respond to a request for it in 1955, as recounted by Jacob A. Stein in this piece. But when it came time for the epic Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography in 1956, "That's My Home" was a natural to be revived.

Sy Oliver handled the arrangement, which was recorded December 13, 1956. As recounted in this space about a thousand times, the Autobiography is, in my opinion, the definitive statement of Louis's abilities as a trumpeter in the 1950s. For exhibit 40, (I'm losing count), here's "That's My Home": 

I like Oliver's arrangements because he didn't slavishly copy the originals, instead creating newer, fresher frameworks that still didn't get in our hero's way. Thus, the original dramatic opening is gone, replaced by a short descending phrase that sets up a small statement by Edmond Hall (apparently quoting "Georgia On My Mind"). Louis still sings beautifully but it's possible he's no longer inspired by New Orleans. Restrictions were placed earlier in 1956 that prohibited integrated bands from performing in public in Louis's hometown so he stayed away from 1955 to 1965. But he didn't need New Orleans anymore; he had a home in Corona since 1943 that was truly his palace ("like one of those old citadels," he was fond of saying) and I'm sure that's all the inspiration he needed (though if you've read some of the recent headines about Louis, I'm not sure "I'm always welcome back, no matter where I roam" applied 100% of the time!). 

After the vocal, the arrangement once again modulates from Ab to Bb and the pattern of trading continues, this time with Louis and Trummy Young's trombone, though Trummy plays along quietly at first, almost like a duet. There's nothing hesitant about Louis's playing and goodness knows, no lip trouble either (I wonder if he really thought he'd be blowing with such force 34 years after the crisis his chops were going through during the first session). Armstrong flexes his muscles in his second eight, overshadowing Trummy with a gliss to a powerful F before making that climb up to that killer Bb. 

Then, when it comes to Pops's "solo" portion, he enters with the chromatic phrase featured on the alternate...I wonder if that's the record Oliver based his arrangement on? (He transcribed all of Louis's solos but notated, "Go for yourself" on Pops's parts.) From there, Louis plays the melody in his finest 1956 fashion, perhaps not as intense as in 1932, but with a wonderfully relaxed sense of phrasing and that never-to-be-duplicated tone. 

Heading into the bridge, Pops goes up to that Bb again and holds it, just as he did on the alternate (I guess that solves it, regarding Oliver's inspiration). There's still that wonderful moment when he holds the F and pushes it up to a G--why mess with perfection? When it comes to the final 8, Louis knows what to do, glissing up to those ridiculous Bb's and nailing the high D's before the last note (he holds them longer, too). There's a reason we play part of this before every tour at the Louis Armstrong House Museum--he kills it!

That would seem to conclude our hero's story with "That's My Home"...but wait, don't go anywhere! In fact, call some friends and strangers to the computer. We'll never know where, but in 1961, Louis started playing "That's My Home" live with the All Stars! It all seems to have started when Louis arrive back in the United States from a grueling tour of Africa and Europe from October 1960 through February 1961. Happy to be back home, Louis appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and sang a chorus (alas, no trumpet). He must have enjoyed it and it must have went over well because soon enough, it was in the show. 

Unfortunately, after the Sullivan show, a total of ONE live performance of "That's My Home" survives from the Newport Jazz Festival in 1961. And if I say so, this is one of THE highlights of Louis Armstrong's later years. It might not have some of the pyrotechnics of what we've already heard but there's something about this performance that kills me. Maybe it's because it's live, maybe it's because it's the backing of the All Stars, maybe it's the simple fact that Louis was about to turn 60 and was still killing it, but this one makes me cry just about every time I hear it. 

[NOTE: When I originally posted this, I wrote, "completely unissued, by the way." But thanks to my pal Ron Cannatella for reminding me that no, this was issued on a 2-CD set called The Katanga Concert. It's a mutt of a CD, purporting to be a complete concert from Africa in 1960 but it includes some material billed as being from Nice, France in 1962, plus a version of "What a Wonderful World" from 1967. It's also on a single CD made up of the same stuff called Blueberry Hill, also on the Milan label. Anyway, this version of "That's My Home" is on both but it's credited as being from Nice AND the sound quality is inferior compared to what you're about to here. Once the late Belgium discographer Jos Willems sent me the copy of Louis's set at Newport in 1961 in incredible sound, I totally blocked the Katanga release from my mind. So if you'd like to own a copy of this one, click the above link and download away]

Here 'tis:

First thing you'll notice is where in a new key. The other two versions started in Ab for the vocal and then went up to Bb for the trumpet. This one stays in Ab the entire time. So we're a step down but don't let that fool you into thinking he's taking it easy (the superhuman "When You're Smiling" from 1956 is in Ab, down from the Bb of the 1929 version and I've never heard anyone complain about that). In fact, this version has more trumpet than the previous versions!

Part of the reason is the arrangement, a typical one for the way the All Stars handled ballads early on (see "You Can Depend on Me" from Pasadena, 1951, or "Shoe Shine Boy" from New Orleans, 1949): full chorus of trumpet playing the melody, full chorus vocal, half chorus trumpet lead from the bridge forward. Thus, we get one entire chorus of Louis playing the melody to "That's My Home" at the slowest tempo yet and it's just masterful. Has there been anyone else to get so much out of the melody? The beautiful sound quality allows the listener to appreciate the All Stars, too: Billy Kyle's impeccable accompaniment (bless him for that "Swanee River" quote during the vocal), the lightly swinging but forceful rhythm team of Danny Barcelona and Irv Manning and the gorgeous long-tone harmonies by Trummy Young and clarinetist Barney Bigard.

Louis's opening chorus alone is worth the full price of admission but he still has to sing and to the surprise of no one, he sings wonderfully (lyric change: no mention of "mammy" anymore, Pops changing it to "with a love that's true"). My goodness, how he sings that bridge!

So we've already been entertained by a sublime chorus of melody playing and a rich, warm vocal. He could have taken his bows right there, and I'd stand up, but he's not finished. The horns play Louis's signature vocal and trumpet lick (twice) to allow him to get the trumpet up and then it's on. Back to the bridge we go and this is the part that kills me. The rhythm section swells, the horns hold their harmonies (Barney's swooping high C gives me chills) and Pops preaches, starting on a high concert E and building from there. All I can say about it is PLAY IT LOUD. He builds in intensity (I loved the descending half notes on the original but the ping-ponging two-note phase he uses to navigate the same descent cuts it), eventually holding and shaking a high Ab into the final eight. Instead of the dramatic glisses of the original, Armstrong plays more melodic phrases here, opening by repeating that damn Ab eight times! Eight! His phrasing is so melody, so logical it almost defies logic. He finally gets to the end and repeats his usual ending phrase, except a step down so now he tops out with two high C's before landing on the final Ab and holding it for eight seconds. Eight! My goodness...

Well, now I have to go lie down but that's the end, unfortunately, of our look at "That's My Home." I don't know how much more I can handle but truthfully, more might pop up. Though this is the last surviving performance, Arvell Shaw joined the band in late 1962 and remembered Louis playing this often (making Shaw cry every time). And I've found reviews of Armstrong performances in both 1963 and 1964 that praise Louis's playing on this number. So it didn't disappear, but as of now, none of those other versions were performed in front of a recording device.

But hey, that's a helluva foursome, huh? Hope you enjoyed it and as usual, if you're ever in NY, stop by the Louis Armstrong House Museum to see Pops's home in all its glory.


Quick notes: I toyed with the notion of doing an 80th anniversary post of that entire Chick Webb session since all four songs yielded an alternate take but there just wasn't enough time. However, I did do a blog a while ago on I Hate to Leave You Now so you could check that out by clicking the link.

And as the world knows, jazz legend Dave Brubeck passed away this week at the age of 91. I've always admired Brubeck and have been an advocate for "The Real Ambassadors" for years. I was honored to be asked by A&E's Bio.com to write a tribute to Brubeck for their website and I chose to focus on his collaboration with Pops. You can read it here. Thanks, Dave and Iola, for writing that for Pops. It gets better and more important with each passing year.


Dan said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan said…
That last one made ME cry too, Ricky. And Louis seemed, even for him, uncommonly elated by what he had brought off: "Oh BOY....FUCK it!" he says (at least it sure sounds like that to me). Great stuff . Beautiful song. Although he got back to it with the All Stars relatively late, a snatch of it was always included near the end of his solo on "Struttin' with Some Barbecue".
RICHIE said…
Bum lip? I would never have picked those early recordings to site Pops playing with a lip problem. Thanks for the back story and thanks for that last slow version that takes a nice diddy and turns it into an emotional masterpiece.

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