Basin Street Blues: 80 Years of Louis's January 1933 Victor Sessions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Track Time: 3:27
Recorded January 27, 1933
Written by Spencer Williams
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Keg Johnson, trombone; Scoville Browne, George Oldham, alto saxophone, clarinet; Budd Johnson, tenor saxophone; Teddy Wilson, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; Bill Oldham, tuba; Yank Porter, drums
Originally released on Victor 24351
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

"Basin Street Blues" has long been one of Louis Armstrong's most associated songs. He recorded two epic studio recordings when he was a young man, did it with big band in live settings and performed it nightly with his All Stars for almost 20 years. There are dozens of treatments of "Basin Street" in the Armstrong discography to choose from, all great. In fact, back in 2008, I wrote a giant blog about as many as I could fit in without keeling over. But of them all, the Victor recording from 1933 will always be my favorite. The following is mostly made up from what I wrote five years ago, but I've edited it a bit and can't deny that I feel the same way about it today.

The tune was written by the great Spencer Williams and, as far as I can tell, Armstrong was the first person to get a crack at it in the studio when he first waxed it for OKeh in 1928. The tune was pretty bare bones when Armstrong got to it. There was no famous verse and no lyrics, just those very simple, very pretty 16 bars. What Armstrong, Earl Hines and the rest of the Savoy Ballroom Five did with it was simply magic. Please click that above link to hear the original and read my ravings about it since it's truly one that belongs in a time capsule (also check out the great Matt Glaser piece, Satchmo the Philospher).

But still, the Victor....whoa. Listen along if you don't believe me:
Wow. One can start a fight between Armstrong nuts about which version they prefer, the OKeh or the Victor. I’ll take ‘em both, but if forced at gunpoint, I might go with the Victor. The tempo is a shade brighter than the OKeh, for one thing. The Victor opens with a sparkling Teddy Wilson introduction before Keg Johnson plays the melody, interrupted only for a bubbling clarinet break (Bill Oldham's huge-toned bass is well-captured, too). Then Armstrong once again plays a 12-bar chorus of blues, starting off with the exact notes used on the OKeh, before he settles into a riff that he can’t shake until the chorus is over (this part always reminds me of the non-vocal take of “Dallas Blues” from 1929). Then the band plays an arranged 12-bar chorus (scrontch on the fourth beat!), the rhythm section almost marching, rather than swinging. For the vocal, Pops once again sticks to purely scatting over vocal harmonies from the band. His first vocal break is similar to the first one on the OKeh, but is delivered with more urgency. I've always loved these little group vocals from this period as they give us at least a glimpse into what Louis would have sounded like scatting over his quartet while a teen in New Orleans.
Rare photo of Louis  in London, 1933. Courtesy of Dave Bennett

Then, a glance at the clock shows 1:20 left for Pops to make his final statement. Once again, it’s a festival of double-timing, but it’s even wilder than the original. I like Matt Glaser's description of what happens next: "So, too, our second "Basin Street Blues," recorded in 1933, which begins with a triplet figure that serves as the germ for the entire solo. The first six bars are a natural efflorescence from a simple seed, completely free of the restrictions of bar lines or chord changes. The turnaround pattern in bars seven and eight begins with an operatic gesture in the high register, leading down in coruscating fashion through a reverse arpeggiation of C-minor 7th flat-5, a delicious double chromatic approach into A, and finally grazing upon the flat 13th of the F-7th chord."

In other words, yeah, man! (Matt has a larger vocabulary than I.) That first break always knocks me out, highlighted by a massive gliss to a high D. In the late 40s, when Jack Teagarden began featuring this with the All Stars, Louis almost always revisited this break in his solo (choosing to quote "The Gypsy" other times).  Armstrong calms down a bit to do some very hip swinging in the lower register (eliciting a “Yeah” from someone in the background) before he repeats the high Bb break from 1928, where he just holds it for a while (shades of "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues" and eventually uses it to launch up to a mind-boggling high D. This was a note he reached for in 1928 and I originally wrote that he "grazed" it on the original. Well, somebody must have been practicing because he absolutely kills it on the Victor!

A clarinet trio joins Armstrong as he gradually winds down before ending the record with some more scatting, setting up a wonderful slow coda, something he might have normally played on the trumpet but it's a great change of pace to get it from his voice. The closing “Yeah, man” pretty much sums it up.  I’m sweating over here!

23 years later, Louis sat down for a Voice of America session in which he got to play DJ, spinning old records and telling stories for five hours. He played the original "Basin Street" from 1928, but afterwards, delivered a little speech about how pretty jazz could be and how you could take one song and treat it so many different ways. Since he was already talking about "Basin Street," he decided to illustrate his point by mentioning the Victor recording....and scatting the original closing cadenza perfectly to a tee! Here's the audio:

Isn't that sweet? (I let it run a little long, I know, but I just love hearing him talk.) There'd be plenty of more trips down "Basin Street" in the next 30 or so years, but none quite like that Victor recording.

Tomorrow: Louis performs a forgotten Andy Razaf song, "Honey, Do!"


Unknown said…
Ricky, where did you find that Voice of America recording of Pops talking about "Basin Street Blues"?
Is there some way I can hear more of those recordings?
BTW, love your blog!! It's about time someone gave his '30s recordings their due attention. When I read your praise for his excellent vocal on "Some Sweet Day," I was hooked.

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