65 Years of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday's Only Session
Ask anyone to name a handful of the greatest jazz singers of all time. If that person doesn't include Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, they're wrong.
Armstrong and Holiday were friends. Holiday claimed Armstrong was one of her biggest influences. They worked together in New Orleans. They both recorded for Milt Gabler of Decca in the 1940s and for Norman Granz of Verve in the 1950s. They were both managed by Joe Glaser. They appeared together at Carnegie Hall in 1947 but no audio survives of them singing together there. On one of Louis's private tapes is a broadcast from Club Hangover in 1952 and on it, Louis mentions Billie in the audience and dedicates "West End Blues" and "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" to her. He also told a story of Billie yelling at a drunk who asked Louis who took the trumpet solo on his 1950 recording of "C'est Si Bon" because an "old man" like Louis couldn't have played it!
And yet, with all of that interaction, they only went into the recording studio a single time and only churned out a grand total of two selections. Can you imagine a series of Billie and Louis albums recorded for Granz in the mid-50s, a la the Ella Fitzgerald collaborations?
Alas, it wasn't to be and all we have are the two selections, recorded 65 years ago today. As chronicled a few weeks ago, Louis returned to Decca in September 1949 and immediately fell into step with producer Milt Gabler. First up was a cover of a few recent pop tunes, fronting a biggish band arranged by Sy Oliver. Next, Gordon Jenkins scored one of the biggest hits of Armstrong's career with the coupling of "Blueberry Hill" and "That Lucky Old Sun." And finally, just before leaving for a major European tour, Armstrong teamed up with Holiday on another Sy Oliver-arranted date. Like the Jenkins session, Armstrong plays zero trumpet. Oliver's band, though, was filled with top musicians, including future All Stars Johnny Minch and Billy Kyle (the latter making his debut with Louis), trumpeter Bernie Privin, guitarist Everett Barksdale, bassist Joe Benjamin and Jimmy Crawford.
Gabler had been giving Holiday the star treatment since she came aboard in October 1944 and immediately scored a big hit with the strings-laden "Lover Man." Holiday, however, was slowly slipping into the personal hell that would take her life just ten years later. This was one of her last Decca sessions before turning to Granz's stable.
Someone at Decca must have had a vested interest in the musical Sugar Hill because both Armstrong-and-Holiday songs came from the score, composed by James P. Johnson and Flournoy Miller. Up first was "You Can't Lose a Broken Heart."
It might not be one for the time capsule, but it's still a fun meeting between giants. On a personal note, this song means a lot to me because it was on a compilation, Highlights from His Decca Years (with great notes by my future friend, Loren Schoenberg), that was one of my earliest Armstrong purchases. This was my first run-in with Holiday and she knocked me out (I think I might have every studio and live recording she ever did....Pops is the gateway!).
She's up first on this one, sounding in good voice, though maybe a little bored (nice backing from Billy Kyle). One thing that's fun is to listen to her phrasing; so much Louis in there (listen to the way she sings "you" in "you'll regret" and how she sings "you'll upset your apple cart on a single pitch). She comes alive towards the end, but Louis almost steamrolls her with one of his greatest entrances: "Look out, don't lose your head," all sung on a string of insistent quarter notes (Kyle senses what's going on and joins him briefly). Louis sings it charmingly with a great obbligato by Priven, but the next thing you know, Armstrong takes a scat break, a strong-sounding Holiday chimes in to repeat the last line....and it's over! The first Louis Armstrong-Billie Holiday duet recording features their voices intertwining for exactly four bars. Again, students of singing could probably write a thesis on the similarities and differences in their phrasing on this number, but I don't think it's too much to wish for a little more interaction.
Fortunately, the flip side is nothing but interaction....and for a brief second, a little too much interaction, as we'll explain in a minute. Here's "My Sweet Hunk o' Trash":
A bluesy, muted Privin takes the introduction before Holiday starts singing about everything that's wrong with Louis. That's pretty much the pattern for much of the record, Holiday singing the blues about Armstrong's worthlessness and Pops responding with a series of ad-libbed responses, my favorite being, "What do you want me to do in my idle moments?"
Midway through, Armstrong asks to get a few words in and does so with some passionate blues singing. I don't think "comic singer" is the top accolade that people associate with Lady Day but she's good here, especially her dry line, "I work my fingers down to the elbows." But this is Armstrong's arena and he sounds completely comfortable from start to finish. These days, Tony Bennett's album of duets with Lady Gaga is making headlines (justifiably so; I enjoyed it very much, personally), but it made me think that Louis was really the guy who perfected this. Just think of his duets with Hoagy, Ella, Louis Jordan, Frank Sinatra, Velma, Bing, on and on and on...he elevated every partner he ever shared the stage with (even Gary Crosby).
(Note: breaking news has Barry Manilow releasing a new album next month in which he sings a bunch of duets entirely with dead people, including Louis on "What a Wonderful World." Hoo boy. Louis might have met his match here....stay dead, Pops, stay dead!)
On and on they go, the two legends having a lot of fun with each other. Holiday even delivers a supremely girlish reading of the title at one point, audibly breaking Pops up with belly laughter. All is going well...until Holiday sings, "It makes me mad to wait" and Louis responds with "How come, baby?" Or is it "Fuck 'em, baby?"
The record was issued and apparently the world went mad. Walter Winchell, one of Louis's staunchest supporters, complained about it. The Downbea review read, "On 'Trash,' Louis feels constrained to dish out the same expletive Patricia Norman used some years ago on Eddy Duchin's 'Old Man Mose,' when she worked it into the 'buecket' line. Here it is not only in bad taste, it doesn't even make much sense in the lyric line. And since when does Louis have to use obscenity to sell records?"
The "fuck 'em" controversy was big enough for Gabler to record some poor schmo singing a crystal clear "How" and inserting it into a reprint of the original single. You can hear the edited version here; it makes me laugh every time!
But now, the eternal debate. When I was a student at Rutgers, Dan Morgenstern came in to talk about Louis in one of Lewis Porter's Jazz Historiography courses. Lewis played this for Dan and Dan grew annoyed, saying there's no way Louis would have cursed on a record date, that he was too professional to do so and that it doesn't even make sense. It's clearly supposed to be "How come" because Holiday answers with a "Because" statement. What's good enough for Dan was good enough for me....
...until I met David Ostwald, another of Dan's disciples, but one who likes to trumpet Louis's subversive side. And David told me that trying to sneak in "Fuck 'em" was in line with Louis's mischievous side. I was wary of this theory for years....
And then I heard one of Louis's private tapes, where he bragged about how he sang the title of the 1953 song, "I Can't Afford to Miss this Dream," and how he accented the second word so it turned into the daddy of all curse words without the censors picking up on it.
And then I put together the Mosaic set and clearly heard Louis singing, "Fucker up" instead of "Pucker up" live onstage at the Newport Jazz Festival.
And then I heard some Joe Muranyi audio diaries from the 1960s where he talked about Louis smiling and shouting apparent gibberish onstage, but secretly saying, "Kiss my ass," the entire time.
So after years of coming into contact with that side of Armstrong's persona, I do think it's entirely possible he phrased the "Ho'cum, baby" as he did to maybe make Billie laugh and get one past the powers that be. He did...but he couldn't get it past Walter Winchell.
What do you, loyal readers, think?
Anyway, that's all for the lone Louis Armstrong-Bilie Holiday duet recording, not the greatest moment in either of their careers, but still worth celebrating 65 years later.