65 Years of That Lucky Old Sun and Blueberry Hill

Louis Armstrong hated the word "commercial." When a disc jockey made the mistake of introducing one of Armstrong's early 1950s recordings as "a commercial approach," Armstrong stopped him dead, saying, "You take a guy that wants to be hip to the tip and he say, 'That guy's commercial,' you know, you're about calling that guy a dirty name, in a way f saying. Why don't you say just 'a good musician' or 'a good swing man' or 'someone that plays music, period'? A musician ain't supposed to just play one type f music. When they ask me, say, 'Why do you play "Cold, Cold, Heart," why do you play this?' I play anything where I come from."

But by the time of that 1952 exchange, cries over Armstrong having "gone commercial" had been ringing in his ears for decades. To some, the moment occurred when he stopped recording blues and New Orleans jazz with the Hot Five and started recording pop tunes with a big band. To others, it was the late 1930s Decca years, finding him recording with choirs, Hawaiian bands and other eclectic combinations, all while supporting star turns on the silver screen in films with the likes of Bing Crosby and Mae West.

Yet there's one date that all of the "commercial" naysayers could (and can still) point to as a red letter day in the supposed commerification (did dat come outta me?) of Louis Armstrong: September 6,  1949, the day he recorded "That Lucky Old Sun" and "Blueberry Hill" for Decca.....backed by Gordon Jenkins's Orchestra.....and a choir.....and without playing a single note of trumpet.

The fact that the resulting record was one of Armstrong's biggest sellers (and just a tremendous example of his singing abilities) doesn't mean a thing in some circles. They see Louis Armstrong, the trailblazer who blew the glorious cadenza on "West End Blues" in 1928, and Louis Armstrong, the gentle singer simply crooner a couple of pop tunes in 1949, as two completely different human beings. On top of that, they value the first one more than the second.

I've argued against this line of thinking for years. Hell, I wrote a book on it. There was only Louis Armstrong. The same guy who recorded "West End Blues" in 1928 also recorded lots of novelties and spent his time on stage playing pop songs, singing through a megaphone, dancing the mess around, impersonating a preacher and doing routines in drag. And the guy who crooned "Blueberry Hill" in 1949 was also playing blistering trumpet 300 nights a year with the All Stars, as evidenced in the recent Mosaic set. One guy with one total goal in mind: entertaining his audiences.

In Danny Barker's autobiography, My Life in Jazz, he writes about working at the New Orleans Jazz Museum in the 1960s and the various types of visitors who came in, armed with their opinions. "Then, before Louis Armstrong's death, there were the many who came in, looked at the Armstrong horn and Louis's historical dates before shouting, 'Armstrong is finished-playing all that commercial crap. He didn't have to do that. He clowns too damn much." Barker's next line is perfect: "I stayed clear of them because it was obvious they never did dig Louis." Yes! If you didn't get that he was ALWAYS clowning and ALWAYS singing pop tunes, you really never did dig Louis.

So with the thesis out of the way, let's look at how Pops ended up at that Decca studio with these two songs 65 years ago today. Armstrong had a very successful run at Decca Records from 1935-1946, but by the final few years of the contract, he barely recorded anything at all. The recording ban shut him down for most of 1942 and all of 1943 and producer Milt Gabler rejected the numbers he recorded for the label in 1944. "I Wonder" became a big hit in 1945 but that was the only thing Armstrong recorded that year. He started off 1946 with his first duet with labelmate Ella Fitzgerald, but his manager, Joe Glaser, was looking for a change.

Later that year, RCA Victor swooped in and signed an exclusive contract with Louis, recording his big band multiple times in 1946 and early 1947 and eventually recording the first two small-group sessions by Armstrong's brand-new All Stars, as well as releasing an album of selected tracks from the famous Town Hall concert of May 17, 1947. There's some really fine items during this RCA period--but not a single one scratched the charts. What's more, a recording ban at the end of 1947 would keep Louis out of the studios in 1949.

It didn't really matter because the All Stars were packing them in nightly and starting to conquer Europe. But every artist likes a hit record and more than that, every artist's manager, REALLY likes a hit record.  So in 1949, Glaser negotiated a five-year contract to return to Decca with Milt Gabler overseeing Armstrong's recordings on a full-time basis. This was a very smart decision. Coming from his days running Commodore Records, Gabler loved no-frills jazz and made sure the All Stars got featured on albums like Satchmo at Symphony Hall, New Orleans Days, Satchmo at Pasadena and Jazz Concert.

But Gabler also had a gift for identifying sounds that would appeal to the general public. With Armstrong back in the fold, Gabler made it his business to scour the pop music charts, look for songs that had enough meat for Armstrong to sink his teeth into, then stand back while Armstrong made each song his own, backed by studio orchestras. Armstrong was happy, Gabler was happy and most of all, Glaser was happy. "Glaser never asked to see the material," Gabler recalled. "He used to say, 'Give him a Top Ten hit!' That's what he wanted."

The great experiment began on September 1, 1949. Gabler had Sy Oliver put together a band (with Buck Clayton, Budd Johnson, Horace Henderson, Wallace Bishop, etc.) and arrangements for two current pop hits, Patti Page's I'll Keep the Lovelight Burning in My Heart and Dick Haymes's "Maybe It's Because." The results were very good (I especially love "Lovelight"...click the link for an old blog entry on it) but again, the results were far from being a hit.

So on September 6, 1949, Gabler brought in the big guns: arranger Gordon Jenkins, a choir and the biggest hit in the country, "That Lucky Old Sun." Jenkins was really hitting his stride in those days, composing songs like "Goodbye" and the popular Manhattan Tower suite, as well as being in demand as an arranger. "Everyone wanted to work with Gordy, and as you look back, he was making history back then," Gabler said. "He's the one who brought background vocals into combination with musicians. The Armstrong sessions really typified that."

For this date, Jenkins did not have his signature strings on hand, but he did have a choir, which he wanted to weave into the arrangements. And as already mentioned, Louis got to leave his trumpet at home as Jenkins and Gabler just wanted to concentrate on his singing. (Two top trumpet men were on hand in the band in Billy Butterfield and Yank Lawson; a coin flip decided that Butterfield would handle the Armstrong-esque obbligatos.)

The "A-side" of the record would be "That Lucky Old Sun." Frankie Laine, then at the height of his popularity, had the big hit with this sentimental old to the working man, hitting Billboard's charts on August 19 and staying there for 22 weeks, hitting number one during the run. Here's his original recording:

Laine delivers a characteristically emotional vocal with his unique deliver ("Good lord above, can'cha know I'm pinin'...."), building up to the big climax at the end of the bridge into the belted ending. It's pretty hard to resist. But also notice the prominence of the choir, integrated into the arrangement, doing more than just "oohing" and "ahhing" in the background. That's probably the sound that told Gabler and Jenkins to stick with voices behind Pops instead of strings.

At the Armstrong session, Jenkins was overwhelmed with emotion to be working wit his hero. "I cracked up," he said. "I walked into the studio, looked over there, saw Louis and broke down. Cried so hard I couldn't even see him." With the tears out of the way, Jenkins lifted his baton and conducted Armstrong through an emotional version of the song. Here is Louis Armstrong's "That Lucky Old Sun."

Chills. I get the chills every time I hear. Jenkins's intro with the somber choir and repeated low clarinet sets the mood. Then it begins. Your first thought might be, "Whoa, is that Louis singing?" People love to impersonate his deep gravely voice but he was most comfortable singing at a tenor range. Still, Jenkins starts him off as low as he can go, a low C. At the end of the bridge, he hits a D over an octave higher. Impersonate his "funny" voice as much as you want. The man could sing and had an impressive range.

Then there's the lyrics. "Up in the morning...out on the job...work like the devil for my pay." Now if that's not autobiography, I don't know what is. (Hmm, with the later "toil for my kids," it works for me, too!) Louis sings with so much passion because, as he often said, he liked to "see the life of a song." He lived the life of this one so he didn't have to look far.

Notice how Jenkins uses the voices like he would his signature strings, swooping in around Pops after each eight bar section. They swell underneath him during the passionate bridge--notice the absolute lack of gravel in his voice, too. Armstrong ends the bridge with that high D, before swooping way down low for the last eight bars. The choir takes the bridge with Butterfield sounding a few Armstrong-esque notes.

Louis re-enters with a soulful "Mmmm." All soul. The vibrato on it and the following "river" are reminiscent of his own trumpet playing. Extra points go to Bernie Leighton's tasteful piano fills and the steady, unobtrusive drumming of Johnny Blowers.

Finally, we get to the lovely extended ending, the choir repeating "Heaven, heaven, heaven" while Louis--audibly smiling--answers them. He then goes way down low for that final "day," once again the C, hitting aand it holding it while the choir and voices swell around him. Like I said, I get the chills every time.

The hardened jazz fans might have blanched, but the record-buying public went for it in a big way. The November 12, 1949 issue of Billboard gave it a high rating of 88 and wrote, "A standout Armstrong vocal and the usual smart Gordon Jenkins production backing makes this an excellent entry in the 'Sun' stakes." The record eventually hit #24 on the pop charts but scanning back issues of Billboard on Google shows how it remained on the list of most popular disc jockey and jukebox discs for years, Jet estimating it had sold over 300,000 copies by 1951.

Then again, perhaps "That Lucky Old Sun" wasn't the only reason the record took off; it had a lot of help from the flip side: "Blueberry Hill." In fact, for all of its popularity, "That Lucky Old Sun" never entered the All Stars' repertoire. There's one surviving live version from the Apollo Theater in late 1949 and once again, it features Louis backed by a choir (on one of his tapes, he mentions that Velma Middleton's mother was in it). Perhaps he felt like it needed the choir for full effect. Here's the live version, with a different vocal arrangement and some prominent trombone, quite possibly by Jack Teagarden:

That's all for "That Lucky Old Sun" and Louis Armstrong. But "Blueberry Hill"....that's a different story. Once Louis began singing this one live, he never stopped, telling the BBC as late as 1968 that it was still his most requested number and people responded to it like they did the "National Anthem."

But the question remains: why the hell was Louis Armstrong recording "Blueberry Hill," a song written in 1940, in 1949?? It wasn't on the Hit Parade. No one had seemingly recorded it for years. The excellent Gordon Jenkins biography Goodbye states Louis suggested it, which is possible, but I've never seen that anywhere else. I assume Milt Gabler was familiar with the original recordings by Gene Autry and Glenn Miller and thought it would be appropriate for Pops. He was right.

If you only know Louis's version or Fats Domino's later hit, check out Gene Autry's 1941 take....it's right in the wheelhouse of "The Singing Cowboy,"a charming country ballad without any of the later jazz or R&B connotations:

"Blueberry Hill" was recorded multiple times in 1940 and 1941 but the biggest hit was by Glenn Miller. Here it is, a sweet big band arrangement at a suitable ballad-with-a-bounce tempo:
But after those early versions, I can't find any other covers of it between 1941 and Pops's version in 1949. Such a strange choice but talk about paying off on a gamble!

Armstrong sure appreciated the choice. Later in life, when people would get on him for "going commercial," Armstrong argued back, "But all songs display my life somewhere, and you got to be thinking and feeling about something as you watch them notes and phrase that music--got to see the life of the song. 'Blueberry Hill,' that could be some chick I ain't seen for twenty years--which chick, who cares?...And I think of that, even if the songs is so commercified."

Jenkins doubled down on tying "Blueberry Hill" into the trumpeter's life. concocting an entire second chorus of special lyrics from Armstrong's vantage point, beginning with, "Come climb the hill with me, baby / we'll see what we will see / I'll bring my horn with me." As Jenkins's special lyrics continued, they originally ended with, "Each afternoon we'll go / Higher than the moon we'll go / Then to a saloon we'll go." But according to Gabler, the sensors made them change the "saloon" line. Gabler suggested, "To a wedding in June we'll go," but always regretted it, saying in Goodbye, "Every time I hear it, I think about the time I loused up Gordon's great lyric."

With the arrangement set, the lyrics in place and Butterfield the winner of that coin toss with Jenkins, the stage was set for one of the most enduring recordings of Armstrong's entire career:

Interestingly, I was at the Detroit Jazz Festival last week and this record came up during a panel discussion with Wendell Brunious, Marcus Belgrave and myself. Wendell instructed the audience to go home and listen to it that evening because Louis just sang it so beautifully. He's right. I hope you all took the time to listen to that, even if you've heard it two thousand times. Listen again.

The tempo swings lightly, faster than later versions. Louis again sounds crystal clear, sticking to the melody closely during the entire first chorus. Butterfield's muted obbligato is also spot on. After the choir takes the bridge, Armstrong with more melody and nice vibrato. Then the voices sing the melody while Louis answers them with Jenkins's special lyrics, now rephrasing the melody sweetly and finally bursting out with a well-timed bit of scat after Gabler's "wedding in June" line. Louis sings the bridge this time then swings out the last eight, first repeated the lyrics on a single pitch, gradually adding in responsive bits of scat and finally shouting and scatting a bit high note at the end. Bravo.

Armstrong frequently talked about the end of the record and how the lead female singer belted out a high G at the end. Again, to the critics, Jenkins's choir was a sure-fire sign of commercialism but to Armstrong, that final G--and really the work of the choir during the entire session--brought him right back to his days of going to church with his mother Mayann in New Orleans. "The life of a song"....

Billboard once again approved, writing, "The Armstrong-Jenkins combination projects a standout ballad of some years back with feeling and charm."  By January 14, 1950, Armstrong was featuring it during an appearance on Bing Crosby's Chesterfield Show as a duet with Papa Bing. It proved to be such a hit, they reprised it on Bing's December 14th show later that year. Here's Louis and Bing's take:
But here's a funny thing: after recording it on September 6, 1949, there are no surviving examples of the All Stars playing the tune until February 1, 1952, and even that's not the full band. On that date, Pops played Kitsilano High School in Vancouver, bringing along All Stars Russ Phillips, Joe Sullivan, Dale Jones, Cozy Cole and Velma Middleton (no Barney Bigard) and sitting in with some musicians from the high school. The song might have been almost 2 1/2 years old but listen to the reaction of the audience; this is a HIT record:

Finally, the next night, with Barney back, the All Stars performed their usual routine on it at the Palomar Supper Club in Vancouver. Alas, this was one of the weakest editions of the All Stars, specifically the rhythm section. Pianist Joe Sullivan meanders too much during the introduction, bassist Dale Jones hits a few clams and drummer Cozy Cole's time isn't quite steady as a rock. But I do admire trombonist Russ Phillips's lovely obbligato on both Vancouver versions:

As you might imagine, I have more versions of "Blueberry Hill" than I can count. Seriously, it's a lot. And as beautiful as Pops sang it, he rarely changed the routine, so there's no reason to share a hundred versions. But a few must be shared, plus videos are always a good idea, so we must press on.

On July 14, 1956, the All Stars found themselves at Lewisohn Stadium, rehearsing for a big gettogether with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. After rehearsing with the orchestra, Columbia Records producer George Avakian saw an opening and held an impromptu recording session in the afternoon, getting multiple takes of "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," "Mahogany Hall Stomp," "Blueberry Hill" and "Mack the Knife." All of this--and more--can be heard on a certain new boxed set on the Mosaic Records imprint....

Anyway, by this point, "Blueberry Hill" strangely had dropped from being an every night staple of the All Stars' act. Avakian had recorded a lot in Europe but didn't have a version of "Blueberry Hill" he could release (he got one in Amsterdam but Louis introduced it as his "Decca recording" and that was forbidden on the Columbia label). So George called for "Blueberry Hill" and Louis obliged, telling Billy Kyle to "jump it like we used to." They did and the result, as heard for the first time on the Mosaic set, is a flawless version of the routine.

But George wasn't satisfied. Could Louis blow a little on it? He hadn't ever done so but why not. Takes 2, 3 and 4 survive but were not included on the Mosaic set because each was a breakdown, with Louis hitting light fluffs each time as he felt his way around the melody. Nothing egregious, but very cautious playing. If my memory serves me, he almost made it through a full chorus on take 4, but I think Trummy Young might have botched it. Anyway, on the fifth go around--with a small audience gathered--Louis, with his mute in, played a full chorus in his inimitable way. Listen for how he phrases it just like his vocal in the last eight bars, as well as Billy Kyle's excellent, echoing fills:

Fantastic, still my favorite version of the tune. It was even issued as a single on the Phillips label, but that would be it: except for a short interlude on a 1965 version during an episode of The Hollywood Palace, Louis Armstrong would never again blow a note of trumpet on "Blueberry Hill." Clearly, the song had a purpose in giving Pops's chops a little rest in the middle of each night of fierce blowing and he didn't want to mess with it--nor did he need to.

Interestingly, later that same year of 1956, Armstrong's original 1949 Decca version ended up back on the pop charts. Why? Because that fall, another New Orleans native, Fats Domino, recorded this version of the song:

Yep, it's a classic and was a huge hit in Domino's career. In fact, today, more people probably associate "Blueberry Hill" with Domino than Armstrong (arguable, of course, when you factor in Armstrong's international popularity; Vladamir Putin, of all people, showed he was more familiar with Armstrong's take on it when he covered the Gordon Jenkins arrangement a few years ago!). Anyway, Decca rushed out a single of Armstrong's original version and it at least charted, even if it didn't touch Domino's version.

One would think that this would have caused Armstrong to make sure "Blueberry Hill" was an integral part of every show....but it didn't....maybe. There's a lot of Armstrong shows that survive from 1957, '58 and '59 and in all three of those years, exactly two of those shows featured the song. Again, this is not scientific; hundreds of shows do not survive and Trummy Young for one, said he never forgot the endless routine of "Sleepy Time" followed by "Indiana" followed by "Blueberry Hill." But he sure didn't play it at Newport from 1955-1958 and the heavily recorded 1959 European tour features zero versions.

And then came the heart attack. In June 1959, Pops was stricken ill while in Spoleto, Italy. He rushed back to work to prove he could still do it--and he did, as some of the most spectacular blowing of his career occurred between 1959 and 1961. But he also made concessions: no more grandstanding on "Tiger Rag," no more three-chrouses of trumpet playing during the rideout to "When the Saints Go Marchin' In"...and a LOT more "Blueberry Hill."

In fact, from 1960-1971, it's almost impossible to find a Louis Armstrong show where he doesn't perform "Blueberry Hill." They're all great. But again, super similar. So here's my two favorite versions from the 1960s. The first is from the 1964 Kapp album Hello, Dolly!, a quickie recorded in April of 1964 to cash in on the song that was about to hit number one on the pop charts. I sometimes get the feeling that this album gets taken for granted but I really love it. For one thing, Armstrong revisited a lot of old favorites and after years of performing these things night after night, really turned in definitive treatments of songs such as "Someday You'll Be Sorry," "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" and this delightful remake of "Blueberry Hill." That Russell "Big Chief" Moore on trombone and Joe Darensbourg on clarinet. The strings and rhythm guitar are also a nice touch. Check it out:

And I think we're overdue for a video, huh? If you go to YouTube and search for Louis Armstrong and "Blueberry Hill," you'll have plenty of great choices, including a touching one from a BBC TV show done in July 1968, the same time Louis said that this song was the most popular one he performed--which is saying a lot considering this was after "Hello, Dolly!" and during the time "What a Wonderful World" was a hit in England. But for now, let's go back a few years and watch him tell a story at a deliciously slow tempo in East Berlin, March 22, 1965:

After Louis got sick in the late 1960s and had to take some time off, he came back in the summer of 1970 just in time to celebrate what he believed to be his 70th birthday. Versions survive from the Shrine in Los Angeles and the Newport Jazz Festival but they're rough because though Armstrong was surrounded with top-flight musicians, they didn't know the All Stars' routine and it leads to some shaky moments, especially at the Shrine. Eventually he got his band back and eventually the old routine came back with them, but Pops's final act wasn't to be a very long one.

We'll end our journey in 1971, shortly before the end, with Louis appearing on the February 10 episode of The David Frost Show. Bing Crosby was the other main guest. Louis and Papa Bing had a ball reminiscing before they decided to reprise their old radio show duet on "Blueberry Hill." Something was different after 20 years, though: Louis had performed the song roughly 5,000 times but Bing probably hadn't done it once. Thus, you'll hear Bing really searching for the lyrics at times, asking Louis to give him some hints along the way. The ending is hilarious, though, when Bing attempts to end it during Armstrong's patented scat ending, causing Louis to interrupt him by shouting, "I ain't over that hill yet, Daddy!"

So quick-witted, so hilarious, so warm, right to the very end. Alas, after Louis died, "Blueberry Hill" became one of the poisonous numbers critics used to attack his legacy, Gunther Schuller specifically citing it when needed an example of Armstrong "scratching out a living as a good-natured buffoon." But if you got anything from this post, it's that Louis truly loved both of these songs because he understood "the life of them." And like everything else he did, he was 100% real in everything he did.


sunman said…
Great post as usual Ricky.
Lemonlymelon said…
What a wonderful post! Thank you, Ricky. I enjoyed this :)
I rarely read texts this long on the internet, but I always make exception for this blog

ps I'm not sure, but I think you might have forgotten to put Frankie Laine's version of "That Lucky Old Sun"
Ricky Riccardi said…
Fixed, Zan! Thanks!

Dave said…
Louis' performance at Kitsilano High School has to be THE most thrilling version of Blueberry Hill I know.

There is 'something different' about his performing before an auditorium packed with teenagers; we know that he loved children of all ages.

He sounds excited and energized to be with them, and their screams testify to a mutual feeling. Difficult to explain, but he just sounds more 'into' the song here.

We will never know whether these three minutes recalled his childhood Sanctified Church singing sessions while a very young boy, but if so we can be ever appreciative.

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