Bessie Smith Meets Louis Armstrong: 90 Years Later

Five classics in one session.

Just let that sink in for a minute. Many artists are lucky to record five classics in one lifetime. But 90 years ago today, on January 14, 1925, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and Fred Longshaw met in Columbia Record's New York recording studio and waxed five classics. Not a dud in the bunch. Nothing that can even be described as a "throwaway" or "lesser."

Five recordings. All classics.

Granted, Smith and Armstrong had unusually high batting averages throughout their careers so it's not entirely fathomable. But even their later meeting in May 1925 didn't produce the kind of time capsule classics as the January date. That kind of magic only comes around once in a great while and we should be truly thankful that it happened in front of an acoustic recording device.

This blog is about Louis Armstrong (hell, my life is about Louis Armstrong), so it's easy for me to talk about Louis, Louis, Louis. But we must remember that at the time of this session, Louis hadn't recorded a single song under his own name. If you were in Chicago and saw him with King Oliver at the Lincoln Gardens, you knew who he was. And if you were in New York and saw him stand up and swing out hot choruses with Fletcher Henderson at the Roseland Ballroom, you knew who he was. But still, you might not have even known his name.

And if you were a record collector, maybe you marveled at the cornet breaks on King Oliver's "Tears" or the daring solo on Fletcher Henderson's "Go Long Mule" but did you know who was playing them? Musicians did; they talked. But for all the immortal work Louis was turning out live and in the studio those days (see my last entry on what he managed to turn out less than a week before the Bessie Smith sessions), who else really knew who he was? Just an incredibly talented sideman.

But Bessie Smith? She was BESSIE SMITH. After Mamie Smith (no relation) started the "blues craze" with her recording of "Crazy Blues" in 1920, record companies were looking for as much blues as they could (even if it wasn't the standard 12-bar variety; just stick the word "blues" at the end of almost any title and voila: instant blues!). Bessie's entire story will never be told better than what Chris Albertson did in his book, Bessie, so there's no need to go into too much of her backstory. But do know that her ascent was swift: she began recording in 1923 and by the end of 1924, was being billed as "The Greatest and Highest Salaried Race Star in the World." 

By the time Louis was waiting for her on January 14, 1925, Smith had already cut over 50 sides. She was no stranger to the Fletcher Henderson band, often recording with Henderson on piano and other Henderson musicians such as trombonist Charlie Green and cornetist Joe Smith (whom some have claimed Bessie to have preferred over Louis).

Also on the date was Fred Longshaw, who would man the harmonium for the first two numbers and then move over to his usual piano chair for the remaining three. Longshaw had already recorded with Smith and would continue to do so, sometimes bringing some of his own compositions to the dates (including "Cold in Hand Blues"). Longshaw's harmonium is an interesting choice; the best way to describe it is "wheezing" (looks like I'm not alone; a Google search for "Fred Longshaw wheezing harmonium" brings up 219 results). Besides this date, it's probably best known for being played by Stan Laurel in Laurel and Hardy's Below Zero. But it works, lending a Southern church feel to the proceedings, an environment southerners Smith and Armstrong were quite familiar with.

For the first song recorded, they picked quite possibly the most famous blues of them all, W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues." Though now that I write it like that, I'm sure Bessie Smith's 1925 version vaulted it to the elevated status it is still held in today. The story of how Handy "composed" it (really "borrowing" certain lines and elements he heard and mashing it all together) is quite interesting but can be found elsewhere. After originally being published as "Jogo Blues," it was renamed "St. Louis Blues" and published in 1914. It didn't begin to attract much attention until a few years later, possibly spurred on by Ethel Waters's live performances of it beginning in 1917.

That same year, "St. Louis Blues" was waxed by Ciro's Coon Club Orchestra, a rare recording recently brought to light by Allen Lowe. It's notable for being uptempo and for those strings combining to make some pretty swinging rhythms underneath the fairly inaudible singer:

Most early recorded versions, including ones by James Reese Europe's Hellfighters, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and even a marimba-heaven All Star Trio, kept a medium-to-uptempo rocking feel. In 1920, Marion Harris became the first white female to record it and also one of the first to really slow down the tempo:

On and on I could go. W. C. Handy finally recorded a fairly up version in 1922, the same year that Ted Lewis treated it almost as a stomping march. And then the well runs dry; I can't find mentions of versions cut in 1923 and 1924. So in it's first ten years, it sold a lot of sheet music, was performed by Ethel Waters and others on stage and was responsible for some fine, if not legendary, recordings. Was this really the greatest, most famous, most recorded blues song of them all?

And then Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and Fred Longshaw did this:

There really are no words, 90 years later. I can do my second-by-second breakdown but why bother? It's 3 minutes and 13 seconds of perfection. And it's something you really can't break into sections--"So-and-so takes a solo, watch out for that rideout," etc.- It's three human beings working as one and all we can really do is stand back and marvel.

Still, something has to be said. It only takes a second to realize that these are now the BLUES. The tempo is a crawl; they only get through Handy's multi-strained piece (2 12-bar choruses, a 16-bar minor-keyed "habanera" section and one more 12-bar chorus) a single time. This is sad music, deep music, emotional music. There's a minor-section, but it sure ain't no habanera. No one feels like dancing here.

Smith is a force of nature, slowly and steadily building throughout. In the second "feel like tomorrow" stanza, there's a hint of wistful melancholy to her tone. But when we get to that minor-strain, stand band! The intensity grows, finally building up to the climactic "Nowhere…..NOWHERE." After that, she preaches,  throwing a hint of gravel into the mix as she growls repeatedly in the last 12-bars. Empty out the cliche bucket: a woman possessed, a tour de force. It's all true.

And Louis! He doesn't even solo, but he doesn't have to. Lester Young told George Avakian that he learned how to play those fantastic saxophone obligatos behind Billie Holiday by listening to Louis's 1920s recordings with the blues singers; I'm sure he soaked "St. Louis Blues" in deeply. I almost hesitate to describe this as a "vocal with obbligato"; this is a duet. Louis never steps on her and always knows the perfect phrase for the tiny cracks she leaves open.

There's lots of beautiful touches: Louis's string of repeated Eb's after Smith's first "I hate to see, the evening sun go down"; Armstrong and Longshaw, in perfect harmony, descending two-by-two after the first 12-bar stanza; the quiet harmonies behind Smith's singing in the minor-strain, balanced by the more intense playing every time Smith stops; and perhaps most memorably, the phrase Louis plays at the 2:35 mark, after Smith's first utterance of "blue as I can be" in the final 12-bars. It starts out with two notes, a quick Bb then up to a high Eb, which Armstrong holds, before resolving in tricky, spinning cascade of notes. This has always sounded like a quote to me, or at least a fanfare of sorts; it's definitely classical in nature and more proof, as I wrote about last week, that Louis was listening to more than just New Orleans jazz and blues in this period of his life. This little phrase would go on to have quite a life of its own. Duke Ellington borrowed it and turned it into the opening motif on Barney Bigard's "Clarinet Lament" feature of 1936. At Louis's famous Town Hall concert on May 17, 1947, Jack Teagarden played it at the start of "Back O'Town Blues." Louis owned the RCA Victor 78s and must have liked what he heard, as he started playing it himself on "Back O'Town Blues" not long after (he also owned a ton of Bessie Smith recordings, including test pressings given to him by young George Avakian, so it's possible he influenced himself).

If Smith, Armstrong and Longshaw looked around and said, "Okay, I think that's enough today, let's get something to eat," we'd still be celebrating this anniversary today. What a record.

Fortunately, they weren't done! Far from it. Next up was "Reckless Blues":

Two-for-two! This song was credited to Smith’s husband at the time, Jack Gee, as well as the session’s pianist, Fred Longshaw, but it’s very possible that Smith came up with the words. Because all five songs featured similar tempos, Armstrong changed up the sound of his horn on each performance, opening with the straight mute on “St. Louis Blues,” bringing out the plunger on “Reckless Blues,” playing open horn on “Sobbin’ Hearted Blues” and playing wah-wah style on “Cold In Hand Blues.”

"Reckless Blues" is very similar to "St. Louis Blues": the tempo is way down, Longshaw sticks to the wheezebox and Louis doesn't solo. But like "St. Louis," Armstrong's horn and Smith's voice intertwine so effortlessly, it's incredibly satisfying to just sit down and marvel as it washes over you.

Unlike "St. Louis," there's no minor-strain, just a string of 12-bar-blues choruses. Louis, though perhaps not comfortable with the plunge mute, was not afraid to use it. He opens with some very typical blues phrasing for him, the kind of line he'd play behind Velma Middleton in the All Stars days.

Smith sings with her usual deep emotion, the climax of this one being the way she pleads the word "Daddy" in the last chorus. Here's the lyrics for those who want to sing along:

When I was young, nothin' but a child
When I was young, nothin' but a child
All you men, tried to drive me wild.

Now I am growin' old
Now I am growin' old
And I've got what it takes to get all of you men told.

My mama says I'm reckless, my daddy says I'm wild
My mama says I'm reckless, my daddy says I'm wild
I ain't good lookin' but I'm somebody's angel child.

Daddy, mama wants some lovin'
Daddy, mama wants some huggin'
Darn it pretty papa, mama wants some lovin' I vow
Darn it pretty papa, mama wants some lovin' right now.

I do want to praise Smith's phrasing. "Now I am growin' old" doesn't give her a lot of syllables to stretch over two four-bar repeats, but wrings it for all it's worth. Then she speeds it up for "And I've got what it takes to get all" before slowing down again to finish it off with "of you men told."And like I said, those "Daddy's" just kill me; I could only imagine the reaction they got in live performance.

Longshaw's effective backing is noteworthy for its consistent use of a 1-3-5-b7 "boogie" bass line, which helps push things along with a steady pulse. But It's interesting; Louis played thousands of hours of blues in New Orleans but it wasn't his favorite style. Johnny St. Cyr remembered Louis complaining about being asked to record another blues during the Hot Five sessions, complaining that they all sound alike. And sure enough, he had some stock phrase; after Smith's chorus, he seems to want to do the same two-note descending motif he did on "St. Louis Blues" but he catches himself and turns it into something else.

But my goodness, he was so GOOD at it, especially the obligatos. He really squeezes those blue notes out after the first "Now I am growin' old" (and listen to him quietly go from major to minor right at the chord change in the next four bars) and especially after hearing Smith sing the world "wild"; the second time she says it, he just hits one and makes it cry. Also nice is how he echoes Smith's cries of "Daddy" in the last chorus. Masters, all of them.

Time to listen to the third song of the session, Perry Bradford's "Sobbin' Hearted Blues":

Immediately we hear that Longshaw has switched to piano. He sounds more comfortable, immediately tossing off some tremolos and generally keeping his comping lively, though out of the way.

"Sobbin' Hearted Blues" also gets us out of a strict 12-bar blues form as it opens with an 8-bar verse (I like Armstrong and Longshaw almost vamping until ready):

You treated me wrong, I've treated you right,
I worked for you both day and night!
You bragged to women that I was your fool
So now I've got them Sobbin' Hearted Blues. 

At this point, we're back into 12-bar territory, Smith singing three choruses, opening them with what has become a famous blues strain, one most famously used in 1926's "Trouble in Mind" (Louis was there for that one, too!) among other places:

The sun don't shine in my back door some days
The sun don't shine in my back door some days
It's true I love you but I won't take mean treatments any more.

All I want is your picture, it must be in a frame.
All I want is your picture, it must be in a frame.
When  you go, I can see you just the same!

I'm gonna start walkin', cause I got a wooden pair o' shoes.
I'm gonna start walkin', I got a wooden pair o'shoes,
Gonna keep on walkin' till I lose these Sobbin' Hearted Blues.

Smith's vocal is pretty even-tempered here, sad and doleful but without the intensity of the "Nowhere" of "St. Louis Blues" or the aching of the "Daddy" on "Reckless Blues." It's a sad story and Bessie tells it that way, without any bells or whistles (or melisma!) you might get from today's singers. Louis remains fairly sober, but he gets busier as he goes on, hitting a high note after the first utterance of "It must be in a frame" but staying in the same intensely cool mood of the performance. The little coda is a nice touch. Another great one, if possibly a (small) step down from the first two performances.

But up to this point, we have not heard Louis take a solo. That was about to change on "Cold In Hand Blues":

We're back to songwriters Jack Gee and Fred Longshaw but again, like "Reckless Blues," it was probably a combination of Longshaw and Smith. Like the previous number, Smith sings a scene-setting verse that breaks up the 12-bar chroruses a bit:

I've got a hardworkin' man,
The way he treats me I can't understand;
He works hard every day
And on Saturday throws away his pay!
Now I don't want that man,
Because he's gone Cold in Hand.

And then, the blues:

Now I've tried hard to treat him kind,
I've tried hard to treat him kind,
But it seems to me his love has gone blind.

The man I've got must have lost his mind,
The man I've got must have lost his mind,
The way he treat me, I can't understand.

I'm gonna find myself another man, 
I'm gonna find myself another man,
Because the one I've got has done gone Cold in Hand.

Louis always remembered Smith making up choruses and titles as she went along and this sounds like it might be an example of that; "lost his mind" and "I can't understand" don't exactly rhyme. But regardless, it's another fine Smith vocal. When I listen to Louis's 1920s blues recordings, I have to listen in small doses because sometimes it all starts to sound the same. Also, the singers were sometimes of lesser quality (not to mention the acoustic recordings were also of lesser quality). But Bessie's vocals with Pops are always worth paying attention to.

As for our hero, Armstrong works out his wah-wah style on this performance, something he's generally not known form. In fact, all he literally plays for a good chunk of the beginning of the record are just two notes at a clip, “wah” and “wah.” I think it’s a rather awkward moment for Armstrong. Part of me wonders if perhaps he was getting a little too ornamental on the previous number, “Sobbin’ Hearted Blues.” As I mentioned earlier, it’s always been said that Smith preferred Armstrong’s fellow Henderson trumpeter Joe Smith as an accompanist and perhaps she told Armstrong to tone it down a bit for “Cold In Hand.” Literally, Armstrong only plays one pitch for the first 40 seconds of the record! After that, when Smith reaches the chorus, Armstrong plays like himself, turning in an obbligato with many phrases ripped straight from his customary vocabulary (I’m thinking of the one at the 1:18 mark). Armstrong really gets bluesy around the 1:32 mark, but then he reverts back to repeating notes, hammering the “wah wah” aspect of his playing into the ground. I’m actually glad he eventually got rid of all of his mutes except the straight one, the one which least colored the glorious sound of his open horn.

Thus, at the two-minute mark, we have a wonderful Smith vocal and a fine Armstrong obbligato, though not one of his best ones, at least in my opinion. But then Smith gives him a solo and, though he keeps the mute in, he steals the record. More interestingly, Armstrong’s single chorus would turn up again later in 1925 almost played verbatim on one of the earliest Hot Five records, “Gut Bucket Blues.”  It’s the kind of moment that once again proves the point that many of the early jazzmen worked on their solos and always had certain choruses they could pull out at the drop of a hat. Who knows—this “Cold In Hand”/ “Gut Bucket Blues” solo could have been something Armstrong had been playing since his days in New Orleans. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing because it’s a great solo (and dig Longshaw's backing, too!.

But back to Bessie…she returns for one chorus but now Armstrong is really feeling his oats. The redundant “wah-wahs” from the opening of the record are gone, replaced by startlingly tricky double-timed passages. Again, Armstrong’s execution doesn’t sound 100% comfortable to me because he has to work the mute while he’s playing, but his ideas are limitless. He fills each little space Smith leaves him with more ideas and creativity than some much longer jazz records provide.

With four records in the can, it was time to record the session's final number, and a little something different at that: "You've Been a Good Ole Wagon":

Smith's title of "Empress of the Blues" is indisputable but she could also put over humorous songs with great style, making her a favorite on the vaudeville circuits. "You've Been a Good Ole Wagon" isn't exactly a farce and Smith doesn't indulge in a more "jokey"style as, say, Armstrong would have, but it's still good fun:

Lookee here, Daddy, I wanna tell you, please get out o' my sight,
I'm playin' quits now, right from this very night!
You've had your day, don't stand around and frown,
You've Been a Good Ole Wagon, Daddy, but you done broke down!

Now you better go to the blacksmith's shop and get yourself overhauled
There's nothin' about you to make a good homin' for!
Nobody wants a baby when a real man can be found,
You've Been a Good Ole Wagon, Daddy, but you done broke down!

When the sun is shinin' it's time to make hay,
I've seen the 'mobiles operate, you can't make that wagon pay!
When you were in your prime, you loved to run around,
You've Been a Good Ole Wagon, Daddy, but you done broke down!

There's no need to cry and make a big show,
This man has taught me more about lovin' than you will ever know!
He is the king of lovin', has manners of a crown,
He's a Good Ole Wagon, Daddy, and he ain't broke down!

Good stuff! Smith really sells the double entendre lines in the middle and when she finally drives the final nail in her lover's coffin in the last chorus, she leaves no doubts about her choice. Louis is still in "wah wah" mode but he catches the humorous spirit of the lyrics; some of his fills are quite funny. He seems to laugh "ha ha" after Smith's line about going to the blacksmith's shop to "get yourself overhauled" and he almost lets out a little cry when Smith sings "Nobody wants a baby." He plays more "pretty"  phrases in the third chorus, especially the memorable one after "it's time to make hay" (and dig Fred Longshaw getting a taste after the next line), but the last chorus is almost laugh-out-loud funny. Smith sings "There's no need to cry" and Armstrong full-blown imitates a crying baby, much in the manner of his idol, King Oliver. And when she follows that with, "And make a big show," Louis almost farts out an over done "wah wah" that sounds like a precursor to the "sad trombone" of sitcom and game show fame. Still feeling frisky, Armstrong gets on a repeated kick, doing some fancy fingering on a repeated note, all while working his mute. You know, maybe it wasn't his specialty, but he did know how to work that mute.

Because of the wordiness of the tune, Smith pushes it to the 3:30 brink of a 78, leaving no room for an Armstrong solo. But I'll repeat myself yet again: who cares! These are duets of the highest caliber. Someone should rerecord them with a female singing Smith's choruses and a male scatting Louis's would sound like completely natural, like an Ella and Louis duet of 30 years later (if they sang slow blues instead of the Great American Songbook).

All in a day's work. Five songs, all classics. For Louis, it was back to Fletcher Henderson at night but he'd have one more reunion with Bessie in May of 1925. After the Hot Fives took off, Armstrong put his blues obligato side on ice, but he never lost the knack. You hear it as he backs Velma Middleton on Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy and especially on Middleton's four 1920s blues recreations on Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography. Many critics have complained about those performances, saying Velma was no Bessie Smith. Well, of course she wasn't; who was!? But Velma's Velma and I don't mind her approach, even if it's a little pedestrian. But if you have the time, dig out that set and listen to Louis's obligatos on those four numbers....ON FIRE.

If you're still with me, I'll close with a little bonus. Armstrong clearly had a good time with Bessie, famously saying, "Everything I did with her I LIKE." Albertson also included this Armstrong quote from a 1952 interview, where he said, “Bessie Smith, I think she’s one of the greatest, the madam of the blues, that we are going to get for generations to come.  It’s too bad that she didn’t live a little longer so that the younger generation could at least have heard her in person, you know.” In 1956, Louis hosted a five hourlong broadcasts for the Voice of America, selecting his favorite records and telling stories about each one. He naturally chose "St. Louis Blues" with Bessie and though his memory failed him on Fred Longshaw's name (he calls him Bradshaw), it's still a charming little memory. This is the introduction and then a few seconds of what Louis said after playing the record:

Smith might have died prematurely, but her musical legacy remains strong, as her recordings continue to be reissued on labels such as Colubmia, Frog and JSP. I love all of her work but to me, her peak recordings came when she was matched with one of her equals in the legend department, Louis Armstrong. Listening to Armstrong and Bessie Smith together had a profound effect on both Billie Holiday vocally and Lester Young musically and I think many younger jazz musicians can still learn a lot by listening to those timeless records.

It's been a fun start to the New Year, reliving Pops's triumphs of 1925 but next week we're going to look at one of my favorite live All Stars evenings from 30 years later in 1955. Til then!


Unknown said…
A truly brilliant article about some of the greatest Blues / jazz recordings ever waxed.
Unknown said…
Thank you so much for all your efforts.
I'll never forget the first time I heard Louis, about 1956. I was only a little girl, told to sit in a corner, not move, not make a noise, while my brother played his new record "Ambassador Satch".
It was a case of love at first note.
Louis is the Father of my heart.
Suzanne Altman
baz said…
Classic, of course. In “You've Been a Good Ole Wagon,” I believe the lyric in the second chorus should be “there's nothin' about you to make a good woman fall.” Also on the repeated notes with the mute in that recording, you work the mute in and out over the bell but don't actually change your fingering at all – you match up your tonguing and your movement of the mute to get that effect.

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