65 Years of "La Vie En Rose"

Louis Armstrong with Sy Oliver's Orchestra
Recorded June 26, 1950
Track Time 3: 26
Written by Mack David, Edith Piaf and Louiguy (Louis Gugliemi)
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Melvin Solomon, Bernie Privin, Paul Webster, trumpet; Morton Bullman, trombone; Hymie Schertzer, Milt Yaner, alto saxophone; Art Drelinger, Bill Holcombe, tenor saxohpne; Earl Hines, piano; Everett Barksdale, guitar; George Duvivier, bass; Johnny Blowers, drums; Sy Oliver, arranger, conductor
Originally released on Decca 37113
Currently available on CD: It's on "Satchmo Serenades" and about a thousand compilations.
Available on Itunes? Yes

65 years ago today, Louis Armstrong tapped into his French side by recording two songs he'd perform for the rest of his career: "La Vie En Rose" and "C'est Si Bon." What follows is a slightly updated version of my original 2010 posting on "La Vie En Rose" and I'll be back in a few days with a fresh look at "C'est Si Bon." Enjoy!

For the last couple of decades, "What a Wonderful World" easily wins the title of the most ubiquitous Louis Armstrong recording, being used in a countless amount of films, television commercials and high school reports (just check YouTube). But "La Vie En Rose" is definitely a close second. According to Imdb.com, it's been used in at least eight major motion pictures since 1994, most notably in the Pixar classic "Wall-E," as well as television shows, commercials, you name it. And anyone who has spent three minutes and 26 seconds in its presence can easily understand the phenomenon. You'd have to have the heart of the Tin Man (pre-Oz) to not be moved by it.

Of course, the song truly belongs to Edith Piaf, the legendary French singer who co-wrote it and made it famous to the point where a documentary and a feature film about her life each bear the title "La Vie En Rose." Piaf apparently wrote the song in 1946 and sat on it for a while before she finally gave it a go in public, where it was received tremendously. In 1948, she sang her original French lyrics on a recording that was picked up in the United States by George Avakian of Columbia Records. I'll let George tell the story, as he eloquently did in the liner notes to an Armstrong boxed set on the Hip-O label, "An American Original":

"That same year, Edith Piaf took New York by storm an me by surprise. I was doubling as International and Pop Album director at Columbia in those days, and when Piaf's manager told me she was coming back to New York despite a cool reception the first time 'round, I asked our Paris affiliate to send me samples of her interim releases so that I could try to choose something which might appeal to the American public. I recognized one melody as 'You're Too Dangerous, Cheire,' a failed pop tune I had liked a couple of years earlier. The label said 'La Vie En Rose,' and the impassioned French lyric was far superior to wishy-washy English words I knew. We gave it a shot and to everyone's astonishment but 'Ay-deet's,' it sold a million copies."

For those who aren't familiar with it, hear's Piaf's original French version, courtesy of YouTube:

As of today, multiple YouTube versions have amassed over 20 million views, a testament to the lasting power of Piaf and that song in particular. But who is in second place? Ol' Pops with just over 19 million views himself. As Avakian added, "Of the countless cover versions that followed, Louis' was easily the best, and he never stopped singing it."

So how did Louis ever get around to recording it? The answer is pretty simple: the song was incredibly popular and Decca, Louis's label at the time, was in the habit of having Louis cover other people's hits. Louis had a big seller in 1949 with "Blueberry Hill" and "That Lucky Old Sun" and Decca wasn't about to quit. Though they let the All Stars do their thing from time to time, producer Milt Gabler knew that Louis's manager Joe Glaser only wanted hit records so Gabler consistently had Louis try to piggyback the top of the Hit Parade. Of course, these records drove jazz purists to their ledges, which has led many of them to be ignored to this day. I've attempted to shine the light on some of the lesser-known outings on this blog in, devoting space to records such as "Congratulations to Someone," "Because of You," "I'll Keep the Lovelight Burning" and "Indian Love Call."

Though these are all terrific records, many of them weren't big sellers. But occasionally the formula worked and when it did, stand back. In addition to the aforementioned coupling of "Blueberry Hill" and "That Lucky Old Sun," Decca--and Louis--also struck gold with "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" backed by "I Get Ideas" and the two songs recorded 60 years ago this week, "C'est Si Bon" and "La Vie En Rose." Except for "That Lucky Old Sun," all of these songs became almost permanent parts of Louis's live repertoire.

"C'est Si Bon" is a marvelous song, one truly worthy of a blog of its own so I'm not going to say anything more about it now. "La Vie En Rose" is our main event and without wasting any more space, I'd like to share the audio right now. Prepare to be melted...

Now didn't that feel good? Did all your troubles go away for three minutes? I know mine did. The power of Pops, right? It's a tremendous record because it allows Louis to exhibit some of his many wondrous talents, from the quiet, lyrical, hit-you-in-the-gut melody statement, the absolute warmth of the vocal and the operatic drama of the final trumpet reprise, ending on that unbelievable high D. Really, who else could do it all?

(Quick side tangent: the other day marked the six-year passing of Michael Jackson. I can't deny Jackson's brilliance but I actually read stories, such as one in "The Atlantic" that called him "the most influential artist of the 20th century." These kinds of articles--"Jackson's the best!" "No, Elvis is the best!" "No, Sinatra is the best!"--are always silly but this one mentioned Louis, giving him credit for "inventing jazz" (?) and adapting his art "for records and radio." Yep, that's it. Ho hum. Never mind that he created the musical language for just about everything that followed him and that he had arguably equal impact as an instrumentalist AND a singer. And just records and radio? What about 30 films? Countless television appearances? The man wrote two books, was on the cover of "Time" magazine in 1949, was the subject of an Edward R. Murrow feature documentary, knocked the Beatles of the charts, stopped a war in Africa....should I keep going? But never mind those accomplishments, as lofty as they are. All it really boils down to, to me, is the playing AND the singing. To play that melody so tenderly on "La Vie En Rose," then open his mouth and sing with such warmth and feeling, I'm sorry, nobody else could do that.)

Aside from Louis's gigantic offering, the Decca recording of "La Vie En Rose" also benefits from Sy Oliver's arrangement, which is remarkably simple, yet totally appropriate to the mood, with its repeated bass line and accent on every fourth beat. Even the alternating reeds and brass behind the vocal adds some gentle charm. Also, props go to Earl "Fatha" Hines, who I have beaten up in the past for his failure to listen to his surroundings and play obtrusively. Here, from his opening glisses onward, he makes his presence felt but does so with plenty of taste, his offerings a special part of the song's magic.

"La Vie En Rose" almost immediately entered the All Stars's live repertoire. In face, a broadcast performance survives from Bop City in New York with the date "late June 1950." The studio recording was made June 26, itself pretty late, so this might have been just hours or mere days after the wax was dry on the studio version. It's an interesting performance because the band is still a little tentative. Even more interesting is the key is different, starting in Bb and modulating into Eb, where the record started in C and modulated to F. Maybe Louis realized that he could nail that closing solo in a studio session but as part of a 2 1/2 hour show with so much other blowing? That could have been much. (Thanks to the great trumpeter Menno Daams for catching this!) For one thing, at Bop City, Louis doesn't take his opening trumpet solo, which is missed. Also, he botches two lyrics, singing "Hold me tight" instead of "Hold me close" and later singing, "And when you speak, heaven sings from above" instead of "angels sing from above." The closing trumpet solo is fine but the rest of the band sounds a little empty. Could this be their first public run-through? Give this fascinating rarity a listen:

By the fall of 1950, "La Vie En Rose" had proved to be a big seller and became something Louis began featuring on television and radio appearances. Here's another unissued treasure, courtesy of my late friend Gosta Hagglof, Louis on Kay Kyser's NBC television show on November 9, 1950, featuring a slightly different version of Sy Oliver's great arrangement, though back in the original higher key:

Interesting, huh? Louis doesn't play any horn at the start but otherwise, it's exactly the same Oliver arrangement as the Decca recording until Louis does pick up the trumpet. At that point, it heads off into a surprising direction with Louis taking a full, dramatic chorus. Louis starts off high and never comes down, playing the melody and offering variations all in the upper register, a terrific display of endurance but one he never again repeated.

About two months later, Louis performed the tune on Bing Crosby's radio show. I've included Louis and Bing's original kidding around from the introduction but Louis is all business during the performance. Here 'tis:

Did you notice Louis get a little turned around after the vocal? He picks up his horn and seems a little confused by the arrangement as he plays his signature two-pitch riff three times instead of two. But he soon hears where the band is and immediately makes amends before anyone notices and still makes it up to that final trumpet high C. Quick thinking.

But did you notice something else about this performance? After alternating between keys on the Bop City and Kay Kyser versions, beginning with that Crosby version, Armstrong lowered the key for all future versions of "La Vie En Rose," starting in Bb and modulating into Eb. (Thanks, Phil Person for alerting me to this the first time around!)

That'll take care of our television and radio versions but I don't want to forget the All Stars. When we last left them, they were tentatively performing it for possibly the first time at Bop City in June 1950. By January 1951, they had a better grasp on the tune, as heard on this performance from a concert/dance in Vancouver, Canada:

Great stuff. As can be heard, Louis finally gets to play his opening chorus of tender melody and it's a doozy. Clarinetist Barney Bigard and trombonist Jack Teagarden offer snatches of countmelodies but also team up for some arranged harmonizing to support Pops. Hines still does his opening runs but disappears for most of the rest of the performance. Louis's passion calls everyone home at the end but the other All Stars still seem to be going through the motions a wee bit. That was, alas, a fault of this edition, even though most people assume the Teagarden-Hines-Bigard band was the Super Group.

No, that distinction belongs to the mid-50s version with Trummy Young and Edmond Hall in the front line, Billy Kyle on piano, a revolving bassist and either Barrett Deems or Danny Barcelona on drums. Fortunately, a couple of versions survive from this period and I'd like to share one now from the Orpheum Theatre in Seattle from September 7, 1957:

Now that's more like it. Hall and Young's support is more cohesive than that of Bigard and Teagarden; they've clearly worked out the routine. That goes for Louis, too, whose opening statement has been honed to perfection. But just grab on to your chair after the vocal. Trummy steps up to the mike and really pours everything into the melody, drummer Barrett Deems starts laying down a sledgehammer backbeat, the crowd goes wild and Pops picks up his horn and proceeds to give everyone within listening distance the chills. A terrific version.

That version was slow but it still had the teeniest hint of a bounce, an ever-so-slight foot-pattin' tempo that just managed to keep everything swinging. Most of the times, when a band plays the same song night after night, year after year, it tends to speed up. With Louis, just check out "My Bucket's Got a Hole In It," "Mack the Knife" "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" and "Someday You'll Be Sorry" to see what I mean, especially in the 1950s.

But as the 1960s dawned, something happened. First, I think Louis began to see his lip give in ever so slightly. Though he played magnificently until at least 1965, certain one-time staples such as "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "Lazy River" and others began getting phased out. And interestingly, around the same time, Louis began SLOWING down numbers such as "Mack the Knife," the "Saints" and "Now You Has Jazz." And incredibly, "La Vie En Rose" was affected by this slowing down period in Pops's career.

That might sound hard to believe but for exhibit A, I'd like to share perhaps my second all-time favorite version (after the Decca original) from a Chicago concert in late 1962. This is the last "La Vie En Rose" to have survived but what a killer rendition to go out on. Somehow, the tempo has slowed to the point where there's almost no tempo. I've made a lot about Pops's ability to navigate superfast paces ("Tiger Rag" anyone?) but he also had such command of rhythm that he was perfectly comfortable at a tempo that could only be described as a crawl. My good friend trumpeter Phil Person has pointed this out to me, specifically using "La Vie En Rose" as an example. Louis just likes the tempo there and thrives from it. And give credit to the rest of the All Stars for keeping it afloat; as many musicians can attest, it's easier to play fast than to play slow. And this slow? Jesus...

Here's the audio:

Isn't that something else? That version is almost a full minute longer than the one we just heard from Seattle. Again, Louis and the All Stars (now with Joe Darensbourg on clarinet, Billy Kronk on bass and Danny Barcelona on drums) are tight as can be; the little slide Louis and Trummy play together after the first bridge is just plain delightful. The vocal is just as warm as ever while the final trumpet solo is still triumphant, 61 Louis shooting out the lights on a song he had been playing for 11 years, infusing it with the same artistry and passion as he had from that very first Decca version. That's artistry, my friends.

And I'd like to close with a video, if you don't mind. I mentioned "Wall-E" earlier, a film I found absolutely delightful. I won't go into plot details or anything other than to say it's a love story between two robots told almost entirely silently in a seemingly post-apocalyptic world. Yeah, I know, that doesn't sound like much but it charmed the pants off me. And when the title character becomes smitten with another robot named Eva, it's time for a montage that's equal parts funny and charming. And what's used on the soundtrack? The Decca "La Vie En Rose." It's a perfect fit. (And since I wrote this in 2010, my daughters--now 6 and 4--have fallen in love with this scene and always have to yell, "Louie!" every time they hear this song.) So I'll close with a YouTube video of this scene. Here's to 60 years of Louis Armstrong's "La Vie En Rose." Now pick up the phone and tell someone you love them...


Several weeks ago, I was sitting in a NYC Korean restaurant, an hour too early, waiting for the music to begin. In the darkness. The waitperson had come by, left a menu. Then LA VIE EN ROSE came on, and I was so moved -- as I always am! -- so that when she came back to ask what I wanted to order, I was nearly in tears and I couldn't speak. That emotional power never dies! Angels indeed.
Unknown said…
Wonderful to hear these different versions of La Vie en Rose. A minor quibble though: the Bop City broadcast from June 1950 is also in the keys of B flat and E flat and predates the Crosby version. Best, Menno
Ricky Riccardi said…
Ah, you're right, Menno! I just fixed it and gave you credit. Thanks!

Yours in Pops,


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