Louis Armstrong - The Decca Singles: 1949-1958
[Note: These are my liner notes to Universal's new digital-only release, The Decca Singles: 1949-1958. Without any space limitations, I went overboard, which shouldn't surprise longtime readers. Weighing it at over 50,000 words, it is not ideally set up to be read in this blog format. If you'd like to download and/or print a PDF, I have made one available in Dropbox by clicking http://bit.ly/2hquSK0 and hitting the "Download" button in the upper right corner. Enjoy!]
Louis Armstrong is synonymous with jazz. Jazz is synonymous with Louis Armstrong. No one could argue that and with good reason as Armstrong is indisputably the most influential figure in the history of the genre. In the 1920s, he single-handedly changed the way musicians improvised, perfecting the art of the solo and writing the rules on how one should always “tell a story.” Equally as important, he practically invented the concept of jazz singing in the same period, liberating singers from the shackles of the written melody, showing them how to interpret a song in an original way and popularizing scat singing along the way. And everything he did with both trumpet and voice swung, establishing the rhythmic feeling that some feel is ultimately his greatest contribution since that feeling defined much of the most lasting music of the 20th century.
All of these things were firmly established by the summer of 1929, when Armstrong was just 28-years-old. If he had tragically died at that point, the above paragraph could still be written verbatim and Armstrong would still be the most towering influence in jazz.
But Armstrong was much more than a jazz musician; he was a popular artist and entertainer who appealed not just to jazz aficionados, but rather to anyone who regularly listened to music and liked to have a good time. If you were hip, you loved Louis Armstrong. If you were square, you loved Louis Armstrong. He ultimately transcended the world of jazz--something that world never truly forgave him for.
In fact, some of today’s younger crop of jazz musicians and writers might scoff at Armstrong being called “undisputedly” the most influential figure in jazz; how can that be when every other musician nowadays sounds like John Coltrane? But that’s just in the relatively small realm of jazz. Armstrong’s innovations have been felt in jazz, rock, rhythm and blues, rap and much of the pop music of the last century. Armstrong has never received the credit he deserved as a masterful pop artist, though at almost all times in his career, he was more popular with the general public than in the jazz world. He was the “King of Pop” before Michael Jackson was even born.
Armstrong and Jackson don’t get mentioned together as often as they should. A definitive look at the two was provided by trumpeter Nicholas Payton in his 2012 blogpost, “I Love MJ, but Satchmo was the Original King of Pop.” Payton, the self-proclaimed “Savior of Archaic Pop,” created a stir in 2011 when he denounced the word “jazz” in favor of “Black American Music.” Because he’s not hung up on Armstrong solely a jazz artist, Payton properly places him in a pop context. His entire article should be required reading, but a lengthy excerpt is worthwhile for establishing some context for Armstrong the pop performer, written by one of this century’s finest musicians:
“I love MJ, but I believe Louis Armstrong should be given as much praise, if not more than MJ. Pops was the Original King of Pop. And for clarification, I didn’t flat-out say Pops deserved more praise than MJ, but he is definitely deserving of as much if not more. I’m not discrediting Michael’s accomplishments, I’m just saying Armstrong is the progenitor of the Black, Pop aesthetic. The Black, Pop aesthetic is the American Pop aesthetic….Louis Armstrong was the 1st face of popular Black music, i.e., Pop music, almost 40 years before Michael Jackson was born. I’m not saying Pops was more impactful because he was born before Michael, but because of his specific contributions to the interpretation of the American Popular song….I’m not one for superlatives, but Armstrong’s Hot Five recordings are the most influential records in Pop music. More influential than the Beatles or Michael Jackson put together. On those sides, he developed the whole idea of the virtuoso vocal and instrumental soloist in the Pop idiom. It was his voice that shaped what would become the Popular song….Louis Armstrong was the authentic face of the world’s first Pop aesthetic. He is the architect of the Pop song. Satchmo was the one to galvanize all of these seemingly disparate elements into a singular force of Pop art.”
It was in 1929 that Armstrong began putting his own stamp on pop tunes like “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “When You’re Smiling” and started appearing in front of a brand new audience every night on Broadway, breaking it up with “Ain’t Misbehavin’” in the revue Connie’s Hot Chocolates. Nationwide touring followed, along with his first appearances in the movies. He was greeted as a sensation in Europe during trips in 1932 and 1933, eventually settling there in 1934.
When “The Swing Era” commenced in 1935 (the culmination of the music world catching up with ten years of Armstrong’s innovations), Armstrong returned to the United States and continued to be a popular live attraction, a mainstay on radio and a frequent presence in major motion pictures. But when it came to making records, it was as a pop artist on Jack Kapp’s new budget label, Decca, the label of Bing Crosby, then the biggest star on the planet and an unabashed Armstrong disciple. Armstrong began recording for Decca in 1935 and though he occasionally tested the waters at other labels, it remained his main recording base through 1958. Though Kapp recorded many great jazz artists, his number one goal was to make music for the masses, music that put the melody up front and center. As Maxene Andrews of the Andrews Sisters recalled:
“Decca’s studios in New York City were a long, rectangular room. At the far end was a large picture of an Indian maiden, standing up and holding her hand in the air, as if signaling that she had a question. In the ‘dialogue balloon’ she was asking: ‘Where’s the melody?’ As you were recording at the opposite end, you couldn’t help seeing that question. It was staring you in the face the entire time you were singing. At Decca under Jack Kapp’s insistence, you played and sang the melody, and never mind a whole lot of improvising, or you didn’t record Decca again.”
Such words were anathema to disciples of pure jazz, who thought spontaneous improvisation was the key to the music’s importance and success. Armstrong, though, was a melody man, and he was at home on Decca recording whatever Kapp threw at him, including current love songs like “I’m in the Mood for Love” and “Once in a While,” novelties such as “Old Man Mose” and collaborations with everyone from Sidney Bechet and the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra to the Mills Brothers and Andy Iona and His Polynesians. Kapp even let Armstrong record flagwavers like “Swing That Music” and “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” New Orleans-styled treatments of spirituals “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Bye and Bye” and up-to-date remakes of 1920s specialties such as “West End Blues,” “Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya” and “Our Monday Date.” Armstrong and Decca were a perfect match, especially when one considers Armstrong’s aversion towards placing his music in categories. “We play good music, if it fits any kind,” he told the Voice of America in 1956. “There are no styles. That’s the worst thing in the world. It ruined so many musicians when all these styles come up.” Armstrong’s 1935-46 Decca output proved it was impossible to pigeonhole Armstrong stylistically.
But a new breed of jazz fan, who might have disagreed with Armstrong’s views, cropped up in the 1930s: the hot record collector. These die-hard fans fell in love with the hot jazz of the 1920s, but much of that music was now out-of-print a decade later. Some collectors wanted to do something about this. Two such men later played a great part in shaping Armstrong’s recording career: Milt Gabler and George Avakian. Gabler, the proprietor of the famed Commodore Music Shop in New York City, started his own label, United Hot Clubs of America, in the mid-30s specifically to reissue out-of-print jazz classics, including early Armstrong appearances with King Oliver and a variety of blues singers. It was the first label devoted solely to releasing reissues of older music.
A few years later, Avakian, while a student at Yale, wrote to Columbia Records about having them release material such as Armstrong’s 1920s recordings, which had become hard-to-find. Columbia responded by giving the 22-year-old Avakian a job producing what became the “Hot Jazz Classics” series, the first time jazz reissues were assembled in album form. Avakian’s first volume was King Louis, a collection of Armstrong’s Hot Five recordings released in 1940.
Immediately upon release, the 1940 Armstrong had to compete with the 1928 Armstrong in the jazz press. Writers such as Rudi Blesh and Paul Edward Miller advanced a narrative that Armstrong had been a serious musician devoted to instrumental jazz in the 1920s but now, as Miller wrote in 1941, “Creatively and artistically, Armstrong is dead….Armstrong has chosen to play exclusively for the box office, has assumed a downright commercial attitude. Therein lies Armstrong’s failure.” In some circles, this narrative became the norm, echoed by James Lincoln Collier in his idiotic, mean-spirited 1983 autobiography, Louis Armstrong: An American Genius, which found The author lamenting, “I cannot think of another American artist who so failed his own talent.”
Because such wrong-headed assessments were assumed to be fact by so many wrong-headed individuals for so many decades (Collier’s book was released to generally positive, agreeable reviews in the 1980s), Armstrong’s overall reputation has suffered in the jazz community. He’s acknowledged as a great innovator who wrote the rules of jazz but scant attention is paid to his post-1928 output. Finding young musicians today who are directly inspired by Armstrong is not easy and those who are, get relegated to the perceived “underground” that is the traditional jazz world, unable to get any serious media attention compared to young musicians inspired by other long-gone legends like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. Reissues of Armstrong’s music never get the same recognition as reissues of music by Coltrane or Miles Davis. And across the country, college students are getting jazz performance degrees and never checking out Armstrong in their studies. As clarinetist Dennis Lichtman recently asked me, could anyone imagine getting a degree in religious studies--and never checking out Jesus? (“New Testament is where it’s at, I never bothered with the Old Testament….”)
But maybe this is all because Armstrong became more than just a jazz musician. 1929 was the same year that OKeh moved his recordings from the “Race” series to the “Popular” series. One could argue that it was at this point that he became a full-time pop artist, infusing everything he did with his jazz sensibilities and swinging rhythm, but perfectly comfortable side-by-side with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and other giants of the pop field.
For example, in 1932, pure hot jazz was found in records by the likes of The Rhythmmakers with Henry Red Allen or Sidney Bechet’s New Orleans Feetwarmers, small groups that created torrid music. That same year, Armstrong was recording with a big band, aping Guy Lombardo’s signature syrupy reed sound and covering Bing Crosby tunes “Love You Funny Thing” and “Lawd You Made the Night Too Long.” In 1938, when Count Basie was loosening up the feel of the rhythm section and Lester Young’s lighter-than-air solos were paving the way for modern jazz, Armstrong was recording spirituals with Lyn Murray’s mixed choir for Decca and singing “Jeepers Creepers” to a horse in the film Going Places. When Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie exploded onto the scene with the complex sounds of bebop in 1945, Armstrong was scoring a hit with a cover of a recent rhythm and blues ballad, “I Wonder,” appearing in the film Pillow to Post with Ida Lupino and Sydney Greenstreet and backing up the era’s biggest sensation, Frank Sinatra, on a radio broadcast version of “Blue Skies.” Armstrong was always bigger than jazz but it was the jazz world that turned its back on him when it perceived him getting too big, unwilling to conform to their limited definition of what is and isn’t jazz.
Interestingly, Gabler and Avakian, the two main pioneers of reissuing music from jazz’s past, never were content to simply look backwards. Both men eventually went from producing reissues to producing new music by living, breathing musicians, each becoming iconic producers in the process. Gabler started his own Commodore Records in 1938, devoted to the hot, small group swing favored by Eddie Condon’s mob, but he also recorded the Kansas City Six with Lester Young, the Chocolate Dandies with Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and other timeless artists of that fertile era. His success with Commodore led Decca to come calling in 1941, hiring him to produce more pop singles instead of just the strictly jazz content of Commodore. Gabler proved to have incredible ears--and trend-setting tastes--as he soon began churning out hits featuring everyone from Lionel Hampton (“Flying Home”) and Billie Holiday (“Lover Man”) to the Andrews Sisters (“Rum and Coca Cola”) and Louis Jordan (“Choo Choo Ch’Boogie”). He stayed with the label until 1971.
(It should also be mentioned that George Avakian stuck with Columbia, eventually heading their Pop Album department and like Gabler, was at home producing jazz sides by Duke Ellington, Kid Ory and Miles Davis, but was also comfortable overseeing recordings by Johnny Mathis, Frankie Yankovic and Ravi Shankar. Maybe Gabler and Avakian got along so well with Armstrong because they all had big ears and listened to more than just jazz.)
Though Gabler joined Decca in 1941, he didn’t get to record “his champ,” as he referred to Armstrong in the 1989 documentary, Satchmo, until 1944, mostly because of the recording ban of 1942. And when he did record Armstrong’s big band, he was unsatisfied with the results, feeling the band was too exhausted after a grueling stretch of performances at army camps. Gabler could only record three sides and rejected them all at the time. He learned it would be more beneficial to attempt to record Armstrong when he was rested--not an easy thing to do--and without his ragged band of the period.
Thus, in January 1945, Gabler had bassist Bob Haggart put together a studio band to back Armstrong on a cover of the current rhythm and blues smash, “I Wonder,” in addition to a topical new song with an R&B groove, “Jodie Man.” The result was a hit record for Armstrong, the Pittsburgh Courier reporting that 75,000 copies were sold immediately.
For some reason, Decca didn’t record another Armstrong session until one year later in January 1946 when again, Gabler had Haggart arranging a date that teamed Armstrong with another popular Decca vocalist, Ella Fitzgerald. The resulting record, “You Won’t Be Satisfied” backed with “The Frim Fram Sauce,” was a jukebox hit and received good reviews, with critics applauding Gabler’s idea of pairing the two great artists.
But that same month, Armstrong also recorded two sides for RCA Victor. Joe Glaser must have grown frustrated that Decca had only released one single between April 1942 and January 1946, while they were pumping out hits by the likes of Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan after the ban was lifted. Just like that, the association with Decca that had gone back to 1935 was over.
Unfortunately for Armstrong--and Glaser--RCA Victor didn’t have a great gameplan to showcase the trumpeter either. Armstrong’s big band during these years was one of his brassiest, bordering on unpleasant at times, and though the label made a few good records like “Back O’Town Blues” and “It Takes Time,” most of the band’s output for the new label consisted of forgettable performances of forgettable material.
In May 1947, Armstrong’s fortunes changed when a wildly successful evening fronting a star-studded small group at New York’s Town Hall led Glaser to lay off the big band and put Armstrong at the helm of a sextet, Louis Armstrong and His All Stars. RCA Victor released an album of six sides from the Town Hall concert and made two small group sessions with Armstrong that year. Though the results were artistically more satisfying than the label’s big band recordings, they didn’t yield any hit records. Jazz fans who cheered when Armstrong returned to his small band roots might have approved and turned the All Stars into a popular live attraction, but in a post-Swing Era world, such fans made up a small portion of the record-buying public, who were then going for tunes by the likes of Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Vaughn Monroe and Frankie Laine.
Worse, yet another recording ban hit the industry at the end of 1947, lasting through the following year. With no new records being made and the two-year RCA Victor contract coming to an end, Glaser decided to jump ship and return his client to Decca in September 1949. “I got to love the man, but he was rough! King of his domain, that agency he had,” Gabler told Dan Morgenstern. “But Glaser liked me, I’m pretty sure. He said, ‘I give Louis to you for half the price of everybody else.’ I felt they were not doing the right stuff for Louis. At one point, Glaser was getting a $50,000 advance an album. I paid $25,000.”
Gabler was now in charge of recording Armstrong full-time, promising to release a steady stream of singles beginning in late 1949. Glaser had only one demand. “Glaser never asked to see the material,” Gabler said. “He used to say, ‘Give him a Top Ten hit!’ That’s what he wanted...and pop music….And the Decca sales organization, the loved Louis, but they also wanted pop tunes, or a plug tune. In those days, you had more than one record of a song when a publisher really worked on it, and as soon as Louis would make a pop tune, his record would go on all the coin machines immediately. And get air play.”
Gabler hit upon the winning formula of studying the Billboard charts and selecting current hits that would be appropriate for Armstrong to cover. Though Armstrong’s versions never supplanted the original hits on the charts, the passage of time has been kinder to Armstrong’s unique and timeless takes on this material. Though George Avakian chose not to make these types of records with Armstrong, he couldn’t help but admire Gabler’s methods and Armstrong’s results. “Milt Gabler was a terrific record producer, and he adored Armstrong,” Avakian told Michael Jarrett. “He did a great mixture of productions, and one of the things that he did very successfully was to have Louis cover other people’s hits rather quickly, like ‘Because of You,’ Tony Bennett. Louis’s version of ‘Cold Cold Heart’ , the Hank Williams song, was unexpected, but it was done very well. Louis was probably the most successful cover artist of all time, though we never thought of him that way.”
Needless to say, to the pure jazz fans and writers who felt the formation of the All Stars to be a giant step forward, the Decca pop singles covering the hits of Hank Williams and Tony Bennett were treated as two giant steps back. A fairly overheated review of “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” and “I Get Ideas”--Armstrong’s best-selling Decca single--by disc-jockey Frenchy Sartell in England’s Musical Express gives an idea of how some critics received the music on this set. Titled “Louis Armstrong--Crooner! How Commercial Can One Get?” Sartell wrote:
"My blood is boiling, my ire is aroused. How dare they do it to my favourite jazz 'great'? How dare they bury him in commercialism? ...I've heard 'Pops' play and sing plenty of commercial numbers, but they've been materially suited to his inimitable style, and he has always been able to give his own feeling to them. Take Armstrong, put him in front of another orchestra leader's ensemble, give him a current pop tune and you'll find it's a very different story. If you don't let Louis have his own say, it's like tying his hands behind his back. Armstrong MUST create his own atmosphere. He's not a man who can be told what to do and how to do it.”
Sartell used the dreaded c-word--”commercial”--that would dog Armstrong during these years. He bristled at word any time it was mentioned in his presence. In September 1952, Armstrong sat down with disc jockey Sid Gross for an interview on Gross’s radio program, “International Jazz Club.” Armstrong had just recorded a cover of Sunny Gale’s pop hit, “I Laughed at Love” and Gross received a promotional copy he was about to debut on air--but not before sticking his foot in his mouth, daring to insinuate that Armstrong actually wanted his records to sell!
Gross: It’s a commercial approach but at the same time, I believe this is the first, shall I say, commercial record I’ve ever had on International Jazz Club.
Armstrong: Could I interrupt there? What is the meaning of commercial and why do you use that expression, commercial?
Gross: Well, I use it in the sense that it is perhaps designed to sell records rather than not to sell them. It’s not purely aesthetic.
Armstrong: Yeah, but sometimes that hurts a tune when they use that phrase. 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 of 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 of 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.
Gross: Let me say then that it’s not jazz in the accepted word or meaning which I use when I play jazz on the “International Jazz Club.” Let me put it that way.
Armstrong: Well, what makes you say that? Take tunes like “St. James Infirmary,” which goes down in history, everybody okays that as one of the numbers. Well, that’s an ordinary tune like this “I Laughed at Love,” it just was made Negroid and torrid. You see what I mean? So now if you just analyze “I Laughed at Love” there ain’t nothing can outswing it.
Gross: Oh, it’s a great, it’s a great swing thing. I like it!
Armstrong: Well, that alone, look at nothing but swing lead. That’s your key right there. That’s jazz, don’t care what you’re playing. ‘Cavalleria Rusticana.’ If you’re expressing yourself and you can make that foot move, just pat lightly, you’re swinging. So just because it’s a late number, they call it commercial.
Armstrong summed up his feelings by telling Gross, “Every tune’s hot until you make it otherwise, Pops. Don’t let anyone use that commercial on you. That word commercial, that ruined a lot of tunes, you’d be surprised.”
More important to Armstrong than the notes or chord changes was his ability to personally connect with the pop material Gabler handed him. Looking back at his career in 1965, the height of his post-”Hello, Dolly!” fame, Armstrong told Richard Meryman, “I guess it’s possible there’s people who wish I’d just play like the old days in Chicago….Those records aren't why I'm popular today. More people know me since ‘Hello, Dolly!’ than ever. And all my biggest hits are things like ‘Mack the Knife’ and ‘Blueberry Hill.’ But all songs display my life somewhat, 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. ‘Mack the Knife,’ I seen many a cat in New Orleans lying around with a knife to slip in your back and take your money. And I think of that, even if the songs is so commercified.”
The times had changed and Armstrong had changed with them. He loved his vaunted 1920s recordings but even looking back on those, he saw room for improvement. In 1951, Armstrong made a private tape with some friends in Chicago, listening to the music of the Hot Five. During the vocal on 1926’s “Irish Black Bottom,” the 1951 Armstrong quietly starts humming along with the verse. But when it comes to the chorus, the 1951 Armstrong shouts, "Here's the lead!" and starts emphatically scatting the written melody over the 1926 Louis's shouted vocal on the record. He continues for the entire chorus, sounding quite animated. He probably hadn't performed it in 25 years but every note of the original melody was firmly entrenched in his brain.
After scatting, Armstrong again moans, “That's the lead!” before imparting some self-critical analysis: “In those days, we sang just what you call ‘obligato,’ you know? And we commenced to hollering, ‘Where's the melody?’ See? First thing you see when you walk in the Decca studio, chick with her hair down to her asshole, hollering ‘Where's the melody?’ holding both of her hands out. Just like I say, we'll take this number….” At this point, 1951 Armstrong catches 1926 Armstrong playing the melody on the record and shouts, “There's the lead” before listening to it in silence to the end.
It’s a fascinating little insight because many writers and listeners--including myself--love listening to Armstrong's wild 1920s vocals and marveling at the chances he took with the written melodies. But here's Armstrong in the 1950s, made uncomfortable by his younger self, calling that vocal style nothing but an "obligato" and recalling the advice from the famed Native American photograph Jack Kapp plastered around the Decca studios: “Where’s the melody?” Armstrong had matured and wasn’t interested in playing and singing exactly like he did when he a young man. The results spoke for themselves as Armstrong’s run of Decca singles contain some of his all-time best-known music, recordings that are still tremendously popular to this day.
But even with the popularity of his Decca work, Armstrong still had trouble reaching African-American audiences. When he began recording for Decca again in 1949, the label was still reaping the rewards of rhythm and blues giant, Louis Jordan. Armstrong and Jordan had recorded a few of the same numbers for Decca in the early 40s (“Do You Call That a Buddy,” “You Run Your Mouth, I’ll Run My Business”) but those songs always seemed better tailored to Jordan. RCA Victor gave him some R&B-type numbers, too, in 1946 and 1947 and those didn’t take off either. Armstrong had always connected with romantic material with strong melodies and that's what he'd continue to record for Decca beginning in 1949.
Armstrong was still popular in the African-American community in the late 40s, but that started to changed as the 1950s began and Armstrong started to be viewed by some not as a musical genius but rather as an Uncle Tom who mugged too much for white audiences.
“There was something about Armstrong that seemed to be a certain kind of shadow, a certain kind of minstrelsy,” African-American cultural critic Gerald Early said in Ken Burns’ Jazz. “And I believe it made a lot of black people uncomfortable. Then too, his music, he had made certain kinds of adaptations in his music for popular taste but not significant adaptations in his music for black popular taste. Armstrong just really didn’t seem to be speaking to that community anymore and I believe that’s why he had such trouble with black people in the 50s and 60s.”
This gets into all sorts of issues that are probably best set aside for another essay, but a few points should be addressed here. Early’s point is valid but the question is what could Armstrong had done from a purely musical perspective--eliminating his mugging and stage persona--to adapt to “black popular taste”? If anything, Armstrong’s Decca singles paved the way for the success of Motown the following decade. Like Berry Gordy’s incredible stable of black talent, Armstrong used the quintessential “black” elements of jazz, an African-American creation--including his swing feel, his virtuosic trumpet solos, his scatting, his rephrasing of vocal melodies, his affinity for the blues--and applied them to the “white” pop sound of the era, including the use of strings and choirs. In 2009, Gordy said,” I wanted songs for the whites, blacks, the Jews, Gentiles, the cops and the robbers. I wanted everybody to enjoy my music.” So did Armstrong.
Armstrong is usually called out and criticized for not adapting enough for black popular taste, but what about Ella Fitzgerald recording the Cole Porter songbook? Miles Davis recording “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top”? Oscar Peterson playing Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages” at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival? Charlie Parker with strings? Were those artists adapting to “black popular taste”?
No, but that’s the bigger point: jazz in general didn’t adapt to shifts in the kinds of music African-Americans wanted to hear beginning in the 1940s. The standard history of jazz tells us that swing led to bebop and from there, cool jazz, hard bop, modal jazz, free jazz and avant-garde followed. But in the African-American community, swing led to bebop, and most African-Americans fled from those sounds to the more danceable rhythm-and-blues and eventually rock ‘n’ roll, supporting Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, etc. Cooke is another artist, like Michael Jackson, who never gets mentioned alongside Armstrong. Cooke was absolutely beloved in the African-American community, the definition of "black popular taste" of the era, but by the end of his tragically short life, he was performing and recording songs like "Bill Bailey" and "Frankie and Johnny" in front of a mostly white audience at the Copa, a place Armstrong had previously performed at. When asked to name his favorite singers in 1964, who did Cooke name? Louis Armstrong. Soul singer Bobby Womack told Jake Feinberg that Cooke once told him, "You know who I try to sound like? I know you're going to think I'm crazy: Louie Armstrong. Bobby, he projects, it's not like he's singing a song on the beat. he would just say something [scat sings], 'Da da-da da da, be de da de lo,' like he's talking to you. Take his voice away and listen to my voice and you'll hear the same thing." Armstrong's impact on Cooke and those other popular black R&B, rock and soul artists of the 50s and 60s is immeasurable.
Louis Armstrong was Louis Armstrong; he paved the way for each of those artists, but he stayed true to his own original style and didn’t feel the need to conform to the sounds of R&B and rock. Even when Decca nudged him in that direction in 1955, he did it on his own terms and without resorting to the electric guitars of Chuck Berry or the screaming vocals of Little Richard. Fitzgerald, Davis, Peterson, Parker and much of the rest of the jazz world of the 1950s didn’t show any particular concern with adapting to black popular taste but it was Armstrong whose reputation suffered the most, again, mostly because of non-musical issues.
Louis Armstrong was Louis Armstrong; he paved the way for each of those artists, but he stayed true to his own original style and didn’t feel the need to conform to the sounds of R&B and rock. Even when Decca nudged him in that direction in 1955, he did it on his own terms and without resorting to the electric guitars of Chuck Berry or the screaming vocals of Little Richard. Fitzgerald, Davis, Peterson, Parker and much of the rest of the jazz world of the 1950s didn’t show any particular concern with adapting to black popular taste but it was Armstrong whose reputation suffered the most, again, mostly because of non-musical issues.
(Fitzgerald’s recording situation was actually the closest to Armstrong’s as she recorded a similar run of pop and jazz material for Decca at the same time as Armstrong. Yet the narrative in jazz circles is Norman Granz had to “rescue” her from Gabler in order to concentrate on jazz-centric recordings and the songbook series instead of any more pop records. Like Armstrong, Fitzgerald seemed perfectly happy making pop recordings for Decca. Nat Hentoff once wrote, “Left to herself, I think you would find Ella would pick many more of the pop hits of the day than she would material better suited to jazz.” He could have said the same about Armstrong.)
Armstrong wasn’t about to change his persona either, mostly because he was just as gregarious and fun-loving offstage as he was on. The only thing that made him bristle more than being called “commercial” was being called a “clown.” When an interviewer in England in 1959 referred to Armstrong frequently being criticized for clowning, Armstrong responded, “I know, but how many people enjoy the clowning, you know? See, the majority rules in my plan, that’s what I go by. You can’t please everybody, but if you can please the majority, don’t worry ‘bout them few, you know. They probably don’t like anything….Well, if they say clowning, what is clowning? Anything to make the people get a little laugh, to put humor in your program and the note still comes out, that’s not clowning. Clowning’s when you can’t play nothing. And always remember that. So I don’t think that’s such a cute phrase.”
Armstrong had superb comic timing and was a marvelous actor, something he shows off on some of these Decca singles. And the facial expressions he made onstage were not an act; he made the same faces in the quiet recording studio, as can be seen in a film acquired by the Louis Armstrong House Museum showing Armstrong recording the album Satchmo Plays King Oliver in 1959, and going through all the motions as if he was onstage in front of a thousand people. He knew that that was his way to connect with the material and that the listening public would be able to tell if he was just going through the motions. He was nothing but authentic at all times.
Incredibly, these Decca singles have never been assembled together in a single package such as this one, not in the LP era, not on CD, not from Mosaic Records or any other label. It’s the first time a listener can hear the “A” side followed by the “B” side in the original way Decca released these tracks. And on these sides, you'll hear a little bit of everything:
*All the big hits: “That Lucky Old Sun,” “Blueberry Hill,” “La Vie En Rose,” “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” “I Get Ideas” and more.
*Unvarnished, exciting playing by the All Stars in 1950 doing many New Orleans favorites.
*Updated takes on songs from the early days such as “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” “Big Butter and Egg Man,” “Them There Eyes,” “When You’re Smiling,” “Basin Street Blues” and more.
*Two songs written by country music king Hank Williams.
*Religious songs from Louis and the Good Book.
*A song of South African origin, “Skokiaan.”
*Multiple tangos from Argentina.
*Six Christmas songs and one, “Spooks!,” that could be Halloween anthem.
*Touches of rhythm and blues and early rock and roll on “Ko Ko Mo” and “Only You.”
*Duets with Louis Jordan, Ella Fitzgerald, Velma Middleton, Jack Teagarden and both Crosbys, Bing and Gary.
*Armstrong surrounded by his All Stars, with a big band, with strings, with a choir.
*Arrangements by Sy Oliver, Gordon Jenkins, Tutti Camarata, Jack Pleiss, Benny Carter and Sonny Burke.
*Arrangements by Sy Oliver, Gordon Jenkins, Tutti Camarata, Jack Pleiss, Benny Carter and Sonny Burke.
*Selections from the monumental Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography, which found the older Armstrong often topping his younger self on a series of stirring remakes of old favorites.
*And much, much more.
*And much, much more.
Most of all, the material on this set should stand as a tribute to not only Louis Armstrong but to Milt Gabler. Not only did he offer intelligent song choices and inspired settings but he always took his time recording Armstrong, getting a remarkably clear quality out of Armstrong’s voice and always capturing nothing but fantastic trumpet playing, mostly because he knew how to pace Armstrong’s chops. Where later producers like Norman Granz would try to record an entire album in a single day, taxing Armstrong’s lips terribly, Gabler usually recorded two or four songs in a session, sometimes only having Armstrong play on a few of the selections. Thus, Armstrong’s trumpet playing is consistently brilliant in this Decca period, hopefully putting to rest the notion that his best days were far behind him and that he nothing more than a comic singer. As already mentioned, I feel Armstrong should stand side-by-side with the pop giants of this time like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby and Peggy Lee, but unlike them, when he stopped singing, he picked up that horn and made miraculous sounds each and every time the mouthpiece hit his lips. Double the genius in one human being.
Below are descriptions of each single as they were released, complete with context, some analysis and quotes from contemporaries reviews. In my previous writings on this music, I tended to lean on the jazz periodicals, most of which had something negative to say about Armstrong’s Decca sides. But in preparing this essay, I leaned heavily on Billboard’s archives, available through Google. Billboard was the Bible of the music industry, charting record sales, radio plays, jukebox popularity and everything in between. Their unnamed reviewers paid attention to all of Armstrong’s singles and usually met them with raves. I had never really thought about it until now but a lot of these reviewers were getting the dreck of early 50s pop, trying to get excited about the latest offerings from Dick Haymes or Patti Page or Georgia Gibbs or Mitch Miller--and then along comes an Armstrong cover of a pop tune and it sounds completely different, completely fresh, completely swinging, just as it did when he released his versions of the pop tunes of the late 20s and 1930s. On the other hand, the jazz critics of the time were getting deeper into listening to challenging music by Charlie Parker and Lennie Tristano and Thelonious Monk. They’d hear Louis Armstrong with Gordon Jenkins singing a pretty tune like “It’s All in the Game” and think, “What the hell is this?” But in the pop world, Armstrong’s singles were welcomed with open arms.
Maybe that’s because the greatest jazz artist of them all was really a pop star. He put 100% of himself in each of these Decca singles and the public responded. They still respond. The majority still rules.
Maybe It’s Because / I’ll Keep the Lovelight Burning
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Buck Clayton, Ivor Lloyd (tp), Henderson Chambers (tb), George Dorsey, Artie Baker (as), Budd Johnson, Freddie Williams (ts), Horace Henderson (p), Everett Barksdale (g), Joe Benjamin (b), Wallace Bishop (d), Sy Oliver (cond, arr).
Recorded September 1, 1949, New York City
For Armstrong’s first Decca session since January 1946, Gabler selected two current songs, “Maybe It’s Because,” a hit for Dick Haymes and “I’ll Keep the Lovelight Burning,” made popular by Patti Page. Gabler selected Sy Oliver to write the arrangements for Armstrong, the first of many times he’d get the call, though Oliver was certainly not a stranger to Louis, having backed him on trumpet with Zack Whyte’s band in 1930 and later writing occasional arrangements, such as “I Never Knew,” for his big band. Oliver truly loved working with Armstrong, as can be glimpsed in this Paul Studer photograph of a Decca session from 1957:
Oliver assembled a friendly, all-star crew for the occasion, including familiar associates such as Budd Johnson, Buck Clayton, Henderson Chambers and Fletcher Henderson’s brother, pianist Horace Henderson. One new face was bassist Joe Benjamin, who told Downbeat in 1970, “I always liked Louis Armstrong. You listen as a youngster and all of a sudden you’re an adult. And then one day you find yourself in a Decca recording studio with him and find he’s one of the nicest people on this earth.”
Of the two sides, I’ve always felt “I’ll Keep the Lovelight Burning” to be something of a minor classic. The vocal is full of Crosby-isms and some sublime scatting, while the trumpet solo is fiery one--dig those closing repeated high notes! And don’t miss that “Oh yeah” ending, the first time Armstrong ended a studio recording with what would become one of his indelible trademarks.
Billboard wasn’t tremendously impressed with “I’ll Keep the Lovelight Burning,” writing “Louis doesn’t quite warm to his material here,” but they recognized what Gabler was trying to do: “Decca here applies its old formula of the Armstrong heyday: a sweet pop, a big band and Pops blowing and singing in his inimitable style.” Billboard thought “Maybe It’s Because” was more on the mark, describing it as “eminently congenial to the warm Armstrong treatment.” They were right about “Maybe It’s Because” being a fine side--Dick Haymes sure couldn’t pull off an opening “Mmmmmm” like Louis does here--but this coupling never made a dent in the charts and didn’t exactly usher in the second Decca era with a bang.
For that, though, they’d have to just wait five more days….
That Lucky Old Sun / Blueberry Hill
Louis Armstrong (voc), Billy Butterfield, Carl Poole, Yank Lawson (tp), Will Bradley (tb), Milt Yaner, Hymie Schertzer (as), Tom Parshley, Art Drelinger (ts), Bernie Leighton (p), Carl Kress (g), Jack Lesberg (b), Johnny Blowers (d), Unknown female choir (voc), Gordon Jenkins (cond, arr).
Recorded September 6, 1949, New York City
In many ways, this is the true beginning of Armstrong’s second reign as a Decca pop artist. Gabler had the brilliant idea to team Armstrong with arranger Gordon Jenkins, then at the peak of his popularity. Nowadays, Jenkins is best known for his emotional string writing on songs sung by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Nat King Cole to Harry Nilsson. But in 1949--smack dab in the middle of the period between the end of jazz as America’s popular music and the start of rock and roll--Jenkins was it. In the July 16, 1950 issue of Billboard, Jenkins was named the number one “Top Selling Popular Artist Over Retail Counters,” with 12 recent hit records to his name.
“Everyone wanted to work with Gordy, and as you look back, he was making history back then,” Gabler remembered. “He’s the one who brought background vocals into combination with musicians. The Armstrong sessions typified that.”
Indeed, Jenkins chose to leave his signature strings at home, instead bringing a choir to the September 6, 1949. In a daring move, either Gabler or Jenkins--or both--decided Armstrong should leave his trumpet at home, too. This session would spotlight the gorgeous combination of Armstrong’s warm, gravelly voice and Jenkins’s dramatic singers.
Jenkins worshipped Armstrong and was overwhelmed when he saw Armstrong at the session. “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. Later that night, I came home, and I was so excited I couldn’t eat my dinner. Then I started crying again. I took it pretty big.”
Gabler had selected “That Lucky Old Sun” to be the “A” side, a smart choice as it was the song of 1949, a big hit for Frankie Laine that was covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Vaughn Monroe (Laine and Monroe’s versions were released simultaneously on August 20, 17 days before Armstrong covered it). Immediately, one can hear a nuance in Armstrong’s vocal stylings that was never better captured until Gabler began recording him regularly in 1949. “That Lucky Old Sun” illustrates Armstrong’s impressive range, but also spotlights his emotional connection to a lyric, singing earnestly without overdoing it. (Also check out Billy Butterfield’s Armstrong-infused trumpet obbligato; legend has it he won a coin toss to get the opportunity to do this over session-mate, and fellow Armstrong worshipper, Yank Lawson.)
For the flip side, Gabler went back to a forgotten song of 1941, “Blueberry Hill,” originally recorded by “The Singing Cowboy” Gene Autry and recorded by Glenn Miller, among others. No one ever asked Gabler why he chose this eight-year-old song for this date, but it ended up being one of his best calls, as the song fit Armstrong like a glove. Jenkins even went the extra mile to write some special lyrics, which Armstrong debuted in his second chorus. You can hear Armstrong smiling throughout the performance; not only was he connecting with the material, he was inspired by the setting, telling interviewers that the female singers emoting at the end of “Blueberry Hill” took him right back to his days singing in church in New Orleans with his mother, Mayann. “It was easy for me to do that number because it reminded me of the church me my mother used to take me to, Reverend Cozy’s church,” he told Sid Gross in 1953. “It was a Baptist church. Couldn't afford no choir so everybody sang. And that's the way ‘Blueberry Hill’ reminded me of when [sings] ‘I found my thrill’--and all those beautiful voices, that's what it reminded me of.”
It didn’t take long for the record to start making waves. Billboard listed it as one of “The Billboard Picks” in the “Record Possibilities” section on September 17, just 11 days after it was recorded. “This is an inspired recording--a remarkable mating of talents on a song which is already making its mark via the Frankie Laine etching,” the note read. “Louis, who at 50 is greater than ever, sings the fine song in his gravel-throat voice with tremendous feeling. Jenkins’ backing, a small band with a large choir, sets a perfect contrast and builds a fine production. This etching should give Laine a run for the money.”
As will be a theme here, it’s interesting that trade magazine for popular music thought Louis was “greater than ever” something that was definitely not the case in the jazz world. The same September 17 issue noted elsewhere, “At Decca, Louis Armstrong, currently packing them in at Bop City, was paired off with Gordon Jenkins, the label’s musical chief and a top pop artist in his own right, for a pair of sides.”
The Bop City mention is worth exploring. Armstrong spent most of 1949 blasting bebop in the jazz press, saying at a luncheon for the Anglo-American Press Association that Bebop “comes from the sticks. Those kids come to a passage they don’t dare tackle, so they play a thousand notes to get around it. It’s ju-jitsu music. Nothing but squeezing and twisting notes.” Such criticism, made an enemy out of Armstrong to many young musicians--Dizzy Gillespie called him a “plantation character” in Downbeat earlier in 1949--but also to critics and disc jockeys who supported bop.
Armstrong being booked to play New York City’s Bop City, of all places, seemed like a recipe for disaster. On a privately taped conversation in 1953, Armstrong told friends, “All of them sumbitches on Broadway were feeling sorry for us the evening that we opened up there. I said, 'What's wrong with these sumbitches?' They say, 'Well, you know, your style of music and you going into Bop City...' I say, 'So what!? A note's a note in any language. And I'll prove it to you.' And I say, 'The people that's gonna come up there from now on the time we're there, they ain't never looked into the damn place before!' And I proved it to them….Bullshit. Bop City. Just another joint from where we play. Looking forward to them. They thought we was gonna flop all over the place.”
Instead, Armstrong broke Bop City’s box-office records with his small group, the All Stars. “They’re thinking of changing the name of the joint to Pops’ City since Ol’ Satchmo’s half-century-old chops blew up 30 years of ephemeral jazz memories Thursday,” Hal Webmen wrote. “He came out the winner and still king in the territory which has been ascribed to citizens oo-bla-dee. This crowd, which was estimated at over 2,000 persons, mobbed Bop City to pay tribute to and come away enthralled by the artistry and showmanship of Louis Armstrong.”
Success didn’t come easy. Jazz critic George T. Simon negatively complained about Armstrong’s showmanship. “At Bop City, he was mugging like mad, putting on the personality, bowing, scraping and generally lowering himself as a human being in the eyes of his worshipers. There is no need for a man as great as Louis to have to resort to such behavior.” Also, popular disc jockey Symphony Sid Torin did his best to sabotage Armstrong’s Bop City run. “And Symphony Sid tried his dandiest to ruin us,” Armstrong said in that private 1953 conversation. “We made an ass out of him. I told my band, I say, ‘Go on. Your first set will make an ass out of Symphony Sid.’ Going ahead, telling them people, ‘Well you might like what’s coming up.’ You know, as if to say, ‘They’re a little corny’ or some shit. You know, cause he's bullshittin' them boppers, taking all their money to go inside until they woke up on him and run his ass out of New York. I could have told them that….You know, I listen to all those cute motherfuckers, honey. Somebody asked him, 'Why don't you play Louis Armstrong records?' And he says, 'Somebody want to know why we don't play Louis Armstrong records--ha! We don't.' I said, 'Dig him! Isn't he the cutest thing?'”
Jazz critics like Simon could complain and jazz disc-jockeys like Symphony Sid could choose not to play his records, but Louis Armstrong was outgrowing the jazz world. On October 8, as Armstrong conquered Europe in his first major overseas tour since the 1930s, “That Lucky Old Sun” and “Blueberry Hill” was featured in Decca’s Best Sellers advertisement in the “Popular” category, in addition to being the number four “Operators Pick” that week.
When they got around to reviewing the single on November 12, 1949, Billboard called “That Lucky Old Sun,” “A standout Armstrong vocal and the usual smart Gordon Jenkins production backing make this an excellent entry in the ‘Sun’ stakes” and added of “Blueberry Hill,” “The Armstrong-Jenkins combination projects a standard ballad of some years back with feeling and charm.” The record was a hit.
“It just got played so much more than anything he’d had,” Jenkins said. “He was well known around the world, but he’d never appeared with a chorus before, or with strings, that kind of treatment.” Los Angeles disc jockey Chuck Cecil added, “It took Louis out of the jazz idiom and gave him a piece of pop music. I’ve always thought it not only changed his career but prolonged it. Made him more popular than he’d ever been in his life.”
Interestingly, Armstrong performed “That Lucky Old Sun” with a choir at the Apollo Theater later in 1949 but made “Blueberry Hill,” what was supposed to be the flip side, a permanent part of his act. Again, some in the jazz world resented this; Gunther Schuller for one, bemoaned the feeling that Armstrong had “the need to scratch out a living as a good-natured buffoon, singing ‘Blueberry Hill’...night after night.” Armstrong would have disagreed. When appearing on BBC’s Desert Island Discs in 1968, Armstrong was asked what single record he would take to a mythical desert island and responded, “I’d like to take ‘Blueberry Hill,’ ‘cause right now, it’s like ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ in America when I sing it.”
You Can’t Lose a Broken Heart / My Sweet Hunk O’Trash
Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday (voc), Bernie Privin (tp), Sid Cooper, Johnny Mince (as), Art Drelinger, Pat Nizza (ts), Billy Kyle (p), Everett Barksdale (g), Joe Benjamin (b), Jimmy Crawford (d), Sy Oliver (arr, cond).
Recorded September 30, 1949, New York City
Armstrong concluded his busy September 1949 with a third and final Decca session, this one pairing him with one of his greatest disciples, Billie Holiday. Though the two had appeared together in the film New Orleans, they never made any commercial duet recordings at the time of that film’s 1947 release. Instead, they joined forces for this, their one and only studio session.
Armstrong and Holiday were at something of a crossroads at this juncture. Gabler had helped turn Holiday into a superstar at Decca, recording a number of hits starting with 1944’s “Lover Man.” Gabler had been the man who put out the haunting “Strange Fruit” on Commodore Records, along with a selection of quiet ballads with a small, jazz combo backing. On Decca, though, he draped Lady Day in strings and got her on the pop charts. But in 1949, her struggles with addiction were inching her off the Decca roster, just as Gabler was starting to work his magic with Armstrong. There would no more opportunities for two of jazz’s greatest and most influential singers to record together again (though they both recorded for Norman Granz in 1956 and 1957, Granz chose to team Armstrong up with Ella Fitzgerald instead; could you imagine a series of Billie and Louis albums?)
Their lone studio date was comprised of two songs from the now-forgotten James P. Johnson-Flournoy Miller musical Sugar Hill. Both tunes have their charm but haven’t exactly become standards. Gabler still didn’t seem to grasp that he had in Armstrong, not only the greatest jazz singer of them all, but also the greatest duet partner. On “You Can’t Lose a Broken Heart,” Armstrong and Holiday don’t interact at all, much like Armstrong and Fitzgerald barely interacted on their first Gabler pairing of “You Won’t Be Satisfied” and “The Frim Fram Sauce” in 1946. But even separately, there’s plenty of meat to enjoy from each artist, notably Armstrong’s sublime entrance and Holiday’s full-powered 1940s voice in all it glory.
But on the flip side, “My Sweet Hunk o’Trash,” the two interacted perhaps a little too much. It’s a fun recording showing that Armstrong could even bring out the humorous side of Holiday in a period when her choice of material seemed more plugged into the sadder aspects of her personal life. Everyone sounds like they’re having a good time until Holiday sings, “It makes me mad to wait” and Armstrong responds by asking her, “How come, baby?” But--some would argue deliberately--Armstrong garbled up the first two words so it sounded more like, “Fuck ‘em, baby.”
The record was issued and apparently the world went mad. Walter Winchell, one of Louis's staunchest supporters, wrote a column complaining about it. The Downbeat 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 'bucket' 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. We chose not to include it in this set, but it’s on YouTube.
Billboard never mentioned the “fuck ‘em” controversy but gave the pairing top marks, saying of “You Can’t Lose a Broken Heart,” “Two top jazz artists join forces here for a sprightly pop job.” Some jazz critics might have bristled at these two giants doing a “pop job,” but Gabler made sure to throw those hard-to-please folks a bone the next time Armstrong entered Decca’s studios.
New Orleans Function, Parts 1 and 2
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Jack Teagarden (tb, voc), Barney Bigard (cl), Earl Hines (p), Arvell Shaw (b), Cozy Cole (d).
Recorded April 26-27, 1950, New York City
Louis Armstrong was now a bona fide pop star but night in and night out, he wasn’t appearing with Gordon Jenkins or with orchestras or choirs. He was touring the country with his sextet, the All Stars, playing an assemblage of music that could not be categorized: New Orleans warhorses, comedy numbers, Swing Era anthems, love songs, duets, Hot Five classics and yes, the latest Deccas. Armstrong was proud of his band but the All Stars had not recorded as a group since their last RCA Victor session of October 1947 and it was beginning to rankle Armstrong as the 1950s began.
“I used to go to this company that I record with, one of them there, and I used to tell them, ‘Well, man, why don’t you turn us loose in the studio here and let us wail?’” Armstrong told the Voice of America in 1956. “They’d say, ‘Well, that’s a good idea.’ And I’d say, ‘It’s a very good idea. If them people listen to our concerts and give us thunderous applause over these tunes we play, you know they would like to have it in their files. So why don’t you just record these things, the same as we’re on the stage?’ ‘That’s nice, but we’ve got a few pop tunes here I think is going to be on the Hit Parade’ blah blah blah. And that’s when you look around, people are wondering, ‘What happened to Louie Armstrong?’”
Armstrong claimed not to read the critics but as that quote makes clear, he knew that recording nothing but pop tunes was going to harm his hard-earned reputation--especially when two of the first three Decca sessions didn’t feature any trumpet playing at all.
Milt Gabler heard the complaints loud and clear and to appease his star, set aside two days, April 26 and 27, 1950, to let Armstrong and his All Stars record some of the tunes were playing night in and night out. No arrangements, nothing to learn in the studio, just two days of blowing as if they were still onstage.
Only one of the batch would become a two-sided single, “New Orleans Function,” Armstrong’s attempt to recreate the brass band funeral marches of his youth. It’s a recording that really sums up almost everything you need to know about Louis Armstrong: there’s the great actor, setting the stage; the dramatic trumpeter, able to make the listener cry with his straight, chilling reading of the hymn, “Flee as a Bird”; the comedian, invoking the “ashes to ashes” bit while the rest of the band hilarious cries in the background; and finally, the out-and-out swinger, who plays a chorus in a traditional parade-like two-beat before finishing the record by swinging like it’s 1950, not 1905.
The single was issued in July 1950 as a special release commemorating Armstrong’s 50th birthday, which he celebrated on July 4. The jazz press gave it the seal of approval, Ernie Anderson reporting, “Musicologists who have heard the record call it the finest example of New Orleans jazz ever cut. And Louis’ horn and voice were never in finer fettle than for this exhibition of hometown music.” But this time, the pop-oriented Billboard gave it a subpar review (rating 61 out of 100) on July 8, saying Armstrong’s spoken role was in “questionable taste” and the overall result was “For Satch’s faithful followers only.” You can’t please everyone--but Armstrong certainly came close!
NEW ORLEANS DAYS and JAZZ CONCERT
That’s For Me, Parts 1 and 2
Fine and Dandy
I Surrender Dear, Parts 1 and 2
Medley: Bugle Call Rag, Ole Miss, Parts 1 and 2
Panama, Parts 1 and 2
My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It
Recorded April 26-27, 1950, New York City
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Jack Teagarden (tb, voc), Barney Bigard (cl), Earl Hines (p), Arvell Shaw (b), Cozy Cole (d).
When putting together this set, my co-producer Harry Weinger and I decided to keep bonuses to a minimum, as not everything Louis recorded for Decca in these years was issued as a single. But we relaxed the rules for the material from the April 26 and 27 sessions, New Orleans Days and Jazz Concert. For one thing, the albums were issued in 45-rpm format, though not as outright singles. And the music--and personnel--is of such a high level, how could we leave it out?
New Orleans Days only contained four tracks, but each is an extended version of a New Orleans favorite with the Armstrong horn front and center. In fact, the entire band is on fire throughout. For star-power, this edition of the All Stars couldn’t be topped with Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole justifying the band’s name.
Though the band had some spectacular moments on the bandstand and--in this case--the recording studio, personally, it’s not my favorite version of the band: Hines never wanted to be a sideman and often couldn’t hide his displeasure in his role in the band. Armstrong even told William Russell that Hines, Shaw and Cole formed a clique and even refused to sign autographs for fans. Armstrong said of this band in 1956, “Some of the other Stars got so they was prima donnas and didn’t want to play with the other fellows. They wouldn’t play as a team but was like a basketball side with everybody trying to make the basket. They was great musicians, but after a while they played as if their heart ain’t in what they was doin’. A fella would take a solo but no-one would pay him attention--just gaze here, look around there. And the audience would see things like that--I don’t praise that kind of work y’know. Then you get cliques in a band. Want to play that way and this way, full of that New Orleans fogeyism. I was taught to watch that kind of thing as a youngster and always to give my mind to my music before anything else.”
But in April 1950, the All Stars put aside any differences--and fogeyism--and turned in a series of masterful performances on these albums. On Jazz Concert, the sidemen were rewarded with a series of effective features, including Hines’s “Fine and Dandy,” Bigard’s “I Surrender Dear,” Shaw’s “Russian Lullaby” and Teagarden’s “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home.” It’s not a stretch to say that Armstrong steals each performance every time he picks up his Selmer trumpet (or in the case of “I Surrender Dear,” tenderly sings a favorite song he originally recorded in 1931).
He steals the entire album on “That’s For Me,” a beautiful Rodgers and Hammerstein ballad from State Fair. Once again, further proof that it was impossible to pigeonhole Armstrong’s music. After giving “moldy fig” lovers of traditional jazz occasion to cheer on New Orleans Days, he opens Jazz Concert with this performance. Ironically, he seems to have stopped performing it live after this recording, but he fell in love with it soon after its 1945 publication, dedicating it to his new bride, Lucille, and performing it with his big band (an arrangement still survives at the Louis Armstrong House Museum). One can see why: his singing has never been more charming, especially as he stretches the limit of the tenor range of his voice, and in his muted trumpet spot, he displays some fleet-fingered explorations of the horn, floating across the bar lines with grace and lyricism. He also gets sympathetic backing from the All Stars, especially from his brother in the band, Jack Teagarden, as well as Hines, whose sparkling comping simply shines.
Around this time, Armstrong’s press agent Ernie Anderson approached Gabler with a special offering: 16-inch discs of an All Stars concert Anderson had personally recorded at Symphony Hall in Boston in November 1947. Gabler knew a good thing when he saw it and purchased the discs from Anderson. After New Orleans Days and Jazz Concert were released on September 1950, Satchmo at Symphony Hall followed in January 1951. At the end of January 1951, Gabler himself recorded the All Stars live in California and released Satchmo at Pasadena in July 1952. It’s yet another reason Gabler should be applauded. The All Stars recordings never sold like the pop sides but Gabler promoted pure no-fills jazz since his Commodore Records days and he loved Armstrong and obviously respected the All Stars and wanted to make sure that their sounds would also be welcome at Decca. But with the April 1950 sessions out of the way, it was time for Gabler to return Armstrong to the pop world in a big way.
La Vie En Rose / C’est Si Bon
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Melvin Solomon, Bernie Privin, Paul Webster (tp), Morton Bullman (tb), Hymie Schertzer, Milt Yaner (as), Art Drelinger, Bill Holcombe (ts), Earl Hines (p), Everett Barksdale (g), George Duvivier (b), Johnny Blowers (d), Sy Oliver (arr, cond).
Recorded June 26, 1950, New York City
For the next pop session, Gabler turned to France. Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose” was a smash hit, especially its Columbia Records single produced that year by Armstrong’s friend and associate, George Avakian. As Avakian explained, “That same year , Edith Piaf took New York by storm and 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, Cherie,' 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."
The record was so huge, it didn’t take long for the covers to start appearing. Armstrong recorded his on June 26; in the August 12 issue of Billboard, it was listed by Decca as “Coming Fast” along with other versions on the label by Bing Crosby and Guy Lombardo. But Armstrong’s is the one that has endured. After “What a Wonderful World,” it has become the most ubiquitous Armstrong recording of the 21st century, used in movies, in commercials, in anything and everything.
And with good reason. Armstrong’s version is heartfelt and timeless. Once again, Armstrong plays and sings with tremendous warmth, his voice and horn captured brilliantly by the Decca engineers. It’s a perfect side in every way and speaks to the enduring nature of Armstrong as an artist. Bassist George Duvivier was on the session and remembered, “Louis was amazing. There was very little rehearsal. He just came in, put on his glasses, looked at his part, ran it through briefly, and said in that voice of his, ‘Okay. Let’s make it, men!’ And that was it. Perfect!”
It was already advertised in Decca’s Billboard advertisement on July 22 with an official review following on July 29 stating, “Imaginative assignment to ‘Pops’ results in a delightful interpretation with Armstrong’s vocal and trumpet work.”
For the flip side, it only made sense for Gabler to stay in France and have Armstrong and Oliver tackle Yves Montand’s monster 1948 hit, “C’est Si Bon.” Legend has it that Armstrong heard Suzy Delair sing it in French at the Nice Jazz Festival on February 25, 1948 and asked to make a recording of it. There was a recording ban going on at the time and Armstrong didn’t start recording again until September 1949, but in 1950, Armstrong got his wish as the the French tune received English lyrics by Jerry Seelen. Jean Sablon got first crack at it but finally, Louis got to wax it in June 1950, helping to make the song an even bigger international hit. In fact, at the time, this might have even been bigger than ‘La Vie En Rose’ as the disc was referenced in the August 12, 1950 Billboard as “A top up-and-coming number is Louis Armstrong’s ‘C’est Si Bon’ with ‘La Vie En Rose.’” (Even Ella Fitzgerald used to impersonate Louis on “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” singing “Til that lucky day, when ‘C’est Si Bon’ becomes a hit!”)
Perhaps remembering that Decca asked him not to play trumpet on two of his first three pop sessions in September 1949, Armstrong came ready to blow on June 26, 1950. After the majestic, operatic turn on “La Vie En Rose,” Armstrong simply wailed at the end of “C’est Si Bon” with a powerhouse display of chops. Oliver let the band play the melody while Armstrong improvises in and around them, getting stronger and stronger as he goes on until he’s playing the melody an octave higher at end, topping out at a sky-high concert Eb.
Armstrong was fond of telling a story about sitting in a hotel bar shortly after the record was released. “There was a guy sitting down there, glass full of whisky,” he told the Voice of America in 1956. “He comes over and says, ‘Man, that ‘Cest Si Bon’ was gone! But I want to know one thing: who played the solo for you? He said,’ You’re an old cat, man, somebody must have played it for you.’ So a chick jumped up and said, ‘Who COULD play it for him? Get away from there!’ She run him away!” In other tellings of the story, Armstrong identified “the chick” as Billie Holiday!
Though clearly popular at the time (Armstrong played “La Vie En Rose” to great applause on Bing Crosby’s radio show that summer), the single doesn’t seem to have hit the charts at anytime. Still, when Decca compiled a checklist of their “All-Time Hits” in the March 17, 1951 issue of Billboard, they made sure to list “La Vie En Rose” and “C’est Si Bon.” Armstrong almost immediately added both numbers to the All Stars repertoire and had yet another hit that remains popular decades after his passing.
Dream a Little Dream Of Me / Can Anyone Explain?
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Ella Fitzgerald (voc), Paul Webster (tp), Hank D’Amico (cl), Frank Ludwig (ts), Hank Jones (p), Everett Barksdale (g), Ray Brown (b), Johnny Blowers (d), Sy Oliver (arr, cond).
Recorded August 25, 1950, New York City
Norman Granz usually gets the credit--deservedly so--when people bring up the unbeatable team of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. But it should always be remembered that Milt Gabler teamed them first at Decca and, in my humble opinion, produced the single greatest Ella-and-Louis performance: “Dream a Little Dream Of Me.”
Everything is perfection on this platter, from the song choice to the arrangement by Sy Oliver to the interplay between Armstrong and Fitzgerald. Perhaps realizing he wasted a good opportunity when he first paired these two in 1946 on two sides where they barely interacted, Gabler allows Armstrong and Fitzgerald to take turns scatting an obligato behind the other before a magical ending featuring touching harmonizing and a few lines of new, heartfelt lyrics. Simply magical.
Though originally written in 1931, “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” was rediscovered in 1950 in a major way. Publisher Words & Music, Inc. ran an ad in the September 23, 1950 Billboard advertising “7 Great Records!” and listing versions by Cathy Mastice, Dinah Shore, Georgia Gibbs and Bing Crosby, Jack Owens, Frankie Laine, Vaughn Monroe and Ella Fitzgerald with Louis JORDAN--oops! Wrong Louis, but Jordan will make an appearance in due time (and the typo was fixed by the November 4 issue).
One week later, Billboard gushed, “Ella and Louis make a masterful disking of this revived lovely. A future collector’s item, this one should draw heavy play with spinners, ops and fans.” Indeed, it was the number three pick on the jukebox operators charts on October 7 and on the Decca “Best Sellers” chart the following month. (In the December 2 issue, both this single and the “La Vie En Rose”/”C’est Si Bon” coupling were listed on Decca’s “Sepia” chart, denoting popularity with African-American audiences.)
But for all my gushing over “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” the record was probably made with the intention of pushing the other side, a brand new pop song, “Can Anyone Explain (No! No! No!),” written by Bennie Benjamin and future “What a Wonderful World” scribe, George David Weiss. The Ames Brothers had the first hit with it, entering the Billboard charts on August 4, 1950. The parade of covers followed, including versions by Dinah Shore, Vic Damone, Ray Anthony and more (Decca alone gave it to Ella and Louis, Dick Haymes and Four Hits and a Miss).
Armstrong and Fitzgerald go the duet route, right down to a little comedic interlude with Fitzgerald shouting at Armstrong to stop blowing his trumpet and Armstrong offering the autobiographical truth, “I’ve been in love four times!” It’s a lot of fun, especially when the two join forces at the end. “A pair of all-time greats get together for a clambake with a currently hot ballad,” according to Billboard. “A delightful waxing which should grab a share among these talents’ followings at the very least.”
The record became a moderate hit, hitting #30 for one week in November on the Popular charts. Armstrong even added it to his live repertoire, turning it into one of his hilarious duets with female vocalist Velma Middleton, keeping it in the act for a year or two. Armstrong’s All Stars were already getting critical knocks for reputedly playing the same songs every night but after one full year with Decca, he had added “Blueberry Hill,” “La Vie En Rose,” “C’est Si Bon,” “New Orleans Function” and “Can Anyone Explain” to his live shows. There would be more to come.
Life Is So Peculiar / You Rascal You
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Louis Jordan (as, voc), Aaron Izenhall (tp), Josh Jackson (ts), Bill Doggett (p), Bill Jennings (g), Bob Bushnell (b), Joe Morris (d).
Recorded August 23, 1950, New York City
Like Armstrong’s one and only session with Billie Holiday, it’s mind-boggling that it took Louis Armstrong and Louis Jordan until August 23, 1950 to make a record together and judging from the results, it’s equally mind-boggling to realize it never happened again.
But also like Armstrong and Holiday, Armstrong and Jordan were at a crossroads at the time of their session. Jordan had been one of the all-time best sellers in Decca’s history, routinely hitting number one during the 1940s and a tremendously popular attraction with both white and black audiences. As the 1950s began, though, he was mainly carrying the black audience and no longer racking up as many hits as he used to. Decca was still pushing him; in the December 16, 1950 Billboard, Armstrong had small mentions of hit records in both the Popular and Sepia categories but it was Jordan who was featured at the top of the ad, a large photo running next to a screaming promotion for his latest single, “Chartreuse” backed by “Lemonade.” It wouldn’t work. Jordan remained popular in the Rhythm and Blues field--his music clearly paved the way for Rock and Roll--but he couldn’t break the charts again. His sales declined until Decca dropped him in 1954.
But that was a few years away. On August 23, 1950, it must have been quite a joyous occasion for Gabler to see his two prize “Louies” together for the first time. But his joy must have disappeared when an exhausted Armstrong proved unable to make a sound out of his trumpet. As Jordan told the BBC in 1973:
"Oh, now, that was something. We had tried for about, oh, about five or six times. I would come in town from Florida to New York, and he’d come in town from Los Angeles to New York, and we would try to get together, and something would happen. So he came in town this—this day. His lip had busted on him, had busted all—all the way down. And—and he says, ‘I don’t care if I don’t have a lip.’ Said, ‘We going to record today.’ Said, ‘We—we been making a date for the-- So we went out. We got in—got in the studio at 6 o’clock in the morning. And we went—there’s a—there is couple of places around New York called Chock Full o'Nuts. Well, there’s one not far from 50 West 57th Street. That’s where we recorded on Decca. And he said, ‘Let’s go down here to Chock Full o'Nuts and get a sandwich and some coffee and we see if we can find some fruit.’ I said, ‘What about this fruit?’ He said, ‘Well,’ he says, ‘I found that if we—if we can get some white grapes and we eat them and rest awhile, probably my voice will clear,” because he was hoarse. He was real hoarse. And he says, ‘And I—I’m going to make it anyhow.’ I said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it.’ He said, ‘I’m going to—I’m going to make it.’ So we—we were supposed to record, start recording, at 7 o’clock. We didn’t start until 10:30 or 10:45, and we were through in ten minutes because, you know, right—we went right on through it. Because we had—we’d talked it over and he looked at the music and we knew what we were going to do, but we had to wait on his lip. So finally he said, ‘Let’s go.’ And we went on and played it. He even—he even—if you have ever heard the record, he even played those high C’s and things with his lip busted. So he was magnificent."
Indeed, that’s the glory of these Decca singles sessions: Armstrong the luxury to take as much of the four-hour session time as he needed to get his chops together. In just a few years, he’d be making entire 12-song albums in a day for Norman Granz’s Verve label and couldn’t hide any irregularities with his trumpet playing. But for Gabler, he was able to have his fruit and sandwiches and coffee and rally to blow the roof of Decca’s 57th Street studio at the last minute.
Like the Ella Fitzgerald session--which actually took place after this date but was released first--the main reason for the session was to cover a new song, “Life is So Peculiar” from the musical Mr. Music (Decca had a version by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters going at the same time). In the hand of the two Louies, it’s an infectious masterpiece; you simply can’t listen to it without your mood improving. The instrumental interlude rocks, too, with Armstrong and Jordan both getting downright bluesy before a nifty unison break. Also, notice the lyrics mention of “cabbage,” which gets a loaded “I love cabbage” from Armstrong. Anyone familiar with the 1920s Maggie Jones song “Anybody Here Want to Try My Cabbage” knows that Louis isn’t thinking about food.
But it’s the standard recorded that day that has proven more durable (perhaps because that’s the very definition of a standard). Armstrong put “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You” on the map in 1931. It was such a big hit, he re-recorded it for RCA Victor in December 1932 as part of a “Medley of Armstrong Hits”--with young Louis Jordan in the band on alto saxophone. Though the original is wonderful and a 1941 Decca remake is even better, it’s the 1950 duet that is the version to end all versions. Both men are at their peaks, taking turns singing lead and playing cheerleader behind the other. Jordan is smooth and sassy but it’s Armstrong’s personality that eventually swallows him whole, sneaking in yet another reference to “cabbage” and uncorking a dazzling descending reading of the line, “I wonder what you got” that never fails to make me laugh (the declamatory “I say” is pretty great, too).
As Armstrong shouts, “Blow ‘em out!” Jordan’s Tympany Five responds by locking into an irresistibly swinging groove, the horns setting one riff after another while drummer Chris Columbo (real name Joe Morris) switches to a Chinese cymbal that threatens to send the whole thing into the stratosphere. With the band positively cooking, Armstrong floats on top of them, flexing those mangled lip muscles, hitting high notes, holding them for impossible lengths, responding to the riffs and not at all sounding like a man barely able to make a sound just a few hours earlier. He never made it easy on himself, but the effort was more than worth it.
Decca rolled it out on October 7, winning rave reviews from Billboard. “Both Louies sing, play and kid their way thru this old Armstrong fave,” the magazine said of “You Rascal You. “Should score heavily with fans and could rack up juke coin in metropolitan situations.” Of “Life is So Peculiar,” Billboard wrote, “This ‘Mr. Music’ score ditty serves as an ideal material piece for the vigorous styling of the Louies. Happy disking could pick up big returns in pop and R&B locations.” Indeed, it was listed as “Retailer’s Pick” on October 16 and as a Decca Best Seller on November 16.
It would seem a natural occasion for a rematch but it was never to be. Jordan’s wife, Martha, blamed it on Armstrong’s manager Joe Glaser, saying, “Louis would have loved to have recorded again with Louis Armstrong but Joe Glaser seemed to veto the idea. I’m certain that it wasn’t anything to do with Pops himself, because Louis and I loved Pops and he was always great with us. Joe Glaser somehow saw Louis Jordan as a threat to Louis Armstrong, which was absolute nonsense.”
Actually, Glaser was not so far off. In scouring old issues of Billboard magazine, one can see Jordan still ruling the “Sepia” charts, while Armstrong spread to more of the “Popular” world. Around 1952, Armstrong and Jordan ended up in Dallas at the same time. As Armstrong’s friend Jack Bradley remembered, Armstrong told him “all the [black] people went to see [Jordan] and hardly any went to see Louie [Armstrong]. And that really upset him a lot, ‘cause he told me about it. But you know, it was obviously a black community, and Louie was considered by the blacks as well to be an Uncle Tom. But he said, ‘My own people didn’t come.’”
Armstrong remained hurt about this until the end of his life, telling the story on BBC television in 1968 without mentioning Jordan by name. “I played in Dallas, Texas at the Coliseum and they paid a lot of money for our attraction. But at the next block, they had one of them zoot suit saxophone players playing all that [imitates boogie-woogie eight-to-the-bar sound], you know what I mean, the trend--but still in all [Louis makes a first, shakes it powerfully, closes his eyes and nods seriously]--like Mozart. Them people came to see Satch and they was all white. I could count the colored there. That's the night--I remembered that.”
In the November 16, 1950 issue of Billboard, Armstrong and Jordan’s duet was listed as a Popular Best Seller while his duet with Ella Fitzgerald was listed one column over as a Sepia Best Seller. Armstrong didn’t believe in categories but he’d be spending much more time on the former charts than the latter as the years progressed.
Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat / That’s What the Man Said
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Billy Kyle (p), Everett Barksdale (g), Joe Benjamin (b), Johnny Blowers (d), Unknown mixed choir (voc), Sy Oliver (arr, cond).
Recorded August 31, 1950, New York City
Will Friedwald has always lamented that Louis Armstrong never did an all-Broadway album (Satch Digs Broadway?). When listening to “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat,” it’s easy to understand Friedwald’s feelings. This is Armstrong the actor at his finest.
Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls was the smash Broadway hit of 1950. With Decca responsible for the Original Cast Recording (another innovation pioneered by Milt Gabler at Decca in the early 1940s), it didn’t take much imagination for Gabler to tab Armstrong to put his take on Stubby Kaye’s big feature. Armstrong more than rises to the occasion, even without blowing a note of trumpet. “Louis contributes a wonderful performance, one of his most persuasive, on this ‘Guys and Dolls’ item,” according to Billboard. “Louis alone should stir a brisk business if disking is pushed at all. Must for alert spinners.”
“Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat” allows us to daydream about the spectacle of Armstrong on Broadway. We already know he was great in films and on television but can you imagine Armstrong singing, playing and acting on the stage? Of course, you can argue that he was already doing that with his All Stars 300 nights a year but it’s a shame his talents were never utilized on really strong scripted material in a theatrical setting.
Perhaps because of the revivalist nature of “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat,” Gabler chose Willard Robison’s brand new composition “That’s What the Man Said” as the flip side. It’s a shame Armstrong didn’t do more Robison material--his musical brother Jack Teagarden memorably tackled his catalog on the later album Think Well of Me--as he clearly thrives on Robison’s folksy storytelling ways (though the addition to “Gizzard” is pure Armstrong, not Robison). We even get to hear a spot of trumpet on this one, effective as always. Billboard wrote off this side as “For Armstrong fans mainly” and they were correct; this coupling never took off on the charts. Metronome, though, did publish a fantastic photo of Armstrong at work during this session:
However, someone at MGM was listening. The following year, Armstrong took part in a musical, Glory Alley, in which he performed “That’s What the Man Said” as the finale of the film. It’s even better on the big screen as Armstrong looks completely comfortable in the musical setting, a natural actor if there ever was one. But the record-buying public didn’t want to hear Armstrong the actor and this single remains one of his lesser known Decca items, undeservedly so.
You’re Just In Love / If
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Chris Griffin (tp), Red Ballard (tb), Wayne Songer (as), Dent Eckels (ts), Charles LaVere (p), Allan Reuss (g), Phil Stephens (b), Nick Fatool (d), Velma Middleton (voc), Gordon Jenkins (cond).
Recorded February 6, 1951, Los Angeles
“Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat” might not have been a big seller but that didn’t stop Gabler from having Armstrong tackle another recent Broadway hit, Irving Berlin’s “You’re Just in Love” from Call Me Madam. Decca was already pushing a version by Ethel Merman and Dick Haymes in the January 6, 1951 issue of Billboard so it’s not much of a surprise to see Armstrong get the call one month later.
But instead of Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday as his duet partner, we finally hear from Armstrong’s longtime female vocalist and comic foil, Velma Middleton. Critics always (unfairly) savaged Middleton’s singing and dancing, but she had unbeatable chemistry with Armstrong, especially on their duets. “You’re Just in Love” fit the team perfectly and though it wasn’t a big seller when released in March, it immediately entered Armstrong’s live repertoire, remaining a riotous audience favorite for the next few years.
The flip side completely changes the mood with the very pretty, very popular ballad, “If.” Like “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” the song was originally written in 1934 but was rediscovered in 1950 with Perry Como having the number 1 hit in November of that year. Dean Martin followed with another version that made the charts in December. In fact, on Christmas Day 1950, Armstrong made a reel-to-reel tape at his friend Stuff Crouch’s house in Los Angeles, listening to the radio with his Boston Terrier, General. Martin’s “If” came on and at the end, Armstrong turned to his dog and said, “A beautiful way to end this reel, eh, General?” General barked his approval in return. Armstrong’s vocal on “If” is all-heart and though he only plays a short snatch of trumpet, he sticks to the melody, one he clearly adored.
This session was once again arranged by Gordon Jenkins, who still didn’t use strings on his second date with Armstrong. He didn’t even bring a choir, perhaps because Sy Oliver got choir duty on the previous session. Instead, Jenkins is at the helm of a fine small big band of California stalwarts. We’ve already established that Jenkins worshipped Armstrong but beginning with this session, it becomes something of a game to spot all the Armstrong licks in his writing (there’s a Hot Five lick before his vocal on “You’re Just in Love” and the interlude before the trumpet solo on “If” is straight out of the Armstrong vocabulary, to name just two examples).
The single was listed as a “Special” in the March 3 Billboard, but it didn’t receive a review and never hit any of the charts, including Decca’s own internal listings. It wasn’t a repeat smash for the team of Armstrong and Jenkins after “That Lucky Old Sun” and “Blueberry Hill.” Next time, he’d bring the strings.
Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong (voc), Red Nichols, Bobby Guy, Ziggy Elman (tp), Dick Taylor, Bill Atkinson, Wendell Mayhew (tb), Matty Matlock, Phil Shuken, Larry Wright, Warren Baker, Babe Russin, Jack Chaney (reeds), Jacques Gasselin, Harry Bluestone, Sam Freed, Henry Hill, Walter Edelstein, Mayer Oberman, Murray Kellner, Milton Thomas, Cy Bernard (strings), Mel Henke, Buddy Cole (p), Perry Botkin (g), Phil Stephens (b), John Cyr (d), John Scott Trotter (cond, arr).
Recorded April 19, 1951, Los Angeles
“Papa” Bing Crosby only makes one appearance in this set but it’s quite a memorable one. Between 1949 and 1951, Armstrong appeared on Crosby’s radio show numerous times, sometimes performing hot jazz numbers, sometimes introducing a Decca pop hit, but always finding time to perform a showstopping duet. Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazy Bones” was their regular go-to choice but on April 19, 1951, they tried out something else: “Gone Fishin’,” written by brothers Nick and Charles Kenny. The Kenny brothers published the song in 1950, when it was recorded by Arthur Godfrey, but it sank without a trace.
Somehow it caught Crosby’s attention and it was decided it would be a good vehicle for “Mr. Satch and Mr. Cros” on Crosby’s radio show. Indeed, the audience went wild for the good-natured duet, especially when Crosby remarks he doesn’t have to work anymore because he has a piece of his son, Gary Crosby, then riding a wave of popularity as a singer.
The mystery remains as how “Gone Fishin’” ended up with Decca. It appears that Armstrong and Crosby recorded a take of it with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra either before or after the live version. Crosby, still a king at Decca, knew he had a good thing and sold the recording from his rehearsal to the label, where it was backed by Crosby’s solo performance of “We All Have a Song in Our Heart.”
Armstrong didn’t even remember making it, telling a radio interviewer, “And this ‘Goin’ Fishin’,’ I notice the record came out and we didn’t make it in the studio. We did it, you know, while doing the broadcast. So they took the applause out and everything and the record sold. So I asked Papa Bing, I said, ‘Well, Daddy, there’s a little extra taste there for me.’ ‘No, Satchmo,’ he said, ‘You’re under contract, daddy!’” Armstrong broke into laughter recounting this conversation.
Crosby remained enamored of the song as well, telling the BBC in 1974, “Any time I ever worked with Louis it was just a pleasure to be around. Lots of gags going all the time, you know, because he loved to laugh. He had an infectious laugh, too, about your singing or about his cornet playing or about a wardrobe or about music in general or anything. ‘Gone Fishin’ that’s a great song, and it’s wide open for the kind of thing Louis does best, you know. [I’m] kind of proud of that record.”
Crosby wasn’t alone. It was the “Top Billboard Pick” on May 26, the magazine writing, “A pop tune, which didn’t make it a year or so ago, is back with a brand new lease on life in a happy gab-fest treatment by Croz and Satch.” By June 23, Billboard listed it as a Disc Jockey Pick, Retailer Pick and Operators Pick. Interestingly, with a hit on their hands, Armstrong and Crosby didn’t make any more studio recordings until 1960’s Bing and Satchmo, though there were still plenty of joint radio, television and film appearances to come in the 1950s. But could anyone have guessed in 1951 that Armstrong would make more singles with Gary Crosby than Bing in this decade?
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Jack Teagarden (tb), Barney Bigard (cl), Earl Hines (p), Arvell Shaw (b), Cozy Cole (d), Velma Middleton (voc).
Supposed to be Decca 27616 but not issued as such
Recorded April 23, 1951, Los Angeles
This is another bonus in this set of Armstrong’s Decca singles as it was never released as such. “Unless” was a big hit for Gordon Jenkins and Guy Mitchell (with Mitch Miller) in the spring of 1951. Gabler pegged Armstrong to cover it, even sending him an acetate disc of a solo pianist playing the melody in pseudo-classical style so Armstrong could familiarize himself with the melody before heading to the studio (he dubbed the acetate to his reel-to-reel tape collection).
In the studio, Armstrong turned in a charming performance, the highlight of which is his own cascade of scatting, which he uses as a call and response with the tune’s lyrics. But honestly, the All Stars sound a little tired. It got worse on the next song recorded that day: “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.” Armstrong had featured this in the new film The Strip so it made sense for Gabler to make a version for single release but the All Stars turned in a rare snoozer and Gabler knew it. That version of “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” was rejected immediately (and is not included here).
As for “Unless,” a copy of the MCA Records Catalog shows Decca assigned number 27616 to “Unless” with the flip-side being an edited version of the gorgeous “That’s For Me” from the previous April. But perhaps unsatisfied with the too-quiet nature of “Unless,” Gabler scrapped the whole idea, instead assigning Decca 27616 to Don Cherry’s single of “Vanity” and “Powder Blue.” Because “Unless” was at least given a number and planned as a single--and it was released that way by Brunswick in England and Fonit in Italy--we’ve included it here, but it remains one of the least-known of all of Armstrong’s Decca recordings. The same could not be said of his next session for the label.
A Kiss to Build a Dream On / I Get Ideas
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Cutty Cutshall (tb), Milt Yaner (cl, as), George Dorsey (as), Freddy Williams, Al Klink (ts), Billy Kyle (p), Sandy Block (b), Bunny Shawker (d), Sy Oliver (arr, cond).
Recorded July 24, 1951, New York City
To this point, Armstrong had some major hits for Decca--”That Lucky Old Sun” / “Blueberry Hill” and “C’est Si Bon” / “La Vie En Rose” being the biggest--but the best-selling record he ever made for the label was this one.
Gabler was not satisfied with the All Stars’s somnolent take on it in April and was determined to get a quality single out of the song, which had already had quite a history. It was written by the formidable team of Oscar Hammerstein II, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby for the 1934 film A Night at the Opera, but it was cut from that film and lay dormant until it was resuscitated for MGM’s The Strip, filmed at the end of 1950. The Strip would be released on August 31 and Gabler was still pushing to get a single out in time for the film’s opening.
His persistence paid off on the July 24 date. Sy Oliver came in with an unassuming but effective arrangement and a strong studio band, including future All Star Billy Kyle, who sets off the proceedings with a typically elegant piano introduction. Yet again, Armstrong’s voice is smooth as silk (take a bow, Decca engineers) and he clearly loves the song, passionately rephrasing it in the last eight bars. But to bury any lingering memories of the quiet version from April, Oliver built in an instrumental half chorus in the best New Orleans tradition, trombonist Cutty Cutshall really playing up the tailgate role, clarinetist Milt Yaner wailing in the upper register and drummer Bunny Shawker laying down a thundering backbeat, all over bassist Sandy Block’s firm, propulsive two-beat feel. Armstrong rides on top of this like a king, taking an excellent break in the middle and getting into the stratosphere in the second half of the instrumental portion. Finally, a pop single even the moldy figs could love!
“A Kiss to Build a Dream On” is a knockout but as the song was unknown and The Strip hadn’t even opened yet, it was still a bit of a risk. Thus, Gabler chose it as the flip side, instead going with something more familiar for the “A” side, “I Get Ideas.” Originally an Argentine tango known as “Adios Muchachos” and popularized by Carlos Gardel, it was given English lyrics, rechristened “I Get Ideas” and became a big hit for Tony Martin in May 1951 (it was the number one “Disc Jockey’s Pick” in the same May 26, 1951 issue of Billboard that chose “Gone Fishin’” as the “Billboard Top Pick” overall).
Armstrong didn’t have much experience with tangos, but to him, a beautiful song was a beautiful song. He barely changes a note of melody during his muted reading of it, while his vocal--without a trace of gravel--is full of all sorts of wicked insinuations. Like “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” the instrumental portion packs quite a punch, Armstrong’s playing at its most rhapsodic. You can sense how much he loves performing this number, right down to the spontaneous laugh of satisfaction that closes the record. Perhaps he was laughing because he knew he was about to have another hit.
By this point, Decca began publishing its own “Decca Data” page in Billboard, a helpful guide to how Armstrong’s music sold for the label. It was the number one “Best Bet” in the Decca Popular category on September 15 and it became the number 2 best selling Pop record on the label on September 29, a spot it held until October 1--when it became number 1. It bounced between number 1 and number 2 for the rest of 1951.
Somewhere along the way, “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” began receiving more airplay than “I Get Ideas.” On December 29, Billboard reported the song became “active during the past eight weeks when deejays started to flip the disk from the ‘I Get Ideas’ side.” In January 1952, Jet didn’t even mention “I Get Ideas,” writing, “Currently kicking on all fours in Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong’s disking of ‘A Kiss to Build a Dream On,’ the best-selling platter of his lengthy career. ‘Kiss’ has sold well over 400,000 copies, surpassing even his ‘Lucky Old Sun’ which hit the 300,000 sales mark over a year ago.”
No one could deny that Milt Gabler’s strategy of presenting Louis Armstrong on the Popular charts was paying huge dividends, giving the trumpeter his biggest-selling record at age 50. He also had two more songs to add to the All Stars’s ever-expanding repertoire. Jazz critics continued to complain--”I Get Ideas” is the record that caused disc jockey Frenchy Sartell to write his apoplectic column about “How dare they bury him in commercialism?”--but there was no reason to stop Decca’s winning formula at this juncture. Because of Milt Gabler’s strategy, Louis Armstrong was more popular than ever.
Cold Cold Heart / Because of You
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Charlie Holmes, George Dorsey (as), Harold Clark (ts), Dave McRae (ts, bar), Don Abney (p), Everett Barksdale (g), Frank Goodlette (b), Jack Parker (d), Sy Oliver (arr, cond).
Recorded September 17, 1951, New York City
Armstrong recorded the seminal “Blue Yodel Number 9” with Jimmie Rodgers in the summer of 1930, but he hadn’t really explored country music in the ensuing decades. That changed in the early 50s when Gabler gave Armstrong two Hank Williams tunes to record. (Technically, one could argue three. Though Armstrong played “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It” since his days in New Orleans, he never recorded it until the April 1950 New Orleans Days sessions, one year after Hank Williams had a hit with a countrified version of the Storyville favorite. One must wonder if Williams’s hit spurred Gabler to have Armstrong record his blues-infused version.)
“Cold, Cold Heart” was already more than just a country hit, though. Williams’s original version was already number one on the country charts when Tony Bennett recorded a straight pop version on July 20, 1951, garnering a number one hit on the Popular charts in the process. For Armstrong’s version, he kept it in pop territory, though with enough of a two-beat feel (arranger Sy Oliver’s specialty) to keep the country crowd happy. Armstrong doesn’t do much with the melody, preferring to sing it straight for the most part and taking an understated trumpet solo before wailing during the closing coda. A perfectly pleasant record but a bit of a letdown after “I Get Ideas” and “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.”
The same cannot be said for the flip side, “Because of You,” one of my personal favorites of Armstrong’s Decca pop singles. This was another major Tony Bennett hit of the period and it’s a natural fit for Armstrong, who sings it tenderly for the most part, until busting out some dazzling scatting towards the end. His delayed entrance after the trumpet solo is a marvel. But it’s that trumpet solo steals the record, Armstrong in pure powerhouse form as he takes the melody up an octave and into the stratosphere, flexing his spectacular muscles throughout.
If you listen carefully, there’s a trumpet obligato behind the vocal throughout by none other than Louis Armstrong! George Avakian got the publicity when he had Armstrong overdub himself playing and singing behind his vocal on “Atlanta Blues” on 1954’s Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy but Gabler did it first. It wasn’t easy, however. Armstrong told Variety, “I did a gimmick bit for Decca with ‘Because of You’ and let me tell you, Pops, I won’t do that again.” I’m guessing Avakian didn’t read Variety.
The coupling of Tony Bennett covers was issued on October 20 and received a rave in Billboard. “Louis, being used to make distinctive readings of top hits, follows thru with another wonderful job on this Tony Bennett hit,” the magazine said of “Cold, Cold Heart.” “Stacks up with his previous similar efforts as a non-competitive coverage which should do well.” Of “Because of You,” the reviewer wrote, “Again Louis is superb in running down the top song of the day. He sings and, via dubbing, plays a trumpet obbligato for himself. A solid coupling for Louis.”
Once again, thanks to “Decca Data,” we can see that it was yet another successful single. One week after its release, it was the number 11 Decca “Best Bet,” a chart advertised as “Your guide to the hits of tomorrow based on actual sales.” It was the number 4 “Best Bet” on November 3 and number 10 on November 10 before jumping to the number four slot on Decca’s Popular charts, right behind “I Get Ideas / A Kiss to Build a Dream On” on November 17. It never overtook that bona fide hit, but it remained on the Decca pop charts into February 1952.
It certainly seemed like Armstrong could do no wrong. But that was about to change.
When It’s Sleepy Time Down South / It’s All in the Game
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Chris Griffin, George Thow, Bruce Hudson (tp), Eddie Miller, Dent Eckels (ts), Charles LaVere (p), Allan Reuss (g), Phil Stephens (b), Nick Fatool (d), Unknown strings, Gordon Jenkins (arr, cond).
Recorded November 28, 1951, Los Angeles
Finally, we get to hear Gordon Jenkins’s famed strings--and how. On “It’s All in the Game,” we’re reminded of Jenkins’s superstar status in the music business at that time as the entire first half of the record is devoted to his signature sound. The song itself was based on “Melody in A Major,” a 1911 composition by future Vice President Charles G. Dawes. Carl Sigman put lyrics to it in the summer of 1951 and with the new title, “It’s All in the Game,” it became a hit for Tommy Edwards with covers following by Carmen Cavallaro, Dinah Shore and of course, Louis Armstrong.
Armstrong could have taken the first half of the record to go out and have a smoke but knowing his tastes, he was probably loving having a front row seat for Jenkins’s beautiful sounds. When it comes time for Pops, Jenkins subtly switches from waltz time to 4/4 and Armstrong swings it gently from there. The placement of Armstrong in the middle of Jenkins’s lush settings was akin to placing a meatball on a velvet pillow but it works. (For anyone near Queens College, feel free to visit me at the Louis Armstrong Archives to listen to a private tape Armstrong made where he listened to this very and sang some supremely X-rated lyrics over the recording!)
“It’s All in the Game” provided no issues and is a relaxing, warm performance but it would soon be overshadowed by the other song recorded that November day.
“When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” was written by three African-American songwriters, brothers Otis and Leon Rene and famed actor Clarence Muse. Though it wasn’t written specifically for Armstrong, as soon as he heard it, he exclaimed, “That’s my theme song!” He recorded it in April 1931 for OKeh and again for RCA Victor in December 1932. On both occasions, he sung the song with the lyrics his black friends had provided him, opening with, “Pale moon shining on the fields below, Darkies crooning songs soft and low.” As written, the bridge of the song featured the lines, “You hear the banjos ringing and the darkies singing.”
In 1931 and 1932, those lyrics didn’t cause much of a stir because of the sad fact that there was still a strain of popular music that had no problems evoking African-American epithets. Armstrong certainly didn’t seem to mind. Armstrong was supremely proud of being black, having turned “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” into a protest song in 1929 and recording other numbers like 1931’s “Little Joe,” of which Dan Morgenstern wrote, “If that’s not black-is-beautiful, I don’t know what is.” Armstrong, having heard and seen everything, wasn’t easily offended and casually tossed off epithets like “spade” for African-Americans and “ofay” for white people without intending any malice. Thus, part of him might have appreciated the word “darkies”; not only was this a song about the south that reminded him of New Orleans, but it was written by his black friends and was specifically about black people. “That’s my theme song!”
But when he made it his theme song, he didn’t feel the need to sing it night after night. Thus, from 1932-1951, nearly every single surviving version of “Sleepy Time” is a short instrumental (or in the case of his glorious 1941 Decca version, a complete, full-length instrumental). But when he sang it--including a 1942 “Soundie” film, a live concert in France in 1948 and an appearance on The Steve Allen Show in 1950--he continued to sing “darkies,” though the word had since become taboo.
In November 1951, Gabler decided Armstrong should record the definitive version of “Sleep Time,” enlisting Jenkins’s famed strings as a backing. Armstrong was in his glory. He’d always talk with reverence about Jenkins’s arrangement. “You remember the record we made with Gordon Jenkins?” he asked an interviewer in 1952. “Well, he visualized music and scenes and things in music the same as I do. It’s a funny thing how our minds run together when it comes to different things in a song.”
Armstrong was in beautiful voice. Jenkins’s arrangement was on the money. This had all the making of a hit. Except for one thing: Armstrong still sang “darkies” on the bridge.
This is something I’ve never quite been able to understand. As already mentioned, the song originally featured the offending word twice but the first time through, it’s not there, changed to “folks.” But there it is in the bridge. Gabler, the man who produced “Strange Fruit,” should have caught it. Jenkins, a noted champion of liberal causes, should have caught it. But they didn’t.
The release of the record went off like an explosion in the African-American press. “The name of trumpet player Louis Armstrong joined the list of the ‘We Ain’t Ready’ people in show business when it became known that he has made a new recording for Decca Records in which he sings the racial epithet ‘d-----s’ in referring to colored people,” James L. Hicks wrote in the Baltimore Afro-American. “Decca, the firm which released the recording, told Afro on Thursday that Armstrong’s use of the word in the song is ‘regrettable’ and not in line with Decca’s policy, but claimed that its use was not ‘intentional’ but was a ‘slip-up’ on the part of both the firm and Mr. Armstrong.” Mike Connors, Decca’s promotion manager, said “it slipped through” without anyone noticing. Again, that explanation does make the most sense but the damage was done. The Afro-American ran this cartoon, complete with handkerchief-headed caricature:
Representatives from NBC, CBS, WNBC, WOR, WINS, WCBS, WNEW, WGN and WJZ said they wouldn’t play it and Harlem’s WLIB said, “We are absolutely, actually violently against the use of offensive words on our programs and you can make it stronger than that.” The Philadelphia Afro-American went as far as running a story, “Harlem Hotel Bans Armstrong’s Offensive Record” complete with a photo of African-American model Natalie Harper breaking Armstrong’s record of “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” across her knee at the Theresa Hotel Bar in Harlem.
It was another nail in the coffin of Armstrong’s reputation in the black community. Decca immediately had him come back to the studio--this time with Victor Young’s orchestra--and sang a new bridge substituting “people” instead of “darkies.” He wasn’t happy about it, asking at the start of the redo session, “What do you want me to call those black sons-of-bitches this morning?” Ernie Anderson remembered an emissary from the NAACP was called in to discuss with Armstrong about how the record was demeaning to blacks. Armstrong replied angrily, “Two niggers wrote it!”
In 1956, Armstrong was still angry at the black press. When they attacked Nat King Cole for accepting a segregated engagement in Birmingham, Alabama at which the popular vocalist was beaten onstage, Armstrong vented to the Voice of America, “I notice the colored newspapers, the minute a little minor thing happen to a musician or one of those actors or something, why, you’d never seen such headlines, when they should take into it and stand by the man….We only have a few in our race that’s on top in this music game, and I think if we get together and stick by each other, we could have a few more.” Armstrong and Cole had broken into the pop music world and came to the hard realization that they were alone there, without the support of large amounts of their own community. Armstrong was just doing what he had been doing his entire career--putting his own personal stamp and applying his genius to popular music and jazz--and was now more popular than ever. He wasn’t going to change now. He would also continue to sing “Sleepy Time” as his theme song every night for the rest of his life.
Tellingly, the whole furor over “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” was contained to the African-American press. Billboard never even referenced it a single time. Their original review on December 15 spotlighted it as one of “The Billboard Picks” for the week, stating, “The fabulous Louis does this oldie in his own superb style, against a lush Jenkins backing.” It was officially released on December 29 and was a number 3 “Best Bet” in the Popular category on December 29, a number 2 “Best Bet” on January 5 and finally, the number 1 “Best Bet” on January 12. On January 19, by which point Decca rushed out the edited versions without the offending word, it was a “Disc Jockeys Pick” and a “Retailers Pick” (the remake is the version heard on this set; the pulled version can still be found on Satchmo in Style). Armstrong was featured in a story that issue, “‘Kiss’ Bliss: Satchmo Hits Fast Stride, 400,000 Disks,” referencing the sales of “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” and adding “Satchmo on wax currently kicking on all fours with...his latest effort in concert with Gordon Jenkins’ ork, ‘When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.’" On January 26, it was number 3 on Decca’s Popular charts, still right behind “A Kiss to Build a Dream On / I Get Ideas.” It remained a Decca pop best seller through March.
It might have been his most controversial record of the period but there was no denying “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” was yet another hit. There was also no denying that though he was hitting new peaks of popularity, he would no longer count African-Americans as a large part of that fan base, a fact that hurt him for the rest of his life.
Necessary Evil / Oops!
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Ella Fitzgerald (voc), Larry Neil (tp), Frank Howard (tb), Jack Dumont, Chuck Gentry, Heinie Beau (saxes), Hank Jones (p), Ray Brown (b), Alvin Stoller (d), Dave Barbour (g, cond).
Recorded November 23, 1951, Los Angeles
On November 23, 1951, five days before recording with Gordon Jenkins, Armstrong cut four more sides with Ella Fitzgerald. Though all four feature the Ella-and-Louis magic, these are probably their least known offerings. This might be partly because of Gabler’s song choices as none of the four ever became--or ever were--familiar standards.
For the first single, Gabler chose two brand new songs, Redd Evans’s “Necessary Evil,” which was being introduced by Armstrong and Fitzgerald, and Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren’s “Oops!,” written for the film Belle of New York. Picking up where they left off on “Can Anyone Explain” the previous year, “Necessary Evil” finds Ella and Louis at their most playful, teasing each other throughout even if the theme of women as a “necessary evil” is a more than a little sexist in this modern age. “Oops!” has a cute chorus of special lyrics custom-tailed for Armstrong and Fitzgerald. One has to wonder if Johnny Mercer himself had something to do with them, as he was such an admirer of both artists.
Billboard was a fan of both sides, writing of “Necessary Evil,” “Ella and Louis combine to come up with a fine piece of material boasting a slick lyric and a strong beat. Certain to get lots of spin, the disk might turn out to be a good seller, too.” Of “Oops!,” the magazine called it “a personality-loaded performance from the great jazz duo,” adding, “Louis even gets to blow a little on this side.”
“Decca Data” placed it as a number 8 “Best Bet” on January 26. It remained on the “Best Bet” list for five weeks, getting as high as number 4, but disappeared after February 23 and has rarely reappeared since. Perhaps disappointed by the sales, Gabler sat on the other two sides recorded that day for almost a full year.
Big Butter and Egg Man / You’re the Apple of My Eye
Personnel on “Big Butter and Egg Man”: Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Chris Griffin (tp), Red Ballard (tb), Wayne Songer (as), Dent Eckels (ts), Charles LaVere (p), Allan Reuss (g), Phil Stephens (b), Nick Fatool (d), Velma Middleton (voc), Gordon Jenkins (cond).
Personnel on “You’re the Apple of My Eye”: Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Jack Teagarden (tb), Barney Bigard (cl), Earl Hines (p), Arvell Shaw (b), Cozy Cole (d), Velma Middleton (voc).
“Big Butter and Egg Man” recorded February 6, 1951, Los Angeles
“You’re the Apple of My Eye” recorded April 23, 1951, Los Angeles
This single was released on February 2, 1952 and contains two numbers originally waxed earlier in 1951, each one featuring the dynamic combination of Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton. “Big Butter and Egg Man” was an immortal Hot Five recording that Armstrong had revived at his famed Town Hall concert in May 1947. It’s already been pointed out that Jenkins was quite a fan of Armstrong so he must have been in his glory to put his own stamp on one of the “good old good ones.” The band sounds quite happy in their backing of the vocalists, Eddie Miller’s clarinet making its presence felt, while Allan Reuss’s rhythm guitar is superbly captured. Armstrong plays an obligato but doesn’t solo, something which must have disappointed the old 78 record collectors. Instead, it’s the Louis-and-Velma show with Armstrong making sure to call out the third member of the team with his excited, “Take it, Gordon Jenkins!”
“Big Butter and Egg Man” was actually the “B” side of this single. The “A” side, “You’re the Apple of My Eye,” was the only song Gabler was able to salvage from the April 23, 1951 Los Angeles session. Armstrong is sometimes given a co-composer credit but it appears to actually have been written by the team of Ben Lewis, Bob Hart and Lee Fox according to the original Decca 45 label. Like the other tunes recorded that day, the All Stars play like they’re trying not to wake the neighbors but Armstrong and Middleton are more than up for a little fun. I should note that after listening to enough of Armstrong’s private tapes, any time he heard the word “eat,” he did not immediately think of food; that should explain his throaty “Ump!” when Middleton sings, “You’re sweet enough to eat.” And with the references to “Gonna shake your tree,” this is definitely one of the most outwardly risqué Armstrong and Middleton numbers.
Both of these sides soon were added to the stable of Armstrong-and-Middleton live duets, but only “Big Butter and Egg Man” had legs, being performed until Middleton’s untimely death in 1961. Armstrong tried pushing the heck out of “You’re the Apple of My Eye,” bragging about it in a letter to Hawaiian disc jockeys in March 1952 and performing it live around the same time. One live performance survives on one of Armstrong’s reel-to-reel tapes and it finds the audience simply gasping and screaming at some of the double-entendre lines towards the end. Perhaps it was a bit too much as the song does not seem to have been performed much, if at all, after the summer of 1952.
It was released on February 2 and spent three weeks as a Decca “Best Bet” in Billboard, getting as high as number 7 in mid-February. But there’s something striking in the February 16 “Decca Data” feature: Armstrong had five records on the list:
“A Kiss to Build a Dream On” / “I Get Ideas” - Number 3 Popular Best Seller
“When It’s Sleepy Time Down” / “It’s All in the Game” - Number 5 Popular Best Seller
“Cold Cold Heart” / “Because of You” - Number 13 Popular Best Seller
“Necessary Evil” / “Oops!” - Number 4 Best Bet
“You’re the Apple of My Eye” / “Big Butter and Egg Man” - Number 6 Best Bet
Five songs on Decca’s charts at one time, surrounded by other Decca artists such as Gordon Jenkins, Guy Lombardo, The Andrews Sisters, Russ Morgan, Fred Waring and the Weavers. I’ll admit that even in my book, I focused on the rebuilding phase of the All Stars that took part in much of 1952, completely missing the larger picture of that period: Louis Armstrong was a bona fide pop star.
Jeannine (I Dream of Lilac Time) / Indian Love Call
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Chris Griffin, George Thow, Bruce Hudson (tp), Eddie Miller, Dent Eckels (ts), Charles LaVere (p), Allan Reuss (g), Phil Stephens (b), Nick Fatool (d), Unknown strings, Gordon Jenkins (arr, cond)
Recorded November 28, 1951, Los Angeles
The early 1950s really were a strange time in American popular music, a time of older songs being rediscovered and going straight to the top of the charts. We’ve already seen it with “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” “It’s All in the Game,” “If,” “Blueberry Hill” and others so it's shouldn't be a surprise that Gabler hand-picked two oldies for this single, seemingly out of thin air, perhaps hoping for another nostalgic chart topper. Adding Gordon Jenkins to the equation always guaranteed some attention would be paid to the pairing.
“Jeannine (I Dream of Lilac Time)” was by Nat Shilkret written for the score of an otherwise silent 1928 film, Lilac Time. When lyrics were added by L. Wolfe Gilbert, it made the rounds of of the popular music world of 1929, with versions recorded by Gene Austin and John McCormack, among others. Someone thought it would be a good fit for the Armstrong-Jenkins combination and they were right.
Jenkins’s strings open “Jeannine” but instead of taking over the show, they’re immediately answered by some dramatic trumpet playing by Armstrong. Then, like “It’s All in the Game”--recorded the same day--Jenkins takes an entire chorus in waltz time before swinging it for Armstrong. Over a light two feel, Armstrong sticks close to the melody, the strings filling in any open cracks. It should be mentioned that Armstrong never burlesques the pop material handed to him, as Fats Waller might have done a decade or two earlier. Armstrong “saw the life” in everything he recorded for Decca--and every other label--and always puts his heart in it. There’s never a feeling of boredom or satire in these Decca pop sides.
Armstrong’s heartfelt singing and Jenkins’s pulsating strings continue in this vein until the very end, when Jenkins adds a jaunty shuffle that awakens Armstrong’s sense of fun. A very pretty record, but perhaps a little too nostalgic for 1951.
“Indian Love Call” was written in 1924 but became best known as the signature duet of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald as featured in the 1936 film Rose Marie. Chet Atkins recorded it in 1951, which was enough for people to take notice but Slim Whitman hadn’t had his 1952 hit yet at the time of Armstrong’s November 1951 waxing so it really seems to be another case of Gabler and/or Jenkins purposefully looking for material from the 1920s for this date.
Instead of any waltz-time openings, Jenkins allows Armstrong to swing this one from the first note. The opening duet between Armstrong's muted trumpet and Nick Fatool's drums sets the stage for Jenkins's strings to play the melody as only they can. Armstrong plays perfect fills around it, getting off his favorite quote of Franz Drdla’s “Souvenir" in his second fill. Then another Jenkins trademark, and something of a pop music cliché from this period, as pianist Charles LaVere plays the melody in single notes an octave lower than normal. A nice touch in the arrangement occurs when the strings sweep back in to play the melody over a stiff two-beat rhythm. As the chorus approaches its ending and Armstrong gets ready to make his vocal entrance, Jenkins loosens them up and the rhythm section begins swinging hard.
Armstrong immediately feels it, creating an entirely new melody that's two parts English and one part scat. Louis swings like mad, as does the studio group, with shivers of strings occasionally filling in the gaps. A brief interlude by the horns sets up the highlight of the track: Armstrong's glorious trumpet trading with LaVere's single-note piano business. One of the glories of the Armstrong-Jenkins recordings is finding all the secret Armstrong licks Jenkins manages to hide in his arrangements. Here, there's no hiding it; every note LaVere plays is right out of the Armstrong playbook! It's a humorous little exchange, broken up by some dizzying writing for the strings, but I love it for the pure relaxation of Armstrong’s phrasing. He's so calm and in charge....that is until the end of the string escapade. Then watch out! Now, Pops pumps up the volume and approaches center stage like a great opera singer, his tone bellowing, his phrasing grand. He runs up to a high concert Bb and works his way down during a sure-footed cadenza of sorts. But instead of ending with that, Louis returns with a delightful vocal reprise, swinging and smiling and putting a terrific little ending on a terrific little record.
This single was released on April 5 and Billboard’s “Decca Data” had high hopes, making it a number 2 “Best Bet” on April 19. Word must have spread because the April 26 issue of the magazine reviewed other pop versions of “Jeannine (I Dream of Lilac Time)” by Victor Marchese on MGM and The Mariners on Columbia (Billboard referred to the song as “the oldie, now in the process of revival”). However, Armstrong’s recording disappeared shortly after, unable to overtake the much more popular Armstrong-Jenkins coupling of “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” and “It’s All in the Game.” Not to worry, there’d be another Decca single released within a few short weeks.
Kiss of Fire / I’ll Walk Alone
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Russ Phillips (tb), Barney Bigard (cl), Donald Ruffell (cl, ts), Marty Napoleon (p), Dale Jones (b), Cozy Cole (d).
Recorded April 19, 1952, Denver
Milt Gabler had been issuing Armstrong singles at a furious rate but as the calendar hit April 1952, he hadn’t recorded Armstrong since November 1951. Perhaps feeling antsy, he scheduled a date in Denver of all places, featuring Armstrong’s regular All Stars of the period, with the addition of Donald Ruffell as a second reed.
After the success of “I Get Ideas” in 1951, Gabler was after another tango suitable for Armstrong to record. This time, it would be “El Choclo,” an extremely popular Argentine tango from 1903 that had just been given new English lyrics and the title “Kiss of Fire.” Georgia Gibbs had the first crack at it, releasing her version on Mercury in March, eventually hitting number one in June. On April 19--the same day as the Armstrong session--Billboard published a huge ad for Gibbs’s recording, calling it, “America’s Newest Hit” and “The Top Version Everywhere.” Even Denver.
But like “I Get Ideas,” the song was a perfect fit for Armstrong, who tapped into the same burning (no pun intended) sense of passion he applied to the earlier record. In fact, it’s hard to find a more intense lyric reading in the entire Armstrong vocal discography than his demanding “Don’t pity me!” From a trumpet standpoint, there’s a touch of wear around the edges at the start but Armstrong blows through it, always sounding at home in a minor key. He seems to inspire the All Stars, too, especially Barney Bigard, who really rises to the occasion with his unusually inspired clarinet playing. Armstrong was slowly turning in a safe, beaming, grandfather-like figure but on “Kiss of Fire,” he displays the same sex appeal that infused 1930s recordings such as “I’m Confessin’” and “If I Could Be With You.” Only the closing “Ah, boin [burn] me,” is played for a laugh, perhaps to relieve the tension after such a passionate performance.
Billboard agreed that it was a winner, naming it its top pick in its May 3 issue, writing, “The fabulous Louis does a fine job with a light and happy reading of the tango over a lush ork backing.” I guess Ruffell’s lone additional reed was enough to push the All Stars into “lush ork” territory.
The flip side was another rediscovered oldie, “I’ll Walk Alone,” a big hit for Dinah Shore in 1944 when its theme of separation between lovers struck a chord during World War II. Though normally popular with female singers, it was a top ten version by Don Cornell in 1952 that put it back on scene.
Armstrong’s take on it is subdued (especially after “Kiss of Fire”), though charming as always. The song shows off his range, from the rumbling readings of the titular phrase to the bridge which puts him in his tenor range. His trumpet sounds stronger here, especially in the introduction and for the solo, he improvises from note one, touching on the melody, but going for himself more than might be expected. The “Mama, I’ll walk alone” at the end is a nice touch, while the All Stars deserve props for their light backing, especially the muted trombone of Russ Phillips and some more pointed fills by Bigard.
By this point, Decca stopped publishing their “Decca Data” charts in Billboard, making it harder to track how Armstrong’s pop singles were selling. But it’s clear the hot streak continued, judging by a May 31 article, “Satchmo Inks With Decca.” “Louis Armstrong, whose records have sold better during the last two years than ever before, has been signed to a new term contract by Leonard Schneider, Decca vice-president,” the article read. “The artist’s surge in popularity is attributed to his growing acceptance in the pop market.” With a new contract in hand, that acceptance was guaranteed to continue for the foreseeable future.
Baby, It’s Cold Outside / That’s My Desire
Personnel on “Baby It’s Cold Outside”: Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Jack Teagarden (tb), Barney Bigard (cl), Earl Hines (p), Arvell Shaw (b), Cozy Cole (d), Velma Middleton (voc)
Personnel on “That’s My Desire”:Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Jack Teagarden (tb, voc), Barney Bigard (cl), Dick Cary (p), Arvell Shaw (b), Sid Catlett (d), Velma Middleton (voc).
“Baby It’s Cold Outside” recorded live in Pasadena, January 30, 1951
“That’s My Desire” recorded live in Boston, November 30, 1947
This is the only live Armstrong material to get the Decca single treatment. In January 1951, Milt Gabler released Satchmo at Symphony Hall as a special 2-LP set but initially didn’t make any singles out of it. That same month, he recorded Satchmo at Pasadena but didn’t issue it until July 1952. Though both albums were chock full of outstanding pure no-frills jazz, each also featured definitive, hilarious versions of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and “That’s My Desire,” Armstrong’s two show-stopping duets with female vocalist--and comic foil--Velma Middleton.
Thus, Gabler saw a perfect opportunity to release both duets on this single, but, due to time constraints, had to edit each performance. Since the unedited versions have been consistently in print for about 65 years, we’ve decided to replicate Gabler’s edits to present both sides as they originally appeared on the 1952 single.
For “That’s My Desire,” Gabler had an easy edit to make. The song was already split into two parts for 7-inch issue so he just reissued part two, from Armstrong’s entrance until the end. “Baby It’s Cold Outside” was a little more difficult; after a meandering introduction, Armstrong and Middleton sang a full chorus then spent about three minutes hilariously flirting in-character as the two tipsy protagonists of the song’s lyrics before reprising the last eight bars at the end. Gabler cut down the introduction, included almost the entire first sung chorus and then spliced to the very last, “Oh, but it’s cold outside” that ended the performance, eliminating almost all of the comedy. At 2:21, it’s a pretty short side, only giving a whiff of the antics that took place on stage, but coupled with the shortened “That’s My Desire,” the single does provide a nice tribute to one of the top teams in show business.
Takes Two to Tango / I Laughed at Love
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Hymie Schertzer, Dick Jacobs (as), Babe Fresk, Melvin Tax (ts), Bill Holcombe (bars), Billy Kyle (p), Everett Barksdale (g), Joe Benjamin (b), Bobby Donaldson (d), Sy Oliver (arr, cond).
Recorded August 25, 1952, New York City
Sunny Gale, who is still alive at the time of this writing, is one of those singers who was a fixture on the early-50s pop scene but became forgotten after the ascent of rock and roll. In early 1952, she hit the charts with the first recording of “Wheel of Fortune,” but was soon eclipsed by the late Kay Starr, who ended up having a number one hit with her take on it. Still, Gale was on the map, making her an artist worth following. Her next single, “I Laughed at Love,” was issued in July 1952 and Billboard predicted big things, writing, “Platter should make it with ease” and it had the “stuff of a big side.”
That was all Milt Gabler needed to know. He sent a copy of Gale’s record to Louis, who dubbed it to tape, following it by his a cappella singing of the lyrics. “I Laughed at Love” was still on the rise when Armstrong was called in to record it on August 25 with a studio group arranged and conducted by Sy Oliver. The result was a terrific Armstrong pop side, one featuring a fun vocal and a really dynamic trumpet spot. This was the record Armstrong bristled at being called a “commercial” number when he appeared on “International Jazz Club” in September 1952, arguing in his defense, “Ain’t nothing can outswing it.” He was correct, as usual.
This was a case of the flip side overtaking the “A” side as “Takes Two to Tango” is still a popular number associated with Armstrong. Pearl Bailey had the first crack at the brand new song, but not by much. Two days before Armstrong’s session, Billboard reviewed Bailey’s record, predicting “If exposed, this hearty item could break out” and reporting elsewhere in the August 23 issue that Coral Records had just ordered 40,000 more copies of Bailey’s record.
Once again, credit must be given to Gabler for such a strong song choice. Looking at the other records on the pop charts the week they recorded “It Takes Two to Tango,” one sees numbers such as “Auf Wiedersehen, Sweetheart” by Vera Lynn and “Botch-a-Me” by Rosemary Clooney, among others. Gabler’s batting average for knowing which pop numbers would suit Armstrong best was remarkably high.
This numbers lets Armstrong’s personality run wild and it’s a delight from the opening “Hey Baby” to the closing humming. In between, Armstrong really starts emoting at the end of the first full chorus, Oliver’s reeds growing in volume with him, the whole thing ending with a righteous “Oh zet” before a rocking trumpet solo. Fun, fun, fun from start to finish.
When the single was issued in early September, Billboard could not contain its enthusiasm. It was one of the “Top Picks” of the week of September 13, carrying the description, “This one was made for Satchmo. It’s a bouncy, rollicking rendition which the fabulous one gets as big a kick out of doing as will anyone who hears it.” One week later, the magazine’s official review gushed, “Louis really goes to town in this robust and rollicking rendition of the ditty. His joyful style projects with mirthful effect. This waxing should catch on fast and earn plenty of coin. Deejays, especially, will not neglect.” Sure enough, it was the number three “Deejays Pick” of the week in the October 4 issue.
And though some jazz deejays, such as the host of “International Record Club,” might have objected to its commercial nature, Billboard knew “I Laughed at Love” was a winner, too, the magazine summing it up, “This side, too, seems due for plenty of action.” One month later, the October 18 issue carried a half-page ad for the coupling, one of the few times Decca gave Armstrong the promotional spotlight in this fertile period. It didn’t become a best-seller--”Takes Two to Tango” never did eclipse Pearl Bailey’s popular version--but it was popular on the radio, keeping Armstrong’s music before the public.
Fellow jazz musicians seemed to take notice. Ella Fitzgerald impersonated Armstrong singing it at a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in October, while on November 28, Lester Young sang his own interpretation during a Norman Granz-produced record date with Oscar Peterson. That entire session had Armstrong on the brain as Young and Peterson waxed versions of Armstrong-related songs such as “I’m Confessin’,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Indiana,” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” but “It Takes Two to Tango” shows musicians were even following the Decca sides, even if many critics tended to either criticize them or ignore them entirely. Their loss.
White Christmas / Winter Wonderland
Louis Armstrong (voc), Bob McCracken (cl), Milt Yaner (as), Stitz Ferguson (ts), George Berg, Romeo Penque (fl), Marty Napoleon (p), Art Ryerson (g), Arvell Shaw (b), Cozy Cole (d) Unknown strings, Choir (voc), Gordon Jenkins (arr, cond).
Recorded September 22, 1952, New York City
It’s almost unfathomable that at age 51--and after nearly 30 straight years of recording--Louis Armstrong didn’t record any Christmas songs until this September 1952 session, done with Gordon Jenkins while the two men were sharing the stage at the Paramount Theater in New York City.
The results were worth the wait as both numbers are given luscious treatments, even if they’re unusually low-key. They feature no trumpet and no surges of emotion or anything like it. They’re very sober but the best word to describe them has to be “warm.” Armstrong is at his most tender, singing as if he’s whispering a loving lullaby to a small child.
“White Christmas” is up first and, of course, was property of Armstrong’s friend and disciple, Bing Crosby. From the opening seconds, we know we’re in Gordon Jenkins country. “White Christmas” demonstrates that many of our best-loved Christmas songs feature quite a range of notes and you can hear Armstrong stretch here and there, but I always loved his tenor voice—as well as that basso profundo he would break out when necessary. Both are needed on “White Christmas,” which finds Pops reaching for a high D on “the ones” to the C an octave lower on “children.” On the final “be white,” Armstrong goes down to a low B on the coincidental word “be.” Where you’d expect a scat break or a “oh babe,” Pops lays out, leaving the gaps to be filled by Jenkins’s beautiful strings. After a brief string interlude, Armstrong reenters with the final eight bars, featuring, I think, some of his most touching singing. You can hear him smiling as he sings “and bright.” Again, he goes way down for that final “white,” holding it for an impressive amount of time. Very pretty stuff.
“Winter Wonderland” is up next and it’s more of the same. Again, Armstrong rarely deviates from the melody but he doesn’t have to, he’s singing it so sweetly. (Am I weird for actually feeling warmed by the way he sings “as we dream by the fire”?) Jenkins goes back to the bridge for another one of his trademark sounds, as Marty Napoleon plays the melody in single notes in the lower range of the piano. During the cute extended coda, Armstrong repeats the word “walking” while the pizzicato strings “walk” gingerly behind him. Finally, a little bit of scat brings the proceedings to a mellow conclusion.
Decca released the results of the September session on November 15, once again garnering positive notices in Billboard. “There have been scores of waxings of the Berlin favorite but this one could move up with the top sellers this Christmas,” the magazine said of “White Christmas.” “Satchmo sings it as only he can, and the Jenkins ork provides a beautiful accompaniment. This one should grab loot and keep the deejays busy in December.” It was the same story for “Winter Wonderland”: “The lovely Jenkins ork arrangement provides a fine showcase for Louis to agreeably tell, in his own wonderful style, about a snowy winter on this delightful waxing of the oldie. Side will grab bundles of spins starting the end of November.”
And just one column over, the magazine named the single one of the Top Picks of the Week, writing, “Dealers, operators and deejays should get a lot of action out of both sides of this new platter come the start of the Christmas season. Fine tunes, and Louis’ vocals could make it a big holiday disking.”
Needless to say, this wouldn’t be the last time Armstrong encountered some Christmas music for the label. And the next time out, he’d romp instead of croon.
Chlo-e (Song of the Swamp) / Listen to the Mocking Bird
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Bob McCracken (cl), Milt Yaner (as), Stitz Ferguson (ts), George Berg, Romeo Penque (fl), Marty Napoleon (p), Art Ryerson (g), Arvell Shaw (b), Cozy Cole (d) Unknown strings, Choir (voc), Gordon Jenkins (arr, cond).
Recorded September 22, 1952
These two songs were also recorded by Armstrong and Jenkins at the September 22 “Christmas” date but Gabler held them in reserve until January 17, 1953, making them the first issued Armstrong sides of the new year. But like the previous Jenkins sides, there really wasn’t anything new about them.
The “A” side, "Chlo-e" had been around since the 1930s and fans of classic jazz probably have some vivid aural memories associated with the song: Red Allen swinging it at an uptempo clip, Benny Goodman swinging through a Fletcher Henderson arrangement of the tune, the unforgettable sound of Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton's truly swamp-like trombone on Duke Ellington's version, etc. Before I even got into jazz, I loved Spike Jones's hilarious parody of it, complete with tuned cowbells taking the melody. But for Armstrong, Jenkins slowed the tempo dramatically, added some of his characteristically humorous touches and even allowed some scorching trumpet work.
The song "Chlo-e" comes in two parts. The verse consists of a minor-keyed run followed by the call of "Chlo-e," while the main strain is notable for its lovely chord changes. Armstrong's unaccompanied trumpet is pretty dazzling during the verse. He gets four chances to work-over the melody in his own fashion, taking more chances with each outing before his dramatic final break. The choir sets up Armstrong's tender vocal entrance, his voice containing a hint of scratchiness on the word "Through." The rhythm section swings lightly while Armstrong gets backed by either strings or voices. He doesn't deviate from the melody much or throw in any of his trademark asides or scat passages but he sings the hell out of it, especially in the dramatic final section, going up high to hit the climactic word "ain't" and going way back down for the final word "are." Armstrong's vocal range was showed off terrifically throughout the date (dig "White Christmas" again) and "Chlo-e" is no exception.
After a chorus, the impish Jenkins couldn't resist going for a laugh with a cute bit that finds the choir intoning "Louie, Louie" instead of "Chlo-e." Pops plays along and it's all in good fun. But after the short bit comes my favorite moment of the track, Armstrong’s swinging way in getting back to singing the final line. As written, it's simply, "Love is calling me/I've got to go where you are." But for the ending, Armstrong adds an entire new phrase, "I believe that I hear love calling me/ I've got to go where you are." The line swings like mad, almost all on a single pitch and he hits the downbeat--boom--perfectly with the second "I," pausing for a second after singing it. He practically defines swing with his reading of it and it even inspires the rhythm section to kick it up a few notches to close out the record. And what a close! Just listen to Armstrong hold that final note. The man was a master singer--"singing was my first hustle" he would proudly told people and with Jenkins, he recorded some of the finest vocals of his career.
Almost all of the above can be repeated for the flip side, “Listen to the Mocking Bird,” though for this one, Jenkins and Gabler reached back almost a full century for a song originally written in 1855. Though the lyrics have a sad connotation--a mockingbird sings a song the singer associates with his now-deceased love--it’s usually given a jaunty treatment (where are my Three Stooges fans?).
Here, though, Jenkins finds a happy medium, not swinging too hard, but also not getting too maudlin. All Stars bassist Arvell Shaw shines with his eight-to-the-bar ostinato establishing a foot-patting groove which Armstrong rides comfortably over in storytelling mode. This time, the humor is provided by a flute playing the song of the mockingbird--which of course, in Jenkins’s hands, is full of Louis licks. Jenkins switches the rhythm to a 4/4 feel in the second chorus and everyone swings lightly and politely. When the voices take over the melody, Armstrong provides the song of the mockingbird entirely through scat. The bass motif returns in time to cap off the record.
Billboard was pleased, writing of “Listen to the Mocking Bird,” “The oldie is well suited to Armstrong who projects it in his usual bright manner. Sparkling arrangement by Jenkins with choral backing gives a hefty assist.” And “Chlo-e” was described as, “Another fine effort by all hands. The fabulous Louis adds a couple of trumpet runs on this one.” I’ve been quoting these Billboard reviews to illustrate how much the pop world appreciated “the fabulous Louis,” but even Downbeat couldn’t find much to complain about in this pairing, giving “Mocking Bird” four stars and “Chlo-e” three. “Here’s a switch—neither of these is a topical tune or a cover job on a pop—Decca just made ‘em,” Downbeat wrote. “And it’s the first time in memory that Mocking Bird has been treated without gimmicks and so unpretentiously (…’And the mockin’ boids is singin’’…). Jenkins’ backing is superb, Pops sings up his usual storm, and let’s see you mock this, you birds.”
“Decca Data” returned to Billboard by this point, but not featuring the ranked charts of its pre-1952 incarnation. Still, it included a list of Popular Best Sellers on the label and “Chlo-e and Listen to the Mocking Bird” were on it in the February 14, 1953 issue.
It was another Armstrong-and-Jenkins nostalgic special and though neither side contain anything earth-shattering, they both radiates tremendous warmth and never fail to make me smile. And isn't that what Louis Armstrong is all about?
Would You Like to Take a Walk? (Sump’n Good’ll Come From That) / Who Walks in When I Walk Out?
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Ella Fitzgerald (voc), Larry Neil (tp), Frank Howard (tb), Jack Dumont, Chuck Gentry, Heinie Beau (saxes), Hank Jones (p), Ray Brown (b), Alvin Stoller (d), Dave Barbour (g, cond).
Recorded November 23, 1951
For Armstrong’s next 1953 release, Gabler reached back to his last session with Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald from November 23, 1951. Gabler only recorded three sessions with Armstrong in the entirety of 1952, resulting in eight sides, way down from the 18 sides cut in 1951, a stockpile Gabler was able to dip into for much of 1952 and now, the start of 1953. Armstrong was not the only Decca artist to see a decline in recording sessions. The September 13, 1952 issue of Billboard ran a story reading, “In the past month, the firm [Decca] has slashed its release schedule in half. Decca, which for some time has had the unique distinction of being the most prolific releaser of new disk entries, now turns out to market an average of only four to five new platters a week….Reduction of the release load has also enabled Decca execs to sight their promotional guns on fewer targets. Distributors, too, have been able to squeeze more action per record out of the reduced load.” The article named five new “Decca Pops” that topped the 35,000 mark, including Armstrong’s single of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Decca might have been making fewer overall recordings, but Armstrong was still an integral part of their stable.
Gabler had already issued Armstrong and Fitzgerald’s waxing of two recent compositions, “Necessary Evil” and “Oops!” in early 1952 and now was going to make a single out of two older songs that were far from being overdone warhorses. “Would You Like to Take a Walk” was from 1930 and though Armstrong’s dramatic trumpet reading of the melody seems to set the stage for a quiet, sober ballad, it ends up being a lot of fun with Ella and Louis gently kidding each other throughout. They were clearly getting more and more comfortable with each other in the studio, foreshadowing the looser, more celebrated Verve recordings still to come. Even through the kidding asides, there’s clear affection between the two giants. And unlike the Verve recordings, these are planned out affairs, with the sharing of the lyrics carefully--and smartly--worked out and another spot built in for more of that majestic Armstrong trumpet.
“Who Walks In When I Walk Out” was only slightly newer--composed in 1934. This one romps in a minor key, Dave Barbour’s arrangement setting the stage immediately with its exciting riffs over a descending pattern. Armstrong again gets to wail, getting way up there in his trading with the horns. Armstrong and Fitzgerald harmonize together at the end, putting a swinging end to their Decca partnership.
Billboard approved, if not exactly gushed, calling “Who Walks In” “An okay side for the fans” and writing of “Would You Like to Take a Walk,” “The pace is slow yet carries zing.” The single clung to the end of Decca’s Popular Best Sellers in the March 21 “Decca Data” but disappeared soon after. In fact, until now, these songs have never been issued properly by Universal--who owns Decca--in the digital era. Though full of excellent moments, these represent the least known of the Ella-and-Louis recordings. Gabler was in no rush to pair them again but the next time they teamed up in the studio for Norman Granz in 1956, they’d strike gold. That was still a ways away; at the start of 1953, Armstrong and manager Joe Glaser certainly didn’t have any plans to interrupt this incredible Decca run.
Your Cheatin’ Heart / Congratulations to Someone
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Trummy Young (tb), Barney Bigard (cl), Louis Alois, Everett Van Deven (as), Fred Netting (ts), Abraham Rozanoff (bars), Marty Napoleon (p), George Rose (g), Arvell Shaw (b), Cozy Cole (d) Sy Oliver (arr, cond).
Recorded February 23, 1953, Detroit
Decca already had two singles on the market when Armstrong recorded the first new music for the label in 1953. And this time, it would actually be new music instead of the nostalgic choices Gabler had been feeding him lately, though the sources would be pretty varied: a country song by Hank Williams and a pop ballad made popular by Tony Bennett, Armstrong’s favorite “boy from my neighborhood” (Queens).
Armstrong’s September 1951 recording “Cold, Cold Heart” proved to be a popular one so Gabler decided to return to the well of the late Hank Williams, who recorded the song on September 23, 1952, but it wasn’t released until after Williams’s death on January 1, 1953 at the age of 29.
Williams’s version spent six weeks on the country charts and became known as one of his greatest songs, but at the time, bigger versions were made by others. Joni James scored a number two hit with it, recording it on January 7, while Frankie Laine’s version, recorded January 8, reached number 18 .
With a hit in the air, it was time for Armstrong to put his stamp on it. “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is one of my favorites, with a lot of credit for that going to Sy Oliver’s arrangement, which, instead of instilling a stiff countrified two-beat, instead struts and nods its head with a decidedly Lunceford-ian two feel, with shades of “Yes Indeed” thrown in to give a church-like feel. As pianist Marty Napoleon told me, “The manager of the band gave me a lead sheet on ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart.’ And we were in Detroit, Michigan and Joe Glaser said, ‘Run this over with Louie cause we’re going to record it with Sy Oliver.’ So I played it over myself and I said, ‘My God, what kind of song is this?’ It was like a flat, hillbilly song, you know what I mean? And then Sy came in with this arrangement and that thing was swinging like crazy. It was magnificent, man! It was wonderful.”
Armstrong opens the proceedings with two bars of trumpet (it almost sounds like he’s about to start playing the “Isle of Capri”) before the band carries out the final two bars of the introduction. Immediately, just off that intro, you have to be feeling good. Trummy Young, who joined the All Stars in September 1952, adds a bluesy quality to the proceedings with his trombone fills (remember, Trummy was a Lunceford man, too). As Armstrong starts singing, look out for a reenergized Barney Bigard, who had returned from a six-month sabbatical full of energy, playing like a madman behind Armstrong’s’s vocal. The only clam on the entire record, though, comes from the great Armstrong himself as he has trouble hitting the right pitch on the word “You” right before the bridge. He recovers quickly, singing “When tears come down” all on one pitch in a break (dig Cozy Cole’s perfectly timed rimshot behind it). The reeds riff gently during the bridge, with Cole’s bass drum really keeping the two-feel in a funky bag.
Armstrong plays wonderfully on his real down home 16-bar solo. Dig Oliver’s writing for the band, chanting and riffing like a congregation. Shaw and Cole stay with the two-beat for two bars but when Shaw kicks it into four in the third bar, the effect is exhilarating. Armstrong’s phrases come in three shapes and sizes: there are the snatches of melody here and there; there are the tumbling faster phrases, not boppish eighth-note runs, but tricky rhythmic grumbles that are strictly Armstrong; and finally, downright bluesy phrases, such as the emphatic three minor thirds he plays right on the beat heading into the second half of his solo, squeezing the juice out of the last one for good measure. As always, the high notes are impressive but that final low minor third is a “gassuh,” as Pops would say.
When he returns to sing the bridge, the record sounds like a party broke out in the studio. Shaw reverts back to the two-beat, slapping his strings so hard you can hear one pop and the band moans righteously behind the vocal (good tremolos by Napoleon). Armstrong finishes the chorus, lets out a resounding “Yes,” like a preacher about to repeat the point of his sermon one last time, and does just that, repeating the last four bars joyously, going up for the final “will tell on you” as the band swings to its conclusion. A great, great record.
The flip side “Congratulations to Someone,” can’t compete with “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” though Armstrong still sounds good, as always. The tune was written by Al Frisch and Roy Alfred, the latter being the man behind the lyrics of “The Hucklebuck.” Tony Bennett recorded it for Columbia on August 26, 1952, having a modest hit with it. Decca sent Armstrong Bennett’s record. Once more, he dubbed it to tape, following it by his own singing of the lyrics a cappella, a neat insight into his methods for preparing for these sessions.
Oliver’s arrangement is nice, if a little bland. Perhaps the highlight of the record is the very beginning as Armstrong plays a dramatic introduction, starting with the main melody phrase, followed by a descending motive that equal parts simple, logical and beautiful. The range of the song keeps Armstrong in the nether regions of his voice and he doesn’t sound too comfortable there, though he rallies for the higher parts of every A section, including the bridge. Napoleon once again plays some Hines-like tremolos behind him, but otherwise not much happens during the vocal, though if you like listening to Louis Armstrong sing (and who doesn’t?), you’ll be happy.
A frustrating moment occurs before the trumpet solo as you can clearly hear an edit right before Armstrong’s entrance. Thus, we get the final two bars of the second A section, followed by a solo on the bridge, making for a somewhat odd 10-bar excursion. What was edited out? Shaky playing or was the solo just too long? We’ll never know, but what’s there is quite lovely and relaxed. Armstrong really sings with feeling during the reprise and I especially like the coda where the band lets their hair down and starts swinging. Pops emotes, Barney wails and the record ends on a happy note. Not my favorite record, but a good one nonetheless.
So there’s a typical day in the life of Louis Armstrong, Decca recording artist, circa 1953. A Hank Williams lament, a Tony Bennett pop song, some Sy Oliver arrangements, mix it all together and you have the recipe for the some very fine records. The single was issued on March 14 and was listed as a Popular Best Seller in April 11 “Decca Data” Billboard ad, but oddly, the magazine chose not to review this side and it wasn’t mentioned again. There’d be another single released shortly thereafter but the bigger hits were coming with less frequency than the previous year.
April in Portugal / Ramona
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Trummy Young (tb), Barney Bigard (cl), Milt Yaner, Dick Jacobs (as), Sam Taylor (ts), Everett Barksdale (g), Joe Bushkin (p), Arvell Shaw (b), Cozy Cole (d).
Recorded April 21, 1953, New York City
Just two months later, Armstrong--about to embark on a disastrous tour with Benny Goodman--waxed two more numbers for Decca, both older songs then in the process of being rediscovered.
“April in Portugal" was originally an instrumental by Raul Ferrão with the original title “Coimbra” about a city in Portugal. In 1947, Jimmy Kennedy wrote English lyrics and re-named the tune, “April in Portugal” (I guess it was catchier than “April in Coimbra”). But as far as I can tell, the tune was under the radar until it exploded in 1953. Les Baxter's instrumental version spent 22 weeks on the chart beginning on March 28 of that year. Three other versions--Richard Haman's, Freddy Martin's and Vic Damone's--also charted in April and May 1953. The world had gone “Portugal” mad. And that meant one thing: it was time for Louis Armstrong to cover it!
Again, we must give credit to Gabler for the smart choices he made for Armstrong; the number one record in April 1953 was Patti Page’s “The Doggie in the Window.” Gabler knew what songs to avoid but more importantly, he knew how to select songs that Armstrong could really dig into. Another song with Spanish origins was also burning up the chart in early 1953, "Ramona." Gabler saw a pairing of "Ramona" and "April in Portugal" as a natural and he was correct.
Though he's not listed in the discography, I'm willing to wager money that Sy Oliver contributed the arrangement to “April in Portugal” because the strutting two-beat feel has Oliver's name all over it. For Armstrong's take on the tune, the tempo was slowed down a bit, only allowing enough room for a single-chorus vocal. Thus, the trumpet playing you hear at the beginning is it. Armstrong was aware of this and conducted one of his lessons in telling a complete, exciting story in less than a minute.
Right from the start, it's clear that Pops's chops were in top shape; my goodness, how he makes those quarter notes swing. Arvell Shaw's bass rolls out the red carpet for Armstrong to play a touch of melody (like the last session, Barney Bigard sounds like he had some coffee...he's all over his horn!). Armstrong infuses the melody with his special sound before he lets loose and starts improvising, wailing to the close of his potent, but too-short solo.
Then Armstrong takes the vocal, which is a ball, because it tests his range. He passes the test but it's always fun hearing him reaching for those high ones. I've always loved the tune's minor bridge the best; Armstrong at first sounds a bit tentative but he really digs into the word “Portugal” and ends with some passionate vocalizing. Armstrong goes back to crooning the melody sweetly (listen to him holding the middle syllable on “romance,” shaking it a bit like his trumpet) until the scat-filled close. With the band wailing, Armstrong's “and Portugal too” is a nice punctuation mark. A fine record.
The flip side, “Ramona,” was written in 1928 by two Americans familiar with writing tunes that dealt with other nationalities and countries, lyricist L. Wolfe Gilbert (“The Peanut Vendor,” “I Miss My Swiss”) and Mabel Wayne (“In a Little Spanish Town,” “It Happened in Monterey”). It was introduced in a 1927 film of the same name and first became a smash hit in 1928 thanks to a version by Dolores del Rito, leading to covers by Gene Austin, Whispering Jack Smith, Paul Whiteman and more.
So how did Louis Armstrong end up recording it for Decca in 1953? The Gaylords, a popular male vocal group of the era revived it on Mercury, turning into a jukebox hit at the start of 1953. Covers were quickly made by Les Brown, Gordon McRae, Tony Martin, Vic Damone and--no surprises anymore--Armstrong.
The record opens with the always-welcome sound of Armstrong's voice, intoning the song's namesake. Barney Bigard gets off one of his patented runs--a pretty hot one--and Trummy Young answers with some sober playing. Armstrong then sings the vocal passionately, barely deviating from the written melody. The rhythm section is decidedly two-beat, but in a Lunceford-ian way, which makes me continue to think this is the work of Sy Oliver (compare the feel to “Your Cheatin' Heart”). Armstrong shows off his vocal range throughout the first chorus, exuding warmth with each gravel-coated syllable.
But stand back for the main event. After a neat setup by Bigard and Young (Trummy still sounding very smooth in his quick muted run), Armstrong steps up to the mike for a powerful half-chorus of trumpet playing. Again, he sticks close to the melody but it's where he plays it that kills me every time. He could have easily asked for a modulation...but then, he wouldn't be Louis Armstrong. So he just jumps in and plays it in the absolute highest, most demanding part of his range. It's one of those, “He's not going to be able to do it” solos but sure enough, he nails it and even tops it off with a superb break. Gorgeous stuff.
Armstrong reprises his vocal, just as warm as the first time around, and even extends the ending with a little scatting and a devilishly insinuating "Mm-hmm" before picking up the horn for one last run up to the heavens. A beautiful little record.
Armstrong's version wasn't a hit by any means but it did get a positive review in the May 30, 1953 issue of Billboard: “Gravel-voiced Louis awards the recently revived evergreen a reading full of the individual appeal that has build him his large following. Armstrong fans will grab; others may sample.” Of “April in Portugal,” the magazine simply reported, “Another typical ‘Satchmo’ slicing, and that, for many, is ‘nuf said.” The insinuations about this “typical” record being something that “Armstrong fans will grab” denotes, to me, that Billboard was starting to realize that Armstrong was settling back into the very large niche of “Louis Armstrong Fans,” instead of playing the role of bona fide pop star he had inhabited in 1951 and 1952.
Alas, this has lead to many of Armstrong’s post-1952 Decca singles to fly completely under the radar; in fact, some of the ensuing music is being reissued by Universal here for the very first time in 2016. Hopefully, this set leads to a reappraisal of this period of Armstrong’s career. If you allow a quick personal story, in 2011, trumpeter Greg Hammontree worked for me at the Louis Armstrong Archives while he was completing a Master's degree in Jazz performance. He didn't know much Louis before joining me so naturally, every day was a crash course. Without any preconceived notions (ex: “Louis's pop covers = garbage”), he listened to everything with open ears. He enjoyed it all and became quite an admirer Armstrong. But one of the only times he stopped what he was doing to express amazement at what he was listening to was the trumpet interlude on “Ramona.” Sensing his reaction, I played it for him three times in a row and made a copy of it for him. More proof that Armstrong's pop sides of the 1940s and 50s could still be influential on the current crop of young jazz musicians if only they knew where to find them. With this release, there’s no excuse to miss them! Hopefully they'll get the proper rediscovery and reevaluation in the not-too-distant future.
Sittin’ in the Sun (Countin’ My Money) / The Dummy Song
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Don Jacoby, Raymond G. Sassetti, Byron Baxter Jr. (tp), Trummy Young, George J. Jean (tb), Barney Bigard (cl), Howard L. Davis, Mike Simpson, Hobart Grimes (saxes), Marty Napoleon (p), Remo Biondi (g), Arvell Shaw (b), Cozy Cole (d) Jack Pleiss (arr, cond).
Recorded July 16, 1953, New York City
After rotating Gordon Jenkins and Sy Oliver since the start of the 1949 contract with Decca, Milt Gabler decided to try out something a little different for this single. This time, he hired Jack Pleiss to arrange and conduct, giving him a bona fide big band (three trumpets, two trombones, four reeds) to utilize to big, brassy effect.
“Sittin’ in the Sun (Countin’ My Money)” was a brand new Irving Berlin ballad, written for the film White Christmas but ultimately eliminated from the score of that popular picture. Now a standalone tune, it was tackled by Frankie Laine, who, as usual, got it on the charts, though as the flip side of a song called “Hey Joe.” Gabler decided to take a risk that the Laine charting and the Berlin name could be enough to warrant an Armstrong version.
By this point, it should be no surprise that Armstrong rose to the occasion, delivering a wistful vocal that makes counting money--and the “silver dollar in the sky”--sound like the most relaxing hobby on the planet. The All Stars are present, with Trummy Young taking the dramatic minor-keyed bridge and Barney Bigard sounding a little sour leading into the vocal but Armstrong doesn’t pick up his trumpet.
That changes on the other side, “The Dummy Song,” a novelty based on the old “Washington and Lee Swing,” which was part of Armstrong’s big band repertoire in the 1930s. As lyrics go, we’re no longer in Irving Berlin territory. “The Dummy Song” is pretty dumb, dumb, dumb but leave it to Armstrong to make it all sound so entertaining. There’s even an instrumental portion allowing Armstrong to work out on the “Washington and Lee” theme (Bigard sounds better here). The August 15 Billboard loved it, calling it a “Swingy version of the novelty oldie will bring pleasure to many listeners. Armstrong’s reading is full of spirit and humor, and his enthusiasm carries across infectiously. Should attract many air spins and pull plenty of juke loot.” Of “Sittin’ in the Sun,” the magazine wrote, “Finely-phrased chanting of the bucolic Irving Berlin ballad. Another great side for Satchmo fans.”
The actual single does not seem to have sold many copies but Armstrong loved “The Dummy Song” enough to put it in his live act, now as a duet with Velma Middleton, who sung an entire chorus of special lyrics with topical references to Marilyn Monroe, Dr. Kinsey and Gayelord Hauser (the diet guru who recently introduced Louis and Lucille Armstrong to the wonders of the herbal laxative Swiss Kriss).
And in 1994, MCA, in putting together an Armstrong compilation titled All Time Greatest Hits chose both sides on a disc otherwise populated with the likes of “Hello, Dolly!,” “What a Wonderful World,” “Mack the Knife,” “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” “Blueberry Hill” and others. The disc became a best-seller, still in print today in 2016, and has made both “Sittin’ in the Sun” and “The Dummy Song” fairly well-known Armstrong offerings of the period (the latter was featured in the film You’ve Got Mail). It’s a good opportunity to point out that history has not been as kind to Armstrong’s competitors such as Frankie Laine, Patti Page, Joni James, George Gibbs, etc. Even the least-selling pop sides Armstrong made in the 1950s are still better known today than some of the biggest hits of that era, thanks to the tremendous interest in and timeless appeal of Armstrong, still going strong more than 45 years after his passing.
Zat You, Santa Claus? / Cool Yule
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Billy Butterfield, Andy Ferretti, Carl Poole (tp), Lou McGarity, Cutty Cutshall, Phil Giardina, Jack Satterfield (tb), Hymie Schertzer (as, bars), Al Klink (ts), Bernie Leighton (p), Carmen Mastren (g), Sandy Block (b), Ed Grady (d), Toots Camarata (arr, cond).
Recorded October 22, 1953, New York City
“Sittin’ in the Sun” and “The Dummy Song” might not have been a big seller but Gabler must have liked the sound of Armstrong backed by a large, brassy band and wanted to return to it during Armstrong’s next session for the label on October 22, 1953.
This time Armstrong would be backed by The Commanders, a studio aggregation who also might have toured a bit, co-led by the dynamic drummer Eddie Grady and the arranger Tutti Camarata. Camarata was a trumpet player himself and a huge devotee of Armstrong. In fact, on his 1957 album Tutti’s Trumpets, he contributed an original titled simply “Louis,” that is a beautifully written and played (by Mannie Klein) tribute to Pops (Camarata later oversaw Armstrong’s album of Disney songs). Grady apparently was a child star on drums and eventually played with the likes of New Orleans trumpeter George Girard’s small group with Pete Fountain and Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra in the early 50s. As he grew older, he settled into steady work as a session drummer (a quick search shows a Benny Goodman Capitol date in 1954, a famous rockabilly date with “The Rock and Roll Trio,” as well as a Jackie Paris session with arrangements by Neal Hefti).
This session would ultimate feature some of Armstrong’s strongest playing of the decade, in addition to an unusual amount of input on what to record (as will be discussed in the next entry). But first: two more Christmas songs.
Armstrong had recorded two beautiful Christmas chestnuts with Gordon Jenkins’s strings the prior year. If Jenkins’s Christmas records make you a little sleepy and ready to curl up by the fire, here comes The Commanders to violently wake you up, visions of Ed Grady’s cymbals ringing in your head. Right off the bat, you can hear that Decca gave their sound effects man some extra work on the date and the record starts off with howling winds and jingle bells. Grady’s drums “knock” on the door (how often did he have to change his snare head?), Armstrong asks the title question and we’re off, the reeds falling into a standard descending minor vamp. The lyrics are back in the “Old Man Mose” mold as Armstrong, frightened by the outside noises (cue the sound effects guy), hopes it’s Santa Claus making that racket and not someone more sinister. The song does have a great bridge and the Commanders swing through it easily. The lyrics really are kind of goofy, but man, Armstrong sounds like he’s having a ball, which in turn, spreads to the listener.
After one chorus, the band takes over, trading four bars with Armstrong and playing with such force, it threatens to become the most badass Christmas song around. Armstrong’s vocal on the trades grows more nervous and frantic, adding more fun to the proceedings. But perhaps the highlight of the record comes during the coda when a clearly petrified Armstrong pleads, “Please, a-please, a-pity my knees!” The song ends with a big ending and after another “knock” from the drums, Armstrong yells, “That’s him all right,” while more sound effects take us out. It’s not “White Christmas,” but it’s very atmospheric and it’s easy to get swept away by Pops’s vocal.
Next up was “Cool Yule,” lyrics and music by comedian and television talk show pioneer Steve Allen. In fact, the demo recording given to Armstrong for him to learn the tune from featured a live performance of "Cool Yule" by Allen as broadcast on his TV show.
Due to its use in a few recent movies, “Cool Yule” has probably become Armstrong’s best-known Christmas recording, guaranteed to be heard during any Christmas season trip to the mall. In fact, it’s sometimes hard to hear the piped-in Christmas music in such crowded places, but that Armstrong horn during the bridge always manages to cut through the noise! Allen’s trademark sense of humor infuses the lyrics with all sorts of funny pseudo-hip references and Armstrong again sounds like he’s having a ball.
The song begins with more jingle bells before the band enters with a sprightly shuffle beat—wait a minute, is this Louis Prima or Louis Armstrong? The changes are fairly simple: “rhythm changes” for 16 bars, then a modulation for more “rhythm changes” in the bridge, kind of like Count Basie’s “Easy Does It.” Again, Armstrong sings wonderfully but dig that band. Every drum hit, every brass punch, every note of the instrumental interlude…it’s so precise, so explosive, so swinging. I wish Armstrong made a dozen albums with the Commanders.
After eight bars from the band, Armstrong picks up his horn for the first time during the session and it’s a preview of the tremendous blowing that was to be the hallmark of the date. Though the song has nothing to do with the blues, Armstrong instills his entire solo with more blue notes than you might expect. He gets downright funky with some of his note choices and I can never refrain from giving a “Yeah,” when he gets into that bridge. The highlight of the trumpet solo comes in the bridge when plays the melody phrase like a human being, then skyrockets an octave higher to play it again, ending it on a high concert D. After the vocal, Pops still has time to sing another entire chorus and he does so with even more enthusiasm than the first time, especially on the bridge (and listen to Grady on the final A section). Pops legitimately breaks himself up by yelling “Cool Yule” at the end and if you’re not smiling, you’re surname must be Scrooge.
Decca had everything ready to go in less than a market, leading Billboard to review it on November 21, writing of “Cool Yule, “Jazz Christmas greetings from the voice and trumpet of the fabulous Louis is quite a production. His fans will want.” If they did want it, they didn’t buy many copies as it was never mentioned in Billboard again that year. But as any artist with a solid Christmas song knows, the sales never really stopped and if anything, both side have become more ubiquitous in the 21st century than ever before, staples of holiday film (and shopping mall) soundtracks. Like everything else Armstrong recorded, these records will never disappear.
The Gypsy / I Can’t Afford to Miss This Dream
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Billy Butterfield, Andy Ferretti, Carl Poole (tp), Lou McGarity, Cutty Cutshall, Phil Giardina, Jack Satterfield (tb), Hymie Schertzer (as, bars), Al Klink (ts), Bernie Leighton (p), Carmen Mastren (g), Sandy Block (b), Ed Grady (d), Toots Camarata (arr, cond).
Recorded October 22, 1953, New York City
With the holiday fun out of the way, it was time to get down to business. It appears that Armstrong and Gabler had an agreement for this date: if Armstrong recorded the two Christmas novelty songs, he’d be free to call the shots and pick the rest of the songs to be recorded. Certainly, all three had a personal connection. First up was a scintillating remake of his own composition, “Someday You’ll Be Sorry,” originally recorded for RCA Victor in 1947. Decca sat on that one for a year so we’ll discuss it further when we get to it.
The next tune to be recorded was one of Armstrong’s favorites, Billy Reid’s “The Gypsy, a sizeable hit in 1946 for Dinah Shore and the Ink Spots. Armstrong immediately loved it and had an arrangement made for his big band. No recordings have survived but the arrangement is part of the Louis Armstrong House Museum’s research collections. When he formed the All Stars, he quoted the melody frequently in the late 40s, including the landmark version of “Save It Pretty Mama” from the 1947 Town Hall concert as well as a number of versions of “Basin Street Blues” from the same period. The first surviving All Stars version comes from the Blue Note in Chicago in July 1953, so clearly he was familiar with it. When he did get around to recording it, it was his pick, according to Milt Gabler. “Louis loved the song,” Gabler said. “He loved the lyric content, and he loved the tune of it, and he just loved to play it. And he came in; he said he wanted to record it. So we recorded it. That’s all.” This might sound a little odd as jazz critics at the time blasted Decca for “forcing” Armstrong to record pop tunes but Armstrong definitely had a say in what was recorded that October day in 1953.
Armstrong’s “The Gypsy” begins with the wonderful trombone section, including two of Eddie Condon’s favorites, Lou McGarity and Cutty Cutshall. Armstrong sings it like he had been singing it for a decade, throwing in “yeahs” wherever he pleases, and even a few humorous asides.
But the highlight of “The Gypsy” is undoubtedly one minute and 45 seconds of gorgeous Armstrong trumpet. It’s one of my favorite Armstrong solos because it contains some of the most relaxed playing he ever recorded. For those who just think of Armstrong as a high note player, he doesn’t get way into his upper register until the end of the bridge. Until then, it’s a textbook example of how to improvise around a melody while still keeping the melody somewhat in the forefront. There’s a pattern to this solo, with phrases coming in quick bursts followed by slower, legato segments: Armstrong plays a snatch of melody, improvises for a few bars, rests, then begins the next eight-bar section with the written melody, improvises for a few bars, rests, and so on. His playing is also remarkably slippery on “The Gypsy.” There are few better places to study Armstrong’s unique concept of rhythm. He plays obbligatos to his own lines, infuses it with the blues and comes up with a masterpiece. And transcribing this thing would be a bitch!
Triumphantly, Armstrong builds to a climax at the end of the bridge when he plays the melody in his upper register. But he still follows that with some incredibly nimble phrases before a beautiful, typical ending where Armstrong slows it down and plays the last four bars dramatically, his tone never sounding bigger. Venting to Leonard Feather in a 1954 Blindfold Test about the limitations of modern trumpet players, Louis asked, “How many of them could play my solo on ‘The Gypsy’?” before scatting a bar or two of his solo. He could have said ‘West End Blues,’ ‘When You're Smiling’ or any of the classics, but he knew how difficult that playing on ‘The Gypsy’ was to execute. Even Armstrong himself later said of “The Gypsy” in 1968, “Well, you know, that record I think is one of my finest.”
Somehow, some way, Armstrong had enough gas in the tank for a fifth tune, “I Can’t Afford to Miss This Dream.” This song was always a mystery to me. Decca usually had Armstrong exclusively record other people’s hits, yet for all my research, I never came across a single other version of this tune. So how the heck did it wind up in Armstrong’s hands?
I received the answer during one of my many trips to the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College (before I worked there). I must have listened to dozens of Armstrong’s private tapes in putting together my book and on one of them, I got my answer. On January 4, 1953, Armstrong threw a get-together at his Corona, Queens home (note: in my book and previous blogs, I have always dated this as December 31, 1952; I’ll relay how I found out the truth in a bit). At one point on the tape, a woman named Lillian Friedlander begins singing “I Can’t Afford to Miss This Dream.” She says, “I just keep writing and Pops promised to record for me. He’s going to do ‘I Can’t Afford To Miss This Dream.’” Armstrong’s friend Prince Gary of Honolulu responded, “If he promised something, he’ll make it.” Friedlander jokingly responds, “Oh, he will, don’t be so pessimistic.” A slightly tipsy Prince Gary, though, remains serious, saying, “I know that your patient are not thinking of stopping.” Friedlander responds, “No, never.” Prince Gary says, “Cause he is tops and if he says something, he means it.” Armstrong then asks her to sing her song again to which Friedlander exclaims, “You really like it that much? I love you!”
Now this was January 1953. Prince Gary was definitely right as Armstrong probably called Decca up soon after and told them about the song. All he had was Friedlander singing it to him on his reel-to-reel tape deck yet somehow he convinced the company to put one of their star big bands on the date with a lovely arrangement by Camarata and a breathtaking performance by Armstrong himself.
It’s not the greatest song in the world but Armstrong was doing it for a friend and he really sells it. He gets off to a slightly rocky start as the melody seems to push his vocal range to it’s limit in the lower range but he makes up for it with some ebullient high notes towards the end of the chorus (in all, he shows off a range of more than an octave, from a low C to a high Eb, on this track).
But as charming as the vocal is, it all builds up to the trumpet solo which is a textbook example of how to tell a powerful story in such a short period of time. The band sets him up with a chord, over which he at first sounds like he’s going to roar, before putting on the brakes to play with a more quiet feel. The floating, ruminating playing from “The Gypsy” carries over to Armstrong’s first half of the solo as he rarely leaves the melody, but infuses it with an incredible amount of soul. It’s further proof of the man’s genius in the lower register, too. What a sound!
But at the halfway point, drummer Ed Grady implies a double-time feeling with his brushes and Armstrong responds by once again playing the melody an octave higher than he just played it. There’s never been a sound quite like the one he gets here. And just when you think he’s through, he takes a bridge that might be the most passionate moment of a session filled with spine-tingling moments. The string of high Bb’s he plays brings me to my knees but the whole things builds up that to momentous gliss to a high concert Eb, his tone never clearer, before he skips down chromatically to a more human-like Bb. Amazing!
You can hear Armstrong’s voice grow in volume as he steps closer to the microphone with a roof-shaking “Yes.” He sounds so happy, bursting at the high note and delivering a sly variation on the titular phrase. I always thought Armstrong was singing “cahn’t” in a British accent but then I heard another one of his private tapes where he laughs uproariously with a friend at how he managed to slip the daddy of all curse words into this record. I won't repeat it because this is a family blog but it ain't far off and Louis sure knew what he was doing. Oh, Pops....
On a personal note, I’ve been writing about this song for years but it wasn’t until 2013 that I was contacted by Lillian Friedlander's daughter, Eileen Chupak Baranes (turns out Friedlander was her maiden name and the one she used on her songs.) She wrote the following:
“My mother was a very special person. She was very ambitious and very centered and really loved music and wanted to be on the hit parade. When she was about 40, she was diagnosed with MS and from then on was handicapped. But she never stopped writing music even when she was in nursing homes. She passed away at 52 years old. Louis Armstrong was my mother's friend. He even babysat for me when I was about 3 years old backstage at the Apollo Theater so my mother could go and sign some contract with a record company. If I remember this myself, I can't be sure but it is a true story. And I ate all his rice and ice cream. That is how the story goes. I do remember being backstage in the Apollo. A number of times. My mother took me everywhere.”
In the summer of 2016, I was visited by Eileen and her siblings, Ronni and Mitch, as well as Friedlander’s nephew, Jeff Friedlander Boico. They brought copies of photos Armstrong autographed for Friedlander, including one dated January 4, 1953, putting an end to the New Year’s Eve theory (I was thrown off by various people wishing each other a “Happy New Year” on the tape, but it made sense to still be using that greeting four days into the New Year). We listened to the tape of Lillian Friedlander singing “I Can’t Afford to Miss This Dream” to Armstrong. Tears flowed. Eileen wrote, “Now that I have stopped crying, I want to thank you for bringing me back my mother for a little while. I don't know what more to say. It is something that is just like a dream to hear her once again.”
And they brought proof that Armstrong fondly remembered this song, too, as shown in this autograph he signed for Friedlander in the mid-1960s:
“I Can't Afford to Miss That Dream” that was the end of what I consider one of Armstrong’s all-time greatest sessions. This side and “The Gypsy” were issued at the end of January 1954 and garnered another rave in Billboard. “The inimitable Satchmo turns in his own unique vocal on this version of the oldie, backed by the Commanders,” the review said of “The Gypsy.” “Armstrong, of course, gets a chance to shine on the horn as well. All Armstrong fans will add this platter to their collection.”
Maybe not all. A lot of hardened jazz fans never gave these Decca pop singles their due. One of them, however, was Armstrong’s friend George Avakian, who also happened to be the head of Columbia Records’s Popular Album department. He had been friends with Armstrong since around 1940, the same year he pioneered Columbia’s “Hot Jazz Classics” reissue series, shining the spotlight on Armstrong’s Hot Five and Seven recordings of the 1920s as it had never been shined before. Those recordings were repackaged for the LP era with the four-volume Louis Armstrong Story series on Columbia in May 1951, receiving a rave review in Billboard. “The master of the project, George Avakian, who selected the recordings and wrote the excellent liner notes, receives a handsome share of the kudos,” the review stated. “Mark this up as a historic release for jazz collectors.”
Avakian spent a lot of time at Armstrong’s Corona, Queens home in October and November 1953, recording three hours of conversation in the process. Armstrong had given Avakian a copy of the manuscript for his autobiography, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans and solicited Avakian’s comments and questions during their taped conversations. The two men sound completely at ease on the tapes of those hangs. Avakian never brings it up but inside, he was dreaming of the day he could skip the reissues and record his hero in a modern day, no-frills jazz album. That day would come sooner than even he probably thought.
Basin Street Blues, Parts 1 and 2
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Trummy Young (tb), Barney Bigard (cl), Bud Freeman (ts), Billy Kyle (p), Arvell Shaw (b), Kenny John (d)
Recorded March 19, 1954, New York City
It’s been awhile since we’ve heard the sound of the pure All Stars and that’s what we get here (though with one additional horn, the always welcome tenor saxophone of Bud Freeman, a Milt Gabler favorite since the Commodore days). Decca issued Satchmo at Pasadena in September 1952, capturing the 1951 edition of the group on a very fine night. But since then, the All Stars had become an even more exciting band, mostly due to the additions trombonist Trummy Young and drummer Kenny John. As related earlier, Armstrong loved his band and saw the thunderous applause they received night in and night out. Perhaps growing a bit weary of the strings of pop songs, he relished the opportunity to head into the studio to just blow with his band.
The occasion was the release of the Jimmy Stewart film, The Glenn Miller Story, which featured Armstrong, the All Stars and Gene Krupa in an memorable performance of this Spencer Williams tune. Armstrong really put the song on the map with his immortal 1928 version but after forming the All Stars in 1947, he turned it over to the trombonists in the group to perform, first Jack Teagarden and more recently, Trummy Young. But after The Glenn Miller Story was released on February 10, 1954, Armstrong reclaimed the song as a feature for his own singing and playing, never looking back (or towards his trombonists).
On March 19, as the film became a box office smash, it was time for Armstrong to record his contribution to the soundtrack. Four songs were recorded that day, all of them great, but “Basin Street” was the only one to get the single treatment, thus it’s the only one included on this set. Fortunately, it’s a masterpiece and a terrific example of the excitement the All Stars were generating in 1954.
The tempo starts off relaxed and Armstrong sounds right at home, singing and scatting the first part of the record. Billy Kyle had recently joined the band and this was his first studio solo with the group. You can hear him singing along with his solo and even playing steady left-hand chords a la Erroll Garner. Drummer Kenny John’s demons didn’t make him an All Star for long but he at least achieved immortality with his playing on this four-song date, sounding phenomenal throughout and especially on his solos on this tune. As in the film, John’s drums signal a tempo change and a parade of solos, including a good outing by Freeman and some roaring trombone from Trummy. The tempo is really kicking but Armstrong is in complete command, especially after John’s slightly extended solo (in the film, it’s a drum battle between Gene Krupa and Cozy Cole). It’s a great version, yet another wonderful studio attempt to go along with Armstrong’s earlier ones.
(It also had quite an impact on some young musicians. In my travels, I often encounter fellow Armstrong nuts and always like to ask them which record it was that sent them on their journey. Many times--including three separate times during a trip to England in 2015--I was told it was this Decca version of “Basin Street Blues” that opened up the gateway. Even for myself, seeing Armstrong perform it in The Glenn Miller Story sent me on my way as an impressionable 15-year-old kid in 1995.)
The single was issued one month later and Billboard reviewed it on April 24, saying, “We’re still on the ‘Glenn Miller Story’ kick--and good it is, too. Here’s the great Louis and some powerful jazz names reproducing the scene they do in the film. Jocks will certainly make good use of this. And jazz fans will undoubtedly want it.” The specific mention of jazz fans is all the more interesting when one notices that Decca ran an ad in the same issue, “Look to Decca for Great Rhythm & Blues & Jazz,” with a big picture of Armstrong up top and mentions of only two of his records: the new “Basin Street Blues” two-part single and the 1952 coupling of live Velma Middleton duets with the All Stars.
No pop singles are mentioned at all. Could it be possible that Gabler got wind that George Avakian was moving in on Glaser to let him record a jazz album with the All Stars, causing Gabler to start packaging Armstrong in an exclusively jazz-related context? It’s possible, but any such thoughts were obliterated the next time Armstrong walked into the Decca studio one month later.
Bye and Bye / The Whiffenpoof Song
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Billy Butterfield, Yank Lawson, Chris Griffin (tp), Lou McGarity, Cliff Heather (tb), Milt Yaner (cl), Tom Parshley, Jack Greenberg (as), Abraham Richmond, George Berg (ts), Bernie Leighton (p), George Barnes (g), Jack Lesberg (b), Harry Jaeger (d), Tom Frost, Julie Schacter, Julie Shaier, Harry Melnikoff, Max Hollander, Morris Lefkowitz, Sam Rand, Sid Brecher (vln); Harry Coletta (viola); Harvey Shapiro (cello); Miriam Workman, Lois Winter, Audry Marsh, Geraldine Viti, Elise Bretton, Lillian Clark, Ray Charles, Arthur Malvin, Jim Farmer, Eugene Lowell (voc), Gordon Jenkins (arr, cond).
Recorded April 13, 1954, New York City
Less than a month after turning the All Stars loose for the Glenn Miller Story soundtrack session, Milt Gabler lined up Gordon Jenkins’s orchestra, strings and choir for Armstrong’s return on April 19, 1954. The only thing missing when the session started was Armstrong himself! Here’s how Gabler told the story:
“I remember a session in ’54 with Gordon Jenkins, a normal call to do four songs with orchestra and chorus in three hours at our Pythian Temple studio in New York. Everyone was on time except no Louis Armstrong. Louis had never been late before, so we rehearsed the orchestra and chorus. We rehearsed all of the songs, and still no Louis. I called Joe Glaser, and he was out. Two and a half hours late and straight from the dentist, Louis comes to the studio, full of remorse and with jaws full of Novocain. He could hardly talk. I asked him if he could work the next day, but Pops had other commitments. I told Gordon to start running the songs down with Louis. Maybe his jaws would loosen up.”
All one has to do is listen to “Bye and Bye” to know the answer: I’d say his jaws loosened up! The introductory cadenza is positively stunning, harkening back to the old days of the 1920s and 30s. Jenkins knew his Armstrong and knew how to frame him and you can’t ask for anything better than the opening 27 seconds, right down to the closing, superhuman gliss.
The band swings out a chorus of the old New Orleans favorite before modulating for Armstrong’s vocal. He sings two, modulating for a second chorus of special lyrics by Jenkins:
Yes, Bye and Bye, yes, on that judgement day
We’ll meet our friends, our boys that moved away
All those fine musicians, mm, jumping on the cloud
We will all be united, Bye and Bye.
“All those fine musicians”? Hmmm, when Armstrong first recorded this for Decca in 1939, it didn’t seem to be about musicians who have moved on to the other side. But then Jenkins’s squeaky-clean choir swoops in and drives the point home, even mentioning some of them by name:
Cause Bix is up there! And Bunny’s up there! And Jack Jenney is living up there!
Fats is up there! Big Sid is up there! King’s Oliver’s living up there!
But Louie’s down here! Yes, Louie’s down here! And we’re lucky he’s living down here!
Louie never, never, Louie never stops! Get a load of Pops!
For years, I found this section to be a bit gruesome and unnecessary. But then I heard Armstrong host a Voice of America hour devoted to his favorite musicians in 1956. After playing tunes by Bunk and King Oliver, Bix and Bing, Ella and Bechet, Dizzy and Duke, Armstrong decided to close the hour with this rendition of “Bye and Bye.” Here’s his introduction:
“Now here’s a record that will always stick by me. It’s ‘Bye and Bye’ that mentions a lot of the real star musicians that has cut out, but still never forgotten. The tune is ‘Bye and Bye’ and I played it with Gordon Jenkins and his fine orchestra.”
Clearly Armstrong was proud of the record and especially the listing of dead jazz musicians, all of whom he was close to. It might still be a strange idea but knowing how heartfelt both Armstrong and Jenkins were about this music, I realize they really meant this as a tribute to their departed friends and for that, I admire their sincerity.
But my opinion of Armstrong’s closing trumpet choruses is unchanged: this is mind-blowing stuff. Harry Jaeger’s drums set Armstrong up perfectly (I like the sound of his ride cymbal) before Armstrong takes off on a solo that, I think, dwarfs the original 1939 version. He forgoes a melody statement and starts improvising with great authority in the first chorus before the old standby of playing the melody an octave higher than written in the second chorus, touching a freakish high concert E for a second towards the end.
The choir and strings then come in for a few seconds, sounding like someone flipped a radio dial to another station. Armstrong sings the last line before a signature Jenkins touch: having the trumpet section conclude the record with a closing cadenza made up of nothing but Pops-isms, this time mostly from his 1933 “Basin Street Blues” But it’s Armstrong’s trumpet work that makes this an unforgettable record. For a record done 15 years after the original, it’s quite a testament to the strength of Armstrong’s chops in the 50s--even with the Novocain!
As we’ve noted time and again, Billboard rarely said a negative word about Armstrong’s Decca singles, but they really loved “Bye and Bye.” “Armstrong’s many fans are going to flip over this one, as it’s his best wax in a long time,” the June 26, 1954 review gushed. Interestingly, the review also says “the tune was penned by Armstrong and Gordon Jenkins,” listing Joe Glaser’s International Music as the publisher of the tune at the end of the review. Clearly, Glaser wanted to earn even more income by having Armstrong record some original tunes and this one fit the bill, even though it was technically a “Traditional” spiritual.
After celebrating dead musicians on “Bye and Bye,” it was time to lampoon living musicians on the flip side, a parody version of “The Whiffenpoof Song” that took aim at exponents of bebop. It might seem like an odd thing to record out of nowhere considering bop was almost a decade old and the boppers and Armstrong had seemingly cooled off their war of words in the press. But in 1952, Dizzy Gillespie recorded “Pops’ Confessin’,” with Joe Carroll impersonating Armstrong and Gillespie playing some Armstrong-inspired trumpet. It might appear to be an affectionate tribute but Gillespie was in the middle of about an eight-year period of publicly criticizing Armstrong, something that didn’t really stop until he became Armstrong’s neighbor in Corona, Queens and realized the offstage Armstrong was the same guy who appeared onstage.
Jenkins was not at all a fan of bop and took the lead in shaping the satire. “I wrote some parody lyrics and the original publishers just went to pieces, they were so unhappy with it,” Jenkins recalled. “At the time I was doing real well; otherwise I couldn’t have gotten away with it. They insisted on not paying me, which was fine; I just wanted to make the record, get it played, and not get sued. They finally agreed to it. The song was an absolute standout, the kind you hit maybe once in fifty years. Louis wasn’t that crazy about the bop scene, nor was I, and we had a little fun with it.”
To say they had a little fun with it was an understatement. Here’s the lyrics of what Louis began referring to as “The Boppenpoof Song”:
At the tables of that Birdland
The place where Dizzy dwells
With those beards and funny hats
They love so well
All the boppers were assembled
And when they're really high
A weird personnel
All the riffs these cats are played
They were crazy, cool and gone (like this)
Oodlee—oo! Scooby-doo! Oo-bee Doo-bee Doo-bee! Oo-pop-e-dop!
And the rest
So let them beat their brains out
Til their flatted fifths are corn
And their past can be forgotten
Like the rest.
Yessss, they are poor little cats,
Who have lost their way
They are little lost sheep
Who have gone astray
Yes, Dixieland music
But every wrong note that they play
Is a gem.
Armstrong closes by singing, “So Lord have mercy on every one of them,” and indulges in some wild scatting before punctuating the end with a triumphant “Baba!” (In live performances, he’d close by screaming, “Bebop!”)
The June 26, 1954 Billboard review said, “This happy parody of the college song is handled very brightly by Satchmo, as he tells of the tables down at Birdland, and turns in a few bop phrases as well. He is backed by the Jenkins ork and chorus with charm. Should pull spins especially with the hip jocks.”
Armstrong soon began playing it during his live performances of the period, donning a red beret and sunglasses to sing it, lampooning bop style. On an episode of the Colgate Comedy Hour in September, Armstrong sang it in full regalia in front of a massive audience at the Hollywood Bowl. In the September 1954 issue of Playboy, the song got an entire photo spread with the lyrics printed under various pictures of Armstrong singing, saying Armstrong brought down the house every time he sang it, adding, “[A] Decca recording of the tune promises to make it one of the big novelty numbers of the year.”
However, the Playboy spread also brought out some more sensitive jazz fans, including some who wrote letters to the magazine. “I respect Louis Armstrong for what he was and what he did for jazz, but I can not understand why he rates all the applause he receives,” wrote Cpl. Fred L. Mathis of Camp Pendleton, CA. “I have heard some of Louis’ earlier records and enjoyed them along with other good dixieland sides of the period, but when he cut ‘Whiffenpoof Song,’ I lost respect for the man. He made fun of a new kind of jazz, because it’s over his head….I think that there are many trumpet players today who could blow rings around Louis and probably a majority of them started by listening to Louis, Bix and all the other great men of that era. They will probably admit that Louis is the father of the trumpet. But when a father gets too old to work, the kids have to take over and build on his foundation. Any decent father would push his kids ahead, not poke fun at them.” Reader Lew Andrews also wrote, “[Armstrong’s] kind of music has given me kicks in the past and I still like to listen to a little ‘dixie’ once in awhile. But in my book, it can’t begin to compare with the highly polished modern jazz being played today. A tremendous amount of musical ability and education is required to cut that stuff.”
Fortunately, there was Ralph J. Gleason to properly put Armstrong’s satire in perspective. “There’s been too little humor in jazz in recent years,” he wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle. “The young musicians have been so busy dedicating their talents to finding new paths and shaking off tradition, they have neglected to laugh. Louis Armstrong, by all odds the greatest individual musician produced by the traditional jazz culture, is a comic too and that’s one of his strongest assets. Decca has just released a single disc of Louis singing a parody of ‘The Whiffenpoof Song’ which I urge everybody who loves jazz and loves Louis and wants a good laugh to buy immediately.”
“The Whiffenpoof Song” got a lot of publicity in the summer of 1954 but not nearly as much as a Milt Gabler Decca production recorded just one day earlier on April 12, 1954: “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets. The lively rockabilly group had a hit with “Crazy Man Crazy” in 1953, which caught Gabler’s attention. He signed them up to Decca and envisioned them as an updated, white version of Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five (cruelly, Decca let Jordan go after 15 years also in 1954). He had a Jordan-type novelty in “Thirteen Women” for them to record first, hoping it would be the “A” side, with “Rock Around the Clock” knocked out almost as an afterthought.
The single was released in May 1954 and was not an immediate hit. But one thing was for certain: more people were paying attention to “Rock Around the Clock” than “Thirteen Women.” In the June 19 edition of Billboard, just one week before they reviewed the latest Armstrong-Jenkins collaboration, the magazine featured an advertisement for “Rock Around the Clock” in big letters, with “Thirteen Women” relegated to smaller flip side font. The record wouldn’t fully explode until 1955, ushering in the sounds of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Once again, Milt Gabler was helping to shape the trends of American popular music, just as he had been doing since joining Decca in 1941. But though “Bye and Bye” and “The Whiffenpoof Song” is a terrific single, all of a sudden, the combination of Louis Armstrong and Gordon Jenkins’s strings and choir no longer sounded like the recipe for a contemporary pop hit in the world of “Rock Around the Clock.” What was Louis Armstrong to do?
He was to record for Columbia Records.
Skokiaan, Parts 1 and 2
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Omer Simeon (ss), Charlie Shavers, Taft Jordan, Abdul Salaam [William “Chiefie” Scott] (tp), Al Cobbs, Elmer Crumley, Paul Seiden (tb), Barney Bigard (cl), Dave Martin (p), Danny Barker (bj), Arvell Shaw (b), Barrett Deems (d), Sy Oliver (arr, cond).
Recorded August 13, 1954, New York City
The last time Billboard reported about Decca signing Louis Armstrong to a new contract was May 31, 1952. It can be assumed that that contract or a subsequent on ran out around May 31, 1954 because it was during this time that Glaser decided not to immediately sign his prized client with the label that had made him a pop star. George Avakian had been hounding Glaser for the opportunity to record Armstrong, sweetening the deal with royalties on Armstrong’s 1920s recordings, which had been doing brisk business in Avakian’s four-volume Louis Armstrong Story series of 1951.
Glaser couldn’t turn down the extra revenue so he held off on re-signing with Decca and let Avakian make an album for Columbia in July 1954. Avakian knew just what he wanted to do: no pop tunes, no strings, no choirs. No, he wanted just Armstrong’s All Stars with Velma Middleton doing an entire album of songs composed by the “Father of the Blues,” W. C. Handy. Avakian even encouraged Armstrong and his band to stretch out, which they gladly did, some songs topping four minutes, other songs topping five and in the case of the album’s epic opener, “St. Louis Blues,” nearly nine minutes of euphoria.
Armstrong played like a man revitalized throughout the three Chicago dates, cutting an almost unheard of six numbers during the first session. On the session tapes, Avakian asks Armstrong about the last time he recorded six numbers in one night. “Man,” Armstrong says, “it’s been years since that shit. It’s wonderful.”
By the final song of the final session, Armstrong even addressed the Decca elephant in the room, teasing Trummy Young, saying, “He’s worrying about the contract. I said there ain’t no contract. We’re like a band without a country, man. We’re trying to get a contract!” Avakian then calls the next take, “Audition, take one.” When Armstrong heard the playbacks a short time later, he told Leonard Feather, “Man, a cat came in from Columbia and said we gotta make some more of these….They’re perfect--they’re my tops, I think.”
Armstrong was thrilled, the All Stars were thrilled and Avakian was thrilled. Avakian had to start the long, arduous process of splicing and editing, aiming for the finished album to be ready by the end of the year. Joe Glaser, meanwhile, must have had low hopes. An album of ancient W. C. Handy tunes was not going to give Armstrong a pop hit. Thus, one month after recording Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, Armstrong was once again recording for Decca.
Waiting for Armstrong was something totally different: “Skokiaan,” written by Zimbabwean musician August Musarurwa and recorded by the Bulawayo Sweet Rhythms Band, with Musarurwa on soprano saxophone, in 1954. The record caught on and almost immediately, at least 18 different versions of the tune were cut in the United States, many becoming hits in the process (it was the number two most popular song of that year according to Cash Box). Milt Gabler was all over it, producing an instrumental version by Bill Haley and His Comments and also responsible for a big hit version by Ralph Marterie.
Lyrics were soon written for the tune by an American named Tom Glazer. These lyrics drive me nuts (Richard Corliss described them as “ethnographic condescension”), but they provided a hit record for The Four Lads.
With the song all over the charts and already a big seller on Decca, it was only natural that Gabler tab Armstrong to make it his own. This must have been a fun session for him because, in addition to his regular All Stars (only Trummy Young and Billy Kyle weren’t present), Armstrong was surrounded by two of his greatest disciples, Charlie Shavers and Taft Jordan, as well as two New Orleans homeboys, Danny Barker and, playing the role of Musarurwa, Omer Simeon. Sy Oliver’s arrangement stays very close to Musarurwa’s but Armstrong is quite an improvement over the African trumpet player on the original record. Oliver follows all the three-against-four tricky rhythmic patterns of the original and Armstrong burns through it all impressively. There are very few examples of Armstrong reading an arrangement in his later years but he absolutely nails the intricate rhythms of this one. And when he improvises, the amount of raw power in his playing is Herculean, as he floats over the repetitious chord changes, taking his time and completely swinging across the bar lines. So relaxed, yet it still manages to shake your soul.
Decca originally released the record as two parts, spread across one 78. The first part was instrumental while the second part modulated for the silly vocal and some more feats of trumpet playing strength at the end. Even with the goofy vocal (Decca later released a shorter, strictly instrumental edit), Armstrong’s trumpet is on fire, especially when his new drummer Barrett Deems enters his Gene Krupatron 2000 machine for some impassioned tom-tom playing.
Gabler rushed it into release one month later but by that point, the music world had overdosed on “Skokiaan.“ “There’s no doubt that the many fans will for this as they do for anything he does,” Billboard wrote. “But the lateness of this issue, the power of the earlier disks and the fact that material isn’t sock stuff for the man--all these factors may get spins for the disc, but not much else.” This was the first time Gabler was criticized for being too late with an Armstrong cover; it wouldn’t be the last.
Armstrong’s “Skokiaan” never touch touched the charts, which must have hurt since the Billboard “Best Sellers” charts of the following month still had four versions in the top 30. But like the earlier single of “Sittin’ in the Sun” and “The Dummy Song,” “Skokiaan” was reissued on MCA’s 1994 Armstrong compilation, All Time Greatest Hits, a best-selling disc that introduced “Skokiaan” to a whole new generation who knew nothing of The Four Lads and Ralph Marterie. Artists such as Kermit Ruffins began picking up on it and today “Skokiaan” is a popular anthem, especially in New Orleans, where musicians can’t escape doing it a la Armstrong.
But in 1954, “Skokiaan” was not quite “sock stuff” for Armstrong. No, the “sock stuff” was still being edited by George Avakian over at Columbia Records.
Someday You’ll Be Sorry / Muskrat Ramble
Personnel on “Someday You’ll Be Sorry”: Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Billy Butterfield, Andy Ferretti, Carl Poole (tp), Lou McGarity, Cutty Cutshall, Phil Giardina, Jack Satterfield (tb), Hymie Schertzer (as, bars), Al Klink (ts), Bernie Leighton (p), Carmen Mastren (g), Sandy Block (b), Ed Grady (d), Toots Camarata (arr, cond).
Personnel on “Muskrat Ramble”: Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Trummy Young (tb), Barney Bigard (cl), Billy Kyle (p), Arvell Shaw (b), Barrett Deems (d).
“Someday You’ll Be Sorry” recorded October 22, 1953, New York City
“Muskrat Ramble” recorded September 1, 1954, New York City
A few days before this session, Decca celebrated its 20th anniversary with a number of reissues and a big celebratory supplement in the August 28, 1954 Billboard. Armstrong’s sides with Gordon Jenkins were assembled onto a 10” LP with the world’s least-catchy title, Louis Armstrong and Gordon Jenkins and His Chorus and Orchestra. Billboard approved, giving it a positive review saying, “The teaming of Armstrong and Jenkins on this LP should pay off big for the dealer, since both men have sizeable followings in different markets. One of Decca’s heavily-touted fall anniversary promotions, the album offers excellent entertainment….”
Armstrong is mentioned in passing a few times in the issue’s lengthy history of Decca but his most telling appearance is a full-page ad placed by Joe Glaser’s Associated Booking Corporation, featuring a sketch of Armstrong and a quote from him, “It has been an honor for me to have been associated with Decca ever since its first record release in 1934.”
There’s no doubt that this was Glaser, most likely with prodding from Gabler, to show the world that Armstrong was still a proud Decca artist, even with his loan to Columbia the previous month. The advertisement mentions the new Armstrong and Jenkins album compilation, plus the single of “The Whiffenpoof Song” and “Bye and Bye,” demonstrating to anyone reading--especially executives at Columbia--that they were still heavily invested in Armstrong. There’d be more records to promote, starting with the recording made on September 1, 1954 of “Muskrat Ramble.”
Looking at the tunes that made up this single, it might appear that Milt Gabler simply let the All Stars blow on two “good old good ones” currently featured in their live shows. But once again, there was a catch: “Muskrat Ramble,” an immortal Hot Five number from 1926 was just outfitted with new lyrics by Ray Gilbert and Gabler, sensing a chance for a possible pop hit, had Armstrong take a crack at them on September 1.
Gilbert’s lyrics are pretty dumb, but Armstrong invests everything he has in them. However, the hot instrumental interludes--taken from the All Stars’s live routine, perfected after years of performance--are on the money, if too short (it appears Gabler threw in a splice to shorten the fun).
“Muskrat Ramble” is pretty forgettable but at least it gave Gabler an excuse to issue the incredible “Someday You’ll Be Sorry” from the session with the Commanders on October 22, 1953. Armstrong originally recorded this original composition for Victor in 1947 in a gentle, almost lullaby-like version. He sings and plays the song so pretty on that date that it infuses the meaning of the song with a bit of a melancholy mood. However, after six years of playing it regularly with the All Stars, Armstrong now had a new approach to the song. The tempo was ratcheted up a few notches and now Armstrong sang with gleeful abandon, changing the mood from one of longing regret to one of joyful celebration that person in question is thankfully gone and one day is really going to be sorry about how she/he treated ol’ Pops. (Dan Morgenstern’s theory is that Armstrong’s lyrics were aimed at the boppers taking him for granted; indeed, “Someday You’ll Be Sorry” could serve as the theme song to the last 25 years of Armstrong’s career.)
Armstrong’s earlier versions of the tune sounded like he was trying to not wake the neighbors; this version sounds like he’s trying to break a lease! The tempo’s now around 138 beats per minutes, not much faster than where it was in the late 40s, but the rhythm section gives it a little more oomph, once again due to Grady’s rat-a-tat drumming. As with the All Stars, Armstrong takes his own melody in the beginning, playing with a plastic straight mute in his horn, answering his melody statements with some nifty improvised phrases. The band ushers in the vocal with a literal explosion and it’s a fine vocal, as always. Live versions before and after usually kicked it over to a trombone solo at this point but on this record, the listener is treated to over a minute of pure Pops blowing. The tension begins to build as you can hear drummer Grady switch from brushes to sticks towards the end of the vocal. A perfect four-bar setup by the band leads to one of my favorite Armstrong solos of the 50s. Forgetting the melody, he begins low, playing a nice, tumbling low phrase towards the beginning of his solo (what rhythm this man had). The use of space is effective as well.
Sufficiently warmed up, Armstrong begins climbing high at 2:17 in, playing the melody up and infusing it with more blues than customary. The band rushes in like a tidal wave but Armstrong blows them back into the background, ripping off four high concert Bbs before deciding to play the melody an octave higher, topping out at a dramatic high concert C that shakes this listener to his soul (and he ends the record with a high Db!). I think it’s one of Armstrong’s best solos of the 1950s, even if the pretty, soft feeling of the original performances of “Someday” is obliterated. Armstrong himself adopted the new approach to the tune in his live performances, usually introducing it as something he recorded specifically for Decca, almost as if the Victor record never existed.
But “Someday You’ll Be Sorry” was relegated to “B” side status; Billboard wrote it off as, “Tune is an Armstrong original and he plays and sings the ballad handily.” What? “Ballad”? With Ed Grady beating the hell out of the drums like that? Did they even listen?
Instead, more focus was paid to “Muskrat Ramble” and Billboard for one was impressed. “The Armstrong trumpet and hoarse piping fit the evergreen beautifully,” their review read on October 2, 1954. “Satchmo fans will want this badly, and many others will also take to it. Should win lots of plays and sales.”
But once again, Gabler was too late, this time by a smidgen. One week earlier, Coral released a single of the McGuire Sisters singing Gilbert’s lyrics on “Muskrat Ramble” and it was a bona fide hit. Billboard put it in their “Spotlight” section on September 25, writing, “Here is a brash and exciting rendition by the gals of the two-beat favorite, and with snappy Dixie backing. A strong disk for the boxes.” The review wasn’t kidding as the McGuire Sisters’s version didn’t leave the charts until January 1955. In the same October 2 issue that featured the review of Armstrong’s disc, Billboard called the McGuire Sisters’s version the “Best Bet” of the week, writing, “The Sisters are leading easily over a large field of contenders in the revival of this vintage tune, and ought to place on the charts before long,” mentioning that it topped other competitive versions by the Matys Brothers, Rusty Draper and yes, Louis Armstrong. Armstrong’s version, though it was the real deal (he even claimed to have written the song, not Kid Ory), never scratched the charts.
This September 1 date proved to be the last time Armstrong stepped in a Decca studio in 1954. Gabler still had one more single up his sleeve--but George Avakian had an entire album up his own sleeve.
Trees / Spooks
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Billy Butterfield, Yank Lawson, Chris Griffin (tp), Lou McGarity, Cliff Heather (tb), Milt Yaner (cl), Tom Parshley, Jack Greenberg (as), Abraham Richmond, George Berg (ts), Bernie Leighton (p), George Barnes (g), Jack Lesberg (b), Harry Jaeger (d), Tom Frost, Julie Schacter, Julie Shaier, Harry Melnikoff, Max Hollander, Morris Lefkowitz, Sam Rand, Sid Brecher (vln); Harry Coletta (viola); Harvey Shapiro (cello); Miriam Workman, Lois Winter, Audry Marsh, Geraldine Viti, Elise Bretton, Lillian Clark, Ray Charles, Arthur Malvin, Jim Farmer, Eugene Lowell (voc), Gordon Jenkins (arr, cond).
Recorded April 13, 1954, New York City
Armstrong’s final Decca single of 1954 features the other two tracks he cut with Gordon Jenkins at the Novocain-infused session of April 13, 1954. There’s no trumpet to be heard on either side, but Armstrong’s jaws loosened long enough to provide two expressive vocals.
With “Trees,” Jenkins reaches back to the nostalgic material of yesteryear he had been recording with Armstrong for the past few sessions. The song is actually the popular poem by Joyce Kilmer, written in 1913 and published in 1914. According to Wikipedia, “Kilmer’s work is often disparaged by critics and dismissed by scholars as being too simple and overly sentimental, and that his style was far too traditional and even archaic.” The description can also be applied verbatim to Gordon Jenkins, and in some ways, Armstrong, which perhaps made them kindred spirits of Kilmer’s, unafraid to embrace the sentimental streak of “Trees.”
Kilmer was killed in World War I in 1918 but the popularity of “Trees” never died, especially once it was set to music by Oscar Rasbach in 1922,leading to versions by everyone from Robert Merrill and Ernestine Schumann-Heink to Nelson Eddy and Paul Robeson to Armstrong’s old employer, Fletcher Henderson, and his favorite trumpeter, Bunny Berigan. Armstrong was well aware of Berigan’s masterful version of it, which might be one reason he chose not to play the trumpet on his own version (he also refused to play “I Can’t Get Started” out of respect for the late Berigan).
“Trees” taxes Armstrong’s vocal range but as demonstrated before, he was capable of affecting results when pushing that pit of gravel into the bass or tenor regions of his voice. He really emotes on “Trees” and if you’re the type that can also embrace sentimentality, it’s difficult to listen to the results without a lump forming in your throat. To add to the emotion, in the last month of his life, Armstrong spent some time with the aforementioned Decca LP compilation of his sides with Jenkins, dubbing it to the final tape he made on July 5, 1971, the night before his passing. And visited by trumpeter and disciple Chris Clifton just days before he died, Armstrong put on “Trees,” picked up his trumpet and played along, creating an unforgettable memory for Clifton.
If you listen at just a surface level, it might sound like another weepy, string-heavy Jenkins arrangement but listen closely and count the Armstrong licks packed in there, especially the chromatic phrase Armstrong first played on “Tears” in 1923 and later immortalized on “Potato Head Blues” in 1927. This would sadly be Jenkins’s last time working with Armstrong, a shame because no other arranger put so much love--and so many tributes--into his orchestrations for Armstrong like Jenkins did. (Compare the somewhat bland string arrangements by Russell Garcia on Armstrong’s 1957 Verve recordings, perfectly serviceable work that could have been crafted for any vocalist of the period; Jenkins’s arrangements are love letters to Armstrong.)
But the flip side of “Trees” represents the nadir of the Armstrong-Jenkins partnership. After so many nostalgic old songs, we get an out and out novelty in “Spooks!” complete with sound effects and old-time-radio screams. Armstrong does well with the tongue-twisting lyrics but he also sounds strangely subdued. Maybe it was the effects wearing off from the dental visit but maybe even he knew deep down that this wasn’t the best piece of material he was ever handed and was having trouble summoning up the inspiration to really sell it. Gone is the Armstrong having the time of his life on “Takes Two to Tango.”
Billboard wasn’t impressed, reviewing both sides on December 4, 1954. (Odd that “Spooks!” wasn’t released for Halloween and instead was dumped in the Christmas season.) “It must have seemed like a sensational idea to have the gravel-voiced Armstrong sing the tune based on Joyce Kilmer’s poem, but somehow it doesn’t come off, in spite of a strong vocal by Armstrong and a fine Jenkins’ ork backing,” the magazine said of “Trees,” the unnamed reviewer not specifying what didn’t work--after Armstrong’s “strong” vocal and Jenkins’s “fine” arrangement, what else was left?
Of “Spooks!,” Billboard said, “Armstrong gets a chance here to tell about some spooks that were wandering about his house. The chanter hands it a great vocal, but the material runs down hill.” Indeed, material was becoming the problem with Armstrong’s Decca work of 1954, something that became crystal clear after the simultaneous release of Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy on Columbia.
In the very same December 4 issue, Billboard chose to spotlight the Columbia album with what they dubbed a “News Review” by Bob Rolontz. Under the headline, “Combine of Jazz Kings A Fine Set,” Rolontz wrote, “It is hard to imagine any combination in jazz that could be more nearly right than a combination of Louis Armstrong and W. C. Handy, a uniting of the king of the trumpet with the king of the blues. George Avakian, Columbia Record’s jazz chief, has put the combination together, and he has come up with a ‘natural.’ It is one of the brightest jazz sets in many a day and one of Satchmo’s best sets ever.” Rolontz even got into the business side, adding, “Armstrong made these recordings for Columbia while he was ‘between contracts’ at Decca Records early this year.”
Billboard was one thing but it was the jazz press that really went ecstatic for Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy. In his five-star Downbeat review, Nat Hentoff spoke for the majority of his fellow critics when he wrote, “This LP is one of the greatest recordings not only of the year, but of jazz history. After years of wandering in a Decca desert (with very few oases) Louis finally had a full-ranged shot at the kind of material he loves, along with the kind of freedom that George Avakian provides at a jazz date....This album is an accomplishment Avakian can well be self-congratulatory about. By arranging this session and supervising it with this much unobtrusive skill and taste, Avakian, too--as well as W. C. Handy and Louis--has made a lasting contribution to recorded jazz."
That was more than was being said for “Skokiaan” and “Spooks!” Gabler’s ego must have been bruised at the breathless compliments directed towards Avakian and Columbia but he wasn’t quite finished with Armstrong yet. The thing is, neither was Columbia. At the end of “Spooks!” Armstrong intones, “I’m cutting out of here, man, I don’t dig this jive!” He might as well have been speaking about leaving Decca for Columbia.
Struttin’ with Some Barbecue / Ko Ko Mo
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Pete Candoli (tp), Trummy Young (tb), Barney Bigard (cl), Donald Ruffell, Chuck Gentry, Josh Cook Koch (saxes), Billy Kyle (p), Arvell Shaw (b), Barrett Deems (d), Gary Crosby, Jud Conlon Rhythmaires (voc), Sonny Burke (cond).
Recorded January 18, 1955, Los Angeles
As 1955 began, Milt Gabler had Louis Armstrong booked for a session in Los Angeles, determined to get his man back on the charts. The days of Gordon Jenkins’s strings and songs from the 19th century were over for the time being. Rhythm and blues had taken the short step towards becoming rock ‘n’ roll thanks to Gabler’s “Rock Around the Clock” and now the producer was going to see he could turn Armstrong into a rock and roller. But first, another trip to the past.
Waiting for Armstrong was a small big band (including all of his All Stars) arranged and conducted by Sonny Burke, the vocal group Jud Conlon’s Rhythmaires and Bing’s son, Gary Crosby. After the McGuire Sisters had a hit with “Muskrat Ramble,” there appeared to be a market for “Dixie” numbers with corny lyrics. Thus, “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” another Hot Five classic, got its own set of dopey lyrics by Don Raye. It’s not known if Gabler commissioned the lyrics but it is a fact that Armstrong and Crosby were the first to record so perhaps it was Gabler’s attempt to not get beat out again (by the McGuire Sisters no less).
After Armstrong’s powerhouse trumpet opening--it’s great hearing him play this melody at this tempo--Crosby takes the lead, singing a relaxed chorus that shows he listened carefully to his father. Armstrong doesn’t have much to do except scat an obligato and remark “Yum yum” to Crosby’s mentions of barbecue (though when Armstrong wrote the tune in 1927, he was using “barbecue” as slang for a pretty girl). In the last couple of bars, Crosby busts out his Armstrong impersonation, and it’s not a bad one--it’s clearly done with love--but like most impersonations of Armstrong, unnecessary.
But then Barrett Deems’s drums erupt into a tempo change and Armstrong and his All Stars, with accents from the other horns, charge through a full chorus, like “Muskrat Ramble,” taken right out of their onstage “arrangement.” The tempo resorts back to the original pace and Crosby resumes his Armstrong impersonation as the two get into a lather about having some ribs (also known as “chime bones” and “xylophones”). Crosby takes Armstrong’s signature scat lick before a righteous shared “Oh yeah” ending.
With that out of the way, it was time for some rock in the form of “Ko Ko Mo (I Love You So),” a song Charles Gillett once called “the most extensively recorded rock ‘n’ roll song of that time.” The song was originally recorded by the rhythm and blues duo of Gene Wilson and Eunice Levy (better known as Gene and Eunice) and released in November 1954 on Combo and again in January 1955 on Aladdin. Gabler must have known the tidal wave was coming, having Armstrong and Crosby record it on January 18 as at least 17 different version were waxed in the first months of the New Year, including covers by The Crew-Cuts, Tito Rodriguez, The Charms, The Flamingos and most notably, Perry Como.
Como’s “Ko Ko Mo” was RCA Victor’s first attempt at a rock ‘n’ roll record. Gabler must have read the January 15 issue of Billboard which announced the versions by Como and The Crew Cuts, saying of Como’s take, “Perry Como’s ultra-relaxed warbling style is a natural for the current rhythm and blues trend in the pop field; so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that his new r&b smash ‘Ko Ko Mo’ is one of the best pop versions of the tune yet released.” Three days later, Louis Armstrong was recording “Ko Ko Mo” in Los Angeles.
The opening sounds on the Armstrong-and-Crosby version are the “Hoo-wahs” of the Jud Conlon Rhythmaires, doing their best to mimic the sounds of Doo Wop (would there even be a Doo Wop if Armstrong hadn’t popularized scat singing with 1926’s “Heebie Jeebies”?), all over an infectious, Latin-tinged beat. Crosby again gets the first chorus while Armstrong scats around him. But after a pause, the rhythm sections locks into a swing groove for the “Don’t You Know / I Love You So” portion, the vocal shared by Armstrong and Crosby. For me, a humorous part occurs when the debonair pianist Billy Kyle, always known for his clean, single-note lines, begins pounding the treble register of the piano like Johnny Johnson on a Chuck Berry record. One must wonder if it was a Gabler suggestion, if Burke included a notation in his arrangement or if Kyle was just doing it to be satirical. He returns to his usual, tasty way of comping shortly after.
The Latin-feel returns and Armstrong to take a chorus on his own. He had been singing the blues for years so he sounds right at home; as he said often about rock ‘n’ roll, it was nothing but “old soup warmed over.” He then picks up his trumpet and proves it by blowing the hell out of two choruses of blues. Armstrong made his reputation as a blues player in New Orleans and had just won critical raves for his blues playing on Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy; the “Ko Ko Mo” melody and the doo-wopping voices might have made this a “rock” record but Armstrong was just doing what came naturally to him, sounding completely at home. Even the “big beat’ that was an integral part of 1950s rock was nothing new as he always employed drummers like Big Sid Catlett who could lay down a heavy backbeat at any time. Deems, his current drummer, almost played pseudo-rock drums in his time with the All Stars, something that drove the critics crazy but spurred Armstrong to great heights. Thus, when everything locks in in the second instrumental chorus with Deems’s backbeats and Burke’s horns--and voices--riffing, the record really takes off!
Everything calms down after this exhilarating interlude, Crosby taking another stanza over the Latin-rhythm, one more swinging “Don’t You Know / I Love You So” chorus and some more powerhouse trumpet playing over a fade-out ending.
The record had all the makings of a hit except by the time it was released less than a month later on February 12, the Como record had turned into a bona fide smash, reaching #2 on Billboard’s pop charts later that month. The magazine again lamented the Armstrong and Crosby were just a little too late: “Had this been issued about four weeks ago it would have handed the Como slicing a real battle. For it features a solid vocal on the lively ditty by young Gary Crosby and Louis Armstrong over fine trumpet work by Satchmo. In spite of the late release, it will still get a good share of the coins.”
“Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” also got a nice notice in Billboard, the magazine writing, “Here’s a mighty listenable cutting of the novelty featuring attractive vocals by young Crosby and Armstrong together. It’s a fine side, and it will get spins even after the top side is no longer a hit.”
Gabler took that to heart. In a sea of “Ko Ko Mo’s,’ it had become impossible to compete, but at least “Barbecue” was something different. Decca immediately reissued the single with “Barbecue” now as the A-side and Armstrong went to work, performing it with Crosby live on The Ed Sullivan Show on May 15. From there, Armstrong and Crosby did blockbuster business sharing the bill at the Chicago Theater in June, performing duets on both “Barbecue” and “Ko Ko Mo” night after night. And an appearance on the CBS TV show America’s Greatest Bands on July 2 found Armstrong reprising the “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” routine with his own trombonist, Trummy Young.
It didn’t work. Armstrong’s Decca single never made the charts (and frankly, was never reissued by parent company Universal in the compact disc or digital era until this release) and he soon went back to performing “Barbecue” as an instrumental.
Funnily enough, it was “Ko Ko Mo” that ended up fitting right in at home during Armstrong’s live shows as a duet between Armstrong and Velma Middleton. The two began performing it in the summer of 1955 and did it every night until Middleton’s passing in 1961, always bringing down the house (the various surviving live versions between Armstrong and Middleton are much more entertaining than the Crosby record). Between “Ko Ko Mo” and his increasingly rocking versions of “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” All Stars shows of the mid-50s featured more than a little taste of rock ‘n’ roll.
The Gary Crosby duets went nowhere but Gabler didn’t know that when he recorded them. Two more songs were recorded in Los Angeles that January day as Gabler attempted to turn Armstrong into a rock balladeer.
Sincerely / Pledging My Love
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Pete Candoli (tp), Trummy Young (tb), Barney Bigard (cl), Donald Ruffell, Chuck Gentry, Josh Cook Koch (saxes), Billy Kyle (p, chimes), Arvell Shaw (b), Barrett Deems (d), Sonny Burke (cond).
Recorded January 18, 1955, Los Angeles
Most histories of rock ‘n’ roll emphasize the actually rocking music of the likes of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. But beginning in the rhythm and blues era and continuing into rock, sappy ballads were also a popular component of the new music. People have been singing about love since the beginning of time but these 1950s love songs usually featured repetitive melodies, simplistic lyrics and a heavy beat. The days of poetic lyrics by Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin were coming to a close. This was now the era of “Don’t you know / I love you so / Ko Ko Mo.”
For the other two songs recorded on January 18, 1955, Gabler chose the two biggest rock ballads of the time. “Sincerely” was written by Harvey Fuqua and Alan Freed, though it’s doubtful that Freed, the disc jockey who did so much to put rock ‘n’ roll (and payola) on the map, actually did any pen-and-music-paper songwriting as he was the manager of Fuqua’s vocal group, The Moonglows. “Sincerely” was released on Chess Records in 1954 and became a #1 R&B hit.
The trend of white artists “gentrifying” black music was nothing new so it was no surprise that “Sincerely” found its way into the hands of the McGuire Sisters, who released their own version in early December 1954. Billboard initially called it “lovely” but didn’t predict anything big at first. But on Christmas Day, they changed their mind, making it a “Best Bet” based on how it had been selling in cities like New York, Los Angeles, St. Louis and Cleveland. In the same January 15 issue that mentioned Perry Como’s smash “Ko Ko Mo,” the McGuire Sisters’s “Sincerely” was steadily moving up the charts.
Thus, three days later, Louis Armstrong, who had changed the world with his unaccompanied cadenza on “West End Blues” and made jazz standards out of challenging numbers like “Star Dust” and “Body and Soul” was now confronted by a pretty, but supremely basic love song. The changes are beyond simple: 1-6-2-5 in Eb (that’s two bars each of Eb-Cm-F7-Bb) for the A sections and a lovely bridge that capitalizes on the major-to-minor harmonies of many 1950s R&B and early rock ballads. Like the McGuire Sisters record, Armstrong’s version, arranged by Sonny Burke, begins with almost the same simple sax riff (somewhere, Alvin and the Chipmunks are getting ready to sing). It’s not so much an introduction as a hook—we’re in the era of rock, my friends!
Fortunately, Armstrong sings the song, well, sincerely, receiving very nice muted trumpet work from Pete Candoli behind him. He barely changes a line of melody or adds any scatting, but it’s pretty enough, though the band really hammers out those five chords after the first A section. The bridge, though, is this song’s bread-and-butter and Armstrong sings it wonderfully, getting great support by Billy Kyle and Trummy Young. It’s a fine vocal but the song takes so long to sing that one chorus takes up almost two full minutes of the three-minute record.
But don’t worry, help is on the way! I cannot describe how much I love Armstrong’s bridge on this song. His entrance on just a few repeated quarter notes is supremely relaxed and the padding the reeds give him is quite lush (Deems’s cymbals sound good, too). Armstrong feels the song and plays with that slippery phrasing that is the definition of rhythmic trickeration. When the chords change to F7, he plays one of his famous licks ascending phrases, landing on a few G’s, the ninth of the F7, He ends his brief outing with a break whose of notes are utterly logical, all leading up to a giant gliss up to a high Bb. It’s only eight bars, but it makes the record, especially with that superb trumpet entrance.
Armstrong, feeling the spirit, hits that Bb, quickly pulls the horn from his mouth and manages to make it back to the mike in time to shout out, “Lookee here, Sincerely,” all on one pitch, a high Eb. He opens his next line with a soulful “Oh” and in delivering the final lyric, he phrases it up high, much as he might have played it on his trumpet. The band plays a final chord but listen for Armstrong yelling out the final word, “Mine,” one last time in the background of all the reeds and brass.
“Sincerely” is a harmless record with some lovely moments but it definitely belongs on the lower echelon of Armstrong’s Decca pop sides. Still, it’s not as low as the flip side, “Pledging My Love.” This blues ballad was recorded by popular R&B artist Johnny Ace in December 1954 and released after his death from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound on Christmas Day of that year. It was an immediate hit, Billboard calling it one of “This Week’s Best Buys” in its January 15, 1955 issue and “almost as popular with pop customers as with R&B.” (One of the other “Best Buys” that week? Gene and Eunice’s “Ko Ko Mo.” Milt Gabler obviously read this issue carefully before calling Armstrong into the studio three days later.)
Like “Sincerely,” “Pledging My Love” is a pretty song but there’s not much for Armstrong to sink his teeth into. As always, he needed to “find the life” of a song before recording it. In interviews, he mentioned that “Pledging My Love” was similar to a spiritual he remembered hearing at trumpeter Buddy Petit’s funeral in New Orleans in July 1931. I don’t know which spiritual Armstrong had in mind but he used the story to illustrate the similarities between rock ‘n’ roll and the music he grew up hearing in the sanctified churches.
But listening to “Pledging My Love,” one wishes Gabler could have chosen something that actually rocked a bit. With Billy Kyle reduced to playing two-note licks on some bells and the horns doing nothing more than padding, the record just doesn’t get going. Armstrong always makes it worth listening with a heartfelt vocal and too-short trumpet solo, but this is probably his most forgettable Decca pop side to this point.
Decca released this single the same day as “Ko Ko Mo” and “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” with Gary Crosby and once again, Billboard had a by-now familiar critique, writing of “Sincerely,” “What more is there to say except that Armstrong sings the hit in a manner that all his fans will enjoy? His version of the tune, however, is rather late to get more than a token share of the loot.” “Pledging My Love” fared worse, Billboard writing, “The current Johnny Ace hit receives a good reading here from Satchmo, tho not quite up to Armstrong’s best work. The backing is a bit overdone.” Though the charts in the February 12 Billboard were loaded with versions of “Ko Ko Mo,” “Sincerely” and “Pledging My Love,” Armstrong’s singles never touched them.
By this point, Armstrong must have been begging for the chance to just tear out with his All Stars as he had done for Columbia the previous summer. Milt Gabler, who always made sure to throw the All Stars a bone now and then, must have noticed the positive notices--and sales--surrounding the Columbia album and decided it was time to do something similar. Thus, three days after Armstrong’s rock/R&B session, Gabler set up recording equipment in Hollywood’s Crescendo Club and recorded three full sets of Armstrong and his group in peak form. It would take some time for him to edit the results but two long-playing At the Crescendo volumes were released in October 1955 to good reviews. But by that time, Decca would once again be battling Columbia in the marketplace.
Baby, Your Sleep is Showing / Pretty Little Missy
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Trummy Young (tb), Barney Bigard (cl), Billy Kyle (p), Arvell Shaw (b), Barrett Deems (d), Velma Middleton (voc).
Recorded April 25, 1955, New York City
Recording Louis Armstrong and His All Stars at the Crescendo Club was a fantastic idea. That, riding the tails of the success of Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy must have made Gabler realize that perhaps it was time to leave the strings and singers and big bands behind and make a studio session with the All Stars.
Unfortunately, once they got to the studio on April 25, Gabler proved he didn’t know what to do with them. He recorded one duet with Velma Middleton on a song called “Yeh!” that was eventually rejected. He recorded another duet written by pianist Marty Napoleon called “Mm-mm” that was eventually rejected. He smartly recorded “Tin Roof Blues,” an All Stars staple then burning up the charts in a vocal version by Jo Stafford called “Make Love to Me” but perhaps because of the instrumental nature of Armstrong’s recording, decided to sit on it until a 1957 compilation of odds and ends, Satchmo on Stage.
That only left two of the songs to be issued as a single. “Baby Your Sleep is Showing” is as obscure as it gets, a pop tune written by Nat Simon and Charles Tobias that was seemingly never recorded by anyone else. Velma makes a cameo at the start, teasing that this might end up as a fun duet with Armstrong, but disappears almost as quickly as she appeared. Armstrong sings the nondescript tune, followed by Armstrong’s stately lead trumpet playing, the highlight of the disc. Then it’s back to the vocal, with a cute ending full of tags. It’s all over in two minutes and 40 seconds but there’s really nothing memorable about it.
The other side, though, is a winner. “Pretty Little Missy” was an original composition by Armstrong and Billy Kyle, based on a riff Kyle used to play on his “Perdido” solos. Clearly, after the release of “Someday You’ll Be Sorry” and “Bye and Bye” in 1954, Joe Glaser was pushing for more originals to squeeze out even more money from Armstrong’s recordings.
“Pretty Little Missy” is notable for showcasing the All Stars at their tightest, basically playing an arrangement throughout. There’s the head itself, played in unison; there’s the “Perdido”-inspired backing by Young and Bigard behind Armstrong’s vocal; and the last chorus is lifted from a Ralph Flanagan composition, “Hot Toddy.” Clearly some work went into this one and the result is worth the effort.
Armstrong has fun with the vocal but it should be noted that in just about every single succeeding live version--even on television--Armstrong would discreetly change on of the utterances of “pucker” to something that rhymes with it but begins with an “F”! After “I Can’t Afford to Miss This Dream” and the possible curse on “My Sweet Hunk o’Trash,” this should come as no surprise.
The jazz press had a little fun with this one as Armstrong both plays and sings flatted fifths as written into the song’s bridge, which was taken as a possible sign that his anti-bebop stance was weakening. But they were really the only ones who noticed the record. Billboard took an optimistic slant, calling “Baby, Your Sleep is Showing” “good listening” and predicting “it should do well in the market place” while “Pretty Little Missy” was a “bright opus” worthy of “repeat spins.” Armstrong did his best, performing “Pretty Little Missy” on numerous television and radio appearances in the summer of 1955; it never really left his repertoire, as he was still performing it (and bragging about the “ASCAP change” he received from it) in 1971, the year of his passing. But once again, the single sank without a trace.
The All Stars recorded five songs for Decca on April 25, a truly mixed bag of material with only two selections suitable for release that summer. Literally the very next day, April 26, they began recording a new album for George Avakian at Columbia Records, Satch Plays Fats, a tribute to the legendary pianist and composer, Fats Waller. The resulting record became a classic, is still in print today and features such time capsule moments as Armstrong’s majestic, touching renditions of “Blue Turning Grey Over You” and “Black and Blues,” plus intensely swinging versions of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” to name just a few of the album’s many highlights. “Baby, Your Sleep is Showing” and “Pretty Little Missy” have rarely been reissued, if even mentioned, since their original release.
Clearly, Joe Glaser had not signed Armstrong to an exclusive contract and clearly, pop hits be damned, he wanted more of the rave reviews--and especially the sales--garnered by Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy. On April 23, just days before the Decca and Columbia sessions, Billboard put out a special issue devoted to the popularity of long-playing jazz albums, giving readers something of an introduction to jazz as a genre and how to find the music on LP. A list of “Jazz Best Sellers” went label by label, including Columbia Records and listing Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy. Decca, which was now almost totally engrossed in pop music, wasn’t even listed.
Thus, Glaser gave Avakian a second chance and Avakian didn’t let him down. Satch Plays Fats was first mentioned in the July 30, 1955 Billboard, already listed in an advertisement as one of Columbia’s best-selling “Popular” albums of the week. The formal review came on August 13, Billboard writing, “This one should move off the shelves rapidly, for there’s merchandising magic in the title….A knowing set of liner notes by George Avakian will be relished by fans.” In Downbeat, Nat Hentoff was slightly less enthusiastic this time, complaining about Velma Middleton and the All Stars themselves, but overall, praising Armstrong and still giving it four stars.
More importantly, the record was selling. Columbia was still placing it in its advertisements as a weekly best-seller (reminiscent of the old “Decca Data” days) and it was a mainstay of its new “Columbia Record Club” mail-order program. On October 1, Billboard, realizing the popularity of package albums, debuted something brand new: a specific chart chronicling the week’s best-selling jazz albums. For this first edition of the Billboard jazz charts, Satch Plays Fats was ranked number one.
Avakian was now two-for-two. Gabler and Decca hadn’t recorded anything with Armstrong since April and only released the one dud single in July but the lure of a top ten pop hit was still to strong for Joe Glaser to deny. He’d give Gabler another chance in September 1955.
Only You / Moments to Remember
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Manny Klein, Pete Candoli, Vito Mangano (tp), Trummy Young, Si Zentner (tb), Barney Bigard (cl), Arthur Herfurt, Harry Klee (as), Babe Russin, Donald Ruffell (ts), Billy Kyle (p), Arvell Shaw (b), Barrett Deems (d), Benny Carter (arr, cond).
Recorded September 8, 1955, Los Angeles
Perhaps feeling the heat from the success of Armstrong’s two Columbia albums, Gabler booked two sessions with Armstrong in September 1955 and threw everything he could at the trumpeter in the efforts of a landing a hit: covers of two of the most popular songs of the period? Check. Two more Christmas songs? Check. Another pair of duets with Gary Crosby? Check.
For the first session, Gabler hired the great Benny Carter to arrange a big band loaded with Los Angeles star studio musicians, plus the entire All Stars. Carter was deep into his full-time arranging period, before reestablishing himself as a dominant alto saxophonist and trumpeter a short time later (he always regretted never having the opportunity to actually play with Armstrong).
The “A” side of this single was “Only You (And You Alone)” and all-time hit for the Platters. After an unissued try in 1954, the group gave it another stab in April 1955, waxing what became the definitive version. But it was slow to take off; released in May 1955, it didn’t start moving until the end of July. On September 3, five days before Armstrong’s session, “Only You” had become a mainstay on the Rhythm and Blues charts and was now number three on the “Coming Up Strong” list of Popular Records. One cover had already been made by Lola Dee and and now it was time for Armstrong to make his own take for Decca.
And what a version it is. Without the attempts at rock ‘n’ roll, the heavy-handed arrangements of Sonny Burke, the sound effects of “Spooks!,” the silly lyrics of “Skokiaan,” etc., “Only You” represents Armstrong’s best pure Decca pop side in over a year. Carter’s arrangement is on the money, swinging hard and providing a perfect framework for Armstrong’s smooth vocals (hear the saxophone lines behind him) and especially his powerhouse short trumpet solo (listen for him running back to the microphone after the last note, shouting the first line of the vocal as he gets closer!). Armstrong sounds like he’s in love with the song, probably because he was; he owned the original Mercury 45--perhaps to familiarize himself with it for this session--and also dubbed the Platters’ album, Remember When, to reel-to-reel tape. That love shines through creating a swinging take on a now-iconic song that stands alongside the best of Armstrong’s pop recordings.
For the flip, Gabler selected “Moments to Remember,” a current hit for the Canadian vocal group, the Four Lads. Billboard accurately described it in its August 6, 1955 issue as “a pleasant, super-sentimental ballad.” The single was quiet until Cleveland disc-jockey Bill Dendle began banging the drum for it, causing Billboard to revisit it on September 3, making it the week’s “Best Buy” because of “unusually heavy action on the disk.” That was good enough for Gabler who assigned it to Benny Carter to arrange for Armstrong’s date five days later.
But unlike “Only You”--and too much like “Pledging My Love” and “Baby, Your Sleep is Showing”--nothing much happens on “Moments to Remember.” Armstrong sings it beautifully, as always, and there’s a tasty, but too-short trumpet spot, but everything stays at a low-boil, making us long for the days when Armstrong’s Decca ballads either ended with soaring trumpet flights (“La Vie En Rose”) or impassioned singing (“That Lucky Old Sun”). Like all the lesser Decca material, it’s still a very listenable record, but at the same time, pretty forgettable.
The producing business always involved a good deal and gambling and Gabler must have thought he had a winner on his hand. By the time of its late October release, “Moments to Remember” and “Only You” were even bigger hits than at the time of the session, “Moments to Remember” a number four on the “Honor Roll of Hits” and “Only You,” number 15 on October 29. On November 5, “Moments to Remember” was the number four “Best Seller in Stores” and “Only You” was right behind it at number five. The records continued to climb until the end of the year.
But then Armstrong’s single was released--and nothing happened. For the first time, Billboard didn’t even review it and it didn’t appear in a single advertisement. Both sides have never been issued by Universal in the entire CD and digital era until now (“Only You” had a shot when Armstrong’s version was used in the 1994 romantic comedy of the same name but never caught on).
Interestingly, a Billboard article on May 5, 1956 by June Bundy pointed out a new trend in the record business. “Indie Originals Vs. Covers; Battle of the Pops Charts,” the headline screamed, with a sub-heading, “Survey Shows R&B Original Disks Gaining Over Covers in Pop Market.” As the headline made clear, rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll original hits were selling better than the pop covers, something that really hadn’t happened before. In 1955, Gene and Eunice could introduce “Ko Ko Mo,” but then Perry Como had the bigger hit with his cover. The Moonglows could introduce “Sincerely” but the McGuire Sisters had the bigger hit with their cover. But by the end of the year, the public was becoming more satisfied with the original recording of a tune and didn’t need a bunch of competing covers to choose from. The 1956 article even used “Only You” as an example, Bundy writing, “Originals making it last October, November and December included…’Only You’ by the Platters, over the Hilltoppers, Louis Armstrong and Lola Dee.” It was the only time Armstrong’s single was mentioned in the magazine.
When 1955 came to a close, Billboard listed the top 30 songs of the year. The list included “Sincerely,” “Moments to Remember,” “Ko Ko Mo” and “Only You,” each recorded by Armstrong in versions that barely received any attention. Having Armstrong record covers of current hits was Milt Gabler’s bread-and-butter since signing Armstrong in 1949. But the industry was in a different place at the end of 1955. “Only You” and “Moments to Remember” would represent the last time Armstrong would cover a current pop hit for quite some time.
Christmas in New Orleans / Christmas Night in Harlem
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Manny Klein, Pete Candoli, Vito Mangano (tp), Trummy Young, Si Zentner (tb), Barney Bigard (cl), Arthur Herfurt, Harry Klee (as), Babe Russin, Donald Ruffell (ts), Billy Kyle (p), Arvell Shaw (b), Barrett Deems (d), Benny Carter (arr, cond).
Recorded September 8, 1955, Los Angeles
With the pop covers out of the way, it was time to record a couple of Christmas songs. Gabler hadn’t recorded any in 1954 (releasing “Spooks!” in December instead) so it was time to attempt to get Armstrong some holiday airplay.
The first Christmas song that day was Dick Sherman and Joe Van Winkle’s “Christmas In New Orleans.” In 2016, New Orleans Gambit writer “Blake Pontchartrain” discovered that “Dick Sherman” was really Richard M. Sherman of the famed Sherman Brothers who began writing so much classic music for Walt Disney films in 1958. Sherman was 27 at the time and was already writing songs before teaming with his brother.
“I had just gotten out of the service but hadn't teamed up with my brother yet,” Sherman told Gambit. “I met this young songwriter Joe Van Winkle and we sat down on a hot California summer day and decided to write something cool. We decided on a Christmas song and since I loved Dixieland music, it became 'Christmas in New Orleans.’” They didn’t think much would come of it but it ended up in the hands of Harry Goodman, Benny Goodman’s brother and one-time bassist, who was in the music publishing business. The next time Goodman saw Sherman, he told him he had just recorded his song with a “well-known” artist, but wouldn’t tell him who. “Unbeknownst to me, when we went in to hear it, it was being sung by my idol, Louis Armstrong,” Sherman said. “I adored him all my life and was nuts about his work, so this was a dream come true.”
Benny Carter’s arrangement begins with an edgy “Jingle Bells” quote that sounds like it belongs in an episode of Dragnet (remember, Carter was doing a lot of film work at the time). It soon settles into a gentle two-beat that really works for this song. The lyrics are almost a waste of time with their references to stuff like a “Dixieland Santa Claus,” but as always, Armstrong sounds like the happiest guy in the world. And how could he not? He loved Christmas and he loved New Orleans so any song that combined the two, even with dopey lyrics, was bound to inspire him.
What’s truly inspired, though, is the trumpet solo. The tune starts off kind of like “Basin Street Blues” before it goes its own way but the changes obviously had enough meat for Armstrong to sink his chops into. This isn’t one of those grandiose high-note extravaganzas; however it is a good time to appreciate Armstrong’s rhythmic mastery. It’s one of those solos that I always enjoyed but never really devoted 100% attention to until an afternoon I spent in clarinetist Joe Muranyi’s house. Muranyi recorded “Christmas In New Orleans” for his Jazzology C.D., Joe Muranyi With The New Orleans Real Low-Down. For the disc, he transcribed Armstrong’s solo to be played in unison by his clarinet, Duke Heitger’s trumpet and Tom Baker’s tenor sax. While listening to it with me, Muranyi said, “It’s tough to notate this part. I worked so hard on it. What you do is, I did it and then I put it away. I mean, I had done it maybe two or three years before this and when I took it out again and refined it, you keep finding little things. It’s not easy. It’s interesting to hear it in this context. It sounds more complex than when he plays it.” It really does.
For the final track on the date, Decca reached back and picked “Christmas Night In Harlem,” written by Mitchell Parish and Raymond Scott for the Blackbirds of 1934 and memorably recorded by Paul Whiteman with a vocal by Jack Teagarden and Johnny Mercer. Carter’s arrangement begins with another Christmas quote—Billy Kyle playing the beginning to “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”—before the horns punch out a descending line that reminds me of a Ray Charles record (perhaps “Greenback Dollar Bill”). Armstrong sings the first chorus harmlessly—it’s a pretty repetitive melody and he does his best with it. Carter’s arrangement swings after the vocal and you can hear Barney Bigard holding a high note.
However, Armstrong’s trumpet solo is curiously low-key. He more or less sticks to playing the melody in the middle register. Naturally, the Armstrong sound is captured well and the phrasing swings as ever, but he doesn’t really blow with any force until the last eight bars. It’s a fine solo but I think that he could have maybe used one more take to wail a little more. After the subdued solo, Armstrong returns to sing the bridge, which features a very funny moment. He sings, “Everyone will be all lit up,” and laughs to himself, “lit up” clearly having a different meaning to him than most. He swings the lyric on the final A section, boiling it down to one note, but the arrangement is now too polite; where’s the Commanders’ drummer Ed Grady to wake things up? The highlight of the record is Armstrong’s eloquent scatting and singing as the record fades. A charming record, but not the greatest Armstrong Christmas song.
Still, Armstrong was happy after the session, writing to Joe Glaser, “The next day, which was Thursday, we did the recording date at Decca, with the Benny Carter Arrangements...Oh boy, but good...He made some very fine arrangements and all the Decca Lads, were very much elated….’Yass They were...Tomorrow, Gary Crosby and I will have the whole afternoon to our selves….I just know, - we’re going to really ‘Whale’...”
This Christmas single at least got a review in Billboard and it’s a positive one. “Satchmo makes like a Dixieland Santa Claus here, handling a tasty vocal and then riffing a chorus on trumpet in Creole style,” Billboard wrote in its November 19, 1955 issue. “Armstrong collectors will flip over this.” Of “Christmas Night in Harlem,” “This material evokes the sights and sounds of uptown New York, and with Armstrong at the mike, it seems a mighty happy place to be on Christmas.”
It’s a very fine review but it wasn’t the only mention of Armstrong in that November 19, issue. On September 28, George Avakian managed to let Joe Glaser allow Armstrong to record his first pure single for Columbia: “Mack the Knife.” The song became an all-time hit for Armstrong and was positively reviewed just two columns away from “Christmas in New Orleans” and “Christmas Night in Harlem.” It would become a staple in Billboard well into 1956. Armstrong’s Christmas single, on the other hand, was never mentioned again in Billboard, not making the charts, nor being featured in any Decca advertisements.
Easy Street / Lazybones
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Gary Crosby (voc), Trummy Young (tb), Barney Bigard (cl), Billy Kyle (p), Arvell Shaw (b), Barrett Deems (d).
Recorded September 9, 1955, Los Angeles
As Armstrong related in his letter to Joe Glaser, he was really looking forward to recording again with Gary Crosby the day after the Benny Carter session. Though their single hadn’t exactly been a hit, the two made quite a team in 1955, appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show, at the Chicago Theatre, on radio and even being photographed together by famed crime photographer Weegee.
Thus, perhaps sensing the Armstrong-Crosby partnership to be a lasting one, Gabler gave them a follow-up session, backed only by the All Stars. Crosby of course had a tough time living in the shadow of father Bing; that could not have been helped by the selection of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazybones,” a song Armstrong originally recorded for Decca with Pee Wee Hunt in 1939 but later turned into a hilarious duet with “Papa Bing” on multiple Crosby radio shows of 1949 and 1950.
Here Gary is in the role of Bing and he’s just not as natural as the old man, though he sings quite well, especially emoting effectively at the end (before his uncomfortable “Pops, you is the laziest”). Gary even can’t help referencing “Gone Fishin’,” but this version of “Lazybones” pales when compared to that earlier classic, or even to the radio versions with Bing.
The other side, “Easy Street,” is a lovely Alan Rankins Jones composition from 1941 but I don’t quite understand why it was recorded by Armstrong and Crosby in 1955. The tempo is almost identical to “Lazybones” but this song doesn’t lend itself to any repartee, as much as they try. Armstrong’s trumpet playing on the bridge is a moment worthy of goose bumps but the rest passes by in bland fashion.
Gabler must have known he didn’t have much, holding it until June 1956, by which point the Armstrong-Crosby partnership was over (the young Crosby was an alcoholic and when he missed a show with Armstrong, Armstrong had to heart-breakingly tell him he was off the bill and needed to go home and get his act together). Billboard wrote at the time of release, “This one’s like turning the clock back--to ‘Gone Fishin’” by Satch and Bing Crosby. The younger Crosby has a tough time in that league, but Armstrong has his own following, which should sell copies. Jocks will play it, too.” It’s not a guarantee that either of those things happened as the single disappeared almost immediately.
For Joe Glaser, that was strike three. Decca was out. George Avakian and Columbia Records would now have complete control of Armstrong’s recordings for the next year. 16 months would pass before Milt Gabler would get to record Louis Armstrong again.
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love / On the Sunny Side of the Street
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Trummy Young (tb), Edmond Hall (cl), George Dorsey (as, fl), Lucky Thompson (ts), Dave McRae (bars), Everett Barksdale (g), Billy Kyle (p), Squire Gersh (b), Barrett Deems (d), Sy Oliver (arr, cond)
Recorded December 11, 1956
If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight) / Them There Eyes
Personnel on “If I Could Be With You”: Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Trummy Young (tb), Edmond Hall (cl), George Dorsey (as, fl), Lucky Thompson (ts), Dave McRae (bars), Everett Barksdale (g), Billy Kyle (p), Squire Gersh (b), Barrett Deems (d), Sy Oliver (arr, cond)
Personnel on “Them There Eyes”: Same, except add Hilton Jefferson (as).
“If I Could Be With You” recorded December 11, 1956.
“Them There Eyes” recorded December 13, 1956.
Though the three singles from the September 1955 sessions were commercial failures, Gabler did have better success with some Armstrong long-playing albums released in the fall of that year. Satchmo Sings was a compilation of singles released in October, ranging from 1946’s “I Wonder” to 1955’s “Sincerely,” with some early-50s standouts like “Ramona,” “The Gypsy,” “Someday You’ll Be Sorry” and “Takes Two to Tango” along the way. For some reason, they don’t seem to have pushed it hard, unlike the earlier singles compilation, Satchmo Serenades. Billboard mentioned in it a news article about Decca’s fall releases but didn’t review it and it didn’t appear in any advertisements.
Gabler also finally got the Crescendo Club recordings from January 1955 edited and released them as two separate LPs, At the Crescendo, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. Billboard gave it a strong review on September 17, 1955, writing, “Much of the Atmosphere of a live performance is in the package: it is well recorded; and it contains a dozen performances that the numerous Armstrong fans will lap up hungrily.” They concluded by calling volume one, “A strong package for the jazz trade.”
October 1 was the issue Billboard devoted to the explosion of “package albums” in the marketplace, debuting charts for jazz albums for the first time. In a column titled “Serious Money Makers,” the magazine offered a list of “albums which no dealer can afford to overlook for fall profits.” They included one jazz album: At the Crescendo, Vol. 1.
But even the review couldn’t help mentioning the competition from Columbia: “Buyers of traditional jazz and swing are strong prospects, as well as for the Columbia studio recordings packaged in Satch Plays Fats. The latter, which features a program of Fats Waller tunes, is the follow-up to last year’s highly-successful Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy.” And elsewhere in the issue, Billboard made it clear who was winning the competition: Satch Plays Fats was the number 10 best-selling album on the “Popular” charts and number one on the “Jazz” charts. None of Armstrong’s Decca albums made the charts.
Meanwhile, George Avakian could do no wrong. Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy was a critical and commercial hit. Satch Plays Fats was a critical and commercial hit. Columbia’s first Armstrong single, featuring “Mack the Knife,” was a commercial and critical hit. While Gabler was rolling out the latest singles to almost no publicity in the fall of 1955, Avakian was using the entire Columbia media empire to promote Armstrong’s European tour, recording him in Amsterdam and Milan for the eventual hit album Ambassador Satch and convincing Edward R. Murrow to film a segment on Armstrong’s international appeal for his hugely popular See It Now television show.
As 1955 came to a close, Armstrong’s popularity was an all-time high, mostly thanks to Avakian’s recent efforts. On December 29, Avakian went in for the kill, writing to his bosses at Columbia to tell them that Joe Glaser wanted a $50,000 advance to sign Armstrong exclusively to Columbia and Avakian thought they should do it immediately. Avakian told Michael Jarrett that Glaser began introducing him to people in his office by saying, “Here’s the man who did this and that for Duke and Louis when I was having trouble selling them, and look what happened!”
But then the calendar changed to 1956 and something changed within Joe Glaser. Due to the popularity increase, Armstrong was now making $5,000 to $6,000 per night for concerts. He started 1956 by filming High Society with Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra. With his popularity clearly on the upswing, why sign Armstrong to an exclusive contract with any label?
Glaser began playing hardball with Avakian, telling him Armstrong’s Columbia royalties weren’t making as much as his Decca royalties (which was unfair since Armstrong had a handful of Columbia albums and 20 years of Decca recordings). Then, when Armstrong recorded the traditional German song “The Faithful Hussar” as an instrumental and a vocal version with lyrics written by Avakian titled “Six Foot Four,” Glaser insisted Columbia credit Armstrong as co-composer of both and the songs be published through Glaser’s International Music firm. Avakian wouldn’t do it and Glaser again threw Decca in his face, telling him, “It’s a bad deal and Decca wouldn’t never hold me to it.”
The headaches continued into the summer, though Ambassador Satch was released in May to huge sales and Edward R. Murrow continued filming Armstrong in England, Africa and with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic at Lewisohn Stadium in New York for the theatrical film, Satchmo the Great. Avakian had more ideas to record Armstrong doing King Oliver’s repertoire and the big one, a collaboration between Armstrong and Duke Ellington’s Orchestra since Ellington was back in the Columbia stable. But Glaser made it clear: “No more term contracts for Louis. He’s going to record on individual-date contracts for whoever pays the most money.” Avakian discussed it with Columbia Records President Jim Conkling, who said, “Don’t go along with it. Joe should’ve had an appreciation for what you did for Louis.” Avakian and Columbia Records were through dealing with Joe Glaser. Avakian never recorded his friend and hero, Armstrong, again.
Glaser now put Armstrong up to the highest bidder: if you could afford him, you could record him. Norman Granz was next, waxing the immortal Ella and Louis for Verve in August 1956, taking Milt Gabler’s idea but instead of applying it towards new pop songs and forgotten standards, Granz gave the pairing some of the choicest morsels of the Great American Songbook. On November 24, Armstrong ruled Billboard’s Jazz charts with Verve’s Ella and Louis at number one and Columbia’s Ambassador Satch at number three.
Enter Milt Gabler. (Or more accurately, re-enter Milt Gabler.) He hadn’t recorded Armstrong since September 1955 but he still loved him and realized that singles were no longer the key to Armstrong’s success. Gabler needed to record a new album of fresh material and he had the perfect idea for such a project: Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography. As Gabler told Dan Morgenstern:
“I came up with the idea of a musical biography on records. The first I did was with Bing; it had to be someone whose speaking voice was very musical (for the narration) and whom everyone loved, and Crosby definitely had that. And Louis. I also did it because I thought I would work for Decca--and Universal--for the rest of my life, at that point. And we didn’t own any of the great OKeh masters. At that time, record labels didn’t swap masters with competitive companies, and Decca only had Louis from 1935 on. I thought that someday Universal should do a Louis Armstrong life story--it was a natural, and they’d had such success with Al Jolson and Eddie Duchin films. We would need all the great tunes Louis had made for OKeh, and I could redo them from the early days on up and they would own their own masters of that material and have it on tape so it’d make a good transfer to film.”
“So I conceived the idea of the Armstrong Autobiography. I told Joe Glaser that I wanted to book Louis in New York exclusively for the sessions, and not at Basin Street East (which then was the Armstrong performance venue in New York). I wanted the All Stars off in the evening, not from 2 to 5 in the afternoon, as customary, with them having to work at night. This way I could book them from 7 to 10, when it was a natural thing, giving the guys time enough to have had dinner and get to the studio and be relaxed and not having to think about going to work later.”
“So it could be like a party. We’d book them for a solid week. We had audiences for those sessions...we couldn’t put too many in the studio, but there were close friends of Louis’ and musicians like Bobby Hackett, Joe Thomas. The sidemen were getting double double (scale) and everyone was happy. Louis loved it, too...you can tell when you hear the records.”
This was an unbelievable luxury for Armstrong, who had to record the entire Ella and Louis album in a single session because Granz could only get his services for one day. Only Gabler could have worked out such a deal with Glaser, who acquiesced to his every demand.
This is not the time or the place to go into a passionate tribute to Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography, the definitive document of Armstrong’s powers as a trumpet player and vocalist in the 1950s. Whatever one thinks of the singles and the pop tune covers, Gabler cannot be applauded enough for pulling this incredible 4-LP set off. Here’s a rare Paul Studer photo of Gabler and arranger Sy Oliver from behind, controlling the scene at one of the Autobiography’s January 1957 sessions:
Decca released the above two singles from the album but not at the time of the package’s release. In 1961, the issued a compilation titled Satchmo’s Golden Hits, featuring material from the 1930s through the 1950s. It got a lot of publicity at the time--Billboard gave it four stars on October 30, 1961--and Decca kept it in print for years, issuing on LP (stereo and mono), reel-to-reel tape and eventually eight-track and cassette tape formats. To go along with the original release, they issued a special 45-rpm single in a gold sleeve with the words “Two Louis Armstrong Gold Standards.” Two compositions by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh were selected, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” two masterful recordings that were highlights of Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography. It must have been a specially pressed 45 because both songs topped the four-minute mark. (“Sunny Side” originally clocked in at over five minutes because Armstrong sang two stunning choruses, but Gabler edited it down, keeping only the first four bars of the first vocal chorus before jumping to the rest of the second chorus. The unedited version is easily found elsewhere so we’ve included Gabler’s edited take to keep the original vision of the Decca singles intact.)
Nearly a full year after Satchmo’s Golden Favorites was released, Decca issued another compilation, King Louis, with even more material from Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography. It, too, received a four-star review in Billboard on August 11, 1962 and once again, the label thought it deserved a single, choosing “If I Could Be With You” and “Them There Eyes” for release, another pair of masterpieces.
Though both of these singles weren’t issued until 1962, we’ve placed them in recording order sequence since the Autobiography was such an important work for Gabler to pull off in December 1956 and January 1957. We cannot recommend enough seeking out the full Autobiography album, which you will probably want to do anyway after hearing the four examples included in this set.
This Younger Generation / In Pursuit of Happiness
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Trummy Young (tb), Edmond Hall (cl), George Dorsey (as, fl), Hilton Jefferson (as), Lucky Thompson (ts), Dave McRae (bars), Everett Barksdale (g), Billy Kyle (p), Squire Gersh (b), Barrett Deems (d), Sy Oliver (arr, cond).
Recorded December 14, 1956
Of course, old habits die hard and once Gabler convinced Glaser to let him do Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography, he also built in one session for a pop single. Armstrong and Sy Oliver’s studio band (including the All Stars) had just spent three days waxing one masterpiece after another, the 1956 Armstrong frequently topping his more vaunted, earlier offerings on numbers like “Lazy River,” “When You’re Smiling,” “I Surrender Dear,” “Song of the Islands,” “Memories of You” and more. And then, on December 14, Oliver morphed the group into a rhythm and blues groove for “This Younger Generation,” featuring a humorous vocal from Armstrong’s complaining about everything from rock ‘n’ roll and the mambo to flattop haircuts, sneakers and “alarming” tight jeans.
Armstrong had always been popular with the younger generation, something that would continue for the rest of his career, so he was an odd choice for the theme of the song, though he delivers it with humor and not as a scolding lecture. The trumpet solo is worth the price of admission, Trummy Young’s trombone really roaring in there. Perhaps Gabler chose it because of his frustration with Armstrong’s diminishing single sales in the rock era.
In actuality, Gabler must have known that Armstrong was going to perform this song on The Perry Como Show on December 29, a show devoted to the hits of 1956. Having a single ready for release after the show aired was a smart idea, perhaps targeting Como’s audience, many of whom probably identified with the message of the lyrics. But in a medley later in the show, Armstrong sang a few gleeful choruses of Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel,” making one think Gabler would have been smarter to have Armstrong attempt to put his spin on something like an Elvis tune rather than something decrying the generation of Presley’s audience.
The flip side is a very pretty ballad by Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh and Neil Hannon, “In Pursuit of Happiness.” Armstrong contributes a very tender vocal, again exploring the tenor side of his range, Billy Kyle tinkling away on a celeste in the background. The trumpet solo, too, is quietly soulful. A neglected little gem that remains unknown by most fans of Armstrong and of the major league songwriters, too; this would be the first collaboration between Coleman and Leigh to ever be released and it would be far from the last.
The single was released in January 1957, Decca taking out a short ad in the January 12 Billboard with a photo of Armstrong, mention of just “This Younger Generation” and the phrase, “Satch at His Best.” The same issue featured reviews of both sides, Billboard writing of “This Younger Generation,” “Satchmo vocalizes on the foibles of the younger cats and chicks. Tune has a triplet-backed rock and roll beat and is likely to get some interest from jocks.” Of “In Pursuit of Happiness,” the review read, “A pretty, new Carolyn Leigh-Cy Coleman tune gets the inimitable Armstrong vocal and horn treatment. More on-the-air interest indicated here.” Alas, both songs didn’t seem to have much on-the-air interest with the “jocks” at all and the tune never progressed past the single stage (though on the strength of the Como show, “This Younger Generation” was listed as one of the “Tunes With Greatest Radio-TV Audience”).
Since the public didn’t know about Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography, this single must have appeared that Gabler was still only concerned about churning out misguided, rock-tinged singles after his long hiatus from recording Armstrong. But that same January 12 Billboard issue featured a front-page story, “LPs On Upswing: Pops-Jazz Output Up Over-All 27%.” Albums were where it was at and Gabler was setting his sights on three major Armstrong album releases in the next two years.
The Prisoner’s Song / You’re a Heavenly Thing
Personnel on “The Prisoner’s Song”: Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), George Dorsey, Phil Urso (as, fl), Lucky Thompson (ts), Dave McRae (bars), Billy Kyle (p), George Barnes (g), Sid Block (b), Rudy Taylor (d), Unknown (harp), Unknown strings, Unknown choir - three male and four female – (voc), Lillian Clark (lead vocal), Sy Oliver (arr, cond).
Personnel on “You’re a Heavenly Thing”: Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), George Dorsey, Phil Urso (as, fl), Lucky Thompson (ts), Dave McRae (bars), Billy Kyle (p), Everett Barksdale (g), Joe Benjamin (b), Rudy Taylor (d), Unknown (harp), Unknown strings, Unknown choir - three male and four female (voc), Lillian Clark (lead vocal), Sy Oliver (arr, cond).
“The Prisoner’s Song” recorded January 30, 1957.
“You’re a Heavenly Thing” recorded January 29, 1957.
The sessions for Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography continued in January 1957 but it was clear to Gabler that it would not be possible to rush this set out. After sequencing four LPs worth of music, Gabler would have Armstrong tape his narration to be used between each song. He also wanted a deluxe liner note booklet, with color photos and multiple essays.
Thus, in the meantime, Gabler decided to go right from Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography to a completely different project that could be put together and released quickly. It’s amazing to think that except for the live and studio albums featuring the All Stars, Gabler had never done a “concept album” (Musical Autobiography notwithstanding) with Armstrong in all of his time with Decca. That changed at the end of January when Gabler hit upon the idea of Louis and the Angels, an album that would feature Armstrong only performing songs with the word “angel” somewhere in the title or the lyrics.
It was the kind of concept George Avakian or Norman Granz wouldn’t dream of and Gabler decided to double down on it by surrounding Armstrong with strings and a choir conducted by Sy Oliver (Gordon Jenkins had moved on to Capitol Records). Here’s how it looked in another photo by Paul Studer, Oliver consulting Armstrong and Armstrong’s valet Doc Pugh looks on:
One must wonder if Gabler, in convincing Glaser to make the Musical Autobiography, also had to promise to make a rock-tinged single like “This Younger Generation” and an out-and-out commercial album like Louis and the Angels, just to show him Decca would still be targeting mass audiences and not just jazz fans.
Because of its commercial nature, Louis and the Angels has become an album most hardened jazz fans won’t get anywhere near. It’s their loss. It should not come as a surprise--especially after more than four hours of listening to these singles!--that Armstrong loved beautiful melodies and syrupy settings and he just sings and plays the hell out of every track on the final, highly recommended album. Gabler was able to have the LP in stores in May and Billboard, as usual, understood what he was aiming for, writing, “Good conversational wax for jocks and solid sales item for all dealers, with a wider potential in pop than most other Armstrong packages.”
For the single, Gabler chose the album’s one anomaly, “The Prisoner’s Song,” written in 1924 and featuring exactly one mention of the word “angel” in the third chorus--leading to a hilarious bit where Armstrong breaks the fourth wall and wanders aloud, “Hmm, I was wondering how this song got in here!” But even with the tenuous connection to the angels theme, one can’t fault Gabler for selecting such a joyous performance as the “A” side of the album’s only single, especially with Oliver once again incorporating a contemporary rhythm-and-blues-type riff behind Armstrong’s solos. And what solos! Three times, Armstrong yells, “Romp it, romp it,” and each time, he tops his previous effort. Armstrong was particularly proud of this recording, telling disc jockey Al “Jazzbo” Collins that as much as he loved Bunny Berigan, Bergian recorded it at too fast a pace and Armstrong wanted to rectify that a more suitably swinging tempo on this up-to-date take.
“You’re a Heavenly Thing” is more in line with the rest of the album, beautifully sung by Armstrong before he takes an intense muted solo, over surging rhythm (the strings playing Armstrong’s signature lick is a cute idea and perhaps a nod to Gordon Jenkins’s habit for filling his arrangements with Armstrong phrases).
Billboard never reviewed the single, which seems to have flown under the radar, but it wasn’t important since Gabler was now focused on albums. Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography came out in August 1957 to great publicity and great reviews and became a favorite of many jazz writers, in addition to Armstrong himself. But by the time the album was released, Armstrong had recorded enough material for four Verve albums (two of them double LPs) for Norman Granz in the summer of 1957. Joe Glaser was still shopping his prized client around to anyone who could meet his demands. Gabler was still willing to do just that in 1958.
Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen / When You’re Smiling
Personnel on “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”: Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Trummy Young (tb), Dave McRae (cl), Nicky Tagg (org), Billy Kyle (p), George Barnes (g), Mort Herbert (b), Barrett Deems (d), Miriam Workman, Peggy Powers, Jerry Duane, Alan Sokoloff, Eugene Lowell, Edwin Lindstrom, Robert Spiro, Marilyn Palmer, Eugene Stock, Lillian Clark (voc), Sy Oliver (arr, cond).
Personnel on “When You’re Smiling”: Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Trummy Young (tb), Edmond Hall (cl), George Dorsey (as, fl), Hilton Jefferson (as), Lucky Thompson (ts), Dave McRae (bars), Everett Barksdale (g), Billy Kyle (p), Squire Gersh (b), Barrett Deems (d), Sy Oliver (arr, cond)
“Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’ recorded February 4, 1958.
“When You’re Smiling” recorded December 12, 1956.
One month after Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography was released, Armstrong made headlines with his brave public comments decrying the treatment of the Little Rock Nine by the government, specifically calling out Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus and President Dwight Eisenhower. Today, it’s one of the great, heroic moments of Armstrong’s life but at the time, he was criticized deeply in both black and white communities. Boycotts were threatened and columnist Jim Bishop noted with glee that Armstrong’s business at the Copacabana in New York in December 1957 was disappointing.
This is speculation, but perhaps Gabler watched all of this and undoubtedly inspired by Armstrong’s stance, wanted to give him the opportunity to make an album that could once again appeal to the masses. This time, Gabler sought to make Louis and the Good Book, consisting of nothing but religious songs, an idea Armstrong found quite appealing. He often spoke fondly of singing in church with his mother in New Orleans as a child and in 1938 recorded four spirituals for Decca backed by Lyn Murray’s mixed choir.
Three of those spirituals were remade on Louis and the Good Book including the track Gabler selected as the album’s first single, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Armstrong had recorded a glorious version for Verve in August 1957, backed by Russell Garcia’s orchestra but that didn’t stop Gabler from asking him to do it again in a more folksy style, complete with a little heartfelt eulogizing (and after the Little Rock incident, the theme of the song wasn’t lost on anyone).
But for the flip side, Gabler didn’t pick another Good Book selection, instead reaching to “When You’re Smiling” from Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography. Again, one has to wonder if there was a rehabilitation effort going on, Gabler, maybe through Glaser, trying to remind the record-buying public that this man was there, as he once put it, “in the cause of happiness.”
“When You’re Smiling” is not only a high point of the Autobiography, it’s a high point of Armstrong’s career. On the originally released version, Armstrong sings with feeling--yes, you can hear him smiling--and then picks up the trumpet for an inhuman display of endurance, taking nearly two minutes to play the melody an octave higher, his gigantic tone never wavering in the highest part of his range.
Unfortunately, the complete recording was four minutes and Gabler, looking for a commercial single, thought the vocal instead of the trumpet solo would be more appealing to the general public. Thus, instead of eliminating the saxophone introduction or Billy Kyle’s piano interlude, Gabler chopped out an entire half-chorus of the trumpet solo! Once again, the complete version is one of the most ubiquitous Armstrong performances out there so we’ve replicated Gabler’s splice to present the performance as it was issued in single-form. But don’t hesitate in looking for the full version to hear a trumpet statement that just can’t be topped.
Billboard actually reviewed the single on June 2, 1958, calling “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” “Spinnable wax” and writing of “When You’re Smiling,” “A trademarked Satchmo vocal on the moving oldie. Good jockey item.” Louis and the Good Book would become one of Armstrong’s best-selling albums of the 1950s, Sy Oliver’s favorite collaboration with Armstrong and a personal favorite of Armstrong’s, too. In 1965, he told friends on a privately recorded conversation, “A girl asked me in Germany, ‘Now, how can you make an album like the Good Book?’ I say, ‘Well, are you kidding? I sang in church.’ And she said, ‘But I was so surprised because I didn’t think a jazz musician could sing spiritual music and everything.’ And I say, ‘Well, that’s jazz, you just put your heart in it. The sweetest number you play, if you phrase it right and put the notes that you feel--that’s all it is.’” It was a good summary of Armstrong’s entire run of Decca singles, too.
I Love Jazz / The Mardi-Gras March
Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Trummy Young (tb), Peanuts Hucko (cl), Eddie Miller (ts), Billy Kyle (p), Al Hendrickson (g), Mort Herbert (b), Danny Barcelona (d), Unknown vocal group (voc).
Recorded October 8, 1958, New York City
As with “This Younger Generation,” Armstrong had a November 10 high-profile television appearance on the third Timex All Star Jazz Show and someone decided he should have a new song to sing. With the theme of the jazz show, Sydney Shaw wrote the words and music to “I Love Jazz,” published by Armstrong’s friend, Ivan Mogull.
The song was recorded on October 8, 1958 as part of a session that also found Armstrong and his All Stars remaking their two numbers from The Glenn Miller Story soundtrack, this time in stereo. Those recordings are very fine, as the All Stars are joined by guests Eddie Miller on tenor saxophone and Al Hendrickson on guitar. But “I Love Jazz” and the flip side, “The Mardi-Gras March” are pretty sad commercial affairs. We’ve come along way from the Decca production values of Gordon Jenkins’s strings and choir. Here it’s just the augmented All Stars, a way-too-gleeful chorus and an Armstrong who was in the midst of a dire stretch of time for his abused chops. The session tapes survive for this date and illustrate Armstrong doing everything in his power to blow through the pain and produce quality results. With the help of Gabler editing and splicing in post-production, suitable masters were created for both numbers. (The less said about “Mardi-Gras March” the better as it might be the low point of the Decca singles; the instrumental portion is a pretty terrific, it’s just the hopelessly corny vocalists that kill it.)
Mogull did his job in trying to create a buzz around the single. Billboard reported on November 3, “Ivan Mogull of Ivan Mogull music is flipping over the new Louis Armstrong Decca cutting of his tune, ‘I Love Jazz.’ Tune will be introduced nationally on the Timex TV show over CBS on November 10.” Armstrong did perform it on the show, but again, his chops were far from 100% on the live broadcast. Also, the jazz world of 1958 was featuring the likes of Miles Davis with John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk and other giants of the modern scene. A lot of those musicians, plus the fans of the music, already thought of Armstrong as hopefully out of date; seeing him on live television singing the clichéd lyrics to “I Love Jazz” could not have won the genre many new friends, nor sell many records.
Decca did get a little more use out of the song, releasing an LP titled I Love Jazz in the 1960s, made up of lots of scraps from the Decca singles sessions of the 1950s, including the one track left off the 1950 All Stars studio albums, one track left off Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography, a gorgeous long medley of “Tenderly” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the 1954 “Muskrat Ramble” date and more. All of this material has been left off this singles-only package, but I Love Jazz is still available on iTunes for the completists out there.
On My Way / I’ll String Along with You
Personnel on “On My Way”: Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Trummy Young (tb), Edmond Hall (cl), Nicky Tagg (org), Billy Kyle (p), Everett Barksdale (g), Mort Herbert (b), Barrett Deems (d), Miriam Workman, Peggy Powers, Jerry Duane, Alan Sokoloff, Eugene Lowell, Edwin Lindstrom, Robert Spiro, Marilyn Palmer, Eugene Stock, Lillian Clark (voc), Sy Oliver (arr, cond).
Personnel on “I’ll String Along with You”: Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), George Dorsey, Phil Urso (as, fl), Lucky Thompson (ts), Dave McRae (bars), Billy Kyle (p), George Barnes (g), Sid Block (b), Rudy Taylor (d), Unknown (harp), Unknown strings, Unknown choir - three male and four female – (voc), Lillian Clark (lead vocal), Sy Oliver (arr, cond).
“On My Way” recorded February 6, 1958.
“I’ll String Along With You” recorded January 30, 1957
The final single on this package doesn’t seem to have been released for any specific reason except maybe as a tribute of sorts to Armstrong, who had a near-death experience in Spoleto, Italy in June 1959. One month later, Decca released this single of “On My Way” from 1958’s Louis and the Good Book and “I’ll String Along With You” from 1957’s Louis and the Angels.
The final single on this package doesn’t seem to have been released for any specific reason except maybe as a tribute of sorts to Armstrong, who had a near-death experience in Spoleto, Italy in June 1959. One month later, Decca released this single of “On My Way” from 1958’s Louis and the Good Book and “I’ll String Along With You” from 1957’s Louis and the Angels.
Both sides are terrific--especially the roof-shaking trumpet playing on “On My Way” and the romantic vocal on “I’ll String Along with You”--but it’s hard to see the point in this release. Billboard liked it, giving both sides three stars (they had only recently started using a star-system). But there would be no more fresh material for Louis Armstrong and Decca. Glaser was still exploiting Armstrong’s free agent status, recording him on Audio Fidelity in 1959 and 1960, with Bing Crosby on M-G-M in 1960, with Duke Ellington on Roulette in 1961 and with Dave Brubeck on Columbia in 1961.
But even though he was recording for all of these different producers for all of these different labels, Armstrong still thought of himself as a Decca artist in the early-1960s. During a television appearance with pianist Herman Chittison in 1960, the two performed such a wonderful duet on “Mack the Knife,” the show’s host John McClellan said Armstrong should record it again. Armstrong responded by saying McClellan should just take the tape of the show and “Sell it to Decca! Send it to Decca. That’s where I’m supposed to be signed up. I don’t know why I play all them other ones [labels]. Freelancing, I guess, between contracts. You know, them executives walk around, ‘Well, we’ll think about it,’ and while they’re thinking about it, Joe Glaser books me over here! That’s his own right. That’s his prerogative.”
But Armstrong wasn’t “between contracts.” Some part of him probably thought he’d return to record for “Angel Gabler” some day but it never happened, probably because Glaser had become too difficult to deal with. By the end of the decade, Gabler was overseeing more rock ‘n’ roll records, fitting since he helped usher in the sound. He pretty much perfected the concept of Armstrong covering other people’s hits on a string of successful singles. By the early 60s, Armstrong had stopped making singles entirely--until 1963’s “Hello, Dolly!,” an apparent throwaway session that was issued on Kapp Records, a label founded by Dave Kapp, brother of Decca founder Jack Kapp. (At a 1967 tribute to Gabler, Armstrong did sing a parody, “Hello, Milty.”) More labels followed--Mercury, Brunswick, ABC-Paramount, Flying Dutchman--but no returns to Decca, though the label continued coming up with new reissues of Armstrong’s music throughout the 60s.
Armstrong died in July 1971 and Gabler, by that point the company’s Vice President, left Decca after 30 years on the job in August 1971. 45 years later, not many people are listening to the Four Lads or Dick Haymes or Patti Page or the McGuire Sisters or Gary Crosby or Sunny Gale or Georgia Gibbs or Frankie Laine. But they’re still listening to Louis Armstrong. His interpretations of those pop songs of the 1940s and 1950s are what have lasted from that era. Yes, he was a genius who could have made the phone book swing but hopefully this set, in packaging these 1949-1958 Decca singles together for the very first time, will also serve as an overdue tribute to Milt Gabler, whose gift for hand-picking only the most appropriate songs, arrangers and studio musicians for his “champion” ensured a feeling of timelessness on Armstrong’s Decca recordings, transcending the pop music scene of the era. “I can say definitely that Louis Armstrong is the greatest man I’ve ever recorded,” Gabler said of Armstrong in a Voice of America interview from 1955, calling him, “The king of them all.” And as Armstrong himself said at the end of Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography, “My man, Milt Gabler--‘Angel Gabler.’ He watches over all my records.” Indeed he did, which is why we are still listening and marveling at these records--call them jazz, call them pop, call them music--today and will continue to do so until the end of time.
As Nicholas Payton wrote in 2012, “Bing Crosby said of Armstrong – ‘He is the beginning and the end of music in America.’ I agree. Louis Armstrong was the most important and influential musician of the 20th century. The Original King of Pop. Popularity and musical influence are two different things. The most influential people are not necessarily the most popular. Anybody can win a popularity contest, but to influence music requires specific contributions to the advancement of an artform. No person has ever been as popular as MJ, in that sense he is the indisputable ‘King of Pop,’ but Pop music’s king is Louis Armstrong.”
Ricky Riccardi is the author of What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years and is the Director of Research Collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum. He co-produced this set with Harry Weinger. Notes are dedicated to Gosta Hagglof, who first reissued a lot of this music on CD on his own Ambassador label in Sweden, dismayed that it wasn’t being properly released in the United States. We hope we did him proud. Special thanks to Jonathan David Holmes and to Michael Steinman, who loves these recordings as much as I do, if not more.
Billboard archives courtesy of Google.com.
Ricky Riccardi, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years, 2011.
Michael Jarrett, Pressed for All Time: Producing the Great Jazz Albums from Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday to Miles Davis and Diana Krall, 2016.
Bruce Jenkins, Goodbye: In Search of Gordon Jenkins, 2005.
Nicholas Payton, "I Love MJ, but Satchmo was the Original King of Pop," 2012.