Six Minutes With Satch: I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues / Hustlin' and Bustlin' for Baby

RCA began releasing Louis Armstrong's January 1933 output with a pair of instrumental showcases, "High Society" and "Mahogany Hall Stomp" (discussed yesterday) but next turned its attention to some recent pop tunes. Up first was a future standard Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," from "Earl Carroll's Vanities" and already introduced on record by Cab Calloway. Like "High Society," Louis opens with a little monologue, asking, “What’s the matter with you, boy? Don’t you know I gotta right to sing the blues? Listen at this…look out! One…two….”

And with that, we’re off. The horns play a simple intro, eliciting a mellow “Yeah” from their leader before Teddy Wilson plays an Earl Hines-like interlude to allow Pops to get ready for his vocal close-up. I don’t know if there are any specific quotes from Harold Arlen about Louis Armstrong but clearly, he must have loved him for many of his songs seem to be peppered with the Armstrong vocabulary. The bridge of "I've Got the World on a String"--recorded just before this--sounds like Louis; Armstrong had already recorded Arlen and Koehler’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” a relaxed melody that also reeks of Armstrong. “Right to Sing the Blues” might be the most Pops-ified (not a real word) of them all since it relies so much on repeated notes in its melody. Because of that, Armstrong doesn’t feel the need to take many creative liberties with the written tune. He sings it beautifully, making great use of his high tenor voice of the period, while the band swings lightly behind him, clarinetist Scoville Browne and tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson improvising polyphonically behind him. Armstrong throws in a “babe” early on, but with 16 bars down, it’s all Arlen.

That changes immediately after Arlen’s heroic stop-time bridge. Armstrong works himself up with the lyrics, “Babe, all I see for me is mis’ry,” but where he’s supposed to sing the title phrase, he instead substitutes a passionate “Oh” and the most mellifluous “Mm-mm,” I’ve ever heard, insinuating everything about the mood of the title phrase without actually using the English language. Feeling high and happy, Armstrong reverts back to Koehler’s lyrics but now takes some chances, singing the phrase “Moan and sigh,” before giving himself an obbligato of his own, re-singing “moan and sigh” an octave lower, sounding like a character out of an old horror movie or something. In fact, the tune was a good one to demonstrate Armstrong’s range as he goes way down for the line, “Down around the river.” Approaching the last eight bar “C” section, Armstrong swings out a perfectly placed “Oh babe,” before singing the last eight bars with all those repeated notes Arlen must have written with Pops somewhere in the back of his mind.

Rare photo of Louis in London, 1933. Courtesy of Dave Bennett
After the vocal, the band swings out for awhile, Armstrong clearly enjoying their playing, growling out another “Yeah” when they begin (Armstrong loved and always defended the Zilner Randolph bands; his unrestrained shouts of joy throughout the session are contagious) Teddy Wilson sounds especially good here, as does the entire band, propelled by Bill Oldham’s big-toned bass. It’s a long showcase for the band but fortunately, there’s 90 seconds of record left and Pops makes the most of it, opening with one of his all-time greatest entrances: a single held D (listen for one of the saxes goof up and hit a quick note under it). Perhaps the Armstrong of 1928 would have played something flashy and jaw-dropping in this two-bar break, but the Armstrong of 1933 had already matured greatly and he knew he could convey just as much drama and feeling with a perfectly placed held note. I mean, really, how do you make one held note swing? It’s all in the placement, my friends. Armstrong hits it a shade after the beat and the whole thing swings. Genius.

For his solo, Armstrong improvises quite a bit, alluding to Arlen’s melody here and there, but taking more chances than he did in his vocal and even dropping in a snatch of Jack King and Dorothy Parker’s 1929 song, “How Am I To Know.” When he gets to the bridge, Louis blasts out one high Bb after another while the band, in stop-time form, plays the melody as written. Each pulsating Bb glimmers with intensity before a soul-stirring glissando, starting around the southern tip of Florida and ending somewhere in Detroit…or low F to a freakishly high D for those keeping score at home. Armstrong played hundreds of glisses on record but this might be the greatest.

After the gliss, Armstrong stays in the upper register, but he doesn’t feel the need to shoot off anymore fireworks. There’s not much more I can say other than it swings relentlessly. And kudos to the rhythm section of Oldham, Wilson, guitarist Mike McKendrick and drummer Yank Porter who clearly give Armstrong the kind of pulse he thrived off of. And your honor, for example #201 of Armstrong trumpet player mirroring Armstrong the vocalist, listen at the 2:34 mark where Armstrong plays the “moan and sigh” part of the melody followed immediately by a lower, obbligato-ish paraphrase of the same line…JUST as he sang it a couple of minutes earlier.

There’s something so beautiful about the concept of Armstrong’s rhythm that I never get tired of. Listen to his attack at the 2:42 mark and how those he accents those G’s that pop in and out of his improvisation. Armstrong calms down for the final eight bars, sticking to the melody (where he again almost naturally alludes to “How Am I To Know”) before ending on a high Bb. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a perfect record.

The flip side is a song that can be considered my theme song, "Hustlin' and Bustlin' for Baby." This opus was written by Harry Woods, a songwriter and pianist responsible for a score of standards, including “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along,” “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and more. “Hustlin’ and Bustlin’” is primarily remembered for Armstrong’s recording of it, but in early 1933, the song’s publishers tried giving it a push, resulting in a brief flurry of activity for the song. For a different treatment, here's Adrian Rollini's Orchestra doing it on February 14, 1933, featuring Rollini on bass saxophone, goofus, vibraphone and xylophone and an inoffensive period vocal by Dick Robertson:

A fine record, but as always, Louis sounds like he was living in a different universe compared to that, even though his version was recorded only a few weeks earlier. Armstrong's record begins with the band taking an unaccompanied introduction, sounding perhaps a tad bit shaky, but no reason to start complaining. I’ve always found Armstrong’s entrance to be almost comical as he plays just two, hurried notes as part of the pick-up to his opening phrase, announcing to the listeners, “I’m here!” Then he begins playing the melody and, at the more leisurely tempo, it sounds like a completely different song. It’s actually a lovely tune but all of its charm was sacrificed for speed on many of the other versions of the era (more are on YouTube). Here, Armstrong is at his most relaxed though the immense passion he infuses the melody cannot be sufficiently measured. It’s clear he loved the tune, plain and simple.

After eight straight bars, Armstrong begins varying the way he plays the melody, reimagining the tune’s natural ascending arc with a series of two-note descending phrases that gradually, through slight of hand, also manage to rise while falling. Armstrong does crack a high note at around the :30 second mark, a tell-tale sign that he had already beaten his chops to death on the first two flawless performances recorded that day ("World on a String" and "Gotta Right to Sing the Blues").

After a great bridge (he seems to float to the clouds in his closing phrase), he hands it over to the reeds to finish the chorus, the rhythm section swinging nicely. Then it’s vocal time, Armstrong announcing his entrance with a long “Ohhhh.” Just as he clearly dug the melody by the way he approached it on his horn, he also clearly had affection for the lyrics. He seemed to relish tunes about working hard for money, something he had done his entire life (“That Lucky Old Sun” and “Hello Brother” also come to mind). (And I made that earlier joke about this being my theme song because I do wake with the rooster every morning, arising at 4 a.m. and making my journey to the Armstrong Archives at 4:40 a.m. four days a week, hustlin' and bustlin' for my babies!)

The vocal is typically effervescent for the period, with Pops’s enthusiasm infiltrating every syllable of Woods’s lyric. Mike McKendrick’s guitar is a nice touch, too, playing the melody straight as Armstrong phrases it in his own fashion. Finally, at the conclusion of the chorus, Pops bursts forth with a dazzling scat passage that even he seems to approve of. Are you having any fun yet? God knows Pops is!

The band plays eight more bars (you can hear Armstrong faintly yelling in the back...never mind his chops, it's a wonder he didn't lose his voice with so much shouting!) before picking up his horn for the climactic trumpet solo. It’s a doozy, opening by again rising and falling almost in perfect symmetry. He more or less floats through the bridge with the greatest of ease before he turns on the heat towards the finish, the band surging with him. Armstrong climaxes with a high Bb before finishing up with a patented slow cadenza. A beautiful record.

Listen below and be sure to return tomorrow for more of these January 1933 gems. 

Louis Armstrong (tp, voc, cond), Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph (tp), Keg Johnson (tb), Scoville Brown, George Oldham (cl, as), Budd Johnson (ts), Teddy Wilson (p), Mike McKendrick (g), Bill
Oldham (b), Yank Porter (d).
Victor recording session - Chicago, IL January 26, 1933

Louis Armstrong (tp, voc, cond), Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph (tp), Keg Johnson (tb), Scoville Brown, George Oldham (cl, as), Budd Johnson (ts), Teddy Wilson (p), Mike McKendrick (g), Bill
Oldham (b), Yank Porter (d).
Victor recording session - Chicago, IL January 26, 1933

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