Six Minutes With Satch: Basin Street Blues / Mighty River

There's a bit of an aquatic theme to today's sides, "Basin Street Blues" and "Mighty River." We've been dealing with Louis Armstrong's April 1933 output for much of the week and "Might River" is indeed from his April 26 session, but the main event here, "Basin Street Blues," is from the incredible January sessions that RCA had been neglecting for a while  has long been one of Louis Armstrong's most associated songs. Better late than never!

"Basin Street Blues"was written by the great Spencer Williams and, as far as I can tell, Armstrong was the first person to get a crack at it in the studio when he first waxed it for OKeh in 1928. That version truly belongs in a time capsule, but still, the Victor.....whoa. One can start a fight between Armstrong nuts about which version they prefer, the OKeh or the Victor. I’ll take ‘em both, but if forced at gunpoint, I might go with the Victor.

It opens with a sparkling Teddy Wilson introduction before Keg Johnson plays the melody, interrupted only for a bubbling clarinet break (Bill Oldham's huge-toned bass is well-captured, too). Then Armstrong once again plays a 12-bar chorus of blues, starting off with the exact notes used on the OKeh, before he settles into a riff that he can’t shake until the chorus is over (this part always reminds me of the non-vocal take of “Dallas Blues” from 1929). Then the band plays an arranged 12-bar chorus (scrontch on the fourth beat!), the rhythm section almost marching, rather than swinging. For the vocal, Pops once again sticks to purely scatting over vocal harmonies from the band. His first vocal break is similar to the first one on the OKeh, but is delivered with more urgency. I've always loved these little group vocals from this period as they give us at least a glimpse into what Louis would have sounded like scatting over his quartet while a teen in New Orleans.
Rare photo of Louis  in London, 1933. Courtesy of Dave Bennett

Then, a glance at the clock shows 1:20 left for Pops to make his final statement. Once again, it’s a festival of double-timing, but it’s even wilder than the original. I like my friend Matt Glaser's description of what happens next: "So, too, our second 'Basin Street Blues,' recorded in 1933, which begins with a triplet figure that serves as the germ for the entire solo. The first six bars are a natural efflorescence from a simple seed, completely free of the restrictions of bar lines or chord changes. The turnaround pattern in bars seven and eight begins with an operatic gesture in the high register, leading down in coruscating fashion through a reverse arpeggiation of C-minor 7th flat-5, a delicious double chromatic approach into A, and finally grazing upon the flat 13th of the F-7th chord."

In other words, yeah, man! (Matt has a larger vocabulary than I.) That first break always knocks me out, highlighted by a massive gliss to a high D. He calms down a bit to do some very hip swinging in the lower register (eliciting a “Yeah” from someone in the background) before he repeats the high Bb break from 1928, where he just holds it for a while (shades of "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues)" and eventually uses it to launch up to a mind-boggling high D. This was a note he reached for in 1928 and I originally wrote that he "grazed" it on the original. Well, somebody must have been practicing because he absolutely kills it on the Victor!

A clarinet trio joins Armstrong as he gradually winds down before ending the record with some more scatting, setting up a wonderful slow coda, something he might have normally played on the trumpet but it's a great change of pace to get it from his voice. The closing “Yeah, man” pretty much sums it up.  I’m sweating over here!

The flip side is "Mighty River," a recent composition by pianist Billy Baskette that already received a hot treatment by Chick Bullock in September 1932. The river sounds rough during the punchy introduction and then we get the melody, Louis interestingly playing in the section for the first 16 bars. In the bridge, he momentarily floats away as the reeds take over, punctuating their statement and putting the horn down in the last eight bars. I'll admit, the reeds are a little sloppy and the tuba of Bill Oldham is a little plodding but who am I kidding, we're not listening to this for them.

Pops sings charmingly and, perhaps because the tune seems to have been at least subliminally inspired by his innovations, he barely changes the melody, only enhancing it with a fun, "Oh baby" before the bridge. In fact, except for his short trumpet line out of the bridge and his heated reading of the title phrase at the end of the vocal, the first 72 seconds of the record are really pretty devoted to the melody.

Finally, after a guitar interlude from Mike McKendrick, Louis gets down to business. I think I've taken all the water metaphors as far as I can but I do want to say that he enters cautiously, almost like he's sticking a toe in the river (sorry). He plays around with one note, splashing and floating (someone stop me) through half a chorus before ceding the bridge to Budd Johnson (does McKendrick hit a wrong chord back there? Oof). Louis returns to climb into the upper register, hitting some G's, touching a Bb and then sitting on a G as the band performs a true novelty on these records: a modulation!

Interestingly, it's a modulation down from the key of G to the key of F. The band starts to romp, Oldham playing his tuba four-beats-to-the-bar. Louis gives a taste of the melody before glissing up to high C, following that with some of his most joyous playing. The bridge is highlighted by two breaks, the first allowing Louis to uncork an exciting double-timed line (always reminds me of something he would scat) like his younger self, while the second is more indicative of his transitioning style, swinging and bubbling (sorry) all the way.

The last eight bars are exciting as Louis gets bluesy with his upper register stabs but everything builds up for Cantor Armstrong to take one of those glorious major-to-minor-to-major codas, dramatically moaning a low C over and over until a final gliss up to high C. A fine record but if I was alive in 1933 and bought this 78, I think "Basin Street" is the side I would have worn out.

Two days ago, I posted John Weir's review of "Sweet Sue" and mentioned that I found a bunch of such reviews while researching my book. I'll close with Weir again, as this coupling was reviewed in his December 1933 column in The New Movie Magazine: "Here is a new record of 'Basin Street Blues.' Louis Armstrong is responsible for it. Although Louis made a record of this a few years back, there is no resemblance between the two. Of course, the high lights consist of the trumpet work by Armstrong. When he starts jamming on that horn, it will break anyone’s lease. Louis also does all the vocal work. 'Mighty River' is on the other side. It is also played by the trumpet king. This one is put to faster tempo, and you’ll have no trouble dancing to it."

Another reason it's good to cite these reviews is they give us an idea of how RCA released the material. "Basin Street" was recorded in January 1933 but not released until the end of the year, by which time the band broke up, Louis fired Johnny Collins as his manager and was living in Europe. RCA didn't care about any of this, renewing his contract (through Collins) and keeping the 1933 sides released in 1934. In other words, we still have about a week of these to get through--keep coming back for more!

Louis Armstrong (tp, voc, cond), Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph (tp), Keg Johnson (tb), Scoville Brown, George Oldham (as, cl), Budd Johnson (ts, cl), Teddy Wilson (p), Mike McKendrick (g),
Bill Oldham (b), Yank Porter (d).
Victor recording session - Chicago, IL January 27, 1933

Louis Armstrong (tp, voc, cond), Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph (tp), Keg Johnson (tb), Scoville Brown, George Oldham (as, cl), Budd Johnson (ts), Charlie Beal (p), Mike McKendrick (g),
Bill Oldham (tu), Harry Dial (d).
Victor recording session - Chicago, IL April 26, 1933

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