Six Minutes With Satch: He's a Son of the South / Some Sweet Day

This week has dealt with a lot of stone cold Armstrong classics--"I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," "I've Got the World on a String," "Mahogany Hall Stomp," "High Society"--but starting today, we hit some of the lesser-known RCA recordings. Of course, lesser known doesn't mean "bad"; sure enough, there's some wonderful moments on these sides.

"He's a Son of the South," from the formidable team of Reginald Foresythe, Andy Razaf and Joe Davis, was the sixth and final tune recorded on January 26, 1933. Right from the start we are Swinging with a capital S, a different feel than what we've encountered to this point. Louis makes his entrance with some fancy tonguing of a repeated before floating through the melody, a real relaxed, behind-the-beat feel, especially with those triplets early on. He ends with a flourish before the somewhat confused reeds finish of the first chorus (it sounds like a solo alto at first before the others join in).

Entering with a sliding upward "Oh," Louis sings Razaf's lyrics with relish. Louis was usually inspired by songs about dear old southland, but this one definitely had an autobiographical touch that I'm sure he picked up on:

Rare photo of Louis  in London, 1933. Courtesy of Dave Bennett
Oh, if he's dressed up to kill / his feet won't keep still
You know He's a Son of the South.
Oh, if he sings with a swing / and struts like a king
You can bet He's a Son of the South.
Hear woman sigh / when he goes by
He's their delight / he's so polite.
If he's right on the spot / and the music gets hot
You can bet He's a Son of the South!

I'm surprised he didn't change the words to, "I'm a Son of the South." He sounds great but there's a little hesitation here and there, especially towards the beginning, possibly because of unfamiliarity with the lyrics (the combination of this being a new tune AND the sixth one recorded in one session might have led to a little weariness creeping in on this number). Listen to him show off his range again on the bridge, going way down low for "when he goes by" then right back up for "he's their delight." Also, the little extra gravel he conjures up for the word "hot" adds a searing edge.

After the bridge, we get something we haven't heard this entire session: a verse. It's a really neat passage filled with delights: the brass pounding it home on two-and-four, the dainty response of the reeds, Louis's shocking high Bb out of nowhere....good stuff. But then Louis pretty much enters the brass section for the modulation into the main chorus and stays there for much of the next chorus. It's a swinging little passage and it's always nice to hear him playing with and instead of on top of the band (that tone!).

But you can only hold him down for so long. He holds a high concert A going into the bridge and takes it for himself, once again sounding ultra relaxed (fast tempos always caused him to slow down interestingly enough) before turning on the heat and ending with a break that concludes with a giant high C.

It's a terribly exciting moment...but then confusion seems to follow. Almost three full bars pass and no Louis, just the band quietly playing the melody. Did his chops hurt after that C (and all the other work he'd done that day)? Did he have to signal to someone about what comes next? We don't know but when he re-enters, his first phrase sounds tentative. However, the confusion comes to an abrupt halt as the band hits the final F chord...and holds it. Louis jumps on it and creates the kind of closing cadenza that would become a trademark of nearly all of his Decca recordings of later in the decade. At this point, however, these kinds of endings weren't commonplace, so this is a great early version of what was to become commonplace (though never not effective).

As one would expect, Louis knocks it out of the part. He starts by holding an A on top of the F chord, almost giving it a minor hue. From there, Pops the opera star indulges in the moment, using some space for drama and gradually working up to that final high C. Bravo, Pops!

After a night's sleep, it was back to the studio the very next day for a more reasonable three songs after the previous day's six. First up was an oldie from 1917, "Some Sweet Day," written by Ed Rose, Abe Olman and the great New Orleans pianist and composer, Tony Jackson (of "Pretty Baby" fame). It's not known why Louis recorded a song that was 16 years old (and Jackson had been dead since 1921), but you won't hear me complain as it's another great Victor performance, featuring one of my all-time favorite Armstrong vocals.

After a somewhat swaggering introduction (do I hear a reference to "Love in Bloom" in the reed break?), Louis enters on the verse, blowing one of his beautiful muted solos that were a favorite of his during this period. I've had trumpeters disagree with whether it's a Solotone mute or a basic cup mute but whatever it is, it gave Louis a gorgeous, unique sound and he used it to beautiful effect on numbers like "All of Me" and "I Hate to Leave You Now." Whenever he used it, it was usually license for him to fly around his horn a bit but he stays a little more restrained here. In fact, dig his entrance: nine straight quarter notes and they swing like mad! He stays relaxed with his reading of the verse, but he does manage to find time to shoot three glisses up to high concert Ab just for good measure. You know, because he can.

Then the band plays Jackson's melody for one chorus, which is instructive because when Louis starts singing, I don't think he even references it. My goodness, what a vocal! I really think I was pressed to list my favorite Armstrong vocals, this wouldn't be far behind "Star Dust." He is just on FIRE. He opens by singing the first five bars all on one pitch (Db), but with a halting phrasing that's filled with tension and swing. When he finally spins out of it, he sings a couple of syllables before giving up the English language and turning it into a dazzling scat run.  He calms down a bit in the second eight bars (he sings words) but still his phrasing isn't anything like the original melody; he's high, he's low, he's all over the place, swinging like it's 1933, not 1917.

He then passes the ball to trombonist Keg Johnson for 16 righteous bars. Johnson's solo would stand on its own but instead, the listener is drawn right back to Louis, moaning along with Johnson, FEELING it. He starts scatting riffs, riffs that should have been written down and played back because they're perfect backdrops for Johnson's outing.

Then a pleasant surprise: a vocal reprise! Louis is now preaching--listen to what he does with the word "wind"--and still peppering his offering with scat (the phrase he comes up with stemming from the word "sorrow" would solidify into a favorite trumpet and scat lick in the future). Then it's back to the repeating business as almost the entire second half of the reprise is based on a Db pitch. But as no musicologist has ever written, shit's getting intense! Louis, unable to contain himself, explodes with a righteous "Yeah," followed seconds later by an emphatic "Mama!" When he finishes, instead of retreating into the background, he again, provides moans of approval for tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson's solo, culminating with a "Yeah, boy!" the is pure joy. Seriously, has there ever been anyone else who so purely loved the must he was making? Fats Waller obviously comes to mind but his running commentary and shouts of "Yeah" were done from a more comedic purpose. Louis is lost inside of this music and doesn't want to hide how much he is enjoying it. 

He finally closes his mouth--but what a show it was!--as he gets his chops together. When he enters, he immediately quotes from the old country standard "Faded Love" that would soon become an integral part of the bridge to his solo on "On the Sunny Side of the Street" (which he was already playing but wouldn't record until the following year). He continues pushing up, screaming a huge high Db as he goes on. This was actually the recording Loren Schoenberg was referring to when he said Louis sounded like he was trying to break the microphone, as I referenced on Monday...he wasn't kidding! Louis continues swinging forward on top of some lovely riffs under him, closing the proceedings with another scorching Db. Phew!

The trumpet playing--muted and open--is wonderful but on "Some Sweet Day" but I'll never get enough of that vocal. A classic! But perhaps not as earth-shattering as what was to follow...

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 (as), Budd Johnson (ts, cl), Teddy Wilson (p), Mike McKendrick (g),
Bill Oldham (b), Yank Porter (d).
Victor recording session - Chicago, IL January 27, 1933

YouTube links:


Popular Posts