Six Minutes With Satch: Honey, Do! / Snowball

Louis Armstrong's January 27, 1933 RCA Victor session began two out-and-out classics we've already covered--"Some Sweet Day" and "Basin Street Blues"--so you'd expect a bit of a dropoff for the third and final song recorded that day. And there is, insofar as "Honey, Do!" might not be one for the pantheon. But it's still a swinging number, Louis turns in more great vocal and trumpet work and it's a personal favorite of mine. Who could ask for anything more?

The song was written by the team of Andy Razaf and J. C. Johnson, who were usually accompanied by a third songwriter on their tunes, Fats Waller. No Fats here and perhaps that's why this song hasn't exactly become a standard in the 80 ensuing years.

The band  swings from the outset though what the horns are doing is a little muddy. But we're note here for the horns, we're here for The Horn and Louis soon enters, playing the catchy melody with warmth, letting trombonist Keg Johnson handle the bridge. Louis must have really liked the pretty little line that makes up the melody because he doesn't vary it a bit the entire time he plays it in the first chorus.

But the entire time he sings it is a different story, never hitting  that ascending line a single time! It's another one of those great early 30s Armstrong vocal deconstructions. Launching in head first with a well-timed "Oh baby," he once again sticks to a single pitch (C, the tonic) to convey the song's lyrical intent. And what he does with the titular out! Instead of just singing it straight, he uses each "Honey, Do" to spin circles of scat, almost all based around the syllable "do."

Another "oh baby" gets us into the bridge, which, you guessed it, is once again centered around that tonic C. Transcribing this thing would be fun because so much of it is related to that C, it would like a straight line...but rhythmically, the notes and stems would be jumping!

Like his trumpet playing, Louis builds to a climactic shaking of the C in the last eight bars of the vocal, pushing his voice even higher to make the E central to his preaching, much as it's central to the melody, bouncing between the E and the lower C like a yo-yo. When he gets to the end, the band stops and Louis takes off on another wonderful break that can be somewhat notated as "honey, honey, doody doody, do-oo-do." Hmm, that looks very bland typed out...just listen to it!

After another trumpeter takes a short interlude, Louis enters with one more of those damned C's, then, satisfied, five more,played as quarter notes. So much swinging, all based on a single pitch. He then uses it one more time as the start of a gliss to the C an octave higher. From there, he loosens up and starts getting around his horn beautifully. The second eight contains another great moment in how to make a basic triad interesting. Louis takes the three notes of a C chord--C, E and G--uses them almost in a singsong way, the C on beat one of the first bar, the E on beat three and then the C, E and G as quarter notes in the next bar, before glissing back up to the C an octave higher. It ain't rocket science but the emphasis on the first and third beats adds a little something funky to the proceedings.

The reeds take the bridge before Louis heroically re-enters with that high C, though it's pinched a bit at first before he lets the air out with a descending gliss. Some relaxed high note phrasing gets us towards the finish line and another slow closing cadenza, this time over a minor-chord for a moment, creating some nice drama.

All in a day's work, "Honey, Do!" put an exclamation point on the end of another terrific session (literally; the song is copyrighted with the exclamation point). Could Louis do it again the following day? What do you think?

The January 28, 1933 session opened with what became the flip side, "Snowball," one of those "politically incorrect" titles that has rarely been revisited or reissued in the ensuing 80 years. I feel this to be a shame. The song was written by Hoagy Carmichael and as Dan Morgenstern once sarcastically wrote, "also recorded by that notorious Uncle Tom, Paul Robeson."Yes, the lyrics have some rough touches ("chocolate bar," "black as tar" in the bridge) but really, it's a touching song sung by a father to his child, capturing all the wonderful traits a father brings to the table in those moments: compliments ("daddy likes those dark brown eyes"), affirmation ("you're my only sweetheart"), compassion ("don't you cry") and gentle teasing ("I'll eat you up some day," "The good Lord said, use an apple dumplin' to make your head"). Take away the aforementioned touchy lines and this might be a better known piece. In fact, Hoagy himself sang it in his own charming way, but Louis being an African American of course opens it up to different expectations and interpretations (see my earlier post on "Little Joe" for another song that usually gets shunned for these reasons). Louis surely doesn't sound offended by it, grabbing hold of the lyrics as if to say, "I am a black man, singing about black people for my black audience." It's hard not to get moved when Armstrong sounds so moved himself.

Louis sits out instrumentally in the beginning, letting the band play 16 bars, led by the lullaby strumming of Mike McKendrick's guitar. Louis can be heard humming along and earnestly cooing, "Now you're daddy's little baby boy" and "Mmm, you little rascal you," the latter also serving as a plug for one of Louis's biggest hits (re-recorded for Victor the previous month).

Then it's time to sing...but instead of actually singing, Louis goes the talking route, which is actually more effective, giving the impression that he's speaking to a child he obviously loves, rather than just singing a Hoagy Carmichael tune (Pops the actor). These are the lyrics he sings:

Rare photo of Louis  in London, 1933. Courtesy of Dave Bennett
Snowball, my honey, don't you melt away
'Cause your daddy likes those dark brown eyes.
(Now, Sonny) Snowball, my honey, smile at me each day
'Cause your daddy like those dark brown eyes.

You my only sweetheart, little chocolate boy
I'll eat you up some day.
(Now look atcha, look atcha!)
Your hand and feet, just as black as tar (Mm!)
But don't you cry, why, say

The good Lord said, Boy, he used an apple dumplin' to make your head 
(old Gate Head...heh-heh)
Now you know that's really something!

Mm, Snowball, my honey, don't you melt away
'Cause your daddy like those dark brown eyes. 

So much more than just a vocal, right? He speaks with such love and affection but he also is such a kidder (the way he breaks himself up with that "old Gate Head" ad-lib). And when he does sing, his voice is beautiful; yes, "little chocolate boy" might make one uncomfortable but he really sings the hell out of it.

After such a touching first half, the record turns out to be something of a swinger. Scoville Brown is up first, demonstrating a real "cool" tone to his alto saxophone solo over effective accents on 1-and-3. Keg Johnson's up next with another fine solo, but he gets accents on 2-and-4 behind him.

Then Louis swoops in and plays the first eight bars of the melody in an appropriately soft, caressing manner. In the next eight, he opens it up a bit, touching two soulful high Bb's before he surprisingly turns bluesy, hitting the minor third Db and really working it over with superb lip control. A cymbal clop by drummer Yank Porter guides Louis into the bridge, which features more reflective playing. Seriously, he treats his entire solo as a lullaby and the result it gorgeous.

Heading into the final eight bars, the band takes the melody for the first half, a surprising touch. The way they play it results in the only stiff moment of the record. Louis has been so relaxed with his talk-singing and gentle playing that when the band comes in with their almost shuffling phrasing, the result is a little jarring. But have no fears, they're just setting it up for Louis, who enters on a F and dramatically builds up to a high concert Bb. He hits it, goes down to an A, glisses back to the Bb, lets the band play a short tag and then finishes the deal with one more heroic gliss up to that high Bb.

So that's "Snowball" and I sincerely hope no one's feelings were hurt. For a soft, tender side of Pops, it does no harm. "Snowball" will reappear next week when it was reissued on Bluebird to back "Swing You Cats," another January 1933 piece that went unreleased for sometime. But we still have some more Victors to get through--to be continued tomorrow!

Louis Armstrong (tp, voc, cond), Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph (tp), Keg Johnson (tb), Scoville Brown, George Oldham (as), Budd Johnson (ts), 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), Budd Johnson (ts), Teddy Wilson (p), Mike McKendrick (g), Bill Oldham (b, prob. tb), Yank Porter (d).
Victor recording session - Chicago, IL January 28, 1933

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