Six Minutes With Satch: I've Got the World on a String / Sittin' in the Dark

"I've Got the World on a String" was the first song to be recorded at Louis Armstrong's marathon January 26, 1933 session, but it was the third released. Like yesterday's "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," it was written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, but this time for a"Cotton Club Parade" show (it was also recorded by Cab Calloway for Victor before Armstonrg got to it).

“I’ve Got the World on a String” is literally the FOURTH straight RCA release to begin with the sound of Armstrong's voice, this time counting the band off (and swinging while he does so). Armstrong’s young pianist, Teddy Wilson, takes a typically sparkling introduction that could have easily been played by Earl Hines. This was something of a raggedy band and you can hear guitarist Mike McKendrick hit one chord on his guitar before he stops, realizing he wasn’t supposed to come in until after the intro.

Armstrong’s reading of the melody is dazzling. It’s kind of a wide-ranging melody, like “Lazy River” but the only time he plays the opening phrase as written is at the start of his first muted chorus. After a few bars, the variations begin, starting with some quiet little asides played in the cracks. By the second eight bars, he’s improvising around the melody, keeping it present but refracting through his floating rhythmic feel. The repeated Bb-C riff towards the end of the second A section is very soulful. The bridge to the tune is very wordy, though Armstrong combats that by reducing it to its essential pitches, relaxation personified. I always love the juxtaposition of Armstrong free-form rhythmic phrases followed immediately by swinging quarter-notes on the beat, which is what happens at the 58-second mark. Totally in control, he tosses off the final phrases of the melody in the upper register like it’s nothing.

Wilson plays an interlude to allow Pops to step up to the microphone and when he does, it’s even more magic. He dispenses with the complicated melody, singing the first four notes all on a single pitch. The melody does test the lowest ranges of Armstrong’s voice, but he passes with flying colors. When playing the it on the trumpet, Armstrong began his second eight bars with a bluesy feel and he does same exact thing in the same exact place with his vocal. He then sings all of Koehler’s lyrics but their relation to Arlen’s written melody is fourth cousin at best. As already mentioned, the bridge is wordy but Arlen must have written it with Armstrong in mind. It consists of almost nothing but repeated notes and since that’s what Armstrong might have sung anyway, he feels no need to change a thing. Heading back to the final eight bars, Armstrong’s reading of “I’ve got” is, to me, the definition of swing. By the end of the vocal, he’s practically bubbling over with enthusiasm and, with all due apologies to Mr. Koehler, he makes mincemeat out of the final line, “What a world, what a life, I’m in love,” instead turning into a wonderful excursion into scat.

With the vocalizing accomplished, Wilson once again plays a bit to let him get his chops together. The band, probably playing a Zilner Randolph arrangement, rephrases the melody by playing it in two-note phrases almost like a shuffle, which sounds incessant compared to Armstrong’s calm, assured response that ends on a high C. As the band takes over for four more bars, you can hear Armstrong yelling in the background, clearly enjoying himself. For his next response, Armstrong works out the same Bb-C pairing he played in the first chorus, but now he does it an octave higher to thrilling effect. Again, he shouts during the bridge, which is played by the band (watch that intonation, saxophones!). He leads the way into the final chorus with a perfectly hit high C.  He swings out the last few bars of melody, holding an A before glissing to a final high C. One masterpiece down!

Halfway through the first marathon session, you'd think Louis would be ready to relax a bit and maybe take on something where he only had to play a half chorus at the end or something. Nope, not our hero! Instead, flip side--and the fourth track recorded on January 26--includes one of the most ridiculous pure feats of exhibitionism in Armstrong's long career (and I mean that in a good way).

The song in question is "Sittin' in the Dark," a brand new pop song by the team of Harold Adamson and Jesse Greer. Adamson was behind some great standards like "Everything I Have is Yours," "Time on My Hands" and a song that is near and dear to me: the theme song to "I Love Lucy" (har har har). Greer's most remembered for "Just You, Just Me," but he had some forgotten tunes recorded by the likes of Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman in the 1920s. 

Outside of the jazz millieu, "Sittin' in the Dark" was tackled a couple of other times in 1933, most notably by crooner Al Bowlly. Here's his version:
I like Bowlly's delivery of the lyric, with those insinuating "mmm's." He has a lot of fun with it and Jack Jackson's Orchestra sounds pretty good playing the instrumental portions (in an arrangement very similar to Louis's).

With that in our ears, it's time to turn to Armstrong's recording. The sweet little introduction, carried by Zilner Randolph's trumpet, is fairly quaint, offering no foreshadowing for what's about to occur. The band swings out and once again on this session, really locks into that medium-tempo groove. And once again, if you listen carefully, Louis is shouting and moaning in the background!

Then it's time for an absolutely delicious vocal. Interestingly, Louis eschews the "mmm's" that were an integral part of Bowlly's version, odd since "mmm" was an essential syllable in Louis's vocal lexicon. No bother; his "oh babe," "yeah man," and various moans set the mood that Louis has much more than just sittin' in the dark in mind (replace it with the verb of your choice). That bridge is a gassuh, too.

After the vocal, Randolph repeats the sweet motif from the introduction, allowing Pops to get set. Once again getting his feet wet with two quarter notes, sounding ultra laid back and swinging from the outset. In the next eight bars, he turns up the heat a few notches, first getting bluesy and then making the decision to blast out the melody an octave higher, hitting those high C's right on the nose. Louis feels so good, it sounds like he wants to keep going, momentarily forgetting that Budd Johnson is supposed to play the bridge on his tenor saxophone. They overlap for a second before Louis cedes the stage to the 22-year-old future jazz legend, sounding good still growing on these early recordings (I think he needed to hear Lester Young to really see the light).

Louis can't wait to get back to playing so he actually plays over the end of Johnson's solo, springboarding into a final eight bars in which he once again revisits the melody an octave up, not only hitting those high C's again but dramatically working up to a high concert Eb (F on the trumpet), almost the top of his range. If the record ended right there, we'd stand up and cheer.

Fortunately, it doesn't end right there....not by a long shot. In some ways, it's just beginning. What follows is pure showing off and I'm sure there were critics then (and now) who would hold their nose at such flexing of the (lip) muscles (James Lincoln Collier called this part of the record "appalling"). Not me! (I've long held on to the belief that I have no taste and am easily entertained by any tactics aimed at the cheap seats since those are the only ones I've ever been able to afford.)

He starts by hitting yet another of those concert high Bb's, shaking the life out of it. And then he hits it again. And again. And again. And again. And on and on, nine times in all. (Yes, two of them slightly crack...he IS only human, after all!) When he hits the ninth one, he holds it and then begins a slow, glissing decent into the abyss, getting so low, he disappears for a second, only to bounce back up with a rapid gliss back to that high Bb. A slight pause, he hits it again squarely and then uses it to spring up to a final high Eb, the band joining in the last one. Wow!

Before we leave "Sittin' in the Dark," I must mention it's influence on young Sun Ra. Yep, not a typo, THE Sun Ra. As he told it to "Downbeat" in 1970, "I was traveling on the road with a band some place in Kentucky or thereabouts, I heard a recording by Louis in a tavern. The name of it was 'Sittin' in the Dark.' I haven't heard it since, but I still remember the sound-image impression it gave me. His contribution to jazz is immeasurable and his contribution to music is a world thing not fully evaluated yet."

So if it's good enough for Sun Ra, it's good enough for me.!

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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