Six Minutes With Satch: Laughin' Louie / Tomorrow Night

Before I get too deep into today's analysis, I'd just like to say that the "Six Minutes With Satch" series will be taking a break after this Friday. This is week 11 meaning that when Friday afternoon rolls around, I will have covered 55 Louis Armstrong singles in the last 11 weeks, a total of 110 sides. Thanks to all who have been enjoying it but it's been a lot of work to keep going, plus I'm about to embark on a particularly busy stretch because of teaching and some exciting initiatives with the Armstrong Archives (I'll share that news soon!). Hopefully sometime in May I will be able to start fresh and tackle the monumental Decca sides from 1935 to 1946.

But until then, we have two Bluebird singles to discuss today and tomorrow and then we'll hit Louis's Paris recordings of November 1934 the rest of the week. First up is what I consider the quintessential Armstrong recording, "Laughin' Louie." If you want to boil down the “Louis Armstrong Experience” to 210 seconds, then “Laughin’ Louie” gives you everything.

“Laughin’ Louie,” might sound like a nothing tune but it was actually written by Clarence Gaskill, who had a hand in writing standards like “Minnie the Moocher,” “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me” and “Prisoner of Love. It's no great piece of writing, but I think the band knows that, which leads to a lot of the fun. Of course, marijuana also led to a lot of the fun. Tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson later remembered, “We were floating when we made that ‘Laughin’ Louie’ and Louis played that trumpet like a bird.”

Besides knowing that the band was high as a kite, the only other background information you might need to know is that after the vocal, “Laughin’ Louie” becomes a parody of the famous 1923 “Okeh Laughing Record,” one of the biggest-selling novelty records of all. On it, a somber trumpet is heard at the start before you start hearing some giggling. As the record goes on, the trumpet playing grows worse and the laughing becomes uproarious. You can listen to the original online here:

Louis loved "The Okeh Laughing Record" and owned a copy of it, transferring it to reel-to-reel tape many times and even joining in with the laughter one time when dubbing it with some friends. Thus, "Laughin' Louie" gave Louis and his entourage a chance to make what should have been dubbed "The Bluebird Laughing Record."

The band attacks the corny introduction as if they’re sitting in a vaudeville pit before Pops steps up to the mike and introduces his vocal, announcing he’s going to play his Selmer trumpet (“bless its little heart) after he “chirps” the song. Armstrong had talked to his trumpet before but I believe this is the first time he gave Selmer an endorsement, surely brought upon by his first trip to Europe in 1932. Everyone’s laughing and obviously feeling high and happy. Armstrong sets off his vocal with a neat little scat introduction before he delivers the inane lyrics:

Laughin’ Louie, I’m Laughin’ Louie
Yeah man, I’m Laughin’ Louie, yes sir,
Ain’t no phooey, Laughin’ Louie
Boy...ha ha ha
Look here! I wake up every morning and I have to laugh
Cause I look on the wall and see my photograph!
Yeah man, they call me Laughin’ Louie but you cats must play yourself because you won’t let me swing there.

Not exactly “Prisoner of Love” but Louie has a ball with it, laughing hysterically after almost every line. The Johnson brothers, the best improvisers in the group, split a swinging chorus before Pops comes up for another monologue, using the phrase “one of those old-time good ones,” a close relative to the “good old good ones” that would be in his vocabulary before the year was out. Armstrong then sounds like he moves 20 feet away and starts noodling on the trumpet, one sad note at a time. This is where Armstrong turns it into the “OKeh Laughing Record Parody,” and besides the laughter, some friends in the studio get in on the act. His adopted son, Clarence Hatfield Armstrong, is the one who shouts “Look out there, Pops!” Listening to it in his Corona, Queens home in 1951, Louis called out the rest of the personnel, mentioning not only Clarence, but also Joe Lindsay (who also made an appearance during the 1931 "Lonesome Road" hilarity), trumpeter Ellis "Stumpy" Whitlock and what sounds like "Lil' Claude." I don't know who that last one is, but all of their voices are immortal!

At the 2:18 mark, Pops starts blowing and it’s more serious than your life. At 2:30, he plays a double-time break that sounds like pure proto-beboop to these ears. Not wanting to get too serious, everyone laughs at Pops’s ending and someone yells, “Change ‘em P-wops!” Pops breaks up but then announces, “Here comes the beautiful part.” He’s not kidding...

What follows is one of the most astounding Louis Armstrong trumpet solos ever recorded. I can’t do it justice in words but I’ll just say that the slow climb to that high concert F almost always brings a tear to my eye. Some notes hurt more than others but damn it, he gets there. And throughout, he’s in complete control, throwing in small glisses and all his other tricks. Vince Giordano later discovered the song to be Minnie T. Wright’s “Love Song,” a silent movie cue from 1920 and something Pops probably played in his days accompanying silent movies with Erskine Tate's Vendome Orchestra.

UPDATE: The late Swedish collector Gosta Hagglof heard it played by a violin in the score of a Charlie Chaplin silent, but I could never find which one. While going through his papers at the Louis Armstrong Archives, I came across a note of it being featured in the 1917 short "Easy Street." I knew 1917 was too early for musical soundtracks, so I went to YouTube and found the 1938 "Charlie Chaplin Festival," which combined "The Adventurer," "The Cure," "The Immigrant" and "Easy Street" AND included a score, plus sound effects and even occasional dialogue. And bless Hagglof, there it is, at 1:08:44, as played by the violin! Thanks to people with big ears like Vince and Gosta (and Louis, who remembered the tune), we can finally hear it in its original silent movie context:  

Back to "Laughin' Louie." Armstrong's playing of "Love Song" is beautiful and though no one else is playing, you can hear the chord changes through Pops’s playing. And when he’s finished, the band hits a corny “ta-da” kind of static chord and the record’s over.

"Laughin' Louie" represents the artist and the entertainer as one. He’s laughing, he’s mugging, he’s scatting and dropping all sorts of slang into his speaking. And then he picks up the horn and makes you cry. If one recording sums up everything that made Louis Armstrong such a great figure, then it has to be “Laughin’ Louie.”

Of course, Eli Oberstein of RCA Victor had no idea what to make of "Laughin' Louie." What was it? A novelty? A trumpet feature? The song is discarded in the first half of the record? The band is high as a kite? Pass! Instead, "Laughin' Louie" was be issued in February 1934 on RCA's cheaper Bluebird subsidiary.

For the flip side, Bluebird paired "Laughin' Louie" with another April 24, 1933 selection, "Tomorrow Night," written by the triumvirate of Ralph Mathews, Lil Hardin Armstrong and Clarence Williams.  Lil, of course, was the second Mrs. Armstrong. They were still married at the time of the session, but were estranged, Louis traveling the world with Alpha. And Louis made some classic records with pianist-composer Williams in the 1920s. But who was Ralph Matthews? He was the theatrical editor of the Baltimore Afro-American and because of that clout, got the recording of the song mentioned in a number of black newspapers. Here's a blurb from the Afro-American on May 13, 1933: "'After To-night,' a ballad written by Lillian Armstrong and Ralph Matthews, AFRO theatrical editor, has been recorded by Louis Armstrong, ace trumpeter, and will be released within a few weeks. The number will also be issued in sheet form by Clarence Williams's music publishing firm."

The most interesting thing about that blurb is the printing of the song's original title, "After Tonight," which makes a helluva lot more sense after you hear Armstrong sing it. Alas, it wasn't issued "within a few weeks" as RCA also tossed it over to Bluebird for February 1934 release, now with the new title "Tomorrow Night."

Two takes survive, the alternate noticeably rougher. We'll skip that one and instead will focus on the master, which was recorded just after "Laughin' Louie." If Louis did need a break after that opus, this song sure gave it to him. After the someone ominous introduction (punctuated by Sid Catlett's cymbals), the band takes a full chorus, the reeds playing the melody in their best sweet style (you know Guy Lombardo-loving Louis approved) with the brass taking the lead for the more swinging bridge. Once again, Bill Oldham's tuba adds a plodding feel to the rhythm section, a shame since his big-toned bass playing was a highlight of the January 1933 Victor sessions (could have been an engineer's decision, with the Camden engineer more confident of how to record it than the one in Chicago's Merchandise Mart).

Pianist Charlie Beal takes another of his Hines-esque modulations and then Pops comes in with the vocal. After listening to it, you'll realize why I feel they should have stuck to the original title! Armstrong's vocal is charming without being one for the pantheon.The lyrics are worth noting--perhaps a message from Lil to Louis? He lost his way on the bridge on the alternate, but has a better grip on it this time, having enough time to insert an "Oh baby" (though I think I liked the scat break better on the alternate) and still ends way down low.

The band really fell apart during the trading after the vocal on the alternate. They're improved here----I didn't say it's perfect by any means, but it's not as bad as the first try. Louis enters up high and floats through his contribution, the second eight featuring a nice gliss. He paces himself through the bridge to save up enough steam for a terrific break. The whole thing wobbles a bit, everyone on the edge of falling apart, but Louis keeps it all together, ending on a C-Eb-C-Eb-C-Eb pattern, the last high Eb infused with pain but he makes it.

With that, Bluebird had enough material for a single to release in 1934, meaning all the master takes from Louis' 1932-1933 RCA sessions were issued....except one. Come back tomorrow for the final selection, "Swing You Cats"!

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), Sid Catlett (d).
Victor recording session - Chicago, IL April 24, 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), Sid Catlett (d).
Victor recording session - Chicago, IL April 24, 1933

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