Six Minutes With Satch: Mississippi Basin / Sweet Sue, Just You

Welcome back to "Six Minutes With Satch" as we continue mowing down Louis Armstrong's 1933 RCA Victor output this week. First up is "Mississippi Basin," recorded on April 24, 1933 and written by two esteemed songwriters, Andy Razaf and Reginald Foresythe. Razaf and Foresythe had joined forces to compose "He's a Son of the South," which Louis recorded successfully in January. Hoping to go to the well one more time, they composed "Mississippi Basin," another paean to the "dear old southland" (as actually referred to in the lyrics). It's another song that seems especially written for Pops so RCA chose to lead with it on their sixth release of Armstrong's 1933 output, with some gems from the January sessions still lingering in the vaults (we'll get to them soon).

It's kind of a dramatic thing, alternating between minor and major passages. It also survives in two takes and if you're in a completist mood, then head over to Spotify and check out the alternate on The Complete RCA Victor Recordings. It's actually quite good and quite similar to the master but at the very end, Louis loses his footing during the one-bar trumpet trades with the band. Thus, another take was called and was good enough for release.

The opening ascending phrase is quite dramatic and gives us a sense that we might be in for an exciting romp of sorts. Alas, it's just a ruse as Louis and the reeds gently descend following the stomping opening. But worry, there's still plenty of drama as they descend into a A-minor chord that Louis uses to launch into quite a wailing cadenza. He comes right in on a high A and turns it into a flashy eight-note run phrase, repeating it an octave lower for good measure. Chilling stuff, reminiscent of the howls of a cantor (not Eddie). Louis brings everything to a hush by ending on a quiet A yet another octave lower. I told you there would be drama!

Finally he comes in with the melody, with its pattern of four bars of minor alternating with four bars of major. This is one of those great melody choruses that Louis simply excelled in during his entire career, knowing he only had one chorus to make his statement. He starts by playing it fairly straight (with the built-in responses from the windy reeds), though with his typical floating phrasing, once again exploring the lower range of his horn in a way he rarely did.

For the second eight, the variations start, as does the ascent into the upper register. Once again, he starts turning on the heat but holds back for possibly the most relaxed bridge of any tune he ever performed. I mentioned that gage was being passed around that day and it sure sounds like Louis is floating!  The reeds come in and perform the last eight bars straight; just listen to how they phrase the melody, all insistent and staccato. Compare it to how Louis just played it and well, there is no comparison.

Then it's time for the vocal, which is quite delicious. Again, Louis starts out in a low-key mood, singing  very earnestly about the South, as he always did--though he perhaps makes an editorial comment with a record-breaking "Mmmmmm-hmmmmm" after the mentions washing his "face in that 'Mississippi Basin' back home" (nice internal rhyme, Mr. Razaf). The entire first half is made up of repeated pitches, sung with great urgency. Unreal. The bridge is even more righteous as he explores his voice, swinging those quarter notes, emitting barely a rasp, going way down to a full-throated bottom and getting positively righteous with his quarter-note cries on "Dear old southland, baby," all in eight bars (dig Ellis "Stumpy" Whitlock making like Pops in the back).

Charlie Beal's piano interlude is on target this time (it fell apart on the alternate); he even jumps the gun into the end of Pops's vocal, so eager is he to get it going! And then it's time for the Louis show, as everything's been building up to the ending where Louis, unaccompanied, trades one-bar phrases with the reeds until launching into a closing cadenza. His first salvo sounds slightly strained and a bit staccato. Remember, Louis was apparently engaged in life and death struggles with his lip in this period and my first thought is, "Uh oh, please hold up." Naturally, he comes roaring back with a double-timed phrase. And when it's time for the stop-time ending, he goes way up, sounding much more poised than on the first take, taking a four-note motif, and playing it four different ways before that final high F. A fine record and the right choice to be the master.

I don't know of anyone else recording "Mississippi Basin" after 1933, but it's a neat tune. At the time, they tried making a hit out of it; the Casa Loma Orchestra in June with a vocal by Pee Wee Hunt and Chick Bullock sang it on a Oriole 78. The Washboard Rhythm Kings even did it at a faster clip, but a la Pops, like almost everything else they did. But even with the push, I don't know many (any?) other bands performing this song after 1933.

The same cannot be said for the flip side, "Sweet Sue, Just You," already a good old good one by this point, having been written in 1928 and already recorded by Paul Whiteman, Ben Pollack, the Mills Brothers and more. Louis's version was arranged by tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson but is actually best known for Johnson's vocal contribution. Here he is telling the story in his Jazz Oral History Project interview from the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University:

"And I had written an arrangement on 'Sweet Sue' for Louis to sing. Well, after Louis's song, before his chorus, then he said, 'Now I want my little tenor player to come up here and sing it in the viper's language.' And this was a little language we made up on the road and that we all used to talk. And it took me by surprise, you know, as I wasn't prepared for anything like this. Anyway, I got up and I tried to sing it in the viper's language, and it went something like this. [Sings] And Louie said, 'Yeah!' So anyway, do you know that was picked as the record of the month? That thing was picked as the record of the month and it was very funny."

Johnson couldn't have been too surprised as the record opens with another one of Louis's spoken monologues (addressed to "ladies and gentlemen" as if he was onstage) in which he tells the audience right up front that they're going to hear a chorus in the viper's language from "my little tenor man, old Gatemouth Budd Johnson."

The band then swings into Johnson's arrangement, Louis shouting his approval but not playing any trumpet. After eight bars, Louis launches into his vocal, swinging mightily and topped off with a dazzling scat break (check out Paul Whiteman's version with a vocal by Jack Fulton to see how far jazz and pop singing had come in five years). But then Louis tells us to "get a load of this viper's language" and sure enough, Johnson sings a full chorus in some bizarre form of pig latin. Johnson is earnest and it's a lot of fun but I legitimately love Louis's part, basically translating Johnson's nonsense, cheering him on and even scatting a bit around him during the bridge. Joy!

A short drum break by Harry Dial brings us back to the original hot tempo and finally, 2 minutes and 18 seconds into the record, we hear Louis's Selmer trumpet for the first time, taking his time, entering on a single pitch, floating through the second eight, ending his bridge with a solid break and riffing out with some of his patented two-note stuff, ending on a sky-high D.

A fun record but what of Johnson's claim about it being the "record of the month"? Well, he was right! In researching my upcoming book, I found a treasure trove of reviews by John Edgar Weir in The New Movie Magazine. In his October 1933 column, "Music in the Movies," he listed "The Month's Biggest Hits," naming "Thank Heaven for You," "Learn to Croon" and "Sweet Sue." Of the latter, he wrote, "Louis Armstrong, of the leather lungs and iron lip, is next heard from, and as usual he has no trouble in making himself audible. It’s an old-timer that Louis plays for us this time, ‘Sweet Sue,’ and he features a chorus that he terms the ‘Vipers’ Language,’ sung by Bud Johnson, with an even more viperish obbligato by Louis himself. It you like Louis you’ll go for this one."

Indeed, we like Louis and do go for "Sweet Sue" and all these RCA sides--more to come tomorrow!

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), Budd Johnson (ts, voc), Charlie Beal (p), Mike McKendrick (g),
Bill Oldham (tu), Harry Dial (d).
Victor recording session - Chicago, IL April 26, 1933

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