Six Minutes With Satch: Swing, You Cats / Snowball

We've reached the end of Armstrong's RCA Victor/Bluebird period, but I'll admit up front that this whole post is something of an anomaly. For one thing, it includes a repeated song in "Snowball," which I already blogged about here. Next, the other side, "Swing You Cats," has been removed from all streaming platforms so I can only share a YouTube video below. This is extra bizarre since it was part of The Complete RCA Victor Recordings release from 1997, a set that is easy to find, but "Swing That Cats" is no longer a part of it. Trouble with royalties or the estate of Zilner T. Randolph?

Damned it I know but it's almost appropriate for a song that was barely released in the first place. It was recorded at the end of the third RCA session from January 1933 but A&R man Eli Oberstein must have known it wasn't going to fly early on, recording an odd-numbered 11 songs in April to give him an extra choice over "Swing You Cats." When "Laughin' Louie" and "Tomorrow Night," subject of yesterday's blog, weren't up to his standards, Oberstein had them issued on the cheaper Bluebird subsidiary in February 1934, leaving "Swing You Cats" to gather dust in the vaults....

.....until 1939 when it finally saw the light of day as Bluebird B-10225.Why 1939? Again, damned if I know, but looking at a Bluebird discography, it's interesting to note that Bluebird B-10224 was Erskine Hawkins's "Swing Out." The Swing Era was in full bloom and Louis was hitting all sorts of peaks of popularity at that point in his career so perhaps RCA realized they could cash in on the swing and Armstrong crazes by releasing this six-year-old title on Bluebird. Just a guess, but it makes sense to me.

As mentioned above, "Swing You Cats" is from the pen of trumpeter Zilner Randolph, who had been dutifully organizing bands for Louis and playing second trumpet since 1931. When Louis returned from Europe in 1935, Randolph put together yet another band for Louis's comeback in Chicago, but they were soon supplanted by Luis Russell's Orchestra when Louis hit New York and that was the end of Randolph's days with Louis. Louis did bring one remnant of Randolph with him when he joined Russell: his composition, "Old Man Mose," which became a huge Swing Era hit. They remained friends for decades; Randolph appears on a few of Louis's home-recorded tapes in the 1950s and I believe can be spotted in a home movie taken at Louis's house in the early 60s during a birthday party for Luis Russell.

Randolph had been in the section watching Louis record one pop tune after another, turning many into future standards. It seems like a nice gesture for Louis to throw his straw boss a bone and record one of his tunes, helping him to get a little taste from ASCAP, something he often did for friends (as covered in last week's post on Harry Dial's "Don't Play Me Cheap" and Paul Barbarin's "I Wonder Who").

Randolph might have written the tune but the title definitely comes from Louis. Not only did he popularize the use of the word "swing" with musicians, the title refers to a specific incident that occurred in London the previous year. Louis liked to tell the story of a performance during that first European tour of 1932 when he had to do an engagement with a group of local musicians. The way he told it, when they were ready to rehearse their first number, an amped-up, gregarious Louis launched his body towards them and shouted, "Swing, you cats!" And the musicians, not knowing what the hell he meant and scared of the way he approached them, actually jumped back in horror and ran off the stage! Once they realized he wasn't mad at them, everyone got along fine, but it gave him a story to tell for decades.

Overall, the song's changes are fairly basic for the period but the first chord seems to be of an G+5/whole-toneish variety and the B-natural inherent in that chord is enough to give the song some harmonic flavor. After an introduction that's equal parts swinging and mysterious, the band takes a full chorus, the reeds really carrying the melody in a call-and-response pattern with the brass. The bridge is of the "Honeysuckle Rose" variety but it, too switches to a +5 for the last chord to change things up a bit. Overall, it's an attractive little riff melody.

Louis finally enters 50 seconds in but he sounds like he comes in perhaps a tad early because he's all by his lonesome for his first note. Gunther Schuller called this piece "underrehearsed" and for once, I have to agree with him. Randolph, too, in his oral history interview with Don DeMichael said of "Swing You Cats, "Well, I wished it could have been really played. It really wasn't played right. I wish it could have been just really played. See? But it was played passable."

Louis's entrance comes in an interlude that sets up the song's verse, which Louis carries on top but again, something seems to be clashing below him. However, once he gets into the main 32-bar section, it all comes together. A string of quarter-note G's gets the motor running but dig his note choices in the breaks; Dan Morgenstern wrote that Lester Young must have known this number. Perhaps he did pick up on it after it's 1939 release as Louis's lines do have a Lestorian feel. (If Lester didn't hear it, Red Allen sure as hell did.)

As he goes forward, Louis seems to be digging it but his chops do seem to let him down slightly here and there. This might sound like nitpicking as there's no outright clams but a few notes are slightly cracked and he doesn't seem like the same Superman that just created one for the ages on "Mahogany Hall Stomp." Perhaps he emptied the tank on that one.

But imperfections aside, it's still a terrific solo, one that's very different from almost anything else he played in this period. I mean, listen to his last eight bars: it's melodic, yet surprising, there's some eighth-note playing we don't normally associate with Pops....he's still on fire and still swinging like, showing off a more "modern" side for 1933.

A blustery Budd Johnson handles a modulation from Eb to F and then Louis reappears, at first almost tentatively part of the section before he blasts forth with a break that ends with a gliss up to a high concert C. Randolph's arrangement and Louis's harmonies then continue in their more modern way; listen for how Louis lands on that A and shoots down to another A an octave lower.

Then Randolph's flying reeds execute a tricky part heading into the bridge but it's all rather busy. What follows is a great lesson because after the somewhat forced moments of the arrangement, Louis just floats up high on top of the bridge; if you could block out the rest of the band, it sounds like Louis is listening to another tempo in his mind. Needless to say, that cat is swinging and the repeated F-to-A's at the end of the bridge are exciting way to get into the final A. Louis keeps his composure over the trilling saxophones, his phrasing made up of pure swing before the final stop-time climb back up to high concert C.

And with that final high note, Louis Armstrong's final RCA/Bluebird release came to a close. What a time! I really loved reliving some of these songs, even the lesser known ones. This is probably the one period that every musician sleeps on and hopefully these posts woke them up.

Tomorrow, we travel to Paris--til then!

(Spotify note: As mentioned earlier, Louis's version is nowhere to be find but interestingly, I did find Kenny Baker's remake/recreation, which follows the original to a tee. I wish I knew more about these Baker sessions--and the whereabouts of his arrangements--but for Spotify purposes, it'll do, though Louis's version is in the YouTube link below. Enjoy!)

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

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

YouTube links:


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