Six Minutes With Satch: Will You, Won't You Be My Baby / Song of the Vipers

We've come to the finale--for now--of "Six Minutes With Satch." I've had a ball and it's been gratifying getting so much positive feedback on social media about these daily posts. But as many of you might now know (especially if you read the Washington Post this week), I'm currently devoting much of my time to curating content for the brand new That's My Home virtual exhibit page for the Louis Armstrong House Museum. For the first time online, I'll be picking from the best photos, tapes, documents, videos at the Armstrong Archives to tell deeper stories of Louis and his offstage hobbies. I will continue updating this blog regularly, especially with news on my upcoming book (still hopefully due out in the vicinity of August).

But we still have one last French Brunswick single to cover, which is actually a perfect stopping place. Armstrong's 1934 Paris session was his only studio session between the last RCA date of April 26, 1933 and the beginning of his association with Decca on October 3, 1935. When I get the time to restart this series, the Decca recordings will be the ideal starting point.

Back to the matter at hand. After knocking out turbocharged versions of two longtime showpieces, "St. Louis Blues" and "Super Tiger Rag," it was time for Armstrong to finally record three numbers he had been performing live for some time: "Will You, Won't You Be My Baby," "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "Song of the Vipers." I covered "Sunny Side" yesterday and will tackle the other two here.

The connection between Louis and "Will You, Won't You" has never really been discussed and personally, I wasn't aware of one until I really started digging into Louis's private tapes, housed at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Armstrong's Paris recordings were issued as a 78-album on the Vox label in 1947 and Louis was quick to purchase it and dub it to tape numerous times. And every time he did so, he'd get very excited and talk about how he used to swing this number with Les Hite's band in California. In fact, on a tape Louis made on Christmas Day in 1950, he spun the recording while staying at his friend Stuff Crouch's home in Los Angeles, reminisced about playing it with Hite and then said he couldn't wait to play it when Hite came over for dinner later that day! Nice to know Louis and Les remained close.

But the point is that Armstrong only played with Hite in Los Angeles between 1930 and 1931. So like everything else recorded in Paris, Armstrong was dipping into his bag of tricks, pulling out some of his favorite arrangements from the early part of the decade. We'll never know how it sounded with Hite's band, but it's possible that it wasn't much different from the Paris recording as once Louis settled into a routine, he was usually content to stick with it.

Then again, Armstrong's chops were in Herculean form on all of his 1930-31 California recordings and he was fighting for his life in Paris, in the midst of some severe bouts of pain. This might account for the fact that there isn't much trumpet on the Paris version but it's still a fine record.

The song "Will You, Won't You Be My Baby" was written by John Nesbitt and recorded by him with the fantastic group McKinney's Cotton Pickers back in 1929. Let's listen to the original version, as the arrangement is nearly identical to the one Armstrong recorded five years later:

Fine, fine recording, right at that perfect, 1920s two-beat feel, just before everything smoothed out and started swinging.

When we listen to Arsmtrong's version (not on Spotify but on YouTube--see below), the first thing we hear is the tempo is UP, much faster than the McKinney's easy rocking, danceable feel. After a new introduction, the band has the plenty of time to itself, taking a full chorus, then an alto break (like the McKinney recording) leads us into the verse. We're 59 seconds into a 2:51 track and so far, Louis has sat it out.

But here he comes to save the day! Mighty Mouth immediately immediate goes up to the same high Ab Nesbitt began his solo with, but the faster tempo lends a more urgent quality to Armstrong's entrance, especially with drummer Ollie Tines whacking that cymbal on the offbeat behind him. He soon relaxes in the lower register and floats his way back up to that Ab, almost silently glissing away from it. Then he plays a little lick that's been quoted in the jazz pantheon forever; I know it first from the ending of Louis's 1929 recording of "That Rhythm Man" but is it a quote? He then comes off the Ab motive and floats across the bar lines, mostly in the lower register, sounding like he has all the time in the world. Alfred Pratt takes the bridge before Louis swoops in and up to a high concert C, holding it for good measure and closing his outing a little lower.

Peter duConge is up next and watch out for that alto playing! Sounds great, as does pianist Herman Chittison, who takes the bridge. But now, Armstrong is reduced to humming, shouting encouragement and singing the titular phrase, all as if he was at home, listening along to one of his favorite records. He continues as the band reprises the melody in the final chorus. It's fun, but it's not exactly a vocal and another 59 seconds pass before Louis picks up the trumpet again. I have to wonder if this was the standard arrangement or if it was modified to accommodate the chops.

But he's not through yet! When the band gets to the bridge, they drop out and Armstrong enters with a dramatic, mysterious break, works his way upward (oh, that sense of rhythm) and then answers the ensemble, building up to a "broken record" ending, with Armstrong pushing out a string of Ab's before a final high C.

On its own, "Will You, Won't You Be My Baby" is a fun record but definitely not one for the pantheon. In boxing terms, I think Louis needed to "take a round off." Of course, what he does play is demanding, rhythmically free and tremendously effective (some trumpet players might be thinking, "THAT is taking a round off?") but he's really only front and center for about 50 seconds of the record and I'm sure that was a strategy to conserve the chops. It worked as he next shot out the lights on "Sunny Side" and the remake of "Saint Louis Blues."

The super human session ended with the only recording of "Song of the Vipers," though no surprise, it was also part of his regular repertoire, first announced in Chicago newspapers as "Cry of the Vipers" in 1931. Whether a "song" or a "cry, Louis, by dedicating it to the vipers, made it an ode to his fellow marijuana smokers.

I'm not sure how many trumpet players could get through such a performance unscathed. It's a good "Louis in transition" example as the fleet-fingered soloist of the 1920s is now giving way to the more operatic performer of the 1930s and beyond. It's easy to be blinded by his faster playing of the 1920s (which, don't get me wrong, is dazzling, influential, melodic and all sorts of adjectives). But on "Song of the Vipers" and later numbers like "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" and "Jubilee," Louis goes into the upper register and just stays there, pulling off superhuman feats of endurance just be hitting and holding those demanding high notes. (All this, AFTER his severe bouts with chops trouble.)

The performance starts with the band playing a hypnotic two-note stop-time rhythm, related to a "Charleston" pattern, coming in an eighth-note later. The vamps on an F chord and Louis swoops in, way up there, simply outlining the F-A-C triad, nailing the high C and repeating the F's and the chords change from F to F7 to Bb to Bbminor and back to F. And then everything breaks into a strutting two-beat feel, the horns playing a descending rhythmic riff while Pops plays the simply melody, alternating between playing with two pitches (F and A) and resolving it with a bluish phrase.

He goes through this twice and then the horns pick up the original two-note stop-time rhythm, this time used to modulate from F to Ab, Louis encouraging them with his background shouts. And now we're not only in a new key, but we're almost listening to another song. I'd love to see some form of sheet music for this; could this be a verse? Or just a second strain? It features the band playing ascending stop-time inversions of an Ab chord, each one answered by trombonist Lionel Guimaraes and eventually resolving into four bars of swinging, Louis charmingly moaning the melody nice and loud. They repeat it again, Louis humming almost menacingly at the start.

And then, what's this? An entirely new 16-bar strain? In a minor key? Guimaraes stays out front improvising while the band now plays a three-note stop-time pattern. Louis doesn't shut up (nor should he!), making up a fragment of a lyric ("Don't you know...."), repeating "Oh man" at different intervals and then bizarrely calling out, "Preach it, Brother Al Brown!" For 80 years, I'm sure some listeners believed that Guimaraes was actually a trombonist named Al Brown, but as I argued in my last blog on "Saint Louis Blues" from this session, the popular boxer/entertainer Panama Al Brown was living in Paris at this time and I'm sure he's someone Pops would have befriended. So it's quite possible that Brown was in the studio and Louis was immortalizing him on the expense of poor Lionel!

The minor strain ends and what follows is the pattern from the introduction of the record, but instead of stop-time, the band goes into their two-beat strut and instead of being in F, they're no in Ab. The horns plays the melody along with Louis, who breaks free with a brief improvisation, ending on a high Ab-Bb-Ab lick.

And once more, the band goes into the opening vamps and again uses it as a way to modulate back to the original key of F. (Are you still with me? Man, one would have to be high to put together an arrangement like this!) And for the last 70 seconds of the records, Pops just floats. My, my, my, it's so lovely. He usually thrived on a 4/4 backing but the two-beat feel just adds to the relaxed atmosphere. If you count 1-2-3-4 over and over, you'll realize that the tempo is actually on the up side. But the rhythm section doesn't push it, the horns repeat airy riffs and Louis is free to take his time. Never mind the demanding trumpet playing, I'm not sure there's any bands who could replicate the rhythmic feel of this performance.

The form, again, is completely unique with the final chorus consisting of an atypical 40-bar pattern, the chords following the pattern of the first section (but not quite) and a bridge that alternates Bb's and F chord. If I had time, I'd try to write out the entire form, but it's really something else (no wonder this one doesn't get called at jam sessions...).

But let's forget about chords and modulations and rhythmic patters and two-beat feels and just concentrate on Louis. His note choices are so simple that a transcription of this solo would probably look like fairly simple. There's not even any daring harmonic choices, some some blue minor-thirds in the bridge. But the endurance, my goodness. The main motif is going from a high concert C, glissing down to an Ab, then back up to the C and then dramatically repeating the tonic F as the chords descend from minor back to major. Then in the bridge, it's reversed as Louis starts on that F and now goes up to the Ab and then back down and then back up. So simple. So effective. I have tears in my eyes as I write this, especially knowing the pain he was probably experiencing.

He comes out of the bridge four repeated high C's and then holds a giant one. When he goes up to a higher D, there's a momentary sense of strain but overall, he is in control. As the 40-bar chorus ends, Louis finds a new motif, urgently repeating an F-to-A pattern but ending on that tonic F again. Symmetry closes the show as the horns now go into the familiar vamp and Louis closes how he starts, outlining that F-triad, but ending on a high C just for good measure.

What a record. What a session. I've always loved this session but boy, sometimes it takes writing a blog to really get inside everything that happens on a record date and I sure know I got a lot out of examining each of these performances so deeply. And other friends have turned in much deeper analysis than I could ever dream of. The saxophonist/composer/historian Allen Lowe wrote on Facebook once that he was "listening to L. Armstrong this morning - the 1934 Paris recordings....and it strikes me that our usual analysis of Louis is lacking something. Or maybe not; but to me he fits, particularly in these middle years, right into the modernist idea of the disassembling of so-called reality. 'So-called' because, as Joyce points out, what he and others were really doing was much more deeply into reality, and presenting a view of personal consciousness that had much more verity than the work of, say, James Farrell or other American realists (getting my chronology wrong here, but the point still holds). And here comes Louis Armstrong with the most bizarre yet logical re-construction of pop-song reality, deliriously absurd yet much truer to life than about 25 other singers/crooners. And even more of a miracle, he was popular, accessible, easy to listen to. An amazing convergence of aesthetic and social factors; and I won't even begin to try to break the surface of how he's digging into the minstrel myth in way so completely parallel to Bert Williams." There is a LOT of information in that paragraph and obviously I agree completely.

The November 7, 1934 session is an important one as it's the lone studio date we have between April 1933 and October 1935 and the best glimpse imaginable at what he was doing during his European sabbatical. Turns out, he was just doing what he always did: making beautiful, challenging, fun, accessible, daring, joyous music.

Thanks for following these "Six Minutes With Satch" posts--more to come someday!

Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Jack Hamilton, Leslie Thompson (tp), Lionel Guimaraes (tb), Peter DuCongé, Henry Tyree, Alfred Pratt (reeds), Herman Chittison (p), Maceo Jefferson (g), German Arago (b), Oliver Tines (d).
Studio Polydor recording session - Paris, France November 7, 1934

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