25 Years Ago.....

It all started 25 years ago today....I think. Well, in all truthfulness, the events of August and September 1995 are almost just as important as what happened on this date. For those unfamiliar with my "origin story," in the late summer of 1995, I was going through phases of watching both Woody Allen and James Stewart movies (for someone born in 1980, I might have been the only 15-year-old going through those phases at the moment). My father had already introduced me to Louis Prima and I loved his Capitol recordings (still do!) but then I saw Woody Allen's "Sleeper" and heard the jaunty music on the soundtrack and immediately responded to it. The credits said "Preservation Hall Jazz Band" which was all I needed to go to the local library and check out their Greatest Hits on a Columbia cassette. Completely coincidentally, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was on tour and hitting Harrah's casino in Atlantic City in mid-September. That was the weekend hangout for my grandparents so they got us comp tickets for my birthday and I had my first live experience with live New Orleans jazz on September 16, 1995. I was hooked. (Side note: the band included Ben Jaffe, Joe Lastie, Rickie Monie and Wendell Brunious, all friends today!)

Now I wish my memory was better at this point but somewhere in the second half of September, my Jimmy Stewart phase led me to The Glenn Miller Story. In the middle of the film, Louis Armstrong appeared on screen and did "Basin Street Blues." Whoa! The whole thing fractured me. My ears heard the trumpet-trombone-clarinet thing and my brain immediately made the connection, "Oh, this sounds like Preservation Hall and Louis Prima--cool!" But then Louis sang and again--whoa! What a voice, what a smile, what a personality. Then the tempo change, a drum duel between Gene Krupa and Cozy Cole took place and Pops led the way out with a high note. The seed was firmly planted--I needed more.

Which brings me to today's anniversary, October 9, 1995, Columbus Day. Off from school, I asked my mother to take me to the place all the cool kids congregated: back to the Ocean County Library. Once there, I made a beeline for their Armstrong cassette section. There was a bunch of "greatest hits" releases and I didn't know which one to choose so I grabbed this one, "16 Most Requested Songs." 

It turned out to be a compilation of Armstrong's 1950s Columbia recordings, produced and with liner notes by George Avakian. I still remember being grabbed by opening, Louis intoning "Dig man, there goes Mack the Knife!" Then a few tracks later, "All of Me," my grandfather's favorite song! On and on it went as I really enjoyed the fireworks on songs like "Indiana" and the live feel of stuff like "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" (Billy Kyle's piano interlude made an impression on this budding pianist) and "That's My Desire" (where Armstrong's use of "chops" gave me a laugh). All was going well and I just knew that this was going to be the start of something.

And then IT happened.

Track 14.

"St. Louis Blues" from Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy.


I don't think I had ever heard a 9-minute song before but this one got me from the start and didn't let go. As Trummy Young's solo built and built and Louis swooped in to lead the last two choruses out (again with Billy Kyle pounding away and Barrett Deems laying down those backbeats), I felt something shift in my brain. My heart was pounding. No music had ever hit me quite like this before. I would never be the same.

The cassette became a constant companion, even in car rides with my parents (my mom liked "Rockin' Chair," track 15, and I remember her telling family members over dinner about the lyrics to "Black and Blue"). I had had an obsessive personality from birth and I just knew I had to get back to the library and listen and read more about this guy. 

Flash forward to today. Needless to say, it's been quite a ride! Even in this Godforsaken year of 2020, I managed to teach a "Music of Louis Armstrong" graduate course at Queens College, launch the Louis Armstrong House Museum's "That's My Home" Virtual Exhibit site, revive this blog for the "Six Minutes With Satch" series and published my second book, Heart Full of Rhythm: The Big Band Years of Louis Armstrong 

But there's one particular project that has been especially personal for me: working on the upcoming Mosaic Records 7-CD set, The Complete Louis Armstrong Columbia and RCA Victor Studio Sessions 1946-1966. I've mentioned it in passing on this blog but if you've followed me on social media, you've seen many breathless videos and updates from the last year or so. There will be a massive blog announcement once it is up for pre-order which could happen sooner than later; I don't want to jinx anything but we're at the finish line, just waiting for some final approvals as we try to stick the landing (it's been an incredibly bumpy journey) and hopefully get it out by the holidays.

The reason this set is so personal is it includes almost all the material that was originally on 16 Most Requested Songs. And I say "almost" because the live tracks on that compilation have already been released as part of Mosaic's Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars 1947-1958, which I co-produced with Scott Wenzel back in 2014. That set is now out-of-print physically but is streaming everywhere and I published my 30,000 words of liner notes HERE a few years ago.

Thus, when this new Mosaic set does come out, I will be able to say I've worked as a co-producer on reissues of all 16 of the original "Most Requested Songs" that changed my life 25 years ago. And not just that but, because of the Mosaic way, I've able to sit in the studio, hold session tapes and along with my co-producers, shape these set in ways that pulled back the curtain on iconic albums like Ambassador Satch, Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy, and Satch Plays Fats, while maintaining respect for producer George Avakian and his original visions for those albums. In fact, George was brought back by Sony to select and annotate the 16 Most Requested Songs and the fact that I was able to become such a friend of his over the last decade of his life, is still something I can't entirely wrap my head around (my memories of George are collected here). 

I hope this doesn't sound pompous or overblown, but the only thing I can compare it to is what I've seen happen in the movie industry a few times in recent years. I heard an interview with J. J. Abrams where he talked about growing up on the Star Wars films....and the next thing you know, he's directing the new ones. Or Ryan Coogler growing up on the Rocky films....and then writing and directing Creed for Sylvester Stallone years later.

I don't want to get carried away because after all, I'm co-producing a CD-set (in 2020) for a mail-order company doing all it can to stay afloat in this digital age; this ain't Star Wars. But to have a hand in putting together the set, selecting the best alternate takes, picking the photos, writing the notes, knowing the whole time that without these recordings, my life would not be what it is.....it's heavy, man, it's heavy. 

Holding the session tapes to Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy in 2019. "St. Louis Blues" is visible on the tape to the right.

So that's my 25th anniversary post. 16 Most Requested Songs is still in print and streaming everywhere. I'll be listening to it in full but if you'd like to listen along, here are links on Spotify and Apple Music.

And maybe as a way of a preview of the Mosaic set, a couple of discographical notes on this set. This came out in 1994 at a time when Sony did not have access to the original master tapes of the Handy and Fats albums. In 1986, Michael Brooks did the best he could with scraps and some unedited takes to create "new" versions of each album. He was crucified at the time, accused of tampering with these classics, but it wasn't Brooks's fault as the source materials just weren't there. Avakian himself was brought in to rectify the situation (aided and abetted by David Ostwald) for the 1997 reissue of Handy and the 2000 version of Fats

To the confusion of the world, Sony has kept the Brooks versions in print and they're also on all the streaming sites without any explanation so it's possible to get the wrong versions of each album if you search. Because of this, I've seen rumblings from some online who already have the 1986 sets and wonder if the Mosaic is going to be any different. There's also the Spanish bootleg labels that put out "Complete" versions of both albums by just combining the Brooks and Avakian reissues. 

All I can say is that if you have all of that, great, but it's only a fraction of the new alternate material that will be included on this set. I've also seen predictions that it'll just be a lot of breakdowns and chatter; again, nonsense. There are some meaty rehearsal sequences but other than that, every single song on each of those albums will have complete alternates (note to mention the "Mack the Knife" session and The Real Ambassadors album). 

This is all a long-winded way of saying that the 16 Most Requested Songs compilation that changed my life contained alternate versions of "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Honeysuckle Rose," "Keeping Out of Mischief Now," "Cabaret" and yes, the life-changing "St. Louis Blues"; all of these alternates will be included in the Mosaic set (except "Cabaret" which was an Avakian concoction, the then-75-year-old producer attempting to make a new master--old habits die hard!). And for "St. Louis Blues," we're not only including take 4, but also a complete take 3 that has never been issued in full and that took two edits from the geniuses at Meyer Media to resurrect from the tapes. Can't wait for the world to hear it!

I've gone on too long (as usual) but I'm just excited to share it with the world. Hell, I'm excited about everything when it comes to Pops. 25 years later and I still feel the same joy I felt after that trip to the Ocean County Library. It'll never stop. 


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