Wednesday, August 19, 2015

85 Years of "Confessin'" and "If I Could Be With You"

Last month, I kicked off my celebration of Louis Armstrong's 1930-31 California recordings with a post about the first two tracks Louis recorded under his own name out west, "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy (from Dumas)" and "I'm in the Market for You." Not a bad start! After spending a few weeks slaying the Hollywood elite nightly at Sebastian's Cotton Club in Culver City, Louis returned to the studio on August 19 to wax two more classics, "I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)" and "If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)."

This is a crucial session, in my opinion. In the 1950s, jazz critics started frowning at Louis being given tunes like "La Vie En Rose" and "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" to record. "Commercial!" they shouted (and in some parts of the world, still shout). But here he is in 1930 singing two true love songs. And let's not beat around the bush: this is a 29-year-old black man recording for OKeh's popular series (not race), coming right out and singing lyrics like "I'm Confessin' that I love you, tell me that you love me too" and "If I could be with you, I'd love you strong / If I could be with you, I'd love you long." This is sexual stuff, folks, and I can't think of many (any?) other black artists before Nat King Cole who could sing so passionately of love and desire on records.

As I mentioned, in his later years, Louis took quite a bit of heat for recording pop tunes and love songs, seen by some in jazz circles as having gone "commercial." But Louis addressed this issue towards the end of his life by tying it in with "Confessin'" in what is one of my all-time favorite quotes: "I came off one night after playing 'Tenderly' I think it was, and this man got all steamed up with me. He said, 'I heard yuo playing that love song, and I'd hoped you were going to play some of the great old jazz tunes you did in the 1930's.' 'Hell,' I said, 'I recorded "Confessin'' about that time and that sure ain't a hate song.'" Amen, Pops...

So let's start with "Confessin'," which I originally tackled in a series of blogs in 2010 (I'll post links in  bit). This became one of Louis's signature tunes and one he would perform for 40 years (his last known public performance of it is a charming version sung to his wife Lucille on the "Mike Douglas Show" in 1970). The song was written by Ellis Rynolds and Doc Daugherty with lyrics by Al J. Neiburg, the man responsible for "Under a Blanket of Blue" and "It's the Talk of the Town" to name two standards.

But as many hardcore fans of early jazz might now, these songwriters must have been big fans of Fats Waller. The previous year, Waller recorded a song titled "Lookin' for Another Sweetie," which I've seen credited to the team of "Smith and Grant." I've also seen it credited to Waller and Fred Saintly. Either way, it's a carbon copy of "Confessin'" and it was recorded in 1929 while "Confessin'" wasn't published until 1930. Clearly, there was some dirty work afoot. The Waller performance, though it boasts a sad vocal by Orlando Roberson (the more "neutered" type of black vocalist commonly singing love songs before Louis brought a new level of passion), is a classic featuring a remarkalbe group with Red Allen, Leonard Davis, Jack Teagarden, J.C. Higginbotham, Albert Nicholas, Charlie Holmes, Waller, Pops Foster, Kaiser Marshall and others (Jesus, my fingers started sweating as I typed those names!). If you've never heard it, you can listen to it now here:



Alas, "Lookin' for Another Sweetie" went nowhere (though some folks, such as Lonnie Johnson, continued to perform it instead of the newer ripoff) and when "Confessin'" came around a few months later, it was a bona fide hit thanks to versions by Rudy Vallee and Guy Lombardo. In fact, let's take a second to hear Vallee's version:


There you have it, 1930s crooning at its finest (or at least its most popular). I admire this stuff from a period perspective and I admire Vallee for his championing of Armstrong but I have also discovered that when I address young folks in 2015, when I play a Vallee vocal, it usually elicits laughter and fake snoring (sometimes real snoring) and when I play Armstrong singing the same song, it causes an eruption of cheering and smiles. I've said it before but it's like Louis came from another planet.

And again, just for context, here's Guy Lombardo's hit version:


Louis worshipped Lombardo and had already encountered him during his Chicago years so he must have sought out this record. The tempo has a bright bounce to it with a stately trumpet reading of the melody and some very nice guitar playing but the vocal is once again bland city.

OKeh records had been getting quite comfortable in passing along the latest pop hits for Louis to record and in "Confessin'" they had a tune that was a perfect fit. Armstrong recorded it in California on August 19, 1930 with Leon Elkins's band from Sebastian's Cotton Club, a band that included youngsters Lawrence Brown on trombone and Lionel Hampton on drums (not bad!).

Louis's record of "Confessin'" contains what some might deem a slightly bizarre accompaniment courtesy of Ceele Burke's Hawaiian guitar. Many jazz purists have scratched their heads at this novelty addition but I don't know, after listening to this recording about a thousand times, I find it charming. The only explanation I can muster for its presence is that earlier in the year, Louis recorded "Song of the Islands" for OKeh with violins. Perhaps it sold well and OKeh though Louis should record something else with a Hawaiian element so they asked for some steel guitar. Who knows, but I'll let you decide whether or not it works. But steel guitar aside, this is one magical recording. Listen for yourself:


Lovely, lovely stuff. After Burke's intro, Louis comes right in with the vocal, and it's a damn touching one. It really unfurls like one of his classic solos; he opens by sticking pretty close to the melody before he gradually begins to take more chances with it, throwing it snatches of scat and eventually rephrasing it with a tremendous passion. Great moments: Louis boiling down "But your lips deny they're true" to one pitch; his repetition of "making them blue"; the little two-note descending scat motif in the middle of the bridge. and the aforementioned passionate rephrasing of the final eight bars, bubbling into an ecstatic bit of scat. A fantastic vocal, and I repeat, it must be a somewhat historic one as it's a black man coming right out and singing the phrase "I love you," something that I don't think was very common back then. You just couldn't stop Louis...

The vocal leads into a nifty trombone solo by Lawrence Brown, his sound and style already formed at age 23. Then it's time for Louis, who enters with an almost fragile hesitation to his playing, riding one note for a while and finally letting it all come together in a break that Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton would "borrow" a few years later in the tune "Pick-A-Rib." Don't believe me? Here's Louis's break:


And here's the "head" of "Pick-a-Rib":


How many Armstrong improvisations crept their way into Swing Era compositions, arrangements and solos? Countless...

After Louis's shining eight bars, one of the saxophones picks up the bridge, playing with some passion but with also plenty of the dated mannerisms of other saxophonists of that era. Fortunately, our hero is there to swoop in and save the day with eight bars of bravura melody. You can hear Louis's mature style evolve with each passing bar; he keeps the melody front and center but what he plays in between it is mind-boggling. At such a slow tempo, he's swinging like mad, playing in the upper register before reeling off a dazzling break that actually ends in the lower register of the horn.

And with that, a masterpiece was born and jazz had one of its first great ballad recordings. I forget the story (I think it's in a Stanley Dance book), but decades later, a group of top Swing Era trumpeters were joking around during rehearsal when someone mentioned Louis's "Confessin'" solo and everyone of those musicians--years and years later--sang Louis's solo together with note-for-note perfection. This was some influential stuff.

(And if you'd like to continue "Confessin'" here's the links to my 2010 series, starting with Part 2 - The Big Band VersionsPart 3 - The 1940s Small Group Versions and finally Part 4- The All Stars.)

Next up was "If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)," written by the top team of James P. Johnson and Harry Creamer. It was published in 1926 and a piano roll was cut in 1927 featuring none other than Johnson and pupil, Fats Waller! It has some of the typically mechanical feel of piano rolls but there's still some nice stuff, including the different rhythmic feel in the last chorus:


The first record of "If I Could Be With You" was done in 1927 by Clarence Williams's Blue Five with a vocal by the great Eva Taylor and some excellent cornet work by Jabbo Smith:



That's a great little recording. Everything you need is all there but for some reason the song didn't take off. In 1929, Coleman Hawkins gave it a first-class ballad treatment on the classic Mount City Blue Blowers version, "One Hour," but the song didn't really take off until 1930 when McKinney's Cotton Pickers recorded it in January 1930. Here's their pretty version, with vocal by George "Fathead" Thomas:


Thomas's vocal sure doesn't represent the future of jazz singing but I still like it. Apparently, so did the world; chart information is notoriously unreliable for this era but apparently McKinney's version of "If I Could Be You" hit the #1 spot. That was enough for the recording companies to take notice; a simple YouTube search of "If I Could Be With You" 1930 calls up versions by Ruth Etting, Hal Swain, Tom Gerun, Jack Albin and Gene Austin. I know I'm getting carried away but I think I should share the Gene Austin version since he was the preeminent pre-Crosby crooner and a good example of American popular singing before full exposure to Louis Armstrong:


Charming and harmless but kind of a limp reading of the melody, note-for-note as Johnson wrote it. Zzzzzzzz......

Wake up! Time to hear Louis Armstrong transform this number, teaching the world a little about love and passion along the way:


Hoowee, is it getting hot in here? Just the introduction alone is unlike anything we've heard in the previous versions. The band hits a dramatic chord, Louis oozes his way up to the mike and moans, "Ohhhh baby.....mmmmm baby.....I want to be with you to-NIIIGHT....." The record is ten seconds old and Louis has let the listeners know what his intentions are (can you say "the vonce"?).

After a somewhat dramatic piano interlude by Harvey Brooks, Louis picks up his horn and caresses the melody ofter an old-fashioned two-beat rhythm. He had more or less moved past this feel--tuba on one and three, banjo chunking on two-and-four--but it works here. He sticks to the melody for about four bars before he starts in with the very pretty variations. He works his way up to a high concert G at the midway point, works it over a few times them bursts into one of those ascending-and-descending chromatic runs he had played on "I'm in the Market for You" the previous month (and as I mentioned there, something that became part of Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie's vocabulary).

For the second half of the first chorus, Louis takes his time, working his way down from that explosive burst with some almost "Pretty Baby"-like phrasing, heading down south. He continues in this vein for a few bars, letting loose with a wild flurry of descending notes that's a little sloppier than we might expect from Pops but he catches himself and again piles on the lyricism; my, my, how you can (and should) sing his solos. He ends his chorus with a smooth run up to an Eb, the band with him; if the record faded right there, it would still be a dandy!

Fortunately, it doesn't end. Another dark interlude by pianist Brooks sets up one of Louis's finest vocals of this or any other period. As was his wont, Louis creates a brand new melody, trading in Johnson's chromatic episodes for more single-pitch excursions. On top of the new melody, there's his phrasing, so relaxed, so conversational. When he pauses and sings, "I want you to know, I wouldn't go," he sounds like he's speaking.

In the second half of the vocal, he really emotes, again singing the titular phrase on a single pitch but with such declamatory urgency; he is pleading for that one hour tonight! When he follows by singing, "If I were free to the things I might," he kind of repeats/mumbles "things I might," to hammer home the delight he gets from thinking about such "things." A few bars later he goes one step further; had anyone ever sung "Mmmmmm, baby" quite like Louis Armstrong before this record?

Like most of the great California recordings, the next voice we hear is the trombone of Lawrence Brown, scoring another bullseye with prodding by the suddenly walking rhythm section and the riffing horns. Brown gets a full chorus before turning it over again to one of the saxophones (Leon Herriford or Willie Stark), who gets bluesy over a different backing feel.

It's very generous for Pops to hand over so much time to his sidemen (and hearing Brown is a delight), but the time is ticking and we eagerly await his return. Finally, with half a chorus to go, Louis swoops in, taking the melody up an octave for a bit, working over a strong descending motive and finally charging up and hitting a high concert Bb smack on the nose, holding it like he great opera singer he was. He continues playing passionately until a little arranged ending where he leaves some spaces for Lionel Hampton's snare drum rolls. The band hits the final chord and Louis plays a little F-G-Bb-G-F-F phrase that, too, would become part of the standard Swing Era vocabulary.

A beautiful record but alas, the song doesn't seem to have ended up in Louis's regular repertoire. Fortunately, he revisited one more time in 1956 for Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography and the result is a gem:

No surprise that he's still getting it done in 1956, right?  The tempo is slower but overall this one sticks very close to the original, from the opening "Baby" moaning and the passionate trumpet melody (no chromatic burst but almost a more relaxed, lyrical approach throughout, showing his maturity) to the delicious vocal (the declamatory title phrase and the sexy "mmmm, baby" are still there) and the operatic ending, complete the with the powerful high Bb and arranged ending (Billy Kyle getting little snatches of "Louise" in the cracks).

So there you have it, Louis the crooner, showing the world how to infuse a love song with passion, swing, heart and eroticism, all the way back to 85 years ago today on two numbers that sound just as exciting and heartfelt today as they did when they first released. That's the magic of Louis Armstrong.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Satchmo Summerfest Recap and Videos

I know, I know, I repeat myself every year but after my eighth straight one, I think I can say that last week's Satchmo Summerfest was the best one I've ever attended.

I don't think I need I to give a minute-by-minute account of all that happened (that's why they invented Facebook; you can even see all my favorite New Orleans photos by checking out this Facebook Album). But as in previous years, all of the seminars can currently be found at the Direction of Sky LiveStream page. That's the good news. The bad news? They all get taken off the web in 30 days....and it has taken me a week to find the time to write this post so the clock is ticking.

However, there was one moment that requires some backstory. If you've ever read my blog, my book or had a single conversation with me in person, you probably already know that Dan Morgenstern is my hero and has been since I read my first sets of Morgenstern liner notes in 1995 (The California Concerts and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man).

Dan has never missed a Satchmo Summerfest in the 15 year history of the event. This year, he wanted to give his personal account of Louis's famous blow-up backstage at Newport in 1957. He asked if I could be his tech guy, in charge of finding photos of Louis at Newport that year, scanning negative columns about the event (namely one by Murray Kempton) and having a few tracks lined up on my iPod in case he wanted to play some music.

Dan's presentation is a knockout and I urge you to watch it in full. About 32 minutes in, Dan finishes his Newport section and continues with an account of the rest of Louis's exploits in the summer of 1957. The first thing he mentions is seeing Louis do "Beautiful Dreamer" on The Ed Sullivan Show on July 7, 1957 and how he wished it survived, though "not even Ricky" (me) has been able to locate it. What Dan didn't know when he said that was I had found it....and I had it with me.

Now, a little backstory to the backstory. About 10 years go, I interviewed Dan for the first time and he told me about "Beautiful Dreamer." A few years after that, after my reputation as the "rare Armstrong" guy grew, he asked about it and demanded I find it. But I couldn't find anything.

About two years ago, while serving my day job as Archivist of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, I spent probably over a year  going through all of Louis's private reel-to-reel tapes and beefing up the descriptions. And there it was, buried on accession number 1987.3.291: "Beautiful Dreamer"! Louis had taped it off TV so the sound quality was subpar--and the tape ran out just before the final note--but Dan was right: it was SPECTACULAR.

What I should have done was say, "Dan, I found it!" But I didn't. I did transfer the track to my work computer but believe it or not, soon forgot about it. Flash forward to this past March. I was representing the Armstrong House at the Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival in England and knew I wanted to play a lot of private tapes. I didn't want to take the chance of leaving something crucial behind in New York so I loaded up my iPod with just about everything on my work computer. And after I got back from England, I kept it on the iPod, doing further work on the tapes during my daily commute.

So when Dan mentioned "Beautiful Dreamer" and mentioned that I couldn't find it, the lightbulb went off.  While he was talking, I grabbed my phone, went to the Armstrong House Online Catalog, searched for it, found the accession number, grabbed my iPod, went through all the accession numbers....and thank God, there it was! I immediately texted emcee Jon Pult about what was going to happen. Here's our exchange, courtesy of Jon:


And as you watch the following video, that's just what happens. After Dan's finish, I interrupt the applause, mention the surprise and announce "Beautiful Dreamer"; you'll hear a full blown gasp in the audience. And God bless the camera operator at the Old U.S. Mint as the camera stays right on Dan's face as the track progresses and catches all the emotions present in him listening to something he heard one time in 1957 and never thought he was going to hear again. When it was over, Dan leapt up and hugged me with all of his might, one of the most significant hugs of my life. Watch it all unfurl here:


Watch live streaming video from directionofsky at livestream.com

Phew. Pardon me for still being a bit emotional over that moment. And since it occurred, I'm happy to report that inside sources have told me that a sharp print of the full "Beautiful Dreamer" performance exists in the Library of Congress. May we all see it some day! Here's me and Dan the very next day, still talking about it.



What a man. The last time Dan saw Louis was in January 1971 when Dan accompanied him to a taping of The David Frost Show. Dan remembers Louis warming up with "Pennies from Heaven" backstage beforehand and afterwards, Louis treated Dan to a memorable dinner at Sardi's. Wow. That story came up in my first presentation on Friday featuring ultra rare videos of Louis on Frost's show in 1970 and 1971. You can take or leave my little offerings but any Pops fan should really pay attention to the footage: priceless stories in the interviews, witty back and forth with Orson Welles and Louis's ultra emotional 1971 appearance. If "Sleepy Time" doesn't make you cry, "Boy from New Orleans" surely will.



Last year, footage surfaced of Louis's complete East Berlin concert of March 22, 1965. I celebrated the footage with a very long blog and posted the concert to my YouTube channel. But this year, I took it down because of two very public showings, the first one at the Museum of the Moving Image on International Jazz Day and the second here at Satchmo Summerfest. Once these videos disappear in a few weeks, I'll probably put the complete concert on YouTube but for now, here it is in two parts, with lots of commentary from me, putting the performance in context. (I also love the sound of the live audience applauding throughout!)
Here's part 1:

Watch live streaming video from directionofsky at livestream.com

And part 2, featuring the second set. (I post these for the Pops not for me but I will admit, I was very touched by the standing ovation that greeted me before I even went on. Thanks to Jon Pult for the beautiful words!)

Watch live streaming video from directionofsky at livestream.com

Those were my three solo presentations but I was honored to be on a panel with Scott Wenzel and Dan Morgenstern discussing the Mosaic Records set of Louis's complete Decca recordings from 1935-1946.  I had nothing to do with that set (except for one mention in the liner notes) but was happy to join Dan and Scott to discuss one of my favorite, still underappreciated Armstrong periods. Scott does the heavy lifting with the making of the set and Dan provides some great historical context before I jump in with a fun little montage of Decca recordings at the end.


Watch live streaming video from directionofsky at livestream.com

Evan Christopher is one of my favorite musicians on the planet so I was quite flattered that he did an entire presentation inspired by a series of blogs I wrote in 2010 on Louis Armstrong's musical "battles" with Sidney Bechet. (If you're looking for the originals, here's Part 1Part 2 and Part 3.) Evan didn't necessarily agree with all of my points but it's still entertaining watching him demonstrate his own ideas with musical help from Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri, both in town to promote their fantastic new  Earregulars CD on the Jazzology label:


Watch live streaming video from directionofsky at livestream.com

Finally, with Marty Napoleon's passing in April, the last surviving All Star is Jewel Brown. Jewel was present at the Summerfest, being interviewed onstage by Fred Kasten before going outside to the big stage to sing with Mitchell Player's Ella and Louie band. Here's Jewel's interview with Fred:


I was lucky enough to spend some time with Jewel backstage (she told some GREAT stories that I wish I had in my book!). But for me, the second highlight of the weekend came shortly after the above interview. I went on with my Berlin footage from 4:30-5:50 but Jewel was due to sing outside at 5:15. I told my crowd how much I regretted not being able to see her but still screened the fantastic footage of her singing in 1965. At around 5:45, while I was starting to wrap up, I got a text that Jewel hadn't sung yet! I announced it to the crowd, wrapped up and made a beeline for the outdoor stage. I got out just in time to hear her launch into "St. Louis Blues"....followed by "All of Me".....followed by "Bill Bailey"....followed by "Every Day I Have the Blues." It was all of her All Stars features! And at 78, she was singing with the power of a woman half her age. The band (with trumpeter Wendell Brunious and trombonist Freddie Lonzo) locked in and the set positively took off. Jewel just destroyed everyone present, many of whom are still talking about it a week later.



When Jewel was done, I went backstage to congratulate her. While talking, she was notified that her car had arrived to pick her up at the main gate. A little shaky on her feet, Jewel asked if she could put her arm around me for support; I wasn't going to say no! And there I walked, out of the festival with the last surviving All Star holding on. Minutes earlier, I was watching her and Pops in 1965 and there she way, still getting it done in 2015. Chills.

And finally, in my last entry, I teased the opening of the big Satchmo: His Life in New Orleans exhibit that will be up at the Old U.S. Mint until 2017. Well, it officially opened last week and I couldn't be any more proud! As I mentioned, it was a joy working with the Louisiana State Museum, who did such a wonderful job in helping execute the ideas of myself and my co-curator (and Archives Assistant), Brynn White. Big thanks to Jennifer Walden of the Armstrong House who was the driving force behind the collaboration, which has already received great coverage, such as a major Associated Press article that is still popping up around the world.

While in New Orleans, Brynn and I stopped by WWOZ to do an interview with Keith Hill in which we talked all about the exhibit and working at the Armstrong House. Here's the complete audio:



And here's me and Brynn, minutes after she made her Summerfest debut with a dynamite presentation on the exhibit (alas, it's not up in full on the Livestream site but I hope it's possible to rectify it!). That's me in "proud papa" mode, happy to see my colleague knock it out of the park:

And the best news is the exhibit was PACKED all weekend long. Imagine my thrill when I popped my head in and there was the great Yoshio Toyama! Here we are, posing in between Louis's first cornet and his last Selmer trumpet.

There was more--lots more (including the heroic tale of my ultra-pregnant, ultra-supportive wife breaking down but still doing her best to be there for me)--but I'll quit while I'm ahead (for a great review, see Mick Carlon's column in JazzTimes...and watch Mick's terrific lecture online!). Watch as many of the lectures as you can before they disappear! And if you're in New Orleans, check out the exhibit and let me know what you think. Thanks again, Satchmo Summerfest.....can't wait until 2016!




Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Satchmo Summerfest 2015!

It's the most wonderful time of year. No, not the holidays; it's Satchmo Summerfest time! This is the 15th annual celebration of Louis Armstrong in New Orleans and I'll be heading down tomorrow for the eighth street year.

Like previous years, I'm sure this will be the highlight of my year. How could it not be? It's heaven for Armstrong nuts: oh look, there's Dan Morgenstern! Hey Scott Wenzel! Oh, Evan Christopher is playing with Jon-Erik Kellso! Great to see you, Yoshio Toyama! Pass me some more red beans and rice! Which alternate take of "That's My Home" do you prefer!?

(Those are all actual phrases I'll be uttering over the next six days.)

Everything you need to know about this year's Satchmo Summerfest can be found here but I thought it might be helpful to guide my faithful friends and fans to what I'll be involved with this year.

The biggest and most exciting aspect to this year's festival will be the debut of the new exhibit, "Satchmo: His Life in New Orleans," a collaboration between the Louis Armstrong House Museum and the Louisiana State Museum that was co-curated by myself and my Archives Assistant, Brynn White. Last summer, our Marketing Director, Jennifer Walden, made her first trip to Satchmo Summerfest and immediately started dreaming of a collaboration. Could we do an exhibit?

We could--and we did! I know that folks in New Orleans just love New Orleans (how can you not?) so I pitched the idea to tell Louis's story with his hometown, starting with his early years and continuing through all of his returns. I wanted it to be honest--there's a section dealing with Armstrong's refusal to go back home for ten years between 1955-1965--and I wanted Louis to do most of the telling. There are dozens of manuscript pages (some still unpublished), audio excerpts, video of Louis on TV and more.

Also, it was perfect timing as this is the 15th anniversary of the Satchmo Summerfest and the 100th anniversary of Louis's first professional gig. We don't know the exact date, but sometime in 1915, Louis took a job playing the blues at Henry Ponce's honky tonk and kept it going for about six months until Ponce's was shut down. In 1965, Louis devoted the year to celebrating his "50th Anniversary in Show Business," complete with a Carnegie Hall tribute and an entire hour devoted to the subject on The Hollywood Palace. So if it was good enough for Louis's lifetime in 1965, it's good enough for us in 2015!

What's that, you say? You've never seen The Hollywood Palace episode Louis hosted? Take an hour and watch it here:

Brynn and I spent months combing both the Armstrong House research collections and those of the Louisiana State Museum to find the best artifacts and images to tell our story. The LSM folks were incredible with designing it--we must have changed our minds two dozen times and every time we did, their team (led by Stacey Wilson) provided a new design in record time.

Two weeks ago, I went down for a 48 hour whirlwind visit to help with the installation and oversee the handling of the Armstrong House artifacts. For example, here's a brick and a post from the Colored Waif's Home, rescued by Jack Bradley while the Home was being torn down in 1964:

Photo by Mark Sindler
And here I am, unpacking Louis's last Selmer trumpet, which has now been paired with the first cornet owned by the Louisiana State Museum. (And yes, "Swiss Krissly" made it into the exhibit, too!)

Photo by Mark Sindler.
The exhibit officially opens with a reception at the Old U.S. Mint on Wednesday, July 29, but publicity has been rolling in steadily, including a TV piece on WGNO, a preview by John Pope on Nola.com and an article by Jennifer Odell for GoNola.com featuring quotes by myself and Brynn. And speaking of Brynn, she'll be making her Satchmo Summerfest debut, putting together a knockout presentation on how we put the exhibit together--and what we couldn't fit in--that will take place at the Mint at 1:30 on Friday.

I ceded that one to Brynn because, as usual, I have my hands full in a bunch of other presentations.  I'm Saturday, I'm providing tech for Dan Morgenstern as he tells his first-hand account of Louis blowing up backstage at Newport in 1957 (can't wait!). That's at 12:30 and he's followed immediately at 1:30 by Daryl Sherman who will be examining "Satchmo the Singer," a sequel to her hit presentation last year. Once again, I'll be manning the iPod for Daryl--she's made some terrific selections!

At 2:30 on Saturday, Fred Kasten will be interviewing Jewel Brown, the last surviving All Star and I'll be showing some footage of Jewel with Louis which I hope she'll comment on.

Finally, on Sunday at 1:30 the great Scott Wenzel is coming back and we'll be reprising our vaudeville duo routine but adding a third stooge--Dan Morgenstern--in telling the story of Mosaic's 2009 boxed set of Loius's Deca recordings. We're immediately followed by clarinetist Evan Christopher taking listeners through Louis Armstrong's musical "battles" with Sidney Bechet. And what will Evan be using as his guide? My series of blogs from about five years ago where I described Armstrong's encounters with Bechet in boxing terms. Should be fun!

My boss, Michael Cogswell, can't make it to New Orleans this year but he'll be presenting on "Louis and Kids" via Skype at 3:30, speaking to the audience while I run the slides. Brynn and I helped Michael select some dynamite photos, audio and video so this will be another home run. How can you not love Louis and kids?

And finally, there's my solo gigs. When I first started going to Satchmo Summerfest in 2008, I was hired to give one Armstrong footage presentation per day, titled by Jon Pult (my discoverer) "Cinematic Satch." The tradition will continue this year. On Friday at 5:30, I've edited together the strongest moments from three Louis appearances on The David Frost Show, including his final appearance in 1971 when he closed with "Boy from New Orleans" and played trumpet on "Sleepy Time".....try not to cry.

Then on Saturday and Sunday at 4:30, I'll be screening Louis's complete East Berlin concert from March 22, 1965. On Saturday, I'll put it in context and show the first set and on Sunday, I'll play the longer second set (but on the request of my wife--"People like when you talk," she says--I'll talk after every few songs and share some tidbits and opinions on the music). Remember, everything streams live--and then lives for a few months--over at MusicAtTheMint.org.

Phew! There you have it. In between all of the above you'll catch me dining out and seeing live music with my (very pregnant) wife by my side, plus a gaggle of New Orleans (and New York!) pals. Come on up and say hello and follow me on Facebook for up to the minute updates. Pops is Tops!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

85 Years of "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy (from Dumas)" and "I'm in the Market for You"

85 years ago, Louis Armstrong landed in California and began a remarkable string of recordings, cutting 12 classics between July 1930 and March 1931. The good news for me is I've covered six of them in past blogs so if you don't mind a little repetition, I'll probably borrow from myself, revise when necessary and naturally, pen some brand new entries so I can cover all 12 in the next 9 months.

Up first: "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy (From Dumas),” one of my all-time favorite Armstrong records. To set the scene though, for this recording and the rest of the California sessions, let’s look at where Louis Armstrong was in his career when he recorded it that July day in 1930.

After conquering Chicago and New York City in the 1920s, Armstrong found himself giving California a shot in May 1930. His band broke up in New York in 1929, forcing Armstrong to begin working as a single. With the Depression hurting the music and entertainment scene, Armstrong headed off to California without any band of his own, just the hope of getting an opportunity to play. That opportunity came almost immediately when he was hired to front the band at Frank Sebastian’s Cotton Club in Culver City, a band that featured bright youngsters such as trombonist Lawrence Brown and drummer Lionel Hampton. Then again, EVERY band at Sebastian’s Cotton Club featured these two men because, as Brown later remembered, “Sebastian got the idea of handing out contracts instead of having some of the men run him out. Lionel Hampton and I were the two he contracted to the club and we stayed regardless of who came.”

This band was led by a trumpet player named Elkins, whose first name was either Vernon or Leon—I’ve seen both probably an equal amount of times (Stanley Dance even misheard Brown say it as “Vernon Nelson,” while Hampton, in two different works, wrote about “Vernon” in 1972 and “Leon” in 1989.) From the first time Armstrong visited the Cotton Club, he remembered, “…[W]hen I heard that band play, I almost jumped out of my skin.” Armstrong had nothing but fond memories of the Elkins band, as he would later write the following: “There was a band playing there at the time, was kinda mixed up. The leader was an elderly fellow who, I’m sure, was a fine trumpet man in his heydays. His last name was Elkins. He was surrounded by some of the finest musicians that I had witnessed playing music in my whole life. From New Orlenas to St. Louis—Chicago to New York. Through all of those own where I had already heard some of the greatest men on their instruments, yet, these boys sort of had a little something on the ball (musically) that I had not witnessed. Such as endurance—tones, perfect sense of phrasing, and the willingness and the spirit that the Eastern Musicians or the Southern Musicians used to have before they got to Broadway and became stinkers, looking for power and ego-tisms, the desire to do practically anything but enjoy their first love—which is their instrument.”

Here’s a wonderful picture of Armstrong around the time of his arrival, outside Sebastian’s Cotton Club, surrounded by members of the band (Hampton on the far left):
Hampton and Brown were equally excited to be paired with the trumpet star. “When Louis came to California in 1930 to play with us, it was such a happy day for me,” Hampton told Stanley Dance. “Playing with him was a revelation, and he always encouraged me….I had a ball playing behind him, and there’s where I really got my roots.”

Brown told Dance, “[Armstrong] was so terrific out there then, and he was really the only player that influenced me. He’d stand up all night and play, and sometimes broadcast for as long as three hours….He was the kind of musician you could sit there all night and listen to, and be amazed at the technique, the poise—and just everything! People used to come from ‘way up around Seattle to hear him. Every trumpet player at that time tried to play one of his choruses.”

So Armstrong was a hit and everyone in the band seemed to get along happily. The Hollywood crowd also became fixated on Pops, something that has always made me daydream. As I’ve written about in the past, I’m an old comedy buff with an undying love for anything that came out of Hal Roach’s Culver City studios. Knowing that Laurel and Hardy were filming Pardon Us and the “Our Gang” kids were shooting Shiver My Timbers in July 1930 in the same city where Louis Armstrong was making jaws drop nightly at Sebastian’s Cotton Club…well, if there’s a heaven, that’s it!

Within a few weeks of his California stay, Armstrong and Elkins band made their first records for OKeh. However, this wasn’t Armstrong’s first California session as just five days prior, on July 16, Armstrong provided some unbilled backing on a Jimmie Rodgers country tune, “Blue Yodel Number 9.” Thus, Armstrong had already just tried on a musical cowboy hat when he entered OKeh’s Los Angeles recording studio to record “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy (From Dumas),” a tune that would be subsequently embraced by both jazz and country artists in the years to come.

Segue time: onto the song! This, my friends, is Dumas, Texas:



Well, the red dot on that Texas map is Dumas, Texas. Here’s a better representation, the Cowboy Church of Dumas:


Doing some quick research on Dumas for the purpose of this blog, I was delighted to see a link on the official Dumas website to an article titled, “Legend of the Ding Dong Daddy,” taken from a history of Dumas written by Jay B. Funk. Here’s a snippet:

“[Louis] Dumas, the town developer, stayed in the city with his name only a short time, but the name remains to this day. And, what began as a dusty crossroads on the prairie above the “big blues” north and west of Amarillo above the Canadian River began to grow. First, the town was given little chance to survive, but the pioneer-stock was hardy stuff and they stuck it out. The small village was only 571 souls in the 1920’s and late in that decade a man who was to become a moderately successful band leader and song writer, Phil Baxter, chanced upon Dumas. He spent a few weeks in Dumas getting acquainted and after he had a steak continued his journey. Les than a year later Baxter penned the words and tune to a song which he named “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas.”

The tune’s writer, Phil Baxter, was born in Navarro County, Texas and recorded twice, once in St. Louis in 1925 and once in Dallas in 1929. His band, Phil Baxter and His Texas Tommies, became the house band at the El Torreon Ballroom in Kansas City from 1927 until 1933. In addition to “Ding Dong Daddy,” Baxter also composed the popular Ted Weems novelty, “Piccolo Pete,” as well as “Have a Little Dream On Me,” a tune recorded by Fats Waller.

Unfortunately, the article doesn’t mention Pops once, instead only mentioning Phil Harris’s later version. But Pops wasn’t the first to record it either. According to the Red Hot Jazz Archive, Jay C. Flippen and His Gang recorded the tune for Brunswick on August 8, 1928. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to dig up the audio on this one but here’s another early version from March 1930, recorded for Brunswick in Minneapolis by the wonderfully named Slatz Randall and His Orchestra. It’s a typical dance band performance, complete with violin, but the lively vocal is taken by banjoist Joe Roberts while one of the trumpets is the great Yank Lawson. You can listen along by clicking
here.

And here's pianist Johnny Johnson and his Orchestra, with a vocal by Frank Parker:

Parker sings two choruses, complete with a humorous spoken verse, but if you can’t make it out, here are the lyrics to the main strain:

I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas/ You ought to see me do my stuff
I’m a clean cut fellow from Horner’s Corner/ You ought to see me strut
I’m a caper cuttin’ cutie, Got a gal named Katie,
She’s little heavy laden, but I calls her baby,
I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas/ You ought to see me do my stuff.

The second time around, after another funny, confused "side"-heavy monologue, Parker sings these lyrics:

I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas/ You ought to see me do my stuff
I’m a ping pong papa, from Pitchfork Prairie/ You ought to see me strut
I’m a Ding Dong Daddy, Got a whiz bang mama,
She’s a Bear Creek baby, and a whompous kitty
I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas/ You ought to see me do my stuff.

The blowing strain is only 16 bars and is based on the “How Come You Do Me Like You Do” model—later utilized by Sonny Rollins on “Doxy”—and is perfectly suitable for soloing, with a four-bar break practically sewn into the middle of it. Thus, with enough backstory to bore you all to tears, let us finally listen to the main event, Louis Armstrong and His Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra and "Ding Dong Daddy (From Dumas)":


The playing of the horns and reeds is no great shakes, but the rhythm section is very good, with a similar feel to that of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, a band Hampton said was very influential to the Elkins sound. The exciting intro sounds like the record starts almost in media res—really, could someone count off and just hit it on the nose like that? Doubtful. Lawrence Brown’s got the melody, phrasing like Armstrong and taking a nice break. The saxes then take over with prominent banjo in the ensemble, playing with a bouncy two beat that conjures up memories of Armstrong’s stint with Fletcher Henderson.

But throughout the entire record, Lionel Hampton is killing it on the drums: he drives the band with his cymbals, works over the snare with various rolls and places his accents perfectly, a one-man dynamo that puts the notion to rest that pre-bop drummers simply played time. Armstrong loved Hamp’s drumming and wrote about it to Robert Goffin: “And Lionel was so young and vivacious (still is) on those Drums. And he had taken to like me (personally) so well and I felt the same way about him. And he was one of the Swinginest Drummers I had ever seen and heard in my life….Lionel used to get so Enthused over my playing Trumet he would get ‘Soakened Wet.’ And Beat a whole gang of Drums, saying to me ‘WA—WA’WON’Mo’POPS.’—Meaning—‘One More Chorus,’ Especially on Tunes like ‘Tiger Rag’ and ‘Ding Dong Daddy.’ And me enthused over him being Enthused—would play, Chorus After Chorus—I went up to Forty one night. Well I was much younger in those days myself.”

Back to the record: after the saxes take over, the band goes into the verse, with Hamp’s cymbals really booting everyone along in bar nine as Brown again plays a short but hot spot.

Then it’s time for Pops’s vocal, a real “gassuh.” What he sings is almost unintelligible, but damn, it swings! The most famous part of the vocal is when he sings, “I done forgot the words,” which is debatable. Pops probably saw the tongue-tying middle section and thought that it might be funny to act like he forgot the words, much like the “Heebie Jeebies” story he would always tell. Of course, he indeed might have forgotten that middle part, but regardless, it’s a wonderful moment that always makes me laugh. In fact, here’s a translation of Pops:

I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas/ And, ought to see me do my stuff
I’m a clean cut fellow from the corner/ You ought to see me strut
Oh, ee-ba, ey-ba, oh, oot
And I done forgot the words and lo, doot
I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas/ Ought to see me do my stuff.
Pops slides down on “stuff” like a descending glissando and dives right into a second vocal chorus, which I’d like to call scatting, but really it’s not because he uses the words of the song instead of nonsense syllables. The rhythm of his vocal reminds me of the daring scat vocal he took on 1927’s “Hotter Than That.” Eventually, during the built-in break, he starts scatting, bubbling over with joy as the vocal comes to an end (Hamp catching him with a perfectly timed accent).

Alto sax takes the next chorus (it’s probably Leon Herriford) and it’s pretty corny but the final “jada jada jing jing jing” phrase is pure Pops. Man, this band was already listening and emulating their new front man after not even a month of backing him up.

But now it’s time for the hair on the back of my neck to stand up: Pops’s four-chorus rideout solo. 64-bars of sheer bliss. Armstrong states a motive immediately with the first three descending notes of his solo. He stays in the lower part of his horn, shooting out all sorts of nimble, yet melodic phrases. At the break, Pops keeps the double-time feeling with the second part of it reminding me of the “done forgot the words” break from the vocal. By the end of the chorus, he finally nails one high note but he’s still building so he heads back down to pace himself, ending the chorus with another Armstrong hallmark, two quarter-notes and two eight-notes. This is Storytelling 101….

Armstrong’s second chorus is a classic, pure joyousness personified. The three-note motive is now played higher and faster as Pops plays ping pong with two different sets of phrases, eventually slowing them down and stretching them out into another new motive that sounds like a quote from “Pretty Baby.” He then plays the phrase even slower and more emphatically, a textbook example of rhythmic mastery and how to get the most mileage out of as few different pitches as possible. It’s supremely singable, too. He then burtsts out of it with some double-timing, leading into his second great break, which opens with a scorching hot phrase before he settles into yet another motive of repeated D’s, sounding particularly ambivalent without the band playing beneath it. He then leaves a little space and hits a high G, the sixth of the tonic key of Bb, holding it into the start of the third chorus.

Now the band is cooking. Hamp switches from snare to cymbals and even banjoist Ceele Burke begins tearing it up on his instrument. The horns really only riff lightly the entire time Ops solos, but it’s swinging and Pops didn’t exactly require much more. Armstrong is now smokin’, beginning another swinging little motive at the 2:36 mark, happily descending in sing-song manner. Every note choice, every phrase, makes so much sense it’s mind-blowing. The next break opens up in a similar fashion as the “My Sweetie Went Away” quote Lester Young popularized on “Sometimes I’m Happy,” but Armstrong cuts it to make room for two hot rips, one up to a high G, the next a few seconds later hitting a high A, all building logically to the held high concert Bb that heralds the beginning of the fourth and final chorus.

Chorus four is yet another demonstration of pure genius as Pops simply works over three descending notes—Bb, A and G—playing them relaxed, than hurried, back and fourth, kind of similar to what he would play on “When Your Lover Has Gone” in 1931. He keeps it up for eight bars before the bridge, where he plays a phrase that Dizzy Gillespie would borrow for the his composition “Salt Peanuts.” Pops uses it as a springboard to a ridiculously high D, the highest note of the solo, hitting it again for good measure a few seconds later. The pure sound of it is positively freakish. Naturally, he wraps up his break with another perfectly logical conclusion and though the final few bars still swing mightily, it’s safe to say that the climax was that final break. Oh, what a solo!

OKeh must have known that they had a pretty hot record on their hands as they decided to push it hard, complete with advertisements that featured Armstrong’s head on a cartoon of a cowboy’s body!
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Armstrong began featuring “Ding Dong Daddy” nightly at the Cotton Club, as Lionel Hampton fondly recalled. “We were on the air one night, and he said, ‘Look out, man, we’re gonna open up with ‘Dumas.’ I feel good tonight, and if I’m going well, Hamp, you sit on those cowbells with me, and I’ll play another chorus.’ Well, man, I was sitting on those cowbells, and Louis played about ninety-nine choruses on ‘I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas.’”

Armstrong stayed on in California until March 1931, cutting more great records with his “Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra.” Elkins grew ill in the late summer of 1930 and was eventually replaced as leader of the group by Les Hite. Many writers, including Gunther Schuller, write that it’s the Hite band that backs Armstrong on “Ding Dong Daddy” but Hite wasn’t involved in any Armstrong recording session until October 8, 1930. The move worked out for Hite who became a prominent presence on the Los Angeles jazz scene, appearing on many film soundtracks and even backing the likes of Fats Waller during his stay at Sebastian’s Cotton Club in 1935.

By the time of that October session, Lawrence Brown was out of the band, having gotten fired for not wanted to rehearse on Easter Sunday. But don’t cry for Brown; Duke Ellington signed him right up and the rest is history. And on Armstrong’s second October session with the Hite band, he suggested that drummer Hampton take the introduction to “Memories of You” on the vibraphone. And again, the rest is history. But though their time together was fairly short, Armstrong, Hampton and Brown always had wonderful things to say about each other. The three men reunited for this photo years later, taken from Stanley Dance’s World of Swing:
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Unfortunately, “Ding Dong Daddy” seems to have disappeared from the Armstrong repertoire after he left California. There are no surviving broadcasts of it, there are no mentions of it in contemporary reviews, he seems to have never played it with the All Stars and he didn’t even revive it for the Decca Autobiography project. Only in late 1970, on an episode of The Flip Wilson Show, did Armstrong sing a chorus of it with the host—reprising the “done forgot the words” line and earning big laughs for it.

But though Armstrong might have moved on from “Ding Dong Daddy,” the song itself was just starting to take off. As mentioned earlier, Phil Harris did become associated with it after singing it on The Jack Benny Program and recording it for Victor. Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys gave it the Western Swing treatment on this version. The Benny Goodman Quartet—with Lionel Hampton—used to swing the hell out of it, as can be heard on their studio version and even more exciting live broadcasts from the late 1930s. Sidney Bechet recorded a hot version of it for Blue Note in 1953 with Jonah Jones referencing Pops in the outchoruses. And after it’s start in the jazz and country world, “Ding Dong Daddy” slowly began extending its reach over pop culture in general. On one of my favorite episodes of The Honeymooners, Ed Norton watches Ralph Kramden hysterically try to dance the Hucklebuck, telling him, “You ain’t exactly no Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas.” By the 1960s, it was being featured in four-part harmony by the Osmonds...
...on the Lawrence Welk Show with a vocal from Larry Hooper:

In 1966, “Teen Titans,” a DC Comics comic book, featured a villain named the “Ding Dong Daddy,” who lasted exactly one appearance. The title has been “borrowed” for other songs such as the Sister Wynona Carr 1950’s R&B jump opus, “Ding Dong Daddy,” and the during the short-lived swing craze of the late 1990s, the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies wrote an original titled “Ding Dong Daddy of the D-Car Line.”

But we’re way off point now. For me, “Ding Dong Daddy (From Dumas)” begins and ends with that incredible Armstrong version. But when I originally wrote this entry in 2008, I finished with a YouTube video of the New York Jazz Repertory Company performing it live at the Nice Jazz Festival from 1977. Alas, that video is no longer on YouTube BUT I have a good substitute, courtesy of my pal Hakan Forsberg who recorded another version by the New York Jazz Repertory Company performing it in Umea, Sweden in October 1975. A three-headed trumpet team handles the Armstrong solo--Joe Newman (who also sings), Pee Wee Erwin and Jimmy Maxwell, while the rest of the band includes Eddie Hubble, Kenny Davern, Dick Hyman, Gueorge Duvivier, Marty Grosz and Bobby Rosengarden. What a band! This, to me, is what jazz repertory is all about. The swing it like it’s 1975, not trying too hard for a 1930 feel. All of it builds up to the trumpets of Maxwell, Erwin and Newmann stand up to play a harmonized version of Armstrong’s original four-chorus solo. The effect is electrifying and leads me to wish that more bands would transcribe Pops solos for sections to play (Joe Muranyi transcribed Armstrong’s 1955 “Christmas in New Orleans” solo to be played for trumpet, clarinet and tenor saxophone and again, the effect is really something else, with Armstrong’s rhythmic mastery really grabbing one’s attention when it’s spread over multiple instruments). One can only imagine the endurance needed to nail this solo as by the end, matters get a teeny tiny bit sloppy. But I’m not complaining…it’s exciting as hell! Enough from me…here’s the clip:


And that is, I think, all I can possibly say about “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy (From Dumas)," but that was only the first half of the section. The next tune is one dedicated to Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, AIG, Lehman Brothers and all the other suspects involved in creating this economic crisis of a few years ago: “I’m in the Market for You.”

In 1929, the stock market was riding high and all of America was prospering. So Fox decided to make a film to capitalize on the Wall Street phenomenon in America. The film was High Society Blues and though I’ve never seen it, I did find this synopsis of it on the Turner Classic Movies website:

“After selling his business in Iowa, Eli Granger and his family move to an exclusive Scarsdale area in New York, where by chance he occupies a house adjacent to Horace Divine, a wealthy businessman with whom he made his business transaction. Although the Divines scorn their nouveaux riches neighbors, the children, Eleanor Divine and Eddie Granger, meet when Eleanor aspires to learn to play the ukelele under Eddie's tuition. Eleanor's mother is arranging to marry her to a foreign count, but she falls in love with Eddie; and while their fathers are warring on Wall Street, the children elope and in the end bring peace and prosperity to both families.”

Now doesn’t that sound like a happy film? Edwin M. Bradley described it as a “silly mix of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’” in his book The First Hollywood Musicals. Unfortunately, while filming it, Wall Street laid its famous egg in October 1929. Somehow, they continued onward with the filming, releasing it to mediocre reviews in March 1930. Star Janet Gaynor “hated” the film and let it be known that she couldn’t sing and didn’t want to appear in musicals. The film disappeared and has never been released on DVD or even VHS, as far as I can tell.

Because it was a musical, the film naturally featured a few new songs, everyone of which is forgotten except for “I’m in the Market for You,” which must go down as having one of the most ironic meaning changes in the history of music. The publishers of “I’m in the Market for You” deserved a helluva lot of money in their Christmas bonuses for even having the nerve to push this song and get it recorded by so many popular artists. But that’s just what happened in 1930. Sheet music was even published with the stars of the film, Gaynor and Charles Farrell, on the cover:

From a recording standpoint, the biggest hit was done on Victor by George Olsen complete with a vocal by one of Olsen’s saxophonists, Fred McMurray! Dig it:
I’ll never look at Walter Neff the same way again! That’s some cheery stuff, a nice happy love song comparing found love to the recently-plummeted stock market. In case you couldn’t make them out, here are the original lyrics:

I'll have to see my broker
Find out what he can do.
'Cause I'm in the market for you.
There won't be any joker,
With margin I'm all through.
'Cause I want you outright it's true.
You're going up, up, up in my estimation.
I want a thousand shares of your caresses too.
We'll count the hugs and kisses,
When dividends are due,
'Cause I'm in the market for you.
Charming, huh? I don't even know if many in the population could even afford shares of caressing back then (I think they're still available on the NYSE, though, listed as CRS for about 86 cents a share).

Olsen had the hit record but naturally he wasn’t the only one to take a crack at it. The song crossed the pond for this very nice version by the popular British dance band Ambrose and His Orchestra, featuring trumpet by Sylvester Ahola and clarinet by Danny Polo to keep the early jazz enthusiasts in the crowd enthused. According to the knowledgeable YouTube commentators, the tenor solo is by Joe Jeannette and Eric Siday plays the violin at the end of this hot Lew Stone arrangement. Enjoy!
I rather like that one myself (please pronounce “rather” in a terrible British accent to get the full effect).

Here’s the Newport Dance Orchestra, also from 1930, with an interesting trumpet/accordion dialogue. But for Armstrong purposes, please listen to the vocal by Jack Parker, especially the touch of falsetto at the end. This is how we sang before Pops, people!


So with that out of the way, let’s turn to Pops. This was the second tune recorded on the same session with Vernon Elkins’s band that also begat “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy (From Dumas).” For the official particulars on the band and Armstrong himself during this California period, please check out that entry, posted in June. Hell, while you’re at it, listen to “Ding Dong Daddy” to see just what kind of shape he was in that summer day. And with the fireworks of that tune finally over, it was time for “I’m in the Market for You.”’ Listen along here:
As can be heard, the tempo is slower than any of the other previous versions, but it’s not quite a ballad, as some others later treated it (Earl Hines recorded a version that barely has a tempo). The very first sound of the record is a steel guitar--something that would have sent the late Gunther Schuller to a ledge! Ceele Burke, a California mainstay, is the plectrist in question and though he also played regular guitar and banjo (as he did on “Ding Dong Daddy”), he is best known in early jazz circles for the steel guitar contributions he made to various Armstrong records of the period as well as making a few sessions with the likes of Duke Ellington (“Lazy Man’s Shuffle”) and Fats Waller (“Am I in Another World?”) records in the 30s.

There’s a lot going on in the beginning of this record and though it might seem a little sloppy, the combination of the bouncy tuba, Lionel Hampton’s swinging drums, Burke’s steel guitar arpeggios and some static harmonies from the horns is very atmospheric. The melody is tailor-made for Armstrong and he dispenses with any formalities by playing it an octave higher right off the bat, nailing a high concert D before playing a singing high Eb, one of the highest notes of his range (he hit a high F at the end of “You’re Lucky to Me” in this period...but barely). After four bars of mystifying melody, he plays a favorite chromatic phrase of his that would be used for years by Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as a host of other trumpeters.

The record is 14 seconds old and already, it’s a classic. To prove he was feeling good, Armstrong doesn’t change a note of the melody in the second eight bars, once again hitting the high D and Eb without any trouble. The bridge is beautifully played the by the young Lawrence Brown, his light, singing tone already something to marvel at. Maybe I’m nuts, but I like Burke’s guitar peaking through the cracks. The Elkins reed section takes the last eight and though it’s not exactly a Benny Carter group, they don’t hurt anyone.

After a short piano interlude, Armstrong contributes one of his most touching vocals of the period. Just minutes earlier, he was scatting like a madman on “Ding Dong Daddy” but he is much more sober here, even charming with his asides such as “oh, you sweet little you.” Again, go back and watch those other YouTube videos. Those singers represented American popular singing before Bing and Pops got through with it. I mean, there’s nothing on those records that remotely sounds like anything Armstrong was doing. Just listen to how he rephrases the “Margin I’m all through" line, not even really finishing it, but still conveying all the necessary emotion. He physically forces the rhythm section to swing more just by the way he enters the bridge. And though there’s no sane reason to repeat “dividends are do,” he does just that and the effect is lovely. I think it says a lot that just a few short years later, there would be nothing on records that sounded remotely like those falsetto band singers.

Knowing that Brown was one of the strongpoints of the band, the trombonist, Brown follows the vocal with 16 bars of gorgeous improvising that, to my ears, are just as much a part of this song as the written melody. Every note is perfectly placed and there’s even a little tribute to Armstrong with Brown’s phrase at the end of his first eight bars. Then Burke comes up and gets his innings and I think it’s a winner. Yeah, it’s a novelty of sorts, but it would have fit into a country record just fine (remember, Louis recorded "Blue Yodel Number 9" with Jimmie Rodgers just five days earlier!) and clearly, Burke’s comfortable with the blues, too.

Armstrong enters on a perfectly poised break, taking it from the bridge and sounding very relaxed., though Hamp’s pushing him hard with those drum accents. Knowing a good thing when he’s got it, Armstrong spends the final 8 bars of the record once again playing the melody fairly straight, rephrasing it sparingly but absolutely killing the high D and Eb at the end. A very sweet record.

Armstrong never recorded the tune again, which is one of my biggest regrets. Could you imagine if he had tackled this one on the Autobiography session? He probably would have slowed it a tad and he would played the high notes even more dramatically, with more raw power than he did as a younger man. Oh well, at least we have the original and if there’s anything that can get us through the turmoil of any economic crisis, it’s Pops.

That concludes this look at Louis's first official California session under his own name but I'll be back in a month to tackle the sequel, which produced two more classics: "I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)" and "If I Could Be with You One Hour Tonight."

Thursday, July 16, 2015

85 Years of "Blue Yodel Number 9"


Has there ever been a more American recording than "Blue Yodel Number 9"? I don't think so. 

Think about it: one can discuss the roots and African and European influences of American popular music all day long but what has this country created? Jazz. Country. Blues. Almost anything can be traced to some combination of those three foundations.

And on July 16, 1930, all three met for one single unforgettable recording: "Blue Yodel Number 9 (Standin' on the Corner)." The leader of the session was Jimmie Rodgers, known as "The Singing Brakesman," but more often referred to as "The Father of Country Music." His accompanist? None other than Louis Armstrong, "The Father of Jazz" and the most important musician of the 20th century. And what common ground did these two legends decide to explore? The blues. (Or in Rodgers's case, occasionally the 10-and-a-half bar blues but we'll get to that later.)

Everything surrounding the record is shrouded in mystery. How the heck did it happen? Louis and Lil Armstrong had just moved to California but Louis hadn't made any recordings yet. Though there they were in Victor's studios to back up Rodgers, even though Louis was signed to OKeh. They must have bumped into each other somewhere and Louis must have enjoyed his music and country music in general; how else would the traditional country tune "Faded Love" end up quoted on the bridge of Louis's concluding solo on "On the Sunny Side of the Street" by 1933?

And Rodgers was clearly a fan of Armstrong. For "Blue Yodel Number 9," Rodgers lifted a chunk of the lyrics sung by obscure blues singer Nolan Walsh on his 1926 recording of "The Bridewell Blues." And who was Walsh's accompanist? Yep, none other than Louis Armstrong. Here's the recording if you've never heard it (that's Richard M. Jones on piano):

It's not one of Armstrong's best blues accompaniments--he seems to get stuck a couple of times---and the record surely wasn't a hit but Rodgers knew it well enough to grab a few stanzas. So with the source material in place, here's the original "Blue Yodel Number 9":

Louis and Lil open the proceedings with a short introduction, Louis, muted, opening with a phrase that was one of his favorites to play on the blues (and one that's still a favorite in New Orleans). They set Rodgers up with some countrified changes at a bouncier tempo than Walsh's recording. Rodgers starts right in, singing effectively while Lil pounds away four beats to the bar. Louis is relaxed, filling in the cracks around Rodgers's vocal.

The only difficulty is Rodgers was from the I'll-change-chords-when-I-feel-like-it school of playing and you can hear Louis and Lil listening hard to anticipate his changes. In talking about this record to Irwin Johnson in 1953, Louis didn't hide from discussing the challenge, saying, "And we never did end up on the bar, you know, so I had to get with him. I just made it wrong with him! It turned out fine."

If you'd like to play along, here's the form of the first chorus:

Eb - four bars - Standin' on the Corner, I didn't mean no harm
Ab - one bar - Along come  a police....
Bb - one bar - ...he took me by the arm.
Eb - two bars

Eb - three-and-a-half bars - It was down in Memphis, corner of Beale and Main
Ab - one bar - He says, 'Big boy....
Bb - one bar - ...you'll have to tell me your name.
Eb - one-and-a-half bars
Eb - half bar [yodel]
Bb - half bar [yodel]
Eb - one-and-a-half bars then next chorus

17 1/2 bars for the first chorus. I could keep going but it actually gets tougher to decipher. Lil gets thrown off at 1:06 ("Listen all you rounders...") but gets back on course quickly, Louis covering it up with a searing double-timed passage, one of my favorite moments of the record.

But finally, at the 1:28 mark, Rodgers throws it to Louis and Lil and they take off in their own style. I love this Armstrong solo. He's not shooting the lights out (probably knowing he's not supposed to be on this session) so instead he plays with what sounds like a relaxed urgency, bouncing between an Eb tonic and Gb blue note in every rhythmic combination possible. Lil digs in, too, with a stride-like backing and even a tinkling run in the fourth bar. It's the only real Louis-and-Lil duet we have on record and gives us a glimpse of what they must have sounded like jamming at home in Chicago.

Louis and Lil choose to stick a standard 12-bar blues format, Lil laying some nice changes (I like the C7 she throws in in bar 8) and ending right on the beat. Then Rodgers comes back for one more go-around, singing beautifully, but still changing when the spirit hits him. Louis is on fire after his solo, offering a little more double-time stuff (reminds of Red Allen; or more likely, Red reminds me of Louis!) but Rodgers changes earlier than anticipated, causing Louis to lay out. When Rodgers leaves the window open (after "just for me a suit of clothes"), Louis plays it safe and just moans effectively. Louis mostly stays out of the way and lets Lil guide Rodgers through the last round of yodeling before coming back to put a pretty punctuation mark on the performance.

And that was that. Louis and Lil were done for the day and "Blue Yodel Number 9" was eventually issued on September 11, 1931 with a flip side of "Looking for a New Mama." Rodgers eventually got up to 13 "Blue Yodels" but number 9 remained a favorite, covered by Jerry Garcia among others.

Of course, the presence of Armstrong has turned it into a seminal recording. For years, historians weren't even sure Louis was on "Blue Yodel Number 9" as the 78 label simply said "Jimmie Rodgers Singing with Orchestra" (a nice compliment to Louis and Lil).  
Jimmie Rodgers - Blue Yodel Number 9 (Standin' on the Corner) / Looking for a New Mama

Rodgers died of tuberculosis in 1933 so he never seemed to ever talk about it on the record. Louis, however, was happy to discuss it. In 1952, Louis went to New Orleans and ran into Joe Mares Jr., brother of Paul Mares of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. Mares knew Armstrong was always looking for more records to put on his reel-to-reel tapes so he gave him a batch to record. When Louis was in the right mood, he would sometimes sit by himself and play disc jockey, introducing the records he was about to record to an imaginary audience. When he got to the Rodgers records, Armstrong said, "Folks, this is Louis Armstrong. I'd like to interrupt through here and play a record of Jimmie Rodgers, the yodeler, with orchestra. I made a record with Jimmie, oh, about 20 years ago and I'm still looking for it. [Joe Mares Jr.] gave me this record...and the title is 'Jimmie the Kid,' part of the life of Jimmie Rodgers. And he wrote the numbers. Let's hear this."

Armstrong then dropped the needle and played "Jimmie the Kid." He then played the flip side: "Blue Yodel Number 9"! Armstrong could be heard talking excitedly (but unintelligibly) in the background. Upon the record's conclusion, he picked up the microphone and exclaimed, "Well, well, well, can you beat that!? I was just talking about how I was looking for this record and it happened to be on the other side and the title is 'Blue Yodel Number 9 (Standing on the Corner, Jimmie Rodgers, yodeler with guitar, strings and bass.' And the trumpet must be a surprise because I was looking for this record. Now, that knocked me out....ump ump ump."

Louis added the record to his collection and later picked up the LP, My Rough and Rowdy Ways. In 1962, the Jimmie Rodgers Society sent Louis a tape of "Blue Yodel Number 9" along with a letter saying they found the original recording ledger with a note "Lillian on piano." They wanted to confirm that it was indeed Miss Lil on piano. Here's the tape box:
And the letter:

Louis, of course, was not done with country music. In the 1950s, long before Ray Charles put his modern spin on country and western, Louis recorded swinging takes on Your Cheatin' Heart and "Cold Cold Heart." And his final album would be the still fairly unknown Louis "Country & Western" Armstrong. The first time I played this album, I was expecting to hate it because it usually gets knocked whenever it gets mentioned but it actually has a lot of fun moments, even if it's not a Satch Plays Fats. The opening "Miller's Cave" literally features a laugh-out-loud moment at the end when Armstrong's echoing voice shouts a bunch of nonsensical jokes as if he's yelling from inside a cave ("Mr. Miller was a killer diller!"). The same thing happens on "Almost Persuaded," where Armstrong once again has to improvise over a closing vamp. What he comes up with is a gas: "Oh, I tell ya, those strange chops! Oh, I'd love to kiss them strange chops! Oh, they knock me out...crumb crushers! Oh, come here baby and buss me one!" Fun stuff.

To promote the release of the album in October 1970, Louis appeared on The Johnny Cash Show. On one of his reel-to-reel tapes, he strung together his 1970 recordings of "Crystal Chandeliers" and "Ramblin' Rose" and then added the original 1930 "Blue Yodel Number 9." He put these three tracks together to rehearse for his TV appearance on the Cash show, listening to them to get a sense of the lyrics and routines.

When Armstrong made the country and western album, doctors still wouldn't let him play the trumpet but that had changed by the time of the Cash show. This would be Louis's first major TV appearance since he got the okay to play again and he was ready. After doing a medley of "Crystal Chandeliers" and "Ramblin' Rose," Cash and Armstrong tell the story of the original recording of "Blue Yodel Number 9." After promising "to give it to them in black and white," this is what happened next:
Wow. I had read about that performance for years but it wasn't I ordered a bootleg VHS tape of it about ten years ago that I saw it and had my mind melted. Unlike Rodgers, Cash and pianist Bill Walker stick within the eight-bar blues structure without a problem but they're secondary players to the main event: Armstrong's trumpet playing. This was another one of those moments that when I first popped in the tape, I did not know what to expect. Even after watching it a hundred times, I still don't know how to explain it. Pops sounds INCREDIBLE...he plays as if it's 1924 all over again. Remember, Velma Middleton died in 1960 and Armstrong rarely played on Jewel Brown's features so it had been some time since he played a pure blues obbligato (I think you'd have to go back to the "Autobiography" sessions with Velma) but he demonstrates on the Cash clip that he hadn't lost his knack for accompaniment. And that trumpet solo - it's terrific! His tone is so pretty and golden and he has perfect command of the entire horn. And except for the scatting on the yodeling excursions, Pops plays for almost the entire four minutes, never running out of ideas or out of steam. It's one of most triumphant moments of Armstrong's later years.

That's the story of Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash and "Blue Yodel Number Nine"....and the story of American popular music in one incredible song.