Friday, October 9, 2015

20 Years Later....

It all started 20 years ago today....I think (more on that below). I've hinted we're in the middle of a big anniversary period for me. 20 years ago in September 1995, I went to see the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in Atlantic City and saw Louis Armstrong in "The Glenn Miller Story," two crucial moments in the course of my life. I loved Louis's "Basin Street Blues" but needed to explore more. In October, my mother took me to the Ocean County Library and 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) 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. Not knowing what choose, I kept on going back to "later" Louis: a true "greatest hits" with "Hello, Dolly," the soundtrack to "The Glenn Miller Story" which also had "Otchi-Tchnor-Ni-Ya," a LaserLight budget release of Louis live. It was all great. And then I started reading Collier, Schuller and others at the time who passed along the narrative of "Louis was great until 1928....and then he lost it."

Hmmmm, all the music I had listened to was made after 1928 and it sounded pretty good to me! I finally read Gary Giddins's "Satchmo" and thought, "That's more like it!" Two months later, in December 1995, a family vacation to Florida landed me in a Borders bookstore in Coral Springs. My parents bought me an expensive 4-CD set, The California Concerts. The music--1951 and 1955 concerts by the All Stars--was tremendous but so were the liner notes written by someone named Dan Morgenstern. Hmmm....

Christmas came and as a gift, my parents got me another 4-CD set, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, covering Armstrong's 1923-1934 recordings. And there was that Morgenstern name again! This was a cassette set and I remember listening to it on the Amtrak AutoTrain home, knocked out by "Potato Head Blues" and Dan's description of it in the notes, "What joyous music it is!"

Joy. That was it. That's what spoke to me then and it speaks to me now. I don't need to sum up what happened next; my friend Mick Carlon already wrote the definitive profile of me for Jazz Times and the great Paul Leslie just did a similarly great job in getting me to tell my story on his radio show last month.

But whatever has happened since can really be traced back to that day when I listened to 16 Most Requested Songs, 20 years ago today. At least I think it was 20 years ago today. You see, I had to return that cassette back to the library but a few months later, I wanted to hear it again so I check it out once more. By then, Louis Armstrong had overtaken me and I knowing that this might be important to remember, I checked the checkout stamps to see the date of when I first brought it home. I saw it and said, "Great, I need to remember that." 

And for years, I did. But now, I guess age is taking toll and it's a little blurry but I'm fairly certain it's October 9. I originally thought maybe October 12 but that was Louis and Lucille Armstrong's wedding anniversary. I thought it might have been October 13 but that was the anniversary of my first day at the Armstrong House. I checked the 1995 calendar and saw October 9 was Columbus Day, which made me pause. But further research shows the Ocean County Library doesn't close on Columbus Day, so that would have been a perfect place for my mom to take me on my day off from school. So yeah, I'm  sticking with October 9.

Either way, it's been 20 incredible years. And as a postscript, I spent last week hanging with George Avakian and tomorrow night, Dan Morgenstern is coming to see ME play the piano at a restaurant in New Jersey. My parents will be there, too, still probably in disbelief at all the places Louis Armstrong has taken me in the last 20 years. 

So thank you, Pops. You are tops. Lots more to come.....

Saturday, October 3, 2015

80 Years of Louis Armstrong on Decca!

What's your favorite LABEL of Louis Armstrong recordings?

Are you an OKeh kind of person, heavily into the Hot Fives and Sevens and those wonderful early 30s big band sides?

Maybe you prefer RCA Victor, with the superhuman 1932-33 sides and the first memorable All Stars recordings of 1947?

Or are you a Verve junkie, most satisfied with hearing Louis with Ella or Oscar Peterson or Russell Garcia, waxing definitive versions of the best of the Great American Songbook?

I wouldn't blame you if you you only dug Columbia Records, starting with Fletcher Henderson and Bessie Smith in the 1920s, hitting the highest peaks of the 1950s with George Avakian and coming back to team Armstrong and Brubeck in 1961. How does that sound?

So many choices, so much great music. And I wouldn't fight you on any of them (well, maybe if you chose Avco Embassy). But me? If you really put a gun to my head and forced me to choose, I think I'd say I'm a Decca guy. And it all started 80 years ago today.

How did Louis get to Decca? The October 3, 1935 session was  Louis's first American studio date in two-and-a-half years. Armstrong spent much of that time in Europe and when he returned to the States in early 1935, he was a man without a manager, without a band, without a recording contract and even without a lip. He took six months off the horn to restore his lip, hired Joe Glaser as manager, hijacked Luis Russell's Orchestra (after a short stint fronting Zilner Randolph's aggregation in Chicago), got booked in New York for the first time in five years and got signed by Jack Kapp to his new label, Decca Records, joining the likes of Bing Crosby, Jimmy Dorsey and the Mills Brothers. Over the next 25 years, he'd jump ship to RCA Victor, Columbia, Verve and Audio Fidelity but until at least 1960, he continued to proudly tell interviewers that he was a Decca artist (even though he made his final sides for the label in 1958).

Oh, Decca. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways! (Warning: reading may cause exclamation point fatigue.)

*Let's start with the early years. The very first Decca recording was "I'm in the Mood for Love"--what a start! And that same day, he took "modern" solos on "You Are My Lucky Star" and "Got a Bran' New Suit" to let everyone know who was the real King of Swing (Benny Goodman blew up the Palomar two months early, unofficially starting "The Swing Era" but we know the Swing Era really began when Louis was born!). Oh, and he scatted like a demon on an infectious "La Cucaracha." Off to a great start!

*Old Man Mose! It's almost Halloween, give it a spin!

*All those beautiful 1930s pop tunes like "Was I to Blame for Falling in Love With You," "Thanks a Million", "Solitude," "Shoe Shine Boy," and "If We Never Meet Again," sung with that unusually clear Armstrong tenor voice!

*The remarkably exciting trumpet solo that climaxes the remarkably dumb "I Come From a Musical Family"!

*Every second of music recorded on May 18, 1936: "Lyin' to Myself," "Ev'ntide," "Swing That Music," "Thankful," "Red Nose" and "Mahogany Hall Stomp"!

*Jimmy Dorsey's band swinging behind Louis on "The Skeleton in the Closet," "Dipper Mouth" and the exciting remake of "Swing That Music" with Ray McKinley on drums!

*The first Louis Armstrong-Bing Crosby recording, "Pennies from Heaven"!

*Louis Armstrong goes HAWAIIAN! I worship Armstrong four 1930s Hawaiian sides and think "On a Coconut Island" should be the National Anthem.

*Louis Armstrong and THE MILLS BROTHERS! Some of the most perfect, charming records of the 1930s or any other decade. Pick your favorite: "Darling Nelly Gray," "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree," "Flat Foot Flooge," "My Walking Stick," "The Song is Ended," "Cherry"--all are simply wonderful!

*"Latin Louis" on "Cuban Pete," "Mexican Swing" and the glorious "She's the Daughter of a Planter from Havana"!

*The team Louis Armstrong and Ben Hecht, joining forces to compose "Red Cap"!

*The gruff-voiced pathos of "Yours and Mine"!

*The first American issue of "On the Sunny Side of the Street" with a new trumpet solo and shimmering drumming by Paul Barbarin!

*Chappie Willet's dynamite arrangements, starting with "Alexander's Ragtime Band."

*Louis's unbelievable January 12, 1938 session with "Jubilee" (Paul Barbarin!) and Willet's arrangement of "Struttin' with Some Barbecue"!

*J. C. Higginbotham almost stealing the show on "I Double Dare You"!

*More touching love songs like "True Confession," "Sweet as a Song," "Once in a While" and "It's Wonderful"!

*The first jazz recording of "When the Saints Go Marching In"!

*Reverend Satchelmouth sings "Nobody Knows De Trouble I've Seen" backed by Lyn Murray's mixed choir!

*Armstrong recreating two of Bert Williams's "Elder Eatmore" sermons!

*Big Sid Catlett enters the scene with "Jeepers Creepers" and "What Is This Thing Called Swing"!

*Louis revisits his 1920s glories with up-to-date versions of "Hear Me Talkin' to You," "Rockin' Chair" (with the Casa Loma Orchestra!), "Save It Pretty Mama," "West End Blues," "Confessin'," "Our Monday Date," I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "Ain't Misbehavin'," and "Sweethearts on Parade"!

*That dramatic final trumpet climb on "Shanty Bot on the Mississippi"!

*Another top-notch session on December 18, 1939 with "Poor Old Joe," "You're a Lucky Guy," "You're Just a No Account,"and "Bye and Bye"

*"Rappin' Louie" offers up some true "roots of rap" vocals on "Hep Cats' Ball" and "You've Got Me Voodoo'd!"

*The glory that is the 1940 version of "Wolverine Blues"! Sid!

*The reunion with Sidney Bechet, resulting in some fireworks on "Down in Honky Tonk Town"!

*The charming new "Hot Seven" sessions from 1941 with lovely versions of "I Cover the Waterfront" and "In the Gloaming," an intense "Now Do You Call That a Buddy" plus some marvelous Louis and Sid on "Long, Long Ago"!

*An instrumental version of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" that takes my breath away!

*The heartbreakingly passionate instrumental lament to Louis's failed marriage to Alpha Smith, "I Used to Love You"!

*Big Sid, pushing Louis hard on "You Rascal You" and "I Never Knew"!

*Swinging big band versions of older tunes "Coquette" and "Among My Souvenirs"!

*The mid-40s big band (with Dexter Gordon!) spurring Armstrong to great heights on "Groovin'" and "Baby Don't You Cry"!

*The arrival of Milt Gabler--"Angel Gabler"--who produced the rest of Armstrong's remarkable Decca output starting in 1944!

*Two words: "I Wonder," one of the most beautiful records of Armstrong's entire career!

*The very first Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong date in 1946--"You Won't Be Satisfied" and "The Frim Fram Sauce"--plus later Ella and Louis dates, including, in my opinion, their finest moment: "Dream a Little Dream of Me"!

*November 30, 1947: "Satchmo at Symphony Hall"! (Remember, now available in COMPLETE form, co-produced by yours truly!)

*All the great hits: "That Lucky Old Sun," "Blueberry Hill," "La Vie En Rose," "C'est Si Bon," "A Kiss to Build a Dream On," "I Get Ideas" and more!

*All the great pop tunes that didn't become hits but I still love them because they're great! Songs, mostly with Sy Oliver arrangements, like "I Laughed at Love," "Because of You," "April in Portugal," "Ramona,""I Keep the Lovelight Burning in My Heart," "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Congratulations to Someone" and more!

*And speaking of "Your Cheatin' Heart," there's another "country style" cover by Pops of Hank Williams's "Cold Cold Heart"!

*GORDON JENKINS! All those lovingly crafted arrangements like "If," "Chlo-E," "Indian Love Call," "Trees," and the touching remake of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South"!

*The April 1950 sessions that made up the eventual albums "New Orleans Days" and "Jazz Concert," with classic All Stars performances like "Panama," "Bugle Blues," "New Orleans Function," "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It," "Twelfth Street Rag," "I Surrender Dear" and the true desert island disc, "That's for Me"!

*"Satchmo at Pasadena," capturing a terrific evening by the Jack Teagarden-Earl Hines edition of the All Stars!

*The only studio session of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday!

*The only studio session of Louis Armstrong and Louis Jordan!

*The only studio sessions of Louis Armstrong and Gary Crosby! (Eh, nobody's perfect.)

*The remarkable October 22, 1953 date with Armstrong and Tutti Camarata's Commanders, with truly epic renditions of "Someday You'll Be Sorry" and "The Gypsy"!

*And speaking of "The Commanders," all the great Louis Armstrong Christmas songs are on Decca! "Cool Yule," "Zat You Santa Claus," "Winter Wonderland," "White Christmas," "Christmas in New Olreans" and "Christmas Night in Harlem"!

*Louis's dabble with 1950s rock and roll provides some nice moments on "Ko Ko Mo" (that trumpet solo!), "Only You" (arranged by Benny Carter!) and "Sincerely"!

*The multiple recordings of the soundtrack to The Glenn Miller Story, featuring the All Stars tearing apart "Basin Street Blues" and "Otchi-tchnor-ni-ya"!

*The explosive trumpet on "Skokiaan," a song that has grown in popularity in recent years!

*One of the All Stars's finest live recordings, 1955's "At the Crescendo"!

*All hail one of the great works in the history of civilization: "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography"! Too many highlights to list but worth it for "When You're Smiling" and "King of the Zulus" alone!

*"Louis and the Angels," another masterpiece that reeks of commercialism but contains some of the finest singing and trumpet playing of Louis's entire career (just check out "Angel Child")!

*Louis's final album, Louis and the Good Book, containing more explosive trumpet ("Go Down Moses") and some seriously emotional preaching by the reverend (like "Rock My Soul")!

Phew! Those are some--but not all!--of my favorite Decca moments. What did I miss? Feel free to add some in the comments!

I cannot lie, if you combine the OKeh recordings with the Columbia recordings (as Columbia started reissuing them in 1940), then the Columbia holdings are more influential, especially on the history of jazz: the Hot Fives, the Hot Sevens, Earl Hines, "Stardust," all the future standards, then flashing forward to W.C. Handy, Satch Plays Fats, Ambassador If those were the only recordings Louis made, his stature would be unchanged.

The Decca recordings didn't change the world but I think I prefer the catalog overall because of the versatility. I love the song choices but especially the settings: Louis with a big band, Louis with the All Stars, Louis live, Louis with the Mills Brothers, Louis and Sidney Bechet, Louis and a gospel chorus, Louis duetting with all those great vocalists, Louis the crooner, Louis with strings, Louis and Gordon Jenkins, Louis doing South African songs, Hawaiian songs, Mexican songs, Russian songs, Louis topping his younger self on the Musical Autobiography and so much more. If you want to hear everything Louis could do, just check out his Decca materials.

How to do that, you might ask? It's not as hard as it once was...especially if you have a little patience. First, the good folks at Mosaic Records put out an absolutely essential boxed set containing every Armstrong Decca recording made between 1935-1946 so half the battle can be found in one box. And I'm happy to announce (slightly unofficially so details are still changing) but Universal has asked me to help them do a set of Complete Decca Pop Singles 1949-1958 that will finally have all the great singles--arranged by Sy Oliver, Gordon Jenkins, Tutti Camarata, Jack Pleiss, Benny Carter, etc.--and all the great guest vocalists in one spot! It's looking like it might be a "download only" release but you never know. More details to come as I get them but hopefully it'll be ready late next year.

So that would just leave the albums. I'm also pushing Universal to revisit Satchmo at Pasadena and especially At the Crescendo but both can be downloaded on the 1992 set "The California Concerts". Avid in the UK recently reissued "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography" over two budget-priced sets with liner notes by yours truly so don't miss that one. Louis and the Angels and Louis and the Good Book fit on a single CD so you can find it like that as an import or you can download/stream the officially sanctioned releases separately. And some of the finest early 1950s studio All Stars dates are on New Orleans Nights.

That gets you pretty darn close. So grab them all and enter a state of Decca euphoria with me, okay? Thank you Jack Kapp, Milt Gabler....and Louis Armstrong for always being yourself no matter the song or the setting.

Monday, September 28, 2015

60 Years of "Mack the Knife"

If I say "Mack the Knife," what do you think of? Some might think of Bobby Darin, who topped the charts and won a Grammy for "Record of the Year" for his version in 1959. Others might think of Ella Fitzgerald, who charmingly forgot the words during a live version in Germany and improvised a series of new choruses that earned her a Grammy, too. There will be some who think of Frank Sinatra, who finally got around to recording it in 1984 and made it into a memorable powerhouse closer for the final decade of his career.

But as great as those three versions are, I think it's safe to say that they wouldn't have existed without Louis Armstrong's hit recording of it from September 28, 1955, 60 years ago today. And it's safer to say that Louis Armstrong's version wouldn't have existed without the one and only George Avakian.

How did it end up in the hands of Avakian and Armstrong? First, we have to go back to 1928 when Kurt Weill and Bartol Brecht combined to write "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" for their musical drama, Die Dreigroschenoper. Here is Brecht himself singing it on record in 1929:

(Am I the only one who can't stop thinking about Ernie Kovacs?)

Sounds familiar, right? And fans of Armstrong's version should have enjoyed the descending banjo riff that starts around 1:30 as it would be re-imagined by Billy Kyle behind Pops. In 1933, an English version of Die Dreigroschenoper opened in America as The Threepenny Opera but it closed in ten days. "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" got new English lyrics but I'm not sure if they survived the short-lived run.

Flash forward to 1954: The Threepenny Opera was about to embark on a popular off-Broadway run with fresh lyrics translated into English by Marc Blitzstein. The Blitzstein lyrics became the "Mack" text, as heard on Gerald Price's rendition of "The Ballad of Mack the Knife" from the Original Broadway Cast recording in 1954:

The off-Broadway production featured Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya, who appeared in the original German production of Die Dreigroschenoper in the 1920s and had been singing "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" in German for years. Now she put her own spin on the Blitzstein lyrics and would end up winning a Tony for her performance, a rarity for an off-Broadway performance. Here's Lenya's English version from the Decca Original Cast album (again, listen for the descending riff, now on piano!):

The success of The Threepenny Opera led to a revival of interest in Lenya and the music of Weill. Between July 5-7, 1955, Lenya recorded an entire album of Weill compositions in Hamburg for release by Philips as Lotte Lenya singt Kurt Weill. Philips was the European subsidiary of Columbia Records so it made sense that Columbia would also release the album in the United States, issuing Lotte Lenya Sings the Berlin Theater Songs of Kurt Weill in November 1955. And who is the head of Columbia's pop album department? None other than George Avakian.

In preparation for the release of the album, Avakian latched onto "The Ballad of Mack the Knife." The October 29, 1955 issue of Billboard shed more light on how exactly Avakian was led to this material: through his wife. "It all began last winter when Anahid Ajemiaan, the classical violinist, gave the first American performance of the late Weill's Violin Concerto, which she subsequently recorded for M-G-M. Miss Ajemian's husband, George Avakian, became interested in Weill's music as a result and was particularly taken with the 'Three Penny Opera,' which, in an English adaptation by Marc Blitzstein, has been holding forth at a local off-Broadway theater and which also had been recorded by M-G-M." Thus, Avakian had the melody in his head and he was determined to get the right artist to tackle it for Columbia. I don't usually do this, but allow me to quote myself. This passage is from my book, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years:

By late September 1955, with the All Stars in top form, good news was in the offing for the many fans of Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy and Satch Plays Fats:  George Avakian would oversee Armstrong’s recordings over the course of the next year. Joe Glaser was more than pleased with Avakian’s work.  After Satch Plays Fats was finished in May 1955, he had written to the producer: “It’s wonderful to know the record date was a good one and assure you I appreciate your kind efforts in my behalf.” Avakian and Glaser spent much of the summer in friendly correspondence about music, baseball and of course, Armstrong.  In one of his letters, dated September 19, Avakian wrote:  “If possible...I would like to have Louis record the Kurt Weill ‘Moritat’ (‘Ballad of Mack the Knife’), which we were not able to record in Hollywood. I realize it will be next to impossible to do so because Louis will have so many things to do in the three days before he leaves for Europe, but I will save some time late at night in our 30th Street Studio in case one session is possible. This number is all arranged, and I have the score and complete parts in my office. It would, of course, be a hit in Europe because of its great familiarity to European audiences.” 

On September 28, 1955, two days before the All Stars left for a three-month tour of Europe, Avakian got his wish and recorded Armstrong singing and playing a tune that would become one of the biggest hits of his career. The previous year, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera (original title: Dreigroschenoper) had a revival in New York. The musical play featured Weill’s murder ballad, “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer,” which Columbia had already recorded as a honky-tonk piece replete with banjo. Marc Blitzstein’s English version retitled it “Mack the Knife,” and Avakian thought it could make a catchy pop song, but everybody he showed it to—-including Erroll Garner, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan and John Lewis—-said, “George, what can I do with eight bars over and over, from a German opera yet? And how about those lyrics, man?” One of the musicians Avakian offered it to was Dixieland trombonist Turk Murphy. Murphy said he’d do it, and wanted to write an arrangement for Armstrong at no extra charge. “Brilliant me!” Avakian remembered. “I had never thought of Louis Armstrong.” Murphy and Avakian recorded a quick run-through of it and played it for Armstrong while the trumpeter was appearing in San Francisco. “So we played the acetate for Louie and showed him the arrangement,” Avakian says. “And Louie’s reaction was marvelous. He broke into a big smile as he listened to the lyrics and he said, ‘Hey, I’ll record that. I knew cats like that in New Orleans. They’d stick a knife in you as fast as say hello.’”

Back to the blog. As seen above, Avakian wrote to Glaser on September 19 but not wanting to wait for an answer, Avakian went ahead and recorded Lenya singing "Moritat von Mackie Messer" in the original German with Turk Murphy's band on September 22. After Louis recorded his version, Avakian shelved this one but it was eventually released in 1956 and became a hit in German. Here's Lenya and Murphy:

I find that version fascinating because it's more or less the famous Armstrong recording but with the completely different two-beat feel of the Murphy band before they swing out lightly and tightly in the last chorus. After a few days, Glaser answered that Armstrong would be available on September 28, just before leaving for a three-month European tour. It was a packed house in Columbia's studio that day. Louis was there along with the All Stars, featuring brand new clarinetist Edmond Hall. Lotte Lenya was also on hand, as we'll hear in a few minutes. And during the meeting with Murphy, the trombonist had given his arrangement to Armstrong, who gave it to valet Doc Pugh....who promptly lost it. Thus, Murphy, too, had to be summoned to the studio with a duplicate.

With this crew assembled, not even Avakian was sure of what he wanted.  Session tapes survive with take after take being recorded with different feels and even tempos. In fact, as the band got comfortable with the song, Avakian first had them attempt it at as an instrumental at a slower-than expected tempo. This was called as "take 2" on the session tapes and was eventually issued on a Book-of-the-Month LP set:

I like it but you can hear a little hesitation in Louis's short solo as he's still feeling his way around the song. Recording it as instrumental is also an interesting idea, especially with the potentially controversial English lyrics by Blitzstein. Avakian also had Turk Murphy record an instrumental version of his arrangement, while Dick Hyman recorded an instrumental take on it for MGM around the same time as Louis's session. Hyman's version, featuring the pianist whistling and playing a "harpsichord piano" ended up being a hit itself.

But how could Louis pass up those lyrics and all the memories they conjured up? Eventually, he gave it a whirl and by takes 7 and 8, he was "cooking like a king" in Avakian's words on the session tapes.
Some things were worked out on the fly: Avakian suggested Louis humorously change the line "droppin' down" to "droopin' down" and inspired by the presence of Lenya in the studio, had Louis substitute "Lotte Lenya" for "Polly Peachum" when reeling off the names of Mack's victims. 

When Avakian got the takes he wanted, he put a pair of headphones on Louis and had him overdub a trumpet obbligato behind his vocal, just as he had done on Avakian's Plays W.C. Handy  and Satch Plays Fats. Eventually, Avakian got out his razor blade and tape and made splices, including one to seamlessly follow Louis's "Take it, Satch" with the concluding ensemble. Here's the finished product, again, recorded 60 years ago today: 

The results were released as "A Theme from the Threepenny Opera (Mack the Knife)" and the rest is history. That is the definition of a hit record, my friends. For me, it'll always be an important track. 20 years ago around this very time, early October 1995, I went to the Ocean County Library and stared at the imposing rack of Louis Armstrong cassettes. Seeing Louis in The Glenn Miller Story had turned me upside down and I needed more--but what? I grabbed a compilation called 16 Most Requested Songs, assembled by George Avakian in the 1990s. "Mack the Knife" was track one and from the opening, "Dig man, there goes Mack the Knife!" I was hooked. 

Why did it become a hit? Many reasons. There's the song itself, for one thing. As Avakian's aforementioned quote made clear, many jazz musicians turned it down because there wasn't enough meat and it was too repetitive. Well, that's almost the very definition of pop music! Louis's warm reading of the melody is instantly memorable while his somewhat warmer telling of the tale of the this cold-blooded killer should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever read Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans. In just about every chapter of that book, Louis wrote about killers, street fights, violence, jail, you name it, but all with a twinkle of awe and admiration and never once a feeling of regret or self-pity. He talks about "Mack" like it's Black Benny, getting great backing from the All Stars, with Barrett Deems very tasty on the brushes and Billy Kyle putting a swinging touch on that old descending riff (not to mention the terrific trumpet obligato). And that last jammed outchorus is pure joy. David Ostwald has always begged and pleaded with me to find a version where Louis plays two choruses at the end but alas, no such version survives. No worries; it's pretty much perfect as it.

The record became a hit but before we get carried away with Louis's later versions, we're not through with the events of September 28, 1955 yet. With Lenya in the studio, Avakian had a seemingly can't-miss idea: pair Louis and Lenya on a new duet version of "Mack the Knife"! Unfortunately, the idea turned out to be a big-miss idea, though a fascinating one. Again, allow me to quote from my book:
 At the same session, Avakian came upon the idea to pair Armstrong up with Lotte Lenya, Weill’s widow and a theater legend in her own right. There was one problem, however, with the execution of his plan, as Avakian recalls. “The performance didn’t come off because Lenya just had no sense of jazz rhythm,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it.” Rehearsal tapes exist of Armstrong, the gutbucket crooner with the gravel voice, teaching the Tony award-winning performer how to phrase properly. “It’s horrible,” Avakian says of the rehearsal. “I never wanted anybody to hear it.”iv As painful as it was to Avakian, the recording is nonetheless fascinating:  one hears Lenya struggling mightily with a half-note rest, as Armstrong patiently coaches her through it. Lenya herself was immortalized in the song by Armstrong when he listed her as among Mack’s victims, an inclusion to appear in future versions by Bobby Darin and Frank Sinatra, among others.

Avakian had to work like hell to make something suitable and as always, he succeeded with a passable, if a little strange duet recording:

Eventually, as Avakian alluded to, Sony went digging in the vaults and found the entire Louis-and-Lenya "Mack the Knife" sequence on the original session tapes--and released it all, first on a Bear Family boxed set and eventually on Sony Classical's CD reissue of Lenya Sings Weill. You can understand Avakian's trepidation at something like this seeing the light of the day but I find it totally fascinating and endearing. Here are the session takes:

I love how lovingly Louis coaches Lenya through that half-note rest. There's no frustration, no laughing (except when Lenya's show some self-deprecating humor). Seemingly each member of the All Stars takes turns their time in demonstrating how to play it. Poor Lenya just has zero jazz feeling at all but she's a game sport. When she finally nails it at the end, Louis cheers like a proud papa watching his child take its first steps. And I love Louis's emphatic repetition of the word "boom" to demonstrate the rest; years later, when audio was released of Howlin' Wolf teaching the younger London blues acolytes how to play his music, that was his syllable of choice, too. 

With that out of the way, Louis embarked on his famed Ambassador Satch tour. Avakian told him that "Mack the Knife" would go over big in Europe but once again, Doc Pugh left the arrangement at the session and Louis had to go through the tour "Mack"-less.

Meanwhile, Avakian went to work on his "Mack the Knife" Columbia blitz. On October 29, Billboard published an article about Columbia being poised to release Louis and Turk Murphy's respective singles. With the headline, "Unorthodox Events Lead to 2 Disks," the article reported, "An unorthodox chain of events will result this week in two unusual single record issues by Columbia. Both will feature 'Mack the Knife,' the opening song from the Kurt Weil 'Three Penny Opera,' and the artists are jazz stars Louis Armstrong and Turk Murphy, in vocal and instrumental versions respectively." 

Finally, Armstrong's single was released in early November. Again, Billboard first covered it in its November 19, 1955 issue, writing, "Trick lyrics sell this tune from Weill's 'Three Penny Opera.' The Satch comes thru in the usual great style with his own blowing dubbed in behind the singing."(Multiple reviewers made comments on the song’s lyrics. One in Gramophone discussed “Mack’s” “unnecessarily long, and in places, revolting lyric that might easily incite impressionable teenagers to violence (and has had that effect in America, I understand.)”At the same time, Avakiaan was getting Lenya ready for her Columbia "debut." Lotte Lenya Sings the Berlin Theater Tunes of Kurt Weill was released in late November and got a rave review in Billboard in the December 3, 1955 issue.

Avakian was making his push but the real surprise was Dick Hyman's instrumental version hitting the top of the pop charts at the end of the year. Armstrong's own version eventually rose to the number 20 slot on the pop singles chart, being assessed as "a fair seller" in a 1957 issue of Billboard. But to this day, Avakian maintains that "Mack the Knife" sold more copies than generally known--many more copies. Why? Because the "Columbia Record Club" was the sweeping the nation and Louis was a big part of it in 1956. Avakian told me that the Record Club didn't measure individual sales but he assured me that Armstrong's "Mack the Knife" "sold in the millions" just through the Record Club alone. Louis was even on the cover of the May 1956 Columbia Record Club Magazine.

(Side note: the flip side of "Mack the Knife" was a new recording of "Back O'Town Blues," recorded at the same session. That tune was credited to Louis and his old music director, Luis Russell. Luis's daughter, the fantastic singer Catherine Russell, told me that the royalties on that "Mack the Knife" single were so huge, Luis was able to buy a brand new Cadillac off of them alone!)

Louis and the All Stars returned home at the end of December 1955 to find themselves enjoying the perks of a hit record--if only they remembered it! “Opening night at the Fountainbleu in Miami,” Avakian wrote about Armstrong’s return to the United States, “Louis fielded requests for his hit with charm and ‘come back tomorrow, folks, and we’ll lay it on you!’ That evening, he took the band down to the hotel coffee shop, armed with five dollars worth of dimes and a stack of blank music paper. They fed the jukebox over and over, copying their own parts . . . and that’s how Louis Armstrong got to play his multi-million seller-to-be for the first time in public.”

Avakian remembered Armstrong appearing at the Fountainbleu in Miami but in actuality, he was at Ciro's in Miami from February 9-19. This is undoubtedly where "Mack the Knife" made its debut in the All Stars' repertoire. The Ciro's engagement was cut short due to Armstrong suffering from eye problems. After a stint in the Eye and Ear Infirmary and a trip to California to finish filming High Society, Louis embarked on a tour with Woody Herman on March 9, 1956. 

On March 17, the tour found itself in Carnegie Hall. Louis performed his new hit and even dedicated it to George Avakina. Avakian wasn't recording the concert but Stephen Temmer of Gotham Audio was. This is only my speculation but I believe Temmer must have heard the Avakian dedication, thought George would appreciate it and sent him just that performance on tape. Not only did Avakian appreciate it, he ended up issuing it on 1957's Satchmo the Great LP, giving it a venue and performance date of Lewisohn Stadium, July 14, 1956 to cover up the fact that the Carnegie Hall show wasn't an authorized recording.  All such details and stories can be found in my notes to last year's 9-CD Mosaic Records Armstrong boxed set, along with the audio. Here 'tis, the first surviving live "Mack the Knife":

It's a fantastic performance and an electric one, the band and audience energized by the new hit. It was part of the show now; I can never guarantee a statement like this but it sure as hell seems like it was performed at every live Louis Armstrong show until his final engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria in March 1971. Because it wasn't an improvised showpiece like "Indiana" or "Royal Garden Blues," it's not worth sharing every surviving performance. But the routine did change a few times over the years and it's worth taking a tour of those versions, most of which survive on video. So without further ado, here's the first surviving footage of Louis performing "Mack the Knife," done for Edward R. Murrow's theatrical documentary Satchmo the Great and filmed in London in May 1956 (I can only imagine what  it looked like in Empress Hall with Murrow's camera right up in Louis's face like that! A zoom can only do so much, right?)

Back in the States, Louis performed it at the Chicago Concert of June 1, at Newport on July 6 and at Lewisohn Stadium on July 14; all three versions are on the aforementioned Mosaic box. However, I should spend a minute on the only "live" version released at the time by Columbia, that from Newport. Avakian the visionary knew that Newport was blowing up so he recorded a variety of Columbia acts at that year's Festival. But Avakian being Avakian, he also wanted to present the best possible performances from a musical standpoint so if that meant doctoring up studio recordings to sound "live," then so so be it. 

As chronicled in my Mosaic notes, Avakian ran into trouble during Armstrong's Newport set because the trumpeter sang the entire time into a Voice of America microphone, making his vocals unusable for his eventual Columbia At Newport album (shared with Eddie Condon). Avakian could have used the opening and closing instrumental portions of the Newport performance on the LP but instead, had a version from an impromptu Lewisohn Stadium rehearsal/session that was more exciting. BUT (are you still following me), on the Lewisohn version, the electric was switched off momentarily so a half chorus of the vocal wasn't even captured on tape.

So without useable vocals from Newport or Lewisohn, where to turn? Why, to the September 28, 1955 studio session, of course! I'm almost embarrassed that I didn't hear this until I began working on the Mosaic set but here's how Avakian issued. The announcement is Newport...the opening choruses are Lewisohn (Dale Jones on bass)....the vocal is an unissued alternate from the studio date (listen for Arvell Shaw on bass and the sudden drop in tempo)....and the rideout is once again Lewisohn! Phew, that's a lot of splicing!

Before we start the video marathon, I did want to share one more mysterious studio recording of "Mack the Knife," this one featuring a duet between Louis and Velma Middleton! The circumstances behind this recording are a mystery. The late Armstrong discographer Jos Willems sent me a copy and he thought it might have been an outtake from a Columbia recording session. However, George Avakian was adamant that he never recorded a Louis-and-Velma duet.

So where does it come from? As always, I find myself playing detective but without a surefire explanation this time. When I started working for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, I noticed that Louis had this version on acetate disc and dubbed it to reel-to-reel tape multiple times. The first time was on a tape obviously made up of acetate recordings, most featuring Louis's brother-in-law, singer Charlie Phipps. First, was Phipps singing "I Love You, Samantha" from High Society with the exact backing from the filmed version. Louis must have been given an acetate to rehearse from and Phipps recorded a vocal on top of it. Next followed Phipps singing "You Make Me Feel So Young."

But then came the Louis and Velma duet on "Mack the Knife." So could it have been made privately around the time of High Society? That's my guess, though there's no date or any indications of this being a professional recording. Still, here's Louis and Velma, having a lot of fun (and more success than poor Lotte Lenya!):

Okay, with that out of the way, grab some popcorn and get ready for a marathon of "Mack the Knife" videos! By 1959, "Mack" was noticeably gaining some speed in the tempo department. This tends to happen when a band has to perform a hit song night after night but I also wonder if Bobby Darin's exciting version inspired the more freewheeling feel (Louis owned Darin's version on reel-to-reel tape). Here's the All Stars swinging it in Stuttgart, Germany in 1959:

In 1962, Louis seemed to make a conscious decision to slow down some of the songs he had been performing for years, such as "When the Saints Go Marching In," "Now You Has Jazz," "La Vie En Rose" and "Mack the Knife." Here's "Mack" in Munich that year at a bouncing tempo reminiscent of the 1955 original, but now, in a sign of pacing, with only one chorus up front :

One year later, the routine had changed almost completely. The tempo was even slower--compare it to the 1955 original and it sounds like slow motion--but there's something new to look out for: an improvised second chorus! As could be heard on that 1962 German version, Louis was starting to play around a bit during the outchorus, coming up with some new phrases including that one chromatic run into the stratosphere. Maybe he felt like getting a little more creative but starting here in 1963, Louis would play one chorus of straight melody followed by an improvised chorus.

But there's another new development: the song now ends with the vocal. As much as I loved that swinging rideout, it makes sense to end on the triumphant "Now that Mackie's back in town!" Here's the earliest surviving version with the new routine, from Australia in March 1963:

Louis tinkered with his second chorus for a while and seemed to perfect it by the time of his Iron Curtain tour of March 1965. Here he is in East Berlin turning out a wonderful little solo the second time through. Also, listen for the rhythm section really lock in midway through the vocal, swinging comfortably at this tempo with effective "Count Base-Eee" accents:

After the Iron Curtain tour, Louis underwent dental surgery that led to the slow decline of his chops. He was no longer able to do what he did in 1965 but he still continued to come up with nice variations in that second chorus, as can be heard on this version from Juan-Les-Pins, France in July 1967:

By the summer of 1968, Louis had lost a lot of weight and seemed happy with himself and his band. All of a sudden, tempos on things like "The Saints" and "Mack the Knife" regained their 1950s speed. Here's the All Stars in London in July 1968, taking "Mack" at a more sprightly clip with Louis once again creating a swinging second chorus, similar to the one from 1967 but sounding stronger and more swinging at this tempo:

Those would be the last trumpet notes that survive on Louis Armstrong's long association with "Mack the Knife." After laying off for nearly two years after two stints in intensive care, Louis returned to television and occasion live performances. Multiple "Macks" survive from the final year of Louis's life, but never with a note of trumpet, even on nights he played otherwise. Of all the final ones, I like this one from The Flip Wilson Show in October 1970. Louis looks resplendent in his tuxedo and the band really works up a head of steam behind him (is that Clark Terry playing the obligato midway through?):

And that concludes this 60th anniversary look at Louis Armstrong's history with "Mack the Knife." Yes, some people will always associate it with Bobby or Ella or Frank (or if you're a serious jazz fan, Sonny Rollins, Clark Terry and others) but to paraphrase Dizzy Gillespie, "No Louis Armstrong--and George Avakian--no 'Mack the Knife.'"

Sunday, September 13, 2015

You Don't Learn That In School

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra

Recorded March 12, 1947

Track Time 3:21

Written by Marvin Fisher and Roy Alfred

Recorded in New York City

Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ed Mullens, William “Chiefie” Scott, Thomas Grider, Robert Butler, trumpet; Russell “Big Chief Moore, James Whitney, Wadder Williams, Alton Moore, trombone; Arthur Dennis, Amos Gordon, alto saxophone; John Sparrow, Joe Garland, tenor saxophone; Ernest Thompson, baritone saxophone; Earl Mason, piano; Elmer Warner, guitar; Arvell Shaw, bass; James Harris, drums

Originally released on RCA Victor 20-2240

Currently available on CD: Available on The Complete RCA Victor Recordings of Louis Armstrong.

Available on Itunes? Yes, on the same set.

For the eight years I've been churning out this blog, I've always balanced periods of great activity with drier spells of inactivity. The inactivity has always been caused by something Armstrong-related--my job, lectures, my book, the Mosaic set, etc. Well, it's been 25 days since my last post and indeed, something Armstrong-related has taken me away from the blog, but it's so damn exciting, I wanted to share a little bit about it here.

On August 31, I began teaching "Music of Louis Armstrong," a graduate level course at Queens College. This was legitimately a dream come true for me. I taught two semesters of Jazz History to undergrads at Rutgers ten years ago and I took over for the late Howard Brofsky's Jazz History course when he passed away in 2013, but other than that, I've been relegated to the Pops guy. Have a college course and need to incorporate Louis into it? Call Ricky!

One of the folks who routinely did that was the great writer David Adler, who teaches various classes, including Jazz History, at Queens College. When the College offered David a "topics" class, he graciously stepped aside and said the topic should be Louis Armstrong and I (Ricky) should teach it. Blessings on him. The powers that be agreed and I got the gig. 

I looked into it and can't find very many (if any) examples of a full-blows graduate level course ever being devoted solely to Louis Armstrong. Even more exciting, since it's happening at Queens College, I have the resources of the Armstrong House and Archives for my students to take advantage of. I took my class to the Archives for week one and waved around Louis's trumpets and played some of his private tapes. I think the students realized this could be special.

Naturally, since I'm always on a mission of some sort, I'm taking this very seriously. Not only do I have 18 jazz and music majors in a classroom but they admitted to me that they've never really checked out Louis Armstrong. Folks, the jazz education world is broken if you have students getting to the tail end of receiving a master's degree in jazz performance, without having them ever seriously checked out Pops.  Well, that's at least changing for my students! And with 15 weeks, we're taking our time. This past week, I wanted to get them into Louis's head as he grew up in New Orleans so they heard ragtime, Souza's band, Bert Williams, Enrico Caruso, Al Jolson, the ODJB, King Oliver, religious music, whorehouse music and much more. I think the students are getting it but for me, I'm having a ball!

This is all a long way of saying that the blog will continue to be published on sporadic basis the next few months but there's a few things I definitely want to tackle: the 60th anniversary of "Mack the Knife" on September 28, more on Louis's 1930 California sessions, the anniversary of his Decca contract in 1935 and I'm sure some more. But since I'll be spending most of my free time with the educating of the future jazz performers/scholars of Queens College, I thought it would be fun to take a short look at a track that has eluded me to this point: "You Don't Learn That in School."

This performance comes from March 12, 1947 and was the final track Louis ever recorded with his big band for RCA Victory. Two months later, he had his career-changing Town Hall concert and the next time he stepped in a recorded studio, he had a small group behind him. Purists welcomed his return "home" to a small group setting and more "traditional" material like "Rockin' Chair" and "Ain't Misbehavin'" (from the Town Hall Show). They were tired of Louis with a brassy big band doing jivey material like "You Don't Learn That in School." I get it....but I also think this is a great little record!

The song was first recorded by the Nat King Cole Trio on December 30, 1946 and became a big seller for him. You can listen to it here. King Cole was at home with such material (wasn't he home with all material?) and though he had a string of hits in the 1940s, Louis Armstrong stayed away from them; in fact, I think the only one he covered was "You Don't Learn That in School." I'm glad he did because it's a lot of fun. Here 'tis:

The first thing you hear is Louis's brassy big band, which certainly doesn't sound like the Luis Russell orchestra of a decade earlier. After the opening, Louis good-naturedly sings the humorous lyrics:

Venus was a woman, who had a lot of charms
But she got so much huggin', she wore out both her arms
But she don't learn that in school
You don't learn that in school,
There ain't no doubt about it
You don't learn that in school

King Arthur was a hero, he's famous everywhere
He had a big round table, 'cause he couldn't stand the square
But you don't learn that in school
[I said!] You don't learn that in school
There ain't no doubt about it
You don't learn that in school

Fun stuff but then Pops picks up that horn and it's business time. He blows a searing chorus of the blues, the band really locking in behind him. They push him a bit but he stays relaxed, though adding some slightly "modern" touches in the back half of his solo. As Dan Morgenstern always points out, Louis was listening to the kiddies and though he never played anything remotely "boppish," some interesting harmonic choices can be heard in his mid-to-late-40s works.

Then it's back for another history lesson:

Columbus was the great explorer of his day
But when he got to Brooklyn, the poor guy lost his way
Now you don't learn that in school
[I said!] You don't learn that in school
There ain't no doubt about it
You don't learn that in school

Trumpet time! But this time, buckle your seatbelt: Louis runs up to a high C and hits a string up them with great power, still keeping his gigantic, warm tone (something other trumpet players lost once they got into the stratosphere). This second go-around kills me as he sounds so powerful but this time, after coming out of the gate with guns blazing, he relaxes as he goes on, wrapping a bow on it with a string of repeated A's leading into the final, logical F. Great solo! Then it's time for the last vocal chorus:

Ol' Robin Hood was famous, but one thing you should know
He only robbed the rich folks, 'cause the poor folks had no dough
Now you don't learn that in school
[I said!] You don't learn that in school
Ohhhhh, there ain't no doubt about it
You don't learn that in school

And there you have it, the end of Louis Armstrong's own big band recordings (though of course, he'd record with studio-assembled large ensembles until the end of his life). Sometimes I daydream (yes, this is what I daydream about) if the All Stars never were born. Don't get me wrong; the All Stars period is my favorite Armstrong period (and I'd be out of business without them!) so I wouldn't change a thing. But picturing Louis leading a big band in the 50s with better arrangements, varied material, more time for trumpet specialties, etc. does make for a fascinating "what-if" conversation. (Because he sure sounds wonderful on all those aforementioned studio big band recordings to come.)

Well, that's all for "You Don't Learn That in School" but for my students, there will be no more excuses to not learn Louis Armstrong in school! They'll be Satch-urated at the end of these 15 weeks.....

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.