Monday, November 23, 2015

Harpo and Satchmo

Today is Harpo Marx's birthday, a day of celebration for any fans of old comedy, the Marx Brothers or just plain humanity. I just put my 6-year-old daughter to bed but not before watching a few clips of Harpo on YouTube. I introduced her to the Marx Brothers about a month ago and though she admits she doesn't really understand what Groucho and Chico are saying, she has fallen in love with Harpo.

She's not alone. Yes, even kids raised in today's digital age respond to Harpo. In fact, there's another beloved entertainer who also elicits a similar response: Louis Armstrong. Day in and day out, school groups visit the Louis Armstrong House Museum and students from kindergarten to college walk away enchanted by Louis. What is it about Harpo and Louis that they still have this effect?

Well, for one thing both men was revered as near-saints offstage and I think audiences still admire them for being genuinely nice people. You really can't find a bad word about either man. They're also as funny as can be. For Harpo, one of the greatest comedians of all time, that's a given, but for Louis, that was something critics beat him up for for decades. "He's supposed to be an artist! Why is he making these jokes and funny faces?" Because Louis knew there was more than one way to be an entertainer and as he once put it, if his audience "is going to get a little laugh, I'm going to get one to!"

Still, critics called Louis a "clown" as if it was a derogatory thing, something he responded to beautifully late in life, telling Max Jones, "Critics in England say I was a clown, but a clown, that's hard. If you can make people chuckle a little; it's happiness to me to see people happy, and most of the people who criticize don't know one note from another." I've long said it's harder to make people laugh and nail a punchline with impeccable timing than it is to play high notes on a trumpet. Louis excelled at both but was only lauded for one of those gifts.

But both men also exhibited a sense of pathos that could make you cry when you least expect it. Some folks probably roll their eyes when Harpo pulls out the harp in the middle of the lunacy of the Marx Brothers but I always find those moments very emotional. Louis, too, could quickly go from giving audiences tears of laugher followed by tears of beauty in a matter of seconds.

Three quick examples. In A Night at the Opera, Harpo approaches a piano and proceeds to goof around with it (especially with its stool), making the kids in attendance literally scream with laughter. And then he sees his Harpo, gives it a passionate glance and plays such a beautiful rendition of "Alone," I had tears in my eyes when I showed it to my daughter for the first time last month:

And for Louis, I've written two blogs in the past about the glorious 1933 record "Laughin' Louie," stating that if you want to boil the complete Louis Armstrong Experience to about 210 seconds, this is the one I'd choose over avowed masterpieces like "West End Blues" because it has the comedy element. Louis and his friends are high as a kite in the first half of the record, as they do their own version of "The OKeh Laughing Record" but then Louis announces "the beautiful part" and plays an unaccompanied passage that, as Gary Giddins has written, could "make angels weep." From laughing to crying in three minutes. That's Louis. That's Harpo.

And of the 1947 Town Hall version of "Rockin' Chair," I've called it one of the great moments in western civilization and I stand by that. Louis and Jack Teagarden simply radiate love from the first note they sing but they're also really funny; the laughter in the audience is the type that just has to come out, it cannot be suppressed. And once you're exhausted from laughing, Bobby Hackett plays an emotional call to arms, Sid Calett starts unleashing his backbeats and Louis plays such a passionate ending, it always leaves me in a heap (I played this for my "Music of Louis Armstrong" course at Queens College last month and couldn't speak afterwards):

There's more parallels between Louis and the Marx Brothers. Louis is high as a kite and blowing like a wild man in 1933, 1934. The Marx Brothers are indulging in their most absurd comedies. Both are released from their contracts but in 1935, Louis signs with Decca and the Marxes sign with MGM. Both are taught to tone it down a hair to make it more palatable to a wider audience while still retaining the essence of their genius. Louis responds with "Shoe Shine Boy" and "Swing That Music." The Marxes respond with A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. Home runs all around.

I don't think Harpo ever spoke of Louis and I've never seen Louis speak of Harpo but the two giants did team up for a 1961 episode of The Chevy Show titled "Swingin' at the Summit" and also featuring Kay Starr, Tony Bennett and George Shearing. You can watch the complete show on YouTube:

It's a fun slice of early 60s TV but for me, the best thing to come out of it are these two photos. In one, Louis and Harpo are their naturally joyous selves:

In the other, they switch roles....and still make me laugh.

Bless you, Harpo. Bless you, Satchmo. They'll both live forever, making kids and adults both laugh and weep and feel good about humanity, even if just for a few minutes. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

90 Years of Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five!

The Hot Five.

What more needs to be said? The most influential recordings in jazz history were made under that moniker, guided by fearless leader Louis Armstrong. They've been celebrated, analyzed, transcribed, issued, reissued, scrutinized and just plain enjoyed since the minute they were recorded....90 years ago today.

When I knew the 90th anniversary was approaching, I toyed with writing "the blog to end all blogs" on the entire Hot Five series but a funny thing happened along the way: my wife gave birth to our third daughter, Lily Rose Riccardi (you can call her Miss Lil), on November 3 so the weeks leading up to the birth and the days since have been filled with just about everything you can think of except time to write blogs. Also, Gene Anderson did a wonderful job in covering these sessions with his book The Original Hot Five Recordings of Louis Armstrong and I urge readers looking for deeper analysis of the 1925-27 recordings (as well as a boatload of transcriptions) to Anderson's work.

But it's such a big anniversary, I just had to write something so I'm focusing on the three songs that kicked off the series on November 12, 1925: "My Heart," "Yes! I'm in the Barrel" and "Gut Bucket Blues."

But first--how the hell did the Hot Five even come about? Multiple people claimed credit so we'll probably never know exactly how it went down but for my money, I give most of the credit to Elmer "E.A." Fearn of the Consolidated Talking Machine Company, who supervised many of OKeh Records's Chicago "race record" sessions. OKeh had a massive hit in 1920 with Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues" and Fearn was eager to help OKeh make more such recordings. The April 15, 1921 issue of Talking Machine World reported, "E. A. Fern [sic], president of the Consolidated Talking Machine Co., states that the demand for OKeh records has increased considerably during the past few months, and he has found it impossible to secure  sufficient stock of Mamie Smith records to keep pace with the requirements of the dealers."

Fearn continued overseeing OKeh recordings of blues and jazz music in Chicago, including King Oliver's recordings with young Louis in 1923. Hot Fives banjoist Johnny St. Cyr later remembered, "Having recorded on numerous occasions with King Oliver for the OKeh label, Louis became well known to Mr. Fern [sic] who was the recording engineer for that company at the time." Even though Louis wasn't exactly in the spotlight on the Oliver recordings, Fearn must have liked what he heard (especially on sides like "Tears") and probably enjoyed working with the young cornetist.

Armstrong then spent a year in New York from October 1924 to the beginning of November 1925, performing with Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra regularly but also becoming a first call cornetist on scores of small group blues and jazz sides OKeh recorded in this period, including those with Bessie Smith, Clarence Williams and more. This is where Ralph Peer enters the picture. Peer was OKeh's director of production and the man who really shaped OKeh's direction after the success of "Crazy Blues." Peer recalled Armstrong's wife, Lil Hardin Armstrong, contacting him and saying, "Louis has an offer to go to New York. Could you give us recording work there?" Peer remembered, "Whenever we needed a New York trumpet player our first choice would be Louis Armstrong."

But by November 1925, Louis was no longer happy in New York. Lil, who really deserves full credit as the architect of Louis's early success in the 1920s, told her husband to leave Henderson and come back to Chicago, where Louis could join her band. Louis was happy to do this, though probably embarrassed by Lil billing him as the "World's Greatest Jazz Cornetist," as seen in this November 21, 1925 ad from the Chicago Defender (poor Lil, though, is billed as "Lil Stewart," someone probably getting her mixed up with bandleader Sammy Stewart).

According to Peer, Lil told him that Louis was going back to Chicago and Peer responded, "Well, now if he goes back to Chicago, I will do this for you. We will create an Armstrong orchestra so that we can give you some work." At this point, Peer probably contacted Fearn in Chicago, who took it from there, along with pianist-composer Richard M. Jones, who was OKeh's Race Division manager in Chicago since 1923. In fact, Ory gave Jones the credit for starting the Hot Five but according to Gene Anderson, Jones couldn't have negotiated with OKeh on his own so it would have been Fearn who officially signed up the group.

This is supported by Louis himself, who said in 1951, "The minute Mr. Fern (the President of the OKeh Company) gave me the go sign, I hit the phone and called the Musician's Union, and asked permission to hire Edward "Kid" Ory, Johnny St. Cyr and Johnny Dodds." Armstrong always referred to Fearn as "The President of the OKeh Company," which he wasn't, but it's indicative of how important Armstrong viewed him.

With the pieces in place, Armstrong was able to hire his own dream band. Naturally, Lil would man the piano chair but for the rest of the group, Armstrong dug back to his New Orleans roots. After King Oliver left New Orleans for Chicago, Armstrong was hired to play cornet in trombonist Kid Ory's band, alongside Johnny Dodds on clarinet and St. Cyr on banjo. And now, with the Hot Five, Armstrong, Ory, Dodds and St. Cyr would be reunited to give listeners a little taste of what it must have sounded like in New Orleans circa 1920. I think it's a beautiful example of Armstrong not forgetting his roots. In fact, Ory was living in California at the time of Armstrong's offer and moved to Chicago to have the opportunity to record with his old friend. "He said we'd both make some money, so I decided to give up my own band, go back East to Chicago," Ory recalled in 1950. "That was the end of 1925. I thought the world of Louis, so I was glad to go with him."

On November 2, Armstrong blew out the lights on two numbers led by Perry Bradford in New York. The title of the second number was appropriate: "I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle (if I Can't Play the Lead)." A few days later, Louis landed in Chicago and joined Lil's band at the Dreamland. Fearn immediately made sure Armstrong was comfortable in his OKeh studio, recording accompaniment behind Bertha "Chippie" Hill and Blanche Calloway (two sides apiece) on November 9. On November 11, Louis was back to record with singer Hociel Thomas, but this time he was accompanied by his "Jazz Four," with Thomas's brother Hersal on piano, along with Johnny Dodds and Johnny St. Cyr, ready for their Hot Five debut.

Finally, on November 12, Louis finally got the opportunity to record as a leader for the very first time. It can't be stated enough that the music of the Hot Fives (and temporary Hot Sevens) went on to change the sound of jazz (and American popular music in general) but most commentators write off the fruits of the first session, Gunther Schuller, for one, dismissing them because they provided "no earthshaking jazz." This might be true but I still think first three sides recorded on that November 12 provided fascinating insights into the band.

For one thing, there's always the "legend" of the Hot Fives that most of the tunes were made up in the studio, named on the spot, five musicians just having some loose fun. This has led many to assume the Hot Five numbers were more or less studio jam sessions but the very first two Hot Five songs recorded dispel that notion. This was Louis Armstrong's first session as a leader and he and Lil made damn sure they'd be prepared, aided by the knowledge that they'd get an extra $50 for recording their own compositions.

The very first Hot Five number recorded was a composition by Lil titled "My Heart." Interestingly, Hardin had originally composed it in 1920 as "My Heart Will Lead Me Back to You" and wrote it as a waltz! I'm still surprised that some dedicated Armstrong interpreter hasn't given "My Heart" a waltz treatment to see what it could have originally sounded like. (At least, I don't think this has happened.) Lil wasn't from New Orleans and had never met Kid Ory before so this would be a new tune for the band to tackle. As Ory remembered, "Often we didn't know the tunes when we got to the studio; one of us would suggest a melody, we'd run through it once and then we'd record it. We never used any kind of arrangement. All we needed was a lead sheet and everybody would figure out his own part."

After figuring out the arrangement, Mr. Fearn turned the Hot Five loose and this was the result:

It might not be "earthshaking jazz" but "My Heart" sure is a swinging little number. The introduction alone shows that this was not some impromptu studio jam session, with Armstrong, Ory and Dodds sharing a two-bar arranged passage. After that, they're off and running in the best New Orleans polyphonic style, Louis playing the melody, Johnny Dodds playing circles around him and Ory's tailgate trombone almost acting like a tuba or bass, while all the while St. Cyr and Lil pound out the chords, four beats to the bar.

At the end of the first 32-bar chorus, a turbocharged Dodds plays a flurry of notes that seem to act as a springboard to propel Louis into his first Hot Five break, a swinging little line that contains the germ of a phrase he'd play in 1927 on "Potato Head Blues." From there, they play a 16-bar verse, this time with Ory taking a jaunty break in the middle. 

So we're almost through half the record and we've had an arranged opening, a 32-bar chorus, a 16-bar verse and two prepared breaks. These guys (and gal) and have this stuff down tight, all the more impressive since they most likely hadn't seen the song since shortly before they recorded.

To continue varying up the sound, Dodds steps forward with a low-register clarinet solo backed by a stop-time "Charleston" rhythm. Midway through the chorus, Dodds takes a break and then Lil takes over, pounding away with an exuberant two-fisted attack with some very nice left hand work. At the end of her chorus, Armstrong and Ory split a break, Pops playing a two-note rip upward and Ory marching down the stairs in his best tailgate fashion. 

At that point, it's back to the ensemble, Armstrong's lead growing more exciting as he takes more liberties with Lil's melody, finally going to the upper register after Ory's break in the middle of the chorus. Finally, with 19 seconds left in the record, the band falls into stop-time mode and lets Louis loose for some bluesy breaks. They swing out towards the finish line, topped off by a short coda that prefigures the stop-time ending to "Cornet Chop Suey."

Wow, what to make out of all this? If you're listening to the Hot Fives with your scorecard out, ready to just yell and clap every time Louis hits a home run, you're bound to be a little disappointed by "My Heart." But again, that's what I find so interesting about this record: it's Louis's first record ever as leader and he's so happy to be with his homeboys again, he makes sure to feature them over himself, with Ory getting multiple breaks and Dodds splitting that chorus with Lil. There's no ego here at all. As Louis told the Voice of America in 1956, "I didn't just take the band over to be a big shot or nothing like that. We just played music the same as we did in New Orleans."

There's also the choice of tune, a 32-bar pop tune by Lil, complete with verse. This is no New Orleans "ragtime" specialty. And think of the time they put into crafting the routine from the opening arranged passage to the closing coda to all the breaks in between. They put a lot of effort into this record and it shows, though it's over in a flash, lasting just two minutes and 24 seconds.

Johnny St. Cyr later talked about the recording limits and added some neat imagery to the making of this music: "At that time we were only allowed two minutes and forty five seconds per record. Three minutes was the longest but that was only for special arrangements and that was a special privilege allowed staff artists. All bands that were not staff artists had to stick to the two minute and forty five seconds limit. If the number ran over time the engineer would have to cut out a chorus or two to reduce the recording to the allotted time. We could not play at ease as the musicians do now as we had no microphones then, and we had to play into a horn which was attached to the recording machine. There were several of them, one to the piano, one to the reeds, and one to the brass, and one to the banjo. I would be sitting on a small ladder, or on several packing cases stacked on top of one another. Boy! We did it the hard way but it was fun. Johnny Dodds could not play real hot without patting his foot so Mr. Fern got a pillow and put it under Johnny's right foot which was the one he used when he got hot. They really got a kick out of that."

With one number out of the way, it was time for another. Once again, Louis and Lil were allowed to record whatever they wanted and it was more lucrative to record original compositions, which Louis had been stockpiling since Lil told him to start writing more pieces after they began dating in 1923. "I used to sit on the backsteps and write half a dozen numbers and go down and sell them for about $10 apiece so we could cabaret that night, not thinking about today, you could have been getting royalties and things. They just buy 'em all and they don't know what to do with them themselves. They were just unpublished numbers."

For the second number on the November 12 session, Louis reached into his bag and pulled out a composition he registered with the Library of Congress on December 8, 1923, when he was still in the Oliver band. Back then, Armstrong copyrighted it as "I Am in the Barrel, Who Don't Like It?" For the Hot Five version, he modified it to "Yes! I'm in the Barrel," but the meaning was the same, as he wrote in Esquire in 1951, "Whenever one of those gambling guys would get busted in a gambling game . . . they would pawn their best clothes to pay off their gambling debts. Quite naturally they would have to go back to their raggedy clothes until they got lucky and get the good ones out of pawn again. So that's why we used the expression, 'Yes! I'm in the barrel.' Yes, I too was in the barrel lots of times."

Like "My Heart, "Yes, I'm in the Barrel" has a fairly intricate routine. After rehearsing it a bit, here's how it came out:

If you're familiar with the better known 1926 Hot Five number, "King of the Zulus," the opening of "Yes! I'm in the Barrel" should sound a little familiar as it features an almost identical D-minor vamp. Now Louis wants the spotlight so he takes off with an exciting muted flight, sounding great, as he always did in a minor key. He starts low, takes his time and gradually builds to a high A before showing off some of his fast-fingered stuff. Armstrong often played muted in his sideman recordings in New York but he didn't seem to like it. You can almost hear his relief when he puts it down and starts playing the lead with open horn.

Armstrong leads the group through the 20-bar main strain in F before again going back to the verse, a common practice in that era. Like the intro, the verse is in D-minor, though it resolves in major. Like "My Heart," the ensemble playing is top notch throughout but once again, Louis cedes the spotlight to Dodds. Instead of following the form of the written tune, Dodds stretches out for two choruses of 12-bar-blues, his specialty (you can imagine him driving his foot into that cushion). Listen to Lil back there, really backing him up nicely with some animated playing.

Armstrong gets back to the leads and leads the group home through the final chorus of the written tune, allowing Ory to take a short break in the middle. Like "My Heart," Louis reserves a couple of short breaks for himself before a chromatic flurry leads to the somewhat abrupt ending at the 2:36 mark, the band making sure to not hit the 2:45 limit mentioned by St. Cyr.

Once again, "Yes! I'm in the Barrel" might not have changed the world but I'm more interested in though process of choosing this somewhat atypical tune, teaching it to the group, coming up with the minor vamp introduction, allowing Dodds to just play the blues, etc. All of that shows a band serious about adhering to a tight routine on record, once again not simply content to just pass around a string of solos or just play ensemble-breaks-ensemble-breaks like other New Orleans records of the period.

With those two numbers out of the way, Louis and Lil were probably happy but there was still time left and Mr. Fearn had a suggestion: a blues. This makes perfect sense, knowing how OKeh had made its reputation with the blues. Louis, too, had appeared as a sideman on countless OKeh blues sessions while in New York but now, he might have been a little sick of them. According to St. Cyr, Fearn asked Louis to do a blues and Louis responded, "Man, we have so many blues and they all sound mostly alike!" Again, fascinating insight into Armstrong's thought process. You can see by the choice of "My Heart" and "Yes! I'm in the Barrel" that Louis liked played tunes with melodies and main strains and verses and tight routines. He wasn't in the mood to just jam the blues, even though he was a brilliant blues player. Later critics said that Louis was really "at home" playing the blues with his New Orleans friends in the Hot Five, but I think he was so well-rounded musically, he naturally gravitated towards the pop songs and "commercial numbers" that he was performing nightly with Lil's band and soon with Erskine Tate's band (as well as all the types of recordings he made after the Hot Five period).

Still, if Fearn wanted a blues, Armstrong was going to give him one but also a little something extra: PERSONALITY.

By the time he headed back to Chicago towards the end of 1925, he had appeared on almost 70 recording dates. And out of all 70, his voice had only appeared one time, barking out a few seconds of encouragement at the end of Henderson's record of "Everybody Loves My Baby."

Armstrong was always quick to point out that singing was his "first hustle." He loved to sing but was discouraged from doing it during his tenure with Henderson, who felt that Armstrong's gruff voice and exuberant style was too unpolished for his primarily white audiences. Regarding Henderson, Armstrong complained about his lack of singing in that band, saying in 1960 that Henderson had "a million-dollar talent in his band and never though to let me sing." But now, Armstrong was a leader on records for the first time and he could change that.

Johnny St. Cyr offered to start off with a banjo solo, an idea Armstrong liked. Then Armstrong, whose voice had been silenced on the hundreds of records he had made to this point, decided to make his personality immediately known by shouting encouragement to each member of the group during their solos. That's one of the reasons I've always loved this record; it's as if Armstrong could not possibly wait another session longer without letting his personality and natural ability as an entertainer shine though. "Oh, play that thing, Mr. St. Cyr, lord. You know you can do it. Everybody from New Orleans could do it. Hey, hey!" It's a blast. No wonder it was chosen as the first Hot Five to be released...listen for yourself:

Besides Armstrong's exhortations to the other members of the band, "Gut Bucket Blues" contains some fine playing, too. Armstrong's lead in the opening chorus is dynamite, for one. Jack Teagarden would often borrow Kid Ory's opening trombone phrase. Dodds "toots that clarinet, boy" at his uniquely bluesy best. Pops makes a great cheerleader but who would step up to cheer him on? As the story goes, when the originally attempted to record it, Johnny Dodds was supposed to do it but when the time came, he suffered from a severe case of mike fright. Here's Armstrong in 1956 recounting what happened:

[Note for the obsessees out there: for his Musical Autobiography set from the late 50s, Armstrong told this story but during an introduction for "Gully Low Blues." That was a lapse of memory since he clearly meant "Gut Bucket."]

Once Dodds bombed, Kid Ory volunteered to step in, doing a great job in the end with his reference to Pops as "Papa Dip." As for Armstrong's one-chorus solo, it's pretty perfect. No fireworks, no flights of fancy, no high notes, just one chorus of pure blues storytelling. Every phrase is so logical, it almost seems composed...

...and that's because it kind of is. Earlier in the year, Armstrong performed on a Bessie Smith record, "Cold in Hand Blues." He took a solo on it and this is how it came out:

Flash forward to his "Gut Bucket" solo:

Sound familiar? They're virtually identical. Before you jump on me, I said virtually...Pops is muted on the Smith record, the tempo is slower and some of the improvisations in between the main phrases are different. But overall, it's proof that even at 24-years-old, Armstrong already had a "bag" of licks and set solos. He had been playing professionally for years and had performed so many blues pieces that he was already getting tired of the genre. Wouldn't it make sense that he honed a few of those choruses to perfection over the years? Louis Armstrong was a genius at improvising, but jazz is much more than just improvising. Armstrong also worked hard on his solos until the point where he got them just right. This was something he got killed for in his later years, but I think it was something that was part of his style from his earliest days as a musicians. And again, this is his record, so why not lead with a pet solo he knew worked?

After Pops's solo, there's a terrific outchorus of riffing, which I've always heard as a kind of forbearer to the riffs at the end of "Savoy Blues." It's a great little chorus and Pops puts a perfect tag on it, starting with a neat rip up to a high note. It was a great record, but it still needed a title. Here's how banjoist Johnny St. Cyr told it:

"So we made a short rehearsal and cut the number. When Mr. Fern [sic] asked, 'What shall we name it?,' Louis thought for a while and then said 'Call it "The Gutbucket."' Louis could not explain the meaning of the name. He said it just came to him. But I will explain it. In the fish markets in New Orleans the fish cleaners keep a large bucket under the table where they clean the fish, and as they do this they rake the guts in this bucket. Thence 'The Gut Bucket,' which makes it a low down blues."

Fearn knew he had a winner: "Gut Bucket Blues" would be the one to lead off the Hot Five series, rushed into release in December 1925, with "Yes! I'm in the Barrel" as the flip side. Here's how it was advertised in the Chicago Defender in January 1926:

And here is the original 78 label, as found at the Louis Armstrong House Museum (and one that will be on display at the Armstrong House in an exhibit I'm preparing for the 90th anniversary of this release that will debut in mid-December):

The result was a hit and in February, Armstrong would be called back to record seven more sides: "Come Back Sweet Papa," "Georgia Grind," "Cornet Chop Suey," "Heebie Jeebies," "Oriental Strut," "You're Next" and "Muskrat Ramble." The results exploded and that was that. [cue dramatic voice] Nothing would ever be the same.

The Hot Fives and Sevens have celebrated and dissected so much but their reissue history is problematic, as I detailed in a previous post, So You Wanna Buy the Hot Fives and Sevens? This is something that might change in the future if I have my way--wish me luck! But no matter the sound quality, all you have to do is listen to a few minutes of the Hot Five in action to know you're listening to New Orleans jazz--and American music--at its finest, something to celebrate today on the 90th anniversary of that first session, as well as any and every day music continues to be heard and played.

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.'"