Recorded May 13, 1938
Track Time 2:44
Written by “Traditional”
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Shelton Hemphill, trumpet; J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Rupert Cole, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Bingie Madison, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin
Originally released on Decca 2230
Currently available on CD: It’s on volume four (1938) of the wonderful Ambassador series, as well as about a thousand other discs
Available on Itunes? Are you kidding?
70 years ago today, Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra walked into Decca’s New York studios to record a song Armstrong had played as a child. The song was “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” and that first Armstrong recording of the tune transformed the piece from a traditional gospel hymn to a jazz standard that has become an anthem of sorts in the United States, having been performed by everyone from B.B. King to Bruce Springsteen. Gospel groups have performed it, it’s been heard in films and television commercials, children are taught to sing it in elementary school and just about every New Orleans-related jazz band closes with it (even if they’re sick of it. As the old sign in Preservation Hall used to read: “$1 for standard requests, $2 for unusual requests and $5 for the Saints”).
Type the title of the song into a YouTube search and you’ll get 694 results to wade through. Type it into an Itunes search and be prepared to sift through 563 results, with versions by the likes of Elvis Presley, Trini Lopez, Yusef Lateef and Harry Belafonte (it’s also on a “Baby Einstein” compilation of music for, well, babies). Allmusic.com lists 929 versions of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” but that website also lists additional versions with altered titles or recordings of it that are part of medleys, which drives the total to over 1,000 recorded versions.
And for better or for worse, it all began with Louis Armstrong’s record, 70 years ago.
I personally think it’s for the better because it led to so many great versions by Armstrong himself. When I type “Louis Armstrong Saints” into MY Itunes library, I get 47 results. Add in the versions I have on videos and DVD and the actual number is probably closer to 60. Now, before you frantically close this window and go back to checking your mail, don’t worry, I’m not going to discuss all 60 versions. But there are some greats ones out there, including a number on video, and I think the evolution of the performance in Armstrong’s repertoire over the course of his career is quite interesting. So stick with me as we celebrate the anniversary of this song with an interactive look at some of the great man’s finest versions. Even if my words put you to sleep, skip ‘em and stay for the music!
Obviously, I’ll start with that first recording, though of course, it was not Louis Armstrong’s first encounter with the song. On the original Decca record, the composer for the “Saints” was listed as “Traditional” and that’s how it’s listed on almost every succeeding version. However, after digging around the Internet, I discovered that a song titled “When the Saints Are Marching In” was published in 1896 with music by James Milton Black and lyrics by Katherine Purvis. However, this is not the one we all know and love. You can read more and even hear a sample of that song by clicking this
According to the always-reliable Wikipedia (sarcasm), other derivatives followed over the years, including “When the Saints March In For Crowning” (1908), “When All the Saints Come Marching In” (1923) and “When the Saints Go Marching Home” (1927), but I don’t know if any of these sounded like the traditional version or the Black and Purvis. The “Saints” we all know and love (loathe, for some) was officially included in Edward Boatner's 1927 book of hymns, Spirituals Triumphant - Old And New. However, a silly website I found has an article about how Virgil Stamps wrote the music and Luther Presley wrote the lyrics…in 1937! Presley was a noted gospel songwriter, but composing “The Saints” in 1937? Impossible!
Louis Armstrong himself talked about hearing the song frequently as a child, both as a sober hymn and as a joyous romp during the second line parades that gathered after a funeral. On the new Armstrong DVD The Portrait Collection, there’s footage of Armstrong on a talk show in 1961 talking about how he played the song as a kid in the Waif’s Home. So Armstrong was quite familiar with the tune, which was already being jammed by the New Orleans jazz musicians, but around the rest of the country, it was mainly known as a gospel tune. That’s how the Paramount Jubilee Singers performed the song when it made its recorded debut in November 1923 on a record. Titled “When All the Saints Go Marching In,” it sounded like this:
Five years later, in January 1928, Blind Willie Davis recorded “The Saints” accompanied solely by his bluesy guitar. He misses some of the changes but it’s a smokin’ performance and I never would have known about it without finding this on YouTube:
In 1930, “When the Saints Go Marching In” was included in the Broadway stage production of Green Pastures, as well as in the 1936 film version of that play. However, I haven’t found any other recordings of it before Armstrong’s and certainly nothing that resembles a jazz version.
Armstrong had recorded almost nothing but pop tunes since he signed with Decca in 1938, though occasionally he got to break out an instrumental classic like “Dippermouth Blues” or “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” while he also got to record the occasional original composition such as “Swing That Music” or “If We Never Meet Again.” But somewhere along the way, Armstrong must have remembered his days of listening and playing “The Saints” as a youngster and thought a good record could be made of a New Orleans-styled treatment of the tune. Armstrong’s pianist Luis Russell cooked up an arrangement and it recorded as the fourth and final tune of the May 13, 1938 session. Interestingly, the session featured a streamlined version of Armstrong’s big band, utilizing only one trumpet, one trombone and three reeds. Thus, without further ado, here’s that first recording of “When the Saints Go Marching In” (note: the Red Hot Jazz version is pitched low in the key of F#. Armstrong played it in G so here it is in the correct key courtesy of Gösta Hägglöf’s Ambassador series, with pitch correction by the fabulous trumpeter, Bent Persson).
I don’t care how sick some people might get of this song, I find the original record to be irresistible, right from the opening “chords” played by the brass and reeds. Paul Barbarin’s parade drumming sets the mood perfectly. In fact, this might be Barbarin’s finest record with Armstrong. I love Barbarin, but he was no Sid Catlett (who was?), the man who replaced him and who became Armtrong’s all-time favorite drummer. Catlett was a bit more “modern” in his approach, while Barbarin favored snare drum work and heavy backbeat cymbal splashes. But Barbarin was a New Orleans man and he always fit in beautifully with that Russell rhythm section of Russell, guitarist Lee Blair and bassist Pops Foster. Whenever Barbarin got to pull out his parade drumming tricks, stand back—“Jubilee” from January 12, 1938 is another classic uplifted by Barbarin’s drumming.
I think New Orleans drumming is an art form and anyone who says it was the boppers who freed up the drums in jazz has never listened to New Orleans jazz where it seems like those cats playing anything BUT straight time. Barbarin really boots along “The Saints” with his snare and those funky bass drum and tom-tom accents in between the choruses, a hallmark of New Orleans drumming.
But naturally, Armstrong is the main event. As the congregation of horns gives Armstrong his padding, the master steps up to the mike to deliver a sermon: “Sisters and brothers, this is Reverend Satchmo getting ready to beat out this mellow sermon for ya. My text this evening is ‘When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.’ Here come Brother Hickenbottom down the aisle with his tram-bone. Blow it, boy…”
Armstrong had been parodying reverends since he was a teenager in New Orleans, creating a character that he would feature in live performance during his New York and Chicago days, as well as on records such as “Lonesome Road.” Of course, his announcement of “Brother Hickenbottom” is a reference to the band’s all-star trombonist, J.C. Higginbotham, who really “sings” the melody with his shouting reading of the “text,” getting cute responses from the high reeds and some somber moaning from the low ones. Russell arranged a neat little interlude to separate the music portion from the start of the vocal, four short bars that stick in the listener’s mind every time he or she listens to the recording (I love that patented late-30s emphasis on the fourth beat of the second bar, shades of Cab Calloway’s “Scrontch”).
Armstrong then delivers the vocal, a favorite of kids from 1 to 92 (or is that “The Christmas Song”?). He sounds joyous in his tenor register, getting echoing responses from the members of the band (as well as a female voice somewhat prominent in the mix). Barbarin lays down the parade beat as alto saxophonist Charlie Holmes takes a fairly bluesy solo, Armstrong telling him to “Blow it, Brother Holmes.” Another Barbarin drum fill leads to the second chorus of singing, featuring the same words as the first. The traditional spiritual featured many different verses but Armstrong was content to do only the first (in later versions he went as far as “When the Saints Go Marchin’ By,” but that was it, no stuff about sun’s refusing to shine or sister’s getting religion).
Before Armstrong’s even done with the vocal, the strutty, funky trombone of Higgy can already be heard in the distance. The song really takes off during Higginbotham’s solo, which is so note-perfect, part of me wonders if he “set” it in advance. Russell’s written figures for the reeds provide a nice counterpoint, while the rhythm section really drives everything along. Another reading of the Russell’s four-bar interlude sets up Pops’s trumpet, taking it out for two choruses. His first sticks pretty close to the melody, but the additional little notes and changes in phrasing carry the day (I dig the blues inflection on the first playing of the word “In” and those almost inconspicuous swoops and glides in his snake-like playing).
In pure New Orleans fashion, Armstrong doesn’t even finish the melody after the first chorus, instead holding a high tonic G to signal the beginning of the next chorus. He’s stays on the G before playing a run that works up to an F#, the major seventh and more or less a direct quote from Armstrong’s composition “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” (in future versions it would become more direct). Armstrong keeps up his variations before building up to an ending where he nails a high concert D. The band reprises the Russell “interlude” one last time and the record ends with a bang. Classic stuff.
When the record was released, Armstrong was met from resistance from at least one listener: his sister Beatrice, better known as “Mama Lucy.” As Gary Giddins reported this story in his book Satchmo, “Danny Barker remembers how Mama Lucy criticized her brother for tarting up a piece from the church. When Barker told Armstrong what she had said, he got angry and remarked that she didn’t see anything wrong with playing bingo in the church.” Such a great response…
So naturally, the song became a big hit and Louis Armstrong began featuring it every night, right? Not quite. The “Saints” revolution appears to have taken off a little slower than imagined. Wingy Manone recorded it in 1939 and was filmed performing it in 1943 with what was basically a copycat imitation of the Armstrong Decca record:
But that was five years after Armstrong’s recording. Hadn’t the “Saints” begun their march yet? Not quite. Revival hero Bunk Johnson didn’t get around to it until 1944 and there aren’t many other versions from the following couple of years. And what about old Pops? Well, Jos Willems has listened to and charted just about every surviving Armstrong session, broadcast and concert and he lists absolutely zero performances of “The Saints” between the 1938 original and 1946. And trust me, there are a lot of Armstrong broadcasts from those years, but Pops never pulled out “The Saints” a single time. Armstrong’s version led many New Orleans bands, both of the authentic and “revival” kind, to adopt “The Saints” as kind of a theme song, but Armstrong wasn’t playing with a New Orleans band and thus, the piece was kind of left on the back burner.
When it was time to revisit the song, it was for the motion picture New Orleans, a piece of Hollywood fluff that purported to tell the story of the origins of jazz in the titular city. It’s a mess of a movie but Pops lights up the screen and the music is often good. Three short takes of “The Saints” exist, all strictly instrumental and featuring Pops mainly playing the melody in a band that featured his former boss Kid Ory on trombone and future All Star Barney Bigard on clarinet. Armstrong sounds in wonderful form but the large group doesn’t exactly swing, instead marching along on top of heavy tuba beats. Armstrong sounds great riding over the ensemble, but otherwise, it’s kind of murky. Here’s the recording:
By April of 1947, New Orleans was getting ready to make its debut so Armstrong did a lot of promotion including an appearance on Rudi Blesh’s WOR radio show This is Jazz. The broadcast reunited Armstrong with many of his New Orleans cohorts, including clarinetist Albert Nicholas, bassist Pops Foster and drummer Baby Dodds. As I said, the song hadn’t exactly become a staple yet and Armstrong doesn’t seem to have played it much since the original recording nine years earlier. Thus, the arrangement follows that Decca record to a tee. Here ‘tis:
I love the tempo of this version and especially the drumming of Baby Dodds…oh, only if he could have sounded like that on the old King Oliver recordings. Trombonist Georg Brunis (aka George Brunies) makes his presence felt with his extroverted personality and fine, shouting trombone style. Armstrong’s two rideout choruses follow the pattern of the Decca, though this time, when he holds the G going into the second chorus, he uses it as a springboard to a very exciting B. Again, the performance lands on a high D, Armstrong sounding as strong as ever.
One month after the broadcast, Armstrong performed with a small group at Town Hall in New York City. The concert was such a success that Armstrong decided to break up the big band and begin touring with a sextet, the All Stars. Again, using Willems’s discography as a guide, it seems that “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” was an infrequent part of the repertoire in the earliest days of the band, having been played at a Carnegie Hall concert in November 1947 and at the Nice jazz festival in France in February 1948, the only two known versions of the tune in the first year of the band. But by September 1948, the All Stars had a new arrangement of the song, now played as part of a medley with “Shadrack.” After making the original Decca record of “The Saints”, Armstrong began infrequently tackling religious material and “Shadrack” was one of the first up, recorded with a choir on June 14, 1938, one month after “The Saints.” “Shadrack” was a popular recording for Armstrong so it made sense to combine the two.
“Shadrack” would open the medley and when it was over, a drum break would herald the beginning of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” performed faster than any of Armstrong’s previous versions. How fast? The original Decca record weighed in around 190 beats per minute while the live versions with the All Stars kicked off around 250. Armstrong would now play two choruses up front, sing one, then throw it to Barney Bigard, who usually began with a quote from “Pennsylvania 6-500.” Then Armstrong would sing another before Jack Teagarden’s trombone would take over. Then it was time for Pops, who, as always, led the two final rideout choruses, often changing his phrasing of the melody in the first chorus and always holding a note to lead into the second chorus. The second chorus would always begin with the exact phrase Armstrong played on the 1938 recording, though this time it would be played in tandem with Teagarden, while the “Barbecue” quote was more pronounced. And you guessed it, Armstrong would trade phrases with Teagarden until climbing up to that final high D.
The early All Stars versions of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” are all very exciting (especially the ones with Sid Catlett) but they’re all quite similar. In late 1950, Armstrong and the All Stars recorded a bunch of songs for use in the Mickey Rooney film, The Strip. For the soundtrack, the band recorded their medley of “Shadrack” and “The Saints” in beautiful sound. Here’s that track:
Unfortunately, when it came time to actually film the scene for The Strip, nearly five minutes of running time was a little too long. Thus, here is the medley as it appeared in the film, with a pretty complete “Shadrack” and a too short run-through of “The Saints,” with no vocal and only one trumpet outchorus. It’s not exactly a great film but it has a lot of music and a lot of priceless glimpses of the Armstrong-Teagarden-Earl Hines addition of the All Stars in prime form. Here ‘tis:
So that’s the story of “The Saints” in the early years of the All Stars. However, it was during those years when the popularity of the tune really began to take off in the jazz world. Sidney Bechet recorded it in 1949, Lu Watters waxed it in 1950 and many other versions began springing up. However, by the end of 1951, when personnel of the All Stars began changing, Armstrong momentarily let go of “The Saints.” Willems lists no versions of the song being performed live or on broadcasts between the summer of 1951 and the summer of 1953. Of course, Willems only had access to surviving broadcasts and concert tapes so the exact contents of every Armstrong live show will never be truly known. Besides, it is known that during Armstrong’s 1952 run at the Paramount Theater in New York, he closed each show with a Gordon Jenkins arrangement of “The Saints” for the All Stars and big band. According to a review of the period, “When the Jenkins band joined Louis in the final, ‘When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,’ the house was in virtual bedlam. Jenkins seems to have such a good time up there, looking at Armstrong and Velma Middleton, he should pay to get in.”
In early 1953, when Armstrong embarked on an ill-conceived tour with Benny Goodman big band, those concerts also ended with Armstrong jamming “The Saints” with the orchestra. Goodman basically had a nervous breakdown on that tour and was soon replaced by Gene Krupa. Interestingly, a www.jazzlegends.com release titled “Where’s Benny?” features a set by the Krupa big band and concludes with Armstrong and the band doing “The Saints.” I haven’t ordered it yet, but I’m sure it’s something special.
By the end of 1953, Armstrong and the All Stars were back to regularly featuring the medley of “The Saints” and “Shadrack.” The band had a new trombonist in Trummy Young and his rowdy, robust concept of trombone playing added a new spark to the band. A broadcast from the Club Hangover in January 1954 showcases the power of this new edition of the All Stars on “The Saints,” whose tempo had now dropped back down to about 224 beats per minute. The Club Hangover broadcast is available on a Storyville C.D. is truly one of my favorites as it absolutely smokes. A big part of the smoking has to do with Young’s blasting trombone, which really spurs Armstrong to great heights. In fact, after so many years of taking two rideout choruses, Armstrong now began taking three, the rhythm team of bassist Milt Hinton and drummer Kenny John really spurring him on. The first chorus would consist of a mostly improvised reading of the melody while the second featured some call and response with Bigard and Young and a swinging descending eighth-note run. The last chorus was the set one he had been playing since 1938, but now the “Barbecue” quote stuck out and Young really came out like a piledriver, repeating notes like a rhythm-and-blues tenor saxophonist while Bigard would hold a high note. “The Saints” never sounded so good but as great as this version is, I’ve chosen right now to share another one from the same period, a ten-minute marathon from Armstrong’s May 8, 1954 afternoon concert at the University of North Carolina.
I blogged a complete review of this concert back in September 2007 but what I wrote about “The Saints” then still holds up today. Please listen along and prepare to be stunned:
Armstrong was in absolutely peak form on that 1954 show and he had just blown up a storm on the “New Orleans Function” and “Lazy River” preceding that track. Here’s what I wrote about it in September:
“If you think I’ve been enthusiastic up to this point, I don’t know how I’m going to convey the wild roller coaster ride that is a ten-minute medley of “Shadrack” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” After another long piano introduction (you can hear Armstrong make a reference to the Ink Spots), “Shadrack” begins with an absolutely infectious minor vamp (think “Hit the Road, Jack”) and it’s impossible to not get carried away by it. Unfortunately, by this point in the show, something went awry with the tape machine. All of a sudden, John’s drums sound louder and Pop’s voice sounds distant. After “Shadrack,” the band swings into the “Saints” and though it takes some effort to listen for it, what follows might be the most scorching, free-spirited playing of the entire All Stars period. It begins like every other version of the “Saints” and after solos by Bigard and Young, Armstrong leads the way with his set three-chorus rideout pattern, Bigard and Young with him all the way. Armstrong had worked on this routine for years and it works. The song ends on another huge high D and it’s over. The audience goes wild and Pops counts off the tempo for an encore, done at the same tempo. This encore was also pretty set and it, too, works as Pops blows another set of variations before ending on another high D. So far, so good but it’s not over yet. John takes a drum break and we’re off for a second encore, now at warp speed. Now’s where the improvisation begins as Armstrong first plays around with the melody then launches into a positively demonized second chorus, where he blows like it’s his last night on earth, hitting high G’s, smearing phrases, playing some very fleet-fingered ideas and showing complete command of the horn before pushing himself to play the melody a full octave higher than usual in the third chorus, nailing every note before ending on a sickening high E!
And he’s still not done.
He counts off one more time, and this time the band sounds like they didn’t even expect it. Shaw starts walking, John joins in but Pops is the only horn playing for a few seconds. Who needs anyone else when Armstrong is blowing with such fury? Armstrong now turns back the clock and it’s now 1932 again. He starts showing his endurance, hitting high G’s and holding them, the first one for five seconds before glissing to a higher B, the second one for four seconds, before another B and finally a third for three seconds before yet another gliss to yet another B. I’m glad I don’t play the trumpet because I would probably start crying and put my instrument up for sale after listening to this. Then once more, he plays the melody an octave higher, sounding a little shaky at first but almost immediately finding his footing, blasting it out with authority. Bedlam erupts and even Armstrong can’t help laughing his funny high-pitched laugh he only trotted out when he was especially titillated.”
So that’s what I wrote in 2007 though there’s a few items I could add. Armstrong now sang, “I would like to hit the number” instead of “I want to be in that number,” a humorous little touch. Also, Bigard’s “Pennsylvania 6-500” quote bit the dust, replaced by some exciting repeated high notes. I wrote that Armstrong’s first reprise was already kind of set but I think this is the first version in my collection with the encore, including the “National Emblem March” quote. It’s definitely the first I have with the speeded up encores and the playing of the melody an octave higher and it’s certainly not the last. I apologized for the somewhat shaky recording quality, especially the overbearing drums of Kenny John, but fortunately there are other similar versions that exist in better sound.
By 1955, John was gone, replaced by Barrett Deems and the “Shadrack/Saints” medley had become a popular set opener at live shows and on radio broadcasts such as one from the Basin Street club in New York City from around this time. In January 1955, the All Stars performed at the Crescendo Club in Hollywood, where their sets were recorded for Decca. Armstrong began the second set with the medley, which, with the encores, weighed in at seven minutes, too long for the original release. Thus, Decca lopped off “Shadrack,” thanks to some fancy editing in the announcement, and released what might be one of the most perfect versions of “The Saints” in the Armstrong discography. Nothing can match the raw excitement of the Carolina version but this one is the tightest; everything is set, Pops is flying and the sound quality is miles ahead of that from Carolina. Again, some kind person uploaded this performance onto YouTube so here is “The Saints,” 1955 vintage, taken right from original LP:
Hot stuff, huh? In between, Armstrong appeared on the CBS show You Are There, playing the role of King Oliver on the last night of Storyville. It’s one of the most ironic television moments of all time. Before this clip begins, Armstrong, as Oliver, delivers scripted lines about blacks and whites playing together. At the same time, the All Stars always featured an integrated line-up. However, the suits at CBS were still afraid of southern viewership not being able to handle seeing an integrated band…in September 1954! When they suggested Armstrong hire a black drummer, Armstrong refused, defending Deems as his drummer to the end. So what the final solution?
Yes, you read that right. Blackface. In 1954. To give the impression of an all-black band. Whose leader just spoke about the benefits of integrated music. It’s truly bizarre, but the music in this clip is stunning. Armstrong jams “The Saints,” first engaging in a “cutting contest” with white trumpeter Bobby Hackett, heard offscreen because, well, he was white and again, that was taboo! Hackett sounds really inspired and Pops comes up with a string of improvised ideas. But at the end, he plays the set All Stars ending, marching and playing like he’s a kid in New Orleans again. A wild clip:
By the mid-50s, “The Saints” was officially becoming an anthem in the traditional jazz world. For example, at a 1952 concert, clarinetist George Lewis played it as the fourth song of the first set. The crowd reaction was pure bedlam and just a few short years later, it was closing most Lewis concerts, becoming a standard closer for most New Orleans jazz bands until today. After the Crescendo Club album, Armstrong soon ditched “Shadrack” and began moving “The Saints” from being a set opener to being an evening closer.
By the end of 1955, clarinetist Edmond Hall joined the All Stars, beginning the prime period of the famed group. Numerous versions of “The Saints” exist from the Hall period and I have to share at least one of them. In early 1956, the All Stars embarked on a tour with Woody Herman’s Orchestra. Listening to the surviving recordings and reading the reviews from the tour, it seems like the All Stars played with an extra competitive edge. They often closed their sets with “The Saints,” joined by Herman’s group for some simple riffing. This version is from a one-nighter in Grand Rapids, Michigan and it’s a hot one with some new ideas in Armstrong’s rideout choruses and another crazy encore featuring Armstrong playing the melody an octave higher. Here goes:
Speaking of Herman, Armstrong and Herman met again on December 30, 1957 for the taping of the very first Timex All Star Jazz Show. The finale that year was a wild version of the “Saints” that began with Herman’s orchestra before Armstrong and the All Stars played the melody their way, joined by Jack Teagarden’s band, which could be called the All Stars’s farm team as it featured other members of the Armstrong circle including Bobby Hackett, Peanuts Hucko, Marty Napoleon, Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole. Then, without missing a beat, the Dave Brubeck Quartet with Paul Desmond plays a couple of choruses before Armstrong sings, backed by Steve Allen, June Christy, Herman, Teagarden and Trummy Young. Gene Krupa and Cozy Cole then engage in a drum battle before Armstrong leads the charge out. It’s a bit messy but the spectacle overshadows any of the hysterics of the playing. By my count, there are 33 musicians on the stage, many in the jazz hall of fame: Woody Herman, Bill Harris, Al Cohn, Paul Qunichette, Zoot Sims, Nat Pierce, Chjubby Jackson, Trummy Young, Edmond Hall, Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, Charlie Ventura, Gene Krupa, Cozy Cole, Bobby Hackett, Jack Teagarden…it’s mind-boggling. And for me, the wildest part is listening to all 33 guys blowing at once and through it all, hearing Pops’s sound still shine through. And because the director was probably signaling them to keep going until the credits finished rolling, Armstrong was forced to take more than his usual set three-chorus finish. In his third chorus, Armstrong takes the melody up an octave but the band keeps going, so Armstrong knocks himself out with one high D and E after another. He stays up there for three more choruses before we finally fade out. Well, enough blathering from me; enjoy this incredible moment:
Armstrong was clearly feeling his oats in the 1954-1959 years and 1958 features a bunch of great “Saints.” In fact, on May 13 of that year, the 20th anniversary of the original (and 50 years ago today), Armstrong played it at a concert in North Bay Ontario. Highlights from this concert were released on C.D. in 2006 to absolutely no fanfare but I’ve mentioned it here a dozen times because it’s one of the finest Armstrong discs I’ve ever heard. Pops is in absolutely peak form throughout and especially on “The Saints” where, instead of playing the set third chorus he had been playing for 20 years, he heads right on up to playing the melody an octave higher, with no encore or anything. Unfortunately, the performance is split up between two different tracks on the C.D. so I’m not going to include it here but please, please, please, order this incredible disc at www.worldsrecords.com and prepare to blown away by some ferocious playing by Armstrong and the rest of the band. Here’s the : link.
Shortly after the North Bay concert, Edmond Hall left the group. His replacement was Peanuts Hucko, whose first engagement with the band was at the Newport Jazz Festival that year. I’ve also written about this crime before and I might as well do it again. Columbia recorded Armstrong’s entire set that night and they’ve released a grand total of three tracks from it over the years, each in glorious sound and featuring Pops in glorious form. However, Sony has sat on those tapes for years now, though they’ve released every scrap of Miles Davis in their archives. This summer would mark the 50th anniversary of the concert and what would mark the occasion better than a deluxe issue of the event? Sadly, it looks like it’ll never happen. None of my European contingent of Armstrong nuts possesses a recording the concert and producer George Avakian, who recorded the show, has also had his request for a copy of the concert turned down by Sony itself! It’s an outright crime but hopefully someone from Europe can get into the Sony vaults and issue it when the copyright runs out after this year.
The only good news is Bert Stern filmed a lot of the festival for his film Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Stern filmed some of Armstrong’s set including a brief, closing version of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” Armstrong’s time obviously was drawing to a close to he eliminates all solos and such but my goodness, he plays with fury, again, like in North Bay, skipping the preliminaries, and going straight for playing the melody an octave higher. Stern’s photography is beautiful and the juxtaposed shots of Armstrong wailing really capture the intensity of the man. Here’s the clip:
So Pops was blowing his ass off in the summer of 1958, but he might have blown himself out a little bit as he sounds in less than 100% form at the Monterey Jazz Festival from October 3, 1958, and the subject on another one of my early blogs. Armstrong had a rough start that evening, even omitting his customary solo on “Indiana,” but he blew through the pain, eventually settling in a bit towards the end of the concert. However, by the end of the set, his lip was just about shot, as he doesn’t play his usual obbligatos on “St. Louis Blues” and “That’s My Desire.” He saves whatever he has in tank for the closing “Saints” and it’s clear that it hurts. In the opening choruses, he hits a few air notes and he really struggles with the “Here Comes the Bride” quote that bridges the first and second rideout choruses. All the fleet-fingered little phrases are gone but Pops manages to blow through the pain and still hits that high note at the end. Oh, the lengths he went to please his audiences and hit those high notes…
Now, before I march onward, we’ll take a breather. If you’ve been foolish enough to attempt to read this in one sitting, you’ve probably fallen asleep. So if you would like to grab a cold beverage, check your e-mail, call your mother, enjoy a sandwich, take some Swiss Kriss, whatever, go right ahead and knock yourself out. As a means of an intermission, I’ll keep things strictly chronological and throw out a YouTube clip of Armstrong and Danny Kaye doing “The Five Pennies Saints” for the film, The Five Pennies. This was another subject of an older blog entry but there’s really not too much to add. I think it’s a magical film moment and it was recorded in October 1958, right where we are in the narrative anyway. There’s no trumpet playing but the vocal routine is a gas. Enjoy!
Wasn’t that a “gassuh”? The ending, where both men scat their hearts out, gets me every time.
Okay, class—I mean, readers—let’s get back to the nitty gritty. When I left off, Pops was struggling with “The Saints” at the Monterey Jazz Festival. But don’t fret, my children…by the time of his mammoth 1959 tour of Europe, Armstrong was in fighting shape. “The Saints” continued to be a show closer, allowing Armstrong to introduce everyone in the band and though a million versions survive from this tour, there’s not one that’s a dud. If you didn’t notice it on the 1958 clip, the tempo of “The Saints” had now crept back up to 250 beats per minute. Armstrong now sang “I would like to hit the sweepstakes” instead of “hit the number,” a cute touch. New drummer Danny Barcelona now played some accents when Armstrong threw a few punches during the trombone solo. Also, listen for Young and Hucko’s furious riffing as Armstrong introduces the members of the band for their final bows—they’re smoking! Pops’s three choruses come off beautifully, though he doesn’t play the melody an octave higher (also, listen for Hucko doubling Young’s repeated notes). There are a few videos of “The Saints” from this 1959 tour floating around YouTube but I’ve decided to choose one from Stuttgart, Germany, February 15, 1959. This video has over 352,000 views as of this writing, testament to the continued popularity of Armstrong and “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.”
Of course, the 1959 tour is mostly remembered for Armstrong’s heart episode, which either almost killed him or was only a bad case of indigestion, depending on whom you believe. Armstrong clearly suffered some trauma and though he continued to blow beautifully for years to come, he now had to pace himself more. And here’s where the plot thickens, my friends. Because “The Saints” usually closed the evening, Armstrong sometimes no longer had the chops to make his climb to the top. This becomes apparent when watching a clip of the All Stars on the "Ed Sullivan Show" from September 20, 1959, just a few months after Armstrong recovered and began touring again. This is otherwise a fun version and I love the interplay between Pops and Danny Barcelona (“Hawaii Speaks!”) but Armstrong’s chops let him down in that climactic third chorus. Up to then, he sounds fine but his lips do seem to tire and it takes every ounce of willpower to make that high D. Here’s the footage:
He makes it but it’s not easy. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t become any easier in the coming months. Just a few weeks later, Armstrong and the All Stars played an outdoor concert at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. This concert was never commercially issued but it survives in beautiful sound. Probably because it was an outdoor concert, Pops has some trouble with his chops, hitting a lot of air notes and struggling with his dexterity (you can hear him complain that “It’s cold” during “Tiger Rag”). Oddly enough, Armstrong’s highest notes come out clean as a bell but he struggles with the middle register (I’ll never understand the trumpet!). Both sets of the concert survive and both sets end with “The Saints.” And on both versions, Armstrong, knowing deep down that he’s probably not going to make it, omits his final three-chorus solo. The first time around, he introduces everyone, then throws it right into Barcelona’s feature on “Mop Mop,” which didn’t require an Armstrong solo. At the end of the second set, Armstrong takes “The Saints” at a slower tempo, getting the entire audience to sing and clap along. After the vocal, Armstrong picks up the chorus and plays one chorus, sounding fairly strong. But again, not wanting to chance it, he cuts it off abruptly and heads into the closing theme “Sleepy Time Down South.”
And that, sadly, was the end of Armstrong’s wondrous three-chorus rideout on “The Saints.” At the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, he segued into the “Star Spangled Banner” once he introduced the members of the band. At the Oregon State Fair in September 1960, the tempo slowed further while Young and clarinetist Barney Bigard tried out some new riffs during the introductions. But once the introductions are over, Armstrong throws it over to “Mop Mop” again, a tactic from the Keesler that would be repeated at an African concert in November 1960 and at a Swedish concert in early 1961.
So loyal readers, was this the sad fate of “The Saints” in Louis Armstrong’s repertoire? A few choruses up front, a vocal, then a short drum solo? Thankfully, no, as Pops wised up and probably noticed how much the audience loved singing the tune. So by at least a September 1961 engagement in Pennsylvania, Armstrong was playing two choruses up front, then leading a sing-a-long with the band members and the audience. Clarinet and trombone still took solos but now the tempo dropped dramatically to around 166 beats per minute, slower than any previous Armstrong version. In 1961, Jewel Brown became the group’s new vocalist and initially, she played a prominent role during “The Saints,” dancing, clapping and singing some remarkably high counterpoint notes. It’s impressive as far as singing goes, but it got in the way of the performance. By the middle of 1962, she toned it down to simply clapping and shouting encouragements.
But in April 1962, the All Stars were filmed doing “The Saints” for a Goodyear jazz short. Here, Brown really tries taking the spotlight, to the point where she seems to annoy Pops with her high notes towards the end. However, the real reason to celebrate this clip is Pops’s decision to take a couple of choruses in the middle. Pops is full of new ideas, including a quick “Dixie” quote and some scorching high notes in the second chorus. It represents the last great surviving solo Armstrong took on “The Saints.” Here it is, courtesy of a YouTube video that’s seen more than 200,000 hits:
As I said, that was a pretty padded version. Here are the All Stars in May 1962, just one month later, performing “The Saints” in Sweden, a good representation of how Armstrong approached the song in the 1960s:
Thus, that became the normal routine for “The Saints” from about 1961 to 1964: Pops plays two up front, sings, trombone and clarinet solo, the band is introduced and Pops encourages one last sing-a-long. It’s pretty good, but I always get annoyed at Billy Kyle’s overly-church-ified piano comping, playing static inversions on the first and third beats, which usually clashed with Danny Barcelona’s straight swinging drums.
In 1964, “Hello, Dolly” became all the rage, a bigger sensation than “The Saints.” Starting around 1965, “The Saints” was moved back to the first set closer, setting up intermission and that’s where it usually remained. If the All Stars did a one set show, then “The Saints” might still close it, but after the band introductions, Armstrong would head back to “Dolly” for one final chorus.
Yet Armstrong wasn’t ready to retire “The Saints” just yet. In April 1966, he recorded a version of it for Mercury, his first studio recording of the song since the 1938 original. It’s an okay record, but please don’t compare it to the original. Armstrong’s opening monologue is fun as he recounts seeing a bunch of “soul brothers” who wanted to sing and blow “The Saints.” Then Armstrong picks up his trumpet and plain and simple, sounds fairly weak. His tone is still there, if a bit dimmed and though his variations on the melody are somewhat beautiful in their subtle nature, the tower of the strength we were used to hearing in the 1940s and 1950s simply isn’t there. And this doesn’t mean he was dead; Armstrong still had some great blowing in front of him. But 1966 seems to be a rough year for Pops on record and from then on, the status of his chops could be erratic from night to night. And sadly, after that first, weakened chorus, Armstrong’s trumpet is silent for the rest of the record. He still had his voice and he puts on a good show introducing the members of the band, but it’s not quite the same. Here it is, again, on a YouTube video someone took of a record spinning for three minutes…
But as usual, don’t shed any tears for ol’ Pops yet. In 1968, Armstrong’s chops sounded quite strong again. On top of that, “The Saints” was sometimes moved to the closer status, now once again sporting a faster tempo. This is how it was played on a BBC television show in the summer of 1968 and I’d like to share that recording right now. Pops takes two up front and sounds better than he had in years, though he has to go low a few times where he once went high. Nevertheless, it’s a good one:
After illness forced him to miss more than a year of performing, Armstrong became a ubiquitous presence on television in 1970. In my collection, I have a great version of “The Saints” from the “Mike Douglas Show,” with Pops singing and leading a band that included Pete Fountain, Eddie Miller and Sammy Davis Jr. on drums! Zutty Singleton’s in the audience and everyone has a ball. Later that year, Armstrong sang it on the “Flip Wilson Show,” looking resplendent in a tuxedo and as happy as ever. In between, Armstrong recorded “Boy From New Orleans,” a new autobiographical tour of Armstrong’s life set to the familiar strains of “The Saints.” He would perform it on the “David Frost Show” in February 1971, just months before his passing.
But to close, I can’t think of a better clip to wrap everything up than this one: Louis Armstrong, taking “The Saints” back to church and back to New Orleans, where it all began for him. The occasion was a Newport Jazz Festival 70th birthday tribute to Armstrong. For the finale, Armstrong and gospel queen Mahalia Jackson duetted on “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” So there’s the church aspect for ya…but midway through, the Eureaka Brass Band of New Orleans comes marching out, filled with musicians Armstrong grew up listening to and playing with. They give “The Saints” the second line treatment Armstrong remembered hearing as a youngster. Pops marches around the stage like a kid again before stepping up to the microphone, clapping his hands and singing from the heart, ol’ Reverend Satchmo, still leading the congregation after all those years…
And that, my friends is that. I don’t know if I can possibly say anything more about Louis Armstrong’s long and fruitful association with “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” but I know I had a helluva lot of fun taking a tour of all these different versions. “The Saints” has become pretty beaten to death over the years, but any and all Armstrong versions still sound fresh as a daisy. As always, comments and e-mails are always welcome…any additions? Corrections? Questions? Answers? Feel free to leave a comment or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for taking this tour with me, celebrating the 70th anniversary of when the head saint himself—Pops—first came marching in, taking the whole music world with him…