Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong

Frank Sinatra died ten years ago last week, an occasion that has been met with various Sinatra tributes, new CDs, DVD box sets, showings of his films on television and even the unveiling of a new stamp. Opinions on Sinatra are divided in the jazz world, but as the son of two 100% full-blown Italian-American parents, I can say that a love of Frank Sinatra was in my blood from birth. Sinatra was a great admirer of Pops and fortunately for music lovers everywhere, their paths crossed a couple of times over the years.

The first time was on a Jubilee radio broadcast from September 1945. Sinatra sang "Blue Skies" with Armstrong contributing a scorching half chorus of trumpet. Here's that recording:


The next time their paths crossed was on Sinatra's CBS television show from New Year's Day 1952. I own this episode on video (courtesy of the great Dave Whitney) and it's a fun one (the Three Stooges are the other guests and they're also heroes of mine....the combination of Sinatra, Armstrong and the Stooges, well, that's the stuff that dreams are made of!). On the show, Armstrong backed up Sinatra on "Lonesome Man Blues," while Pops got "Confessin'" to himself, a performance that can be found on the new Portrait Collection DVD. The "Confessin'" is a classic performance, with Pops on fire and Sinatra clearly is loving every minute of it. Unfortunately, neither performance is on YouTube, but if anyone has 'em and can upload 'em, that would be marvelous.

A couple of years later, Armstrong and Sinatra teamed up for a planned animated movie of Finian's Rainbow. The project was eventually abandoned, but before that happened, a lot of the soundtrack was recorded, included Armstrong and Sinatra's scat-filled duet on "Ad-Lib Blues." Sinatra rarely indulged in scatting, but for Pops, he gave it a whirl and sounds pretty good, though Pops outsouls him. Listen for yourself:


Armstrong and Sinatra's next film pairing actually saw the light of day and became quite a hit, though the film, High Society, didn't feature the two men together, instead focusing on Armstrong's more natural rapport with Bing Crosby. But the following year, in 1957, Armstrong, Sinatra and Crosby met up again for a special episode of The Edsel Show. On the show, Armstrong and Sinatra teamed up for a terrific version of "Birth of the Blues" that can be found YouTube. But why go to YouTube when you can just watch it right here? Here 'tis...



Armstrong opening trumpet notes always make me curious. He's clearly struggling but I don't think it's chops. Rather, he seems to be finding his way, perhaps trying to figure out the correct key or something. He was familiar with the song as he had already sung it twice on television, with Eddie Fisher in 1954 and with Gordon McRae in 1955. But once Pops finds his footing, he turns in a vintage 1925 obbligato, sticking to the low register for the most part and really playing some funky blues. When Pops enters with his vocal, Sinatra can't hide his joy. Sinatra might have been one of the biggest names in music at the time, if not THE biggest, but on this performance, he looks like he's honored to simply share the stage with Pops, who influenced him and every other singer of his generation. Pops really sells his vocal and wails on the trumpet during the extended ending, sounding positively angry in some of his phrases. Dig how Armstrong gets so into it, he starts bending his upper torso all the way to his left, doing his impression of a lowercase "r." It's a great televised moment in both men's careers.

At the end of the show, Armstrong led Sinatra, Crosby and Rosemary Clooney in a too short version of "On the Sunny Side of the Street." Pops's horn is very strong and he demonstrates some of the parade marching that served him so well as a teenager in New Orleans. Notice how his feet move exactly on the beat and he even does that little stooped over bend move that Joe Muranyi dubbed the "Satchmo Strut."

Two years later, in 1959, Armstrong and Sinatra appeared together on the Oldsmobile Show, once again with Bing, but footage from this show isn't available online. According to the discographies, Armstrong and Sinatra never appeared together after that but Sinatra had one final tribute in store for Armstrong. Armstrong's recording of "Hello, Dolly" hit number one on the charts in May 1964. On June 10 of that year, Sinatra recorded his own version of "Dolly" backed by the Count Basie Orchestra with arrangements by Quincy Jones. After singing it straight once, Sinatra sings a second chorus with special lyrics that pay tribute to Satch. Here they are:

Hello, Satch!
This is Francis, Louie, it's so nice to see you back where you belong
You're back on top, Louie, never stop, Louie
You're still singing, you're still swinging, you're still, going strong
You' get the room swaying when you start in playing
One of your great songs, or songs from way back when
Blow your horn Louie, sing up a great big storm, Louie
Promise you won't go away, promise you won't go away, promise you won't go away again!


After an Armstrong-inspired jammed interlude, Armstrong ends with a resounding, gravelly "Oh yeah!" It's such a beautiful tribute and I'd like to share it, so if you'd like to listen along, click here:


So that's that. Armstrong's been gone for 37 years and Frank's be silent for 10 but there I don't think there are many other artists whose music is as timeless as theirs. They sure didn't collaborate often but when they did, their mutual love for each other always shined through.

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Note: I didn't post anything for a week because I wanted to let my dissertation on "The Saints" stew for a bit. Swedish Armstrong authority Håkan Forsberg wrote in to remind me of something "Saints" related that I missed and I'd like to share it here. In the book The World of Earl Hines, Armstrong's valet and Hines's manager, Charlie Carpenter, offers some invaluable stories. Carpenter was also a songwriter who co-wrote "You Can Depend On Me" and was in the studio when Armstrong mentioned him on the record of "Lonesome Road." Carpenter recounted the following story:
"Another day when I was there, he decided he was going to do 'When the Saints Go Marching In.' Now this was 1931, and he started out singing the words. Then he sat down on a table, his legs swinging, and played then of the most inventive choruses I ever heard in my life. 'How was that?' he asked the a. and r. man when he got through. 'Louis, I hate to say this, but I think you're a little ahead of your time with that song.' 'What do you mean? The Holy Rollers and everybody else do it in that tempo.' 'Yeah, Louis, but the masses are not too much aware of the Holy Rollers. I think they'd take my head off in New York if I sent this in.'"
And thus, the world was denied the chance to hear the 1931 Armstrong take a stab at "The Saints." It's a shame, but it's an important part of the tale of Pops and that song. Thanks again, Håkan!

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Also, May 16 marked the 40th anniversary of Louis Armstrong's beautiful record of "When You Wish Upon a Star." I just wanted to call attention to it because it will be the subject of my next entry, hopefully to be published at the end of this week. Til then!

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

The Edsel-Show

http://youtube.com/watch?v=2ZdIXvGunfc

On this youtube-clip from from the Edsel-show Louis put down his horn at 1:01 time mark, but the sound of his trumpet is clear audible in the next second. I think, the show-producer plays a pre-recorded soundtrack along with the marching scene and therefore Louis's footsteps are exactly right on the beat.

Regards
Uwe (from Germany)

Doug Ferony said...

Great article!! Thank you!!

Rob J said...

Great stuff !
Much has been written about FS good and bad, but what has been forgotten was his commitment to racial harmony at a time when the USA was being ripped apart by the most virulent racism.
Check out the "high five" FS exchanges with Pops at the end of the song. Who the hell was doing that in 1957? Come to think of it, who would do it now.....