Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanks a Million

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 19, 1935
Track Time 2:37
Written by Gus Kahn and Arthur Johnston
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken, Louis Bacon, trumpet; Harry White, Jimmy Archey, trombone; Henry Jones, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Bingie Madison, Greely Walton, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Originally released on Decca 666
Currently available on CD: Both 1935 takes are available on the first volume of the indispensable Ambassador series. Check out www.classicjazz.se for more information.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on various issues (both takes are on something called “Knowing Louis”)

Last Thanksgiving, I used my blog to take a look at Armstrong’s Decca tune “Thankful” so it only makes sense to examine Armstrong’s other “thanking” tune, “Thanks a Million.” This one of those tunes that all the real Pops lovers seem to have a soft spot for, especially trumpet players. Just off the top of my head, I know the song has been a favorite of hornmen from Bobby Hackett and Ruby Braff to Randy Sandke, Jon-Erik Kellso and Dave Whitney. Though there’s no wild pyrotechnics, the song still exists as a standout example of Armstrong playing and singing a beautiful melody with a tremendous amount of warmth.

The song comes from the formidable talents of two great songwriters of the 1930s, Arthur Johnston and Gus Kahn. Throughout his career, Armstrong found Johnston’s songs especially suitable for blowing, Johnston having written “Mandy, Make Up Your Mind,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “Moon Song” and “Just One of Those Things,” to name a few, all subject to terrific Armstrong treatments. “Thanks a Million” was written for a 20th Century musical comedy of the same name starring Dick Powell and Ann Dvorak, as well as two great comedians of the era, Fred Allen and Patsy Kelly. In the film, Powell got to sing the title song, backed by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra (with David Rubinoff on violin). I couldn’t believe it, but I did a chance search and sure enough, this clip is on YouTube:

Ah, the joys of hearing other “period” singers not named Armstrong or Crosby. Powell is harmless and has a very good voice but rhythmically, he’s the anti-Armstrong, very stiff and almost comically emotional; those hand gestures border on hilarious. Nevertheless, the song must have become pretty well associated with Powell as it became the title of a 1998 biopic and like I said, it’s harmless, with the very pretty melody coming through clearly. Sure enough, it would be a winner for Pops and indeed, he hit it out of the park. Here ‘tis:


Doesn’t get much better, eh? People sometimes refer to this a ballad but pay close attention to the tempo, which swings in a more medium groove thanks to Pops Foster’s bass. I think just because the tune is gentle and pretty, it could be confused into being called a ballad, but this version really isn’t (though almost any succeeding version I’ve heard is on the slow side).

Regardless, the main event is arguably Pops’s first chorus. He barely deviates from the melody, though when he does, such as the lightening quick descending run, it always works. He plays it fairly straight for half the chorus before hitting the magic elevation button and taking it up an octave, climaxing on a penetrating high C, followed immediately by an even higher concert Eb. He almost sounds like he’s sobbing in the way he descends from the high note. I know I’m almost sobbing over here listening to such beauty.

The Luis Russell band takes over, setting up Pops’s vocal, one of his finest of the period. He still hadn’t had his throat operation, which occurred in 1937 and seemed to add a quarter-pound of gravel to his already unique voice. Thus, we get that crystal clear tenor, something to marvel at. There’s no scatting, but the “Now mama” in the second half is priceless. An incredibly heartfelt vocal.

Russell’s piano leads to a modulation that finds Armstrong playing the melody one more time in a more human key, with no need to reach for those sickeningly beautiful high notes. Yet, because it’s a Decca record, you can bet your life that there’s going to be a slowed down coda. Sure enough there is, and once again Armstrong makes the angels weep with his final two notes, a gorgeous, throbbing Ab topped off with a ridiculously pure concert Db. Bravo, Mr. Armstrong.

“Thanks a Million” survives in another, almost identical take, as heard on volume one of the priceless Ambassador series. On this one, which was actually recorded first, Armstrong stays closer to the melody the first time around but otherwise all the hallmarks of take one are in place: taking the melody up an octave, the “Now, Mama” in the heartfelt vocal, the modulation and the gorgeous coda. For the nuts out there, give it a listen:


On a personal note, let me just say “Thanks a Million” once again to the readers out there who keep me going. Yesterday’s post was number 150 and the only reason I keep going is I love all the feedback I get from Pops fans around the world. Writing the book is going to get a little nuts over the next year or so but I’ll always continue to do my damndest to keep these blogs going. I know for a fact that the book isn’t going to have the ridiculous details of these entries so I’ll always need an outlet to spill my Pops-lovin’ guts after a long day of editing stuff out of my manuscript.

But again, thanks to all who have supported me and especially who support Armstrong. The Armstrong community is incredibly generous; must have to do with the man’s spirit. About two years ago I gave a lecture at the Institute of Jazz Studies and carried around my Ipod with 2,200 Armstrong songs arranged chronologically. Since then, I think I’ve bought maybe four or five new Armstrong CDs, yet somehow the number of Armstrong songs in my Itunes has jumped to 3,395! How? Through the generosity of so many of you for offering up so much unissued Pops and thanks to anyone who has ever left a comment or written me an e-mail. For now, it’s time for scarfing. Happy Thanksgiving to all and thanks a million!

1 comment:

Christopher Newton said...

Thanks, man. You gave me light where there wasn't any. I've only heard the version on The Legendary Big Band Singers, and it was mind-opening to hear these two other versions and your heartfelt comments.