Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Lonesome Road

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded November 6, 1931
Track Time 3:31
Written by Nat Shilkret and Gene Autin
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Preston Jackson, trombone; Lester Boone, alto saxophone; George James, alto saxophone, soprano saxophone; Albert Washington, tenor saxophone; Charlie Alexander, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar, talk; John Lindsay, bass; Tubby Hall, drumsl; Joe “Little Joe” Lindsay, woodblocks, talk
Originally released on OKeh 41538
Currently available on CD: It’s on the JSP two-disc set The Big Band Sides, 1930-1932
Available on Itunes? Yes

Today’s entry is a request from one of my new online friends, Phil Ralph, and it’s a good one. One of my favorites actually. Louis Armstrong’s record of “The Lonesome Road” is such a fun record that for once I don’t even want to get into the background of the song, I just want to start right in with the music. I’ll get there momentarily and if you stick with me for awhile, I’m going to include two completely unissued later performances of the tune that I promise you’re not going to hear anywhere else (unless you’re in my company and I have my Ipod with me).

Quickly, the song was written in 1927 by the pianist Nat Shilkret and the very popular singer Gene Austin. In the 1929 film version of Show Boat it’s used in place of “Ol’ Man River,” but it actually was never part of the score of that famed show. Austin recorded the earliest version of the tune for Victor in 1927. Here’s how it came out:

Pretty haunting stuff, huh? The song began being performed by some as something of a quasi-spirtual (indeed, a number of gospel groups later cut versions of the tune). Well, that was all Louis Armstrong needed to hear. Armstrong had been chiding churches--and the people inside of them--since he was a boy in New Orleans. He remembered going to church with his mother and impersonating the preacher and humorously conducting the choir, winning applause from the other parishioners. When he made it to New York in 1924 to play with Fletcher Henderson, he again did his preacher impersonating bit if the crowd was right (though Henderson wouldn’t let him sing!). In Chicago, reviews exist citing Armstrong knocking audiences dead with his mock sermon while a member of Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra. Remember, these were the days of the “serious” artist, cutting the Hot Fives and not worrying about entertaining like he did in his later years. Yeah....right....

So on November 6, 1931, Armstrong decided to put his mock sermon bit on record for the first time. The results are simply hilarious. Clearly, Armstrong and the other members of his group indulged in a little bit of “gage” before the recording began. To help him, Armstrong brought along a friend from childhood, drummer “Little Joe” Lindsay, brother of Armstrong’s bassist John Lindsay. The recording is hysterical but Armstrong’s trumpet solo in the middle is as serious as your life. Give it a listen and get ready to smile:


The record starts with members of the band singing the melody straight while Armstrong responds with some guttural moans, almost speaking parts of the lyrics, already in the role of the “Reverend Satchelmouth.” Reaching back to his childhood, Armstrong even directs the choir with pleas of “Sing louder, sing louder.” He then addresses the audience and prepares to introduce the “new deacon,” a “creole boy,” Joe Lindsay. Lindsay asks the “members” to cough up some money and even throws in an utterance of one of Armstrong’s catchphrases, “Oh, you dog.” Armstrong responds, “And if you ever get it, Brother Lindsay, please don’t put it in your pocket, will you?” Someone even starts making the sound of coins being dropped in a can to give the full impression that we’re listening to a church service (the noise is probably Joe Lindsay's woodblock, as pointed out to me by Mr. Ralph).

Armstrong then starts greeting the other members of the church. I’m not sure who “Brother Jack Randall” is, but “Brother Preston” is trombonist Preston Jackson and “Brother Randolph” is trumpeter Zilner Randolph. Armstrong then introduces the reeds, who play a funky little unison part (the band is swinging nicely throughout, but it’s hard to pay attention to them).

After pointing out pianist Charlie Alexander and bassist John Lindsay, Armstrong calls out attention to “two little songwriters, here, little Louis Dunlap and Charles Carpenter.” True enough, Dunlap and Carpenter (along with Earl Hines) were behind “You Can Depend On Me,” which Armstrong had recorded the previous day. Armstrong points out that Dunlap and Carpenter are smoking cigars, which Carpenter later related as being true. Armstrong had recently returned from a triumphant six-week visit to his hometown of New Orleans where a cigar, the “Louis Armstrong Special,” was unveiled in his honor. Armstrong gets a plug in for his stogie and drops a righteous “More power to ya, boys” on them.

Armstrong then says “hello” to “Professor Sherman Cook,” described by Max Jones and John Chilton as “his valet, personal secretary and sometime Master of Ceremonies.” Cook, in fact, played a big part in getting the New Orleans stay off the ground, even arriving early to make sure Armstrong arrived to a celebratory party. Earlier in the year, Armstrong and his band ran into trouble in the south when the police discovered the white wife of Armstrong’s manager Johnny Collins on the band bus. The police harassed the black musicians and even threw some of them in jail. Armstrong was thrown in a cell with Cook. When Cook showed Armstrong a marijuana joint he had stashed in his pocket, Armstrong reasoned, “Hey, man, we can’t be in any more trouble than we are in right now.” As Pops put it, “...old Cook and myself, we demolished the evidence.” I’m sure plenty of “evidence” was demolished before recording “The Lonesome Road,” too...

Al Washington’s bluesy solo sends Armstrong before Pops brings guitarist Mike McKendrick up to the microphone to see if he has anything to say. “N-n-n-n-n-n-nothing,” McKendrick stutters, making Armstrong laugh (Lionel Hampton also got a laugh from stuttering on “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” recorded the previous year). Next, “Brother Randolph” steps up to the mike to explain that he hasn’t gotten his “dole money” yet before someone starts shrieking something in a high-pitched voice (can anyone make it out? I'm leaning towards “I’m trippin," which would make sense in the gage-induced haze of the recording studio!). Armstrong’s response--”What kind of church is this?”--always cracks me up.

But then it’s serious time as Armstrong picks up his horn and croons and absolutely soulful half-chorus, opening with a few bars that always remind me of “I Want a Little Girl.” Later that same day, Armstrong’s trumpet would be flying high through “I Got Rhythm” but all the pyrotechnics are shut down for “The Lonesome Road.” Such a gently, lyrical solo.

Armstrong then goes back into his preaching routine, thanking his congregation for their offering. “Of course it could have been better,” he says. “Two dollars more would have gotten my shoes out of pawn. But nevertheless I’m in love with you!” Someone then screams, causing Armstrong to say, “Hold that, Sister...but get off of my foot!” Hilarious! The fervor builds up--“Oh, Brother Armstrong, you’re killing me!”-- as scattered shouts of “Hallelujah” can be heard. The whole band starts singing the lyrics (someone with a high, tenor voice is really giving it his all) while Pops humorously hums and moans over the melody. The song ends...but not before Mike McKendrick gets in one last line: “Bye bye, you vipers!” Vipers, of course, were marijuana smokers and McKendrick basically gave away the secret to all the fun being had in the studio that day with his shout-out. A classic record.

Perhaps Armstrong performed “The Lonesome Road” live with the band--you know that would have been something to behold--but there’s no concrete evidence. For most people, that’s where the story of Louis Armstrong and “The Lonesome Road” comes to an end. But if anyone’s gotten to know anything from this blog, it should be the fact that I always have a few surprises up my sleeve. Of course, these aren’t my surprises. Jos Willems, the peerless Armstrong discographer, was generous enough to share them with me and I, in turn, would like to share them with my fellow Armstrong nuts reading this from around the world. Did you know that Louis Armstrong tackled “The Lonesome Road” two more times in the mid-50s? Well, you’re about to...

In November 1955, Armstrong was in the middle of a tour of Europe. George Avakian wanted to record some of the tour for a Columbia album and decided to do most of his recording in Milan, Italy on December 20 of that year. Armstrong and the All Stars played two shows that evening before heading to an empty movie theater where Avakian and his recording equipment were waiting for them. Avakian had some ideas for songs to record and they treated it as a regular recording session, complete with rehearsals. The band members brought some friends and a number of rabid Italian fans managed to come along, too, though Avakian mainly used fake applause on the finished album, Ambassador Satch.

If you’re familiar with that album, “West End Blues,” “The Faithful Hussar,” “Tiger Rag” and “Royal Garden Blues” all came from that session. But Avakian also recorded some other tunes that didn’t see the light of day, including “Clarinet Marmalade,” “Someday You’ll Be Sorry,” “You Can Depend On Me,” “That’s A Plenty,” and--you guessed it--“Lonesome Road.”

As Avakian told me in 2007, “We invited a bunch of people to come along and enjoy themselves and things got a little bit ragged because Louie wasn’t prepared. He was ad-libbling, doing the best he could. And ‘Lonesome Road’ was pretty sad because everybody wanted to rush up to the mike and sing harmony and I thought everybody’s having a good time so we’ll just treat the rest as if it was a party and that’s exactly what we did. But it didn’t turn out very well.” The truth is Avakian’s partially right; this performance is so ragged, it never could have been released. But it’s so much fun and again, Armstrong’s trumpet is something to behold.

First, let’s listen to a quick rehearsal that begins Armstrong doing an introduction of the tune they just finished, “You Can Depend On Me,” a feature for “Trombone” Young, as he calls Trummy. Armstrong talks over a couple of ideas and instructs the audience and band members on how he wants them to harmonize. Trummy Young and Edmond Hall come up with some harmonizing of their own and a tempo is chosen. Armstrong does seem a little baffled about how to explain a theater full of people on stage during what was supposed to be a live album but he talks himself into it by reasoning that sometimes bands play churches, too. Here’s the rehearsal:


And now, a track that’s still lingering in Sony’s vaults 54 years later (release it), the unissued “Lonesome Road”:


Isn’t that a lot of fun? I can see why it wasn’t released at the time but I think it’s a pretty entertaining track. You can hear Armstrong’s memory at work in the beginning as he struggles to remember lines from the original. On the original, he says, “Gonna speak to you this evening, and I ain’t gonna keep you here long.” In 1955, he opens with “I won’t be here long this evening.” He then goes right into the “two dollars to get my shoes out of pawn” line, though he changes the word “shoes” to “treadders.” He then asks the choir to sing and they do (Trummy Young can be heard). As George pointed out, some of the Italians got a little too close to the microphone. Armstrong points them out by saying, “Well, we don’t speak the same language but we can swing together.” The bridge is a mess as bassist Arvell Shaw clearly doesn’t know it. Armstrong also seems to get fed up with one of the locals, saying, “Don’t sing louder than me, brother!” He even revisits the original “get off my foot” line. It’s sloppy but it makes me laugh.

But stand back! Armstrong says, “Give me some of this” then the All Stars--once again, the peak edition--absolutely tear into a sublime instrumental interlude. Shaw’s lost again in the bridge but Pops’s lead (again opening with a quote from “I Want a Little Girl”) is a gem. The whole band rocks with authority. After the bridge, Armstrong goes back to singing, asking the others to harmonize and asking flat out for them to “give me that barbershop chord!” A righteous “Oh yeah” ends a performance that must have been a ball if you were in the theater that night. It’s still a lot of fun.

But we’re not finished yet! In December 1956, Armstrong flew to London to do a one-night performance for charity. Armstrong didn’t bring his All Stars, instead playing with some great British musicians, but the main event paired Armstrong’s horn and voice with a symphony orchestra conducted by Norman Del Mar. The night was an epic one with a ton of drama concerning Armstrong and Del Mar, all of which will be detailed in my book (Del Mar couldn’t stand how the crowd was going so crazy for Pops and ended up storming off the stage).

Somehow, decades later, audio turned up from the event and I must rate it as one of the greatest shows I have ever heard Louis Armstrong play. His trumpet is in astounding form form the beginning to the end, tackling numbers like the concert arrangement of “St. Louis Blues,” “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and even “West End Blues.” But for me, the highlight of the night is “The Lonesome Road.” For once, there is no comedy. It’s just the sound of Louis Armstrong’s mournful trumpet backed by a bed of strings. There is so much soul in this performance, it’s scary. And when the tempo starts swinging in the end, Armstrong summons the powers of the gods. Seriously, the first time I heard this, I was simply in awe. The second time, I cried. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard it since but it always moves me. I apologize that the sound quality isn’t exactly stereo but please, if you have three minutes to spare, listen to this performance:


I don’t think words can do that enough justice. To me, it’s one of the great moments of Louis Armstrong’s later years and maybe even his entire career. I’m just going to quit while I’m ahead and, as usual, thank the good lord for creating Louis Armstrong.

1 comment:

STARTOONZ said...

What's being shouted out is, "UnTruthful!", UnTruthful!".