Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 18, 1939
Track Time 3:17
Written by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Bernard Flood, Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, trumpet; Wilbur De Paris, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Rupert Cole, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Joe Garland, Bingie Madison, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Decca 2934
Currently available on CD: It's on Mosaic Records's boxed set of Louis's complete 1935-1946 Decca recordings.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on a few different compilations, including The Ultimate Collection.
After another whirlwind week left me blogless, I decided to spin the ol' Itunes shuffle at the first glimpse of spare time. It landed, as it usually does, on a winner: "You're a Lucky Guy," a classic Decca recording from 1939. Written by the team of Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin, it was recorded the same day as another Kahn-Chaplin opus, "You're Just a No Account." For me, the two tunes have always been associated: recorded the same day, both written by Cahn and Chaplin, featuring the word "You're" in the title, etc. But there's also one more thing that I always think of when I think of these two tunes: they were also recorded by Billie Holiday five days earlier.
Thus, I figured why not start a two-part post, Armstrong and Holiday take on Cahn and Chaplin? Pops and Holiday had a mutual appreciation society and when you couple their transcendent singing with stellar musicians such as Buck Clayton, Lester Young, Sid Catlett and J.C. Higginbotham, well, how can you really lose?
Both songs were written for the sixth edition of the "Cotton Club Parade." If you've been with me for a while, you might remember that the same writers were responsible for "Shoe Shine Boy" from an earlier Cotton Club revue. Some listeners are probably offended immediately at the notion of two white songwriters writing supposedly demeaning material as "Shoe Shine Boy" and "You're Just a No Account" to by performed in all-black revues. Michael Brooks, for one, is positively apoplectic in his liner notes to a Billie Holiday boxed set when discussing these tunes, calling them "racist bile." I'm not exactly going to nominate these works for NAACP awards but in the end, as the old saying goes, it ain't the meat, it's the motion. Hearing Louis's warm, loving "Shoe Shine Boy" vocal, hearing sassy Billie chide someone for being "Just a No Account," hearing both of these artists express their happiness for some "Lucky Guy"....I don't know, to me, they transcend anything demeaning in the lyrics. And as I stated above, once Louis and Pres and Buck and that crew pick up their horns, I'm sorry, but Mr. Cahn's lyrics become immediately forgotten.
Because this is a Louis blog, I have to start with Pops's take, though it was recorded days after Billie's version. This was Louis's revamped big band after Joe Garland and Sid Catlett joined earlier in 1939. Garland's arrangements were a step above some of those stocks Armstrong's band used to play, while Catlett's drumming proved to be an ideal fit with Louis's playing (though his predecessor Paul Barbarin was no slouch either). After re-recording "Poor Old Joe" (something I blogged about many moons ago), Louis took a stab at "You're a Lucky Guy." Here's how it came out:
After the tempo-setting introduction (the reeds remind me of a Cab Calloway record), Louis starts right in with the vocal, sounding effervescent as usual (listen to Pops Foster's throbbing bass behind him...where has that sound gone?). Pops clearly digs the tune, as he righteously changes the melody in a lowdown way during the second eight bars, going down where the written melody went up. There's not much to the tune's bridge, so there's plenty of spaces to admire Garland's arrangement, as well as Catlett's throbbing hi-hat. And Louis sounds like he's having a pretty raspy day, huh? Either way, he again rephrases the melody during the last eight bars (it's an improvement). He really emotes towards the end, having a ball, but he's just warming up.
A sort-of dramatic interlude, with the reeds holding a trill, sets up an absolutely transcendent moment. On a break, Pops makes one of his terrific trumpet entrances, aided wonderfully by Catlett, each man pumping out three perfectly placed, perfectly swinging quarter-notes. Almost immediately, you might find yourself wondering, "Gee, this sounds kind of high. Maybe they should have modulated into a lower key?" Well, throw that out your mind, as Pops would later sing. This is 1939 Louis, aka Superman, so let him do his thing. He sticks closely to the melody but listen carefully to what Dan Morgenstern has called his "asides," those little phrases in between the bits of melody where it sounds like Louis is playing his own accompaniment.
Louis keeps pounding away, his tone absolutely gorgeous in the high register. As he approaches the bridge, one might expect him to pass the ball to another soloist...but not on that day. The arrangement turns on the heat (with Catlett stoking the flames) as Louis's unique, off-kilter lines must have given the great trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen some ideas (Allen was in the trumpet section). Louis even manages to squeeze in a quote from "Drdla Souvenir," as we heard last week with "Indian Love Call" (hmmm, now I have something new to listen for; when was the first time Louis quoted this melody?). With Catlett really pouring it on, an inspired Louis continues his flight into the final A section, still alternating gorgeous, unchanged melody with those little improvised fills (it's like he's playing an imaginary arrangement for the backup band in his head). This last section is filled with some repeated high concert Bb's, and even one high C, all featuring that impossibly plump tone.
At this point, the band starts shouting as Catlett works his snare drum over, setting up a quick trumpet tag by Louis. This leads to a neat unaccompanied, Louis-like interlude by the great trombonist J.C. Higginbotham, allowing Louis to approach the microphone for one last vocal reprise. Louis's personality shines as he half-talks his little rap (and as Morgenstern has pointed out, with its references to playing the numbers and such, this part was probably Louis's brainchild). The ending is triumphant, Catlett playing an exciting fill setting up Louis's final declamatory statement of this fellow's luckiness, the band glissing to a final high note as a means of punctuation. Dramatic, heart-pounding, inspiring music.
So now, let's backtrack and here what Billie Holiday did with this same tune just five days prior. With her, the usual no-names: Buck Clayton, Harry "Sweets" Edison, trumpet; Earl Warren; alto saxophone; Lester Young, tenor saxophone; Jack Washington alto and baritone saxophone; Joe Sullivan, piano; Freddie Green, guitar; Walter Page, bass; Jo Jones, drums. Geez, what a band! It's more-or-less a scaled down Basie band with the great Joe Sullivan subbing for the Count. Anyway, here's Billie's take:
Nice stuff, though I'll admit, the Armstrong version makes my heart pound a little more. I know some of you will cry out that I'm biased, but understand that Billie is on my musical Mount Rushmore and like Pops, I'm proud of my just-about-complete Itunes playlist of 712 Holiday tunes. But on the Louis version, Louis clearly felt the song and almost immediately began soulfully rephrasing the melody. Billie sings it well but, as a master of rephrasing herself, doesn't add much to it. For me, I love the sound of Jo Jones's hi-hat, Joe Sullivan's piano playing behind the vocal, the trumpet solo by Sweets Edison (some have written that this is Buck but it sure sounds like Sweets to me) and of course, a short offering by Lester, another off my immortals. Pres's offering is the highlight for me--dig how he returns to the melody a couple of times, a la Pops. Billie's vocal reprise is very fine, but again, not much in the goose pimple department. It's interesting how the tempo of the Holiday version is quicker than Louis's but to me, Louis's generates much more heat and drama. Agree? Disagree? Talk amongst yourselves and come back in a couple of days for "You're Just a No Account." Til then!