Saturday, October 30, 2010

Old Man Mose

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded November 21, 1935
Track Time 2:30
Written by Louis Armstrong and Zilner Randolph
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken, Louis Bacon, trumpet; Harry White, Jimmy Archey, trombone; Henry James, 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 622
Currently available on CD: All three 1935 takes are available on Mosaic's boxed set of Armstrong's Complete 1935-1946 Decca recordings.
Available on Itunes? Yes

Happy Halloween everyone! Since I started this blog in 2007, I've always enjoyed celebrating today's holiday with some "spooky" Armstrong performance. I kicked it off with "Old Man Mose" but those were the days before I knew how to upload audio. Now that I'm a pro at such matters, I'm updating the original, with links to just about every surviving version of "Mose" known to man. So here I again some words on this very fun novelty tune, the kind that made the jazz purists shake their heads with disappointment. Not me, of course, as I think it’s quite hard to keep from smiling while listening to any of “Old Man Mose’s” many incarnations.

Louis Armstrong returned from his European sabbatical in February 1935. Joe Glaser had taken over his career and Armstrong soon began performing with a big band once again headed by trumpeter Zilner Randolph. It must have been during this period when Armstrong and Randolph teamed up to write “Old Man Mose” but, unfortunately for Randolph, he never got to record it with his boss. Most of the band was based in Chicago and when Armstrong got an offer to play an extended engagement at Connie’s Inn in New York, union rules made it just about impossible for them to transfer to another state. Thus, the band disbanded and when Armstrong hit New York, he began fronting the struggling Luis Russell band. This information comes courtesy of Jos Willems’s All of Me and I’d like to quote Willems, who writes about the Russell band’s quick hiring, “…[T]hat also explains why they sound so bad (aside from wonderful Pops) on the earliest Decca’s. They had to learn a whole new book and style. It’s a pity that the Chicago band never got to record.”

Armstrong began recording for Decca in October of 1935 and after tackling five straight pop tunes, Armstrong got to record “Old Man Mose” during his second Decca recording session. You can listen to how that first take of the tune went down by clicking here:



There’s a “spooky” introduction before the band plays the melody pretty statically. Armstrong’s trumpet is nowhere to be found but he sings the lyrics with enthusiasm. I always like copying the lyrics here so here goes (and in parentheses, I’ll include the band’s answers):

Once there lived an old man, with a very crooked nose
He lived in a log hut, and they called him Old Man Mose (Yeah!).
Early one morning, I knocked at his door,
And I didn’t hear a single sound, I ain’t goin’ do it no more.

‘Cause, I believe (Old Man), I believe (Old Man)
I believe (Old Man), that Old Man Mose is dead,
Tellin’ you, I believe (Old Man), I do believe (Old Man)
I believe (Old Man), that Old Man Mose is dead.

Now, (We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket, (We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket,
(We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket, we believe he’s dead.
(We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket, (We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket,
(We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket, we believe he’s dead.

Now lookee here!

I went around to the side, and I peeped through the crack,
I saw an old man laying flat on his back (Yeah!),
If Old Man Mose was dead asleep, I did not know,
Boy, after looking through that window—Mm—I ain’t goin’ do that no more.

‘Cause, I found out (Old Man), I found out (Old Man),
I found out (Old Man), that Old Man Mose is dead,
Yessir, I found out (Old Man), I found out (Old Man),
I found out (Old Man), that Old Man Mose.

Now, (We Found Out), Mose kicked the bucket, (We Found Out) Mose kicked the bucket,
(We Found Out), Mose kicked the bucket, we found out he’s dead,
(We Found Out), Mose kicked the bucket, (We Found Out) Mose kicked the bucket,
(We Found Out), Mose kicked the bucket, we found out he’s dead,

Old man……oh bay-beh, bah dah doz, zait….is dead!


It’s not Cole Porter, but I dare you to try and listen to it and not sing along with the “We believes” and “We found outs.” Anyway, it’s a fine version but Pops must have known something was wrong: the tempo drags a little bit, the arrangement is corny and the vocal doesn’t carry the maximum amount of oomph.

Here’s where it gets confusing: two more takes of “Mose” were released, takes D and E, with E being the master. However, they both feature completely different arrangements. The tempo’s now faster, Russell plays a great introduction and Pops takes a half-chorus on the trumpet, while the reeds simply play minor-tinged harmonies behind him. Some places, such as the Satchography website and Gösta Hägglöf’s 1935 Ambassador C.D., assume that the “Mose’s” come from two different days since “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed” also was attempted once and redone and issued in different sound. However, Jos Willems claims he obtained the original MCA files and there was only one date, November 21, 1935. It’s hard to argue with the files, but I think I side with those who argue for two different dates. To cut a take with one arrangement, scrap it, revise it, rehearse it and record two more takes suitable to be issued seems like a lot to be done in one day—especially when three other songs were recorded that day!

Anyway, I guess we’ll never know, but for your listening pleasure, here’s take D. This was originally issued in Australia and it sometimes crops up on Armstrong compilations as the original master take, but it’s not. Here's the take:


Immediately, you can hear that someone had a very good idea by substituting Pops’s trumpet in the beginning instead of the stilted arrangement. Armstrong creatively sticks to one not for most of the outing and he creates some searing lines in the second half. The vocal, with more pronounced striding from pianist Russell, has more energy, as well. By the time of take E, the original master, the band had the song down pat. Here goes:


Armstrong’s trumpet is even more assured this time around and his storytelling abilities as a vocal really shine. And Armstrong always remembered the final note he sang on the record. When asked to discuss Billy Eckstine’s recording of “Goodbye” for a Leonard Feather blindfold test, Pops heard a note and exclaimed, “Ah, that thirteenth! That always sounds good…that’s the thing I hit on the end of ‘Ol’ Man Mose,’ remember?”

As I mentioned in the beginning, “Old Man Mose” is the kind of novelty that made the Hot Five and Seven devotees cringe but it became something of a hit and after the record’s release on December 16, 1935, it was already being covered by the likes of Armstrong disciple Wingy Manone the following month (Manone’s version can be heard on the excellent Mosaic Records Manone and Louis Prima box). Bob Crosby recorded a transcription of it a month after Manone (issued on a Storyville compilation) and others continued: Bunny Berigan, Nat Gonella, Ella Fitzgerald, the Ink Spots and many more. Comic singer Betty Hutton even sang it during a short that featured Vincent Lopez’s Orchestra in 1939:



Hutton even recorded a follow-up titled “Old Man Mose Ain’t Dead,” which is also available on YouTube. In fact, a search of “Old Man Mose” shows how far this song traveled from its original Armstrong origins. There’s a version by banjo player Lew Dite that begins with the heading, “Songs Skiffle Taught Me to Love.” There’s even a truly bizarre Gospel-Meets-Hippies version by the Les Humphries Singers of Germany from 1972. And a glance across the Internet shows 1950s versions by the likes of the late Teresa Brewer and Connie Francis…we’ve come a long way from St. Louis (Armstrong, that is)!

But Armstrong is the focus of this entry, so I’d like to continue with a few more of his forays into the world of “Old Man Mose.” Naturally, the song became a staple of Armstrong’s big band repertoire and some broadcast performances are available on C.D. On volume six of the Ambassador series, there’s a version taken from an ASCAP 25th anniversary Carnegie Hall concert from October 2, 1939. Here's the audio:


It’s a great version but the guy who steals the show is Sid Catlett, whose slashing hi-hat cymbals, bass drum accents and humorous “knocks” demonstrate why he was Armstrong’s favorite drummer. By this point, the band’s other comedian, trombonist George Washington, began adding some of his own shouted responses to Armstrong’s lyrics. In 1943, Armstrong broadcast “Mose” as part of a Jubilee broadcast, now issued on a Storyville C.D. Here's how it turned out:


It’s been eight years, but Luis Russell plays the exact same piano part. Pops’s trumpet solo isn’t really different, either, but the reed section sounds a little fatter behind him. Big Sid was gone by this point and Chick Morrison, though a fine drummer, doesn’t compare. Washington now interrupts Armstrong’s final scat coda, receiving a humorous “Shut up, boy” from the leader.

“Old Man Mose” never became a staple of the All Stars’s repertoire, but versions survive from the 40s, 50s and 60s so it’s possible that it was performed more often than it was recorded. It first shows up during an August 5, 1949 broadcast from the Click in Philadelphia, issued privately on a Crabapple Sound C.D. (available at crabapplesound.com). Here 'tis:


This version sounds like it was done as a request as you can hear Pops quickly blow part of his opening solo while the announcer is still introducing the song. Earl Hines and Cozy Cole begin at two different tempos but soon lock in and the band swings mightily for those 16 instrumental bars. Perhaps knowing that the other band members had never performed the number before, Armstrong kind of coaches them along, singing his part and their responses, such as the “Yeah” in the first stanza. The band’s with him for the “Old Man” repeats (Velma Middleton can be heard in the background) but Pops decides to tip them off to when it changes to “We believe” by singing that line himself! For the rest of the performance, the band has the routine straight except where there’s supposed to be a drum break, Earl Hines starts playing a solo. However, Pops probably signaled to Cole to take and Cozy steamrolls right over the “Fatha” with the drum break, though he begins going back into fast swing time when Pops begins his extended scat coda. Scared the band is going to come in too early, Pops manages to cleverly insert the word “Wait” into his scatting and turns to Teagarden and quickly asks him, “You got that chord?” The rest of the band comes in with the final “is dead” and the piece ends happily, even if it was a little shaky at times.

In January 1955, Decca recorded three long sets by the All Stars at the Crescendo Club in Hollywood. Armstrong, knowing Decca probably wanted some different items, reached into his deep bag of tricks and pulled out some different numbers, including “Old Man Mose.” Both of these versions are on the four-disc California Concerts and both are worth hearing. Here's the first attempt, performed towards the end of the second set:


After Pops introduces the first version, pianist Billy Kyle begins comping an introduction at a too-slow tempo, causing Pops to says, “Pick it up a little.” He does and the tune settles into a nice groove. The band attacks the instrumental portion with gusto and, unlike the 1949 version, Pops doesn’t have to show the way. This time, that distinction belongs to Arvell Shaw, who had been playing it since his days in Armstrong’s final big band. A few times, you can hear Shaw’s lone voice shout the comeback line, followed by the rest of the band the next time around as if they were following his lead. And when Pops gets to the “We found out” part, someone in the band, sings “We found out,” while someone else correctly sings “Old Man.” It’s barely noticeable but it was enough for Pops to call a second version in the next set. He dedicates it to a party who requested it, but it’s possible he wanted to do it again to smooth out any rough spots. This time around, the band sings its part without a problem but now, Armstrong screws it up! Listen for yourself:


Instead of singing “knocked on his door,” he sings “peeped through the crack.” Realize what he did, he immediately starts laughing in a hysterical high-pitched rasp. Ever the professional, he signals to the band to start from scratch and, ever the professionals, they do just that. The rest of the performance goes off without a hitch, right down to the scat ending, where the rest of the band provides some vocal harmony beneath Armstrong’s scatting. When the song ends, Armstrong must have said something because Trummy Young starts cracking up. Armstrong announces a request for “The Bucket’s Got a Hole In It” and while Billy Kyle plays the piano intro, Young says something about getting the Hall Johnson choir, causing other members of the band to break up. When originally issued on vinyl, Decca made a composite of both performances but you can hear all of the hilarity on the California Concerts C.D. issue.

That’s actually the last known recorded performance of the All Stars doing “Old Man Mose” in a live setting, but it wasn’t the last time they performed it. In October 1962, Betty Taylor wrote a story titled, “Rehearsal Session…With Louis ‘Pops’ Armstrong At Steinway Hall.” In it, she details a rare rehearsal the band had at Steinway Hall in preparation for an October 21 performance for President Kennedy. Only four people were in attendance: Jack Bradley, his girlfriend at the time, Jeann Faillows, alto saxophonist Lem Davis, and Taylor. Taylor writes about some of the numbers being rehearsed, including “That’s a Plenty.” She also mentions “Old Man Mose, writing, “Jack Bradley had brought along some old collectors’ items on 78’s. Louie had him play a 1935 Blue Label Decca version of ‘Old Man Mose Is Dead.’ There was a lot of background vocal harmony on the record, so the fellows listened four or five times, and then they worked on it. ‘I believe, I do believe, that Old Man Mose is dead,’ sang Jazz’s Greatest, while the boys backed him up.” Thus, it was probably performed shortly after that rehearsal. We also know it was performed by the All Stars on an episode of the Mike Douglas Show in 1964. That's one that I have video of and it's a gassuh but alas, I can't share it here. It’s safe to assume that “Old Man Mose” was never part of the regular All Stars shows in the 1950s and 1960s but Pops probably always had it ready in case anyone requested it and if it was a particularly long show or a dance, it might have been played. So, Halloween might only be a 24 hour holiday, but I can enjoy listening to “Old Man Mose” 365 days of the year. Happy trick or treating!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

She's the Daughter of a Planter From Havana

Recorded July 7, 1937
Track Time 3:19
Written by Saul Chaplin and Sammy Cahn
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong And His Orcestra: Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal, Shelton Hemphill, Henry "Red" Allen, Louis Bacon, trumpets; George Matthews, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombones; Pete Clarke, alto saxophone' Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone, clarinet; Albert Nicholas, Bingie Madison, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Bleair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums.
Released on Decca 1353
Currently on CD: It's on Mosaic's essential "Complete Decca Recordings of Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra 1935-1946" boxed set.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on "Highlights From His Decca Years"

Ah, the ol' Itunes shuffle never lets me down. Needing a subject for a blog, I decided to shuffle up my Itunes and after a bunch of misfires--songs I've already written about, as well as songs that would require a thesis to cover--it offered up "She's the Daughter of a Planter From Havana" and I couldn't resist. This has long been one of my favorite of the magical Armstrong Decca big band recordings of the late 30s and early 40s but I'm sure it has been avoided by many so-called jazz aficionados because of the silly title.

And that is one silly title; doesn't exactly scream "timeless" like a "Body and Soul" huh? But once you get past the title, there's plenty to celebrate. First off, start with the songwriters, Saul Chaplin and Sammy Cahn, a team responsible for other fine Armstrong Decca recordings such as "Shoe Shine Boy," "Thankful"and "You're a Lucky Guy." Cahn and Chaplin usually churned out tunes for films or stage shows but as far as I can tell, "She's the Daughter" began and ended with this Armstrong recording. It might have easily been used for a stage show but according to the Internets, no one else touched it but Louis.

And really who else could have done anything with it? It's a fun little novelty but in lesser hands, this could have been something truly embarrassing. But Pops sells the vocal and then gets to blowing, turning in an absolute gem a solo. Dig it:


Isn't that wonderful? When I first got into Pops, these Decca recordings were almost impossible to find on CD. But there was a two-disc set titled "Highlights From His Decca Years" that included this song so I was familiar with it pretty early on. At first I didn't quite know what it was doing on such a high-powered set as--you guessed it--I couldn't get past the title and never thought it could ever be a classic. But after awhile, I really sat down and listened and was knocked out by the trumpet solos. And I'm knocked out to this day.

The tune was recorded in July 1937, six months after Armstrong went in for throat surgery, which I've heard referred to as either having tonsils taken out or polyps removed from his vocal chords. Either way, it was a success but as I've pointed out here before, Louis's emerged from the surgery extra gravelly, a quality that can definitely be heard during this July session and others from the period. Occasionally, the gravel disappeared, but for the most part, the real sandpaper quality of Louis's voice could be traced to the beginning of 1937.

Armstrong rasps out the vocal fairly straight, with no scatting or asides to speak of. He sells the silly rhymes much as he would on "Azalea" with Duke Ellington in 1961, making "Havana" rhythm with "planter," "manner" "pan her" and so on. He sounds all business, finally rephrasing the melody with a passionate "is teaching her swing" at the end. So far, so good, but nothing for the time capule....

...until about five seconds later. The band keeps the Latin rhythm going, sounding pretty authentic, if I say so; this isn't a mariachi band but they get a "commercial" groove going that I'm sure an Xavier Cugat or Desi Arnaz could have worked with (no Ricky Ricardo jokes please). Drummer Paul Barbarin especially sounds comfortable making his drums dance with that Spanish tinge he must have encountered in New Orleans.

As the band lays down this dancing rhythm, Louis enters muted and completely floats over the proceedings in the most relaxed, singing manner possibly. Armstrong didn't use mutes often but he did sometimes approach his improvisations differently when muted, concentrating on some more fleet-fingered phrases rather than going all operatic. The reeds play the melody which is always an ingenious touch on an Armstrong record as it really allows the listener to appreciate the chances Armstrong takes. The muted episode only takes a chorus but Louis tells quite a story during it, building up to a climax with some searing high notes the bridge, working out a descending motif immediately after and building back up to a triumphant high note at the conclusion of the chorus. Bravo, Pops.'

But don't go anywhere! This is the Swing Era after all and the band can't resist swinging out on the last chorus. Armstrong enters on a break that is so simple but swings so hard. He lets the band answer him, driven by Barbarin's patented cymbal splashes that Louis must have loved so much. Armstrong works that phrase over a few times, treating it like a riffs, but spinning it a different way each time he goes back to it. The second eight bars are made up of a series of repeated notes, starting high before gradually getting lower until Armstrong resolves it all with some very melodic playing.

I like the song's bridge and Pops obviously did too, as he goes back to the melody for it, though he plays it an octave higher than you might expect, really wailing in the upper register. Once up there, Louis has no intentions of descending to terra firma, so he sticks up in the stratosphere. He plays a three-note phrase but what he does with that third note is magical, kneading it and stretching it out until it gives the impression of being about six different notes. Man, that one note swings by itself! Being a Decca record from the 1930s, you know how it's going to end: Armstrong goes up and nails the final high note (after listening to Armstrong's Deccas at work with my young, jazz-playing interns I've mentioned before, they were in awe that Louis never cracked one of those final high notes!).

"She's the Daughter of a Planter From Havana" might seem like the kind of song to use as evidence of poor Pops being saddled with inferior material and commercial pop tunes; "Potato Head Blues" it ain't. But Louis really transforms it into quite a lovely record and I don't think there's anybody else, alive or dead, who could have done as much with this song. Dan Morgenstern once featured it at one of his Satchmo Summerfest presentations titled "Armstrong The Alchemist" and I think that title says it all. The man could make magic out of anything.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I Believe

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded November 1, 1967
Track Time 3:25
Written by Ervin Drake, Irvin Grham, Jimmy Shirl and Al Stillman
Recorded in New York, NY
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Tyree Glenn, trombone; Joe Muranyi, clarinet; Marty Napoleon, piano; Art Ryerson, banjo; Wally Richardson, guitar; Everett Barksdale, electric bass; Buddy Catlett, bass; Grady Tate, drums; with unknown vocal group with three male and three female voices, Dick Jacobs, conductor
Originally released on Brunswick BL 754136
Currently available on CD: Tough to find, but it's on a couple of compilations, including one blandly titled "The Best of Louis Armstrong"
Available on Itunes? Yes

Sometimes, you don't know when something's going to hit you right between the eyes. Over the course of three sessions from October 1967 to March 1968, Louis Armstrong recorded ten songs for a Brunswick LP, "I Will Wait for You." For years, this music eluded me as it was never issued on CD or MP3. Eventually, I stumbled across a German three-disc boxed set with the ultra-generic title "The Best of Louis Armstrong" that had all of the Brunswick recordings. I listened to them and safe to say, my first impression was pretty underwhelming. Many of the songs were trifle, forgotten music for forgotten movies. The arrangements by Dick Jacobs were as square as could be and on top of all that, Louis barely played the trumpet (40 bars total across the entire album!).

One song particularly bothered me, "The Happy Time," which, to this day, I still regard as probably the worst Louis Armstrong record ever made, though it wasn't Pops's fault; he tried but the material and the arrangement was too much to overcome (another candidate, for me, is "His Father Wore Long Hair," on which Armstrong tries almost too hard).

But another song also rubbed me the wrong way at first listen, "I Believe," on which I thought Louis was trying awfully hard but was swallowed whole by Jacob's cloying choir. In a super-early draft of my book, I knocked "The Happy Time" and "I Believe" as being two of Louis's lowest moments in the recording studio.

Suffice to say, I haven't spent much time with this Brunswick album as it doesn't improve with each passing listen. But the other day, I was standing in a subway station in Queens when my Ipod shuffle led me to "I Believe." I had just missed a train so I sat down and in the quiet subway--a rarity--I LISTENED to "I Believe." And when it was done, my heart was pounding and I was ready to cry.

I ended up listening to it three times in a row, then took a break, and returned to it later in my commute. Still knocked me out. How the hell did I write this song off for so long?

Before sharing it and getting your opinion (though I realize I accidentally shared the music a bit too early for about six hours today; I had to get my daughter up from her nap and didn't have time to come back to the blog!), a little background. "I Believe" was written by four songwriters in 1953 and was debuted by Jane Froman on television. The always dramatic Frankie Laine soon covered it and had a major hit, one that was especially popular in the United Kingdom. Here's Laine's version:

Like most Laine, you can hear the man's heart on his sleeve, but I'm not bothered but such emotion. (And don't forget, Louis had done well by Laine, turning in memorable versions of Laine hits "That Lucky Old Sun" and "That's My Desire.") The song was also popular with many vocal groups of the 1950s, as attested to the many versions found on YouTube.

But how did Pops end up with it? I have a simple theory: "What a Wonderful World." Louis had just recorded this song, his best-known hit today, in August 1967. The idea of having Louis sing an inspirational song with strings and a choir was a novel one, one that Bob Theile was glad to take credit for. The song barely made a stir in America but was a huge hit in England. Louis began performing it almost immediately, debuting it on "The Tonight Show" on October 11, 1967. As wonderful was "Wonderful World" was, Louis had already turned towards inspirational works literally only weeks earlier, when he trotted out "You'll Never Walk Alone," one of his famed instrumental showpieces from the 1950s, and began singing it in July 1967, always managing to dedicate it to the mother's of the soldiers in Vietnam. Louis continued singing both songs night after night, "What a Wonderful World" placed up front after "Indiana" and "You'll Never Walk Alone" sometimes acting as the evening's closer.

Perhaps sensing a trend, Brunswick decided to jump on the bandwagon, much like the "Hello, Dolly" clones, Louis recorded for Mercury earlier in the decade. In addition to a beautiful "You'll Never Walk Alone" (which I covered in here last year; hear it by clicking here), Brunswick asked Louis to put his stamp on "I Believe," perhaps sensing some similarities in theme and content with "What a Wonderful World."

Louis was more than game; he ate this kind of material up. I am now going to share the audio to this gem. Learn from my mistakes, if you can; try to ignore the intrusive choir, the silly popping of Everett Barksdale's electric bass, the odd sound of the All Stars trying to add a hint of New Orleans polyphony in the background. Just ignore it all and focus on Louis and listen to the man pouring his heart and soul to spread this message of hope:


Well, there's not much for me to say; I think it speaks for itself. What do you think? Was my original opinion valid? Has marriage and fatherhood turned me into a softy? Or are you as touched by the gospel of Pops on "I Believe" as I am? As always, comments are appreciated. Let me know and perhaps I'll post a follow-up in a few days.

(And to those who know I am crazy about the Yankees, this is my theme when asked if they can come back from a 3-1 deficit....we'll see!)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

April in Portugal

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded April 21, 1953
Track Time 2:42
Written by Raul Ferrão and Jimmy Kennedy
Recorded in New York, NY
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Trummy Young, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Milt Yaner, Dick Jacobs, alto saxophone; Sam Taylor, tenor saxophone; Everett Barksdale, guitar; Joe Bushkin, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Cozy Cole, drums
Originally released on Decca 28704
Currently available on CD: Satchmo Serenades
Available on Itunes? Yes

Ever get a song stuck in your head that you don't really know how it ended up there...but you don't mind it? Well, welcome to my world. Since immersing myself in jazz 15 years ago, almost a minute doesn't go by without some fleeting melody bouncing around my brain. And oddly enough, I usually like and feel the need to jump in. I might as well warn you: I'm a serial whistler, a foot stomper, a head nodder and above everything else, a tapper. Oh boy, when I get tapping, stand back! I once got in a gang of trouble back in high school when I started a four-man percussion section, all of us using our hands....during study hall in the school library! The librarians did not appreciate our polyrhythms.

Friends would watch me tap on a desk and say, "Geez, do you have ADD or something?" I would brush them off and say, "Oh, you're missing out because you can't hear the song in my head!" And then I'd go back to tapping out patterns learned from Sid Catlett or Cozy Cole.

I usually walk around by myself with an Ipod and even at work, there's usually form of Armstrong coming from my desk. I don't like silence and if I'm surrounded by it, well, here comes the whistling and tapping!

Anyway, this is all a prologue to today's blog. I obviously have been slow as molasses getting these things out but I knew I'd have a bit of time this afternoon. But what to write about? I didn't really have anything planned and I didn't feel like spinning my Itunes shuffle. But while out to breakfast with my wife and daughter this morning, I realized I couldn't get the damn bridge to "April in Portgual" out of my head...and I liked it! More or more, it played on repeat, and occasionally I joined in with a whistle or by singing a lyric or two to myself. Somehow it got planted in my brain--I don't think I've listened to the track in weeks--but once I realized it, I figured I'd share it with the world and see if it could get stuck in the collective brains of my loyal readers.

The tune "April in Portugal" was originally an instrumental, by Raul Ferrão with the original title "Coimbra" about a city in Portgual. In 1947, Jimmy Kennedy wrote English lyrics and re-named the tune, "April in Portugal" (I guess it was catchier than "April in Coimbra"). But as far as I can tell, the tune was under the radar until it exploded in 1953. Les Baxter's instrumental version spent 22 weeks on the chart beginning on March 28 of that year. To hear the sound that captivated the nation, we turn our eyes (and ears) to YouTube:

Yep, that's the sound. Three other versions--Richard Haman's, Freddy Martin's and Vic Damone's--also charted in April and May 1953. The world had gone "Portugal" mad. And that meant one thing: it was time for Louis Armstrong to cover it!

You have to give Milt Gabler of Decca some credit; he knew Pops. Sometimes, Decca was maligned for having Armstrong cover other people's hits but Gabler always made appropriate choices. I just consulted the online "Cash Box" charts from April 1953 and do you know what was the number one hit for that entire month? Patti Page and "The Doggie in the Window." 'Nuff said.

So Gabler knew what songs to avoid but more importantly, he knew how to select songs that Armstrong could really dig into. Another song with Spanish origins was also burning up the chart in early 1953, "Ramona." Gabler saw a pairing of "Ramona" and "April in Portugal" as a natural and he was correct. To hear Armstrong's "Ramona," click here as I already blogged about it last year. Trust me, it's worth a listen as it's a pretty dynamite cover.

But now, it's off to "Portugal." GIve a listen:


In the words of our hero, "Yeah, man!" (or in Portguese, "Sim Man"...thank you, Internet). The recording was made by the All Stars augmented by three reeds and guitar. Though he's not listed in the discography, I'm willing to wager money that Sy Oliver contributed the arrangement because the strutting two-beat feel has Oliver's name all over it. For Armstrong's take on the tune, the tempo was slowed down a bit, only allowing enough room for a single-chorus vocal. Thus, the trumpet playing you hear at the beginning is IT. Armstrong was aware of this and conducted one of his lessons in telling a complete, exciting story in less than a minute.

Right from the start, it's clear that Pops's chops were in top shape (you'd know that already if you listened to "Ramona"!). His intro is so simple but my goodness, how he makes those quarter notes swing. Arvell Shaw's bass rolls out the red carpet for Armstrong to play a touch of melody (Barney Bigard sounds like he had some coffee...he's all over his horn!). Armstrong infuses the melody with his special sound before he lets loose and starts improvising, wailing to the close of his potent, but too-short solo.

Then Armstrong takes the vocal, which is a ball, because it tests his range. Armstrong passes the test but it's always fun hearing him reaching for those high ones. I've always loved the tune's minor bridge the best; Armstrong at first sounds a bit tentative but he really digs in to the word "Portgual" (this is the part stuck in my head) and ends with some passionate vocalizing. Armstrong goes back to crooning the melody sweetly (listen to him holding the middle syllable on romance, shaking it a bit like his trumpet) until the scat-filled close. With the band wailing, Armstrong's "and Portugal too" is a nice punctuation mark. A fine record.

Naturally, Armstrong's cover didn't exactly burn up the charts but as is usually the case with Pops, his version seems to have endured better than the popular versions from the period. When I typed "April in Portugal" into YouTube, Armstrong's version was the first to come up (though Perez Prado's has more views...dig if it you're a fan of the mambo; it's great!). Combined with the flip side of "Ramona" this is a nifty little record that, as usual, has been forgotten by the jazz cognescenti. Well, who needs them? As long as my readers and Pops fans from around the world are digging it, it'll always live on. I hope you enjoyed this look back at this number (though if anything, it's more firmly embedded in my head than ever...no complaints!).

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Angela Mia

Louis Armstrong With Sy Oliver's Orchestra
Recorded January 30, 1957
Track Time 3:23
Written by Lew Pollack and Erno Rapee
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet;Geoge Dorsey, Phil Urso (alto saxophone, flute); Lucky Thompson; tenor saxophone; Dave McRae, baritone saxophone; Billy Kyle, piano; George Barnes, guitar;Sid Block, bass; Rudy Taylor , drums; Unknown, harp; Unknown strings, Unknown choir - three male and four female - vocals; Lillian Clark, lead vocal; Sy Oliver, arranger, conductor.
Originally released on Decca DL 8488
Currently available on CD: On Louis and the Angels"
Available on Itunes? Yes

Hello and welcome back to the blog! Am I ready to resume regular blogging again? Almost....my book is now in the hands of the copy editor so I don't have to tinker with that for four weeks, which is nice. But my liner notes for that Storyville set are only 75% finished, I'm still away from home for many hours a day and the Yankees are about to embark (in a matter of minutes) on hopefully another rewarding October run, so things might be hit or miss for a while. But I had some extra time and wanted to pump out a new one based on some experiences I had at work this week.

Here's the story: in my duties as Project Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, I have the luxury of having interns come in a few days a week to help with numbering artifacts, organizing materials and other such catalogue-related matters. This semester, I have two dynamite interns working for me, Greg Hammontree and David Engelhard, both young, top-flight jazz musicians from Atlanta, now conquering the master's program in jazz at Queens College.

Greg and David are great guys and marvelous musicians but as you'd expect in this 21st century of jazz studies, they came into the job with an appreciation of Louis but not much experience in listening to him. Well, naturally, I sought to change that. I always have music on in the work room where I spend all of my days, but when David and Greg started coming in, I'd give them a quick lesson before they'd begin the task of hand-numbering photos. "Today, guys, an evening with Louis at the Crescendo Club" or "These Fleischmann's Yeast broadcasts are going to knock you out" or "Count the high C's on the 1936 'Swing That Music'" or "You mean you've never heard 'Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy'???"

Greg and David have been terrific students and Pops has been blowing them away at a daily basis. Well, this week I decided to go one step further and spring some "commercial" Louis on them. My choice: "Louis and the Angels," Armstrong's 1957 collection of angel/heaven-themed songs performed complete with choir and strings. Hmmm, two hotshot, 20-something-year-old jazz students, one studying with saxophone giant Antonio Hart, the other practicing songs like Horace Silver's "Quicksilver"...how would this go over?

Both of them came in separately on consecutive days and I played the album for each. Suffice to say, it knocked them on their collective asses. Their minds were melted, especially when I told them that this was the stuff that caused the hardened jazz fans and critics in the 1950s to wrongheadedly write Louis off. Let's just say, they're not going to be doing that any time soon...

But for me personally, it was double the pleasure because I've always loved "Louis and the Angels" and the opportunity to listen to two it twice in a row was fantastic. If you don't know the album, it was made at the end of the sessions that made up Louis's mammoth 4-LP set, "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography." I always thought that it was Decca producer Milt Gabler's way of saying, "Let's compromise: we'll record a giant set of pure jazz, but balance it with some less threatening sounds to appeal to middle America." (That's not an exact quote, obviously.) "Louis and the Angels" sounds SO different from "A Musical Autobiography" in every way except one: Louis is still at the absolute peak of his powers.

I could write a blog on every track on that album but there was one in particular that caused Greg to grow slack-jawed and stuck in David's head long after it faded away and that's "Angela Mia." The song was written by Erno Rapee and Lew Ppllack for the 1928 film "Street Angel." Courtesy of YouTube, here's how it sounded in that year as sung by James Melton:

That's about as far away from jazz as we can get...but can't you just picture Louis digging a record like that? Sure is a pretty melody. The song didn't become a standard of standards but it did have some lasting power, as evidenced in this 1952 television clip of Perry Como performing the number:


So that's what Louis was given to work with for "Louis and the Angels." Now, Louis did some absolutely gorgeous singing on the album--"Fools Rush In" immediately comes to mind--but for "Angela Mia," Oliver had an interesting idea: let the choir handle the vocal, let Louis stick to the trumpet playing. Those who don't like 1950s pop sounds, strings and choirs might have to wade through some stuff here, but trust me, the effort is worth it because this is Louis Armstrong at his finest. Give it a listen:


Simply breathtaking, isn't it? Louis's sound is captured superbly, right from the start as he gently caresses the melody. Just that first short solo is worth the price of admission, but Louis is pacing himself, handing it over to the strings and cooing voices for the bridge. He swoops back in for the final section, playing the melody straight but infusing it with some deep passion. A beautiful first chorus. For the second chorus, the choir sings the lyrics while Louis demonstrates that he still could produce a spine-tingling obbligato at a moment's notice. He doesn't play many notes, but each one is perfectly placed and full of soul.

But Louis is only getting warmed up...watch out for that bridge! As Louis hits bridge, his flare for drama--and opera--comes to the forefront. With the band growing incessant behind him, Louis begins to wail, leading up to the main event: a break that climbs its way into the upper register before resolving in perhaps the bluest blue note of Armstrong's entire career. I'm serious, it always catches me by surprise and knocks me to my knees. He takes that note, bends it, wrings it, squeezes everything out of it. I mean, really, is it even a single pitch? Is he half-valving, glissing, God only knows. But it's a breathtaking moment, and the one that had my two young interns shaking their heads in disbelief.

That blue note might be the highlight but Louis isn't finished. After some more melody, he slows it down and goes up high for the ending. Seriously, this stuff can produce tears, it's so beautiful. I pity the jazz critics and fans who turned their back on this stuff in the 1950s. But it's their loss; for now, it's my gain, your gain and Greg and David's gain. Play it again...play it loud!