Sunday, November 28, 2010

80 Years of "Memories of You": Part 3 - Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography (plus a bonus version!)

Recorded December 13, 1956
Track Time 3:27
Written by Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf
Recorded in New York City
Originally released on Decca DL 4331
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Trummy Young, trombone; Edmond Hall, clarinet; George Dorsey, alto saxophone, flute; Hilton Jefferson, alto saxophone; Lucky Thompson, tenor saxophone; Dave McRae, baritone saxophone; Everett Barksdale, guitar; Billy Kyle, piano; Squire Gersh, bass; Barrett Deems,d rums; Sy Oliver, arranger, conductor.
Currently available on CD: The CD version of Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography seems to be out-of-print (a crime!) but fortunately, it's still available on some Universal samplers such as Louis Armstrong Sings Back Through the Years and The Ultimate Collection.
Available on Itunes? Yes

After the fantastic version of "Memories of You" from a 1937 Fleischmann's Yeast Broadcast that I shared last week, Louis Armstrong did perform the tune again in front of a recording device for nearly 20 years. But when he did....wow. The occasion was the epic four-LP set Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography, still, I think, the definitive portrait of Louis's superpowers as a trumpeter in the 1950s. On this set, Louis revisited many of the immortal songs he first waxed in the 1920s and early 30s. Though many in the jazz world wanted to paint Louis as an out-of-date Uncle Tom whose best days as a trumpeter were behind him, Pops surprised his critics by reaching the same heights on the remakes as he did on the originals and in some cases, even surpassing his first attempts.

For a long time, I thought that "Memories of You" was one of the remakes that topped the original but after really digging into that 1930 version last weekend, it might be a tie. I'll leave it up to my readers to decide which one is the best (some might campaign for the Fleischmann's broadcast) but I think it's safe to say there are no losers in this competition. So without any more formalities, let's get to the meat, Louis Armstrong in December 1956 revisiting "Memories of You" with his All Stars, augmented by five saxophones (dig those names: Lucky Thompson, Hilton Jefferson, etc.), the guitar of Everett Barksdale and an arrangement conducted by Sy Oliver:


Phew, I'm starting to sway back towards this version again! What a masterpiece. Rather than replicate Lionel Hampton's historic vibraphone intro, Oliver opens with a simple held chord by the band with a brief solo by Barkdale's guitar and a break by Billy Kyle's piano to set up Louis's warm entrance. What a sound! Like the original, Louis only takes eight bars, Decca's engineers capturing his tone brilliantly. Armstrong gets sympathetic support from clarinetist Edmond Hall, who breaks away for a short spot while Louis gets ready for his vocal.

And what a vocal. As I mentioned in my Fleischmann's post, Armstrong's daring vocals of the 1929-1934 are a wonder to behold but by 1935, he had already turned down the aggressiveness. By the 1950s, Armstrong's maturity had made him a better singer than ever before (just listen to the way he handled the Great American Songbook on his recordings for Norman Granz made before and after the "Autobiography" sessions). Though he's no longer all over the place as in 1930, the 1956 vocal still features some of the hallmarks of the original, including the "Now, honey," and repetitions in the bridge. And along with warmth and tenderness, Louis's genius at rephrasing is still there, especially in many instances of his rendering the melody to just a single pitch. And Louis's array of sounds was still an integral part of the game; listen to what he does after the word "new" at around 1:10.

After a sumptuous offering by Lucky Thompson, Louis turns back the clock and plays his original entrance break, the one with shades of "Dixie" before going his own way. Arranger Oliver transcribed all of Louis's original solos but wrote "Go for yourself" next to them to inspire Pops to come up with something fresh. Louis does that right off the bat, playing with rhythm as only he could, a tension-filled little clinic before he relaxes and starts telling a story (his descending run leading into the bridge is a new touch). The accents on the first beat are back on the bridge and Louis responds with some dramatic work in the upper register, playing with more intensity than on the original. In the second half of the bridge, Louis follows his original pattern, holding that high Bb for all its worth, before playing the same pitch-perfect phrase leading into the final A section.

The difference is obviously the 1956 recording better captures Louis's gigantic sound. Also, the rhythm section is better recorded; when Barrett Deems opens up his cymbal and starts pounding out the backbeats under Louis's held high note, well, hang on to the roof! And Oliver replicates one of Louis's favorite touches on those early OKeh big band recordings, having the reeds accent the first and third beat of ever bar, something that always seemed to drive Louis to incredible heights; this is no different. Louis follows the pattern of what we've heard already--again, why mess with perfection?--but there's something about the sound of that horn that just gets me in the heart. I love all three surviving versions of this tune but it's tough for me to listen to the 1956 version without having to suppress tears. Incredible playing, right up to that last high Eb. And you know, I just compared the two and I think my original opinion was right; Louis topped himself in 1956.

That was the end of Louis's versions of "Memories of You"...but wait, a little laginappe for making it this far with me. In 1964, Louis's All Stars began featuring a new clarinetist in the guise of Eddie Shu, a talented multi-instrumentalist who played with Gene Krupa for years. Shu pretty much had no connection to traditional jazz and when one watches videos of him, he looks kind of bored playing with Pops (Joe Darensbourg said he only got the job because his father was a friend of Joe Glaser). But Shu actually played very well and on everything that survives during his year with the band, I think he does a very good job (an assessment Joe Muranyi would agree with as we just had a conversation about Shu a few weeks ago and Joe thinks he did an excellent job with Louis).

Anyway, one of Shu's features was "Memories of You." By this point, Louis allowed his sidement to stretch out a bit more than in the past so Shu would turn this into a six-minute feature, complete with a long uptempo section. I have three versions from Louis's historic "Iron Curtain" tour of 1965 but I'm only going to share one, this one from East Berlin on March 22 of that year. Again, I think Shu does an excellent job (he tops Darensbourg's features and many of Barney Bigard's in my opinion), but if he's not your cup of tea, fast forward to the 4:00 and listen as Pops and trombonist Tyree Glenn enter with the melody. Louis is slightly off-mike, as was his wont when another All Star had the spotlight. But listen carefully, and there's a whole lot of soul in that melody statement, as Louis still hits the high notes without a problem. Shu takes the bridge and pays tribute to the leader with that held high note before Louis reenters with another eight bars of melody and a neat extended ending, shared with Shu. And listen carefully for Louis's final high note...wow! Dig it:


And that ends the story of Louis Armstrong's association with "Memories of You," a song that has been covered by just about everybody, but, I think, will always be associated most with Pops (yeah, I'm biased, I know). I hope to have something new by the end of the week, but I'll keep you all posted as I'm about to start one more final push with the book at the end of this week. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

80 Years of "Memories of You": Part 2 - Fleischmann's Yeast Broadcast

Recorded May 7, 1937
Track Time 3:06
Written by Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, Louis Bacon, trumpet; Jimmy Archey, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Pete Clarke, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Bingie Madison, Albert Nicholas, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin
Currently available on CD: It’s on Louis Armstrong: Fleischmann's Yeast Show & Louis' Home-Recorded Tapes
Available on Itunes? Yes

Welcome back to part two of my week-long look at Louis Armstrong's versions of "Memories of You." The original 1930 recording was a pretty epic one, as we heard the other day. And that, for most Armstrong nuts, was that as for decades, the next known version of "Memories of You" in the Armstrong canon was from 1956. But wait! Discovered in Armstrong's personal collection were a bunch of Fleischmann's Yeast Broadcasts from 1937, one episode containing a brand new arrangement of "Memories of You" that offers a fascinating glimpse into how Louis was approaching this song in the late 30s, arguably the peak of his playing prowess. (And if you've been with me for any amount of time, you should know that I consider the two-disc set of Flesichmann's Yeast Broadcasts and highlights from Armstrong's private tapes, released in 2008, to be the most essential Armstrong release of the last decade. For those who are into downloading, it's available on Itunes and can be purchased at jazzstore.com or in person at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Perfect gift for the holiday season. Really, if you don't have this set, ask yourself....why?) Enough blabbing, here's the 1937 live broadcast of "Memories of You":


From the first note, we can tell that Louis has a brand new arrangement, possibly updated by the great Chappie Willet who did so much writing for Louis in this period. The vibes are gone, as was Lionel Hampton, who was officially off to stardom by this point. But we have Pops and who could ask for anything more? The tempo's slightly faster, with almost a marching feel behind the vocal. Louis's vocal isn't quite as tender as the original, but he's still pretty impassioned. He had obviously been performing the tune regularly for years as a lot of small bits from the original are still present, including the "Now, honey" and the repetition of "rosary of tears." But there's some new approaches, too; the moan the comes after "yesteryears, baby" in the bridge sounds like Louis swallowed his tongue. And the climactic wailing "oh baby" in the last eight bars is also gone, replaced by a kinder, gentler "mama." Still a fine vocal.

After an interlude for the band that reeks of Willet's writing (a good thing), Pops picks up the horn for a full chorus. Remember, on the original, Les Hite's alto took eight bars, leaving Pops only 24 to work with, but here, he gets a whole one by himself. The band really starts swinging as Pops leads the way with some relaxed quarter notes. He cracks one note slightly but doesn't let it deter him. Instead, he turns up heat and climbs into the upper register, backed by some sublime drumming by Paul Barbarin. I've said it once, I've said it again: Barbarin, to my ears, is the MVP of the Fleischmann's set. Even as late as 1956, Louis was giving interviews where he continued raving about Barbarin's drumming. All of his tricks--the backbeat cymbal splashes, that almost "door knocking" fills leading into and out of the bridge, the press rolls--it's all there and gives the band the power to move a mountain. Louis knocks himself out with some completely new playing, very lyrical stuff.

Once again, Pops builds the drama during that bridge. The band doesn't quite accent the first beat of every bar like it did in 1930, but Louis obviously hears it that way, since he shapes his solo in the same manner, leaving a bit of space before unleashing a steady stream of clarion calls. That held Bb is still clear as a bell, topping it off with a high C for added oomph. From there, Armstrong follows the pattern of the original, with those searing Bb's--why change perfection? But because this is 1937 and Louis had become king of the closing cadenza, he stretches out the ending, taking a little more time before nailing that high Eb. Yeah, man.

That's all for now, but again, Pops wasn't through and we'll revisit his 1956 version in a couple of days. Until then, have a happy Thanksgiving!

(In the past, I've celebrated Turkey Day by sharing Louis's versions of "Thanks a Million" and "Thankful." My pal Dave Whitney is carrying the torch this year with his terrific blog on the subject which can be found here. If you still want to see what I wrote about those two, as well as listen to the audio, here's the original links. Enjoy!

Thanks a Million

Thankful

Sunday, November 21, 2010

80 Years of "Memories of You": Part 1 - The Original

Louis Armstrong and His Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra
Recorded October 16, 1930
Track Time 3:13
Written by Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf
Recorded in Los Angeles, CA
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; George Orendorff, Harold Scott trumpet; Luther Craven, trombone; Les Hite, alto saxophone, conductor; Marvin Johnson, alto saxophone; Charlie Jones, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Henry Prince, Harvey Brooks, piano; Bill Perkins, guitar; Joe Bailey, bass; Lionel Hampton, drums, vibraphone.
Originally released on OKeh 41463
Currently available on CD: It’s on the JSP two-disc set The Big Band Sides, 1930-1932, as well as about a hundred other discs
Available on Itunes? Yes

After some crazy, crazy blogless weeks in September and October, I am now attempting to break out of it and get back something that resembles regular blogging. However, I realized a lot of time passed without an anniversary post. I consulted my battered copy of Jos Willems's Armstrong discography "All of Me" and checked out what I missed. Yep, October 3, was the 75th anniversary of Louis's first Decca session (opening with "I'm in the Mood for Love"). And September 10 was the 45th anniversary of one of my favorite later Armstrong recordings, the almost forgotten "Short But Sweet." Damn, how did I let that go by?

But I had to choose something to start with and the winner was "Memories of You," recorded 80 years ago on October 16, 1930. Not only is it a fantastic song, but Louis made a wonderful record of it, one that is somewhat historic (take a bow, Mr. Hampton), and continued to perform it for quite some time, giving me a bunch of versions to talk about over the next week. So let's start at the beginning with the original recording.

"Memories of You" was written by the dynamite team of Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf for a Broadway show, "Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1930." Louis was one of the first to record it, though Duke Ellington had beat him to it, waxing a version on October 2. In fact, let's give a quick listen to the Duke's take on it because it's a very interesting record:


The first thing you notice is the tempo, more upbeat than probably every single proceeding version. Then it's time for a vocal featuring the velvet tones of Irving Mills, the less said of which, the better. It's fascinating tha when compared to what you're going to Louis do with those same lyrics just two weeks later. Then after an arranged, muted passage that sounds like pure 1920s dance band music, the Duke steps out and swings the final chorus, made up of phrases and rhythms that probably couldn't have existed without Louis. So it's a pretty interesting record to see someone as epic as Duke with one foot in the past and one foot in Armstrong's conception of the future. But enough about that, let's get to Pops.

Louis was in California at the time, fronting Les Hite's band, working and broadcasting nightly from Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club in Culver City. The drummer of that band was young Lionel Hampton, already heard to great effect on Louis's other California recordings, swinging like mad on "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy." But for "Memories of You" Hamp offered a more important contribution to the jazz world: his first vibraphone solo. I'll let Hamp tell the story:

"We were recording for OKeh, and the recording studio was also the NBC studio and sitting in the corner was a set of vibes. Louis said, 'What's that instrument over there?' And I said, 'Oh, that'sa new instrument that they're bringing into percussion, into the drum department. They call it vibraharp, some call it a vibraphone.' At that time they were only playing a few notes on it--bing, bong, bang--like the tones you hear for N-B-C....Louis noticed the vibraharp again. So he said 'Can you play it?' I was a young kid, full of confidence, and I said, 'Sure.' So I looked at it, and it had the same keyboard as the xylophone had. He said, 'Pull it out in the middle of the floor and play something on it.'...Everybody's standing around waiting to record, and I played one of his solos, note for note, that I had taken off one of his records....He said, 'Come on, we going to put this on a record. You can play on this record.' Eubie Blake had sent Louis a copy of his song, 'Memories of You,' and I played the introduction on it....That's the first time jazz had ever been played on the vibes."

According to Louis, Hampton had already been playing the vibes before the "Memories of You" date. In his notebooks to Robert Goffin, Louis wrote of his first rehearsal with Hampton in the California band originally led by Leon Elkins, and later by Les Hite. He wrote about Hampton being "one of the Swinginest Drummers I had ever seen and heard in my life. And he was playing some little Bells which he kept besides his Drums. And he was Swinging the hell out of them too--like I had never heard in my life before."

So who know? Perhaps Hamp was already a virtuoso by the time of the "Memories of You" date. Regardless, it's an important landmark in the history of the vibraphone in recorded jazz...but it does last a matter of seconds so I think it's time to move on. In fact, I think it's time to listen to that original recording in all its glory:


Nothing wrong with that. Hamp's intro is on the mark, swinging and setting the tempo completely unaccompanied. And then it's the glory of Pops, taking eight bars of melody, backed by some nice guitar playing by Bill Perkins (whose entire style seems to be comprised of single-string obbligatos). One gets the sense just in that brief solo that Louis is going to do mighty special things with that ascending melody. He doesn't disappoint.

After another spot for Hampton, completely unaccompanied by demanding you pat your foot to him, Louis delivers an ultra-tender vocal. The song "Memories of You" is inherently a sad one and Louis doesn't do anything remotely humorous, treating it like is a sacred work, at least as far as the lyrics are concerned. His additions of "Now honey," "oh baby" and the rest of the ilk are very endearing, making the song very personal. But from a melodic standpoint, Louis basically composes a new one with his daring reshaping of the written words. If I had the time--and ability--to do in-depth transcriptions, this one would be ideal because even when Louis borrows something from the melody, he still puts a spin on it, choosing to sing a passage higher or lower than written, or just stringing large chunks of words together on one pitch. Armstrong also makes great use of repetition, especially in the bridge, where he fills in the gaps by repeating "yesteryears" and "rosary of tears" to hammer home the emotional content of he lyric. The climax finally arrives with Louis's passionate "oh baby" in the last eight bars, a completely natural expression of emotion that is so real, it renders the notion of approaching the tune as Irving Mills did completely unfathomable.

After that delicious vocal, the band starts swinging out a bit as Les Hite takes eight bars on alto, allowing Pops to get set up for his climactic solo. After entering with a terrific break with hints of "Dixie," Louis is off an running, completely playing with the time, floating across the bar lines. He actually builds down in his first eight bars, setting up a dramatic bridge, where his use of space--punctuated by the band's accenting the first beat of every bar--creates an atmosphere equal parts relaxed and intense. It all builds up to that high, held concert Bb, which Armstrong continues exploiting into his final eight bars, returning to that note again and again, hitting it from different angles, boiling the wide-spanning contour of the melody to a single, searing pitch. After this dazzling, virtuoso display, Armstrong calms down a bit (Hampton making his present felt again with those chords on his vibes), building up to the big ending, as Armstrong slows it down and ends with a screaming high Eb, though Hampton gets the last word in. An absolute magical recording.

Come back in a couple of days to hear how Louis tackled the tune on a 1937 radio broadcast. Til then!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sincerely

Hello all. Once again, there's just enough time for a brand new blog so I'm reaching back into the archives to pull out one from my earlier days (you know, before I had readers). Don't worry, this won't last forever; I have started one on "Memories of You" that will be an old-fashioned, in-depth piece that should be ready possibly this weekend. And in December, I'll have some very exciting announcements to make on a variety of Armstrong-related subjects. But for now, here's "Sincerely." Enjoy!

Recorded January 18, 1955
Track Time 3:02
Written by Harvey Fuqua and Alan Freed
Recorded in Los Angeles
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Pete Candoli, trumpet; Trummmy Young, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Donald Ruffell, Check Gentry, Josh Cook Koch, saxes; Billy Kyle, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Barrett Deems, drums; Sonny Burke, conductor
Originally released on Decca 29421
Currently available on CD: Moments to Remember, a compilation on the Ambassador label (www.classicjazz.se for more info)
Available on Itunes? Yes, on a compilation, “The Magic of Music”

Uh oh. It looks like ol’ Ricko won’t be getting much sleep tonight. This isn’t one of Louis Armstrong’s greatest records but it has a moment that, once it enters my brain, well, it might as well invest in an overnight parking space. The moment in question is Armstrong’s trumpet entrance during the bridge, which never fails to move me. However, the rest of the record isn’t the most interesting thing in the world, but it is a good example of the lengths at which Decca was going in the mid-50s to get Armstrong (well, really, Joe Glaser) a hit record.

Since Armstrong signed with Decca again in the late 40s, the sole goal of Joe Glaser was to get Louis Armstrong back on the charts. Decca producer Milt Gabler did his best by keeping a close ear on the popular trends in music, then squeezing Armstrong in wherever he saw fit. When Gordon Jenkins was ruling the pop music world with his lush strings and choir sound, Gabler got him to arrange “Blueberry Hill” for Pops and just like that, a hit was born. When Tony Bennett exploded onto the scene in 1950, Gabler paid attention and soon gave Armstrong two Bennett hits, “Cold, Cold Heart” and “Because of You.” Edith Piaf came over with “La Vie En Rose,” which, thanks to Gabler, soon became property of Pops. When Hank Williams had a hit with “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” Pops was cheatin’ right along with him. Of course, there are many other examples: “Kiss of Fire,” “I Get Ideas,” “It Takes Two To Tango,” “I’ll Walk Alone,” and more, all songs that were other people’s hits before Pops had his way with them. The fact that Armstrong made such wonderful records out of such pop tunes in the early 50s is a testament not only to Armstrong’s genius but to the sound of the popular music world of the era which, if not exactly producing works worthy of the Great American Songbook, at least put together enough pretty melodies and interesting chord changes to allow Pops to do what he had been doing for decades.

But by the mid-50s, the times, they were a-changin’. Rock and Roll was just about ready to explode, but in the meantime, the rhythm and blues charts were featuring a new vocal group sound that didn’t exactly sound like the Ink Spots. The sound was “Doo Wop” and it was slowly churning out hit records for groups like The Five Keys, the Flamingos and the Orioles. Enter Alan Freed, the famous disc jockey who began spreading the sounds of black Doo Wop groups to his white audiences. Freed sometimes gets credit with coining the phrase “Rock and Roll,” which is ridiculous; in fact, earlier today, I heard Red Allen sing it on the record “Get Rhythm In Your Feet,” from around 1935. Though he would later fall victim to the payola scandals of the late-50s, payola is exactly what put Freed on the map in the mid-50s. If you wanted Freed to play your records, you’d have to grease his palm a little bit, maybe even add his name to the song as a co-writer.

Of course, once the music started spreading to white audiences, it was only a matter of time before the time-honored tradition kicked in of white people stealing the music of blacks. Enter the McGuire Sisters. In 1954, a black group, The Moonglows, had a #1 R&B hit with a song called “Sincerely.” The song was written by the group’s founder, Harvey Fuqua, who would later become a successful producer for Motown and RCA Records. Websites claim that the Moonglows were “mentored” by Freed and Fuqua himself said that Freed was their first manager, but I highly doubt Freed did any of the actual pen-and-music-paper songwriting when it came to “Sincerely.” Regardless, the McGuire Sisters were a female vocal trio that landed on the music scene in 1952. Now, for those who are wondering if this still a Louis Armstrong blog, have no fear, as there’s an early connection. In 1954, the McGuire Sisters had a hit by singing the new, dopey lyrics to “Muskrat Ramble,” the same ones Pops recorded for Decca on September 1, 1954. The McGuire’s version hit the Billboard charts on October 23, 1954, reaching as high as number 11 (Pops’s went nowhere and he thankfully kept it as an instrumental in his live shows). Thanks to YouTube, here’s that McGuire Sisters version:



To tie everything up, while the Moonglows were seeing R&B success for “Sincerely,” the McGuires covered it at the end of 1954 and by February 12, 1955, had the number one hit in the country. It would remain number one for six weeks. For the nostalgia buffs in the crowd, here’s that hit single, again, courtesy of YouTube:



Thus, with this new sound floating through the charts, Decca thought it might have been time for Louis Armstrong to get a chance to put his mark on it. On January 18, 1955, Pops headed to Decca’s Los Angeles recording studios for one of the oddest four-song sessions of his career. For the date, the All Stars were augmented by the late Pete Candoli on trumpet and a three-man reed section. Seeing how “Muskrat Ramble” became rediscovered with some silly lyrics, the same thing was done to “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” Gary Crosy was brought in to duet with Pops and the result, to my ears, is a mess. Armstrong plays beautifully and he sounds like he’s having a fun time, but the lyrics are dreadful and Crosby is obnoxious with his terrible Satchmo impressions. The next song up fully embraced the Doo Wop sound: “Ko Ko Mo.” One day I hope to write a long blog on Pops’s many “Ko Ko Mo’s,” but to quickly sum up, it was originally recorded by Gene and Eunice (two of the song’s writers, Forest Gene Wilson and Eunice Levy; the third writer was Jake Porter). A version by The Crew-Cuts would reach the Billboard charts just 11 days after Armstrong’s Decca session so it was clearly a part of the early 1955 musical climate. For this track, Crosby does his best to sound hip, failing for the most part, and Jud Conlon’s Rhythmaires are brought in to give quasi-authentic Doo Wop backings, consisting mainly of repeating the syllables “Hoo wah.” Pops again sounds like he’s having a ball, scatting an obbligato and harmonizing with Crosby’s lead. He also takes a roaring trumpet solo, though it’s a bit odd hearing the elegant Billy Kyle banging away at the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis at times. The record’s not exactly a classic, but I’m glad for all the many swinging Pops and Velma performed of it.

So with all that background information, I know come to “Sincerely,” a recording I can probably sum up in about a paragraph! Here's the audio:


The changes are beyond simple: 1-6-2-5 in Eb (that’s two bars each of Eb-Cm-F7-Bb) for the A sections and a lovely bridge that capitalizes on the major-to-minor harmonies of many 1950s R&B and early rock ballads. Like the McGuire Sisters record, Armstrong’s version, arranged by Sonny Burke, begins with almost the same simple sax riff (somewhere, Alvin and the Chipmunks are getting ready to sing). It’s not so much an introduction as a hook—we’re in the era of rock, my friends!

Fortunately, Armstrong sings the song, well, sincerely, receiving very nice muted trumpet work from Candoli behind him. He barely changes a line of melody or adds any scatting, but it’s pretty enough. The band sure hammers out that five chord after the first A section, huh? The bridge, though, is this song’s bread-and-butter and Pops sings it wonderfully, getting great support by Kyle and Trummy Young. It’s a fine vocal but the song takes so long to sing that one chorus almost takes up two minutes of the three-minute record.

But don’t worry, help is on the way! I cannot describe how much I love Armstrong’s bridge on this song. His entrance is the most relaxed thing I’ve ever heard and the padding the reeds give him is quite lush (Deems’s cymbals sound good, too). Pops feels the song and plays with that slippery phrasing that is the definition of rhythmic trickeration (though now dictionary probably has a definition for rhythmic trickeration). When the chords change to F7, he plays one of his famous licks ascending phrases, landing on a few G’s, the ninth of the F7, He ends his brief outing with a break whose of notes are utterly logical, all leading up to a giant gliss up to a high Bb. It’s only eight bars, but it makes the record, especially with that superb entrance that will now be stuck in my head for at least three or four hours (not a bad thing).

Pops, feeling the spirit, hits that Bb, quickly pulls the horn from his mouth and manages to make it back to the mike in time to shout out, “Lookee here, Sincerely,” all on one pitch, a high Eb. He opens his next line with a soulful “Oh” and in delivering the final lyric, he phrases it up high, much as he might have played it on his trumpet. The band plays a final chord but listen for Pops, yelling out the final word, “Mine,” one last time in the background of all the reeds and brass.

“Sincerely” is a harmless record with some lovely moments, but to me, it’s in the bottom half of Armstrong’s Decca pop songs. Still, it’s not as weak as the final offering from that January 1955 session, a cover of Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love,” complete with Billy Kyle playing what sounds like church bells. Once again, I’ll offer my usual reminder: these are not BAD records per se. Armstrong always makes them interesting and his tender vocal and quiet trumpet solo does exactly that on “Pledging My Love,” but otherwise nothing much happens and the arrangement is very dated.

Clearly, Decca was losing their grip on Armstrong’s studio recordings during this period, but they at least still had some good ideas for non-studio Armstrong records. Just three days after the “Sincerely” session, Decca recorded an entire evening of music from Hollywood’s Crescendo Club, gathering a lot of great material for LP release (available on “The California Concerts” box). But in the studio, Armstrong did three so-so sessions in a row for Decca from September 1954 to April 1955. Much of the music is good, but too often, Decca tried for the hit, with Armstrong singing all these covers (including “Muskrat Ramble,” which he claimed he wrote). The April 1955 Decca session gave Marty Napoleon some ASCAP royalties for his song, “Mm-Mm,” and allowed the All Stars to do their thing on “Tin Roof Blues” and the first recording of “Pretty Little Missy.” But the same session also offered up trite songs like “Yeh!” and “Baby, Your Sleep is Showing.”

Bookending those three Decca sessions were two of Armstrong’s finest, the W.C. Handy dates from July 1954 and the Fats Waller album from the end of April 1955. Both of these albums were made for Columbia, whose producer, George Avakian, loved Armstrong and knew him well, thus, knew he was above just being a simple hit-maker. Avakian let the All Stars stretch out on familiar material and the results were acclaimed albums that remain in print today. Meanwhile, nothing from the “Sincerely” session has ever been issued on an American C.D.

In September 1955, Decca gave it one more shot, having Armstrong cover the Platters’s “Only You” and the Four Freshmen’s “Moments to Remember,” both lovely records with Benny Carter arrangements that did nothing on the charts. The next day, Armstrong reunited with Gary Crosby on one fine standard, “Easy Street,” as well as digging up one unfortunate number that should have stayed in the cemetery, “Lazybones.” Three weeks later, Avakian landed the All Stars to do another quick session for Columbia. The result was “Mack the Knife,” and once again, Glaser had his hit. Armstrong was a recording free agent by this point and obviously liking their direction (and their price), Glaser kept Armstrong out of the Decca studio from September 1955 to December 1956. Avakian recorded European concerts, studio dates, the Chicago concert, a set at the Newport Jazz Festival and other odds and ends, all of which capture the All Stars at their peak, but didn’t offer any hit singles. For the time being, Glaser moved beyond his infatuation with singles and allowed Armstrong to make some high-profile albums, such as his first collaboration with Ella Fitzgerald from the summer of 1956. When Decca finally got back into the act, Gabler didn’t have any more pop covers but rather, the wonderful Autobiography project, followed by two concept albums, Louis and the Angels and Louis and the Good Book, from 1957 and 1958 respectively, albums that were marketed at mass audiences but again, didn’t provide any hit singles.

But by this point, Armstrong didn’t need them as he was more popular than ever. Thus, Glaser raised his price and everyone scurried. There were no more Columbia recordings after 1956, no more Verve dates after 1957 and nothing more for Decca after a four-tune session from October 1958. In fact, sessions done for the sole purpose of making hit records disappeared for the next few years. Armstrong recorded a King Oliver tribute in 1959, two Audio Fidelity albums with the Dukes of Dixieland in 1959 and 1960, a Capitol collaboration with Bing Crosby in 1960 and albums with Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck in 1961. After leaving Columbia’s studio after the last Real Ambassadors session of September 19, 1961, Armstrong would not step foot into another recording studio until December 3, 1963. And of course, that session would provide “Hello, Dolly.” As Glaser supposedly exclaimed when he first heard it, “It’s a fucking hit!” It was, indeed, and it allowed Armstrong to go on making erratic recording sessions until the day he died, once again with hopes of landing another hit.

And much like those mid-50s Decca sessions that aped the changing sounds of popular music, Armstrong had to do it all over again in the late 60s, covering the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream,” showtunes like “Mame” and “Cabaret,” country songs like “Get Together” and “Ramblin’ Rose,” movie hits like “Rose” and “Willkommen” and pure hit records like “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “Give Peace a Chance.” Most of these records aren’t very good, but I don’t regret their being made. As I’ve written before, my whole theory in my Armstrong research relates to the fact that there was only one Louis Armstrong, not this earlier artist and the later commercial clown. Armstrong performed and recorded popular music from his youth. What were the first two songs he learned to play on the trumpet? The blues and “Home Sweet Home,” the gutty roots of jazz and a popular song everyone knew. You know he played more with Fate Marable and Fletcher Henderson, his feature with Erskine Tate was Noel Coward’s “Poor Little Rich Girl” and once OKeh slipped him “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” he spent decades transforming popular songs into great jazz. Most jazz fans go along with Armstrong through all of that but when popular music began changing, that’s when the critical knocks get pretty rough for Armstrong. But don’t blame Pops. Popular music changed, not Armstrong. He just went along doing what he always did: music was music and if in 1970, he had one recording session with “Mood Indigo” and “My One and Only Love” one day and “The Creator Has A Master Plan” and “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the next, who cares, it was all music, it was all the same. And you know if Armstrong lived until 1981 instead of 1971, we would have had the Armstrong disco album! (There used to be on YouTube, a video of Cab Calloway’s disco version of “Minnie the Moocher” from the late 70s!)

So as always, I’m off the topic of “Sincerely,” but hopefully this all gives a little perspective to what is a pretty nondescript record in the Armstrong discography. All of Armstrong’s Decca records from the 1950s are worth checking out, but it’s become harder and harder to do that in America. Let's hope for a day when Universal blows open the doors to their vaults and makes all of this material available again!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Cuban Pete

Last week, my blog on "She's the Daughter of a Planter From Havana" seemed to be well received by my loyal readers. Because I haven't had time to whip something up new and fresh, I've decided to repost one of the first blogs I ever wrote on that tune's session mate, "Cuban Pete." Here's how it went down back in 2007:

Recorded July 7, 1937
Track Time 3:09
Written by Jose Norman (Joseph Norman)
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 (Backed by "She's the Daughter of a Planer From Havana")
Currently on CD: It's on Mosaic's essential boxed set of Louis's 1935-1946 Decca recordings (perfect gift for the upcoming holidays.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on some cheapie compilations.

I know what you're thinking...my name is Ricky Riccardi, one letter away from Ricky Ricardo, the immortal television character portrayed by the immortal Cuban bandleader, Desi Arnaz, who, yes, is invariably associated with "Cuban Pete." Just in case you're wondering, I'm not a Cuban bandleader (though I am a pianist), I did not marry a Lucy (hello, Margaret!) and I will not sing "Cuban Pete" for you. But I love Armstrong's almost completely neglected recording of this rhumba. This was one of the great Decca big band recordings of the 30s, a series that has never received proper attention on United States CDs. The above CD listing is from the incredible Swedish label, Ambassador, all of which should be sought out on Amazon as they offer a complete picture of this fruitful period in the Armstrong discography.

"Cuban Pete" might sound like an odd choice for a Louis Armstrong record, but Decca was adept at throwing him all sorts of eclectic material (just four months earlier, he had recorded two charming Hawaiian songs with Andy Iona and His Islanders). On the same day he recorded "Cuban Pete," Armstrong cut another Latin specialty, "She's the Daughter Of A Planter From Havana," featuring a wonderful muted trumpet solo. On that performance, the band played in a pretty convincing rhumba style but on "Cuban Pete," they swing from note one. Here's the audio:


Unfortunately, Armstrong doesn't enter until almost one minute in (approximately, note 108). The arrangement features the band playing a straight version of the melody, sounding like almost any other commercial band of the period, except few bands had as propulsive a rhythm section as the one in this band. As you may or may not know, Armstrong front pianist Luis Russell's orchestra for the bulk of the 1930s. Russell's band made some tremendously exciting records in 1929 and 1930 and the rhythm section of Russell, Lee Blair, Pops Foster and Paul Barbarin, deserve a lot of credit for transforming the somewhat stiff, two-beat rhythm sections of the 1920s into the more streamlined, four-to-the-bar swing of the 1930s and beyond. Foster's bass had a huge, popping tone, heard to good effect on "Cuban Pete."

Okay, one minute in and here comes the other Pops, Mr. Strong, and he's muted. He sticks pretty close to the melody but he accents certain phrases ahead of the beat to turn the somewhat clunky tune into something infinitely more swinging. The bridge is a beaut with Armstrong playing a phrase at 1:16 that's right out of his bag of licks (it comes back during his mind-blowing 1960 "Avalon" solo with the Dukes of Dixieland, to name one example). Finally, he starts improvising during the final eight bars and one wishes he did it for three minutes. But instead we get an uncharacteristically gruff vocal. Armstrong's voice in the 1930s softened into a charming tenor with a dash of gravel (not quite the sandpaper gurgle of later years), but he barks out the lyrics of "Cuban Pete" with some rasp, though he effectively sings the "chick chick-a-booms" on one note. The band takes eight bars, Barbarin takes a drum break and Armstrong modulates into a higher key for thet final spot of trumpet blowing. He's still playing the melody almost straight, but there's a great little slow motion descend at 2:50 (my, my, my what he could do with time). Then another break leads into another modulation and Armstrong's now wailing in the upper register of his horn, ending on a triumphant high D.

Like many of Armstrong Decca recordings, "Cuban Pete" didn't change history like "West End Blues." But not every record had to do that. It swings, Armstrong gives another lesson into how to take a banal melody and make swinging jazz out of it, he barks out a fun vocal and at the end, makes one shake his head in amazement at his trumpet prowess. What else can one want from such a great artist? If you still believe Armstrong's post-1928 recordings are a waste of time, you're missing some wonderful music. And if you only know "Cuban Pete" through Desi Arnaz, Ricky Ricardo or Jim Carrey in "The Mask," check out Armstrong's recording to see how the "king of the rhumba beat" could swing like hell, too.