Monday, February 28, 2011

Muskrat Ramble - Part 1

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Recorded February 26, 1926
Track Time 3:03
Written by Kid Ory
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8300
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Finally--two days after the actual anniversary--we arrive at "Muskrat Ramble," the sixth and final song recorded by the Hot Five on February 26, 1926. "Heebie Jeebies" and "Cornet Chop Suey" are rightly known as major Armstrong landmarks but of all the songs recorded that day--and possibly in the history of the Hot Fives and Sevens--I don't think there's any other song that's had the life of "Muskrat Ramble," which continued popping up as a hit record in the 50s and 60s and is still one of the good old good ones in today's traditional jazz scene.

But where did "Muskrat Ramble" come from? Well, that's going to take some detective work and I don't know if we'll ever know for sure. The song has always been attributed to Kid Ory since the very first version was released by the Hot Five in 1926. Ory made it his big feature and never stopped playing it. Ory claimed he wrote it in 1921 while still in Los Angeles, taking the gist of the tune from a book of saxophone exercises. That's fine, but then there's Sidney Bechet, who said it was an old tune already popular in New Orleans, performed as early as the Buddy Bolden era, and known then as "The Old Cow Died and the Old Man Cried." Hmmm...

And there's Louis. Louis performed the song with the Hot Five, seemed to forget about it for a couple of decades, then featured it regularly with his All Stars from inception in 1947 until at least 1967, when his chops began to give out. Louis played it hundreds, if not thousands of times and each time he called it, in the back of his mind, he must have thought, "Damn Ory, I wrote this song."

Finally, in 1965, Louis publicly broke his silence. Louis was hosting his friends Dan Morgenstern and Jack Bradley in his den one afternoon in May of that year. Dan had brought along his tape recorder and turned the results into a wonderful profile of Louis published in "DownBeat" that summer (and currently found in Dan's essential anthology, "Living with Jazz"). Fortunately, years after the interview was published, the complete, unedited tapes were found and aired by Phil Schaap on WKCR. Since then, the interview has become known as the "Slivovice interview," named after the bottle of plum brandy the three polished off over the course of the afternoon (I posted the full audio right here on this blog back in October 2009).

Louis was in the middle of a discussion about original compositions. Morgenstern and Bradley asked if he had written much after his 1947 song "Someday (You'll Be Sorry)." Louis admitted that he really hadn't and the few ideas he did have in mind, he didn't even know where to bring them anymore. He then discussed how it was different with the music publishers in the 1920s and how he was willing to write songs and sell them outright, just to get some quick money. It's at this point that Jack Bradley asked him point blank, "Pops, did you write 'Muskrat Ramble'?" Here's Louis's answer:


So there it is. Morgenstern published Louis's answer but it didn't really make any waves. Louis clearly didn't want to make a fuss about it and it had already been known as Ory's tune for almost 40 years, so nothing really changed. But Louis must have felt strongly about it, because he made similar accusations during his series of Voice of America interviews in July 1956, interviews that were far less conspicuous in that period, especially compared to a "DownBeat" cover story.

Last week, I shared Louis's Voice of America introductions and stories revolving around "Cornet Chop Suey" and "Heebie Jeebies" and now I'll do the same with "Muskrat Ramble." It's fascinating because not only does Louis insinuate that the song was made up in the studio and Ory was the only one with the nerve to claim it--9 years before the Slivovice interview, remember--but it's the only time I've ever heard the full story of the title of the tune and what muskrats were used for in Southern homes: a means to stop bed wetting! Don't believe me? Listen to Louis for yourself:


Isn't that a riot? Louis almost sounds embarrassed telling the story. Interestingly, he said Ory named it and got to claim it, but Ory said Lil Hardin Armstrong was the one who named it. So it's safe to say, we'll never know who named it and who wrote it but that shouldn't stop anyone from enjoying it.

I will say that "Muskrat Ramble" isn't exactly something simple to just jam on, like a 12-bar blues, whipped up in the studio in no time. The song, like "Cornet Chop Suey," had multiple 16-bar strains, echoes of the ragtime era. Each strain features different changes and a different melody, there's an ensemble that features big fat punches from Ory and responses from the band, Ory's solo is set up with accents by the other horns, there's a perfectly executed tag by the trombonist...I don't know, if this was indeed whipped up in the studio, bravo gentlemen and lady.

Okay, I think I've said all that can be said about the backstory and we're still where we started. So forget about all of that and enjoy the first version of "Muskrat Ramble":


Yeah, man, that's still a fun record...no wonder the tune keeps going strong. The very opening of the ensemble is arguably more evidence that this piece was more arranged than given credit for: Louis plays the melody with an earthy lead, Ory plays nothing but quarter notes and Dodds kind of has a harmonized countermelody he works over for a while before he starts to go off on some of his more typical flights the second time through. After that second time, the band heads into the second strain, everybody hitting those accents nice and tight while Ory really gets around on his horn; he's definitely very comfortable with the routine.

Ory's solo, with those giant smears, is a great summation of the Kid's style, but I don't think it's his best work (he sounds better in the ensembles). Louis, however, uncorks a gem. Right from those opening three quarter-notes, you know you're about to hear some good stuff. There aren't many pyrotechnics, but Louis's sense of swing and choice of harmonies (dig that held high G, representing Louis's favorite major-seventh off the Ab chord) is in another world from Ory and Dodds, who follows with a typically insistent solo.

After the round of solos, Ory's smears again take center stage while Louis answers them with the melody and Dodds continues to play harmonized countermelodies instead of going too far off the reservation. Louis then uncorks one of his angry lip trills to lead into the exciting rideout chorus. Louis didn't break out the trill often in his later years, but he loved it in the mid-20s (see "Oriental Strut" from the same session and "Sweet Little Papa" from a few months later for just a couple of examples). After Louis's trill, the whole thing takes off in 16 bars of pure euphoria. Louis's lead is so swinging and strong, but without any crazy high notes (moldy fig critics of Louis's later style often point to this as an example of Louis's pure New Orleans lead, without the need for any upper register fireworks....you know, the stuff that made Louis sound like Louis). Meanwhile, Ory's aggression effectively pushes everyone along, with Dodds really breaking out of his shell, too. And how about that rhythm section? St. Cyr's banjo is supremely driving and creates a unique kind of swing that would disappear soon after in mainstream jazz. And then there's Ory's tag, which would become part of just about every succeeding performance of the tune.

Great stuff, but for Louis Armstrong it was only the beginning. In a few days, I'll be back with parts 2, 3 and who knows how many to tell the story of Louis's history with this tune. Til then!

Friday, February 25, 2011

You're Next

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Recorded February 26, 1926
Track Time 3:18
Written by Lil Hardin Armstrong
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8299
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes

We continue trekking through Louis Armstrong's February 26, 1926 Hot Five session with the next tune recorded that day, appropriately titled, "You're Next." This was a Lil Hardin Armstrong composition and proof that everybody was getting a chance to bring something to the table that day. After Spencer Williams's "Georgia Grind," they recorded "Heebie Jeebies" by friend Boyd Atkins (with possible uncredited lyrics by Louis), "Cornet Chop Suey" by Louis, "Oriental Strut" by Johnny St. Cyr, "You're Next" by Lil and finally "Muskrat Ramble" by Kid Ory (though as we'll see, maybe not by Kid Ory). Only Johnny Dodds didn't get to bring a song to the party.

The Hot Five was not a working band so it's all speculation whether each one of these musicians brought in a song, worked it out in the studio and recorded it or if some of these numbers were made up on the fly. There is a copyright deposit for "You're Next" by Lil, but it wasn't filed until May 1926, so who knows if she wrote a simple lead sheet based off of the recording?

Regardless, "You're Next" is a simple little record without any fireworks to speak of. Backed by "Oriental Strut" on the original 78, it has never been greeted with much fuss. And that's fine since you're not going to hit a home run every time. Not that "You're Next" is a strike out; it's a hard hit, line-drive double in the gap. (No strikeouts in the Hot Five canon, in my opinion).

I think Louis needed a breather after blowing his chops apart, as young and strong as they were, on "Cornet Chop Suey." Before we get into that, let's listen to "You're Next":


Lil claims the spotlight instantly with a classical introduction that shows she was a well-rounded pianist. Some knock her and I'll admit she fails in comparison to an Earl Hines, but she had a beat that Louis obviously liked; you can hear it in her minor vamping directly after her classical introduction, very groovy stuff.

Then Louis enters with the vamp, backed by the four-beats-to-the-bar comping by Lil and Johnny St. Cyr. Louis is very relaxed and clearly enjoys the minor changes. In fact, I wish the entire thing stayed in that minor key. But eventually they get to the main strain, based on some fairly basic changes, Ory and Dodds joining in for a conversational ensemble, with St. Cyr handling the break and stop-time interlude.

Lil and Johnny Dodds then split a chorus, each playing well, if not over their heads. Louis comes back in for the final bit of ensemble playing, his first little descending phrase hitting me in the gut; so simple, so effective. Ory finally gets to peak his head out of the ensemble for a short stop-time segment before Louis takes it out with a pet phrase that crops up in later Hot Five performances of "Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa" and "Irish Black Bottom." A fine performance to cool down with, especially considering "Muskrat Ramble" was due up next.

Somehow, I've managed to keep my promise of five blogs in five days but I have a packed schedule today and I'm back at the Armstrong House to give my second round of "Louis Armstrong and Race" lectures tomorrow so it's very possible that on February 26, 2011, the 85th anniversary of this session, I might not have a new entry! But don't worry, I'll finish the session sooner rather than later and hope to turn it into a multi-part feature on Louis's history with "Muskrat Ramble." Til then!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Oriental Strut

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Recorded February 26, 1926
Track Time 3:03
Written by Johnny St. Cyr
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8299
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes

History has kept the wonders of "Heebie Jeebies" and "Cornet Chop Suey" flowing for 85 years but what about the next two songs recorded that day, "Oriental Strut" and "You're Next"? These have kind of flown under the radar for too long so I think it's time they got a little attention. So let's jump in and give a listen to Johnny St. Cyr’s composition, “Oriental Strut.”


Joy personified. The title makes it sound like it’s going to be some kind of pentatonic-fest, complete with Asian-inspired hokum. Alas, there’s none of that and, except for the interesting chord changes, the only vaguely “foreign” sound to the piece comes during the exotic, minor banjo-and-piano vamp at the end. Banjoist Johnny St. Cyr got credit for writing the tune but like many Hot Five classics, it might have been a collaborative effort on the spot. Perhaps, St. Cyr thought of some of the chord changes or the vamp. Or who knows, he might have written the entire thing out as it does encompass three strains and, like I said, the changes are anything but ordinary in the blowing strain.

Regarding the title, these sort of ethnic things were common in the 20s (Johnny Dodds did a small group number, complete with vocal, called “Oriental Man” around this time). The Hot Five also did “Irish Black Bottom,” while there was also the Jamaican routine on “King of the Zulus.” Later Armstrong went Hawaiian with “Song of the Islands,” Native American with “Indian Cradle Song” and really, really caucasian with the vocals of Seger Ellis on “To Be In Love.”

Regardless, let’s get on with the music. The introduction is pretty tight so obviously the musicians had rehearsed this one pretty good. After the exotic vamp, Armstrong leads the group through two go-arounds of the eight bar A strain, based on a descending chord pattern in Dm (the chords don’t quite descend--Dm, Dm7, Gm6, A7--but Ory uses a D-C-Bb-G pattern from the changes to make it work). Also, am I on the only one who thinks of Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays” when I hear Armstrong play for the first few bars of this strain?

Then it’s off to the B strain, which slickly moves from Dm to a major, D7 tonality. I don’t know what’s written and what’s not but I like how Armstrong leans on the Bb in the second bar of this strain, which is the flatted sixth of the D7 chord in question. The second half of the B strain heads to Bb before a short circle of fifths (A7-D7-G7-C7) leads to the final blowing strain.

I’m usually not so technical, but I’ve always found the chords of this section to be rather interesting. Two bars of an F immediately go to two bars of Db, which is a neat little surprise. The next two bars of F resolve to a D7, which also works nicely. After two bars on Gm, the piece turns minor again for the next two, A7 and Dm. But then it gets sunny again with two more odd choices for the key of F, E7 and A, before the A leads to a C which leads to a turnaround and we’re off again from the beginning. If you’re not a musician, sorry if that bored you, but I think it’s interesting because a lot of these Hot Five tunes are pretty complex, with multiple strains and some challenging changes, with a little more meat than “old-timey” jazz is sometimes given credit for.

Ory plays the incredible sparse melody, made up of almost nothing but whole notes and half notes, with less than a handful of quarter notes. At the same time, it’s the kind of melody that sticks with you long after listening. After Ory’s somber statement, Dodds comes in with some variations but he seems a little weary of the changes. For instance, when he gets to the second change to Db, he responds by rhythmically repeating a string of Db’s! However, he makes it through the rest of his solo without a problem as the E7 and A7 are replaced by a simple 2-5-1 at the end of his chorus, Gm to C7 to F.

A short interlude by composer St. Cyr’s banjo sets up the main event, a dazzling stop-time solo by Armstrong. I’ll admit, this isn’t a flawlessly executed outing, like a “Potato Head Blues” or “Cornet Chop Suey” (whose solo was pre-written) but it’s quite exciting hearing Armstrong think, inventing ideas with abandon and taking chances as the bars pass him by. His opening phrase, of course, smacks of “Potato Head Blues,” which would be recorded the following year, but after that, it’s a whirlwind of invention. Unlike Dodds, he isn’t daunted by the Db, playing a descending phrase made up of all chord tones before turning an F chord completely inside out. He’s very melodic, but some of the notes are slightly cracked around the eight bar mark, not terribly, but not hit on the nose as he might have liked. The band swings for three bars setting up a simple break which leads to Armstrong’s second stop-time helping.

Pops begins the second half with a slicing rip up to an A an octave higher than written before he makes mincemeat out of the Db with a lightening fast triplet phrase he liked to employ during this period (it crops up near the end of “Ory’s Creole Trombone” to name one example). His rhythm then gets even more daring as he goes on; I love the way he hits the low A and kind of lets it linger in the third bar of this half. Soon, the band starts swinging behind him, but Armstrong continues powering through, playing a sweetly singing high E with an attractive vibrato. But then it’s time to get nasty as he trills a snarling C to signal one more joyous chorus.

And it’s a good one, with Armstrong at his most New Orleans-centric. Not too much longer after this, Armstrong would begin pulling away in his ensemble playing, exploring the higher register of his horn and generally dominating the records. Here he’s on good behavior, hitting a few higher notes here and there but mainly keeping it peppy, playing around St. Cyr’s melody but always keeping it somewhat in the forefront. A short four bar coda ends the song with a cute Charleston beat.

That’s all I have on this fun record, one unjustly dismissed by many of the elite jazz writers, though good musicians always know a good record when they here it; this is the record that so knocked Jack Teagarden out, Wingy Manone remembered Big T actually burying a copy of the OKeh 78 underground to keep it preserved forever!

That’s all for now but I’ll be back tomorrow to continue my look at this epic session with "You're Next."

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Cornet Chop Suey

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Recorded February 26, 1926
Track Time 2:58
Written by Louis Armstrong
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8320
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes

We've reached the third song of Louis Armstrong's doozy of a session on February 26, 1926 and this one is a bona fide masterpiece. Louis started the date by jiving around with his wife Lil on the blues "Georgia Grind," followed by creating the scat solo heard around the world on "Heebie Jeebies." But to this point, the Armstrong horn hadn't had much to do.

Well, that all changed with the third song written that day "Cornet Chop Suey." This is a piece that has gotten writers breathless for decades and I don't know how much I can add. You want to know what made Louis Armstrong such a revolutionary musician in the 1920s? Well, it's all right here for you. He's in complete command of his horn, playing almost clarinet figures his trumpet (or cornet). The melody of "Cornet Chop Suey," which he wrote, is very forward-thinking, a harbinger of snake-like melodies that would come later on in the bop era (Scott Robinson recorded a wonderful updated take on this tune in recent years, but I'd love to hear a bebop front line of trumpet and alto tear through this melody in unison...wouldn't sound out-of-date for a second).

And then there's that stop-time solo, every note so perfectly placed and swinging, it's almost as if he wrote it out beforehand. But that could never happen, not in these righteous days of pure jazz, when, if you weren't improvising, well, you might as well be playing dance band music with Vincent Lopez. Right? Hello? Bueller?

Of course, some of you might not know where I'm heading, but here's the straight dope: every note of "Cornet Chop Suey" was written down by Louis Armstrong and registered at the Library of Congress on JANUARY 24, 1924! Two years before he recorded it!

Don't believe me? Well, I don't know how good this is going to work, but Lawrence Gushee wrote a defintive piece on Louis and improvisation that now appears in the book "In the Course of Performance." That book is available on Google Books and you can scroll to page 300 to see a copy of it, right in Louis's hand. Here's a link.

This is not new news. The Library of Congress deposits were discovered in the 80s and have been writen about often since. In fact, when I was a member of the Master's program in Jazz History and Research at Rutgers, when we got to the subject of Armstrong in our Jazz Historiography class, our professor, Lewis Porter, passed this around to make the point that improvisation in the early days wasn't exactly a given. Soloists such as Louis and Kid Ory and King Oliver worked on their solos and once they had it down perfect, well, why in the hell mess with it? They were playing for dancers and making records for a quick buck, never thinking that students at universities would be analyzing their every eighth-note rest.

Louis himself admitted as much. I don't have the quotes at hand (but--plug alert--they're in my book), but he talked about it with Richard Meryman in the 1960s, basically saying that everything he played was improvised at one point. But once he got it down, that's it, only change a few notes here and there, as long as they fit. He made sure to stress that's how it was in the old days, when everybody was supposedly improvising.

So here's "Cornet Chop Suey" two years before it got waxed, and it's all there: that incredible introduction, the melody and even every note of the stop-time chorus, marked by Louis as the "Patter" section. Now should this change anyone's opinion of "Cornet Chop Suey"? I should hope not. If so, if you really need every note of your jazz to be freshly minted from the tortured artist's brain, I feel sorry for you. Because me, I can admire what Louis put into composing this work and how he must have worked on it until it sounded like perfection. He probably didn't play it with King Oliver or Fletcher Henderson, but he probably did play it with Lil on piano at their Chicago home (her solo, while not an all-time classic, is one of her best ones, in my opinion).

Yesterday, I shared a Voice of America interview with Louis where he introduced and discussed "Heebie Jeebies." From that same session, he did the same thing with "Cornet Chop Suey." Here he is talking about it in 1956, downplaying it as just an unpublished compisition, recorded to make some quick money to go to the cabarets, with no thoughts about royalties or anything like that.



So with Louis serving as our disc-jockey, let's dig into the original "Cornet Chop Suey":



Right off the bat, for some of you who may have enjoyed this song for 85 years, it might sound a little different. That's because I went with the version of the song in the key of F, as included in Phil Schaap's "Complete Hot Fives and Sevens" box set of about a decade ago. In his own notes, Schaap mentioned that authorities like Randy Sandke and James Charillo believed it to be in Eb. That's how Bobby Hackett played it and that's how John R. T. Davies mastered it in his JSP set.

But Louis wrote it down in F and the three subsequent versions he made of the song (which we'll get to in a bit), were each in F. That's good enough for me, but Norman Field really did the fieldwork in 2005 and published his results here. Check that out and you'll be listening to this version for good.

And then there's the matter of "cornet vs. trumpet." Everyone asks when did Louis switch and why? I can't give an exact date for the switch but it was around this time when Louis joined Erskine Tate's orchestra at the Vendome Theater. Thus, it's possible that "Cornet Chop Suey" was played on a trumpet! Here's Louis on the Voice of America again, right after playing "Cornet Chop Suey," discussing the difference between the two instruments and why he made the switch:



So there you have it, again, straight from the man himself. One final note: many writers have said Louis titled it this way because exotic material was usually associated with Asia back then (see "Oriental Strut" from this same session). But I don't hear anyting exotic about "Cornet Chop Suey"; I think the title is a play on "Clarinet Marmalade" that works in Louis's love of Chinese food, something that started as a kid and continued until the end of his life.

I've said very little about the playing on "Cornet Chop Suey" but I think the record speaks for itself. It's a masterpiece of the 20th century and was one of those recordings that pretty much said, "Jazz...follow me!" And it did, but Louis seems to have left "Cornet Chop Suey" behind. I have never seen any mentions of him playing it for the next 20 years of life but the next time he dug it out, stand back!

The occasion was the historic Town Hall concert in May 1947. This concert plays a crucial role in the beginning of the book and I center on "Cornet Chop Suey" as the start of things to come. Thus, I'm not going to run my mouth about the subject for long, other than to say, dig it:


That, to me, is just an amazing performance. It's Louis with just a rhythm section with Dick Cary on piano, Bob Haggart on bass and Big Sid Catlett on drums. This concert was supposed to throw Louis back into his "old" styles, all at a time when the dixieland revival had trad bands trying to recreate 1920s recordings with painstaking details.

And here comes Louis and not for one second does he treat it like 1926. That rhythm section SWINGS, Catlett dropping subtle bombs and all sorts of accents. And perhaps because he hadn't played it in so long, Louis is completely free. He makes plenty of allusions to the original, but makes enough changes to keep it fresh, right up to that giant high note at the end, all 1947. Definitely a magical performance that helped usher in the later years of Louis's career.

Concert programs from the early days of the All Stars listed "Cornet Chop Suey" as part of the repertoire but I have never come across a live performance of broadcast of it. Instead, it would be ten more years before Louis would take another crack at it and once again, he came through with flying colors. Like "Heebie Jeebies" and "Georgia Grind," Louis revisited it on "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography."

The Hot Five and Hot Seven recreations were arranged by Bob Haggart, who transcribed every note of the original recordings. Louis was well rested and had plenty of time to rehearse during these sessions, so his playing is note-perfect, but perhaps not quite as free as the Town Hall version.

Regardless, Haggart has some neat ideas, such as having George Barnes's guitar double Louis's acrobatic introduction. Louis sounds in command and the rest of the band is equally enthusiastic (though the Barrett Deems Drum Machine 2000 is too rigid; not his fault, Haggart wrote in the arrangements "closed hi-hat" on Deems's parts, keeping him locked down for some reason). Everyone gets a solo but of course, the spotlight is on Louis for the stop-time bit and he nails it, though he passes the ball to Trummy for a half-chorus, probably to give his 56-year-old chops a bit of a breather before the rideout, which has a new ending. Louis's crazy spiraling bit from the original is gone, replaced with the raw power of the 1950s Armstrong. Enough from me, give it a listen:



Alas, my final version of "Cornet Chop Suey" is a bit of a letdown. It's from only two years later, but different circumstances lead to different recordings. This time around, Louis did "Cornet Chop Suey" with the Dukes of Dixieland. First off, the session was only weeks after Louis's heart attack in Spoleto, Italy, which didn't have any major effects on his trumpet playing, but did seem to affect his ability to execute fast runs on the horn, something that especially became noticable in the mid-1960s.

Also, this session was the Dukes seems like it was just thrown together, without any prepartion or rehearsal. In fact, they just did a lot of songs Louis was already performing live and/or had just recorded for Decca. Because of that, Decca stepped in and didn't allow the recordins to be released until theirs had been on the market for a certain period of time. Armstrong and the Dukes got their act together and recorded fresh material for a fantastic album in 1960 but this 1959 meeting flew under the radar for years.

After recording so many familiar songs--"Back O'Town Blues," "Someday," "Struttin' with Some Barbecue"--and some different material with basic routines--"Dippermouth Blues" "Riverside Blues," "Bill Bailey"--someone in the Dukes probably suggested "Cornet Chop Suey." This was the kind of material the Dukes ate up (Dukes trumpeter Frank Assunto takes the melody in the first chorus) but Louis hadn't played it regularly for years and when he recorded it for the "Autobiography," he had an arrangement in front of him.

Thus, judged solely on itself, this recording features some fine, powerhouse playing by the 1959 Armstrong. But you can hear his memory trying to conjure up those phrases and then you can feel the execution slowing down tremendously since the 1957 project. Like an aging fastball pitcher, Louis still has the knowhow to throw enough offspeed stuff to strike the batter out. In fact, for a longtime, I winced when I heard this stop-time solo until I learned to just listen to it on its own. And you know what? It's grown on me until I think it's pretty terrific, with lots of new ideas to make up for what old ideas he couldn't execute anymore. Still, it's a different ballgame from those 1947 and 1957 versions. And the whole thing is over in 2 minutes and 15 seconds so it's like everyone just wanted to get it over with. Anyway, here it is:



I doubt Louis ever performed "Cornet Chop Suey" again after this recording (there's an alternate from this session but it's very similar and I don't think worth sharing). I enjoy each of these versions but really, that first one, recorded 85 years ago this week, is the one that changed history. The next song recorded that day, didn't exactly do that, but it's still worth remembering. Stay tuned for my next installment on "Oriental Strut."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Heebie Jeebies

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Recorded February 26, 1926
Track Time 2:57
Written by Boyd Atkins
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8300
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Continuing with my look at Louis Armstrong's historic Hot Five session of February 26, 1926, it's time to make history. "Georgia Grind" was a fun blues number and it showcased some good-natured vocals by Louis and his wife at the time, Lil Hardin Armstrong. All well and good, but not exactly earth shattering. Well, that all changed with the next tune on the docket, "Heebie Jeebies."

This is a performance that has been written to death about since it was waxed 85 years ago this week and it's still shrouded in mystery. I don't think I can shed any definitive light on it, but it's always a fun track to listen to and debate what conspiracy theories we have as to what really happened that day.

What we do know is the song was written by Chicago violinist Boyd Atkins, a member of Louis's band at the Sunset Cafe. But the first mystery arises around the lyrics: were there any when Louis got around to recording it? Banjoist Johnny St. Cyr remembered that OKeh head E. A. Fearn was digging Louis's voice on the earliest Hot Five numbers like "Gut Bucket Blues" and "Georgia Grind" and perhaps sensing a number of instrumentals on the schedule for the day, asked Louis to whip up some lyrics for this "Heebie Jeebies" song. St. Cyr remembered Louis sitting in the corner, writing them out and trying to familiarize himself with them before the recording light went on.

Hmmm, maybe this happened, maybe it didn't (I don't know why St. Cyr would make it up). But of course, it's what happened once the recording began that has become the stuff of legend. Richard M. Jones, who oversaw a lot of black music recorded for OKeh, was the first to tell the tale that while Louis singing the vocal, he dropped the words and started to scat. According to Jones, Louis carried the microphone with him to the floor at the same time that Jones dove for the lyrics, causing both men to hit their heads! Armstrong kept going, the record was released and viola, scat singing was on the map.

A fine story, but one aspect of it completely wrongheaded: there were no microphones in the studio as the song was recorded acoustically. So right there, the whole idea of Louis at a microphone, hitting his head and all that stuff, becomes rather silly.

But what if we remove the microphone part? What if we just stick to the basics: Louis was singing the song, dropped the sheet with the lyrics, scatted for a while and the record was released. A lot of people have trouble with this story as well, but you know what? After hearing it for so many years, I think I've started to maybe believe it.

Never mind Jones; Louis never wavered in his telling the story that way for over 30 years. He was asked it countless times and he always gave the same answer, as can be heard on a number of his private recordings housed at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. In my private collection, I have a number of interviews and conversations Louis did, including one with producer George Avakian at the Armstrong home in 1953. Avakian produced the first major reissue of this material in the early 40s and quoted the famous "dropped lyrics" story in his notes, which really turned it into legend. But there he was, grilling Armstrong at his home in private and Pops still didn't change his story.

On top of that, Johnny St. Cyr and Kid Ory said the same thing! Really, what did it matter to them? Armstrong and Ory had a somewhat awkward relationship and Ory could have easily said it was bunk. I'm sure there wasn't a private, Hot Five reunion phone call in the 1940s with each man making a solemn promise to stick by this story.

And then there's the matter of the record itself, which isn't very polished and contains a giant gaffe in the routine at its conclusion. Shall we listen to it now? Let's...


There it is. Did you catch the gaffe at the end? Of course, it's Kid Ory jumping the gun with his response, "Whatcha doin' with the Heebies?" In Armstrong's first Hot Five session, Johnny Dodds suffered mike fright during "Gut Bucket Blues" and Ory was the one who had to rescue the day. But here, the Kid blows the routine, allowing for the incredibly awkward moment of silence as Lil and St. Cyr play that weak Charleston beat. The whole thing reeks of a first take but according to Armstrong, Fearn was so tickled by the scat interlude that he stopped the proceedings right there, knowing they had just created something special. Louis, as we'll hear, did exaggerate it a bit, I feel, as he usually said that Fearn walked into the studio and said, "Louie Armstrong, this is where scat was born." That sounds a little convoluted, but again, early newspaper articles from the period did soon refer to the "skat" craze, so maybe Fearn predicted it all in a matter of minutes.

So let's listen to Louis. In 1956, he gave a series of interviews for the Voice of America where he introduced his favorite recordings. Here's the intro to "Heebie Jeebies" with Louis telling a definitive version of the "dropped lyric" story:


There it is, straight from the source. One thing Louis mentions there is Jelly Roll Morton's "Library of Congress" recordings. It should be mentioned that when "Heebie Jeebies" was released, it created a nationwide scat-singing sensation. But as has been proved countless times, this was not the first scat vocal to be recorded; Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards and Don Redman both beat Louis to the punch. But "Heebie Jeebies" was a hit and helped make Louis a star and to many, Louis innovated the whole concept.

Well, Louis never claimed this to be true, as he often said he was doing this kind of singing was still in vocal quartets in New Orleans. But when Jelly Roll Morton did his Library of Congress interview with Alan Lomax, he took offense to Louis getting the credit for inventing scat. Naturally, Jelly Roll claimed he invented it, doing it with Tony Jackson while Armstrong was still a baby. Louis got a kick of out this section and I think was more than a little annoyed, as he brought it up in many, many interviews. He usually told Jelly's side with a laugh but there is one private tape at the Louis Armstrong House Museum that must be heard to be believed. Louis owned Jelly's Library of Congress records and transferred them to tape many times. But one time, he got to the scat story, stopped the tape, picked up his microphone and addressed Jelly directly. Well, I never wrote the quotes down as they didn't pertain to anything in my book, but all I know is I was laughing out loud within minutes. Morton was dead for 10, 15 years by this point, but that didn't stop Louis from pretty much telling him off and bragging that he (Louis) was still performing and Jelly, for all his big opinions, was six feet in the ground!

Anyway, to get back on point, "Heebie Jeebies" isn't the first record to feature scat singing and Louis Armstrong didn't invent the concept, but it did a helluva lot to make it something that people began incorporating into their vocals almost immediately (so when you see a poor amateur singer incorporate a snatch of awkward scat on "American Idol," sending the crowd into a tizzy, thank "Heebie Jeebies"). Just think: this was Louis's third full vocal on record and he already upset the world. Amazing.

Louis kept scrapbooks with many of his 1920s reviews and the great majority mentioned "Heebies" (one naming him as "one of 'Heebies' pet writers"). Louis began featuring it with Erskine Tate's orchestra at the Vendome Orchestra and even did a dance to go along with it. But once he went out as a single in the late 20s, "Heebie Jeebies" seemed to have left the Armstrong repertoire...for good.

Seriously, there's not a single live performance of the tune in entire Armstrong discography except for one, and thankfully, it is a gassuh. It comes from the "Eddie Condon Floor Show" from September 3, 1949 and features Louis in pretty good company, surrounded by Wild Bill Daviso, Cutty Cutshall, Peanuts Hucko, rnie Caceres, Joe Bushkin, Condon, Jack Lesberg, George Wettling and Jack Teagarden. Armstrong tells the famous dropping-the-sheet-music story before recreating the performance. I love the vocal chorus because it features Condon's guitar playing, which I've always enjoyed. In most mixes, Condon's lost the in the shuffle, but occasionally he stood a little too close to the microphone, resulting in a chance to appreciate his driving pulse and seamless chord-work. Armstrong's on fire during the vocal, setting up some good solos (Hucko begins by quoting Armstrong's original scat solo!) before Pops up his horn for some absolutely dazzling playing. Overall, he takes three choruses , building to a ferocious climax driven by George Wettling's tidal wave of a roll. The original "Heebie Jeebies" is pretty historic but from a purely musical standpoint, this remake cuts the original to ribbons. Dig it:



And just like yesterday, Pops payed one last tribute to this Hot Five classic in his 1957 project, "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography." The one thing I haven't mentioned about the original "Heebie Jeebies" is the quality of the instrumental music played, which is okay, but nothing spectacular. For the "Autobiography," Louis had his greatest All Stars with him, including Edmond Hall on clarinet and Trummy Young on trombone, and the difference in quality of the solos is marked. The tempo is faster, like the Condon version, and the whole thing romps from start to finish. Unfortunately, it's over a little too quick--there was definitely time for one more chorus, a la the Condon version--but there's good news: the "whatcha doin' with the Heebies" hokum is straightened out! And for that, we should be thankful. In fact, Armstrong's friend Jeann Failows was in attendance at this session and a few of her write-ups survive at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, each of them making special emphasis on this performance and how much fun everyone had doing it. Enjoy!



So that's "Heebie Jeebies," an absolute iconic moment in the history of jazz singing. But an equally iconic moment would follow it, this one for the history of jazz solos. Stay tuned for my next installment: "Cornet Chop Suey."

Monday, February 21, 2011

Georgia Grind

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Recorded February 26, 1926
Track Time 2:36
Written by Spencer Williams
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8318
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes

On July 12, 1954, Louis Armstrong recorded six songs in one evening for the epic album "Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy." While working on the sixth and final tune, "Long Gone," producer George Avakian came up to Louis and asked, "What's the last time you made six in one evening?" "Man," Armstrong responded, "it's been years since that shit. It's wonderful."

Armstrong wasn't kidding. Six tunes in one session is a lot for any artist and Armstrong hadn't it done it many times before. One occasion that jumps to mind is an immortal Decca session on May 18, 1936 that included gems like "Lyin' to Myself," "Swing That Music" and "Mahogany hall Stomp." I will cover that session later this year for its 75th anniversary. And the Victor session of January 26, 1933 was another six-tune classic, including "I've Got the world on a String," "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues" and four other performances for the time capsule.

But I don't think that anyone can argue that pretty much the most ridiculous six-song session Louis Armstrong ever recorded was done 85 years ago this week, a Hot Five session on February 26, 1926. The rundown? "Georgia Grind," "Heebie Jeebies," "Cornet Chop Suey," "Oriental Strut," "You're Next" and "Muskrat Ramble." My goodness, that's a lot of history in session.

My original thought was to way until the day, February 26, and knock it all out with one massive posting. But I think it's smarter to take them one at a time and let each one get an equal share of the acclaim. My goal is to do one song a day, culminating with "Muskrat Ramble" on the 26th. However, I've only done six postings in a row once before and that was when I wasn't a father and was out of work for a couple of weeks because the painting field had dried up in the winter of 2009. Things are much different now, so I might have to ask for patience. But I have a head start because I've written about "Georgia Grind" and "Oriental Strut" before and will use those entries to help out. And I should note that I'm also not planning on my usual graphic amounts of detail. However, if you are looking for that, it looks like Brian Harker's book on Louis's Hot Fives and Sevens is due out from Oxford University Press at any minute. I haven't read it but I know Brian has been immersed in these recordings for quite some time and I'm sure he'll have everything you're looking for. To order it on Amazon, click here.

Okay, so without further ado, let's see how this session started off with "Georgia Grind," and what I wrote about it back in 2007:

***********************
I’m glad that my Itunes landed on this song today because it allows me to delve into a little amateur sleuthing to attempt to trace the evolution of “Georgia Grind” and “Shake That Thing.” Armstrong recorded “Georgia Grind” twice in his career and both fine versions will be discussed in a little bit. For years, though, I’ve always been struck about how “Georgia Grind” and “Shake That Thing” share the exact same melody and in some versions, even some of the lyrics.

An obvious first question is what came first, “Georgia Grind” or “Shake That Thing”? All signs seem to point to “Shake That Thing,” though do not be confused: Ford Dabney wrote a ragtime piece titled “Georgia Grind” in 1915 but it has nothing to do with the Spencer Williams tune Armstrong recorded in 1926 (certain websites claim Williams wrote in 1915…wrong!). Some versions of “Shake That Thing” credit the tune to “Traditional” but from what I can tell, it really belongs to New Orleans banjoist Papa Charlie Jackson, who recorded the first version of the song in May 1925. It’s pretty uptempo compared to some later versions, but a lot of the hallmarks are there, including the line about the “Jellyroll king.” Jackson’s record must have been something of a hit because by the end of 1925, it was already being covered by the likes of Clarence Williams’s Blue Five (December 15, 1925) and Ethel Waters (December 23, 1925). Waters slowed it down to give it more of a blues feeling.

The “Shake That Thing” craze continued into 1926 with Jimmy O’Bryant’s Washboard Band waxing it in January and Abe Lyman’s California Ambassador Orchestra recorded a hot version on February 1. With one “Shake That Thing” cover after another being recorded, it was only a natural to have a copycat version soon appear. Enter our friend Spencer Williams. Williams perhaps remembered the title of the Dabney piece but more to point, Jackson’s first line referenced the peach state: “Now down in Georgia, they got a dance that’s new/ There ain’t nothin’ to it, it is easy to do/ Called ‘Shake That Thing.” Williams then borrowed a line that had been around for years:

Papa, Papa, just look at sis, out in the backyard shaking like this

On his Library of Congress recordings, Jelly Roll Morton sings this line on more than one occasion, including on “Michigan Water Blues” and “Hesitating Blues.” He sings it as:

Mama, mama, look at sis, she’s out on the levee, doin’ the double twist

Obviously, Williams substituting “shaking like this” for “double twist” is a sly wink to “Shake That Thing.” Otherwise, both tunes are identical, though even I’ll admit, there are traces of this melody in many other blues tunes, including “Hesitating Blues.” And Joe Oliver’s solo on “Jazzin’ Babies Blues,” the one that Armstrong would borrow many times throughout the years, also has a “Shake That Thing”-type feel to it. But it does appear that Armstrong’s Hot Five was the first group to take a crack at the “Georgia Grind” so if you’d like to hear how they did, here 'tis:


Now I like “Georgia Grind” because it’s one of those Hot Five records that didn’t set out to change the world, instead only aiming to entertain its listeners. It was recorded on the same day as “Heebie Jeebies,” “Cornet Chop Suey” and “Muskrat Ramble,” three tunes that indeed change the world and more power to ‘em, but “Georgia Grind” is one those reminders that young Louis “the artist” also had quite a bit of “the entertainer” in him as well. And by sharing the vocal with his wife Lil, why, it’s a practical blueprint for the duets with Velma Middleton of later years (more in a bit).

Armstrong starts the record at the V chord of the blues as the simples means for an introduction. He plays the melody in a very straight-forward fashion with Dodds and Ory sounding very comfortable (this didn’t always happen). We’re not even 30 seconds in and here comes Lil with the vocal:

Papa, Papa, look at sis, out in the backyard shaking like this,
Doing that Georgia Grind, that old Georgia Grind,
Now everybody’s talking about that old Georgia Grind.

I can shake it east, I can shake it west, but way down south I can shake it best,
Doing that Georgia Grind, I said dirty Georgia Grind,
Now everybody’s raving about that old Georgia Grind.

Ory then plays the melody for a few bars before improvising a simple solo that practically screams his name. Then Pops steps up to the mike for a good-time vocal. He was still in his enthusiastic, half-speaking, half-shouting days and I love it:

Come in here gal, come in here right now, out there trying to be bad and you don’t know how,
Doing the Georgia Grind, ohhhh, the Georgia Grind,
Everybody’s trying to do the Georgia Grind.

Say Old Miss Jones was bent and gray, saw the Georgia Grind, threw her stick away,
She did the Georgia Grind, yessir she went crazy about the Georgia Grind—you know one thing?
Everybody’s trying to do the Georgia Grind.

I love those two choruses. Armstrong sings with more soul and feeling than those in the soul and R&B music world of today. I can’t imagine another pure blues singer doing better than Armstrong on words like “Everybody,” where he bends the first syllable beyond the blue horizon. And that quick, “You know one thing” would become something of a trademark. After the vocal, Johnny Dodds takes an eight-bar solo before Pops leads the rideout for the final four bars. No high notes, no stop-time solos, no dazzling feats of rhythmic risk-taking. Just some straightforward lead horn and a fun vocal and that’s all I need. After listening to it, I feel entertained and for Pops, that was mission accomplished.

With a big name like Spencer Williams behind it, it only made sense that the “Georgia Grind” would spread much like “Shake That Thing” had only months earlier. On March 18, Duke Ellington recorded it under the banner of The Washingtonians. Ellington creatively took it at an up tempo but using long meter to keep the same feel of the melody over the double-timing rhythm section. You can hear that version by clicking here. Thomas Morris and His Seven Hot Babies recorded it on July 13 and just eight days later, Jelly Roll Morton accompanied Edmonia Henderson on her version of the tune. After that, “Georgia Grind” kind of disappeared but the lyrics would be used again and again in a hundred incarnations. In April 1928, Henry Williams recorded something called “Georgia Crawl” which “borrowed” more than a little from “Georgia Grind.” It begins with the “Papa, Papa, look at sis” chorus, continues with the “I can shake it east” chorus and even has Pops’s “Come here right now” segment. Blind Willie McTell would also sing about a “Georgia Crawl” in some of his early 30s blues tunes while Coot Grant and Kid Wilson sung about “shaking it east.”

As the years went on, “Georgia Grind” more or less vanished, only being performed by some European trad bands that remembered the Hot Five record. “Shake That Thing” lived on, though, in both blues and New Orleans jazz circles, though the lyrics often changed. When Kid Ory recorded it for Good Time Jazz in 1954, he opened his vocal by singing, “Mama, mama, look at sis” from “Georgia Grind.” The Preservation Hall Jazz Band continues to perform it.

But back to our hero, Mr. Armstrong, he wasn’t quite done with “Georgia Grind,” either. When he tackled the massive Autobiography project of 1956 and 1957, “Georgia Grind” was one of the tunes selected for the Hot Five recreations, overseen by Bob Haggart. The performance follows the 1926 original to a tee, though the tempo is a little slower, which I think is an improvement. And I always like to point out that in recreating the Hot Fives and Sevens for the Autobiography, Pops didn’t feel the need to recreate the chunky feel of the original rhythm section. Times had changed and Pops was clearly more comfortable with the All Stars’s swinging feel, augmented by George Barnes’s smooth electric guitar comping. Here's how it came out in 1957:



Pops again plays the intro and one chorus up front, playing a dazzling phrase at the 16 second mark as the I chord turns to the IV. It’s a short burst of velocity that shows that even in his mature style, he was more than capable of the quick flurries that marked his younger playing days.

Velma plays the role of Lil here and it’s a perfect fit. Elsewhere on the Autobiography, Velma had to play the role of the blues queens of the 1920s and though she did a professional job, it wasn’t exactly her forte and as a result, those sides are pretty forgettable (besides some stirring obbligatos from Pops). But “Georgia Grind” was right in her bag and as she sings, Pops can be heard interacting with her, which he didn’t do with Lil in 1926. He answers her lines and even repeats the title phrase after she sings it. It’s really a duet in the true sense of the word. Trummy takes a smooth trombone spot before Pops takes over. His shouting days were pretty much behind him but he still speaks part of his lines and his reading of the phrase “Georgia Grind” is priceless. Pops continues on with his vocal—the “you know one thing” line is still there—while Edmond Hall offers fine support behind him. Hall then takes a hot solo before Pops leads the final rideout chorus. On the original record, he only entered for the last four bars but here he takes a full one. Trummy’s ready to play, entering before Hall’s solo is even finished and Pops sounds very bluesy in his lead playing. The song has such a great feel that I wish they could have jammed a couple of more choruses, but I’ll take what I can get (though Pops does get to stretch out a bit at a similar tempo on the very exciting “Snag It” from the Autobiography).

So regardless of rather you prefer to shake that thing or do the Georgia grind, have a ball, but remember—stay out of the backyard and if I catch you, I’m telling Papa!

(That might be the strangest sentence I’ve ever written.)

Next up: "Heebie Jeebies."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Louis Armstrong and Race

Last week, I delivered my "Louis Armstrong and Race" lectures at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Both shows were standing room only and I think people got the message. I've already received e-mails from friends from around the world asking if there was video or audio to be shared. Well, my good friend Michael Steinman was there filming away for his "Jazz Lives" blog. He posted the whole lecture yesterday morning and filled in the details with some very kind words (thanks, Pops!). I think all you Louis lovers out there will dig it because I was allowed to use Louis's private tapes featuring Louis candidly discussing all sorts of racial matters (in language that...well, all I can say is hide the kids!). Anyway, I'm going to direct you over to Michael's address in the blogosphere to dig it. For those in the NY area, I'll be delivering the lecture two more times on February 26, but I'm almost certain they're sold out. Well, as Bogey once said, we'll always have YouTube. Thanks, Michael....enjoy!

“BLACK AND BLUE”: LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND RACE by RICKY RICCARDI (Feb. 12, 2011)

Monday, February 14, 2011

That's For Me Revisited - Again (Again)

Recorded April 26 or 27, 1950
Track Time 5:08
Written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstien
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Jack Teagarden, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Earl Hines, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Cozy Cole, drums
Originally released on Decca
Currently available on CD: On the Hip-O box set, An American Icon
Available on Itunes? Yes

Valentine’s Day is here again and instead of choosing one of the very many love songs Pops recorded in his career--“Let’s Fall In Love,” “I Was Doing All Right,” “I Married An Angel,” “If I Could Be With You,” “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby,” “Fantastic, That’s You” immediately spring to mind—I decided to revisit the same song I covered for my last three Valentine's Day entries, "That's For Me."

For me, “That’s For Me” is one of Pops’s all-time greatest records, treasured by those who know it, but unknown to most of the world. I couldn’t believe when I just searched for it on Itunes and it only came up twice, once on a cheapie compilation and again on Louis Armstrong: An American Icon, a wonderful box set on the Hip-O label that is now out-of-print on C.D. (though it’s available on Amazon). It was on the Mosaic collection of Armstrong’s Decca recordings with the All Stars, but that’s out-of-print, as well. But hopefully, by the end of this blog, you’ll have a new appreciation for this neglected gem.

The song “That’s For Me” was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the 1945 musical, State Fair. Dick Haymes sang it in the film and had a hit record of it, as did Jo Stafford. After listening to various versions of it on Itunes, it appears that it was originally conceived as a sort of snappy number, not fast and uptempo, but with a lilting beat that makes the singer sound pretty confidant that he knows what he likes and likes what he sees (substitute “she” if necessary).

I never understood how it got into Armstrong’s hands, but I’m glad it did. Armstrong was performing it live for at least a year before he recorded it. [Actually 2011 update: the Louis Armstrong House Museum holds an arrangement used by Armstrong's big band before 1947 so he had actually been performing it since the end of his orchestra leading days.] Now, this is some pretty sad audio quality, but please, have a listen to this early version from a broadcast from Philadelphia’s Click, August 7, 1949:




Again, the quality is atrocious (why does it sound like someone’s beating time with a coke bottle?). One thing’s for sure is that the band sounds like they have the routine down, meaning they had probably been performing it for some time. When I tackled this song last year, I complained that the tempo was a little too fast for my taste until it was pointed out to me that, being an unmastered bootleg, it's pitched too high and thus, artificially fast...oops! Earl Hines sounds particularly good but the record obviously centers around Pops’s heartfelt vocal, which showcases his range, especially his beautiful tenor register. The tempo’s a shade too fast to allow him to feel completely at ease with the lyrics, but he does a beautiful job. Much like the later “Gypsy,” the song has a built in space for applause after the vocal, as Earl Hines repeats the last few bars to allow Pops to get his chops in his horn. And it’s a wonderfully poised trumpet solo, no high notes or real drama, just a lot of melodic flurries that stick with the listener long after the song has ended. Pops reprises his vocal at the bridge and continues on until the nice, slowed down ending. Even through the abysmal sound quality, Pops’s warmth shines through.

I didn’t want to spend too much time on the blow-by-blow of that version because the real main event comes with the Decca studio recording of 1950. Over two days in April of that year, the All Stars recorded ten of their finest concert numbers in a studio setting. Pops had already embarked on his string of pop records for Decca but for this occasion, producer Milt Gabler allowed Armstrong to record whatever they wanted from their live repertoire. Armstrong’s picks are interesting because instead of just featuring himself all day, he gave each of his sidemen one feature of their own choice. Like most sidemen features, Armstrong doesn’t exactly stay in the background, taking a series of stirring breaks on “Bugle Call Rag/Ole Miss,” singing a chorus on “I Surrender Dear” and stealing the show from Jack Teagarden with his trumpet solo on “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home.” For the other five numbers, Armstrong chose one romp the band had been playing since their inception, “Panama,” one stage set-piece, “New Orleans Function,” one comedy number, “Twelfth Street Rag,” and a lowdown blues song that was about to become a staple of almost every All Stars show, “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.”

For a tenth song, Armstrong could have chosen any of the All Stars’s great numbers from the period: “I’m Confessin’,” “Back O’Town Blues,” “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” “Basin Street Blues,” “King Porter Stomp,” “That’s A Plenty,” anything. But instead he chose “That’s For Me,” which he really must have loved to perform. So without any further ado, let’s listen to this classic, classic recording from April 1950.




Now, I’m sorry, but that’s the most beautiful piece of music you’re going to hear all day. The slow tempo strips Armstrong’s vocal from any confidant leanings and instead makes it a charming, fragile ode from a man who truly cannot believe how lucky he is to be in love with the woman “that’s for him.” If you’re reading this on Valentine’s Day morning and still need an inscription for your card, you can’t go wrong with this offering from Oscar Hammerstein:

I saw you standing in the sun
And you were something to see.
I know what I like, and I liked what I saw
And I said to myself "That's for me."
"A lovely morning," I remarked,
And you were quick to agree.
You wanted to walk,
And I nodded my head
As I breathlessly said "That's for me."
I left you standing under stars,
The days adventures are through.
There's nothing for me but the dream in my heart,
And the dream in my heart, that's for you.
Oh, my darling, that's for you.

Doesn’t get much better than that. But listening to the record is a marvelous experience. The opening ensemble is perhaps the most tender one in All Stars history, clearly one that had been perfected on the bandstand. Bigard sticks to his low, chalameau register, playing the melody straight in the second half while Armstrong plays lead, opening with those gorgeous quarternotes, phrasing the melody where it feels best for him and sounds best for us. Teagarden plays quietly, but he later makes his presence felt with a lovely obbligato. Hines, maintaining the proper mood for a change, sets Armstrong’s vocal up with a perfect interlude and then we’re off to heaven.

Just listen to quality of Armstrong’s voice, brilliantly captured by Decca’s engineers. There’s barely a trace of gravel and though you can hear him struggle to sing those high notes, that all adds up to the charm of the record. He clearly loves the melody, not even infusing it with a single scat syllable or a even a “mama.” Tegarden’s obbligato is a highlight of the record, as he quotes liberally from the Armstrong vocabulary, especially the phrase he plays at 2:17 in, a quote from the Drdla Souvenir that Pops loved to sing and play (thanks to reader Anthony Coleman who pointed that out to me, something I did not know a year ago!). Hines again sets the stage for Armstrong’s lightly muted trumpet offering, which, repeats some of the phrases from the 1949 broadcast, but is much more effective at this gentle tempo. The double-timed opening phrase never fails to give me the chills as Bigard noodles around in the low register and the rhythm section begins swinging ever so lightly. The rhythms in this Armstrong solo are mind-boggling. Really, how many more times am I going to write this? I guess one more can’t hurt…I would hate to transcribe a solo like this one! It’s so flowing, so melodic, yet it’s also so unpredictable and quite daring. Armstrong goes into the upper register to bridge the two halves of his solo, but otherwise, he’s content to play circles around the melody, offering snippets of Rodgers’s original notes here and there as points of reference. Please, listen to this one 10 or 11 more times. It never ceases to surprise and it never ceases to move.

After the solo, you can hear Armstrong quietly clear the rubble out as Hines and Teagarden play a Satchmo-fied phrase (shades of Django’s “Nuages”?) Pops reenters with the “I left you standing under stars phrase,” which sounds like a bridge, but the melody reverts right back to that of the first two A sections (this is an oddly structured song, but it works). Teagarden plays that Pops phrase in obbligato once again at the 4:10 mark. Finally, though he’s made it this far, Armstrong sings a perfectly placed “Babe” before his final climb into the highest registers of his voices. I don’t think there’s a lovelier phrase in the history of Armstrong’s recorded vocals than that “Oh my darling,” leading to the sublime coda, with a little subdued scatting. You can hear Armstrong smiling as he hits the final “You,” Hines’s playing pretty descending runs behind him while Bigard and Teagarden harmonize. I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful ending to a more beautiful record.

In my research, I’ve come across a concert review from, I believe, 1951 that mentions a live performance of “That’s For Me,” but it soon after disappeared from the All Stars’s band book. That’s not to say he forgot about it completely. In a 1968 interview for the BBC radio program “Be My Guest,” Pops spoke about the inspiration for his recording that song: his fourth wife, Lucille. At that time, I didn't have my Mac so I was clueless about editing tracks but now I'm a whiz so here it is, a beautiful, short excerpt from the interview climaxed by the 67-year-old Armstrong singing "That's For Me" completely a capella:



“That was for Lucille.” Ah, love. Pops had it for Lucille and it's safe to say, the world still has it for Pops. I hope you enjoyed "That's For Me" half as much as I did and I wish all of you a very Happy Valentine's Day!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Velma's Blues (aka Big Mama’s Back in Town; Big Daddy Blues; Blues; Blues-A-La-Hey Bob-a-Rebob; I Cried Last Night; Where Did You Stay Last Night)

Louis Armstrong and His All Stars
Recorded at numerous live concerts from 1947 to 1960
Track Time varies between 2:43 and 4:04
Written by Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton
Recorded around the world!
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Velma Middleton, vocal; and all the All Stars!
Currently available on CD: Yes, details to follow
Available on Itunes? Ditto

50 years ago, Louis Armstrong's dear female vocalist, Velma Middleton, passed away in a Sierra Leone hospital, a tragic end to a career that brought nothing but joy to the millions around the world who came to see Pops and ended up digging Velma. As a little tribute, I've dug up one of my earliest blogs on the history of "Velma's Blues," and updated a bit, complete with music samples. Enjoy...and here's to Velma!

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“And now, ladies and gentleman, it’s blues time and here’s our vocalist, Velma Middelton!”

For 13 years, Louis Armstrong uttered the above sentence almost nightly. For critics, it meant it was a good time to use the bathroom or get a soda. But for audiences around the world, it signaled one thing: Velma Middleton was on her way out to spread joy and get everybody feeling high and happy. She would always open with a blues and from her very first line, “Here’s news for you baby, mama’s back in town,” she would have the audience in the palm of her hand. For the next three minutes, she would recycle famous blues lyrics, indulge in some light-footed dancing and climax the whole performance with a split. I have nearly 20 versions of “Velma’s Blues” in my collection and you can hear audiences scream, shout and shriek with delight on every single one of them.

I’ve made my feelings about Velma clear in the past. Critics be damned; she loved Pops and he loved her and that love shone through in every one of their performances together. As I discussed in my “Butter and Egg Man” entry, Armstrong always had a thing for female foils in the 1920s and Velma was his Lil Hardin/Mae Alix/Susie Edwards all wrapped into one big, beautiful human being. She also sang the blues well, if not quite like the legends Armstrong accompanied in his early days such as Bessie Smith and Chippie Hill. She sang standards and pop songs, like Eva Taylor in the 20s and Ella Fitzgerald in the 40s and 50s. She sang R&B like Helen Humes, impersonated Satchmo and of course, of course, of course….the split. Yes, seeing an obese woman do a split in the middle of a jazz concert was usual the bane of most jazz snobs’s existence. I cannot even begin to count how many contemporary reviews of the period made fun of Velma’s weight and the split.

“His star singer was Velma Middleton, a 250-lb. lady named--by the Gagwriters Association--Miss Petite of 1946. She waddled through 'Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy' and then did a split which almost literally brought down the house.” – Time magazine, 1946

“This reviewer has yet to feel the humor that is apparently present when an obese person jumps around on a stage. However, the Opera House audience got their kicks when Velma jumped her vocals. Velma sells her songs by showmanship which is necessary as there isn't anything spectacular about her voice and phrasing.” - George Hoefer, Chicago Opera House review, 1947

“Louis’ voice, especially without the annoying duet presence of Velma Middleton—happily absent from this LP—is sandpaper joy.” – Down Beat review of Ambassador Satch

“…[T]he tasteless flouncing of Velma Middleton.” - John S. Wilson, 1956

“At any rate, Satchmo hardly qualifies as an expert on what contributes to the advancement of the colored race; if he did, he would long ago have divorced himself professionally from Velma Middleton, whose tasteless (nay, vulgar) performances with the Armstrong band rate as ‘handkerchief-head’ with progressives, and do anything but elevate the prestige of the Negro in our society.” – Unknown author, unidentified clipping from September 1957

Of course, Pops loved the splits and bragged about them. On one of his private tapes, he talks in a hotel room to some fans who are about to see the All Stars for the first time. Does Armstrong brag about his trumpet playing or the skills of the other members of the band? Nope. Here’s what he says: “Wait’ll you see Velma’s split. She sings and dances and makes a split just like tearing a piece of paper. Yes, indeed. I tried it once and stayed in the hospital the whole week.” In fact, for more proof that Pops loved the split, check out the Soundie film he made on April 20, just one month after Velma joined the big band:

Classic, isn’t it? She had just joined the band only weeks earlier and Pops already thought enough of her to feature her in one of his short films. Thus, Armstrong’s love of Velma knew no limits. We all know the story of the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival when Armstrong was told Velma wasn’t wanted because Ella Fitzgerald was planning on joining him. Ella Fitzgerald! The first lady of song! Who sang with Armstrong that night? Velma, of course. Pops even fought to try to get her in High Society. She’s on a number of his major 1950s projects: the Handy and Waller albums, as well as the Autobiography, and a number of singles. She was truly part of the family and regardless of what one thinks of her voice, her showmanship and, yes, the split, she should be respected as an integral part of Louis Armstrong’s career.

Okay, the with pontificating over, let’s have some fun with “Velma’s Blues.” Louis Armstrong’s All Stars made their official debut as a group at Billy Berg’s in August of 1947 but Velma Middleton was not present. In fact, Velma didn’t join the band probably until November, according to Jos Willems’s All of Me. Perhaps Armstrong or Glaser wanted to make sure this small group experiment was going to work before bringing aboard another member but, of course, it was a smash hit from the beginning. At both a Carnegie Hall concert on November 15, 1947 and the famous Symphony Hall concert of November 30, Velma did her blues number, but both versions remain unissued so I cannot comment on them. In fact, there are many unissued versions of “Velma’s Blues” from throughout the years, mainly because so many All Stars shows were privately recorded. Fortunately, it was a performance that didn’t change much over time, though it will still be fun to discuss the small changes that did occur. The first version of “Velma’s Blues” that I have comes from the Nice Jazz Festival in France in February 1948. The sound quality isn't the best, but you can tell that this blues feature is already polished into a tight routine, one that would be followed closely in the decade to come (and Big Sid Catlett's accents are as perfect as they come). Dig it:


After a piano introduction by Earl Hines, Armstrong begins the blues in Db with one of his patented blues solos, one that would serve as the song’s “melody” until the end. In the second chorus of this early version, Armstrong holds a high Db for three bars, resolving it a with a quick Bb-Ab phrase in unison with Jack Teagarden’s trombone and Barney Bigard’s clarinet, before improvising for the rest of the chorus. Armstrong also plays a phrase, Gb-Gb-Gb-Ab, that almost sounds like a quote from “Heebie Jeebies.” It’s another blues lick he favored, one that he usually used in changing to the five chord in ninth bar of a 12-bar blues (it also crops up in “Ko Ko Mo,” a later feature for Armstrong and Middleton). Armstrong sets Velma up with a perfect concluding phrase, one he uses again a little later Velma then sings the lyrics she would use for about five years, lyrics that always drew cheers from the very first line:

Big daddy, big daddy, where did you stay last night?
Hey baby, where did you stay last night?
I got rocks in my bed and my pillow ain’t sleeping just right.

Say, I cried last night and I cried all the night before,
Yes, I cried last night, all the night before,
Come on home baby so I don’t have to cry no more.

Cause, I ain’t mad at you, pretty baby, I ain’t mad at you,
No, I ain’t mad at you, tell me what you want poor me to do,
I’ll steal, beg, borrow, do any ol’ thing for you.

Yes, I love that man, and I tell the world I do
Yes, I love that man, and I tell the world I do
If you knew him, you're bound to love him to.

Pops would usually begin his obbligato in the third chorus, but after that fourth chorus, Velma would go into her dance, usually sending audiences into a frenzy. For us listeners, Pops would lead two powerful ensemble choruses that would become more and more refined over the years. After setting up Velma’s entrance with the same phrase he played earlier, she comes back to sing a few more choruses, borrowing from Helen Humes and Sophie Tucker respectively:

Got a man over here, got a man over there, but the man over here,
Oo--oo-baba-re-bob, Oo—oo-baba-re-bob
Oo-oo-baba-re-baba-re-baba-re-baba-re-bob.

Yes, I love that man, he’s built up from the ground,
He’s long and tall, stacked up from the ground.
Yes, I get so weak, wooo, whenever he comes to town.

Velma would then resume dancing as Pops would begin wailing, dropping in some of his favorite quotes, including “Isle of Capri” and “My Sweetie Went Away.” With the band smoking, Velma would jump in for a quick four-bar statement:

I ain’t good looking, I ain’t built so fine,
But all the men like me cause I take my time!

The band then takes it out, using an ending that would be recycled a year later for another Middleton feature, “The Hucklebuck.” After a few seconds, the band comes back for an encore, Pops wailing and Velma probably doing some more dancing. She then enters with a couple of extra chourses:

Oh well, oh well, I feel so fine today
Oh well, oh well, I feel so fine today
Say that man of mine, he done come back home today

Say, I'm short and plump, a little bit round
but you can't tell the difference when the sun goes down!

Pops and Velma sound great from start to finishl, but there's one thing that might be missing from Nice version: the split! I don't hear any reaction to it but it had to be there somewhere. In fact, it was definitely there on October 29, 1948, when the All Stars performed at a Dixieland Jubilee concert in Pasadena. This version is even tighter and Pops has some new quotes, including "Honeysuckle Rose." Velma also has a new chorus she debuted after the "steal, beg and borrow" stanza:

Say, nobody loves a fat gal, but oh how a fat gal can love,
Nobody loves a fat gal, how a fat gal can love,
Yes, I love you baby, by the stars above.

Dig the audio (and again, Big Sid!):



There it is! In the encore, Velma clearly does the split while the band plays "The Hoochie Coochie Dance" quote and the crowd goes wild. Everyone's having a ball from the audience to the band (Teagarden really can be heard shouting vocal encouragement and humorous answers in the background). And also, scanning the lyrics should make the title of this blog entry make more sense. There have been so many released versions that many record companies just pick a line and use it for the title!

That’s what happened with the version from a concert in Vancouver in January 1951. This version is commercially available as “Where Did You Stay Last Night,” a title that often leads to confusion since that was the name of a song Armstrong recorded with King Oliver in 1923! Thus, anyone hoping that Armstrong dug something out of the Creole Jazz Band songbook for that Vancouver date would be sorely disappointed to find it to be another version of “Velma’s Blues.” By this time, the band had begun tightening the arrangement a little bit. Let's hear how it sounded in Vancouver:


They now only play one chorus at the start and it ends with the held Db to the Bb-Ab phrase that used to begin the second chorus. Otherwise, matters remain fairly similar until the ensemble jamming after Velma’s fourth chorus. The band now plays the seven-note triplet phrase that every All Stars drummer used to end his solos with, obviously being performed to accompany a specific Middleton dance move.

Then, after the “Hey-baba-re-bob” chorus, Middleton drops the “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl” motif (to be stolen years later by Jim Croce) and tries out some new lyrics (well, new for her, Big Joe Turner sang them years earlier):

Hey baby, get your basket, let’s truck down to the woods,
Baby, go get your basket, truck down to the woods,
Say we may not pick no berries but we both sure will come back feeling good.

It’s a good bawdy line, though the audience reacts with a groan. However, if you have this version, listen for Pops’s obbligato, which is really dynamite. Pops then leads the ensembles with those quotes, though he has a new one after Velma brags about how she takes her time with “Moon Over Miami.” This is followed by a whole new bit of business as the band prepares for Velma’s split. First the play a series of two-note phrases, with big cymbal hits by drummer Cozy Cole, before breaking into an exotic reading of “All the girls in France do the hoochie-coochie dance,” no longer in an encore setting. Velma does her thing, the audience screams and Pops takes it out with a standard All Stars ending.

Just four days later, the band recorded “Velma’s Blues” at another Pasadena concert, this time for Decca. It’s faster than the Vancouver version and upon release, it was dubbed “Big Daddy Blues,” but otherwise, everything is pretty much status quo except for one major omission: the “get your basket” chorus is gone. Perhaps it was too explicit or perhaps Louie and Velma heard the groans and Vancouver and maybe thought it didn’t go over too well. Regardless, this is what was sung in Pasadena:

Say, I love that man, tell the world I do,
Yes, love that man, tell the world I do,
If you knew him, say, you’re bound to love him, too.

However, those lyrics must not have done it for Louis and Velma either. Almost two years later, at an October 1952 concert in Sweden, the chorus after the “Hey-baba-re-bob” is gone completely: no fat girls, no baskets, no telling the world she does—though that last one would reappear. Otherwise, the 1952 version, heard on volume two of Storyville’s In Scandinavia series, isn’t one of my favorites because it’s slower than usual and the band plays some of the arranged passages, such as the accents on one-and-three towards the end, too stiff and stately. Also, Pops abandons the “Moon Over Miami” quote in favor of a much bluesier lick.

However, here’s where the plot thickens. By the beginning of 1952, Velma was still being featured on an uptempo blues and she was still doing a split, but now "Big Daddy" split the scene and was replaced by a new set of lyrics, "Big Mama's Back and Town." Let's listen to a super-rare broadcast of the All Stars in Boise in February 1952 with Russ Phillips on trombone and Joe Sullivan on piano (that steady oom-pah backing just doesn't work and he was gone in less than a week after this broadcast...subject for another day!).


As you can hear, the references to “big daddy” were gone as Velma now used her feature to spread the word that she’s the one in town:

Here’s news for you baby, Big Mama’s Back In Town
Here’s news for you baby, Mama’s Back In Town
So stop all your jiving, daddy, and all your running around.

Yes, I’m back home baby, Mama’s home to stay,
Oo-oo, I’m back home baby, Mama’s home to stay,
Ain’t going to let those women, steal your lovin’ away.

Cause, I ain’t mad at you, pretty baby, I ain’t mad at you,
No, I ain’t mad at you, tell me what you want poor me to do,
I’ll steal, beg, borrow, do any ol’ thing for you.

You left one morning, daddy, I was feeling low
Yes, you left that morning, baby, I was feeling low
I'm back home to stay, baby, I ain't gonna do that no more.

After those four opening choruses, it was back to the old routine, with Pops joining in for his obbligato on the third chorus as Velma shouted the “I ain’t mad at you” refrain. After that chorus, Velma now enthusiastically instructed the band to “Jump, jump, jump, jump” as she would go into her dance and let the All Stars jam for a chorus. Velma then reappears for the “Hey-baba-re-bob” chorus, the band vocally answering her, before she starts another chorus:
Say, I love that man, tell the world I do,
Yes, love that man, tell the world I do,
If you knew him, bound to love him, too. What a guy! What a guy!

From here, Velma goes into her dance and Louis trots out his usual “Isle of Capri” and “My Sweetie Went Away” quotes and everything else from there on out is as was. Interestingly, "Big Baddy Blues" reared its head a couple of more times, including on a European tour in October 1952, but by 1953, "Big Mama" was here to stay.

Still, there would be some slight changes. For example, the held Db in the first chorus that would set up Velma’s entrance was discarded in favor for the perfect lick that Armstrong played on the earliest 1948 performance. Also, Trummy Young joined the band in 1952 and he proved to be the perfect foil for Armstrong. Since almost all of Armstrong’s playing on “Velma’s Blues” was fairly set, Young adeptly created harmony lines to play along with Armstrong’s lead, making the brass section of the All Stars sound more potent than ever before. Otherwise, “Velma’s Blues” was set and began getting announced as “Big Mama’s Back In Town.” That opening line proved to be a killer every time—even in Yokohama, Japan on New Year’s Eve 1953, the audience hooted and hollered during Velma’s vocal and especially screamed during her dancing.

Thus, I know the preceding analysis might look pretty confusing so here is the breakdown of a particularly smoking version of “Big Mama’s Back In Town” from the Crescendo Club concert of January 1955 (available on The California Concerts). You can follow along as you listen:


First chorus: After a four-bar intro from Billy Kyle, the band jams a chorus, Pops playing one of his standard blues licks for the first eight bars before holding a high Db and setting up Velma’s entrance with a perfect two-bar phrase, played in unison with Trummy Young.

Second chorus: Trummy riffs behind Velma as she sings:
Here’s news for you baby, Big Mama’s Back In Town
Here’s news for you baby, Mama’s Back In Town
So stop all your jiving, baby, and all your running around.

Third chorus: Trummy and Barney Bigard team up to tightly play a prototypical backing riff, one that’s been used a million times and I think harkens back to Count Basie. Midway through, Pops plays two notes. Velma sings:
Yes, I’m back home baby, Mama’s home to stay,
Oo-oo, I’m back home baby, Velma’s home to stay,
Ain’t going to let those women, steal your lovin’ away.

Fourth chorus: Pops takes over, with a powerful obbligato behind Velma:
Cause, I ain’t mad at you, pretty baby, I ain’t mad at you,
No, I ain’t mad at you, tell me what you want poor me to do,
I’ll steal, beg, borrow, do any ol’ thing for you.

Fifth and sixth choruses: As Velma admonishes the band to “Jump” and begins to dance, the band jams two. Pops plays that little “Heebie Jeebies”-type thing in the first chorus, while the second one features some arranged playing to suit Velma’s dancing, namely a harmonized playing of the first line of “Hesitating Blues” and the forceful drum-like triplets. Pops plays the same “Heebies”-ish line in the same spot and the horns harmonize on the same line they used in the first chorus to set up Velma’s entrance. Phew!

Seventh chorus: Over stop-time backing, Velma sings:
Got a man over here, got a man over there, but the man over here, (Pops: “What about him?”)
Hey-baba-re-bob, (Hey-baba-re-bob ) Yeah, baba-re-bob (Hey-baba-re-bob)
Hey, baba-re-baba-re-baba-re-baba-re-bob.

Eighth chorus: Trummy gets funky with a mute in his trombone as he and Bigard continue to pump out more riffs. Also notice, Velma no longer sings about “him” but rather “Satch.”
Say, I love that man, tell the world I do,
Yes, love that man, tell the world I do,
If you knew old Satch, bound to love him, too. What a guy! What a guy!

Ninth chorus: Pops leads the way with “Isle of Capri” and “My Sweetie Went Away,” Trummy playing wonderful harmony to each. Another triplet excursion with drum accents by Barrett Deems obviously was used for Velma’s purposes. Feeling hot, Pops speeds up the triplet phrase before soldiering in to the….

Tenth chorus: Velma again must have done something specific here because on every version, Deems plays a cymbal accent on the third beat of the second bar, kind of an odd place. As they go on, there’s another arranged bit of business with Deems whacking away on one-and-three as Pops plays scorching two note riffs. Bigard chimes in with a humorous tremolo, sounding like a spaceship about to land. With all hell breaking loose (in a good way), Trummy leads the way to the…

Eleventh chorus: Trummy riffs for the first two bars before Pops joins in. Deems plays more accents for Velma on the beat before Pops leads the way out, ending on the high Db.

It’s a wonderfully exciting performance but as you can see, Velma doesn’t reenter to sing about “taking her time” and the band doesn’t play the “Hoochie-Coochie” segment. Otherwise, this was the pattern for the new and improved “Velma’s Blues.”

However, “Big Mama’s Back In Town” was soon to have competition. In the summer of 1954, the All Stars recorded their seminal tribute to W.C. Handy, an album on which Velma Middleton played a big part of. The opening track of that album was a raucous, legendary jam on “St. Louis Blues.” Armstrong featured himself on that song for about 20 years of his career, but after Earl Hines joined the band, it became a feature for the group’s pianists, including Hines, Marty Napoleon and Billy Kyle. In fact, Kyle was still playing it as a feature on March 3, 1955 but when the Handy album hit and created such a stir, Armstrong knew he had to include something from it in his live shows. By May 28, 1955, Armstrong and Middleton were now featuring “St. Louis Blues.” Because the record version was nearly nine minutes long, it took the All Stars some time to figure out how to edit it for live performances. The earliest surviving broadcast version is that May one from Basin Street and it’s severely edited to fit within the confines of the short broadcast (Pops doesn’t even sing on it). However, the tempo is almost identical to the original record. But by October 1955, the band was almost jumping it, as heard on volume three of the In Scandinavia series, just to come in around the six-minute mark. However, Pops eventually edited out some choruses and always managed to finish at the six to seven-minute mark at a perfect stomping medium tempo.

“St. Louis Blues,” though, had another important use in addition to being just another blues feature for Velma and Pops; it allowed Velma to take a break from the splits. By 1956, the countless nights of doing splits had begun taking its toll on Velma. She was only 39 years old and still very much overweight and now her dance interludes were beginning to have an effect on her. She usually followed “Big Mama’s Back In Town” with “That’s My Desire” during this period and on some versions, you can hear her just about gasping before starting “Desire.” Numerous versions of “Big Mama” survive from 1955 and 1956 and it’s interesting to note the one concession the band made to make things easier on Velma. All versions of “Big Mama” through January 20, 1956 are exactly as described earlier. However, by the time of a March 26 one-nighter in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Pops had chopped off almost the entire final chorus. Now Trummy would charge into it by himself but just two bars in, Pops would end it, making for an odd four-bar final chorus. It might have only been eight bars and maybe saved just a few seconds but it’s always been my guess that Velma was beginning to break down in those final seconds so to make things easier, Pops shortened the performance a bit. This is how “Big Mama” is heard at the Chicago concert of June 1 of that year, as well as a concert in Hinsdale, Illinois on March 20, 1957.

But then, “Big Mama’s Back In Town” disappears. Jos Willems’s All of Me discography lists many concert set lists, including a number from the European tour of 1959, and “Velma’s Blues” is nowhere to be found. However, a 1959 concert at Keesler Air Force Base contains a song titled “Nobody Loves A Fat Girl,” which, as mentioned earlier, was a stanza in the original versions of “Velma’s Blues.” I didn't have this concert when I first wrote this entry, but I do now and can tell you that's it's a replacement of "Big Mama's Back in Town," recycling some of Velma's oldest blues choruses, along with nods to Lloyd Price's 1959 hit "Personality."

However, there's one thing this performance definitely doesn't have: a split. Thus, beginning in late 1956, the days of Velma’s splits were more or less over, a fact that led some mean-spirited critics to rejoice. Reviewing an All Stars concert in February 1958, Patrick Scott wrote, “Vocalist Velma Middleton did not do the splits (which was a bitter disappointment to me since I had hoped to see her break a leg).” “St. Louis Blues” and “Ko Ko Mo” were now the two big Middleton blues performances. The Live in 1959 Jazz Icons DVD contains both songs and though they’re both tremendous and Velma sings with enthusiasm, her dancing isn’t as feathery light as it was in that 1942 clip. She smiles bravely and dances a lot, but it almost looks like she’s dancing in slow motion. However, the one time she really lets loose, on “Ko Ko Mo,” the camera isn’t on her! All that can be heard is the audience shrieking in delight, but it’s such a short period of time, there’s no way she could have done the split. As always, though, I offer my usual reminder: the All Stars played over 300 dates a year so I cannot fully say that she never did a split after 1956 because I have never heard every show. But after studying the set lists and the reviews of the late 50s, it’s fairly certain that “Velma’s Blues” became much less conspicuous than it was in the first nine years of the All Stars.

Nevertheless, “Velma’s Blues” managed to turn up at least one more time, in what is the saddest version ever captured: her last recorded concert appearance with the All Stars. Velma never missed a show, but her health continued to decline until she eventually had a stroke before a performance in Freetown, Sierra Leone on January 25, 1961. She died on February 11 at the age of only 43. The band had resumed touring Africa on January 7 after taking five weeks off to allow Armstrong to film Paris Blues. Before the layoff, the band performed a State Department-sponsored tour of Africa that included a November concert at Elisabethstad, Katanga in the Belgian Congo. It’s a fine concert, but not a classic by any means, namely because the sound is subpar (most of the concert is available on C.D. and on Itune). However, listening to Velma sing on what became her final recorded performance makes for emotionally difficult moments. First off, it’s the odd concert where she performs both “St. Louis Blues” and one final go-around of “Velma’s Blues.” “St. Louis Blues” usually radiated warmth and good times but for one thing, Velma’s voice isn’t as strong on this version as it was at the Newport Jazz Festival just four months earlier. But also, one chorus of lyrics stands out like it never had previously:

I love my man, like a school boy loves his pie,
Louie Armstrong, blows so nice and high,
Gonna love that man, until the day I die.

It’s a perfect summation of Velma’s career and purpose in life but for the purpose of this entry, I’d like to focus on this last version of “Velma’s Blues.” Here's the audio:


This one begins like every other one, with Pops playing a chorus of trumpet as Velma steps up to the mike, but Pops prolongs the chorus to 14 awkward bars to allow Velma enough time to get into place. I’m guessing that she hadn’t performed this number in quite some time because the ultra-tight background riffs that Young and Bigard used to play are gone. Instead, it’s more or less a blues jam, identical to the 1959 Keesler version I mentioned in that Velma trots out some old and new lyrics, including a chorus where she quotes “Personality.” She sings five choruses in a row up front, Pops playing his obbligato in the fifth chorus before he launches into a completely new solo as Velma claps along.

To add to the sorrowful mood, Louis opens by quoting Dvorak's "Going Home"...yikes, talk about foreshadowing. In a nod back to 1947, Armstrong ends the second chorus of his solo by quoting “Honeysuckle Rose,” which he hadn’t done since the earliest performance of the tune. And then Velma sings two more choruses of new lyrics that make me want to cry, knowing the circumstances of the recording. Her health was failing, her voice sounds a little shaky and she would be dead in less than three months, making it difficult to listen to these stanzas without being affected emotionally:

I’m going to this song, ain’t going to sing no more,
Going to sing this song, I ain’t going to sing no more,
Come home baby, ‘fore your mama shuts the door.

Bye, baby, bye bye,
Bye, baby, bye bye,
Bye bye, don’t cry, baby come back home.

There’s no jamming at the end, no time for a split or anything. Like the trouper she was, she put everything into the song, even though her voice is very pitchy on those final “Bye’s,” and gets great applause for her efforts. Still, knowing what was lurking around the corner gives those last two choruses an eerie feeling. And like it had for so many years, Velma followed with “That’s My Desire,” an appropriate final recorded performance for Velma’s career. Every version of “That’s My Desire” makes me laugh out loud, but this one saddens me. I listen to that first chorus, where she sings about her desire to be with her man, as Pops plays a gorgeous obbligato, and, like that lyric in “St. Louis Blues,” it’s a perfect summation of what she lived for: to entertain audiences and serve Louis Armstrong night-after-night for almost 20 years. And of course, her final line says it all: “Though you’ve found someone new, I’ll always love you, that’s my desire.” It’s almost like she was saying goodbye to Pops and on this one occasion, Pops played her off the stage with one single chorus of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” which, again, sums everything up from his perspective as well. If they ever make the movie version of Armstrong’s life story, the Katanga concert would provide quite a dramatic setting for Velma’s goodbye.

Armstrong took Velma’s death very hard, though as drummer Danny Barcelona told me, he still went on with the show. The All Stars had to continue their tour without Velma though Louis made sure that Joe Glaser pulled strings to have her body sent back to the United States so her mother could pay her last respects (more details on the whole circumstances around Velma's passing will be found in my book). After some time, LaVern Baker was approached to replace Velma. According to those present, Armstrong and Baker demonstrated wonderful chemistry on “That’s My Desire” at an engagement they shared together in 1961, but Baker wanted too much money and already had a successful career on her own. Jewel Brown soon replaced Velma permanently, but she never reprised Armstrong’s duets with Velma. However, Armstrong believed in those routines and in the late 60s, would often perform “That’s My Desire” with trombonist Tyree Glenn in the role of Velma. In fact, on one of Armstrong’s last television appearances, Armstrong and Glenn performed “That’s My Desire” on the David Frost Show on February 10, 1971. The routine, which hadn’t really changed since 1947, gets huge laughs from the studio audience. Glenn tells the audience, “You should have seen Pops and Velma do that. They did it so Pops said, ‘Let’s do a take off on that.’” Armstrong responds, “We love her so well.”

So the next time you listen to “Velma’s Blues” and you hear the shrieks of delight emanating from the audience, smile and remember how much joy she brought to countless audiences. And remember that, critics be damned, Louis and Velma truly loved each other and you can hear it on every single recording they did together.