55 years ago last week, Louis Armstrong recorded a concept album for Decca, "Louis and the Angels." Have you heard it? Well, if you're here, the odds are, probably yes. But I can think of few other Armstrong albums that have flown so under the radar, even though it was released on a major label, it received lots of publicity upon release and Louis loved it. So do I, for that matter.
So why a post about it? Because though I'm the first to admit that my book is pretty packed, you can only imagine what my cutting room floor looks like (again, if you've been here before, than, yes, you probably can). "Louis and the Angels" was something I had to cut down to about a paragraph, causing one well-respected jazz scribe to write me privately to say, "I like Louis and the Angels better than you do."
Hold the phone, I thought! No one likes "Louis and the Angels" more than me. I listen to it at work maybe once every two weeks. It gets better with every listen. "Angela Mia" was a climax of many of my book tour lectures last year. How could someone think I was lukewarm about it?
It had to be because of how I seemingly brushed it off in the text. But that's probably because I had just spent a fair amount of pages on one of the high points of Pops's career, "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography." You see, Pops hadn't recorded for Decca since September 1955, recording for Columbia and Verve in the interim, when Milt Gabler lured him back to the label with "A Musical Autobiography." But Gabler also had another idea, one that probably would have made Columbia's George Avakian or Verve's Norman Granz vomit up their lunch: an album of tunes associated with angels, performed by Louis backed by orchestra, strings (a harp, natch) and a choir. Gabler probably promised this as a commercial hit that Joe Glaser couldn't pass up.
So Louis recorded "Satchmo" through December 1956 and January 1957. The day after the final "Autobiography" session, Louis was right back in the studio to begin recording "Louis and the Angels." Even though a choir and strings were now present, Louis didn't seem to realize there was a difference. "A Musical Autobiography" turned into a lavish, 4-LP box that wasn't released until September of 1957. But "Louis and the Angels" was rushed into stores by April of that same year. Immediately after, Louis appealed on Al "Jazzbeux" Collins's radio show to promote the album (audio survives at the Louis Armstrong House Museum and it's fantastic). Louis and Jazzbeaux raved about the sessions but then Louis said offhandedly that there was another session made up of new recordings of all the old tunes. He didn't separate into a different project; one day he's remaking Hot Five numbers, the next day he's singing about Angels. A week in the life...
What was similar about the two projects was Gabler's production values: he insisted on paying extra so Joe Glaser wouldn't book Armstrong elsewhere and would be completely rested for these sessions. That, my friends, is genius. Just listen to Louis's summer 1957 recordings for Norman Granz where the grind of performing nightly in Vegas then recording in the daytime in Los Angeles was too much for Louis to overcome at times (though there's some beautiful stuff in those sessions, too). Because Louis was well-rested, he blew with superhuman force during the "Autobiography" sessions. And that goes for "Louis and the Angels," too. To me, the "Autobiography" still doesn't get the attention it deserves; it occasionally comes into print and then goes right back out. But at least people know about it and discuss it a bit. "Louis and the Angels" gets nothing.
And I know why: it's a damn commercial record. Seriously, you remove Louis and you can put in any 1950s pop singer--Pat Boone, Perry Como, Patti Page (and those are just the P's!)--and, well, zzzzzzzzz. But Louis? It's gold, Jerry, gold, I tell ya. Last week, I analyzed how Louis took pop songs of 1932 such as "All of Me" and "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" and approached them like he was from another planet, offering versions unlike anything else on the pop music scene at that time. Well, "Louis and the Angels" is just the 1957 version of that. I know it seems like it's coming out of left field after "Louis Plays W. C. Handy," "Ambassador Satch," "Ella and Louis" and even the "Autobiography"; but it's just Louis doing what Louis had always done by transforming commercial pop numbers into something much more special.
"Louis and the Angels" consists of 13 tracks; I'm sure there are readers out there who'd like me to share them all. Sorry, friends, I'm drowning these days, but I do urge you to buy it
or listen to it on YouTube or Spotify. But I will share four tracks because I just can't help myself. I'm sure there are those out there who will hear these and say, "Nope, back to 'West End Blues' for me!" And that's fine. I'm not arguing that "Louis and the Angels" changed the world. But it's damn good music and it'll make you feel better after you've listened to it. Trust me on that one.
So track number one is the opener and it never fails to bring me to my knees. The tune is "When Did You Leave Heaven," a very pretty song to begin with. Those with weak stomachs for commercial sounds might have a tough time with the beginning but I think Louis's muted entrance, sticking to the melody, is a magical moment. The rest of the performance is casually beautiful but oh, that entrance:
Still with me? Okay, let's try another standard, Johnny Mercer and Rube Bloom's "Fools Rush In." This is another ballad recorded by Sinatra, Elvis, Glenn Miller, many others. But as usual, we love Louis because he plays AND sings. Louis's vocal is so warm and tender and, for that matter, so is the muted trumpet solo. At first, he sticks to playing around the choir's straight reading of the melody but then he gradually takes lead for a short, potent statement ending on an ascending run. But really, it's the vocal that kills me on this one, especially the reprise. His "Yeeeeesss" entrance is worth the price of admission and he really emotes and he sings the high notes, "When we met, I felt my life begin." And the "song of the fool" ending is a neat touch, too. See what you think:
For those who want some hardcore trumpet playing, stand back for "The Prisoner's Song." Louis told Jazzbeaux that he was very proud of the tempo of this version, as arranged by Sy Oliver. He mentioned that he loved Bunny Berigan but thought that Berigan's romp on "The Prisoner's Song" (the flip side to "I Can't Get Started") was too fast and that it sounded like Bunny and his guys were just barely getting by. I don't know if I feel that way but Louis did have reason to be proud of his version. This time, we get the lone voice of Lil Clark (Mrs. Sy Oliver) singing the pretty melody at the start before the choir joins them for a sober reading. It sounds like we're in ballad tempo again but then Louis comes and in and it begins to jump. Louis sings it just fine, but with an exhortation to "Look out, boys," he picks up the trumpet and good night, nurse. With the band swinging (Barrett Deems laying down that backbeat), Louis unleashes a furious chorus of melody. The routine continues with another vocal and then Pops, telling the band to "Romp it, romp it," plays another great chorus, this time with more variations. Then watch out for his third vocal chorus when Louis, after singing the line about "wings of an angel," wonders aloud, "Angel? I was wondering how this song got in here!" His last trumpet chorus is even more stunning....romp it, Pops!
For my final choice, "Angela Mia," which, as I mentioned, became a standard part of my Armstrong lectures after an experience I had with two of my interns in late 2010. I wrote a blog about it then (and check it out for more about the history of the song) but if you don't mind, I'll quote from it now:
"Here's the story: in my duties as Project Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, I have the luxury of having interns come in a few days a week to help with numbering artifacts, organizing materials and other such catalogue-related matters. This semester, I have two dynamite interns working for me, Greg Hammontree and David Engelhard, both young, top-flight jazz musicians from Atlanta, now conquering the master's program in jazz at Queens College.
Greg and David are great guys and marvelous musicians but as you'd expect in this 21st century of jazz studies, they came into the job with an appreciation of Louis but not much experience in listening to him. Well, naturally, I sought to change that. I always have music on in the work room where I spend all of my days, but when David and Greg started coming in, I'd give them a quick lesson before they'd begin the task of hand-numbering photos. "Today, guys, an evening with Louis at the Crescendo Club" or "These Fleischmann's Yeast broadcasts are going to knock you out" or "Count the high C's on the 1936 'Swing That Music'" or "You mean you've never heard 'Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy'???"
Greg and David have been terrific students and Pops has been blowing them away at a daily basis. Well, this week I decided to go one step further and spring some "commercial" Louis on them. My choice: "Louis and the Angels," Armstrong's 1957 collection of angel/heaven-themed songs performed complete with choir and strings. Hmmm, two hotshot, 20-something-year-old jazz students, one studying with saxophone giant Antonio Hart, the other with Michael Mossman and practicing songs like Horace Silver's "Quicksilver"...how would this go over?
Both of them came in separately on consecutive days and I played the album for each. Suffice to say, it knocked them on their collective asses. Their minds were melted, especially when I told them that this was the stuff that caused the hardened jazz fans and critics in the 1950s to wrongheadedly write Louis off. Let's just say, they're not going to be doing that any time soon...
I could write a blog on every track on that album but there was one in particular that caused Greg to grow slack-jawed and stuck in David's head long after it faded away and that's "Angela Mia."....Now, Louis did some absolutely gorgeous singing on the album--"Fools Rush In" immediately comes to mind--but for "Angela Mia," Oliver had an interesting idea: let the choir handle the vocal, let Louis stick to the trumpet playing. Those who don't like 1950s pop sounds, strings and choirs might have to wade through some stuff here, but trust me, the effort is worth it because this is Louis Armstrong at his finest. Give it a listen:
Simply breathtaking, isn't it? Louis's sound is captured superbly, right from the start as he gently caresses the melody. Just that first short solo is worth the price of admission, but Louis is pacing himself, handing it over to the strings and cooing voices for the bridge. He swoops back in for the final section, playing the melody straight but infusing it with some deep passion. A beautiful first chorus. For the second chorus, the choir sings the lyrics while Louis demonstrates that he still could produce a spine-tingling obbligato at a moment's notice. He doesn't play many notes, but each one is perfectly placed and full of soul.
But Louis is only getting warmed up...watch out for that bridge! As Louis hits bridge, his flare for drama--and opera--comes to the forefront. With the band growing incessant behind him, Louis begins to wail, leading up to the main event: a break that climbs its way into the upper register before resolving in perhaps the bluest blue note of Armstrong's entire career. I'm serious, it always catches me by surprise and knocks me to my knees. He takes that note, bends it, wrings it, squeezes everything out of it. I mean, really, is it even a single pitch? Is he half-valving, glissing, God only knows. But it's a breathtaking moment, and the one that had my two young interns shaking their heads in disbelief.
That blue note (a lip bend, as Al Basile points out) might be the highlight but Louis isn't finished. After some more melody, he slows it down and goes up high for the ending. Seriously, this stuff can produce tears, it's so beautiful. I pity the jazz critics and fans who turned their back on this stuff in the 1950s. But it's their loss; for now, it's my gain, your gain and Greg and David's gain. Play it again...play it loud!"
That's what I wrote in 2010. I can happily say that Greg is still with us, a devoted Pops nut, who now gives tours at the Armstrong House on weekends and is preparing "Cornet Chop Suey" for his graduate recital. So in conclusion...."Louis and the Angels" is a beautiful, charming album and you shouldn't sleep on it. Anyone else feel the same way? Please feel free to share some comments or e-mail me because I think this one has been undervalued for long enough.