Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanks a Million - 2012 Edition


Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 19, 1935
Track Time 2:37
Written by Gus Kahn and Arthur Johnston
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken, Louis Bacon, trumpet; Harry White, Jimmy Archey, trombone; Henry Jones, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Bingie Madison, Greely Walton, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Originally released on Decca 666
Currently available on CD: It's on the Mosaic box set of Armstrong's Decca recordings from 1935-1946 (perfect for the holiday season!)
Available on Itunes? Yes, on various issues (both takes are on something called “Knowing Louis”)

[Note: this was written the day before Thanksgiving and set up to publish Thanksgiving morning at midnight....only it didn't publish AND I didn't realize this until now, 10 p.m. on the day after Thanksgiving. Oops! I'm still going to leave it up for a day because I'm the most thankful cat in the world and the sentiments would be true any other day of the year (and "Thanks a Million" is a great record. And don't worry, I have TWO more blogs in the can that will pop up this week....as long as I get the hang of this automatic publishing thing! Hope everyone had a great holiday!]

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! That means it's time once again to look at one of my favorite Louis Armstrong records, "That's a Million," one of those tunes that all the real Pops lovers seem to have a soft spot for, especially trumpet players. Just off the top of my head, I know the song has been a favorite of hornmen from Bobby Hackett and Ruby Braff to Randy Sandke, Jon-Erik Kellso and Dave Whitney. Though there’s no wild pyrotechnics, the song still exists as a standout example of Armstrong playing and singing a beautiful melody with a tremendous amount of warmth.

The song comes from the formidable talents of two great songwriters of the 1930s, Arthur Johnston and Gus Kahn. Throughout his career, Armstrong found Johnston’s songs especially suitable for blowing, Johnston having written “Mandy, Make Up Your Mind,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “Moon Song” and “Just One of Those Things,” to name a few, all subject to terrific Armstrong treatments. “Thanks a Million” was written for a 20th Century musical comedy of the same name starring Dick Powell and Ann Dvorak, as well as two great comedians of the era, Fred Allen and Patsy Kelly. In the film, Powell got to sing the title song, backed by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra (with David Rubinoff on violin).

Powell is harmless and has a very good voice but rhythmically, he’s the anti-Armstrong, very stiff and almost comically emotional (his hand gestures bordered on hilarious in the clip). Nevertheless, the song must have become pretty well associated with Powell as it became the title of a 1998 biopic and like I said, it’s harmless, with the very pretty melody coming through clearly. Sure enough, it would be a winner for Pops and indeed, he hit it out of the park. Here ‘tis:


Doesn’t get much better, eh? People sometimes refer to this a ballad but pay close attention to the tempo, which swings in a more medium groove thanks to Pops Foster’s bass. I think just because the tune is gentle and pretty, it could be confused into being called a ballad, but this version really isn’t (though almost any succeeding version I’ve heard is on the slow side).

Regardless, the main event is arguably Pops’s first chorus. He barely deviates from the melody, though when he does, such as the lightening quick descending run, it always works. He plays it fairly straight for half the chorus before hitting the magic elevation button and taking it up an octave, climaxing on a penetrating high C, followed immediately by an even higher concert Eb. He almost sounds like he’s sobbing in the way he descends from the high note. I know I’m almost sobbing over here listening to such beauty.

The Luis Russell band takes over, setting up Pops’s vocal, one of his finest of the period. He still hadn’t had his throat operation, which occurred in 1937 and seemed to add a quarter-pound of gravel to his already unique voice. Thus, we get that crystal clear tenor, something to marvel at. There’s no scatting, but the “Now mama” in the second half is priceless. An incredibly heartfelt vocal.

Russell’s piano leads to a modulation that finds Armstrong playing the melody one more time in a more human key, with no need to reach for those sickeningly beautiful high notes. Yet, because it’s a Decca record, you can bet your life that there’s going to be a slowed down coda. Sure enough there is, and once again Armstrong makes the angels weep with his final two notes, a gorgeous, throbbing Ab topped off with a ridiculously pure concert Db. Bravo, Mr. Armstrong.

“Thanks a Million” survives in another, almost identical take. On this one, which was actually recorded first, Armstrong stays closer to the melody the first time around but otherwise all the hallmarks of take one are in place: taking the melody up an octave, the “Now, Mama” in the heartfelt vocal, the modulation and the gorgeous coda. For the nuts out there, give it a listen:


And that's all for "Thanks a Million," though the song continues to prosper (the great young Pops disciple Bria Skonberg just recorded a dynamite version with Dan Levinson on the Morganville Four CD, "Alone with My Dreams).  So on a personal note, let me just say “Thanks a Million” once again to the readers out there who keep me going. As you can imagine, it has been a ridiculously busy year, hence only 37 blogs up to this point, when I used to pride myself on 75-100 annually. But even though I'm not here as often as I used to, please know that I'm still doing everything in my power to promote Pops. In many ways, that was the whole purpose of this blog. When I started it in 2007, I was a nobody with entirely too much love for Louis and I wanted a platform to get the chance to spread some of that love around. So in a year like 2012, though the number of blogs has dwindled, I've spoken about Pops at lectures in venues from the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans to the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, the Greenwich Library in Connecticut to the Monterey Jazz Festival.  My book, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years, is still going strong, now in paperback. I've broken into other venues, writing liner notes for three different Armstrong CD releases this year, in addition to co-producing Satchmo at Symphony Hall: The Complete Performances (makes a great holiday gift!). And I'm still working my dream job as archivist at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. How thankful can a fella be? Just ask me...

But special thanks to all of you out there, whether this is the first time you've visited or whether you've been with me for all five-plus years. I love hearing from fellow Armstrong nuts from around the world and I hope to continue to do so until the end of time. But for now, it’s time for scarfing. Happy Thanksgiving to all and thanks a million!

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