Saturday, March 24, 2012

75 Years of Louis Armstrong with Andy Iona and His Islanders

Louis Armstrong with Andy Iona and His Islanders
Recorded March 24, 1937
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Sam Koko, steel guitar; George Archer, Harry Baty, guitar; Andy Iona, ukulele; Joe Nawahi, bass
Originally released on Decca 1216
Currently available on CD: It's on the Mosaic box set of Armstrong's Decca recordings from 1935-1946
Available on Itunes? Yes

Okay everybody, sing with me in your best Louis Armstrong voice: ba-bop-du-DET-de-dot-du-yeah!

All right, that doesn't look as good transcribed--feel free to add the syllables of your choice--but it's the quintessential Armstrong break, a favorite of his both vocally and on trumpet and one that Armstrong impersonators can't resist (think Ella Fitzgerald at the end of "Tenderly"). And 75 years ago today, Louis Armstrong committed it to wax for the very first time.

On a Hawaiian song. With Hawaiian musicians.

Now, judging by how you reacted to those last two sentences says a lot about your worship of Louis Armstrong. If you're a die-hard nut like myself, you probably just smiled fondly at the memory of Louis's Hawaiian tunes. If you're more casual, you might be curious or might admit that you haven't spent much time with these sides. And if you're a jazz purist or an Armstrong detractor, you might have scoffed loudly at the mere notion.

I'm not going to insist that you have to like these songs...but really, what's not to like? I think they're irresistible but many others have not felt that way. Gunther Schuller paid no attention to Louis's Hawaiian records, nor his timeless meeting with the Mills Brothers, writing them off a "nearly a year-long dalliance with assorted Hawaiians and vocal quartets" and "wondering whether the time spent with these groups could not have been put to better use." When Mosaic Records did their usual heroic job with Louis's Decca recordings, a review on the All About Jazz website referred to the Hawaiian sessions as "undeniable misfires."

I'm sorry, but I'm denying that. I think these sessions are utterly charming and like a lot of Louis's Decca work during period, prove that Louis could make gold out of just about anything. I have used "On a Little Bamboo Bride" during a few of my Armstrong lectures, often to demonstrate that ability, and it has never failed to enchant my audiences. If you haven't paid attention to these sessions, give me a few minutes, listen to them in full and then let me know what you think.

I should start right out with a disclaimer: the two tracks I'm about discuss were from Armstrong's SECOND session with Hawaiians. On August 18, 1936, he recorded with "The Polynesians" in Los Angeles, an authentic Hawaiian group with Lionel Hampton sitting in on drums and vibes. That session really should have gotten a 75th anniversary post but when that anniversary came and went, I was immersed in book tour duties (and at home, new baby duties). That session produced two magical numbers, "To You, Sweetheart Aloha" and "On a Coconut Island," which seems to be everyone's favorite Armstrong Hawaiian number. In fact, I included it when I helped with the track list for Universal's "Ambassador of Jazz" boxed set because I wanted more people to hear it. And as some of you might now, I moonlight as a pianist averaging about two gigs a month, most often with my partner Bootsy Spankins, P.I. (stage name of Brendan Castner), and those two tracks are in our permanent repertoire with Bootsy handling the vocal and ukulele chores. Maybe one day I'll blog about those two but for now, you have my permission to head off and listen to them.

The records must have been a success. Louis didn't record anything else in the final 4 1/2 months of 1936 and started 1937 in an auspicious way with a throat operation that sidelined him for a bit (and greatly contributed to the ultra-rough rasp that became his trademark in later years). He finally made it back to Decca's studio in March 1937 and who was waiting for him? Luis Russell's big band? White studio musicians? Sidney Bechet? A gospel choir?

Nope. Andy Iona and His Islanders.

Thus, the 1936 session must have sold well enough for Jack Kapp to want to do it all over again the following year. Andy Iona was a Hawaiian native who became one of the must influential Hawaiian musicians for his ability to blend island and swing rhythms. Let's listen to what Iona sounded like without Louis, on a recording from 1936, "Vana Vana":

Hot stuff! And here's the timeless "Hawaiian War Chant" (which always gives me fond memories of Spike Jones, Tex Avery cartoons and Roy Eldridge solos):

So now you know about Andy Iona. Let's get to the first tune of the day, "On a Little Bamboo Bridge." Decca was already pushing this version as steel guitar/ukulele Roy Smeck had just recorded it for the label on January 12. Here's how Smeck did it:

Now with all of that out of the way, let's listen to Pops:



Did that not just make your day? I know it made mine. It's so charming and do damn swinging and Pops sounds right at a home. Sam Koki's steel guitar takes the atmospheric intro before Iona and his two guitarists start their infectious Hawaiian shuffle. And then it's time for Pops, his voice still surprisingly bell-clear and beautiful after the throat surgery (it would be much more gravelly on his next session with the Mills Brothers from two weeks later). He's obviously feeling the song, swinging gently, throwing in a few "Mmms" for good measure, but not changing the melody too much on this first go-around.

After that lovely chorus, Koki takes the lead for a half-chorus. It's almost easy to close your eyes, lose yourself in the Hawaiian sounds and forget about Louis completely...until he enters at 1:54 in with his trumpet and plays THE BREAK. Yes, folks, there it is, its first time on record, and as we're about to see, far from his last.

Muted, Louis takes the bridge in a relaxed fashion and even ends with a tricky, inside-out break. His trumpet serves as an instrumental extension of his voice, swinging the melody and holding notes where "Mmm's" would have been if this was a vocal. But when he gets to the last note of the melody, he doesn't play it. Instead, he pulls his horn from his chops and scats THE BREAK. So there it is again, 37 seconds after he discovered it with his trumpet, he's already giving out with it with his voice.

Now he's really feeling it. Louis's vocal reprises usually gave him the license to take more liberties with the written lyric and this one is no different. The space he leaves before singing the line "silvery ripples on the shore" all on one pitch has to be my favorite moment of the vocal. Very passionate stuff. When he gets to the last eight bars--prefaced with a big "Ohhh"--he's a full swing mode, his phrasing growing more declamatory as he goes on. And when he gets to the end of the vocal--and the record--how does he end it? Yes, with THE BREAK, scatted one more time.

Three times in little over three minutes! And with that, arguably Louis's most famous lick was immortalized on record. One day when I have a few years to waste, I'll count every other time he sang or played it over the next 34 years of his recording career....

The next tune to be recorded was "Hawaiian Hospitality" by Harry Owens and Ray Kenney. Once again, Decca had an interest in the song as Ted Fio Rito (hello, Honeymooners fans!) had just waxed a version on February 19, 1937. That version isn't on YouTube (but there are later versions by the Mills Brothers and some Hawaiian groups) so let's just dive in with Pops:



Once again, Koki sets it up before Louis comes in with a few delightful lines in Hawaiian. Throughout his long, storied career, Louis had to sing at various times in German, Italian and in this case, Hawaiian, and every time out, he swung. Like the rest of the Hawaiian tunes, this one will stick in your head for a while. Louis giving it the loving treatment again (I like the way he sings the Hawaiian words "wahine," "okolehao" and "welakahao"). The arrangement is almost identical to "Bamboo Bridge" with Koki taking 16 bars before muted Louis comes in to play the pretty bridge. Midway through the final eight bars, Louis goes up and ends with some well-phrased high notes, not in the stratosphere but appropriately effective. The vocal reprise is very pretty but the unique melody does not allow itself to the kind of swinging re-phrasing Louis offered on the Hawaiian tunes. He does change up the phrasing when he gets into the final eight but then he sticks to the melody until his effervescent reading of the tune's final line, "It's just the old Hawaiian Hospitality." A charming record.

And that ended Louis's rendezvous with Hawaiian music, unless you count later live and studio remakes of "Song of the Islands," which Louis first recorded in 1930, proving that he could be right at home with this music. Last week, I talked about these sides with Michael Steinman over at the Louis Armstrong House Museum and both of lamented that Jack Kapp never got Louis into the studio to record a full album's worth of Hawaiian songs. Oh well, we can't regret what never was, all we can do is enjoy Louis's four Hawaiian outings for Decca over and over and over again. Hope you enjoyed them as much as I do!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Irish Black Bottom

Recorded November 27, 1926
Track Time 2:37
Written by Percy Venable
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Henry "Hy" Clark, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet, alto saxophone; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8447
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

Hi everybody! It's St. Patrick's Day so it's time for a yearly tradition and listen to "Irish Black Bottom." Sound good? Here's what I first wrote in 2010....enjoy!

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Happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone! I don't know why it took me so long to celebrate this holiday on this blog but I've finally come to my senses (I guess it shows my heritage that I've already done a Columbus Day post, but nothing for St. Patty's!). It's not a hard topic by any means since Louis recorded a perfect song for the occasion: "Irish Black Bottom," a fun Hot Five record from 1926. Raise a beer, slice some corned beef and enjoy!


Isn't that a lot of fun? No, it's not earth-shaking art as "Potato Head Blues" or "West End Blues" but who cares? "Irish Black Bottom" comes from a series of Hot Fives Louis made in 1926 that most stoic historians tend to frown on or, in the case of some like Gunther Schuller, attempt to ignore completely. Why? Because they get in the way of the myth of the young Louis being a serious artist, not some commercial clown.

But all it takes is one listen to the complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens to see that Louis was doing plenty of clowning during his "artist" days. On February 26, 1926, Armstrong's horn changed the world with his solo on "Cornet Chop Suey" and his stirring lead playing on songs like "Oriental Strut" and "Muskrat Ramble." But his voice also had equal impact that day as he rasped out the blues on "Georgia Grind" and popularized scat singing with "Heebie Jeebies." Naturally, the records all sold well with "Heebie Jeebies" causing a sensation.

OKeh was thrilled and corralled Armstrong into their studios for a string of sessions in June and another in late November. And these are the sessions that make the "serioius" Armstrong fans sweat: there's Louis shouting about doing the "mess around" or getting off eye-rolling lyrics on "Dropping Shucks." There's Louis playing a slide whistle on "Who'sit." There's Louis inviting vaudeville entertainers--friends of his--to the studio, people like Butterbeans and Susie, Clarence Babcock and Mae Alix. Here's Louis performing material he did nightly at the Sunset Cafe, songs written by that club's choreography Percy Venable. THIS is the Louis Armstrong of the 20s, not some frowning artist who forced to "go commercial" in later years.

And oh yeah, he still sounds like a genius on all of these cuts, taking a dramatic solo on "Skid-Dat-De-Dat" and one for the pantheon on "Big Butter and Egg Man." The critics particuarly adore that latter solo, with good reason, but they don't seem to want to discuss Mae Alix's booming vocal--she was a favorite of Louis's--or Louis's own Al Jolson-tinged offering. Nope, to them it's just about the trumpet, trumpet, trumpet. The trumpet IS brilliant...but they're missing a helluva lot of fun!

Which brings us to "Irish Black Bottom." Admittedly, this is not songwriting as its finest but as a novelty, it's good fun. The "black bottom" was a popular dance of the 1920s so this tune humorously pretends that it's also taken Ireland by storm. If Louis had to record something so silly in the 1950s, critics would scream at the producers for forcing it on him. But "Irish Black Bottom" was written by the aforementioned Percy Venable so more than likely, it was a staple of Louis's act at the Sunset. And can't you imagine Louis bringing down the house with that vocal? That "ha, ha" he gives after singing "And I was born in Ireland," breaks me up every time. I can only imagine what it did to the audiences who heard him do it live.

The song begins with the funny sound of Louis and his Hot Five swinging through a sample of the Irish classic "Where the River Shannon Flows" before Louis swings out with the main melody, which is predominantly in a minor mode until the end. Louis's lead sounds great and Dodds is bouncing around as usual but trombonist Hy Clark, a substitute for Kid Ory, sounds hesitant and doesn't add much. After a chorus and an interlude by pianist Lil Armstrong, Louis takes the vocal. If you can't make it out, here's what he says:

All you heard for years in Ireland,
was the "Wearin' Of The Green",
but the biggest change that's come in Ireland
I have ever seen.
All the laddies and the cooies
laid aside their Irish reels,
and I was born in Ireland
(Ha, Ha), so imagine how I feels.

Now Ireland's gone Black Bottom crazy,
see them dance,
you ought to see them dance.
Folks supposed to be related, even dance,
I mean they dance.
They play that strain,
works right on their brain.
Now it goes Black Bottom,
a new rhythm's drivin' the folks insane.
I hand you no Blarney, when I say
that song really goes,
and they put it over with a wow,
I mean now.
All over Ireland
you can see the people dancin' it,
'cause Ireland's gone Black Bottom crazy


I don't know how you can't get swept up in that offering. Armstrong doesn't so much sing it as shout it, or talk it, but his spirit sure gets the message across (though sometimes, he's so far from the written melody, it sounds like he's singing a different song on top of Lil's chording on the piano). After the vocal, Clark and Dodds take forgettable short solos and breaks before Louis carries the troops home with brio. Louis's lip trill towards the end is particularly violent and right before his closing breaks, he dips into his bag for a favorite phrases, one that ended both "You're Next" and "Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa." The concluding break is so perfect in its phrasing and choice of notes that I believe it might have already been set in stone by Pops during his live performances of the tune at the Sunset. Either way, that's no reason to criticize him; it's a perfect ending and puts an emphatic stamp on a very entertaining record.

That's all for now. Have a happy St. Patrick's day and don't forget to mix in a little Louis with your Guiness. I hand you no blarney, it's a great combination...

Sunday, March 11, 2012

80 Years of Louis's March 11, 1932 OKeh session ("New Tiger Rag," "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now" and "Lawd You Made the Night Too Long")

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded March 11, 1932
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Preston Jackson, trombone; Lester Boone, alto saxophone; George James, alto saxophone, clarinet; Albert Washington, tenor saxophone; Charlie Alexander, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; John Lindsay, bass; Tubby Hall, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41557
Currently available on CD: The Big Band Recordings, a two-volume set on the JSP label that collects Armstrong’s OKeh big band material from 1930 to 1932
Available on Itunes? Yes

Last time out, I discussed "Love, You Funny Thing" on the 80th anniversary of Louis Armstrong's recording of that tune. If you made it to the end of my manifesto, you probably got confused by my conspiracy theories regarding the possibility of another song--"New Tiger Rag"--also being attempted at that March 2 session. Maybe I'm right, maybe I'm wrong but nine days later, we do know that Pops did wax the master of "New Tiger Rag" while still in Chicago. He also found time to record two more new songs, "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now" and "Lawd You Made the Night too Long" for what would turn out to be his final OKeh session. Since all of this happened 80 years ago today, I figured let's break out the cake (and Swiss Kriss) and celebrate yet another anniversary.

"New Tiger Rag" is up first and if you were with me in 2010, you might remember my epic, seemingly never-ending ten (10!) part series on Louis's history with that pesky tiger. You can search for any of the previous entries on the upper right of this page but I'm going to dive right in with what I wrote about this performance, which was Louis's second recording of the tune.

The first "Tiger Rag" was recorded in 1930 and Louis's high-note studded, quote-filled version became a template for other trumpeters of period on how to tackle the tune. Many musicians and commentators would later remember Louis performing "Tiger Rag" live as his showstopper number, pulling it out to wow audiences and slay musicians, though the damage he did to his chops on numbers like this almost did him in for good. Between "Tiger Rag" and "Shine," Louis had two showpieces to choose from on which he would conclude by hitting at least 100 high C's, topped by a high F. Musicians present at such performances never forgot it though Louis himself later admitted that the public thought he was a maniac and that he was heading in the wrong direction.

But in 1932, he was still in his 100-high-C's mode. Because records were limited to about three-and-a-half minutes, it would be impossible for him to replicate his routine on wax (and it might have been a little monotanous...though fascinating!). Nevertheless, after almost two years of featuring it in his live performances, Louis felt the need to record his new, improved routine on the tune. Thus, on March 11, 1932, with his regular orchestra (the Zilner Randolph band) backing him up, Louis recorded what was known as "New Tiger Rag." Buckle your seat belt...


It doesn't take a licensed musicologist to realize that the tempo of "New Tiger Rag" is a bit on the up side. Frankly, it makes the 1930 version sound like a ballad. This is "Tiger Rag" on steroids. (I attempted to use an online metronome to get a number of beats per minute but my computer caught on fire.)

For Pops, the faster, the better. He wasn't really comfortable until he hit warp speed, at which point he'd be free to float around the bar lines without any gravity (if you ever need to explain how gravity and space travel works, just play a fast Louis Armstrong record from the early 30s). As for the other musicians in his band, well God speed. The horns and even the bass or piano could give it a two-beat feel and play at half the tempo but poor Mike McKendrick on guitar and poor Tubby Hall on drums sound like they're dying. In fact, Hall's later replacement Harry Dial, who joined the following year, once said about Louis, "He'd make me so mad on 'Tiger Rag' that I wouldn't know what to do. He'd want me to ride the cymbals on the last three choruses. I'd grab the cymbal around the eight chorus and start riding it, and by the end of the tenth it would sound good to him and he'd hit with one finger, which would mean one more chorus...and he'd play ten more choruses....That guy worked me to death."

Other New Orleans musicians, including drummer Baby Dodds, practically gave lectures on why "Tiger Rag" was not to be played too quickly. Pops obviously didn't attend those lectures!

Unlike the original version, Pops does play the first strain, though he doesn't so much play it verbatim as suggest the general shape of it by playing a pared-down, free-floating variation centered on few pitches. He then steps up to the mike and gives a cute little monologue about the "novelty" we're about to hear. Novelty, yes. Pops knew that this wasn't high art, this was something fun and exciting, a little showmanship and grandstanding to makes every jaw in earshot turn slack with awe. You want to hear the lyrical Pops? Just turn the 78 over and listen to the beautiful flip side, "Love, You Funny Thing." You want a little "novelty" to get the blood pumping? You've come to the right place!

After announcing that he's gone and singing a delightful, sighing, "Oh babe," Pops gets his chops together and comes out of the starting gate with a perfect little opening phrase. Louis was the ultimate master of pacing himself and constructing a exciting solo. Thus, there's plenty of space in his first offering, spending most of his time simply alternating between two notes, before he warms up a bit towards the end. Interestingly, perhaps because of time constraints, Louis's first chorus is actually only a half-chorus, but I'm not going to penalize him for shaving 16 bars off.

A voice bellows out, "Two!" letting us know that round two is about to begin. Pops gets himself in a tizzy during his break, rapidly alternating between a C and an Eb, keeping it going for a few bars into the next chorus, before a shouting high Ab. This is the highest note of the solo thus far but Louis doesn't stay there for long. He leaves a little space after it and when he makes his return, it's to play the "Singin' in the Rain" quote from the 1930 record. Armstrong then breaks into a fluent run, which might sound like eighth-notes but are actually quarter-notes, each placed on the beat of this ridiculous tempo.

For the start of his third chorus, Armstrong holds that high Ab again before going into a whirlwind quote from "Dixie," ending it with a high C, the new highest note of the solo. Again, not wanting to peak too quickly, he hits the C and does a swan dive with it, glissing down to shallow waters. Once poised, he throws in a familiar lick, which sounds like it might be from something specific since it's been a part of the jazz vocabulary ever since.

Chorus four begins a new quote, Victor Herbert's "Gypsy Love Song," another lick that would be found in improvisations for decades to come. Now he's really floating, playing as few notes as possible but still managing to swing them in a slightly altered state. He wakes up for a scorching repeated motif at the start of the fifth chorus but soon he's back to weightless territory, milking his trademark "doddle-doddle-da-da" lick for all its worth. He then turns one of his lines completely around the beat--what time this man had!--before repeating a couple of large Ab's and building up to chorus number six.

The sixth chorus might begin with a quote but I'm not sure what it is. However, I do know what comes at the midway point: our old pal "Pagliacci," straight from 1930. Armstrong's seventh chorus is truly in another time zone as he glisses to some more high Ab's in almost slow motion. To show a bit of endurance, he hits one and holds it into his eighth chorus (Pops announced it would take seven choruses to catch the tiger but obviously, this is one fast cat!). Armstrong again reaches back to 1930 by hammering out the "National Emblem March" twice to begin his eighth and final chorus. The rest of the record features more high notes, mostly Ab's, but he does rise to the occasion and ends with that same searing high Eb (high F on the trumpet).

"New Tiger Rag" isn't exactly a melodic masterpiece; in fact, I know some Armstrong worshippers who simply don't go for this kind of exhibitionism. But as I've proven before, I have no taste and little standards so I'm always wowed.

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Most trumpet players--and musicians--would have called it a day at that point but Louis was only getting started. Next up, he had a brand new tune waiting for him written by his friends Andy Razaf and Fats Waller. That pair had penned "Ain't Misbehavin'," which provided Louis with one of the breakout hits of his career. When they penned something of a sequel, titled "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now," it made sense for them to present it to Louis. Interestingly, I just tried to find some other versions of the song from this period as I always love to compare what Louis was doing with what else was going on in the popular music world. But this time, I couldn't find anything! Maybe I'm too immersed in the world of hot jazz (not a bad place to me), but I've always thought of the song as something of standard. But really, it doesn't seem to have inspired many recordings in the early days. Fats Waller himself didn't record it until his solo piano version of 1937. Tommy Dorsey and Lee Wiley recorded versions in the 1930s and 40s but really, that's pretty much all I can find. Oh well, at least we Louis's great recording. Listen along here:



Louis and the band start right out with an introduction made up of the last four bars of the melody, Louis handling the lead with the reeds doubling it with their trademark intonation (you be the judge if this is a good or bad thing). Louis gives himself some breaks to trot out some very nimble double-timed phrases, still feeling his oats after his victory over the tiger. His second break allows him to roam around freely, which he does before hitting a high one and holding it for good measure. Then he leads the troops through the song's rarely heard verse, the group swinging in their slightly ragged, yet foot-tapping style. The saxes get a little loud in the mix (intonation!) before Louis finally gets to the song's main, slightly odd 20-bar melody. He plays it fairly straight, relaxed and swinging with little changes in the phrasing as he goes on. And then he passes the ball to the alto saxophone of Lester Boone, who takes off in precisely the opposite manner of Louis: not relaxed, herky-jerky, full of double-timing that doesn't mean much, etc. Not awful, but not one of my favorite sideman solos.

But then it's time for Louis's vocal, which is completely charming. There's a little slight hesitation here and there that makes me think he really must have picked up this song for the first time at this session. But he completely sells the sentiment of it and really starts swinging like hell towards the end (from the giant "Oh baby" onward). A beautiful vocal.

Then the tenor saxophone of Albert Washington creeps in on a wrong note before he puts together some puttering ideas. Louis then rises out of the ashes with a giant gliss and some passionate playing. Washington trades another four with him but is further buried with an even bigger gliss and some melodic playing an octave. Washington and Louis trade mild-mannered two's to end the chorus and then it's time for "every tub" to take the tune out, Louis playing lead with the section and also improvising some more scorching lines (with, yes, yet another gliss at one point). Midway through, he breaks free and comes up with a line that, to my ears, would morph into Hoagy Carmichael's composition "Judy" a few years later. And while I've been teasing the reeds a bit, I do like this rhythm section; hear bassist percussive double-timing as Louis heads to the final eight bars. Louis's playing is very relaxed, yet powerful; I wish he played for himself throughout. But interestingly, even when he plays with the sections, he still sounds like he's improvising because Zilner Randolph's arrangement is made up mostly of Armstrong licks. One more dash upward and Louis ends with a full, lush high note.

"Keepin' Out of Mischief Now" has some great moments but I don't know, I wouldn't rate it as a classic of classics, I guess because the band sounds pretty rough in spots. Personally, I've always been much more satisfied with the 1955 remake on the album "Satch Plays Fats." Maybe one day I'll revisit this tune and discuss that version in detail but I think I'll share the audio now.



Which version do you prefer? Feel free to leave a comment!

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When it comes to the final tune recorded on March 11, 1932, there's no denying that it's an all-time classic: "Lawd You Made the Night Too Long." Oh man, I just got excited typing that title! This has always been one of my favorites but it's never gotten the universal acclaim I think it has deserves (which explains why I included it when I helped with the track listings of last year's 10-CD Universal boxed set, "Satchmo: Ambassador of Jazz"). The song itself was written by Sam Lewis and Joe Young, the team behind "Dinah." Louis wasn't the first to record it, but he was close; 10 days earlier, pianist Russ Carlson recorded it for Crown Records with a vocal by Dick Robertson and some nice muted trumpet playing possibly by Mannie Klein. If you know Louis's version, this should come as a surprise. (It did for me, I'll admit that!)

It's the same arrangement! I mean, it's identical. Zilner Randolph must have gotten a copy of the stock and just tweaked it to serve Pops, but otherwise, it's the same (even the same key). But what Louis does on top of it....well, all due respect to Carlson's crew, but this is the work of a genius. Listen with me:



Over the opening descending minor-keyed vamp, Louis shouts "Hallelujah" over and over, setting something of an ominous mood. Like the Carlson version, Louis take the melody in sober fashion, hitting upon a two-note clarion call of sorts that he repeats a few times, eventually setting his focus directly on the second note--a concert A--which he works over and over, giving it different inflections each time. He continues the low-key playing throughout his bridge, getting in a passionate trademark lick before going low to end his spot. Just an excellent reading of a melody, something that's harder than it sounds.

The reeds come in to take the final eight-bars, Lester Boone's alto once again out front, but the overall section giving a hint of the Guy Lombardo sound that Louis loved so much. Speaking of Lombardo, Guy eventually recorded this song with his Royal Canadians for Brunswick on April 7, 1932, less than a month after Louis's version. I know we're skipping ahead, but if you're interested on how the actual Lombardo organization sounded on this number, check it out on YouTube:

Back to Pops. After the reed interlude, it's time for a masterful vocal by The Man. I actually like Dick Robertson's vocal on the Carlson version but wow, Louis was in another universe during this time. He's so soulful throughout this outing, which also has some trumpet-like moments: Louis holds the first titular "long" as he would hold a high note, and even bends it to a higher note that would sound perfectly natural on his trumpet; there's a little triplet twist on the word "spring" that comes from Louis's instrumental conception; after singing the next phrase all on one pitch, he goes up for the word "song" and slides down like a gliss, etc.

The bridge is interesting; compared to the vocals on the Carlson and Lombardo versions, Louis starts his phrases a little late, perhaps due to unfamiliarity with the lyric, but he pulls it off, gradually building his emotions to a crazy level as he shouts, "What good is a heart and what good is a cabin" as if he's trying to get the good lord (lawd?) to hear him directly. Can't picture Robertson pulling that one off...

After ending the bridge on another falling vocal gliss, Louis continues his dramatic recasting of the melody but singing the next lines on a single pitch, completely leaving the written notes behind (much as he did on Young and Lewis's "Dinah"....I wonder if they appreciated the liberties he took with their songs?). I love Louis's pronunciation--and emphasis--on the word "earth" as "oy-th" before the gorgeous way he sings, "but who am I to say you're wrong." When he gets to the final reading of the title, his passion is positively jumping out of the record. I've said this before and I'll say it again; yes, Louis wrote the book on jazz singing but there wouldn't be any soul/R&B singing without him either.

He ends the vocal with such a flourish, picked up by the urgent descending vamp again, that I almost feel my heart racing before he even picks up that little Selmer trumpet; what is about to happen is going to be special. And naturally, it is! A master of the entrance, Louis enters with the most swinging goddamned phrasing imaginable (sorry, I'm getting worked up now!). He enters so simply with two notes, places three quarter notes, pauses and hits another one. It could not be any more simper on paper but he places each one so perfectly, he is giving anyone with working hears and aural definition of swing. He follows that with space, always a good thing, but more preaching. Up to this point, he's been pretty mournful but then it's time to turn up the head.

And how does he do it? With the break to end all breaks. I know that I've been harsh on Gunther Schuller in the past, both on this blog and in my book. Let's face it: Schuller and I will never see eye-to-eye on the last 30 years of Armstrong's career. But when he's right, he's right. I can get myself into a fervor trying to describe this break but I'll let Schuller take the lead, as seen in "The Swing Era": "Again, there is a break which must be heard to [be] believed. It is virtually unnotatable, not only rhythmically but also because it features a little trick Louis had been working up over the last year of embellishing notes with tiny grace-note scoops from below. This effect is technically extremely difficult to manage, even in moderately paced passages. In the 'Lawd' break, Louis unleashes a veritable cascade of these flip-floppy scooped notes, in a clear attempt to break beyond the boundaries of even his own formidable technique and conception." To that, all I can say is yeah, man....

But even after that spellbinding break, Armstrong isn't done yet. He sounds like he knocked himself out, too, for a moment as his playing grows quieter for a few bars....until he shatters the proceedings with a stirring rip into the stratosphere. From there, he takes us to end with some more swinging quarter notes and blues-drenched playing, ending up where we started with that descending vamp. Armstrong fills in the gaps of the vamp until the band finally holds a chord, allowing Louis to play a sure-footed, beautiful cadenza ending up high. Bravo, Pops.

As great as this session is from a musical standpoint, it's also important from a historical one: it would be the last one Louis would make for OKeh records. After all the years of Hot Fives, Hot Sevens, Earl Hines, Carroll Dickerson, Hot Chocolates sessions, all those future standards, the Cotton Club band, etc. etc., the OKeh days were over. Behind the scenes, Louis was in the middle of a war for his contract between Johnny Collins and Tommy Rockwell. Armstrong was even held at gunpoint once, which made the black newspapers in January 1932. When Rockwell and the Immerman brothers, Connie and George, tried suing for Armstrong's services, a trial was held where "experts" representing Louis's side had to testify that Armstrong's talents were not "unique and extraordinary"!

It was getting too much for Louis. Before a trip to California, a headline ran in the "Chicago Defender" on April 9, "Louis Armstrong Goes Back to Cotton Club; May Retire." By the summer, "Time" magazine ran its first profile of Louis, making it public that OKeh was at war with Victor over Armstrong's services. Louis and Collins decided to get away from it all and head to London, which is where Louis was when he received the news about his recording contract. "Here's some more good news for ya," he wrote to Mezz Mezzrow on September 18. "The Victor Record Co., has just won the case from the Okeh Recor Co. and wired Mr. Collins that all's well and I can start on my new Victor contract which replaces the Rudy Vallee anytime. Gee, Gate, what a victory from our boy Rockwell. Looka heah, Looka heah. Now just watch those good royalties--dividends--shares--'n' everything else. Ha. Ha. And the contract pop's (MR. COLLINS) made with these people for me, why you've never heard of one like it before. And that includes the ole King of Jazz himself Paul Whiteman. Nice, eh?"

It was nice and yes, Louis's Victor recordings are pretty marvelous (though the 80th anniversary of the first sessions doesn't come until December so stay tuned for that). But what Louis did for OKeh between 1925 and 1932 is one of the great artist-and-label runs in music history. And as the music discussed in today's entry proves, Louis went out on top--with a high note, natch.

Friday, March 2, 2012

80 Years of Love, You Funny Thing

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded March 2, 1932
Track Time 3:38
Written by Fred Ahlert and Roy Turk
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Preston Jackson, trombone; Lester Boone, alto saxophone; George James, alto saxophone; Albert Washington, tenor saxohpone; Charlie Alexander, piano; MIke McKendrick, guitar; John Lindsay, bass; Tubby Hall, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41557
Currently available on CD: It’s on the JSP two-disc set The Big Band Sides, 1930-1932
Available on Itunes? Yes

Sorry for the silence, dear readers; as usual, I've been drowning and had to put the blog on the back burner for a few weeks. And yes, this is a re-post, too, of one I wrote in January 2011. But it's the 80th anniversary of this great performance and for those who might have missed my analysis the first time around, here 'tis again. Enjoy!

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A few days before Christmas, my trumpet-playing pal Dave Whitney call to say hello. I was unable to answer so Dave left a message, along with a little treat: about a half-chorus of "Love, You Funny Thing," unaccompanied (Dave has a beautiful tone and part of me wishes I knew how to convert voicemail messages to MP3 so I could share it!). When Dave and I finally connected, we talked about how much we loved the song and how it has pretty much disappeared off the face of the earth. Except for a version by Mel Torme, I can't recall anyone else recording the song after 1932. It's apparently even escaped the keepers of the early-Louis flame such as Marty Grosz, Duke Heitger and David Ostwald (though I'm sure Vince Giordano could probably pull out an arrangement at the drop of a hat).

So as means of rehabilitating the song, I've decided to make it the subject matter for my first blog of 2011. The song was written by the dynamite team of Fred Ahlert and Roy Turk, composers of standards such as "Mean to Me" and "I'll Get By," as well as "Walkin' My Baby Back Home," which Louis recorded successfully for OKeh the previous April. The song was also set to be featured in the background of the all-star major motion picture "Grand Hotel." And on top of that, it was set to be recorded by none other than Bing Crosby on February 23, 1932 (Ahlert and Turk wrote Crosby's theme "Where the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day" so Bing obviously had an affinity for their work).

You don't need me to tell you that Louis and Bing had quite a mutual appreciation society. No one would deny that Louis had a profound influence on Papa Bing, but I also here elements of Crosby in Armstrong's early-1930s vocals. From 1930-1933, the two men recorded the same song ten times so there's clearly something ready to be written about this (paging Jimmy Leach!). I'm no vocal expert (and hell, I wouldn't know which end to blow into a trumpet if you gave it to me), but I think it could be fun to compare and contrast the two versions of "Love, You Funny Thing" (and if you are an expert out there on these subjects, don't hesitate to chime in!).

Okay, let's start with Bing's version:



Beautiful stuff. Bing could mix it up with the finest names in jazz, but this is 100% a pop record, with that conspicuous strings-and-muted-trumpet sound from the period. After a short verse, Bing slides into the refrain, singing with ease and with confidence. The song takes a bit of a range to pull off and Crosby's high notes and low notes are equally full. After a chorus, the band attempts to swing for eight bars before Bing enters with a dramatic anticipatory "And"....shades of Pops! It's a lovely record and echoes what Louis said about Crosby in 1955: "Bing's voice has a mellow quality that only Bing's got. It's like gold being poured out of a cup." Indeed.

Of course, with Louis, we're dealing with a voice that sounds like gravel being poured out of a trash can...but, oh, what he does with it. Before jumping in, let's see where Louis was in his life at this point. He was still leading an Orchestra he started in April 1930 consisting of many New Orleans homeboys and directed by fellow trumpeter Zilner Randolph. Mob troubles had led Pops and his men on a tour of the south (including New Orleans) as they had to avoid New York because that's where the trouble was (bullets don't make good mutes). Anytime they passed through Chicago, OKeh grabbed them up to record some pop tunes of the day, a series of recordings that brought Louis's genius to epic new heights.

Armstrong had already recorded "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," "Home" and "All of Me" for label in January 1932 with "All of Me" apparently going on to become a substantial hit for Louis. On March 2, Louis and his orchestra tackled "Love, You Funny Thing," only seven days after Crosby recorded his version (meaning that he could have never heard what Bing was doing with it, unless Crosby was broadcasting it, which is a good possibility). Let's hear how it came out:


Nicely done, Pops. Louis loved this orchestra but critics were quick to point out its flaws. Louis still defended them in later years, but this isn't one of the band's finest moments...in fact, you know it's bad when Louis himself has to point out the flaws on the record! It opens with the saxophones bizarrely alternating two pitches (how often do the trains go by?) while the peculiar sound of Mike McKendrick's guitar plink-plinks in the background....not exactly an arrangement for the books but I guess it provides some atmosphere. But don't fret, it's Louis to the rescue, immediately getting the thing swinging with two simple quarter notes. I never understood how it did it; quarter notes as quarter notes don't really swing but Louis knew had to place them and how to attack them just right so the whole thing takes off in forward motion.

Louis is muted here, too, which is always a treat. Some will say that Louis never used a mute or if he did, he only used a straight mute, but that's clearly not the case on many of these early 1930s performances (he had already broken it out on that year's "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" and "All of Me"). Trumpeter Herbert Christ wrote it to tell me that it was a Solotone mute, while others have argued that it's a cup. Regardless, it's a unique sound and it's a shame that Pops seemed to leave it behind when he returned from Europe in 1935.

Louis clearly digs the melody but it's really a case of Louis listening to the band in his head...and playing what he's hearing. After almost every straight melodic line he plays or sings, he immediately follows it with a perfect fill, playing what he thinks the band should be playing (it's a shame he didn't do arrangements). Armstrong's playing is also filled with Crosby-like mordents, little turns at the end of phrase that are effective.

When the bridge turns to D-minor, the reeds take over. It only takes Louis a couple of bars to not be impressed with their effort and he calls them out on it. "Bring it out, bring it out saxophones! Come on, out with it!" The reeds immediately respond with the full-throated blowing but it's still an awkward (though priceless) moment. Clearly, the song was brand new and the band needed some time familiarizing themselves with it. But they were in a studio and you'd think they'd have it ironed out when the recording light when on. Also, you'd think Louis or the A&R man for OKeh would have waved it off and said, "Let's try it again." But no, Louis admonishes them, they respond and the record moves forward. A fascinating little moment.

For his final eight bars, Louis can't wait to get the horn to his chops, playing an anticipatory phrase before the bridge is even over. Now he's feeling good, taking more chances with the melody, throwing in a well-placed gliss and ending on a high note. Most human beings would be happy with that but because he's Louis Armstrong, it's time for the vocal...and time for us to get a singing lesson.

Opening with a delightful "Mmmm," Louis swings right into the vocal, rephrasing it almost instantly; listen to the declamatory way he sings "look at what you did to me." But not wanting to come off as too harsh, Louis immediately follows it with a higher "Love" that sounds like pure sunshine. In fact, you can really hear him smiling on the next eight bars, especially with the way he swallows the words "First (or really, "Foist") you come along."

Armstrong dives into the bridge with a long "Ohhhh" before perhaps the most delicious moment of the vocal: he leaves a little gap of space and rushes back in with the lyrics "someone made it seem that way," a chunk of it rendered on a single pitch. Another "Oh" leads to the final eight bars, where Louis sticks mainly to the melody but still moans a few swinging asides.

After this vocal, there's time for one more chorus (barely; the finished product is 3:38, really pushing the limit of a 78 record). At the start of the record, Louis took the A sections while the bridge went to the band. Now, the roles are reversed as Louis becomes part of the arrangement during the A sections and saves his improvisitory genius for the bridge. Louis's tone is simply magical as he hits those high notes. He breaks away for a few passionate outbursts but really stays a part of the section until that bridge...and wow, what a bridge! There's so much information in these eight bars, it's almost stunning. He opens with a held note before snaking his way into the lower register with a run of notes that rhythmically free, blurs the bar lines and is full of tension. Just as he hits his lowest night, he responds with a frightening glissando back into the upper register. He follows that with another flurry of notes before he pauses, allows a second of space and flat out swings his last phrase so damn hard, pushing that last note up for maximum dramatic effect.

Nothing can top that bridge...and sure enough, nothing did. Louis rejoins the section to hit those high notes but the final eight bars are a ragged affair: the saxophones are off, trumpets are coming and going...it's not pretty but Louis's final high note is the truth. So yeah, there's enough roughness around the edges (I'm looking at you, Orchestra) that has allowed "Love, You Funny Thing" to get left off a lot of compilations. And honestly, Bing's version was mighty hard to find, too; I don't think it's ever been reissued on a major American CD (I found it on a cheapie MP3 compilation over at EMusic.com). It's safe to say that "Love, You Funny Thing" didn't have much of an effect on the pop charts and soon disappeared (though if you're really digging the tune, YouTube has a couple of British dance band versions from the same period).

But I think it's a fine song with a memorable melody and a great minor-bridge. And hey, it's Louis and Bing and at the end of the day, that's really all we need, right? For the vocal fans out there, I've made one of my famed edits, taking eight bars of Bing and eight bars of Louis and swapping them back and forth for a single chorus. The last time I did this was with Louis and Seger Ellis's versions of "Ain't Misbehavin'" to show how advanced Armstrong was to Ellis. But this time, I'm doing it to show that BIng and Louis were equals and each learned from the other. Here's Bing and Louis's vocals on "Love, You Funny Thing" together:


Isn't that pretty neat? Louis is still the aggressor, but it's clear he picked up some stuff from Bing, especially that mordent. Bing does it frequently throughout but Louis really does a noticeable one on the word "go" during the phrase "she let me go" on the bridge. And though it's not in my edit, remember that Bing reprises his vocal with an anticipatory (have I really used that word three times now?) "And" that Louis does throughout his vocal with those "Oh's" and "Mm's. But there are differences, too, and to me, I hear it mostly in the way each man ends a note. Crosby sings a note and hits it; Louis is constantly bending them, moaning low, groaning high. Compare the way they sing the word "sympathy" at the end of the first eight bars: Bing sings it and holds it but Louis glides down on the last syllable. It's clearly a trumpet thing...or maybe not? Maybe it was something Louis always did and just added to his trumpet playing? Louis did always say that singing was his "first hustle." But he also once said that when he was singing, he could picture hitting the notes with his hand on the trumpet. Let's just be thankful he did both things so well! (Though did you hear him botch one of the lyrics? In the second eight bars, Bing sings, relaxed, "First, you come and bring, happiness into my heart." But Louis sees an extra word, which actually leads a bit of urgency to his vocal, singing, "First, you come along and bring, happiness into my heart.")

That's all I have to say for Louis and Bing and this great but I'll end by boring everyone to tears with some discographical discussions. According to discographies, "Love, You Funny Thing" was the only song recorded on March 2, with a matrix number of W 405154. Fine. But Louis next ended the studio on March 11 to record three more songs. The opening number of that session, "New Tiger Rag" has a matrix number of W 405155. But the other two songs recorded on the 11th saw the matrix numbers jump up to 405166 and 405167. Hmmm, something doesn't seem right. I really find it somewhat hard to believe that a) Louis only recorded one song at the March 2 session and b) that OKeh recorded nothing else for the next nine days and resumed the March 11 session with the 405155 matrix number. My best guess is that Louis spent the bulk of the March 2 date working out the new material (which, as we heard, still didn't get perfected) and closed the session by trying "New Tiger Rag." Perhaps OKeh thought they could live with "New Tiger Rag," slapped the 405155 matrix number on it and called it a day. Then, when Louis returned on March 11, perhaps someone suggested they give "New Tiger Rag" another shot. They did, it was better, and it replaced the March 2 take, retaining the 405155 matrix number. Okeh had recorded ten songs with other artists in the intervening nine days so they resumed the rest of the March 11 Armstrong session with matrix number 405166. Make sense? Or maybe "New Tiger Rag" comes from the March 2 session and the discographies have been wrong for all these years?

Well, that's for other people to figure out. My usual response: who cares, let's just enjoy the music! And when Mr. Satch and Mr. Cros are at the helm, well, nothing else really matters.