Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Sittin' in the Dark: 80 Years of Louis's January 1933 Victor Sessions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Track Time: 3:02
Recorded January 26, 1933
Written by Harold Adamson and Jesse Greer
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Keg Johnson, trombone; Scoville Browne, George Oldham, alto saxophone, clarinet; Budd Johnson, tenor saxophone; Teddy Wilson, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; Bill Oldham, tuba; Yank Porter, drums
Originally released on Victor 24245
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Halfway through the first marathon session, you'd think Louis would be ready to relax a bit and maybe take on something where he only had to play a half chorus at the end or something. Nope, not our hero! Instead, the next track includes one of the most ridiculous pure feats of exhibitionism in Armstrong's long career (and I mean that in a good way).

The song in question is "Sittin' in the Dark," a brand new pop song by the team of Harold Adamson and Jesse Greer. Adamson was behind some great standards like "Everything I Have is Yours," "Time on My Hands" and a song that is near and dear to me: the theme song to "I Love Lucy" (har har har). Greer's most remembered for "Just You, Just Me," but he had some forgotten tunes recorded by the likes of Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman in the 1920s. Unfortunately, "Sittin' in the Dark" isn't mentioned in either of their biographies. In fact, a quick search at AllMusic.com shows ZERO other jazz recordings of this tune other than Louis's. Is that really true? Come on, Louis-worshipping musicians....revive, brothers and sisters, revive!

Outside of the jazz millieu, "Sittin' in the Dark" was tackled a couple of other times in 1933, most notably by crooner Al Bowlly. Here's his version:
I like Bowlly's delivery of the lyric, with those insinuating "mmm's." He has a lot of fun with it and Jack Jackson's Orchestra sounds pretty good playing the instrumental portions (in an arrangement very similar to Louis's). One more for good measure, a duet by "Jack and Jill," the pseudonyms for Sam Browne and Anona Winn, recorded right around the time of Louis's:
I like it as a duet; in fact, it makes me wish Louis and Velma dug it out of mothballs a few decades a later. Anyway, good, harmless, early 1930s pop fun.

Now it's time for Pops fun...watch out!
Yeah, man! The sweet little introduction, carried by Zilner Randolph's trumpet, is fairly quaint, offering no foreshadowing for what's about to occur. The band swings out and once again on this session, really locks into that medium-tempo groove. And once again, if you listen carefully, Louis is shouting and moaning in the background!

Then it's time for an absolutely delicious vocal. Interestingly, Louis eschews the "mmm's" that were an integral part of the other two versions I shared, odd since "mmm" was an essential syllable in Louis's vocal lexicon. No bother; his "oh babe," "yeah man," and various moans set the mood that Louis has much more than just sittin' in the dark in mind (replace it with the verb of your choice). That bridge is a gassuh, too.

After the vocal, Randolph repeats the sweet motif from the introduction, allowing Pops to get set. Once again getting his feet wet with two quarter notes, this is a fantastic solo from the outset, Louis ultra laid back and swinging. In the next eight bars, he turns up the heat a few notches, first getting bluesy and then making the decision to blast out the melody an octave higher, hitting those high C's right on the nose. Louis feels so good, it sounds like he wants to keep going, momentarily forgetting that Budd Johnson is supposed to play the bridge on his tenor saxophone. They overlap for a second before Louis cedes the stage to the 22-year-old future jazz legend, sounding good still growing on these early recordings (I think he needed to hear Lester Young to really see the light).

Louis can't wait to get back to playing so he actually plays over the end of Johnson's solo, springboarding into a final eight bars in which he once again revisits the melody an octave up, not only hitting those high C's again but dramatically working up to a high concert Eb (F on the trumpet), almost the top of his range. If the record ended right there, we'd stand up and cheer and I'd still be celebrating the anniversary of it.

Fortunately, it doesn't end right there....not by a long shot. In some ways, it's just beginning. What follows is pure showing off and I'm sure there were critics then (and now) who would hold their nose at such flexing of the (lip) muscles (James Lincoln Collier called this part of the record "apalling"). Not me! (I've long held on to the belief that I have no taste and am easily entertained by any tactics aimed at the cheap seats.)

He starts by hitting yet another of those concert high Bb's, shaking the life out of it. And then he hits it again. And again. And again. And again. And on and on, nine times in all. (Yes, two of them slightly crack...he IS only human, after all!) When he hits the ninth into, he holds it and then begins a slow, glissing decent into the abyss, getting so low, he disappears for a second, one to bounce back up with a rapid gliss back to that high Bb. A slight pause, he hits it again squarely and then uses it to spring up to a final high Eb, the band joining in the last one. Wow!

The end of "Sittin' in the Dark" is one of our only glimpses at Louis the exhibitionist of the early 1930s. Every night, he concluded with a dazzling fireworks display of high C's, usually hitting about 200 or so, but able to go  higher upon request (he used to tell about a time that Bill Robinson asked for 400 (!) and got 'em, topped by a final high F!). There's a touch of this at the end of "Shine" in the 1932 short, "A Rhapsody in Black and Blue" with the band counting each one. "Sittin' in the Dark" isn't exactly the same but it is a tantalizing glimpse into what powers he possessed in this period. Alas, it wasn't for much longer. Once his lip gave out the following year, he learned a lesson that if he wanted to have a long career, those kinds of tricks had to stop.

And they did (not withstanding the remarkable 1936 "Swing That Music," but even that routine changed in subsequent live and studio remakes). He also said that crowds thought he was nothing but a wild man doing things like that. And he was probably right; it would have been thrilling to have at least one recorded sample of Louis hitting 200 high C's, but I'm sure it wasn't very musical and wouldn't hold up to repeated listenings. But at least we have that little ending on "Sittin' on the Dark" to give us a taste.

Before we leave "Sittin' in the Dark," I must mention it's influence on young Sun Ra. Yep, not a typo, THE Sun Ra. As he told it to "Downbeat" in 1970, "I was traveling on the road with a band some place in Kentucky or thereabouts, I heard a recording by Louis in a tavern. The name of it was 'Sittin' in the Dark.' I haven't heard it since, but I still remember the sound-image impression it gave me. His contribution to jazz is immeasurable and his contribution to music is a world thing not fully evaluated yet."

So if it's good enough for Sun Ra, it's good enough for me....4-for-4, Pops!

Tomorrow: Louis gives us an idea of one of those New Orleans street parades on "High Society."

1 comment:

yvesfrancois said...

You are hitting my favourite records as of late, the 1929/37 Louis is my personal favourite era. This trumpet solo is desert island to me (esp the first 16 bars, his entry and what goes on the turnaround on bars 8 to 10, the way he reiterates the melody on bar 9 - sublime),I have a good friend who dislikes the end of this record, but for me, it is transcendent. I feel like that the bravura is part of the package, and it is his need for everyone to love him that he went towards this. Remember in 1933, people believed that this was impossible on the trumpet, Pops showed them, didn't he? Great post, diggin' this one (I need to find the sheet music to this one, someone needs to play this number again)