Monday, February 4, 2013

Snow Ball: 80 Years of Louis's January 1933 Victor Sessions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Track Time: 3:13
Recorded January 28, 1933
Written by Hoagy Carmichael
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 24369
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

The January 28, 1933 session opens with "Snow Ball," one of those "politically incorrect" titles that has rarely been revisited or reissued in the ensuing 80 years. I feel this to be a shame. The song was written by Hoagy Carmichael and as Dan Morgenstern once sarcastically wrote, "also recorded by that notorious Uncle Tom, Paul Robeson."Yes, the lyrics have some rough touches ("chocolate bar," "black as tar" in the bridge) but really, it's a touching song sung by a father to his child, capturing all the wonderful traits a father brings to the table in those moments: compliments ("daddy likes those dark brown eyes"), affirmation ("you're my only sweetheart"), compassion ("don't you cry") and gentle teasing ("I'll eat you up some day," "The good Lord said, use an apple dumplin' to make your head"). Take away the aforementioned touchy lines and this might be a better known piece. In fact, listen to Hoagy himself sing it in his charming way:
Maybe you'll disagree, but I don't hear anything offensive there. As a father of two, I think of myself singing something similar to my girls and I get teary-eyed.

But of course, Louis is an African-American and that opens up an entirely different can of worms. A few years ago, I wrote in-depth about a similar song that never gets mentioned anymore, Little Joe. I understand why this material makes some uncomfortable but really all you have to do is listen to Louis. A few weeks ago, I wrote of Louis's "acting" skills on "The Trumpet Player's Lament," convincingly giving the impression that he didn't want to play hot jazz anymore. On something like "Little Joe" or "Snow Ball," Louis the actor could inspire tears with his earnest, heartfelt reading of the lyrics.

And on top of that, for all of their insensitivity, I believe Louis liked that these songs were about African-Americans. To bring up Dan Morgenstern again, he famously wrote of "Little Joe," "If that's not black is beautiful, I don't know what is." These kinds of songs were common back then (just look at Louis's theme song, "When It's Sleepy Time Down South") so it was up to the artist to make of it what they wanted. Instead of kidding the lyric or delivering it with a sense of shame, Louis proudly grabs hold of these lyrics, as if to say, "I am a black man, singing about black people for my black audience." It's hard not to get moved when Armstrong sounds so moved himself.

So enough for me and without further ado (and without politics getting in the way), here's "Snow Ball":

Beautiful. Louis sits out instrumentally in the beginning, letting the band play 16 bars, led by the lullaby strumming of Mike McKendrick's guitar. Louis can be heard humming along and earnestly cooing, "Now you're daddy's little baby boy" and "Mmm, you little rascal you," the latter also serving as a plug for one of Louis's biggest hits (re-recorded for Victor the previous month).

Then it's time to sing...but instead of actually singing, Louis goes the talking route, which is actually more effective, giving the impression that he's speaking to a child he obviously loves, rather than just singing a Hoagy Carmichael tune (Pops the actor). These are the lyrics he sings:

Rare photo of Louis  in London, 1933. Courtesy of Dave Bennett
Snowball, my honey, don't you melt away
'Cause your daddy likes those dark brown eyes.
(Now, Sonny) Snowball, my honey, smile at me each day
'Cause your daddy like those dark brown eyes.

You my only sweetheart, little chocolate boy
I'll eat you up some day.
(Now look atcha, look atcha!)
Your hand and feet, just as black as tar (Mm!)
But don't you cry, why, say

The good Lord said, Boy, he used an apple dumplin' to make your head 
(old Gate Head...heh-heh)
Now you know that's really something!

Mm, Snowball, my honey, don't you melt away
'Cause your daddy like those dark brown eyes. 

So much more than just a vocal, right? He speaks with such love and affection but he also is such a kidder (the way he breaks himself up with that "old Gate Head" ad-lib). And when he does sing, his voice is beautiful; yes, "little chocolate boy" might make one uncomfortable but he really sings the hell out of it.

After such a touching first half, the record turns out to be something of a swinger. Scoville Brown is up first, demonstrating a real "cool" tone to his alto saxophone solo (over off, but effective accents on 1-and-3). Keg Johnson's up next with another fine solo (we'll hear more from him tomorrow), but he gets accents on 2-and-4 behind him.

Then Louis swoops in and plays the first eight bars of the melody in an appropriately soft, caressing manner. In the next eight, he opens it up a bit, touching two soulful high Bb's before he surprisingly turns bluesy, hitting the minor third Db and really working it over with superb lip control. A cymbal clop by drummer Yank Porter guides Louis into the bridge, which features more reflective playing. Seriously, he treats his entire solo as a lullaby and the result it gorgeous.

Heading into the final eight bars, the band takes the melody for the first half, a surprising touch. The way they play it results in the only stiff moment of the record. Louis has been so relaxed with his talk-singing and gentle playing that when the band comes in with their almost shuffling phrasing, the result is a little jarring. But have no fears, they're just setting it up for Louis, who enters on a F and dramatically builds up to a high concert Bb. He hits it, goes down to an A, glisses back to the Bb, lets the band play a short tag and then finishes the deal with a giant gliss up to that high Bb.

So that's "Snow Ball" and I sincerely hope no one's feelings were hurt. For a soft, tender side of Pops, it does no harm and in this frosty winter, a little warmth from Louis goes a long way.

Tomorrow: Louis revisits the past and tops himself on "Mahogany Hall Stomp."

2 comments:

Steve Provizer said...

Who's the banjo player?

Ricky Riccardi said...

That's still Mike McKendrick and his unique sounding tenor resonator guitar.

Ricky