Friday, December 31, 2010

Celebrate New Year's Eve, 1962, with Louis Armstrong!

Well, it's that time again: faced with another New Year's Eve upon us, I must share a complete broadcast of Louis Armstrong from a New Year's Eve of long ago. This is third time I've done this in case you're new here. If you want to read my 2008 post about Louis's 1967 Las Vegas New Year's Eve gig (featuring "What a Wonderful World" and a fantastic closing "Sleepy Time"), clickhere. And last year, I shared a 15-minute broadcast from 1954 that ended with Louis playing a very straight, touching "Auld Lang Syne." Click here.

But today, we're traveling back to December 31, 1962 to listen to Louis and the All Stars broadcasting a 25-minute set live from the Coconut Grove at the Hotel Ambassador in Hollywood. It's a fine version of the band with Louis, Troummy Young on trombone, Joe Darensbourg on clarinet, Billy Kyle on piano, Bill Cronk on bass, Danny Barcelona on drums and Jewel Brown the vocalist. Whoever recorded this broadcast taped it directly from WGY in Schenectady, NY, which Google tells me is still going strong. After a little period music (a piano-feature on "Just One of Those Things" with strings and such), the sounds of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" enters, backed by an enthusiastic announcer and the whooping and hollering of a crowd clearly intoxicated by Louis (and possibly alcohol). Here's the entire audio from that evening, followed by my comments:




Louis was probably doing a full show but for the broadcast, he saved the big guns, though not without a bit of confusion. Immediately after the short instrumental of "Sleepy Time," the announcer calls for "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" but Louis trumps him by calling for "Blueberry Hill"! Since I'm sharing the complete broadcast in one chunk, I can tell you the climb of "Blueberry Hill" begins at 2:35.

After "Blueberry," the band goes into the vamp for "Mack the Knife" but the ever-confusing announcer asks for "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" again! (Maybe he had money invested in it or something.) This time Louis obliges for a swinging, but relaxed 6+-minute version of the song, beginning at 6:30). Louis sounds very strong and comes up with some variations in his otherwise mostly set solo.

Back to the hits, Louis calls "Mack the Knife," heard at 12:50 (after Louis introduces the band). "Mack" was in transition at this period; for years, the tempo got faster and faster with Louis always ending with an ensemble chorus. But in 1962, he slowed it down and ended it with his vocal. This version only features a short trumpet chorus up front, but Louis must have missed blowing on it more because beginning soon after, he would play two choruses at the start, the second usually improvised. The band swings pretty hard--Louis seemed more comfortable at this tempo--and the audience continues to sound like bedlam.

Jewel Brown then comes up at 16:50 with Harry Belafonte's "Have You Heard About Jerry." This was probably the kind of thing that made the jazz purists roll their eyes, especially after that dynamite "Barbecue" from earlier in the broadcast. But the band works up quite a bit of steam on this number and everyone gets a break (dig Billy Kyle inserting "It Ain't Necessarily So"!). With time winding down, Louis calls "When the Saints Go Marching In" at 21:40, another song that sped up over the years then gradually slowed down in 1962. This versions is slow and strutty and immediately gets the audiences clapping and singing along. The reaction is so big, Louis sings an encore chorus immediately after but soon goes into "Sleepy Time"; the broadcast is over but I'm sure the fun was just beginning at the Coconut Grove.

That'll do it for the broadcast and that will do it for me here in 2010. I thank each and every person who has ever visited this page, especially for bearing with me for so many long stretches of silence this year. But even those silences were for good reasons, working in the day time to get that online catalog up and running on the Louis Armstrong House Museum site and working at night and weekends on the book, which is officially finished and ready for a May-June release. So stick with me because we're only getting started...here's to 2011, the year of Louis Armstrong!

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Night Before Christmas

Well, today is the day before Christmas, so what better way to celebrate than by listening to Louis Armstrong's reading of "The Night Before Christmas." I shared this last year, but I think it's only an appropriate annual tradition. This was Armstrong's final record, made February 26, 1971 in his home in Corona, just a few days before his last extended engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria, an engagement that pretty much sealed the fate of the frail trumpeter. He passed away on July 6, 1971.

But enough sadness! Louis Armstrong was the personification of joy and the man was terrific around children, two attributes that come to the forefront of this reading. And I recently learned some new information about this record that I'd like to share. One of Louis's private tapes housed at the Louis Armstrong House Museum (aka my employer) featured a tape contents sheet inside of the box on which Louis wrote, "Louis Satchmo Armstrong talking to all the kids from all over the world - at Xmas time." A few weeks ago, I popped in the CD version of this tape at work because we were looking for holiday-themed material to play at our press party to announce the online catalog. And lo and behold, when I played it, it opened with TWO versions of "The Night Before Christmas"! What's crazier is the sound quality was better on the tape then on the final released record. I listened to them both and it struck me: they were two different readings. Louis's first reading is delightful, but he's a tad hesitant at the start and at one point has trouble turning the page (causing him to ad-lib, "Good old Santa!" The second take was mostly used for the master though, they edited out Louis's clearing his throat early on.

Thus, we may never know how this recording came to be. Did Louis do it on a whim and someone--maybe Lucille?--brought it to the attention of Continental Records? Or did Continental ask him to record it (in February, two months after Christmas) but Louis, ailing a bit and probably unable to go to a recording studio, just recorded two versions in his den and sent it over to Continental to edit the best parts. Regardless, both takes are very special and if you were to make an appointment to visit the Armstrong Archives at Queens College, I'd definitely recommend a listen. And by the way, if you search our online catalog, search for tape 1987.3.465 to see a description of the contents of this tape, as well as to see how Louis decorated the box in these final months of his life (a very sweet back cover with a photo of Louis, a photo of Lucille and a photo of a trumpet). Once again, the link to that online catalog:

Louis Armstrong House Museum Online Catalog

Now, let's listen to the original released version (call the children to the computer!):



Later, when Brunswicky issued it, they added some silly sound effects and background music. To hear that version, click here:



Thanks for listening and I wish all of you a wonderful holiday...and that goes for Satchmo, too!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Very Satchmo Christmas - 2010 Edition!

Don't let the "2010" fool you, as this is pretty much the same exact thing I posted for each of the past three years. But I feel like the six Christmas songs Armstrong recorded for Decca in the 1950s are worth celebrating every year at this time so if you don't mind, let's do it one more once. Crank up the speakers, pour some egg nog and get ready to enjoy them all over again.

As already mentioned, this entry will focus on the six Christmas records Armstrong made for Decca in the 1950s. And when I say records, I don’t mean long-playing discs but rather, six three-minute singles. It might seem odd that someone who brought more joy to the world than Santa Claus would have so few yuletide classics in his discography, but alas that’s the case. In fact, Armstrong didn’t get around to recording his first Christmas song until 1952, unless, of course, you count Armstrong’s two versions of “Santa Claus Blues” from 1924 and 1925.

When Decca finally corralled Armstrong into the studio to record some Christmas cheer, they gave him first-class treatment by backing him with the lush arrangements of Gordon Jenkins. Jenkins’s sentimental string and voices sound revived Armstrong’s recording career with the 1949 hit “Blueberry Hill.” By the early 1950s, Jenkins was a veritable recording superstar. Anything with his name on it sold tremendously so it made sense for Decca to pair him with label stars like Peggy Lee and Armstrong. On September 22, 1952, Armstrong and Jenkins teamed up for their fourth session together. On one of their sessions, from February 6, 1951 Jenkins jettisoned his strings and turned in some very fine small-big band arrangements but for the 1952 session, the strings were the whole show on the Christmas number, though current All Stars Bob McCracken, Marty Napoleon, Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole were in the studio band that day (as was guitarist Art Ryerson, who would do many post-“Hello, Dolly” sessions with Pops in the 60s).

Both of the Jenkins Christmas numbers are unusually low-key. They feature no trumpet and no surges of emotion or anything. They’re very sober but the best word to describe them has to be “warm.” Pops is at his most tender, singing as if he’s whispering a loving lullaby to a small child. “White Christmas” is up first and, of course, was property of Armstrong’s friend and disciple, Bing Crosby. From the opening seconds, we know we’re in Gordon Jenkins country. “White Christmas” demonstrates that many of our best-loved Christmas songs feature quite a range of notes and you can hear Pops stretch here and there, but I always loved his tenor voice—as well as that basso profundo he would break out when necessary. Both are needed on “White Christmas,” which finds Pops reaching for a high D on “the ones” to the C an octave lower on “children.” On the final “be white,” Armstrong goes down to a low B on the coincidental word “be.” Where you’d expect a scat break or a “oh babe,” Pops lays out, leaving the gaps to be filled by Jenkins’s beautiful strings. After a brief string interlude, Armstrong reenters with the final eight bars, featuring, I think, some of his most touching singing. You can hear him smiling as he sings “and bright.” Again, he goes way down for that final “white,” holding it for an impressive amount of time. Very pretty stuff. Enough from me, enjoy it for yourself:


“Winter Wonderland” is up next and it’s more of the same. Though most performers do this one at an uptempo, Armstrong and Jenkins give it the same gentle ballad treatment as “White Christmas.” Again, Pops rarely deviates from the melody but he doesn’t have to, he’s singing it so sweetly. Am I weird for actually feeling warmed by the way Pops sings “as we dream by the fire”? Jenkins goes back to the bridge for another one of his trademark sounds. Marty Napoleon plays the melody in single notes an octave lower than you’d expect. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but hey, this was popular music in 1952 and it gave Jenkins an identity. Pops reenters for the final eight with a cute extended coda. Armstrong repeats the word “walking” while the pizzicato strings “walk” gingerly behind him. Finally, Armstrong unleashes a little bit of scat and the record comes to a mellow conclusion. Dig it:


Don’t worry, though. If Jenkins’s Christmas records make you a little sleepy and ready to curl up by the fire, here comes Toots Camarata’s Commanders to violently wake you up, visions of Ed Grady’s cymbals ringing in your head. I devoted an entire entry to this session in October 2008 because I believe it's one of the greatest dates Armstrong ever did in his entire career. The Commanders were a ferocious studio band co-led by arranger Camarata and drummer Grady. They were brass heavy—three trumpets, four trombones and only two reeds—and featured a peerless rhythm section propelled by Carmen Mastren’s rhythm guitar and Grady’s earth-shattering big band drumming. The October session began with two Christmas songs and both are a lot of fun. After trying out a few standards on the Jenkins sessions, Decca gave Armstrong a few novelties to cut up on and he does just that, infusing these two trite, silly songs with such enthusiasm that they’ve in turn had a shelf life of over 50 years of being listened to and enjoyed. First up: "Zat You Santa Claus?"


Right off the bat, you can hear that Decca gave their sound effects man some extra work on the date and the record starts off with howling winds and jingle bells. Grady’s drums “knock” on the door (how often did he have to change his snare head?), Pops asks the title question and we’re off, the reeds falling into a standard descending minor vamp. The lyrics are back in the “Old Man Mose” mold as Pops, frightened by the outside noises (cue the sound effects guy), hopes it’s Santa Claus making that racket and not someone sinister. The song does have a great bridge and the Commanders swing through it easily. The lyrics really are kind of goofy, but man, Pops sounds like he’s having a ball, which in turn, spreads to the listener. After one chorus, the band takes over, trading four bars with Pops and playing with such force, it threatens to become the most badass Christmas song ever recorded. Pops’s vocal on the trades grows more nervous and frantic, adding more fun to the proceedings. But perhaps the highlight of the record comes during the coda when a clearly petrified Armstrong pleads, “Please, a-please, a-pity my knees!” I love the way he sings that word “please.” The song ends with a big ending and after another “knock” from the drums, Pops yells, “That’s him all right,” while more sound effects take us out. It’s not “White Christmas,” but it’s very atmospheric and it’s easy to get swept away by Pops’s vocal.

Next up was “Cool Yule,” lyrics and music by comedian and television talk show pioneer Steve Allen. Due to its use in a few recent movies, “Cool Yule” has probably become Armstrong’s best-known Christmas recording. During my 50 trips to the mall this season, it’s sometimes hard to hear the piped in Christmas music, but man, that Armstrong horn during the bridge always manages to cut through the noise! (2009 update: it even cuts through the noise while running around a crowded Port Authority bus station in New York City in December.) Allen’s trademark sense of humor infuses the lyrics with all sorts of funny psuedo-hip references and Pops again, sounds like he’s having a ball. Here 'tis:


The song begins with more jingle bells before the band enters with a sprightly shuffle beat—wait a minute, is this Louie Prima or Louis Armstrong? The changes are fairly simple: “rhythm changes” for 16 bars, then a modulation for more “rhythm changes” in the bridge, kind of like Count Basie’s “Easy Does It.” Only the second half of the bridge doesn’t have “Rhythm,” as it’s punctuated by giant accents by the band on two and four. Again, Pops sings wonderfully but dig that band. Every drum hit, every brass punch, every note of the instrumental interlude…it’s so precise, so explosive, so swinging. I wish Armstrong made a dozen albums with the Commanders. After eight bars from the band, Armstrong picks up his horn for the first time during the session and it’s a preview of the tremendous blowing that was to be the hallmark of the date. Though the song has nothing to do with the blues, Pops instills his entire solo with more blue notes than you might expect. He gets downright funky with some of his note choices and I can never refrain from giving a “Yeah,” when he gets into that bridge. The highlight of the trumpet solo comes in the bridge when plays the melody phrase like a human being, then skyrockets an octave higher to play it again, ending it on a high concert D. After the vocal, Pops still has time to sing another entire chorus and he does so with even more enthusiasm than the first time, especially on the bridge (and listen to Grady on the final A section). Pops legitimately breaks himself up by yelling “Cool Yule” at the end and if you’re not smiling, you’re surname must be Scrooge. But as much fun as “Cool Yule” is, it’s also responsible for this:


Yikes.

Anyway, Decca wasn’t finished yet and two years later, on September 8, 1955, they brought Armstrong in to record two more Christmas songs, this time backed by a studio band arranged and conducted by the great Benny Carter. This has become one of those forgotten Decca sessions, never reissued on C.D. by the label itself but it is available on the Ambassador label’s Moments to Remember disc, which collects all of Armstrong’s Christmas work for the Decca, the entire Commanders session and other odds and ends that are hard to find on compact disc or Itunes. Carter wrote a great arrangement for Armstrong on The Platters’s “Only You” and Armstrong manages to sound quite tender on the Four Lads hit, “Moments to Remember.”

The first Christmas song that day was Dick Sherman and Joe Van Winkle’s “Christmas In New Orleans.” Here's the audio:


Carter’s arrangement begins with a hardened “Jingle Bells” quote that sounds like it belongs in an episode of Dragnet (remember, Carter was doing a lot of film work at the time). It soon settles into a gentle two-beat that really works for this song. The lyrics are almost a waste of time with their references to stuff like a “Dixieland Santa Claus,” but as always, Pops sounds like the happiest guy in the world. And how could he not? He loved Christmas and he loved New Orleans so any song that combined the two, even with dopey lyrics, was bound to inspire him. What’s truly inspired, though, is the trumpet solo. The tune starts off kind of like “Basin Street Blues” before it goes its own way but the changes obviously had enough meat for Armstrong to sink his chops into. This isn’t one of those grandiose high-note extravaganzas; however it is a good time to appreciate Armstrong’s rhythmic mastery. It’s one of those solos that I always enjoyed but never really devoted 100% attention to until an afternoon I spent in Joe Muranyi’s house. Muranyi recorded “Christmas In New Orleans” for his Jazzology C.D., Joe Muranyi With The New Orleans Real Low-Down. For the disc, he transcribed Armstrong’s solo to be played in unison by his clarinet, Duke Heitger’s trumpet and Tom Baker’s tenor sax. You get so used to hearing horns playing unison lines on bop heads and the like, but not on Armstrong solos and all of a sudden, this solo that I kind of took for granted, became a whole new thing. While listening to it with me, Muranyi said, “It’s tough to notate this part. I worked so hard on it. What you do is, I did it and then I put it away. I mean, I had done it maybe two or three years before this and when I took it out again and refined it, you keep finding little things. It’s not easy. It’s interesting to hear it in this context. It sounds more complex than when he plays it.” It really does. Here's Muranyi's performance:



For the final track on the date, Decca reached back and picked “Christmas Night In Harlem,” written by Mitchell Parish and Raymond Scott for the “Blackbirds of and 1934 and memorably recorded by Paul Whiteman with a vocal by Jack Teagarden and Johnny Mercer. Carter’s arrangement begins with another Christmas quote—Billy Kyle playing the beginning to “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”—before the horns punch out a descending line that reminds me of a Ray Charles record (I think I’m thinking of “Greenback Dollar Bill”). Armstrong sings the first chorus harmlessly—it’s a pretty repetitive melody and he does his best with it. Carter’s arrangement swings after the vocal and you can hear Barney Bigard holding a high note. (This was Bigard’s next-to-last session with the All Stars as he would be replaced by Edmond Hall in a matter of weeks.) Armstrong’s trumpet solo is curiously low-key. He more or less sticks to playing the melody in the middle register. Naturally, the Armstrong sound makes it worth listening to, but he doesn’t really blow with any force until the last eight bars. It’s a fine solo but I think that Pops could have maybe used one more take to wail a little more. After the low-key solo, Pops returns to sing the bridge, which features a very funny moment. Armstrong sings, “Everyone will be all lit up,” and laughs to himself, “lit up” clearly having a different meaning to him than most. He swings the lyric on the final A section, boiling it down to one note, but the arrangement is now too polite; where’s Ed Grady’s drums to wake things up? The highlight of the record is Pops’s eloquent scatting and singing as the record fades. A charming record, but not my favorite Louis Christmas song.


And that ends this tour of Louis Armstrong’s Christmas recordings for Decca. Of course, Armstrong wasn’t completely done recording yuletide music as in 1970, he performed “Here Is My Heart For Christmas” for RCA. And Armstrong’s very last recording is a reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” that is quite charming and is one I hope to share this Thursday. Til then...

Friday, December 17, 2010

Louis Armstrong House Museum Online Catalog!

Okay friends, I promised an announcement and here 'tis: the Louis Armstrong House Museum's online catalog is up and running! And here's the link:

Louis Armstrong House Museum Online Catalog

What does this me to you, dear, devoted, disciple of Pops? Well, let me go backwards and quickly take you through a short history lesson. Our hero, Louis Armstrong, was a packrat. The man saved everything: thousands of photographs, hundreds of tapes, letters from fans, scrapbooks, manuscripts, records, books, you name it. When he passed, Lucille made sure that everything stayed intact (thank goodness). After Lucille died in 1983, the House and all its contents were given to Queens College. In 1991, Michael Cogswell was hired to process the materials found inside the house, all of it placed under the heading "Louis Armstrong Collection." And in 1994, the Louis Armstrong Archives were opened.

Are you with me so far? Good. Since 1994, researchers from around the world have made the Armstrong Archives THE place to be when it comes to Pops. The Archives also continued to collect any-Armstrong related artifacts sent in by fans, which led to a second collection, the "Satchmo Collection." And as readers of this blog should know, the monumental Jack Bradley Collection was also acquired earlier this decade. More stuff, including the collections of Phoebe Jacobs and David Gold, continues to roll in. It's epic.

In 2003, Louis's house in Corona was opened up as an official museum and the entire operation became known as the Louis Armstrong House Museum, though the Archives continued gathering steam over at Queens College. As I said, researchers have always visited the Archives...but what if you couldn't? What if you're an elderly Armstrong fan in California? What if your a Pops worshipper in Sweden? Wouldn't you like to know what is contained at the Archives? People send us questions all the time--"What kind of trumpet did Louis play? What kind of mouthpiece did you he? Do you have any information on Louis's trips to Africa?"--but it gets hard keeping up with the responses.

So what the Louis Armstrong House Museum (LAHM from here on out) has done is brought the catalog to you. The first step was to hire a Project Archivist in October 2009, which turned out to be yours truly. Everybody knows it was my dream job but I have been asked, "So, what do you do?"

Well, the answer is PLENTY. We purchased Past Perfect, the leading software for small museums, and I began the process of arranging, preserving and cataloging into Past Perfect the gigantic Jack Bradley Collection. Meanwhile, a dilligent intern, Daniel Pecoraro, hammered away on Past Perfect to enter what we call the Louis Armstrong House Collection, a listing of every single object found in the Armstrong House (some really neat stuff there).

With those two out of the way, I set my sights on the big fish, the one that started it all, the Louis Armstrong Collection. These were the items that Louis owned: the trumpets, the scores, the scrapbooks, the private tapes, with those marvelous collages. Everything got new accession numbers and got loaded onto Past Perfect. It was too exciting to keep to ourselves so this week we've decided to share it with the world on our website.

So what will you find? Catalog records for the Louis Armstrong Collection, the Jack Bradley Collection and the Louis Armstrong House Collection. The site is super easy to use with a simple "Keyword Search" feature. Type in anything--Joe Glaser, Selmer, Swiss Kriss, Satchmo the Great--and you'll be taken to all the relevent records in those collections. Note: you won't be taken to the ACTUAL documents. For instance, if you see a catalog record for a letter or a manuscript, you won't be able to read them. If you land on an entry for a private tape, you won't be able to listen to it. But you will be able to read pretty detailed descriptions of the contents...and if you know my writing, I can get pretty detailed!

But wait, there's more! We're currently scanning stuff all the time. We have about 15,000 total photos between all of our collections, each photo stored in boxes arranged by category ("Louis in Performance," "Louis at Home," "Louis with Celebrities," etc.). I've described each photo box at a high level of detail and scanned between 10 and 20 photos from each box to give a representative sampling of what's included in each box. Each photo features a "Louis Armstrong House Museum" watermark to prevent it from being published. But trust me, scrollilng through the photos is a gassuh!

I've also scanned pages from Louis's manuscripts to give a sense of what they look like. For all the musicians in the house, there are detailed photographs of the trumpets we possess (all but one, which is on loan), as well as every mouthpiece held in the collection. We've taken photos of scrapbook pages and some of the many, many award Louis has received to also give you a feel for those.

And most crazily--drum roll please--we've scanned the front AND back cover of EVERY reel-to-reel tape box in the Armstrong Collection. Every one. Every collage is now in the catalog. Even boxes with nothing on them are still posted. And along with each tape listing is a detailed catalog entry about what's on the tape. We've transferred almost all of Louis's tapes to CDs so we've posted the track-by-track breakdowns of these tapes, all of which, again, is searchable. If you're looking for a tape of Louis and Stepin Fetchit, just type in "Stepin Fetchit." If you're looking for a tape where Louis and friends tell dirty jokes, search for jokes. It's all there.

We also have records of Louis's entire record collection which is fascinating. Louis always talked about opera and would name Caruso and Galli-Curci as some of his favorites. Search for them and see which records he actually owned. I've never heard of a Louis-Lester Young connection but I searched for Lester and found that Louis owned a few of Pres's Mercury records.

Just doing keyword searches is great but sometimes you might get too many results. I'd recommend the Advanced Search if you're looking for specifics. The "Collection" field is very important. Say you just want to see phonographic records in the Jack Bradley collection. Type "record" in "Object Name" and "Bradley" in "Collection" and get ready to scroll through 2,069 entries! If you specifically want to see records owned by Louis Armstrong, type "record" in "Object Name" and "Armstrong" in "Collection" and stand back.

There's also a "Click and Search" feature which eliminates the need for thinking. If you go to "People," all relevent persons are listed in alphabetical order by last name so if you have someone specific in mind, you can go right there and scroll through the list. "Search Terms" is pretty great too as that's where you'll find listings on specific terms such as "King of the Zulus," "Diets," "High Society" and much more.

And if you're bored and looking to have a good time, there's a "Random Image" tab. Every time you click it, you get nine images spanning all the collections. I just did it and got four tape boxes, a publicity shot of Jewel Brown, a trumpet mouthpiece, two awards given to Louis and an artifact in the Jack Bradley Collection! You can click on any image to be taken to the catalog record for more details.

So now I hope you see what I meant when I said it's a treasure trove for Pops lovers...but it's only the beginning. Each week, I hope to add more information and more entries, eventually knocking out the Satchmo and Phoebe Jacobs Collections. There will also be more scans and more photos so the images will continue to grow and showcase other parts of the collection. Please keep checking back and do not hesitate to write to me with any questions.

And I know I've been saying a lot of "I, I, I" and "me, me, me" but this has in no way been a one-man project. Michael Cogswell got this ball rolling in 1991 and a lot of staff members put in a lot of time between then and my hiring in 2009 cataloging, arranging and preserving the precious materials held within the Archives. I've met only a few of them but I thank all of them. And since I've started, I've had some dedicated interns numbering folders, scanning photos, entering data into Past Perfect. This could not have been done without them so hats off to Tyler Rivenbark, Richard Fischer, Daniel Pecoraro, Chris Genao, David Engelhard and Greg Hammontree. Special thanks also to our Archives Assistant Lesley Zlabinger, who also spent plenty of time manning the Past Perfect station (and talking me off various ledges). Assistant Director Deslyn Dyer's enthusiasm for the project keeps me motivated and the Baltsar Beckled is the man to thank for making the site look so pretty. And thanks to the rest of the LAHM staff (especially you, Al "Peacocks" Pomerantz for saving my bacon!), a pleasure to work with from top to bottom. And there probably wouldn't be a Louis Armstrong House Museum so extra thanks to the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation!

And naturally, biggest thanks go to Michael Cogswell. I thank him for being a terrific boss and a great friend but on behalf of Pops nuts around the world, I think we can ALL thank him for doing what he does to spread the gospel of Louis. This whole online catalog was Michael's idea, as his goal is share our treasures with the world. So if you're sitting at home today, searching through the catalog and having your mind blown at some tape box collage or some catalog listing of letters sent from Louis, thank Michael.

Okay, that's all I've got...I gotta get back to work! But that's what I've been doing since October 2009 and I just hope it's worth to all of you Armstrong lovers out there. Now get off this dumb blog and start searching the online catalog!

Louis Armstrong House Museum Online Catalog

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Call off the search party...

"Fear not!" dear reader Phil Ralph wrote me last night, "A search party has been formed to find you! It has just now set off looking for you, 22:40pm GMT (British time), because we (your fans) assume that, although you will have written the latest addition to your splendid blog, you are trapped somewhere in the deepest snows of New England and cannot post it online for our edification and erudition."

Phil's e-mail gave me a good chuckle but I thought I should take a second to say hello and confirm that I'm not dead. No, I'm very much alive...almost too alive. You see, on Saturday, December 3 a large box was waiting for me outside my front door when my wife and I (and baby Ella) returned from food shopping. Inside the box was my manuscript, chock full of red copyediting marks. I was told I had two weeks to turn it back around, make my final, final, final changes and say good-bye to it forever (or at least until it hits stores next June!). So that has kept me in the trenches during every single second of free time.

Meanwhile, at work, I've been pushing myself harder than ever to get something major accomplished. What, you say? Well, give me about 24-48 hours and I'll lay it on you. Let's just say that Armstrong fans around the world will rejoice at my next announcement.

Next week, I'll be book-less and won't know where to turn. I'll find time to post my traditional Christmas-related posts but if you're really looking for something fresh about our hero, I turn your attention to my dear friend Michael Steinman who absolutely outdid himself with his recent "Jazz Lives" post, "What Would Louis Do?" I won't say any more about it. Just click here and bask in the glow of everything dear Louis can teach us. Bravo, Michael!

Okay, I'm going back to straightening some punctuation on my manuscript. Call off the search party, I'm doing just fine! Til next time...

Sunday, November 28, 2010

80 Years of "Memories of You": Part 3 - Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography (plus a bonus version!)

Recorded December 13, 1956
Track Time 3:27
Written by Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf
Recorded in New York City
Originally released on Decca DL 4331
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Trummy Young, trombone; Edmond Hall, clarinet; George Dorsey, alto saxophone, flute; Hilton Jefferson, alto saxophone; Lucky Thompson, tenor saxophone; Dave McRae, baritone saxophone; Everett Barksdale, guitar; Billy Kyle, piano; Squire Gersh, bass; Barrett Deems,d rums; Sy Oliver, arranger, conductor.
Currently available on CD: The CD version of Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography seems to be out-of-print (a crime!) but fortunately, it's still available on some Universal samplers such as Louis Armstrong Sings Back Through the Years and The Ultimate Collection.
Available on Itunes? Yes

After the fantastic version of "Memories of You" from a 1937 Fleischmann's Yeast Broadcast that I shared last week, Louis Armstrong did perform the tune again in front of a recording device for nearly 20 years. But when he did....wow. The occasion was the epic four-LP set Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography, still, I think, the definitive portrait of Louis's superpowers as a trumpeter in the 1950s. On this set, Louis revisited many of the immortal songs he first waxed in the 1920s and early 30s. Though many in the jazz world wanted to paint Louis as an out-of-date Uncle Tom whose best days as a trumpeter were behind him, Pops surprised his critics by reaching the same heights on the remakes as he did on the originals and in some cases, even surpassing his first attempts.

For a long time, I thought that "Memories of You" was one of the remakes that topped the original but after really digging into that 1930 version last weekend, it might be a tie. I'll leave it up to my readers to decide which one is the best (some might campaign for the Fleischmann's broadcast) but I think it's safe to say there are no losers in this competition. So without any more formalities, let's get to the meat, Louis Armstrong in December 1956 revisiting "Memories of You" with his All Stars, augmented by five saxophones (dig those names: Lucky Thompson, Hilton Jefferson, etc.), the guitar of Everett Barksdale and an arrangement conducted by Sy Oliver:


Phew, I'm starting to sway back towards this version again! What a masterpiece. Rather than replicate Lionel Hampton's historic vibraphone intro, Oliver opens with a simple held chord by the band with a brief solo by Barkdale's guitar and a break by Billy Kyle's piano to set up Louis's warm entrance. What a sound! Like the original, Louis only takes eight bars, Decca's engineers capturing his tone brilliantly. Armstrong gets sympathetic support from clarinetist Edmond Hall, who breaks away for a short spot while Louis gets ready for his vocal.

And what a vocal. As I mentioned in my Fleischmann's post, Armstrong's daring vocals of the 1929-1934 are a wonder to behold but by 1935, he had already turned down the aggressiveness. By the 1950s, Armstrong's maturity had made him a better singer than ever before (just listen to the way he handled the Great American Songbook on his recordings for Norman Granz made before and after the "Autobiography" sessions). Though he's no longer all over the place as in 1930, the 1956 vocal still features some of the hallmarks of the original, including the "Now, honey," and repetitions in the bridge. And along with warmth and tenderness, Louis's genius at rephrasing is still there, especially in many instances of his rendering the melody to just a single pitch. And Louis's array of sounds was still an integral part of the game; listen to what he does after the word "new" at around 1:10.

After a sumptuous offering by Lucky Thompson, Louis turns back the clock and plays his original entrance break, the one with shades of "Dixie" before going his own way. Arranger Oliver transcribed all of Louis's original solos but wrote "Go for yourself" next to them to inspire Pops to come up with something fresh. Louis does that right off the bat, playing with rhythm as only he could, a tension-filled little clinic before he relaxes and starts telling a story (his descending run leading into the bridge is a new touch). The accents on the first beat are back on the bridge and Louis responds with some dramatic work in the upper register, playing with more intensity than on the original. In the second half of the bridge, Louis follows his original pattern, holding that high Bb for all its worth, before playing the same pitch-perfect phrase leading into the final A section.

The difference is obviously the 1956 recording better captures Louis's gigantic sound. Also, the rhythm section is better recorded; when Barrett Deems opens up his cymbal and starts pounding out the backbeats under Louis's held high note, well, hang on to the roof! And Oliver replicates one of Louis's favorite touches on those early OKeh big band recordings, having the reeds accent the first and third beat of ever bar, something that always seemed to drive Louis to incredible heights; this is no different. Louis follows the pattern of what we've heard already--again, why mess with perfection?--but there's something about the sound of that horn that just gets me in the heart. I love all three surviving versions of this tune but it's tough for me to listen to the 1956 version without having to suppress tears. Incredible playing, right up to that last high Eb. And you know, I just compared the two and I think my original opinion was right; Louis topped himself in 1956.

That was the end of Louis's versions of "Memories of You"...but wait, a little laginappe for making it this far with me. In 1964, Louis's All Stars began featuring a new clarinetist in the guise of Eddie Shu, a talented multi-instrumentalist who played with Gene Krupa for years. Shu pretty much had no connection to traditional jazz and when one watches videos of him, he looks kind of bored playing with Pops (Joe Darensbourg said he only got the job because his father was a friend of Joe Glaser). But Shu actually played very well and on everything that survives during his year with the band, I think he does a very good job (an assessment Joe Muranyi would agree with as we just had a conversation about Shu a few weeks ago and Joe thinks he did an excellent job with Louis).

Anyway, one of Shu's features was "Memories of You." By this point, Louis allowed his sidement to stretch out a bit more than in the past so Shu would turn this into a six-minute feature, complete with a long uptempo section. I have three versions from Louis's historic "Iron Curtain" tour of 1965 but I'm only going to share one, this one from East Berlin on March 22 of that year. Again, I think Shu does an excellent job (he tops Darensbourg's features and many of Barney Bigard's in my opinion), but if he's not your cup of tea, fast forward to the 4:00 and listen as Pops and trombonist Tyree Glenn enter with the melody. Louis is slightly off-mike, as was his wont when another All Star had the spotlight. But listen carefully, and there's a whole lot of soul in that melody statement, as Louis still hits the high notes without a problem. Shu takes the bridge and pays tribute to the leader with that held high note before Louis reenters with another eight bars of melody and a neat extended ending, shared with Shu. And listen carefully for Louis's final high note...wow! Dig it:


And that ends the story of Louis Armstrong's association with "Memories of You," a song that has been covered by just about everybody, but, I think, will always be associated most with Pops (yeah, I'm biased, I know). I hope to have something new by the end of the week, but I'll keep you all posted as I'm about to start one more final push with the book at the end of this week. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

80 Years of "Memories of You": Part 2 - Fleischmann's Yeast Broadcast

Recorded May 7, 1937
Track Time 3:06
Written by Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, Louis Bacon, trumpet; Jimmy Archey, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Pete Clarke, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Bingie Madison, Albert Nicholas, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin
Currently available on CD: It’s on Louis Armstrong: Fleischmann's Yeast Show & Louis' Home-Recorded Tapes
Available on Itunes? Yes

Welcome back to part two of my week-long look at Louis Armstrong's versions of "Memories of You." The original 1930 recording was a pretty epic one, as we heard the other day. And that, for most Armstrong nuts, was that as for decades, the next known version of "Memories of You" in the Armstrong canon was from 1956. But wait! Discovered in Armstrong's personal collection were a bunch of Fleischmann's Yeast Broadcasts from 1937, one episode containing a brand new arrangement of "Memories of You" that offers a fascinating glimpse into how Louis was approaching this song in the late 30s, arguably the peak of his playing prowess. (And if you've been with me for any amount of time, you should know that I consider the two-disc set of Flesichmann's Yeast Broadcasts and highlights from Armstrong's private tapes, released in 2008, to be the most essential Armstrong release of the last decade. For those who are into downloading, it's available on Itunes and can be purchased at jazzstore.com or in person at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Perfect gift for the holiday season. Really, if you don't have this set, ask yourself....why?) Enough blabbing, here's the 1937 live broadcast of "Memories of You":


From the first note, we can tell that Louis has a brand new arrangement, possibly updated by the great Chappie Willet who did so much writing for Louis in this period. The vibes are gone, as was Lionel Hampton, who was officially off to stardom by this point. But we have Pops and who could ask for anything more? The tempo's slightly faster, with almost a marching feel behind the vocal. Louis's vocal isn't quite as tender as the original, but he's still pretty impassioned. He had obviously been performing the tune regularly for years as a lot of small bits from the original are still present, including the "Now, honey" and the repetition of "rosary of tears." But there's some new approaches, too; the moan the comes after "yesteryears, baby" in the bridge sounds like Louis swallowed his tongue. And the climactic wailing "oh baby" in the last eight bars is also gone, replaced by a kinder, gentler "mama." Still a fine vocal.

After an interlude for the band that reeks of Willet's writing (a good thing), Pops picks up the horn for a full chorus. Remember, on the original, Les Hite's alto took eight bars, leaving Pops only 24 to work with, but here, he gets a whole one by himself. The band really starts swinging as Pops leads the way with some relaxed quarter notes. He cracks one note slightly but doesn't let it deter him. Instead, he turns up heat and climbs into the upper register, backed by some sublime drumming by Paul Barbarin. I've said it once, I've said it again: Barbarin, to my ears, is the MVP of the Fleischmann's set. Even as late as 1956, Louis was giving interviews where he continued raving about Barbarin's drumming. All of his tricks--the backbeat cymbal splashes, that almost "door knocking" fills leading into and out of the bridge, the press rolls--it's all there and gives the band the power to move a mountain. Louis knocks himself out with some completely new playing, very lyrical stuff.

Once again, Pops builds the drama during that bridge. The band doesn't quite accent the first beat of every bar like it did in 1930, but Louis obviously hears it that way, since he shapes his solo in the same manner, leaving a bit of space before unleashing a steady stream of clarion calls. That held Bb is still clear as a bell, topping it off with a high C for added oomph. From there, Armstrong follows the pattern of the original, with those searing Bb's--why change perfection? But because this is 1937 and Louis had become king of the closing cadenza, he stretches out the ending, taking a little more time before nailing that high Eb. Yeah, man.

That's all for now, but again, Pops wasn't through and we'll revisit his 1956 version in a couple of days. Until then, have a happy Thanksgiving!

(In the past, I've celebrated Turkey Day by sharing Louis's versions of "Thanks a Million" and "Thankful." My pal Dave Whitney is carrying the torch this year with his terrific blog on the subject which can be found here. If you still want to see what I wrote about those two, as well as listen to the audio, here's the original links. Enjoy!

Thanks a Million

Thankful

Sunday, November 21, 2010

80 Years of "Memories of You": Part 1 - The Original

Louis Armstrong and His Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra
Recorded October 16, 1930
Track Time 3:13
Written by Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf
Recorded in Los Angeles, CA
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; George Orendorff, Harold Scott trumpet; Luther Craven, trombone; Les Hite, alto saxophone, conductor; Marvin Johnson, alto saxophone; Charlie Jones, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Henry Prince, Harvey Brooks, piano; Bill Perkins, guitar; Joe Bailey, bass; Lionel Hampton, drums, vibraphone.
Originally released on OKeh 41463
Currently available on CD: It’s on the JSP two-disc set The Big Band Sides, 1930-1932, as well as about a hundred other discs
Available on Itunes? Yes

After some crazy, crazy blogless weeks in September and October, I am now attempting to break out of it and get back something that resembles regular blogging. However, I realized a lot of time passed without an anniversary post. I consulted my battered copy of Jos Willems's Armstrong discography "All of Me" and checked out what I missed. Yep, October 3, was the 75th anniversary of Louis's first Decca session (opening with "I'm in the Mood for Love"). And September 10 was the 45th anniversary of one of my favorite later Armstrong recordings, the almost forgotten "Short But Sweet." Damn, how did I let that go by?

But I had to choose something to start with and the winner was "Memories of You," recorded 80 years ago on October 16, 1930. Not only is it a fantastic song, but Louis made a wonderful record of it, one that is somewhat historic (take a bow, Mr. Hampton), and continued to perform it for quite some time, giving me a bunch of versions to talk about over the next week. So let's start at the beginning with the original recording.

"Memories of You" was written by the dynamite team of Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf for a Broadway show, "Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1930." Louis was one of the first to record it, though Duke Ellington had beat him to it, waxing a version on October 2. In fact, let's give a quick listen to the Duke's take on it because it's a very interesting record:


The first thing you notice is the tempo, more upbeat than probably every single proceeding version. Then it's time for a vocal featuring the velvet tones of Irving Mills, the less said of which, the better. It's fascinating tha when compared to what you're going to Louis do with those same lyrics just two weeks later. Then after an arranged, muted passage that sounds like pure 1920s dance band music, the Duke steps out and swings the final chorus, made up of phrases and rhythms that probably couldn't have existed without Louis. So it's a pretty interesting record to see someone as epic as Duke with one foot in the past and one foot in Armstrong's conception of the future. But enough about that, let's get to Pops.

Louis was in California at the time, fronting Les Hite's band, working and broadcasting nightly from Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club in Culver City. The drummer of that band was young Lionel Hampton, already heard to great effect on Louis's other California recordings, swinging like mad on "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy." But for "Memories of You" Hamp offered a more important contribution to the jazz world: his first vibraphone solo. I'll let Hamp tell the story:

"We were recording for OKeh, and the recording studio was also the NBC studio and sitting in the corner was a set of vibes. Louis said, 'What's that instrument over there?' And I said, 'Oh, that'sa new instrument that they're bringing into percussion, into the drum department. They call it vibraharp, some call it a vibraphone.' At that time they were only playing a few notes on it--bing, bong, bang--like the tones you hear for N-B-C....Louis noticed the vibraharp again. So he said 'Can you play it?' I was a young kid, full of confidence, and I said, 'Sure.' So I looked at it, and it had the same keyboard as the xylophone had. He said, 'Pull it out in the middle of the floor and play something on it.'...Everybody's standing around waiting to record, and I played one of his solos, note for note, that I had taken off one of his records....He said, 'Come on, we going to put this on a record. You can play on this record.' Eubie Blake had sent Louis a copy of his song, 'Memories of You,' and I played the introduction on it....That's the first time jazz had ever been played on the vibes."

According to Louis, Hampton had already been playing the vibes before the "Memories of You" date. In his notebooks to Robert Goffin, Louis wrote of his first rehearsal with Hampton in the California band originally led by Leon Elkins, and later by Les Hite. He wrote about Hampton being "one of the Swinginest Drummers I had ever seen and heard in my life. And he was playing some little Bells which he kept besides his Drums. And he was Swinging the hell out of them too--like I had never heard in my life before."

So who know? Perhaps Hamp was already a virtuoso by the time of the "Memories of You" date. Regardless, it's an important landmark in the history of the vibraphone in recorded jazz...but it does last a matter of seconds so I think it's time to move on. In fact, I think it's time to listen to that original recording in all its glory:


Nothing wrong with that. Hamp's intro is on the mark, swinging and setting the tempo completely unaccompanied. And then it's the glory of Pops, taking eight bars of melody, backed by some nice guitar playing by Bill Perkins (whose entire style seems to be comprised of single-string obbligatos). One gets the sense just in that brief solo that Louis is going to do mighty special things with that ascending melody. He doesn't disappoint.

After another spot for Hampton, completely unaccompanied by demanding you pat your foot to him, Louis delivers an ultra-tender vocal. The song "Memories of You" is inherently a sad one and Louis doesn't do anything remotely humorous, treating it like is a sacred work, at least as far as the lyrics are concerned. His additions of "Now honey," "oh baby" and the rest of the ilk are very endearing, making the song very personal. But from a melodic standpoint, Louis basically composes a new one with his daring reshaping of the written words. If I had the time--and ability--to do in-depth transcriptions, this one would be ideal because even when Louis borrows something from the melody, he still puts a spin on it, choosing to sing a passage higher or lower than written, or just stringing large chunks of words together on one pitch. Armstrong also makes great use of repetition, especially in the bridge, where he fills in the gaps by repeating "yesteryears" and "rosary of tears" to hammer home the emotional content of he lyric. The climax finally arrives with Louis's passionate "oh baby" in the last eight bars, a completely natural expression of emotion that is so real, it renders the notion of approaching the tune as Irving Mills did completely unfathomable.

After that delicious vocal, the band starts swinging out a bit as Les Hite takes eight bars on alto, allowing Pops to get set up for his climactic solo. After entering with a terrific break with hints of "Dixie," Louis is off an running, completely playing with the time, floating across the bar lines. He actually builds down in his first eight bars, setting up a dramatic bridge, where his use of space--punctuated by the band's accenting the first beat of every bar--creates an atmosphere equal parts relaxed and intense. It all builds up to that high, held concert Bb, which Armstrong continues exploiting into his final eight bars, returning to that note again and again, hitting it from different angles, boiling the wide-spanning contour of the melody to a single, searing pitch. After this dazzling, virtuoso display, Armstrong calms down a bit (Hampton making his present felt again with those chords on his vibes), building up to the big ending, as Armstrong slows it down and ends with a screaming high Eb, though Hampton gets the last word in. An absolute magical recording.

Come back in a couple of days to hear how Louis tackled the tune on a 1937 radio broadcast. Til then!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sincerely

Hello all. Once again, there's just enough time for a brand new blog so I'm reaching back into the archives to pull out one from my earlier days (you know, before I had readers). Don't worry, this won't last forever; I have started one on "Memories of You" that will be an old-fashioned, in-depth piece that should be ready possibly this weekend. And in December, I'll have some very exciting announcements to make on a variety of Armstrong-related subjects. But for now, here's "Sincerely." Enjoy!

Recorded January 18, 1955
Track Time 3:02
Written by Harvey Fuqua and Alan Freed
Recorded in Los Angeles
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Pete Candoli, trumpet; Trummmy Young, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Donald Ruffell, Check Gentry, Josh Cook Koch, saxes; Billy Kyle, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Barrett Deems, drums; Sonny Burke, conductor
Originally released on Decca 29421
Currently available on CD: Moments to Remember, a compilation on the Ambassador label (www.classicjazz.se for more info)
Available on Itunes? Yes, on a compilation, “The Magic of Music”

Uh oh. It looks like ol’ Ricko won’t be getting much sleep tonight. This isn’t one of Louis Armstrong’s greatest records but it has a moment that, once it enters my brain, well, it might as well invest in an overnight parking space. The moment in question is Armstrong’s trumpet entrance during the bridge, which never fails to move me. However, the rest of the record isn’t the most interesting thing in the world, but it is a good example of the lengths at which Decca was going in the mid-50s to get Armstrong (well, really, Joe Glaser) a hit record.

Since Armstrong signed with Decca again in the late 40s, the sole goal of Joe Glaser was to get Louis Armstrong back on the charts. Decca producer Milt Gabler did his best by keeping a close ear on the popular trends in music, then squeezing Armstrong in wherever he saw fit. When Gordon Jenkins was ruling the pop music world with his lush strings and choir sound, Gabler got him to arrange “Blueberry Hill” for Pops and just like that, a hit was born. When Tony Bennett exploded onto the scene in 1950, Gabler paid attention and soon gave Armstrong two Bennett hits, “Cold, Cold Heart” and “Because of You.” Edith Piaf came over with “La Vie En Rose,” which, thanks to Gabler, soon became property of Pops. When Hank Williams had a hit with “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” Pops was cheatin’ right along with him. Of course, there are many other examples: “Kiss of Fire,” “I Get Ideas,” “It Takes Two To Tango,” “I’ll Walk Alone,” and more, all songs that were other people’s hits before Pops had his way with them. The fact that Armstrong made such wonderful records out of such pop tunes in the early 50s is a testament not only to Armstrong’s genius but to the sound of the popular music world of the era which, if not exactly producing works worthy of the Great American Songbook, at least put together enough pretty melodies and interesting chord changes to allow Pops to do what he had been doing for decades.

But by the mid-50s, the times, they were a-changin’. Rock and Roll was just about ready to explode, but in the meantime, the rhythm and blues charts were featuring a new vocal group sound that didn’t exactly sound like the Ink Spots. The sound was “Doo Wop” and it was slowly churning out hit records for groups like The Five Keys, the Flamingos and the Orioles. Enter Alan Freed, the famous disc jockey who began spreading the sounds of black Doo Wop groups to his white audiences. Freed sometimes gets credit with coining the phrase “Rock and Roll,” which is ridiculous; in fact, earlier today, I heard Red Allen sing it on the record “Get Rhythm In Your Feet,” from around 1935. Though he would later fall victim to the payola scandals of the late-50s, payola is exactly what put Freed on the map in the mid-50s. If you wanted Freed to play your records, you’d have to grease his palm a little bit, maybe even add his name to the song as a co-writer.

Of course, once the music started spreading to white audiences, it was only a matter of time before the time-honored tradition kicked in of white people stealing the music of blacks. Enter the McGuire Sisters. In 1954, a black group, The Moonglows, had a #1 R&B hit with a song called “Sincerely.” The song was written by the group’s founder, Harvey Fuqua, who would later become a successful producer for Motown and RCA Records. Websites claim that the Moonglows were “mentored” by Freed and Fuqua himself said that Freed was their first manager, but I highly doubt Freed did any of the actual pen-and-music-paper songwriting when it came to “Sincerely.” Regardless, the McGuire Sisters were a female vocal trio that landed on the music scene in 1952. Now, for those who are wondering if this still a Louis Armstrong blog, have no fear, as there’s an early connection. In 1954, the McGuire Sisters had a hit by singing the new, dopey lyrics to “Muskrat Ramble,” the same ones Pops recorded for Decca on September 1, 1954. The McGuire’s version hit the Billboard charts on October 23, 1954, reaching as high as number 11 (Pops’s went nowhere and he thankfully kept it as an instrumental in his live shows). Thanks to YouTube, here’s that McGuire Sisters version:



To tie everything up, while the Moonglows were seeing R&B success for “Sincerely,” the McGuires covered it at the end of 1954 and by February 12, 1955, had the number one hit in the country. It would remain number one for six weeks. For the nostalgia buffs in the crowd, here’s that hit single, again, courtesy of YouTube:



Thus, with this new sound floating through the charts, Decca thought it might have been time for Louis Armstrong to get a chance to put his mark on it. On January 18, 1955, Pops headed to Decca’s Los Angeles recording studios for one of the oddest four-song sessions of his career. For the date, the All Stars were augmented by the late Pete Candoli on trumpet and a three-man reed section. Seeing how “Muskrat Ramble” became rediscovered with some silly lyrics, the same thing was done to “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” Gary Crosy was brought in to duet with Pops and the result, to my ears, is a mess. Armstrong plays beautifully and he sounds like he’s having a fun time, but the lyrics are dreadful and Crosby is obnoxious with his terrible Satchmo impressions. The next song up fully embraced the Doo Wop sound: “Ko Ko Mo.” One day I hope to write a long blog on Pops’s many “Ko Ko Mo’s,” but to quickly sum up, it was originally recorded by Gene and Eunice (two of the song’s writers, Forest Gene Wilson and Eunice Levy; the third writer was Jake Porter). A version by The Crew-Cuts would reach the Billboard charts just 11 days after Armstrong’s Decca session so it was clearly a part of the early 1955 musical climate. For this track, Crosby does his best to sound hip, failing for the most part, and Jud Conlon’s Rhythmaires are brought in to give quasi-authentic Doo Wop backings, consisting mainly of repeating the syllables “Hoo wah.” Pops again sounds like he’s having a ball, scatting an obbligato and harmonizing with Crosby’s lead. He also takes a roaring trumpet solo, though it’s a bit odd hearing the elegant Billy Kyle banging away at the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis at times. The record’s not exactly a classic, but I’m glad for all the many swinging Pops and Velma performed of it.

So with all that background information, I know come to “Sincerely,” a recording I can probably sum up in about a paragraph! Here's the audio:


The changes are beyond simple: 1-6-2-5 in Eb (that’s two bars each of Eb-Cm-F7-Bb) for the A sections and a lovely bridge that capitalizes on the major-to-minor harmonies of many 1950s R&B and early rock ballads. Like the McGuire Sisters record, Armstrong’s version, arranged by Sonny Burke, begins with almost the same simple sax riff (somewhere, Alvin and the Chipmunks are getting ready to sing). It’s not so much an introduction as a hook—we’re in the era of rock, my friends!

Fortunately, Armstrong sings the song, well, sincerely, receiving very nice muted trumpet work from Candoli behind him. He barely changes a line of melody or adds any scatting, but it’s pretty enough. The band sure hammers out that five chord after the first A section, huh? The bridge, though, is this song’s bread-and-butter and Pops sings it wonderfully, getting great support by Kyle and Trummy Young. It’s a fine vocal but the song takes so long to sing that one chorus almost takes up two minutes of the three-minute record.

But don’t worry, help is on the way! I cannot describe how much I love Armstrong’s bridge on this song. His entrance is the most relaxed thing I’ve ever heard and the padding the reeds give him is quite lush (Deems’s cymbals sound good, too). Pops feels the song and plays with that slippery phrasing that is the definition of rhythmic trickeration (though now dictionary probably has a definition for rhythmic trickeration). When the chords change to F7, he plays one of his famous licks ascending phrases, landing on a few G’s, the ninth of the F7, He ends his brief outing with a break whose of notes are utterly logical, all leading up to a giant gliss up to a high Bb. It’s only eight bars, but it makes the record, especially with that superb entrance that will now be stuck in my head for at least three or four hours (not a bad thing).

Pops, feeling the spirit, hits that Bb, quickly pulls the horn from his mouth and manages to make it back to the mike in time to shout out, “Lookee here, Sincerely,” all on one pitch, a high Eb. He opens his next line with a soulful “Oh” and in delivering the final lyric, he phrases it up high, much as he might have played it on his trumpet. The band plays a final chord but listen for Pops, yelling out the final word, “Mine,” one last time in the background of all the reeds and brass.

“Sincerely” is a harmless record with some lovely moments, but to me, it’s in the bottom half of Armstrong’s Decca pop songs. Still, it’s not as weak as the final offering from that January 1955 session, a cover of Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love,” complete with Billy Kyle playing what sounds like church bells. Once again, I’ll offer my usual reminder: these are not BAD records per se. Armstrong always makes them interesting and his tender vocal and quiet trumpet solo does exactly that on “Pledging My Love,” but otherwise nothing much happens and the arrangement is very dated.

Clearly, Decca was losing their grip on Armstrong’s studio recordings during this period, but they at least still had some good ideas for non-studio Armstrong records. Just three days after the “Sincerely” session, Decca recorded an entire evening of music from Hollywood’s Crescendo Club, gathering a lot of great material for LP release (available on “The California Concerts” box). But in the studio, Armstrong did three so-so sessions in a row for Decca from September 1954 to April 1955. Much of the music is good, but too often, Decca tried for the hit, with Armstrong singing all these covers (including “Muskrat Ramble,” which he claimed he wrote). The April 1955 Decca session gave Marty Napoleon some ASCAP royalties for his song, “Mm-Mm,” and allowed the All Stars to do their thing on “Tin Roof Blues” and the first recording of “Pretty Little Missy.” But the same session also offered up trite songs like “Yeh!” and “Baby, Your Sleep is Showing.”

Bookending those three Decca sessions were two of Armstrong’s finest, the W.C. Handy dates from July 1954 and the Fats Waller album from the end of April 1955. Both of these albums were made for Columbia, whose producer, George Avakian, loved Armstrong and knew him well, thus, knew he was above just being a simple hit-maker. Avakian let the All Stars stretch out on familiar material and the results were acclaimed albums that remain in print today. Meanwhile, nothing from the “Sincerely” session has ever been issued on an American C.D.

In September 1955, Decca gave it one more shot, having Armstrong cover the Platters’s “Only You” and the Four Freshmen’s “Moments to Remember,” both lovely records with Benny Carter arrangements that did nothing on the charts. The next day, Armstrong reunited with Gary Crosby on one fine standard, “Easy Street,” as well as digging up one unfortunate number that should have stayed in the cemetery, “Lazybones.” Three weeks later, Avakian landed the All Stars to do another quick session for Columbia. The result was “Mack the Knife,” and once again, Glaser had his hit. Armstrong was a recording free agent by this point and obviously liking their direction (and their price), Glaser kept Armstrong out of the Decca studio from September 1955 to December 1956. Avakian recorded European concerts, studio dates, the Chicago concert, a set at the Newport Jazz Festival and other odds and ends, all of which capture the All Stars at their peak, but didn’t offer any hit singles. For the time being, Glaser moved beyond his infatuation with singles and allowed Armstrong to make some high-profile albums, such as his first collaboration with Ella Fitzgerald from the summer of 1956. When Decca finally got back into the act, Gabler didn’t have any more pop covers but rather, the wonderful Autobiography project, followed by two concept albums, Louis and the Angels and Louis and the Good Book, from 1957 and 1958 respectively, albums that were marketed at mass audiences but again, didn’t provide any hit singles.

But by this point, Armstrong didn’t need them as he was more popular than ever. Thus, Glaser raised his price and everyone scurried. There were no more Columbia recordings after 1956, no more Verve dates after 1957 and nothing more for Decca after a four-tune session from October 1958. In fact, sessions done for the sole purpose of making hit records disappeared for the next few years. Armstrong recorded a King Oliver tribute in 1959, two Audio Fidelity albums with the Dukes of Dixieland in 1959 and 1960, a Capitol collaboration with Bing Crosby in 1960 and albums with Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck in 1961. After leaving Columbia’s studio after the last Real Ambassadors session of September 19, 1961, Armstrong would not step foot into another recording studio until December 3, 1963. And of course, that session would provide “Hello, Dolly.” As Glaser supposedly exclaimed when he first heard it, “It’s a fucking hit!” It was, indeed, and it allowed Armstrong to go on making erratic recording sessions until the day he died, once again with hopes of landing another hit.

And much like those mid-50s Decca sessions that aped the changing sounds of popular music, Armstrong had to do it all over again in the late 60s, covering the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream,” showtunes like “Mame” and “Cabaret,” country songs like “Get Together” and “Ramblin’ Rose,” movie hits like “Rose” and “Willkommen” and pure hit records like “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “Give Peace a Chance.” Most of these records aren’t very good, but I don’t regret their being made. As I’ve written before, my whole theory in my Armstrong research relates to the fact that there was only one Louis Armstrong, not this earlier artist and the later commercial clown. Armstrong performed and recorded popular music from his youth. What were the first two songs he learned to play on the trumpet? The blues and “Home Sweet Home,” the gutty roots of jazz and a popular song everyone knew. You know he played more with Fate Marable and Fletcher Henderson, his feature with Erskine Tate was Noel Coward’s “Poor Little Rich Girl” and once OKeh slipped him “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” he spent decades transforming popular songs into great jazz. Most jazz fans go along with Armstrong through all of that but when popular music began changing, that’s when the critical knocks get pretty rough for Armstrong. But don’t blame Pops. Popular music changed, not Armstrong. He just went along doing what he always did: music was music and if in 1970, he had one recording session with “Mood Indigo” and “My One and Only Love” one day and “The Creator Has A Master Plan” and “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the next, who cares, it was all music, it was all the same. And you know if Armstrong lived until 1981 instead of 1971, we would have had the Armstrong disco album! (There used to be on YouTube, a video of Cab Calloway’s disco version of “Minnie the Moocher” from the late 70s!)

So as always, I’m off the topic of “Sincerely,” but hopefully this all gives a little perspective to what is a pretty nondescript record in the Armstrong discography. All of Armstrong’s Decca records from the 1950s are worth checking out, but it’s become harder and harder to do that in America. Let's hope for a day when Universal blows open the doors to their vaults and makes all of this material available again!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Cuban Pete

Last week, my blog on "She's the Daughter of a Planter From Havana" seemed to be well received by my loyal readers. Because I haven't had time to whip something up new and fresh, I've decided to repost one of the first blogs I ever wrote on that tune's session mate, "Cuban Pete." Here's how it went down back in 2007:

Recorded July 7, 1937
Track Time 3:09
Written by Jose Norman (Joseph Norman)
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong And His Orcestra: Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal, Shelton Hemphill, Henry "Red" Allen, Louis Bacon, trumpets; George Matthews, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombones; Pete Clarke, alto saxophone' Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone, clarinet; Albert Nicholas, Bingie Madison, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Bleair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums.
Released on Decca 1353 (Backed by "She's the Daughter of a Planer From Havana")
Currently on CD: It's on Mosaic's essential boxed set of Louis's 1935-1946 Decca recordings (perfect gift for the upcoming holidays.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on some cheapie compilations.

I know what you're thinking...my name is Ricky Riccardi, one letter away from Ricky Ricardo, the immortal television character portrayed by the immortal Cuban bandleader, Desi Arnaz, who, yes, is invariably associated with "Cuban Pete." Just in case you're wondering, I'm not a Cuban bandleader (though I am a pianist), I did not marry a Lucy (hello, Margaret!) and I will not sing "Cuban Pete" for you. But I love Armstrong's almost completely neglected recording of this rhumba. This was one of the great Decca big band recordings of the 30s, a series that has never received proper attention on United States CDs. The above CD listing is from the incredible Swedish label, Ambassador, all of which should be sought out on Amazon as they offer a complete picture of this fruitful period in the Armstrong discography.

"Cuban Pete" might sound like an odd choice for a Louis Armstrong record, but Decca was adept at throwing him all sorts of eclectic material (just four months earlier, he had recorded two charming Hawaiian songs with Andy Iona and His Islanders). On the same day he recorded "Cuban Pete," Armstrong cut another Latin specialty, "She's the Daughter Of A Planter From Havana," featuring a wonderful muted trumpet solo. On that performance, the band played in a pretty convincing rhumba style but on "Cuban Pete," they swing from note one. Here's the audio:


Unfortunately, Armstrong doesn't enter until almost one minute in (approximately, note 108). The arrangement features the band playing a straight version of the melody, sounding like almost any other commercial band of the period, except few bands had as propulsive a rhythm section as the one in this band. As you may or may not know, Armstrong front pianist Luis Russell's orchestra for the bulk of the 1930s. Russell's band made some tremendously exciting records in 1929 and 1930 and the rhythm section of Russell, Lee Blair, Pops Foster and Paul Barbarin, deserve a lot of credit for transforming the somewhat stiff, two-beat rhythm sections of the 1920s into the more streamlined, four-to-the-bar swing of the 1930s and beyond. Foster's bass had a huge, popping tone, heard to good effect on "Cuban Pete."

Okay, one minute in and here comes the other Pops, Mr. Strong, and he's muted. He sticks pretty close to the melody but he accents certain phrases ahead of the beat to turn the somewhat clunky tune into something infinitely more swinging. The bridge is a beaut with Armstrong playing a phrase at 1:16 that's right out of his bag of licks (it comes back during his mind-blowing 1960 "Avalon" solo with the Dukes of Dixieland, to name one example). Finally, he starts improvising during the final eight bars and one wishes he did it for three minutes. But instead we get an uncharacteristically gruff vocal. Armstrong's voice in the 1930s softened into a charming tenor with a dash of gravel (not quite the sandpaper gurgle of later years), but he barks out the lyrics of "Cuban Pete" with some rasp, though he effectively sings the "chick chick-a-booms" on one note. The band takes eight bars, Barbarin takes a drum break and Armstrong modulates into a higher key for thet final spot of trumpet blowing. He's still playing the melody almost straight, but there's a great little slow motion descend at 2:50 (my, my, my what he could do with time). Then another break leads into another modulation and Armstrong's now wailing in the upper register of his horn, ending on a triumphant high D.

Like many of Armstrong Decca recordings, "Cuban Pete" didn't change history like "West End Blues." But not every record had to do that. It swings, Armstrong gives another lesson into how to take a banal melody and make swinging jazz out of it, he barks out a fun vocal and at the end, makes one shake his head in amazement at his trumpet prowess. What else can one want from such a great artist? If you still believe Armstrong's post-1928 recordings are a waste of time, you're missing some wonderful music. And if you only know "Cuban Pete" through Desi Arnaz, Ricky Ricardo or Jim Carrey in "The Mask," check out Armstrong's recording to see how the "king of the rhumba beat" could swing like hell, too.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Old Man Mose

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded November 21, 1935
Track Time 2:30
Written by Louis Armstrong and Zilner Randolph
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken, Louis Bacon, trumpet; Harry White, Jimmy Archey, trombone; Henry James, 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 622
Currently available on CD: All three 1935 takes are available on Mosaic's boxed set of Armstrong's Complete 1935-1946 Decca recordings.
Available on Itunes? Yes

Happy Halloween everyone! Since I started this blog in 2007, I've always enjoyed celebrating today's holiday with some "spooky" Armstrong performance. I kicked it off with "Old Man Mose" but those were the days before I knew how to upload audio. Now that I'm a pro at such matters, I'm updating the original, with links to just about every surviving version of "Mose" known to man. So here I again some words on this very fun novelty tune, the kind that made the jazz purists shake their heads with disappointment. Not me, of course, as I think it’s quite hard to keep from smiling while listening to any of “Old Man Mose’s” many incarnations.

Louis Armstrong returned from his European sabbatical in February 1935. Joe Glaser had taken over his career and Armstrong soon began performing with a big band once again headed by trumpeter Zilner Randolph. It must have been during this period when Armstrong and Randolph teamed up to write “Old Man Mose” but, unfortunately for Randolph, he never got to record it with his boss. Most of the band was based in Chicago and when Armstrong got an offer to play an extended engagement at Connie’s Inn in New York, union rules made it just about impossible for them to transfer to another state. Thus, the band disbanded and when Armstrong hit New York, he began fronting the struggling Luis Russell band. This information comes courtesy of Jos Willems’s All of Me and I’d like to quote Willems, who writes about the Russell band’s quick hiring, “…[T]hat also explains why they sound so bad (aside from wonderful Pops) on the earliest Decca’s. They had to learn a whole new book and style. It’s a pity that the Chicago band never got to record.”

Armstrong began recording for Decca in October of 1935 and after tackling five straight pop tunes, Armstrong got to record “Old Man Mose” during his second Decca recording session. You can listen to how that first take of the tune went down by clicking here:



There’s a “spooky” introduction before the band plays the melody pretty statically. Armstrong’s trumpet is nowhere to be found but he sings the lyrics with enthusiasm. I always like copying the lyrics here so here goes (and in parentheses, I’ll include the band’s answers):

Once there lived an old man, with a very crooked nose
He lived in a log hut, and they called him Old Man Mose (Yeah!).
Early one morning, I knocked at his door,
And I didn’t hear a single sound, I ain’t goin’ do it no more.

‘Cause, I believe (Old Man), I believe (Old Man)
I believe (Old Man), that Old Man Mose is dead,
Tellin’ you, I believe (Old Man), I do believe (Old Man)
I believe (Old Man), that Old Man Mose is dead.

Now, (We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket, (We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket,
(We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket, we believe he’s dead.
(We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket, (We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket,
(We Believe), Mose kicked the bucket, we believe he’s dead.

Now lookee here!

I went around to the side, and I peeped through the crack,
I saw an old man laying flat on his back (Yeah!),
If Old Man Mose was dead asleep, I did not know,
Boy, after looking through that window—Mm—I ain’t goin’ do that no more.

‘Cause, I found out (Old Man), I found out (Old Man),
I found out (Old Man), that Old Man Mose is dead,
Yessir, I found out (Old Man), I found out (Old Man),
I found out (Old Man), that Old Man Mose.

Now, (We Found Out), Mose kicked the bucket, (We Found Out) Mose kicked the bucket,
(We Found Out), Mose kicked the bucket, we found out he’s dead,
(We Found Out), Mose kicked the bucket, (We Found Out) Mose kicked the bucket,
(We Found Out), Mose kicked the bucket, we found out he’s dead,

Old man……oh bay-beh, bah dah doz, zait….is dead!


It’s not Cole Porter, but I dare you to try and listen to it and not sing along with the “We believes” and “We found outs.” Anyway, it’s a fine version but Pops must have known something was wrong: the tempo drags a little bit, the arrangement is corny and the vocal doesn’t carry the maximum amount of oomph.

Here’s where it gets confusing: two more takes of “Mose” were released, takes D and E, with E being the master. However, they both feature completely different arrangements. The tempo’s now faster, Russell plays a great introduction and Pops takes a half-chorus on the trumpet, while the reeds simply play minor-tinged harmonies behind him. Some places, such as the Satchography website and Gösta Hägglöf’s 1935 Ambassador C.D., assume that the “Mose’s” come from two different days since “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed” also was attempted once and redone and issued in different sound. However, Jos Willems claims he obtained the original MCA files and there was only one date, November 21, 1935. It’s hard to argue with the files, but I think I side with those who argue for two different dates. To cut a take with one arrangement, scrap it, revise it, rehearse it and record two more takes suitable to be issued seems like a lot to be done in one day—especially when three other songs were recorded that day!

Anyway, I guess we’ll never know, but for your listening pleasure, here’s take D. This was originally issued in Australia and it sometimes crops up on Armstrong compilations as the original master take, but it’s not. Here's the take:


Immediately, you can hear that someone had a very good idea by substituting Pops’s trumpet in the beginning instead of the stilted arrangement. Armstrong creatively sticks to one not for most of the outing and he creates some searing lines in the second half. The vocal, with more pronounced striding from pianist Russell, has more energy, as well. By the time of take E, the original master, the band had the song down pat. Here goes:


Armstrong’s trumpet is even more assured this time around and his storytelling abilities as a vocal really shine. And Armstrong always remembered the final note he sang on the record. When asked to discuss Billy Eckstine’s recording of “Goodbye” for a Leonard Feather blindfold test, Pops heard a note and exclaimed, “Ah, that thirteenth! That always sounds good…that’s the thing I hit on the end of ‘Ol’ Man Mose,’ remember?”

As I mentioned in the beginning, “Old Man Mose” is the kind of novelty that made the Hot Five and Seven devotees cringe but it became something of a hit and after the record’s release on December 16, 1935, it was already being covered by the likes of Armstrong disciple Wingy Manone the following month (Manone’s version can be heard on the excellent Mosaic Records Manone and Louis Prima box). Bob Crosby recorded a transcription of it a month after Manone (issued on a Storyville compilation) and others continued: Bunny Berigan, Nat Gonella, Ella Fitzgerald, the Ink Spots and many more. Comic singer Betty Hutton even sang it during a short that featured Vincent Lopez’s Orchestra in 1939:



Hutton even recorded a follow-up titled “Old Man Mose Ain’t Dead,” which is also available on YouTube. In fact, a search of “Old Man Mose” shows how far this song traveled from its original Armstrong origins. There’s a version by banjo player Lew Dite that begins with the heading, “Songs Skiffle Taught Me to Love.” There’s even a truly bizarre Gospel-Meets-Hippies version by the Les Humphries Singers of Germany from 1972. And a glance across the Internet shows 1950s versions by the likes of the late Teresa Brewer and Connie Francis…we’ve come a long way from St. Louis (Armstrong, that is)!

But Armstrong is the focus of this entry, so I’d like to continue with a few more of his forays into the world of “Old Man Mose.” Naturally, the song became a staple of Armstrong’s big band repertoire and some broadcast performances are available on C.D. On volume six of the Ambassador series, there’s a version taken from an ASCAP 25th anniversary Carnegie Hall concert from October 2, 1939. Here's the audio:


It’s a great version but the guy who steals the show is Sid Catlett, whose slashing hi-hat cymbals, bass drum accents and humorous “knocks” demonstrate why he was Armstrong’s favorite drummer. By this point, the band’s other comedian, trombonist George Washington, began adding some of his own shouted responses to Armstrong’s lyrics. In 1943, Armstrong broadcast “Mose” as part of a Jubilee broadcast, now issued on a Storyville C.D. Here's how it turned out:


It’s been eight years, but Luis Russell plays the exact same piano part. Pops’s trumpet solo isn’t really different, either, but the reed section sounds a little fatter behind him. Big Sid was gone by this point and Chick Morrison, though a fine drummer, doesn’t compare. Washington now interrupts Armstrong’s final scat coda, receiving a humorous “Shut up, boy” from the leader.

“Old Man Mose” never became a staple of the All Stars’s repertoire, but versions survive from the 40s, 50s and 60s so it’s possible that it was performed more often than it was recorded. It first shows up during an August 5, 1949 broadcast from the Click in Philadelphia, issued privately on a Crabapple Sound C.D. (available at crabapplesound.com). Here 'tis:


This version sounds like it was done as a request as you can hear Pops quickly blow part of his opening solo while the announcer is still introducing the song. Earl Hines and Cozy Cole begin at two different tempos but soon lock in and the band swings mightily for those 16 instrumental bars. Perhaps knowing that the other band members had never performed the number before, Armstrong kind of coaches them along, singing his part and their responses, such as the “Yeah” in the first stanza. The band’s with him for the “Old Man” repeats (Velma Middleton can be heard in the background) but Pops decides to tip them off to when it changes to “We believe” by singing that line himself! For the rest of the performance, the band has the routine straight except where there’s supposed to be a drum break, Earl Hines starts playing a solo. However, Pops probably signaled to Cole to take and Cozy steamrolls right over the “Fatha” with the drum break, though he begins going back into fast swing time when Pops begins his extended scat coda. Scared the band is going to come in too early, Pops manages to cleverly insert the word “Wait” into his scatting and turns to Teagarden and quickly asks him, “You got that chord?” The rest of the band comes in with the final “is dead” and the piece ends happily, even if it was a little shaky at times.

In January 1955, Decca recorded three long sets by the All Stars at the Crescendo Club in Hollywood. Armstrong, knowing Decca probably wanted some different items, reached into his deep bag of tricks and pulled out some different numbers, including “Old Man Mose.” Both of these versions are on the four-disc California Concerts and both are worth hearing. Here's the first attempt, performed towards the end of the second set:


After Pops introduces the first version, pianist Billy Kyle begins comping an introduction at a too-slow tempo, causing Pops to says, “Pick it up a little.” He does and the tune settles into a nice groove. The band attacks the instrumental portion with gusto and, unlike the 1949 version, Pops doesn’t have to show the way. This time, that distinction belongs to Arvell Shaw, who had been playing it since his days in Armstrong’s final big band. A few times, you can hear Shaw’s lone voice shout the comeback line, followed by the rest of the band the next time around as if they were following his lead. And when Pops gets to the “We found out” part, someone in the band, sings “We found out,” while someone else correctly sings “Old Man.” It’s barely noticeable but it was enough for Pops to call a second version in the next set. He dedicates it to a party who requested it, but it’s possible he wanted to do it again to smooth out any rough spots. This time around, the band sings its part without a problem but now, Armstrong screws it up! Listen for yourself:


Instead of singing “knocked on his door,” he sings “peeped through the crack.” Realize what he did, he immediately starts laughing in a hysterical high-pitched rasp. Ever the professional, he signals to the band to start from scratch and, ever the professionals, they do just that. The rest of the performance goes off without a hitch, right down to the scat ending, where the rest of the band provides some vocal harmony beneath Armstrong’s scatting. When the song ends, Armstrong must have said something because Trummy Young starts cracking up. Armstrong announces a request for “The Bucket’s Got a Hole In It” and while Billy Kyle plays the piano intro, Young says something about getting the Hall Johnson choir, causing other members of the band to break up. When originally issued on vinyl, Decca made a composite of both performances but you can hear all of the hilarity on the California Concerts C.D. issue.

That’s actually the last known recorded performance of the All Stars doing “Old Man Mose” in a live setting, but it wasn’t the last time they performed it. In October 1962, Betty Taylor wrote a story titled, “Rehearsal Session…With Louis ‘Pops’ Armstrong At Steinway Hall.” In it, she details a rare rehearsal the band had at Steinway Hall in preparation for an October 21 performance for President Kennedy. Only four people were in attendance: Jack Bradley, his girlfriend at the time, Jeann Faillows, alto saxophonist Lem Davis, and Taylor. Taylor writes about some of the numbers being rehearsed, including “That’s a Plenty.” She also mentions “Old Man Mose, writing, “Jack Bradley had brought along some old collectors’ items on 78’s. Louie had him play a 1935 Blue Label Decca version of ‘Old Man Mose Is Dead.’ There was a lot of background vocal harmony on the record, so the fellows listened four or five times, and then they worked on it. ‘I believe, I do believe, that Old Man Mose is dead,’ sang Jazz’s Greatest, while the boys backed him up.” Thus, it was probably performed shortly after that rehearsal. We also know it was performed by the All Stars on an episode of the Mike Douglas Show in 1964. That's one that I have video of and it's a gassuh but alas, I can't share it here. It’s safe to assume that “Old Man Mose” was never part of the regular All Stars shows in the 1950s and 1960s but Pops probably always had it ready in case anyone requested it and if it was a particularly long show or a dance, it might have been played. So, Halloween might only be a 24 hour holiday, but I can enjoy listening to “Old Man Mose” 365 days of the year. Happy trick or treating!