The Old Songster


Sammy Cahn liked to tell a story about a night in the late 1930s when he and Louis Armstrong went club-hopping up and down 52nd Street. In every joint the entertainment was exactly the same: one exuberant trumpet star after another, each mopping his brow, flashing his teeth, and trying to sing like Louis. “In the tenth and last one it was a really terrible imitation,” Cahn recalled. “I said, ‘Louis, why are we here? This man just tries to do everything you do.’ Louis said, ‘He may do something I don’t do.’ ”

Ten years later, it would have been almost impossible to find a musician who didn’t do at least a little something Armstrong did. First, individual musicians had absorbed his innovations. Then came the swing band boom, largely predicated on Armstrong’s achievements, followed by the majority of pop singers who dominated the charts after the war. They had either learned directly from Armstrong or from his greatest students: Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra. Armstrong’s breakthroughs were two generations old by the ’40s, yet this was the period when the great man himself took his rightful place as a pop star—landing more hit records and becoming better known by the general public the world over than ever before.

To an extent, Armstrong’s resurgence had a technological imperative: He was very well-served by the new medium of the long-playing record, and his comic genius was made to order for television. Armstrong now found himself dwelling in a musical universe almost entirely of his own making. When he dueted with a pop star, inevitably it was a singer who had a little Armstrong in him or her (Eddie Fisher aside). When he sang in front of a big band, it was filled with musicians who had cut their teeth on his records. The diversity of his band in these years was also a major factor. Armstrong’s All Stars portended a return to the New Orleans style of his youth, albeit in a flexible and surprisingly modernistic context, and brought him greater commercial success than the big bands he had fronted for nearly two decades.

Like that of his contemporaries Crosby and Ellington, much of Armstrong’s best-remembered work involves collaborations—with Crosby, Ellington, Jack Teagarden, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, the Dukes of Dixieland, Barbra Streisand, and James Bond, among many others. Even his two classic recordings of the W.C. Handy and Fats Waller songbooks find him sharing top billing with the composers. His “solo” albums of the 1950s and 1960s are less well-known—indeed, there is a whole substratum of Armstrong LPs from this period that is often overlooked entirely.

Though Armstrong recorded important albums for Columbia and Verve, the bulk of his regular recording work in those years was done for producer Milt Gabler at Decca. In addition to the All Stars (best represented on the spectacular Musical Autobiography), Gabler usually backed Armstrong with two veteran orchestrators, Sy Oliver and Gordon Jenkins. Oliver was known for his swing charts and Jenkins for his ballads, yet Gabler did not necessarily typecast them.

Satchmo Serenades collates the early-’50s hit singles with Oliver, and Satchmo in Style does the same for Jenkins; the CD reissues are thoughtfully expanded editions of the original albums. While the several live All Stars recordings, especially the four-disc California Concerts, capture the full glory of Armstrong when energized by an audience, a unique quality of urgency is found on his orchestral pop records with Oliver and Jenkins. Serenades has Armstrong putting his own definitive stamp on material associated with pop singers as diverse as Hank Williams, Tony Bennett, and Edith Piaf.

Satchmo in Style offers a whole other aspect of Armstrong. Most Satchmo imitators call attention to his gruff, gravelly sound (Ella Fitzgerald, for one, did hysterical impressions of him on “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” and “Mack the Knife”)—even Gabler once joked, “How can anyone tell when Louis has a cold?” Yet Jenkins brought out the soft-toned crooning side, initially heard in such 1930s Armstrong landmarks as “I’m in the Mood for Love.” His vocal on the trumpetless “It’s All in the Game” (written by Coolidge’s vice president, Charles Dawes, and a two-time pop hit for Tommy Edwards, modestly in 1951 and extravagantly in 1958) offers some of Armstrong’s most honey-tinged singing. It had always been clear what jazz singers learned from Armstrong; these tracks confirmed that his influence on the great balladeers did not end with Crosby and Sinatra. The tender, caressing sound of the Armstrong-Jenkins “It’s All in the Game” of 1951 is kin to that of the Nat King Cole-Jenkins version of 1956. The 1951 remake of his theme, “Sleepytime Down South,” with Jenkins’s distinctive string scoring, is an all-time classic, particularly in the way Armstrong drops into the basso profundo register for the repeats of the title phrase.

The Oliver-Jenkins dichotomy extends through two albums in which Pops is touched by an angel: the very secular Louis and the Angels (1957) and the semisacred Louis and the Good Book (1958). Oliver was clearly the perfect choice for the latter, which combined the All Stars with a gospel choir in concerto grosso fashion. The standout vocal is the relentlessly catchy “Shadrach,” in which Armstrong turns the much repeated names of three children from the land of Israel into a rhythmic mantra: “Shadrach, Meschach, Abednego.” The Angels album seems, in retrospect, more of a natural for Jenkins, who could not get enough of angelic choirs and seraphic strings. However, Jenkins had already left Decca for Capitol, so Oliver arranged it in what seems like an overtly Jenkinsian fashion, employing the strings and choirs to the hilt. The two instrumental features, “Angela Mia” and “And the Angels Sing,” are rare examples of the most famous horn in jazz heard in a strictly pop setting.

Two 1957 Verve albums with orchestrator Russell Garcia, I’ve Got the World on a String and Louis Under the Stars, produced by Norman Granz, afford the great man an opportunity to revisit old favorites he helped put on the map (“Body and Soul”) as well as some nice things he missed the first time around (“East of the Sun”). “Stormy Weather,” a song which incorporates blues-based repeats of the sort that composer Harold Arlen might have learned directly from Armstrong, is an obvious standout. Like Crosby’s 1956 Bing Swings Whilst Bregman Sings, this album allowed one of pop singing’s founding figures the chance to make an album with a hip, contemporary orchestra in the style of Fitzgerald and Sinatra.

Armstrong made a variety of first-rate singles and other miscellaneous tracks right up until the end: Who remembers, for instance, that in 1966 New Orleans’s favorite son recorded two delightful slices of ersatz Crescent City gumbo with Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians (“Come Along Down” and “Mumbo Jumbo”) on a Capitol 45? There were also efforts strictly for the international market: his duets with Danish folksingers Nina and Frederick and German teenybop star Gabrielle Clonisch, and four titles recorded in New York for Italian release in 1967. Dick Jacobs, who produced, arranged, and conducted the last session, later remembered, “An instructor from the Berlitz school was on the set to whisper each line in Louis’s ear in phonetic Italian before he sang it.” Jacobs also worked with Louis on a series of ’60s movie anthems such as “I Will Wait for You,” “Talk to the Animals,” and “Sunrise, Sunset” (collected on a fine and long-unavailable Brunswick album). Like “Mame” and “Cabaret,” they were evident attempts to repeat the “Hello Dolly” magic.

Armstrong’s last three albums, Disney Songs the Satchmo Way (1968), Louis Armstrong and His Friends, and Country and Western (both 1970), all have something to recommend them. Of the three, the Disney set is easily the best. Produced by Tutti Camaratta, who had worked with Armstrong during his own days with Jimmy Dorsey, it was arranged by Maxwell Davis in a style that, despite a few concessions to the maudlin excesses of ’60s pop, tastefully contrasts the All Stars with strings and choir. It’s a must just to hear Armstrong transform Disney doggerel like “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Bo” and “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” into scat invention of the highest order. On “Chim Chim Cheree,” he makes use of the same opportunities for modal improvisation that intrigued John Coltrane and Wes Montgomerey, improvising 16-bar solos over a vamp.

Louis Prima, who idolized Armstrong, would have sung this material ironically or at least irreverently; yet what makes Pops’s vocals here so special is that he resists the temptation to gag them up. He makes them work on their own terms by singing them comparatively straight and investing them with total faith and, by extension, believability. It’s a quality that he’d been perfecting at least since “When You’re Smiling,” in 1929, and a part of his music that got better as he got older. It’s one of the lessons that Armstrong brought to American pop.

More articles in this week’s Voice Jazz Supplement.

Archive Highlights