The Louis Armstrong Story-Vol. 4: Favorites (1956)
[Note: As far as I know, none of the four volumes in the Louis Armstrong Story series have ever been issued on CD. This is a review of Columbia’s vinyl release CL 854 in mono. No collection should be without it, even if you have all the music in other configurations or on other delivery systems. As is, it’s one of the world’s few perfect things.]
Louis Armstrong is now so routinely called the greatest American musician of the twentieth century it has become hard to hear him through the fog of hagiography. It’s like hearing the Beatles forever described as the Greatest Rock and Roll Band. It might be true but enough already!
Whenever I need reminding of the power of Armstrong’s actual genius–to clear my heart and soul of the cant thrown up by a Crit-Illuminati filled with cramped spirits determined to shove him down my throat without demonstrating the least understanding of what they’re selling–I come back to this LP.
Assembled by Columbia Records in the 1950s as part of a “Golden Era Series” which, as the liner notes say was “produced and edited by George Avakin, noted authority on jazz, from original masters which he has assembled and preserved in Columbia’s vaults at Bridgeport, Conn.”.
I count nine raised pinkies in twenty-five words. Finger sandwiches at the dean’s house. Don’t be late.
If you can transcend that you can transcend anything.
Louis Armstrong didn’t always transcend, but when he did, he set the American century in motion.
The focus here is on the Pop side of Pops. Like Elvis and Ray Charles (and no one else) after him and no one before him, he could turn dross into gold. Like them, he sometimes abused supreme talent’s supreme privilege.
There’s none of that here. This is hardly everything you need to know. But it covers more ground than any other short version of his mighty career: twelve early-thirties’ sides bridging his cosmic Hot Fives and Sevens’ canon from the twenties, with the ingenious, perhaps necessary, masks he was forced to wear for the rest of his life. Inevitably some of them wore him. Here, he was in full control.
“Knockin’ a Jug”–Of course my favorite of Armstrong’s vocal LP begins with an instrumental, a little miracle of rhythm and ease that exemplifies its title with a surfeit of wit and no trace of irony. Call it a modest fanfare and if that sounds like a contradiction, well you might be getting the idea of what Louis Armstrong is about.
“Body and Soul”–Now he goes to work on the Great American Songbook….and finds depths the Tin Pan Alley geniuses probably didn’t suspect existed. They were masters of surfaces. Armstrong was a master of linking the surface to what lay beneath. Here he sets the boundaries of his early formula–a lengthy orchestral intro that turns out to be a setup. The way he sings I’ve lost my one and only turns the intro on its head.
“Star Dust” -1–A first take on what many consider the era’s finest popular melody (courtesy of Hoagy Carmicheal, Mitchell Parish wrote the lyrics), here completely deconstructed and put back together as something rougher and more beautiful than even this most sublime of formal compositions.
“Star Dust”-2–Second take, with Armstrong’s improvised “Oh, memory” there to break your heart right before his horn lifts the pieces. It’s one of those interpolations nobody else could get away with.
“Black and Blue”–A vocal so powerful and pure (and rough) your oh memory might not hold the lengthy intro’s muted, painful playing or the pared-to-the-essence outro’s sudden burst of defiance. Ralph Ellison copped the words in between for the prologue of Invisible Man. Armstrong pruned the original Broadway lyric (the tune was Fats Waller’s) and until Aretha Franklin recorded Otis Redding’s “Respect,” it was the greatest cover in American music. Then again, it still might be.
“Shine”–Bottomless. A 1910 coon song dressed up as a lament (and based on a beating witnessed in a 1900 New York City race riot). Armstrong sings it like an ancestral memory, with the scatting that would later become schtick (because soon enough there was nowhere else for it to go and no way to let it go) used to say things that couldn’t be conveyed by words in 1931 any more than in 1900 or 1910 or this morning.
“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”–According to the liner notes, this was the “first in the familiar formula (trumpet-vocal-trumpet), with the band playing straight man to the star.” Though there were no less than eight hit versions, before and after, this wasn’t one of them, probably because it was too strong for the pop chart of any era. A lot of justifiable attention has been paid to his remarkable phrasing but there’s been too little appreciation of Armstrong’s limber timbre, which could funnel the lightest emotions into the deepest and back again by shifting a single piece of gravel in his throat the merest centimeter. Here he makes not being able to give you anything but love sound like being trapped at the bottom of a well he’s bound to escape from. Just because we can all relate doesn’t make it radio fare.
“Lazy River”–After a brief intro that lets you know the river in question is slow and sweet as molasses, he says “Yeah.” If that was all he said it would be enough, but of course he takes you on a tour, horn, lips, tongue and all and floats the world away. Its the kind of river that can only exist in the American south and Armstrong is the only man who could dream the Klan hiding on the banks away and make you believe it.
“Dear Old Southland”–The sound of longing for a home that went missing. Instrumental except for a few offhand spoken words but if you can’t hear his horn singing you might be spiritually deaf.
“If I Could Be With You”–Here he messes with the trumpet-vocal-trumpet formula, leading off with a baby-oh-baby-I-want-to-be-with-you-tonight before the trumpet plays. By the time he starts singing again he only needs to add a line to two to make his effect complete. Really baby. He wants to be with you tonight. The closest thing to a straightforward reading on the album which means it only has four left turns in it.
“I’m Confessin'”–A lovely, flowing reverie kicked off by a plucked guitar which quickly shifts to a blues and then shifts again to a Hawaiin feel (with light orchestra) behind the vocal which slides along until it’s time to give way to the trumpet.
“I’m a Ding Dong Daddy”–All setting up this hot little number. The song is barely there, an excuse to let loose. Let loose he does: as if to say “Haven’t I done enough?” Yes, Louis, you’ve done enough. And I done forgot the words works whether you think he really forgot the words or not and whether you think he thought the words were worth forgetting…or not.
[NOTE: Not long after I started The Round Place in the Middle, by way of introducing myself, I did a series of “favorites” posts. One was my twenty favorite vocal albums irrespective of genre. You can find the list here. Favorites was the first entry on the list. I’m planning to do track-by-track for the whole list, in chronological order. Hoping to do at least one a week, but in any case, I’ll get to them all eventually! NEXT UP: Howlin’ Wolf, The Rocking Chair LP]