Thursday, December 13, 2012

Louis Armstrong: 10 Recordings of Consequence (Oxford American)


1. “Just Gone,” recorded by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, in Richmond, Indiana, on April 5, 1923 (Gennett Records). This is the first recording on which Armstrong appeared. Having worked in Joe “King” Oliver’s shadow since 1919, when he replaced the older musician in Kid Ory’s New Orleans-based band, Armstrong joined Oliver’s Chicago band in 1922, playing second cornet behind Oliver for much of 1923 and appearing with Oliver on recordings for four different record labels.

 2. “Go ‘Long, Mule,” recorded by Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra, in New York City, on October 7, 1924 (Columbia Records). On this performance, from his first recording session with Henderson’s popular jazz band, Armstrong played lead cornet (his solo can be heard at 1:32). During his one-year stint with Henderson, which lasted through the closing months of 1925, Armstrong was already attracting widespread attention for his verve and flair as an instrumentalist.

3. “St. Louis Blues,” recorded by Bessie Smith, in New York City, on January 14, 1925 (Columbia Records). This is the most famous individual recording resulting from Armstrong’s string of appearances as a leading session musician in the 1920s. Between October 1924 and July 1930, he contributed cornet (or, after 1928, trumpet) accompaniment on recordings of such acts as Ma Rainey, Victoria Spivey, and Jimmie Rodgers.

4. “Heebie Jeebies,” recorded by Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five, in Chicago, on February 26, 1926 (Okeh Records). Beginning in early 1926, Armstrong played as a bandleader fronting a succession of powerful ensembles, the first of which, the Hot Five, was comprised of Kid Ory (Trombone), Johnny Dodds (Clarinet, Alto Saxophone), Johnny St. Cyr (Banjo), and Armstrong’s then-wife Lil Hardin Armstrong (Piano, Vocals). One of his earliest recorded vocal performances, “Heebie Jeebies” marks the emergence of Armstrong’s characteristic style of scat singing: utilizing vocables to simulate an instrumental solo.

5. “Potato Head Blues,” recorded by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven, in Chicago, on May 10, 1927 (Okeh Records). In May 1927, Armstrong’s expanded ensemble (with added tuba and drums to the Hot Five line-up) made several exuberant, now-classic recordings, including “Potato Head Blues.” In the 1979 film Manhattan, Woody Allen’s character, Isaac Davis, rhapsodizes that listening to this particular recording is one of the reasons why life is worth living.

6. “Mahogany Stomp,” recorded by Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five, in New York City, on March 5, 1929 (Okeh Records). This recording, along with “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” were Armstrong’s first records to feature a “big band.” Contrary to the group’s name, ten musicians backed Armstrong, including such legendary musicians as guitarist Lonnie Johnson and banjoist Eddie Condon. Although the Great Depression would slow the activities of many musicians, Armstrong was by this time an established recording artist whose music career would not be derailed by the economic collapse.

7. “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” recorded by Louis Armstrong and The Mills Brothers, in New York City, on April 7, 1937 (Decca Records). On this cover of James A. Bland’s nineteenth-century minstrel song, Armstrong croons the lead vocal against a backdrop of the Mills’ smooth harmonies. From the first of Armstrong’s four recording sessions with this best-selling vocal group, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” demonstrates Armstrong’s emergent mastery of performing popular material tailored for a more mainstream audience.

8. “You Won’t Be Satisfied (Until You Break My Heart),” recorded by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald with Bob Haggart’s Orchestra, in New York City, on January 18, 1946 (Decca Records). While Armstrong would collaborate with many other stars over the years, his most memorable duet recordings were with Ella Fitzgerald. “You Won’t Be Satisfied (Until You Break My Heart)” was recorded at his first session with vocalist Fitzgerald, but their best collaborations would come a decade later, with the Verve label Armstrong-Fitzgerald duet albums of 1956 and 1957.

9. "Goldwyn Stomp," recorded by Louis Armstrong, in Los Angeles, on August 6, 1947 (used in the RKO Radio Pictures movie A Song Is Born). Armstrong appears as himself in this 1948 Technicolor movie directed by Howard Hawks and starring Danny Kaye. In one sequence, Kaye enters a club where Armstrong showcases his mesmerizing, infectious stage presence while jamming on trumpet with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. His consummate showmanship would be displayed in dozens of other film and television productions.

10. “What a Wonderful World,” recorded by Louis Armstrong’s Orchestra and Chorus, in New York City, on August 16, 1967 (ABC-Paramount Records). While “Hello, Dolly!” may have been a far bigger U.S. hit in its day (1964, when it reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart during the initial craze of the British Invasion), “What a Wonderful World” (1967) is Armstrong’s great, final gift to the world, and transcends the middle-of-the-road schmaltz of much of his later work through the sheer power of the song’s lyrical message and the controlled intensity of Armstrong’s vocal performance. While immediately appreciated elsewhere (it reached number one in the U.K. within a few weeks of its release there), it wasn’t until its inclusion on the soundtrack of the 1987 film Good Morning, Vietnam that it was embraced by Americans. By February 1988, “What a Wonderful World” reached #32 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and in 1999 Armstrong’s last single was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall of Fame.

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