About this Recording
8.120816 - ARMSTRONG, Louis: You Rascal, You (1939-1941) (Louis Armstrong, Vol. 6)

‘You Rascal, You’ Original Recordings 1939-1941

The Louis Armstrong of the late 1930s was a man at a crossroads in his career, faced with several creative dilemmas. Popularity was not one of them. He was now a bonafide superstar, with radio programmes, tours, and concerts crowding his schedule. Already recognized as a pioneer of jazz and one of the supreme jazz musicians of his day, Armstrong could pretty much do what he wanted. But the years just prior to America’s entry into World War II showed Armstrong struggling, at least in the studio, to find his niche in the rapidly changing musical landscape.

Riding on top of the tidal wave of the Big Band Era, Armstrong had assembled his own orchestra early on, making records for OKeh and then Victor before signing with the new Decca label in 1935. By the end of 1939, Armstrong’s orchestra was relying mainly on its leader’s charisma and celebrity as more progressive bands took the spotlight. Listening to Harlem Stomp, from the following May, is a perfect example. The nondescript big band leads off with the introduction to the song, sounding not much unlike any other group of the period. It isn’t until Satchmo comes in with his gravelly vocal and clarion trumpet chorus that the sound becomes singularly his. Aside from Louis himself, the Armstrong orchestra had no identity of its own and exhibited little growth during the ’30s, unlike bands led by Benny Goodman, which featured powerhouse soloists and Fletcher Henderson’s extraordinary charts, Duke Ellington, with its unique arrangements of original tunes, and Glenn Miller, which had its own musical identity as well. Occasionally, J. C. Higginbotham or Luis Russell was given a chance to shine, but in general, it was Satch’s show from start to finish. But, like a superstar basketball player on a team of anonymous underachievers, Armstrong was able to transform his records by himself with his personality and musical genius.

Although Armstrong was a great innovator of jazz vocals, fans of his trumpet playing were getting dismayed that there was less and less of this on his records. Armstrong’s records were mainly vocal-oriented, with novelty-tinged songs playing on Satchmo’s effusive personality and jive language (Hep Cats’ Ball, Cut Off My Legs And Call Me Shorty, You Run Your Mouth, I’ll Run My Business).

Decca’s penchant for teaming up its most popular artists resulted in Armstrong cutting a session with another of its successful acts, the Mills Brothers, in April 1940. Armstrong had first teamed up with the Mills clan three years before and the combination was still effective; the four songs they recorded are all here, including an early Jesse Stone composition making fun of America’s Works Progress Administration (W. P. A.), and the tendency for workers to goldbrick on the job, knowing they would not be fired. Both Armstrong and the Mills Brothers would continue to do duets with other Decca stalwarts in succeeding years.

As much as Decca’s decision makers tried to shoehorn Louis Armstrong into the Swing Era, they took advantage of the revival of traditional New Orleans jazz in 1940 to bring Armstrong back into his most comfortable element, leading a small group of top-notch jazzmasters (all hailing from New Orleans). Armstrong’s competitive spirit was given a challenge when reedman Sidney Bechet was invited to join him on the session. The resulting album, called New Orleans Jazz, foreshadowed the sound of his successful post-war group, Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars, which he would use for the rest of his career. Small group jazz was making a comeback, thanks in part to the success of New York’s Commodore record label, and the everincreasing cost of running a big band.

Bechet and Armstrong proved to be still a potent combination, each possessing egos that would not allow one to get the better of the other. The two had played together fifteen years earlier, on recordings made as part of Clarence Williams’ Blue Five. Bechet, always in top form when playing the blues, soars in his solo on Lil Armstrong’s Perdido Street Blues, while Louis finishes the tune off with one of his best solos in years, played over Claude Jones’ trombone riffs. Similarly, 2:19 Blues, featuring a solid Armstrong vocal, also comes off well. However, the other two tunes, Down In Honky Tonky Town and Coal Cart Blues caused Bechet to later remark in his autobiography, ‘Louis, it seemed like he was wanting to make it a kind of thing where we were supposed to be bucking each other, competing instead of working together for that real feeling that would let the music come new and strong’. Despite the rivalry, this short four-song session gave Armstrong a chance to break free from the bonds of the Swing Era, even for but a brief time.

The next year, Decca featured Armstrong in another New Orleans-style small group mode, this time with no musician the calibre of Bechet to share the spotlight with. On Hey Lawdy Mama, Armstrong sings a blues made popular by Amos Easton, aka “Bumble Bee Slim,” one of the few recordings in which Louis played in a band featuring an electric guitar (Lawrence Lucie). Back with his big band in November 1941, Louis reprised his classic You Rascal You, which he had first recorded for OKeh ten years earlier, and the song that would become his theme, the evocative When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.

At the outbreak of World War II, Louis Armstrong was still on top of the jazz world. He had survived the Swing Era, unlike most of his first generation contemporaries, but would emerge after the war going back to what he did best: playing the New Orleans jazz standards he made popular in the ’20s with a stable group of equally like-minded musical veterans.

Cary Ginell – a winner of the 2004 ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music journalism)

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