Georgie Price

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CD: HOT MISS LIL – BORN TO SWING! Lil Hardin Armstrong. Or Leave Me Alone, My Hi-De-Ho Man, Brown Gal, Doin’ The Suzie-Q, Just For A Thrill, It’s Murder, Born To Swing, (I’m On) A Sit-Down Strike For Rhythm, Bluer Than Blue, I’m Knockin’ At The Cabin Door, Lindy Hop, When I Went Back Home, Let’s Call It Love, You Mean So Much To Me, Let’s Get Happy Together, Happy Today, Sad Tomorrow, You Shall Reap What You Sow, Oriental Swing, Safely Locked Up In My Heart, Everything’s Wrong, Ain’t Nothing Right, Harlem On Saturday Night, Knock-Kneed Sal (On The Mourner’s Bench), Sixth Street, Riffin’ The Blues, Why Is A Good Man So Hard To Find?, My Secret Flame (26 tracks). Upbeat Records SKU URCD301. £12.99.

The first lady of jazz instrumentalists in the 1920s, Lillian Beatrice Hardin Armstrong (1898-1971) hailed from Memphis, and studied at Fisk University. Lil was classically trained and while not a virtuoso, she was underrated and a far better pianist than she was credited with. As well as her sharp leadership and ’fixing’ skills, she was an able musical director - a role she fulfilled to some extent with King Oliver, arranger and composer. Many of her compositions were gems, including Struttin’ With Some BarbecueHotter Than That and Just For A Thrill.

  Lil Hardin moved to Chicago with her mother and stepfather in 1918, and worked with Lawrence Duhé and Sugar Johnny Smith before King Oliver took over their residency. Louis Armstrong joined in 1922, they married in 1924 and the rest is history. We owe her an incalculable debt of gratitude for recognising Louis’s genius and giving him the kick in the behind that he needed, personally and musically, to get his act together with his career. Sadly, the marriage failed and they ultimately divorced in 1938, but remained close friends until his death.

  Her own career was steady - she continued to record throughout her life. She was a straight talker, determined, and not just liked, but loved by the jazz community. She dubbed herself ‘a little star’ but she was much more than that. She was also talented at fashion, trained as a tailor and gave her hand-made shirts as gifts to her friends. Even though she had other boyfriends over the years, she never really got over her split with Louis and lived in the house they bought until she died. When Louis died in July 1971, she was devastated. A few weeks later on 27 August 1971, she played a televised memorial concert for him and during her performance of St. Louis Blues, she suffered a massive, fatal, heart attack. It was a shocking, bittersweet incident, captured on camera for Jet with a moving series of shots of her smiling while seated at the piano, getting mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and being stretchered away.

  This compilation features all of the tracks recorded by Lil under her own name for Decca between 1936 and 1940. The vast majority of tracks are her own tunes, and she is mostly in the role of vocalist and front-woman, leading a few old veterans but mainly younger guns. All bar the last session are by ’Lil Armstrong and her Swing Band’.

  The first session, recorded in Chicago, has six mainly up-tempo tracks with crisp trumpet by Joe Thomas, alongside Buster Bailey on clarinet and Chu Berry on tenor sax both in fine form, ably backed by Teddy Cole, piano; Huey Long, guitar; and John Frazier, bass. This session includes the original 1936 version of Just For A Thrill, which was later recorded by ’The Ink Spots’, Ray Charles, Peggy Lee and many others. Incidentally, this song was entirely Lil’s and fully intact for its recorded debut – she wrote it in 1929 and copyrighted it in 1932. When it became popular in the 1950s, she recalled that Don Raye, whom she did not know and had never met, had somehow added his name to it for adding a second chorus that nobody used thereby splitting her royalties, so she carried a photostat of her original copyright slip in her purse! This session also produced the lively It’s Murder.

  The swing of the previous session is sustained through the four tracks of the next which sees Bob Carroll replace Berry and a different rhythm section of James Sherman, Arnold Adams alongside her comrade from 1918, the great Wellman Braud, in place of Cole, Long and Frazier respectively plus George Foster on drums. Born To Swing and A Sit-Down Strike For Rhythm have more of Lil’s lively vocals and Thomas and Bailey are in good form again, the former particularly on Bluer Than Blue which has a slower, more melancholy feel; while I’m Knocking At The Cabin Door is nostalgic, but not mawkish.

  The fine St. Louis trumpeter Shirley Clay replaces Joe Thomas to lead the way through the next session’s four swinging tracks, with the great Prince Robinson replacing Carroll on tenor sax, and Manzie Johnson taking over on drums. Lil’s role is more egging the band on than as featured vocalist on Lindy HopWhen I Went Back Home continues her nostalgic themes in an upbeat manner. Clay blows well and compliments Lil’s warm vocals on the catchy Let’s Call It Love before You Mean So Much To Me takes the session out on a high.

  For the next session, she is backed by a solid white septet including pianist Frank Froeba and drummer Sid Weiss. Trombonist Al Philburn and Tony Zimmers on clarinet and tenor also acquit themselves well. Let’s Get Happy Together and You Shall Reap What You Sow both swing well, while Happy Today, Sad Tomorrow has her melancholy feel again delivered in an upbeat manner. Oriental Swing provides a fine, edgy finish.

  Lil finally reoccupies her seat at the piano for the last two sessions. The penultimate session has the big sounding brassmen Renauld Jones on trumpet and J. C. Higginbotham on trombone; with Bailey and Braud as well as O’Neil Spencer on drums. Higgy gives a fine short introduction and solo after Lil’s vocal on Everything’s Wrong, Ain’t Nothing RightHarlem On A Saturday Night, is another swinger, part of which sounds like a first-cousin of I Hope Gabriel Loves My Music. One of the band (perhaps O’Neill Spencer? See Ate’s ‘Ramblings’) spars vocally with her on Knock-Kneed Sal.

  The final session was curiously issued as ’Lil Armstrong and her Dixielanders’ despite the fact that it is not particularly ’dixielandish’ but small band swing with two blues tunes, and is ironically the only session without a clarinet! This band’s two vocal accompaniments are the more dramatic songs Why Is A Good Man So Hard To Find? by Midge Williams and My Secret Flame by Hilda Rogers. Powerful trumpeter Jonah Jones forms the front line with Don Stovall on alto and Russell Johns on tenor sax; with Lil, Braud and Johnson returning. This session offers a very brief snatch of how Lil embraced the swing era and developed her piano playing accordingly. 

  Lil Armstrong, as always, demonstrates her fine leadership by showcasing her own talent while giving plenty of welcome space to her fine sidemen. Jonah Jones simply recalled her as ’a most wonderful woman’. Her charm and warmth shine through in her vocals, but it’s a pity we don’t hear more of her piano and how she had adapted to the swing era. While she was well able to hold her own as a front-woman and vocalist and it is nice to hear her in that role, I do get the feeling on some tracks that she might have preferred to be in the instrumental ‘thick of it’ leading the band sitting on her piano stool and delivering her vocals from there.

  Hot Miss Lil – Born To Swing! is a fine production by Liz Biddle of a jazz great’s music in the finest sound remastered by Charlie Crump, nicely presented with succinct notes by Mike Pointon. Definitely recommended and good to see Upbeat reissuing this under-appreciated music again.


CD SET: LOUIS ARMSTRONG: THE COMPLETE COLUMBIA AND RCA VICTOR STUDIO SESSIONS 1946-1966. 7 CD Set. 141 tracks. Mosaic Records. Mosaic 270. $119 + postage.

This set includes all of the singles and albums Armstrong recorded for those two record labels during this transitional 20 year period. And it’s complete! How complete? It includes a 1959 singing commercial Louis and Big Crosby recorded for an electric shaver, and an ill-advised recording that its producer had thought was long-buried. 

  At the outset, of the period covered here, Armstrong’s commercial appeal was clearly on the descent, even as his artistry remained intact. He had not had a hit record since 1939 and he recorded infrequently during the war years. Immediately after the war’s end, Louis Armstrong signed on with RCA Victor which rushed him into the studio to headline the ‘Esquire All-American Award Winners’ session. He had won the male vocalist poll — not for his trumpet playing. Though he was still in demand for personal appearances, Louis was facing severe headwinds from jazz critics who deemed him old fashioned and/or thought he was but a shadow of the man who made those 1920s ‘Hot Five’ classics. Long Long Journey proves both wrong from the outset. Always one of my favourite Armstrong records, his voice here is mellow and his horn as moving as ever. That he is in the company of Duke Ellington, Johnny Hodges and Don Byas is an ever greater plus. Louis is a bit out of his element on the flip side, SNAFU, one of those mid-‘40s swing-to-bop riffs fashioned from pop standards (I Got Rhythm in this case) but nonetheless makes it work. He’s Louis Armstrong, after all.

  The remainder of the 1940s RCA singles are a mixed bag of pop tunes with his working bands and small group jazz sessions with (then) pick-up bands but Armstrong’s playing is consistent even if often taken for granted - then and now. 

  Taken as a whole, the big band sides have been ignored by critics and historians. Or pilloried. Even back then. But a little context: the latter 1940s/early 1950s was a low ebb of popular music in the US. Frankly, many of the songs from that era were just plain lousy. This was the era when Frank Sinatra threatened to punch out Columbia’s pop producer Mitch Miller for giving him such rubbish to record, so what chance was Louis Armstrong going to have? But to ignore these is to ignore some great playing.  

  The pickup jazz sides clearly showed that Louis’ future was in the past — albeit updated. He’s more relaxed and involved in the small group sessions, the final ones including several of the members that became his first ‘All Stars’ - Jack Teagarden, Sid Catlett, Barney Bigard. Indeed, by the end of 1947, Armstrong had dissolved his big band and formed the ‘All Stars’, and would spend the remainder of his career in this modified New Orleans jazz format. 

  Unfortunately, none of his RCA records hit the charts and Armstrong returned to Decca. The producer there, Milt Gabler understood how to produced HITS. For the singles, he jettisoned all jazz trappings and put Armstrong’s appealing voice to Blueberry Hill, A Kiss to Build A Dream On and (however incongruously) La Vie en Rose, Edith Piaf’s signature tune; and helped Louis rack up some of the biggest hits of his career. He recorded the All Stars for the new LP format — and as Gabler told me years ago, the public wanted sweet and the jazz fans wanted jazz. Neither would go for half-way. 

  However successful, Columbia’s producer George Avakian believed Armstrong was being wasted on such materials and thought he knew how to make Armstrong a commercially successful jazzman again. It was a mission. 

  Avakian got his chance in 1954 when his Decca contract ended. His first project was the landmark Louis Armstrong Plays WC Handy album which was not only a commercial success, but set the critics raving. Louis Armstrong was back! Today, the album is still regarded as a masterpiece. (Mosaic Records is aptly named in this case, for the final product is mosaic of hundreds of splices as Avakian assembled from multiple takes). In addition, we are treated to a CD’s worth of alternate takes, breakdowns and studio chatter — Louis’ playing was incredible even warming his chops. 

  Then came the single, Mack the Knife. Who ever thought a song about a vicious murderer, culled from an obscure German operetta could be a popular hit in the USA? Avakian convinced Armstrong to record it and we all know how that story played out. What wasn’t known until much later was that Lottie Lenya who sang the original operetta role, had been invited to the studio and then invited to do another version as a duet with Louis. East never quite met West here. The arrangement had to be recast in a lower key, making it sound draggy to begin with, then on the duet, ebullient Pops-speak met heavy German lieder with the result sounding like something masterminded by Mel Brooks. 

  Back in the 1990s, George recalled this session in an interview with VJM saying he was glad it was buried and hoped no one would find it. Well, they did and here it is. 

  Louis and George teamed up for the only slightly less magical Satch Plays Fats set from 1955 that confirmed his return to the top of the jazz mountain. Avakian wanted to parley these successes into a long term partnership with him and Columbia, but Louis’ manager, Joe Glaser saw his star re-ascendant and decided that freelance would be more lucrative. He wasn’t wrong. Armstrong biggest hits were ahead of him.

  Armstrong’s final studio album for Columbia was anything but a hit. In the late 1950s, he earned the wrath of critics, other jazz musicians and government officials by speaking out against the US government inaction in the face of the growing civil rights movement. The governor of Arkansas had refused an order to desegregate its schools and Armstrong called President Eisenhower “two-faced” for his inaction up to that time (Eisenhower eventually did act — some crediting Armstrong for that).

  Pianist Dave Brubeck and his wife Iola found Louis’ outspokenness inspiring enough to write a satirical play, ultimately called The Real Ambassadors, Unfortunately, the play was never produced (at least until long after Louis and Brubeck had passed) and the album was not recorded until September 1963. The set, also featuring Brubeck, Carmen McRae and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, is a bit disjointed without the context of the play but some of the songs are fun satire, Cultural Exchange, Remember Who You Are and Good Reviews, with Armstrong at his robust best. The highlight is perhaps his most poignant vocal on record: They Say I Look Like God, where Armstrong sings like a preacher against the slow chant background sung by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. He had tears in his eyes after it was diminished. So did the Brubecks. So did I. 

  This review has been about the extraordinary music in the collection but the 30,000-word booklet by ‘Satchologist’ Ricky Riccardi provides all the insight and context one needs — go to Dippermouth Blog Spot for all of the background. 

  As Louis would say, it’s a gasser. Don’t miss this.


BOOK: ORLANDO R. MARSH, CHICAGO’s PIONEER OF ELECTRICAL RECORDING - AN ILLUSTRATED BIO-DISCOGRAPHY. Richard Raichelson. Arcadia Records, Memphis. ISBN: 9780964754539 (Hardback); 9780964754522 (Paperback) 520 pp. Illustrated (in colour with over 160 illustrations). 6” x 9”. Hb $95, Pb $59. Hardcover (ISBN). $95. Order from Kurt Nauck, Nauck’s Vintage Records, 22004 Sherrod Ln, Spring, TX 77389.

To nearly every collector of jazz 78s, Autograph 617 is etched in a rainbow stretching across the sky with the disc itself waiting at its end. Autograph 617 is, of course, the ‘Cornet Soloist KING OLIVER Piano Accompaniment Jelly Roll Morton’ duet of King Porter Stomp and Tom Cat Blues ‘For Dancing’. A summit meeting for the ages and one of the rarest of all early jazz recordings.

  Until now, the Autograph label, operated by Orlando Marsh, has been a mystery wrapped inside an enigma. Author Richard Raichelson has spent more than two decades trying to unravel the mystery behind the Autograph/Marsh operation which involved a myriad of labels, contract recordings and personal issues which continued until Marsh’s death in 1938. 

  Marsh was an experimenter in sound technology and was involved in early efforts to merge sound and film before starting his recording operation in 1921 in Chicago’s Loop district. He was noted for being the first US sound engineer to attempt electrical recording, starting in 1923. The following year, he launched Autograph as a commercial label which included the famed Jelly Roll Morton sessions, Merritt Brunies's Orchestra, ‘The Stomp Six’, and several other jazz groups - all probably arranged through a connection (directly or indistinctly) with Melrose Music Publishing, the largest such venture in the city. His biggest “stars”were the organist Jesse Crawford who worked at the Landmark Chicago Theatre (a contemporary catalog photo show Marsh recording him there), organist Milton Charles and vaudeville clarinetist Boyd Senter. 

  Marsh gave up his attempt at a retail record label in 1926 and concentrated on contract recording for Paramount, personal recordings mainly for ethnic music stores, and radio transcriptions including early episodes of the then-popular show Amos ’n’ Andy. 

  Raichelson spared no details in researching and writing this history. The early chapters detail Marsh’s origins and his work with a film laboratory. Because his recordings of Jelly Roll Morton produced some of the most fabled rarities in jazz, he includes a chapter on how they came about culled from early interviews with participating musicians and details about the Crawford and Milton Charles recordings. 

  The author spent considerable research on how Marsh’s electrical recording worked and why it sounded the way it did (harsh and blasty). He also devotes considerable space to which companies pressed Marsh masters - no mean feat considering the extreme rarity of most of his products — including charts to decipher the numerous symbols and code in the runoffs. 

  The remainder of the history documents his transcription and personal recording activities that proceeded into the mid-30s.

  The second half of the book traces every known Marsh master, starting from #2 in 1921 through various series until the final known matrix, in early-1935 — Duck Calls. Again, the amount of documentation here is staggering because all the personal recordings — speeches, choirs, banjo lessons, weight loss routines and recordings for Swedish and Greek music stores as well as religious organizations - make the task very complex. 

  Because Marsh masters appeared on dozens of labels (the commercial issue Autographs only comprised 30 issues numbered 600-630), the author lists the discography by matrix number — again complex because Marsh employed a number of different series during the lifetime of his venture.

  Working without company files which are presumed lost and without input from principals who are long-dead, the author has assembled a massive amount of information from the most credible sources possible, including inspection of the actual discs, or photos of the labels and run-off areas, public records and contemporary press clippings. All of his information is carefully documented and he meticulously describes his methodology in determining recordings dates and pressing information. 

  This work is so well documented that it will be a valuable resource to future researchers of the recording industry as well as jazz collectors who will want to know the full story behind the historic summit of 1924 when King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton entered the Marsh studio on Wabash Ave to record their classic duets. See also my interview with the author on page 28.