Monday, December 21, 2015

The Louis Armstrong / Mills Brothers Decca Sessions, 1937-40

By the time Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers first entered a studio to record a few sides together in 1937, they were both successful and popular artists in the jazz and pop fields, the brothers perhaps slightly more so than Satchmo. They had recorded with the likes of the Boswell Sisters and Bing Crosby, and the time seemed right to pair them with Armstrong, who at the time was being pushed by producer Jack Kapp to diversify his material and record in different settings, in an attempt to appeal to both black and white audiences and to score pop hits. Though Armstrong's gravelly voice seemingly stood in stark contrast with the smooth harmonies of the brothers, it actually blended extremely well on the finished recordings, most likely because both Armstrong and the Mills Brothers came out of the same musical tradition and understood each other's language perfectly well. While the Millses had become famous for their ability to mimic the sound of instruments (the guitar was the only instrument that they actually played) this was more than just a gimmick, and in fact, Satchmo's trumpet, which had exerted its influence on the music of the quartet, is superbly supported by the brothers' mimicry.

The Mills Brothers in the 1920s (Photo owned by Daniel R. Clemson)

All in all, Armstrong and the brothers recorded eleven songs together over a three-year period that goes from April 1937 to April 1940. The material chosen for these sessions is rather eclectic, from novelty numbers like "Boog It," "The Flat Foot Floogie," and Irving Berlin's "My Walking Stick" to updates of minstrel material like "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree" to pop songs of the day such as "Marie" and "The Song Is Ended," both of them written by Berlin as well. The atmosphere of all the sessions—there were six in all—is extremely relaxed, with the brothers harmonizing and Armstrong offering hip vocals and some excellent trumpet solos to complement the Millses' signature sound effects. Most of the songs feature brief guitar introductions, and as in the case of Don Redman's "Cherry," one of the standouts from these sessions, the interactions between Armstrong and the brothers are seamless. All the songs are tightly arranged and clearly intended as both jazz and pop records that could be appealing to different audiences.

At least one of the singles that came out of these dates was extremely popular—the one that paired "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" and "Darling Nellie Gray," which ended a brief hit drought for the Millses. By the late 1930s it had become common practice in the recording industry to use nineteenth-century songs, mostly because they had fallen into the public domain, but this particular disc is unique in that Amstrong and the brothers not only swing and modernize these two songs about slavery and the old plantation but they also turn them into subtle calls for freedom. As Gary Giddins has written in Visions of Jazz, this record is "a politically astute response to the pastoralism that became rife in the recording industry of the '30s and continued into the early '60s" (24). In the hands of Armstrong and the brothers, "Old Virginny" no longer expresses a yearning to go back to working "day after day in the fields of yellow corn" but becomes a shout for political and social freedom, which is underscored by the choice of the abolitionist song, "Darling Nellie Gray," for the flip side. It seems appropriate to quote Giddins more at length on this subject:

Perhaps Armstrong's most able signifying comes at the end of the first eight bars of his thirty-two-bar solo, an unmistakable trumpet call—to freedom in life. If the flip side had been a similar piece or an ordinary ballad, the record would—despite Armstrong's saves—have limited meaning. But "Darling Nellie Gray" was one of the most powerful abolitionist songs of the 1850s; published only four years after Uncle Tom's Cabin, it is widely credited with changing people's minds on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. (26)

The Mills Brothers (Photo owned by D.R. Clemson)
The choice of material, then, could not have been accidental, particularly if we bear in mind that a similar change of meaning also operates on their version of Stephen Foster's "The Old Folks at Home," which, in the rendition by Armstrong and the Millses, is as far away from a song of longing for the old plantation as "Old Virginny." As Giddins has also rightly pointed out, Armstrong mocks the original meaning of this Foster ballad, taking it at a rather brisk pace and eschewing any kind of nostalgia for an idealized past on the plantation: when he ends his rendition by saying "we are far away from home," there is no trace of sentimentality in his voice. This is a record that shuns a painful past and prefers to look toward a brighter future ahead. Shortly after these sessions, the Mills Brothers would score a smash hit with "Paper Doll," and Louis Armstrong would go on to become one of the major icons of the twentieth century. Sadly, these recordings have long been neglected both by a vast majority of critics and by the record label that originally released them. As a matter of fact, CD reissues of these songs are scarce: European imports such as Jazz Archives # 47: Louis Armstrong and The Mills Brothers Greatest Hits and The Mills Brothers Featuring Louis Armstrong Vol. 4: 1937-1940 are, to our knowledge, the only reissues currently available, and they are not always easy to find. Yet the uniqueness, historical significance, and artistic value of the collaboration between Satchmo and the Millses calls for a serious reissue and a subsequent critical reappraisal.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Bandstand Christmas Essentials 4 : Al Martino's A Merry Christmas

With the holiday season quickly approaching, it is time to offer a new installment of our Bandstand Christmas Essential series, which we publish every December. This time we take a look at a Christmas album that usually slips through the cracks whenever Yuletide records are discussed—Al Martino's A Merry Christmas, cut for Capitol in 1964.

These days, Italian-American crooner Al Martino is mostly remembered for his role as Johnny Fontane in the 1972 Francis Ford Coppola movie, The Godfather. That role went a long way toward revitalizing his career in the early 1970s, but by that time he had been in the music business for already two decades, which were admittedly full of ups and downs. Born into a working class family in Philadelphia in 1927, his real name was Alfred Cini, and he was inspired by his childhood friend, Mario Lanza, to pursue a career in music. With that goal in mind he changed his name to Al Martino and moved to New York City, where he signed a record contract with a small label. His recording of the ballad "Here in My Heart" in 1952 became a sizable hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and this led to a contract with Capitol. Unfortunately, it somehow also got him in trouble with the Mob—or at least so the story goes—and Martino was forced to settle down in England for a few years, where his career advanced slowly.

By the time he returned to the United States in the late 1950s, rock and roll had changed the music business forever, and the careers of smooth-voiced crooners like Martino were suffering greatly from this change in popular taste. But then Nashville came to the rescue: in 1963 Martino recorded the Leon Payne country ballad, "I Love You Because," and all of a sudden he was back on the charts, and for a few years he continued recording pop versions of country tunes with great success. His biggest hit, though, was not a country song, but a vocal version of Bert Kaempfert's "Spanish Eyes," which he cut in 1966, and which remains the song most closely associated with him. His 1972 appearance in The Godfather also resulted in a record hit, "Speak Softly Love," that classic film's theme song. From then on, he seldom returned to the charts, and by the 1980s he was concentrating mostly on live appearances. Martino, whose elegant vocal style owed much more to Perry Como than to Al Jolson—his two foremost influences—passed away in Springfield, Pennsylvania, in 2009, just a few days after his 82nd birthday.

Martino cut his holiday album, A Merry Christmas, for Capitol in 1964, about a year after recording "I Love You Because." The brief liner notes remind us that there are two kinds of Yuletide melodies: "the gay new tunes from the popularity parades of seasons recently passed, reflecting the high spirits that make Christmas truly merry" and "the traditional carols, beautiful and reverent, that remind us of the deeper meanings the Christmas season holds for all humanity." The point here, of course, is that Martino sings both types of songs, and in fact, the album is extremely well balanced, featuring the former kind of tunes on the first side and the latter kind on the second side. The sensitive arrangements by Peter DeAngelis are also shaped by a sense of balance. On more modern Christmas songs like "You're All I Want for Christmas," "White Christmas," and "I'll Be Home for Christmas," they are beautifully restrained, full of pleasant strings and harps and complete with unobtrusive choirs. We can hear this restraint even on children's tunes like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." But then, when it comes to approaching the older carols, such as "The Little Drummer Boy," "Silent Night," "O Holy Night" and "O Come All Ye Faithful," DeAngelis accordingly becomes more serious and his arrangements sometimes border on the grandiose. Martino's singing is never less than superb throughout, and although one finds no surprises here, this is a lovely Christmas album that is awaiting rediscovery—and does deserve it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Guest Reviewer: Patti Page's New Box Set Featuring Her Lang-Worth Transcriptions, by Robert Nickora

The British label Jasmine Records has undertaken the reissue of an important part of the recorded catalog of singer Patti Page in the last few years. After releasing two four-CD box sets of studio recordings—Near to You in 2011 and Another Place, Another Time in 2013—they have just made available a third set, which, besides more of Page's studio work, includes for the first time ever the complete library of transcription recordings that she made for the Lang-Worth company in the early 1950s. Known for their rarity, these are very interesting sides because they often find Page at her jazziest and accompanied by a small group of excellent musicians. Robert Nickora, who is responsible for compiling and annotating all three Patti Page sets, has kindly agreed to write a review of the latest one in the series, entitled There Is No Greater Love. We appreciate Mr. Nickora's willingness to share his insights into these recordings with the readers of The Vintage Bandstand.

Jasmine Records JASCD 34-4

Producing the Patti Page collection, THERE IS NO GREATER LOVE, was very challenging and time consuming, but exceptionally enjoyable.  I worked with these recordings for more than a year prior to the release of the set.  As a result of the sales and strong reception of Jasmine’s earlier Page box sets – NEAR TO YOU: Celebrating a Career…Defining Class (JASBOX 24-4) and ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER PLACE (JASBOX 30-4) – I had already completed a third volume that combined Mercury and Columbia material, and was planning to pitch it to Jasmine Records for release consideration when an opportunity arose to compile and program the Lang-Worth Transcriptions.  These rare gems were offered to me on loan by Robert Bowling, Patti’s friend and founder of “The Patti Page Appreciation Society.”  I reworked the large set, omitting half of the material and replacing it with the Lang-Worth songs and intros.

Countless hours were involved in listening to all the material (three choices per track in some instances) and determining the very best disc transfer to submit for re-mastering.  The brief introductions Patti recorded were pressed on two separate discs with no labeling to indicate which intro would correspond with an appropriate track. These intros were very slightly edited in the final Jasmine project, creating a fine complement to the set.

The Lang-Worth Transcriptions were initially issued to select radio stations for local programming, and were never intended to be made available for sale in music stores. Some department stores, however, were later given access to these recordings, and they were utilized as background music (similar to what is sometimes referred to as elevator music).  I worked directly from the unique 8” discs that resembled the later EPs (popular with the record-buying public in the mid-‘50s).  These recordings were also available to radio stations in a 16” disc format. 

The administration at Lang-Worth recognized the rising popularity of Patti Page when her first million-seller, “With My Eyes Wide Open I’m Dreaming,” began climbing the charts.  There was mention of this new association in the December 1949 issue of Billboard, with the first recording date occurring in January 1950 and the final twelve tracks completed in March 1952.  Ensemble musicians included Lou Stein (piano), Joe Sinacore (guitar), and Stanley Kay (percussion), and accompaniments were occasionally augmented with full orchestra.  The repertoire chosen was a collaborative effort by Patti Page; her personal manager, Jack Rael, who supervised all sessions; and Lang-Worth; the scripted intros were provided by Lang-Worth writers.

Many of the Lang-Worth songs were later recorded for Mercury employing fuller and more sophisticated orchestrations.  Patti’s style began to evolve after Lang-Worth, and it appeared she felt secure in taking a few liberties with the melody lines in such later tracks as “East of the Sun,” “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me,” “Where Are You,” “I’ll Never Smile Again,” and others. A few of the lesser-known songs such as “There’s Something in the Wind,” “Accent on Youth,” and “Tormented” have become my personal favorites.  Her rendition of “The Prisoner’s Song” (with simple guitar accompaniment) might very well be the most sensitive and impressive interpretation of this classic country song.

It was a pleasure to select the fifty-five tracks from Patti Page’s vast Mercury library (many of which come from “The Great American Songbook”) for the first two discs.  A few, such as “Basin Street Blues,” “Paradise,” “Did I Remember,” “Every Day,” and “Nobody’s Darlin’ But Mine,” were new discoveries.  The exemplary re-mastering of the entire set by Tall Order Mastering is especially noteworthy.  The crisp fidelity of “The Tennessee Waltz” LP on Disc Two is particularly impressive.
Very special words of appreciation go to Timothy Akers, Patti Page’s great-nephew and devoted fan, for providing details regarding all information related to the Lang-Worth Transcriptions and the names of specific musicians involved in these historic recordings.

Robert Nickora
Thanksgiving Day 2015