This seems not only an invitation to the dance but to a way of life.
Since staring at the label can only take us so far, here are the sounds:
That 1940 recording proves that Louis’ maligned Decca band had by this time was a first-rate swing band, as well as a swinging dance band. Hear how Sidney Catlett understood Louis as few ever did, and Big Sid knew how to express his personality without insisting on being the whole show, a lesson many people can still learn. If personnel listings are accurate, this band was, in addition to Louis, Bernard Flood, Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, Wilbur DeParis, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, Rupert Cole, Charlie Holmes, Joe Garland, Bingie Madison, Luis Russell, Lee Blair, Pops Foster, and Sidney Catlett — a powerful gliding group full of friends from the Luis Russell band of 1929-30.
That would be a post in itself — Louis and Jack Palmer writing a jovial novelty tune that also is a wonderful swing record, showing us why Harlem audiences so enjoyed the band as well as its leader.
Palmer, also, is crucial here: he, Cab Calloway, and Frank Froeba had created THE JUMPIN’ JIVE (whose refrain is “Hep hep hep”) in 1939 — first recorded by a Lionel Hampton small group, and it was a substantial hit. Whether Palmer found Louis or the reverse, HEP CATS’ BALL (which was not a hit) seems a Louis-enhanced version of the same idea: you can have a wonderful time in Harlem if you know the way uptown. Almost eighty years later, I wonder how many people spoke this way, and for how long, but it doesn’t perplex me.
But there’s more here than a fine Louis Armstrong performance that gets little to no attention. How about two? How about some comparative listening?
This great surprise came into my field of vision just a day ago — thanks to Javier Soria Laso, who found it and sent it to Ricky Riccardi on Facebook, which is where I encountered it:
As the site-writer points out, Louis and the band recorded this on March 14, 1940, for Decca, and played it on the air three days later. Mills Music (still run by Irving Mills?) used a service that recorded performances of Mills-owned compositions off the air . . . for their archives or for purposes I don’t, at this remove, understand. But the result is a treasure. The conventional wisdom is that live performances are longer than 78 rpm recordings, but the airshot is almost twenty seconds shorter. The tempo is faster, and it is less restrained — hear Louis’ ad lib comments, including “I mean it!”, there is a splendid break by J.C. Higginbotham, still at the peak of his shouting powers, and we can hear the little variations within the arrangement, with a great deal of delicious Catlett embellishment, encouragement, and joy.
Airshots of Louis before World War Two are not plentiful, or at least that used to be the case before selections from the Fleischmann’s Yeast programs were issued on CD, and the late Gosta Hagglof’s collection of Cotton Club airshots on the Ambassador label — a disc I am proud to have written the notes for. But who knew that HEP CATS’ BALL would emerge and be so rewarding?
Incidentally, Ricky Riccardi’s second volume on Louis, covering this period, called I’VE GOT A HEART FULL OF RHYTHM, will be published in 2020. I’ve read an early version and it is characteristic Riccardi: warm, enthusiastic, and full of new information.
While I was shuttling back from one recording to another, I did as we all do — a little online research, and found some relevant trivia. 1697 Broadway, as Google Images tells me, is now home to the Ed Sullivan Theater, Angelo’s Pizza, and various unidentified offices. Here’s what it looked like in mid-1936, when HELP YOURSELF ran at the Popular Price Theatre of the Federal Theatre Project. I regret I can’t take you inside the building at that time to show you what Ace Recording looked like in 1940; you will have to imagine:
It’s a foxy hop. Meet me there! (“There” is problematic. The original Cotton Club had been in Harlem, but it was segregated — providing Black entertainment for Whites only. By the time Louis was broadcasting for CBS “from the Cotton Club,” it had moved downtown to Broadway and 48th Street and was no longer segregated, but it closed in 1940. So go the glories of hepdom.)
May your happiness increase!