“It isn’t how you succeed; it’s how you recover when you don’t.” (Source unknown.)
YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT LOVE IS was written by Gene de Paul (music) and Don Raye (lyrics) for an Abbott and Costello film. Most listeners know it from versions by Coltrane, Miles, Billie, Chet, and a few big bands — Benny, Harry, Earl — that recorded it when the song was new in 1941.
But how many know Louis Armstrong’s heart-stopping, human, and touching version from 1942? It will come as a surprise to most — except if you heard it on the radio — an April 1 broadcast from Casa Manana in Culver City, California or on the CD on Gosta Hagglof’s Ambassador label. (I wish Louis had recorded the song again, fifteen years later, with Russell Garcia — I can hear it in my mind’s ear.)
This is one of Louis’ great big bands — and I presume the dark arrangement is by Joe Garland, who loved the lower register (you can hear his bass saxophone in recordings from this period): Louis, Frank Galbreath, Shelton Hemphill, Bernard Flood; George Washington, James Whitney, Henderson Chambers; Rupert Cole, Carl Frye; Prince Robinson; Joe Garland; Luis Russell; Lawrence Lucie; John Simmons; Sidney Catlett.
Louis doesn’t start the performance off, which gives the dancers some time to enjoy what I will call Swing Menace, sounds that don’t feel reassuring or optimistic, backed by Sidney’s tom-toms. The first thirty seconds or so tell us that what’s coming isn’t a comedy, but something much more threatening: if we’re with Abbott and Costello, hilarity is going become doom. Over the trombone section, the muted trumpets sound alarms. Danger! Danger!
The clarinet soloist (Cole? Prince?) who takes the bridge allows some light to shine in, but that heavy brass still warns us that the way is dark. (Please listen, now or later, to Sidney Catlett, master illuminator and spiritual support, shaping and supporting the soloists and the orchestra.)
Almost two minutes have passed (and how beautiful the band sounds) before the modulation into the key for Louis’ heartfelt vocal. This is serious stuff, the chronicle of the heart learning but only after being wounded. He’s so deeply into the song, even though the lyrics pass by at a dancers’ tempo: hear what he does with “kissing,” something he enjoyed in real life. For the bridge, he’s nearly at the top of his vocal range — earnest and endearing. “What I’m telling you is the truth,” he sings. What follows is majestic and of, so human — with Sidney saying, “I know, Brother!” every beat. I won’t explain it except to say that Louis begins his solo an octave higher than a more prudent player would . . . .
Hear and marvel. “That’s the one!”
And, true professional, he returns to sing the remainder of the chorus before the band takes it out. To attempt the impossible and then recover with grace . . .
Late in life, when William Faulkner was asked by an undergraduate how he would rank himself among the novelists of his generation, he said that artists should be measured not by what they accomplished, but what they tried to do. I already place Louis above other mortals: these five minutes are more proof.
Here‘s Ricky Riccardi’s wonderful little essay on this performance — so worth reading (Ricky feels Louis deeply and always has facts to stand on). Like Ricky, I want to applaud when this recording is over. Then I play it again. Try it.
May your happiness increase!