Tag Archives: Gene De Paul

BEAUTIFUL HEROISM: LOUIS ARMSTRONG, “YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT LOVE IS” (1942)

“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!

SIX MINUTES OF SWING MYSTERY (May 25, 1939)

We like to think that everything can be known, and in many cases answers can be found by the diligent, but I am sharing a small mystery with my readers, for their pleasure and perhaps our mutual enlightenment.

Certain jazz soloists are immediately recognizable: you can make your own list.  Other superb players are less familiar because of the paucity of evidence (we know what Charlie Shavers sounds like because of his distinctive approach, but we also have hours of his recorded work to compare any unidentified playing against.)  I think also of Coleman Hawkins’ comment about being on the road: that you could go to some small town and there would be a tenor player who no one ever heard of who would be as good as the famous ones.

When I saw this record — rather obscure and rare — I wanted it, for those reasons.  Also because Edgar Sampson, saxophonist, composer, arranger, never produced any music that was less than superb.  I knew one song — DON’T TRY YOUR JIVE ON ME — because of Fats Waller’s UK recording.  When I played it, though, I was impressed and mystified.  A great trumpet solo on JIVE, and rippling swing piano on both sides.

I have some vanity about knowing the great soloists of the period, and it piqued me that I couldn’t identify anyone except Sampson.  But I have friends who are also experts, and I tried their knowledge as well — let me list their names in alphabetical order: Marc Caparone, Menno Daams, Jan Evensmo, Jon-Erik Kellso, Bent Persson, Rob Rothberg, Bo Scherman — but no definitive answers.

About The Three Swingsters, I can only surmise that they were a vocal group with some regional fame — I think Pennsylvania — but I do not know whether the record was made to showcase them or not.

Before we go deeper, here is the mysterious listing in Tom Lord’s online discography:

Edgar Sampson And His Orchestra : 2 tp, tb, Edgar Sampson (as) unknown p, b and d, The Three Swingsters (vcl-1)
New York, May 25, 1939
WM1023-A Don’t try your jive on me (1) Voc 4942
WM1024-A Pick your own lick (1) –
WM1025-A Sly mongoose (1) (unissued)

My experts (I apologize if that seems too possessive) came up with names of who the trumpet soloist couldn’t be, and proposed Dick Vance or Benny Carter as the trumpeter, and Tommy Fulford as the pianist, with some thoughts of perhaps Eddie Heywood or Kenny Kersey.  Vance and Fulford were stalwarts of the Chick Webb band — this disc was recorded very late in Chick’s life — and at that time Sampson was the band’s musical director.  I have heard Fulford with Chick’s “Little Chicks,” and he is plausible — fleet and swinging.

On first hearing, I thought the pianist was Billy Kyle, but the player does not reach for Kyle’s beloved downward run, and Billy recorded that day with Jack Sneed for Decca (of course he could have made two sessions in one day). The connection to Master Records suggests the salutary influence of Helen Oakley. And PICK YOUR OWN LICK (written by “newcomers to songdom” Roy Jacobs and Gene de Paul, according to Billboard) was published by Mills Music.  de Paul went on to write DON’T TAKE YOUR LOVE FROM ME and I’LL REMEMBER APRIL, but LICK is not his finest hour.  Or three minutes.

Here’s DON’T TRY YOUR JIVE ON ME:

About PICK YOUR OWN LICK: I try never to write these words, but what a terrible idea — an attempt to have a pop hit by cannibalizing bits of other pop hits. But the band sounds good, even while the lyrics pummel us with obvious hopeful thefts.

Your thoughts?

May your happiness increase!