'Pops Is Tops' Showcases Louis Armstrong's Rough Voice, Perfect Timing And Wit

Apr 27, 2018
Originally published on May 7, 2018 2:12 pm
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In the late 1950s, trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong was usually on the road with his Dixieland small band, the All-Stars. He recorded with that band a lot but was occasionally coaxed into the studio to play music in a different vein. A new reissue collects recordings Armstrong made for the Verve label in 1957. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has this review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN YOUR LOVER HAS GONE")

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) When you alone, who cares for starless skies? When you alone, the magic moonlight dies.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Louis Armstrong out of his usual context, August 1957. It's a little shocking, the contrast between his sandpaper voice and Russ Garcia's silky orchestra. This sort of lush treatment is usually reserved for more genteel singers. Still, Armstrong was the most influential vocalist of the 20th century. The way his phrasing inspired Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday alone ensure that. Armstrong's rough voice never tripped up his timing. Often it accented the wit behind his reading of a lyric, even when he sang a song straight, like this Ellington gem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO NOTHIN' TILL YOU HEAR FROM ME")

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Someone told someone, and someone told you. But they wouldn't hurt you, not much, since everyone spread the story with his own little personal touch. Do nothing till you hear from me. Pay no attention to what's said. Why people tear the seams of anyone's dream is over my head.

WHITEHEAD: Louis Armstrong was one of those proverbial hardest-working men in show business. He cut these orchestra sides during four consecutive days at a Los Angeles studio while performing at night in Las Vegas with his All-Stars. He mostly sings here, owing to painful lip trouble. But Armstrong the trumpeter still knocked out a few heroic melody statements. This is "Stormy Weather."

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG'S "STORMY WEATHER")

WHITEHEAD: These orchestra sessions comprise half of "Pops Is Tops," a four-CD compilation of Louis Armstrong's 1957 studio recordings for Verve. Hearing him sidestep and confront technical limitations and fatigue reminds me of late '50s records by his great admirer Billie Holiday. The resemblance between them was never plainer. Here's Billie in 1958 on "For Heaven's Sake."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE")

BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Don't say a word, my darling. Don't break the spell like this. Just hold me tight. We are long in the night, and heaven is here in a kiss. This pair of eyes...

WHITEHEAD: Now Armstrong, six months earlier on a different song, with that same conversational world weariness and heavy vibrato and those strangulated high notes. But he's more playful. Listen to those drawn out S's.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE GIRL BLUE (MONO VERSION)")

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Sit there and count your fingers. What can you do? Old girl, you're through. Sit there and count your little fingers, unlucky little girl blue.

WHITEHEAD: The second half of the anthology "Pops Is Tops" pairs Louis Armstrong with the Verve label's star pianist Oscar Peterson - like the trumpeter, a virtuoso who knew not to flaunt it all the time. On an October session, Louis's lip sounds more confident. And the quartet's terrific beat inspires him.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND OSCAR PETERSON'S "MOON SONG")

WHITEHEAD: "Pops Is Tops" includes a wealth of alternate and incomplete takes, warmups and rehearsal sequences that help lay bare the studio process and contain a few endearing moments. It's clear Armstrong isn't so familiar with some tunes put in front of him. But he was always a quick study. If he hadn't been, records like these wouldn't even exist.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST ONE OF THOSE THINGS")

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) So goodbye, dear. Amen. Here's hoping we meet now and then. It was great fun. It was just one of those things.

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed Louis Armstrong - Pops Is Tops: "The Verve Studio Albums." On Monday's show, Alex Wagner, contributor to CBS News in the Atlantic and former MSNBC anchor. Wagner was curious about the roots of her mixed race ancestry, so she used her reporting skills to investigate, digging through archives and getting multiple and conflicting genetic tests. She'll tell us what she found. Her memoir is "Futureface." Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST ONE OF THOSE THINGS")

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Just one of those things. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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