Posts Tagged ‘Satchmo’

(Above: Satchmo and his septet rip through the “Tiger Rag.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The beauty of Louis Armstrong’s music was that it could be enjoyed and appreciated by everyone from children to adults and seasoned jazz fans to hardened critics.

Pity then that “Pops,” the new Armstrong biography by Wall Street Journal critic and former Kansas City resident Terry Teachout, isn’t as accessible.

Teachout is an exhaustive researcher who leaves few stones unturned. His biography draws not only from the two autobiographies published during Armstrong’s life, but dozens of books, articles, reviews and liner notes. It also boasts access to scores of previously unseen letters and hours of unheard conversations Armstrong recorded.

This unprecedented access allows Teachout to paint an intimate view of Armstrong. He paints a frank view of Armstrong’s daily marijuana use, which led to his 1931 arrest in California. We learn about the murder threats Satchmo received from the Chicago mafia for. When former boxing promoter Joe Glaser promised to make the threats stop, Armstrong rewarded him with a lifetime appointment as his manager. With Glaser taking care of everything else, Armstrong was free to focus on the only thing that matter to him: music.

Ironically, Armstrong’s music was most vital when his life was in the most upheaval. When he cut his classic Hot Fives and Hot Sevens sides, he was in the middle of a failing marriage, having trouble keeping a steady band together, and running ragged across the country to poorly organized shows. Most of those problems went away when Glaser came on the scene, but Armstrong’s music also reached a plateau.

While the current crop of trumpet stars were heavily and obviously indebted to Armstrong’s trailblazing technique, they were also disappointed by Armstrong’s repetitive repertoire and unashamed desire to entertain (which hewed too close to minstrelsy for the newly empowered African American generation). Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis were among the most vocal of Armstrong’s critics.

Yet even Diz and Miles were forced to reconsider their opinions after Armstrong cancelled a State Department-sponsored trip to Russia in protest President Eisenhower’s tepid steps to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. (Armstrong later sent Eisenhower a congratulatory telegram when the crisis was resolved.) Armstrong gained with respect with the trio of albums he released on Columbia in the 1950s that showcased a long-dormant vitality and sense of adventure.

Detractors may have been surprised when Armstrong spoke out on segregation, but he’d been fighting it most of his life. The color line is drawn most sharply when Teachout looks at what might have been were Satchmo’s skin lighter by comparing his career with his friend Bing Crosby’s. While Crosby was given his own radio show and starring roles in Hollywood films, Armstrong had to settle for guest appearances on the air and supporting roles in low-budget films.

“Pops” revels in the details of Satchmo’s glory days, but it doesn’t skimp on the leaner parts of his career. The last quarter of Armstrong’s life receive nearly 100 pages. These chapters document Satchmo’s renaissance as not only a premier jazz talent, but showman whose love knew no age or national boundaries. Stories of “Hello Dolly” knocking the Beatles off the top of the chart or recording “(What A) Wonderful World” do not feel like curtain calls, but the natural continuation of a career.

Teachout’s findings are fascinating, but impenetrable at first. It takes several chapters to comfortably negotiate Teachout’s style. His habit of identifying sources in the text instead of footnotes makes for a clunky read. Sometimes the sourcing overwhelms the content. However, after becoming accustomed to Teachout’s style, “Pops” is a pleasant and illuminating read.

Keep reading:

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Above: Johnny Cash’s alternate version of “Thunderball.”

By Joel Francis

After nearly 50 years of slugging spies and bedding beauties, the premier of a James Bond movie has become an cultural event. The opening credit sequences of these films are events among themselves. Even though some of the biggest names in rock have performed a Bond theme song, the producers have always treated the number as a throwback to the Broadway and pop numbers of the 1950s.

When Bond made his big screen debut in 1962’s “Dr. No,” Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” variants of “The Twist” and the Four Seasons topped the Billboard charts. The theme song for “Dr. No” was a bizarre calypso arrangement of “Three Blind Mice.” Thankfully, the nursery rhyme is preceded by Monty Norman’s immortal James Bond theme. Norman’s theme was reinterpreted in every Bond film thereafter. It’s still exciting to hear the surf guitar race into the explosion of horns. The song is over-the-top, suspenseful and dangerous, but the swinging drums winkingly confide in the viewer that everything is in good fun.

Bond was back the following year with “From Russia With Love.” This time, producers hired Broadway songsmith Lionel Bart, best known for his work on “Oliver!,” to write an original theme song. Bart’s lyrics, coupled with soundtrack composer John Barry’s music, are the embodiment of the bachelor pad/Playboy image. Singer Matt Monro made his name performing in the nightclubs, caberets and lounges Bond would have haunted offscreen. Their lounge music is the embodiment of the bachelor pad/Playboy image that reeks of wood paneling, shag carpeting, hi-fi stereos and rotating beds. In other words, it’s straight out of Bond’s world.

Three-time Bond songstress Shirley Bassey made her debut with “Goldfinger.” Although the film hit screens during the year of Beatlemania, there is no hint of rock and roll in the title song written by the musical theater team of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. Barry’s bombastic horns are matched only by Bassey’s brassy delivery. “Goldfinger” is not only one of the most memorable Bond songs of all time, but it’s also the first memorable Bond song.

Barry and Bricusse didn’t stray far from the template when they approached Tom Jones to sing “Thunderball.” Jones puts his pelvis in the delivery, but the arrangement is essentially “Goldfinger”-redux. While they may have been working with a formula, it’s a strong one – “Thunderball” works nearly as well as “Goldfinger.”

An alternate “Thunderball” song was given to Johnny Cash to perform, but rejeced by the film’s producers. It seems even at the peak of his pills phase, Cash was more man than Bond could handle.

Rock and roll finally appeared in the serpentine guitar lick that opens Nancy Sinatra’s performance of “You Only Live Twice.” Even with the guitar, Sinatra’s sexy vocals rest on a pillow of strings accentuated by a harp. The number was Barry and Bricusse’s third consecutive teaming, and constructed from fragments of 25 separate takes. Bassey must have felt left out, because she covered the song in 2007, following in the footsteps of Coldplay, Bjork and Robbie Williams (who sampled the original for “Millennium”).

 “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is a misfit in the Bond cannon, musically and theatrically. The title sequence is a throwback to the orchestral opening of “Dr. No.” Barry’s instrumental theme is notable for its deep Moog synthesizer notes, chugging rock bass and the soaring trombone melody, later taken over on trumpet. Barry, who scored every Bond film to this point, composed a great alternate to Norman’s original Bond theme. During the mid-’90s electronic craze, the Propellerheads created a 10-minute remix of the song.

Barry teamed with Burt Bacharach’s lyricist Hal David to write the film’s love theme, “All The Time in the World.” Saturated by fingerpicked guitar and a saccharine string section, the song couldn’t be further from jazz, despite the vocals of Louis Armstrong. Satchmo is in full-on “What A Wonderful World” mode. Lesser singers would buckle under the weight of the arrangement, but Armstrong is able to emote the lyrics perfectly, even if someone else is playing the trumpet solo.

As the calendar flipped to the 1970s, Bassey was given her second stint on a Bond theme. “Diamonds Are Forever” is the sexiest Bond theme since Sinatra’s. Barry’s arrangement is full of the soft strings and horn punctuations that viewers had come to expect, but he tosses in an unexpected splash of funk at the halfway point. The wah wah guitar and subtle nod to Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning “Theme from Shaft” could be what drew Kanye West to the song when he sampled it for his 2005 hit “Diamonds of the Sierra Leone.”

Keep reading:

The Music of James Bond: Part Two – The Seventies

The Music of James Bond: Part Three – The ’80s and Beyond

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