Louis Armstrong is the only artist in our 300 Songs countdown to get 10 songs to himself (five songs below and the other five online)—the least we can do for the most towering artist in the city’s music history. Looking over the list of songs that writer John Swenson has chosen you’ll find a trenchant piece of social commentary, one of the warmest evocations of the South on record, a pair of beloved pop songs, and a few recordings that shaped the very nature of jazz. His catalogue runs much deeper, of course, and there are purists who’d claim that no collection is complete without the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens boxed set. These 10, however, are part of the city’s musical bedrock, and 10 you can probably count on hearing at Satchmo SummerFest.
“Muskrat Ramble” (Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, 1926)
In some ways the Louis Armstrong story begins with “Muskrat Ramble.” The song was first recorded as part of Armstrong’s remarkable second recording session as a leader on February 26, 1926 in Chicago. The young Armstrong worked very hard to improve his playing and learn everything he could. He was very generous to older musicians who helped him out, and two of his benefactors were the trombonist Kid Ory and cornet star King Oliver. Ory knew Armstrong from the time the youngster was singing on the streets and took him under his wing. Oliver was Armstrong’s idol, and when Oliver left Ory’s band to move to Chicago, Ory replaced him with Armstrong. When Armstrong formed the Hot Five he asked Ory to be in the group.
Ory took credit for “Muskrat Ramble,” claiming he had written it back in 1921. Armstrong later claimed that he had written the song but never challenged Ory’s claim legally. To add to the confusion, Sidney Bechet claimed that it was an old Buddy Bolden song called “The Old Cow Died and the Old Man Cried.” Since it was an instrumental, it’s probable that elements of the composition were based on pre-existing melodic ideas and traditional folk material. Nevertheless it was Armstrong’s recording of the song with the Hot Five that created what has become the New Orleans jazz standard you will still hear played all over town to this day.
Here’s what Armstrong wrote about the song in Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words. The personal style and unusual punctuation is his part of his unique way of writing:
‘Muskrat Ramble’ was recorded in Chicago… In the good old days when Joe Oliver was blowing his cornet like mad—at the Plantation—at 35th and Calumet… That’s when I was playing just across the street—at the Sunset Cafe… The Sunset was owned by my manager, Joe Glaser… Of course, I was just a member of the Carroll Dickerson’s Orchestra at the time… And Mr. Glaser hadn’t started managing anyone—then… Along about that time—Kid Ory, John A. St. Cyr came to Chicago… And the minute I heard that they were in town—I jumped sky high… You see? I had just signed a contract to record for the Okeh Recording Company… And they told me to hire anyone for my recording band that I desired… Boy O Boy… The minute Mr. Fern (the President of the Okeh Company) gave me the go sign—I hit the phone and called the Musician’s Union, and asked permission to hire Kid Ory, Johnny St. Cyr and Johnny Dodds (who was already in Chicago, playing at Kelly’s Stable)… Of course—Lil Hardin joined up with me for my recording dates… She was working with King Oliver (Joe Oliver) every night—at the Royal Garden…
After our first date—the band impressed the bigwigs of the Okeh Co. so well that they signed us up right away… Then we began to really get into the groove, the New Orleans groove…That’s when we started making records every day… It was a good thing for us… Because when we went down to the Okeh Recording Company for the first time, we were all Mike Fright. We did not realize just how much we were frightened—until the day we recorded the ‘Gut Bucket Blues’…Tunes such as ‘Muskrat Ramble’—and other instrumental tunes—which were being recorded through the old Horn System—as unaccustomed as we were, we finally got used to it…
“Heebie Jeebies” (Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, 1926)
This is another song from Armstrong’s amazing second recording session as a leader in Chicago on February 26, 1926 with the Hot Five. The band included Armstrong on cornet and vocals, his wife Lil Hardin Armstrong on piano, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Kid Ory on trombone and Johnny St. Cyr on drums. The group was formed strictly to make records—in live performance, Armstrong always played in large dance bands—and part of its innovation was to introduce extended solos into the ensemble. But “Heebie Jeebies,” a very popular record upon its release, was known for something else—Armstrong’s great vocalization, nonsense word “solos” that rode the rhythm like an instrument.
This legendary creation myth of scat singing was actually just a mistake—Armstrong’s sheet music had fallen to the floor during the recording and he started scatting syllables along to the rhythm where he couldn’t remember the words. The technique became one of the signature gestures of his career.
Armstrong remembers the session in Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words:
…another incident that I shall not ever forget…This time the laugh was on me… When everybody heard about this record was made they all got a big laugh out of it… They also said that this particular recording was the beginning of Scat Singing… Because the day we recorded ‘Heebie Jeebies,’ I dropped the paper with the lyrics—right in the middle of the tune… And I did not want to stop and spoil the record which was moving along so wonderfully … So when I dropped the paper, I immediately turned back into the horn and started Scatting … Just as nothing had happened … When I finished the record I just knew the recording people would throw it out … And to my surprise they all came running out of the controlling booth and said—‘Leave That In’…
“Cornet Chop Suey” (Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, 1926)
Yet another track from Louis Armstrong’s historic second session as a leader, recorded in Chicago on February 26, 1926. The session was the culmination of a growth process that began when Armstrong left New Orleans to join Joe “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1922. He made his first recordings with that group in 1923. In 1924 Armstrong married the band’s pianist, Lillian Hardin, who encouraged him to broaden his horizons. Armstrong then went to New York, where he joined the Fletcher Henderson band and left an indelible mark on the thriving New York jazz scene, making records with Henderson as well as Clarence Williams’ Blue Five, Alberta Hunter, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and others. When Armstrong returned to Chicago to record under his own name for OKeh, he was ready to make his mark on history. “Cornet Chop Suey” was an Armstrong original, written on the back steps of Lillian’s house. The song is a treasure trove of early jazz riffs and breaks, melodic and rhythmic ideas that represented the sum total of Armstrong’s deep education on the streets of New Orleans, and the first real recorded demonstration of Armstrong’s superhuman facility as a soloist, featuring an amazing 16-bar stop-time solo. This was a Rosetta Stone for jazz nomenclature whose echoes can be heard right down to the present day.
Armstrong’s recollection of the date reflects the song’s roots in New Orleans:
Those variations in this recording remind me of the days when we played the tail gate (advertisings) in New Orleans… We kids, including Henry Rena—Buddy Petit—Joe Johnson and myself, we all were very fast on our cornets… And had some of the fastest fingers anyone could ever imagine a cornet player could have… And to us—we did not pay any attention to the idea that we were fingering our horns so terribly fast… And all of those boys had good tones… And when I say tone, I’m speaking of tones that blend with a tone that a trumpet man should have when playing a swing tune—and you’ll hear a lot of them blowing like mad… But they never lost essence and the mellow fragrance of the tune. ‘Cornet Chop Suey’ could be played as a trumpet solo, or with a symphony orchestra.
“West End Blues” (Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, 1928)
One of the masterpieces of Louis Armstrong’s early career, this performance distills the brilliance of Armstrong’s conception and, as he did in so many ways, changed the course of music history. Armstrong’s unforgettable trumpet cadenza that opens the recording, according to the great early jazz critic Gunther Schuller, “served notice that jazz had the potential to compete with the highest order of previously known expression.” Armstrong starts the piece with four striking, bugle-type notes, then proceeds through a dazzling climb-up of triplets to culminate in an ecstatic, vibrato-emphasized high C. After that climax, Armstrong walks it back down the scale with a series of triple-tongued figures. A solo for the ages, it has a narrative structure with a theme, a climax and a denouement. This is the perfect expression of the need for a solo to “tell a story.”
Recorded on June 28, 1928 with another version of the Hot Five (actually six musicians)— Armstrong on trumpet and vocals, Earl “Fatha” Hines on piano, Jimmy Strong on clarinet, Fred Robinson on trombone, Mancy Carr on banjo and drummer Zutty Singleton on hand cymbals—the song shows Armstrong’s growing maturity as a soloist and vocalist. The song, written by Joe Oliver about the West End hotel and amusement park on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans in the late 1800s and early 1900s, was recorded earlier by Oliver, but Armstrong’s version became the industry standard, even for Oliver, whose band recorded the song again after hearing the Hot Five’s version.
The performance as a whole is magnificent, but the most important element apart from Armstrong’s virtuoso playing itself is the interaction between Armstrong and Hines. Armstrong was not often musically challenged by his bandmates on his early recordings, but Hines had a spirit and approach to the piano that matched the audacity of Armstrong’s conception. After the rest of the band moves in, trading solo passages, and Armstrong sings a beautiful vocalese call-and-response with Strong, Hines throws in a technically stunning solo that rivals and echoes Armstrong’s. Armstrong’s simple but emotionally powerful exchange with Hines at the song’s end, followed by Singleton’s striking cymbal punctuation, is a portrait of old New Orleans worthy of the great masters.
“(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” (Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, 1929)
Louis Armstrong’s version of this song is an astonishingly deep dive into existential racial politics. The song was written by Fats Waller and lyricist Andy Razaf for the 1929 Broadway show Hot Chocolates, which Armstrong performed in. Waller/Razaf also penned the extremely popular “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which became one of Waller’s best known compositions, for the same show. Both of these songs would become staples of Louis Armstrong’s live performances from then on.
On July 19, 1929 Armstrong went into the studio fronting the Carroll Dickerson Orchestra to cut “Ain’t Misbehavin'” as the A-side and “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” the B-side of OKeh 8714, listed as “Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra.” He would record with large bands through the swing era before returning to a small band format after World War II.
Legend has it that the legendary gangster Dutch Schultz was behind “Black and Blue”:
“It was, amazingly enough, Dutch Schultz who had the idea for the song,” writes Terry Teachout in Pops, “telling Razaf that the show needed a comic number in which a ‘colored girl’ sang about how hard it was to be black. When Razaf balked, Schultz pulled a gun and told him to get to work.”
Though Armstrong did sing “Ain’t Misbehavin'” in the show before recording it, he did not sing “Black and Blue,” which makes his choice of that song, and the way he rewrote it, significant. In Armstrong’s reading the verse including the dark-skinned woman’s lament about losing her man to a lighter-skinned woman is eliminated. Armstrong recasts the song into both a universal—and what sounds like a personal—expression of the wrenching psychological agony of racism. Armstrong’s emotional commitment to the lyric made the song a highlight of his live performances. Armstrong made a further revision to the lyric in the 1950s. The original song includes a line that goes “I’m white inside/ But that don’t help my case.” Armstrong changed it to “I’m right…/ But that don’t help my case.”
“When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” (Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, 1931)
In 1930, with the Great Depression severely impacting the entertainment business in New York, Louis Armstrong went to Hollywood looking for work. He got a job leading the band at the Cotton Club in Culver City, California, a Los Angeles suburb. One of the members of the band was Lionel Hampton. Armstrong was a huge hit in California, as he had been everywhere else, and he was soaring along until he was arrested by Los Angeles police on November 14, 1930 outside his gig for smoking marijuana. He eventually served nine days of his 30-day sentence. On March 9, with the rest of his sentence suspended, Armstrong returned to Chicago, where he worked for a very unpleasant new manager, Johnny Collins. Collins became embroiled in a gangland feud with Armstrong’s former manager Tommy Rockwell. It was a rough time for Armstrong. He had a brief reunion with his estranged wife Lil Hardin in California, but it ended when he left the state bitterly claiming that she had cheated on him.
In this context it’s easy to understand why Armstrong fell in love with a song written by two Louisiana Creole friends he met in California, Leon and Otis Rene (along with Clarence Muse). “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” contains a lyric that expresses Armstrong’s world-weariness of city life, which made him a star but also threw him in jail and brought him into the midst of a life-threatening feud between mobsters:
Homesick tired All alone in a big city / Why should ev’rybody pity me, / Nighttime’s falling, folks are a singin’, / they dance till break of day / Dear Old Southland with it’s dreamy songs / Takes me back there where I belong / How I’d love to be in mammy’s arms / When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.
Armstrong made it his theme song and re-recorded it scores of times over the course of his career, most notably in a 1941 instrumental version and a controversial 1951 remake. The lyric is rife with racial stereotypes, including two references to “darkies” that became a racial flash point when Armstrong recorded it in ’51, getting the record banned from airplay on New York radio stations. In his book What A Wonderful World, Ricky Riccardi writes:
To calm the hysteria, Armstrong reentered the studio to overdub the word ‘people’ instead of ‘darkies.’ In live performances, he used ‘folks,’ and this is how he would sing it for the next twenty years.
“When the Saints Go Marching In” (Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, 1938)
Think of a song associated with New Orleans. “Saints” is right there at or near the top of the list. It seems like every jazz musician in the city plays this song, and just walking around the French Quarter it’s impossible to avoid hearing a version of it at some point. Still, many people are surprised to hear that until Louis Armstrong recorded “Saints” on May 13, 1938 the song wasn’t considered appropriate for jazz musicians to play. This is especially odd because all New Orleans musicians were aware of the song through the second line funeral tradition, and those who played in brass bands knew it inside and out, yet none of them recorded it. Record executives apparently didn’t want jazz musicians making gospel records.
But Louis Armstrong showed them the way, as he did on so many occasions. Armstrong, of course, knew and loved the song from childhood. In 1938 he was three years into his contract with new manager Joe Glaser, who signed a new deal with Decca Records. Armstrong made pop hits, played bit parts in various films, and toured incessantly. Why in the midst of all this did he record “Saints”? Could it be his tribute to his greatest influence and musical benefactor, Joe “King” Oliver? Oliver had been going through hard times when Armstrong encountered him in 1937. Armstrong gave him some money and tried to help Oliver out, but the demands of the road kept him from being able to spend much time with his old bandleader. When Oliver passed away on April 10, 1938 at the age of 52 Armstrong must have been disconsolate. Oliver had to be on his mind when he made his powerful first recording of “Saints.”
The stripped down version of Armstrong’s orchestra featured Louis on trumpet and vocal; Shelton Hemphill on trumpet; J.C. Higginbotham on trombone; Rupert Cole and Charlie Holmes on alto saxophone; Bingie Madison on tenor saxophone; Luis Russell on piano; Lee Blair on guitar; Pops Foster on bass; and Paul Barbarin on drums. The snappy arrangement is by Luis Russell, and Armstrong adopts the tongue-in-cheek preacher role he often used in his introduction:
“Sisters and brothers, this is Reverend Satchmo getting ready to beat out this mellow sermon for you. My text this evening is ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’ Here comes Brother Higgenbottom down the aisle with his trombone. Blow it, boy…”
Higginbottham delivers a great solo, sticking close to the melody and really bouncing the rhythm. Armstrong sings each chorus in a call-and-response exchange with backing vocalists as a soloist breaks up the section until a sweeping, dramatic finale by Armstrong, who plays two choruses on trumpet, bridging the solo with a high note followed by a series of blasts, each one pitched higher than the one before, ending on a high concert D. The performance is a triumph for band and arranger but most of all for Armstrong himself.
“Blueberry Hill” (Louis Armstrong and Gordon Jenkins and His Orchestra and Chorus, 1949)
There’s a famous album called Satch Plays Fats, which features Louis Armstrong covering Fats Waller tunes, but my fantasy is that Satch meets Fats (Domino) on Blueberry Hill, where the two most lovable figures of twentieth century music find their Eden. The song was written in 1940 and was covered by numerous jazz artists, including Glenn Miller, whose big band version was a number one hit. Armstrong re-signed with Decca Records and producer Milt Gabler in 1949. Gabler was a master at producing pop cover tunes for hits and his mission was to get Armstrong into the pop charts. On September 6 Armstrong went into the studio with arranger/conductor Gordon Jenkins, who backed him with a choir and a group of studio musicians. The song made its way to the charts and became a staple of Armstrong’s live performances for the rest of his career. More importantly though, Armstrong gave what by most perceptions would be a fairly corny period piece universal appeal through the sensitivity and sheer emotion that he was able to convey with the song. When Armstrong sings something as simple as this he manages to make it sound like it’s about much more than what’s on the surface. In his reading, “Blueberry Hill” becomes far more than a silly love song. Domino’s 1956 version follows Armstrong’s lead in his reading of the lyric closely. The vocals are remarkably similar even as the masterful arrangement from Dave Bartholomew and Domino’s trademark triplet piano style, varies in the Domino version, which of course became an early rock ’n’ roll classic.
“Hello, Dolly!” (Louis Armstrong, 1964)
Louis Armstrong’s last hurrah. Not his last hit, but the last moment where he asserted his authority over twentieth century music, knocking the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” out of the number one position on the charts on May 9, 1964 during the height of the Fab Four’s initial popularity. Though many see this as a rock vs. jazz generational sea change in music, I prefer to think of it as a unification and continuation of ideas. Far from being rivals, the Beatles and Armstrong were both twentieth century masters of the popular music ideal, two sides of the same coin. Armstrong’s single version is as good an example of the 45 rpm single format as has ever existed, 2:27 of perfectly crafted playing, singing and production from the magnificent banjo fanfare to Armstrong’s inspired vocal. Armstrong makes it a moment of personal identification when he sings in the second line “This is Louis…” pronouncing his name the way he preferred it, rather than the diminutive “Lou-ee” that announcers used to introduce him.
Armstrong recorded the song with the All Stars on December 3, 1963 as a demo to help plug the musical Hello, Dolly!, which was still in development. On the same session the All Stars (Joe Darensbourg, clarinet; Billy Kyle, piano; Danny Barcelona, drums; Arvell Shaw, bass; and Trummy Young, trombone) recorded “A Lot of Livin’ To Do” from the musical Bye Bye Birdie. A friend of Trummy Young’s, Tony Gottuso, was brought in to play the banjo part. Louis and the All Stars promptly forgot about it and went back on tour. Producer Mickey Kapp added some string accompaniment to the background. When Hello Dolly! opened on Broadway in January 1964 it became the biggest hit of the season, launching Carol Channing to stardom. Kapp released Armstrong’s recording as single, with “A Lot of Livin’ To Do” as the B-side. “Hello, Dolly!” became Armstrong’s biggest hit and Armstrong won the Best Performance of a Song award and Song of the Year at the 1965 Grammy Awards. The musical became a hit again in a 2017 revival starring Bette Midler, but the song will always belong to Armstrong:
“Dolly… never go away again”
“What a Wonderful World” (Louis Armstrong, 1967)
Louis Armstrong’s final gift to his American audience, in the sense that it became a hit in the U.S. nearly 20 years after its release as part of the soundtrack to Good Morning, Vietnam, has become the song he is most associated with. Most critics bemoan this fact, noting that its popularity has eclipsed the importance of his earth-shattering early recordings. But this song is the triumph of Armstrong’s imagination, the apotheosis of his late-career genius in delivering sentimentality with deeply authentic emotion. Here’s a man who endured all the hardships of growing up poor and black in New Orleans, struggling to make his way in the world but having to leave his beloved hometown to accomplish that, and dealing with a lifetime of institutionalized racism in the society he was part of, summing up all his feelings in a message of unshakable optimism and the power of love:
And I think to myself “What a wonderful world.”
Producer Bob Thiele, who had worked with Armstrong on his collaboration with Duke Ellington, introduced Louis to the song in 1967. Thiele was working at ABC Records, and Armstrong agreed to record the tune for the label. Armstrong just sang on the track, which was lushly orchestrated. When ABC president Larry Newton heard it he thought it had no commercial potential. Armstrong’s manager Joe Glaser tried to buy the recording from ABC but the company dumped it on the U.S. market with zero promotion and it stiffed. Nevertheless, Armstrong’s worldwide popularity carried it to the top of the charts elsewhere, including England, where it sold more than 600,000 copies.
Now, nearly 50 years after Armstrong’s death, “What a Wonderful World” presents him as a voice for eternity, and when other musicians pay tribute to him, this is the song they’re most likely to turn to.