Louis Armstrong – The Best of Louis Armstrong: The Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings – Classic Music Review
How many of those who joined Benny Goodman’s swing caravan in the thirties or rocked to Chuck Berry in the fifties or savored the increased vibrato that became fashionable in the brass sections of symphony orchestras knew the extent to which they were living in a world created by the famous gravel-mouthed clown? How many appreciated what Miles Davis meant when he said, “You know you can’t play anything on the horn that Louis hasn’t played— I mean even modern,” or Bing Crosby, when he called Armstrong “the beginning and the end of music in America,” or Virgil Thompson, when he wrote that his “improvisation would seem to have combined the highest reaches of instrumental virtuosity with the most tensely disciplined melodic structure and the most spontaneous emotional expression, all of which in one man you must admit is pretty rare”?
Giddins, Gary (2009-03-05). Satchmo: The Genius of Louis Armstrong (Kindle Locations 196-202). Da Capo Press. Kindle Edition.
The only time I come close to believing in the existence of a higher power is when I listen to Louis Armstrong.
What I hear when he plays is the purest expression of the human spirit. Music historians rave about his tonal purity, but tend to downplay those aspects of music that cannot be discerned by the five senses. The feel Louis Armstrong gives to his music, combined with his exceptional technical gifts, is what gives his sound its spiritual essence. The only writer who ever captured the essence of Louis Armstrong was a man who had died a century before the Hot Five entered the recording studio, the English poet William Blake:
How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?
Had Blake been able to hear Louis Armstrong, he would have seized upon his music as evidence for his theory of human perception beyond the sensual. He would have experienced something very similar to how he described Isaiah’s experience of talking to god in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in every thing.”
When I hear Louis Armstrong, I hear an immense world of delight, the infinite in every thing.
Louis Armstrong influenced every form of modern popular music; he is the source for many features of music that we take for granted. Prior to Armstrong’s ascendancy, music was a highly structured and organized experience where accurate replication of a piece was all that mattered. Even early jazz sounds oddly confined within conventions. Musical excellence was defined as the ability to strictly follow a pattern, either in the form of a written score or trying to copy the song you heard played by the band at the bar down the street. Armstrong introduced the world of music to the value of improvisation, both instrumental and vocal. You can’t say he invented scat singing or the virtuoso solo, because any claim that one person invented any feature of music must be viewed with skepticism due to the fluidity of human contact and our limited ability to capture historical moments. It is more accurate to say that Louis Armstrong made improvisation a vital and viable aspect of music because he imbued his improvisations with technical brilliance and an irrepressible spirit that made the listening experience enjoyable and inspirational. Once Armstrong hit the scene, everybody wanted to play and sing like him. He gave musicians permission to do more than perform music, he gave them permission to play music—to explore, to break boundaries, to create, to have fun.
Gary Giddins’ brief biography—a good starting point for readers who want to understand Armstrong’s history and his influence—is primarily a defense of Louis Armstrong’s place in musical history. He takes on the snobs who dismiss Armstrong as an “entertainer,” people whose limited minds refuse to acknowledge the possibility that a true artist can have popular appeal. These elitists point to Armstrong’s mugging and clowning as evidence he is not to be taken seriously, and consider the sheer joy he could generate in the listening audience as damning evidence of a defect.
Since Shakespeare, Mozart, Dickens and The Beatles proved conclusively that on rare occasions popular taste and artistic excellence do coincide, it is ridiculous to condemn Armstrong simply because he appealed to audiences all over the world. On the contrary, Louis Armstrong’s enduring and widespread popularity should be celebrated as evidence that there’s still hope for the human race.
The Best of Louis Armstrong: The Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings are a sample from the complete collection widely available today. The recordings were made in various sessions that took place during the period from 1926 to 1928 when Armstrong called Chicago home. One of many things I love about the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings is how well the music captures the tone of 1920’s America. You simply can’t find a more appropriate soundtrack for an era characterized by permissiveness and the fast buck: the music is often boozy, titillating and highly suggestive. Prohibition had made liquor even more appealing than ever, and those über-capitalists we refer to as gangsters emerged to meet burgeoning consumer demand for a good time. Women had a brief period of pseudo-liberation, getting the vote, showing off their legs, kicking their heels on the dance floor and daring to smoke in public. With alcohol going underground and women defying traditional morality, the music of the time simply had to come from those who were not part of the mainstream of American life: black musicians playing “the devil’s music.” The fact that they worked in the city of Al Capone and Bugs Moran makes their emergence even sweeter.
While the recordings are primitive, they are remarkable for the contrast between Louis Armstrong and the supporting cast of musicians. That supporting cast “seemed to be locked into an earlier style,” observed Michael Brooks in the liner notes, and despite Armstrong’s generosity in allowing those musicians to showcase themselves and his game attempts to play a supporting role, the simple fact is that Louis Armstrong was the superior musician, and his trumpet (or cornet) is distinctly noticeable even when he’s not front and center, especially in the Hot Five recordings. The clarity he achieves despite the limitations of 1920’s recording technology is stunning, especially when compared to the tones his bandmates produce. That contrast allows the listener to clearly identify the quantum leap that jazz is about to take into becoming a soloist’s art, leaving the ensemble style of jazz in the dust.
However, it’s the vocal on the opening track (“Heebie Jeebies”) that makes it a special moment, for after the typically extended musical introduction that characterized vocal performances through the Swing Era, Louis gives us a vocal display that was quite advanced for the time, borrowing on his experience working with Bessie Smith and singing the groove instead of the notes. His timing and phrasing defy meter, as he pauses and elongates his lines based on how he’s feeling it. When he moves into the scat section, his playful joy comes through as he captures the essence and spirit of early scat—that odd human impulse to attempt to replicate the sound of an instrument with our voices. When he finishes up with a return to the chorus, what happens next is truly remarkable: the first eight measures are played by the rest of the Hot Five to allow Louis to catch his breath, and when he comes in on the cornet for the next round, the clarity of his tone is like a brilliant sun breaking through the dark clouds.
“Muskrat Ramble” is further evidence of Armstrong’s exceptional musicianship, but I have to say that I find Kid Ory’s trombone work here pretty impressive as well. The trombone has become almost an afterthought in jazz over the years, and it’s quite refreshing to hear its unique capabilities here, during a time when the instrument was an essential part of a jazz combo. Armstrong’s work remains the centerpiece, though, floating effortlessly on one solo then spitting out the dissonant blue notes on the solo that follows Johnny Dodds’ clarinet piece. It’s a fun and captivating number that was Louis Armstrong’s first top 10 hit. It’s followed by “King of the Zulus,” most notable for Armstrong’s acting skills, as he responds with what sounds like genuine indignation when his mournful, bluesy solo is interrupted by a Caribbean voice demanding an order of chitlins. The “interruption” makes no difference, as Louis then proceeds to knock it out of the park with an extended solo marked by beautiful held notes perfectly suited for a New Orleans funeral or Mardi Gras parade. “Jazz Lips” is more of a running duet with Armstrong and Kid Ory, with some amazing call-and-response passages and first-class musicianship on the part of both men.
The disc then moves to some Hot Seven pieces, the first of which is “Willie the Weeper,” which Mr. Brooks says is “notable for a Johnny St. Cyr banjo solo.” Funny, what I notice most about the piece is Pete Briggs on the tuba, probably because it’s so unusual to hear a tuba in the 21st century. As for St. Cyr’s banjo, I’m thankful that he tuned it and played it like a guitar. Louis really doesn’t get warmed up until the final passage, where he soars like an eagle. He starts off strong in “Wild Man Blues” with the brief stop-time solo introduction, and continues to display his excellence as a bluesman throughout the piece, which features several longer stop-time solos designed to amaze you with their energy and command. Johnny Dodds also solos, and not only does his clarinet sound brighter, but some of the sinuous runs he produces are terribly sexy and much bolder than his Hot Five work. “Alligator Crawl” features Dodds’ fingers dancing over the bass line provided by the tuba, but Armstrong is the foundation of the piece, giving it a cohesion that overcomes the archaic-sounding banjo solo.
“Potato Head Blues” is quite deceptive in the sense that the opening sounds like early New Orleans ensemble, with everyone in on the act. Armstrong and Dodds trade solos, and I really don’t hear the angst and rage that Mr. Brooks claims to hear in Johnny Dodds’ clarinet; what I hear is a pretty smooth clarinet player swinging to the rhythm. The piece becomes truly memorable only after a blessedly brief banjo break, when Louis resumes the lead. Anyone who can listen to this solo and tell me that Louis Armstrong was not capable of art has to be certifiably deaf. Far, far ahead of its time, this extended, vibrato-enhanced stop-time solo features incredible tonal clarity and precious moments where his melody frees itself from the rhythm and the notes seem suspended in time—independent of the groove, but always resolved to the groove—a technique you do not hear too often until Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk enter the scene. Mr. Brooks remarks, “English critic and trumpeter John Chilton wrote that when this solo was transcribed to paper, musicians were enthralled, but no written record can capture the tonal beauty and expressive vibrato that distinguishes Louis’ rendition from all others.” Giddins commented, “That unique radiance heard in ‘Potato Head Blues’ now coursed through the man himself.” That is a very perceptive observation, for there are few musicians who achieved oneness with the music to the extent that Louis Armstrong did: the horn was the expressive extension of his soul.
“Weary Blues” hardly sounds weary, as all the Hot Seven get into act, driving it home like there’s no tomorrow. My god, there’s even a tuba solo! “Ory’s Creole Trombone” is a Hot Five number where Kid Ory once again displays the signature sounds of the slide trombone. Unfortunately for him, Armstrong steals the show with an exuberant display of cornet magic. This is one of his snappier solos, as the short notes and high register runs dominate until the finishing flourish. “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” is the Hot Five number that Giddins considers their masterpiece, specifically pointing to Armstrong’s solo, “a showcase for the entertainer as artist, flaunting his brilliance with mercurial rips, dazzling triplets, a glissando that seems to swallow its own tail.” In addition to the stunning display of individual virtuosity, this is probably the Hot Five’s strongest ensemble piece, for even with his extraordinary capabilities, Louis Armstrong was an unfailingly generous musician.
The inexplicable “West End Blues” comes next—inexplicable because people are still wondering how Louis Armstrong pulled off the introduction. Giddins notes, “How can one explain the large number of violinists who can play Bach’s D-minor Chaconne when no trumpeter, in or out of jazz, has convincingly replicated Armstrong’s nine-measure intro?” Those twelve seconds are packed with evidence of superhuman dexterity—with fingers, tongue and lips working in ways that cannot be explained by human evolution. All I know is this: when I hear it, I want that mouth positioned on my sweet spot, because I am absolutely certain it will give me the orgasm to end all orgasms. The song itself is a pretty run-of-the-mill blues number, exquisitely arranged by a different Hot Five lineup featuring Jimmy Strong on clarinet and Earl Hines on piano. The duet between Jimmy Strong in the lower reaches of the clarinet and Armstrong singing soft, melodic scat is simply wonderful, and Hines’ subsequent piano solo, a combination of barroom and lounge, is exquisite. When the combo returns, Louis holds a single note firmly in place for four measures before belting out some blues licks that any modern blues guitarist would be proud to replicate.
Continuing with Hot Seven tracks, Earl Hines appropriately opens the cover of Fats Waller’s “Squeeze Me,” notable for Louis’ scat vocal that pretty much tracks his trumpet solo. Backed by the willowy vocal duet of Earl Hines and Mancy Cara, Armstrong is in total command of melody and phrasing. The track is also famous for the sound of a dropped drumstick, a delightful distraction reminding us that these records were put together on a shoestring and a prayer. “Basin Street Blues” follows, and I don’t think I can come up with a better description of the staging than what you can find in Michael Brooks’ liner notes: “Hines switches to celeste and its delicate strains conjure up quiet rainy afternoons in New Orleans brothel with the girls lounging around déshabillé waiting for a prince who never came.” Louis delivers another superb scat vocal, because a.) he was so good at it and b.) there were no lyrics to the song until three years later.
As tragic as it was that Americans had to bail out the French in WWI, it was even more tragic that the returning soldiers brought fragments of French with them, which they proceeded to shred, chop and dice. The only good thing that came out of it was “Beau Koo Jack,” a title that reflects 20’s slang for a lot of dough. The track features a slinky alto sax part via Don Redman, a frantic set of piano runs from Earl Hines and Louis going positively mad with repeated bursts of arpeggiated magic. “Muggles” is an early tribute one of Louis Armstrong’s lifelong companions: marijuana. An Armstrong-Hines composition performed at a slow tempo matching the mellow mood created by the green weed, the track gives everyone plenty of time to catch their breaths and savor the notes—until Armstrong switches to double-time for his solo, then makes an amazing caesura-free transition back to the original beat. The solo itself is remarkable for what it lacks: the ripping glissandi we’ve heard in the other solos on the record. Louis plays it simple and straight, pretty much sticking to clearly-enunciated notes to accentuate the rhythm (though, as Giddins notes, he does bounce between two pitches).
“St. James Infirmary” has been recorded by hundreds of musical artists in many genres, but this is my personal favorite and my favorite Armstrong vocal of them all. The basic story involves the death of one’s sweetheart, but Louis, playing the part of grieving lover, shuffles verses and changes lyrics to craft a defiant message concerning his own mortality, delivered with breathtaking bravado. What makes his insufferable arrogance so enduringly fascinating is his ability to place himself completely in the role: he sounds like the man’s man, the stud who is absolutely confident in his ability to deliver, the gambler who knows the score and would never go out a loser:
I went down to St. James infirmary, saw my baby there
Stretched out on a long white table,
So sweet, so cold and so fair
Let her go, let her go, God bless her
Wherever she may be
She can look this whole wide world over
She’ll never find a sweet man like me
When I die I want you to dress me in straight-laced shoes
Boxback coat and a Stetson hat
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain
So the boys’ll know I died standing pat
The backing arrangement is appropriately bluesy and funereal, with Louis playing in a suitably restrained and confident fashion: the epitome of the high-class gent his character believes he is.
Our journey through Armstrong’s early years ends with the blues-tinged “Tight Like This,” the last Hot Five recording. While Earl Hines provides some surprisingly arrhythmic piano runs in the build, Armstrong’s technically brilliant and anguished sixty-four bar solo is simply out of this world. This is the man in his moment, realizing his destiny. When I hear this solo, he sounds like the sculptor chipping away at the unnecessary stone that hides the underlying form. In this case, it feels like the thing he is trying to reach is some deep hurt, some pain that he needs to express through his horn. Though he downplayed the scars from his chaotic childhood, no one could have been raised the way he was with “multiple stepfathers” and an off-and-on mother without some residual effects. “Tight Like This” gives pretty strong evidence that he used music to express the joy and purge the pain. The track ends when he’s played himself out, a blessing indeed. No one could follow that solo.
Few people have ever possessed the talent of a Louis Armstrong; fewer still have had such an enduring impact on the arts. Despite his incredible gifts and worldwide fame, he was forever accessible, settling into a modest house in Queens where he would play with the neighborhood kids after returning from another long road trip. In an era dominated by ego-driven musicians whose primary goals are fame, money and adulation, Louis Armstrong stands as an eternal reminder that music is the pathway to the spirit and a proven way of bringing people of different cultures together. While I believe he was touched by the infinite, what I appreciate most is his fundamental humanity. What we hear in his work with The Hot Fives and Hot Sevens is a man who has found his mission and life and is absolutely delighted with the discovery.
One of the early progenitors of rock ‘n’ roll, Fats Domino may not have the same status in rock that Louis Armstrong had in jazz, but they had two things in common. Both learned their chops in New Orleans, and both loved to make music that made people happy.
Louis Armstrong was a musical genius whose influence can be felt in nearly all forms of popular music that followed him. As many have said, it’s impossible to overestimate his reach. Fats Domino was never the innovator that Armstrong was, but along with others like Arthur Crudup, Ruth Brown and Johnny Otis, he was a key part of the evolution of R&B into what we call rock ‘n’ roll. Fats thought it was funny that people made such a big deal out of the distinction. “Everybody started callin’ my music rock and roll, but it wasn’t anything but the same rhythm and blues I’d been playin’ down in New Orleans.” According to the scholars, the difference is rock’s pronounced emphasis on beats two and four, especially four: the backbeat. You can hear this more clearly in early Little Richard than you can in Fats Domino, though you do hear the backbeat emphasis on “Fat Man,” one of the many contenders for the title of first rock ‘n’ roll song.
We’ll leave all that for the musicologists to sort out and let Fats make us happy. He’s really very good at it. Whenever I’m in a funk, feeling stale or in need of a musical recharge, I’ll often play Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives or Hot Sevens, or a little Fats Domino to restore my spirits and bring a smile to my face.
The Fats Domino Jukebox is a hoot! Fans can argue about the quality of various compilations, but really, you can put almost any twenty Fats Domino songs on a record and make a great compilation. The Jukebox has the bulk of his hits from his peak years of 1949-1961 with Imperial, and while we can piss and moan about the exclusion of “I Hear You Knocking,” hey! This is Fats Domino! Stop whining and enjoy the man!
“The Fat Man”: Goddamn, I love pre-stereo recordings, the more primitive the better! They’re the musical equivalent of black-and-white photography, where all the distracting color noise is stripped away so your brain can process form more efficiently. Here the form is drawn by the rhythm, and while it may sound small and compressed into a very tiny sound field, that rhythm has ten times the power of drums and bass amplified to fill football stadiums because there are fewer distractions: the groove is the figure in your perceptual field. “You got to keep a good beat,” Fats told Downbeat magazine, explaining the secret of his success, and “The Fat Man” is a pristine example of a song where every element springs from that slightly modified boogie-woogie rhythm. Your head starts bobbing after a single measure, your feet start tapping after the fourth, and when Fats comes in with a vocal flavored by feel rather than hampered by precision, your entire body gets into the act. When he does his muted cornet imitation to fill the space for the solo instrumental passage, you’re all smiles. And while he may not have been Art Tatum, Fats had very nimble fingers and was fabulous at doing the most important thing: keeping the good beat. The song rocks all the way to the classic close.
“The Fat Man” also works as a time capsule left for the inhabitants of a health nazi culture of the future . . . one just like ours! Fats feels no shame whatsoever about his 5’5”, 220-pound frame—again, because the man knows what’s important in life:
They call, they call me the fat man
‘Cause I weigh two hundred pounds
All the girls they love me
‘Cause I know my way around
As of this writing, Fats Domino is eighty-six years old, having survived a lifetime eating New Orleans cuisine, a saturated fat fan’s dream. My theory is that having a good time and actually enjoying life is a much healthier way to live than basing one’s existence on the paranoid pronouncements of medical professionals. Here he is pushing 60—he looks pretty happy and healthy to me! And how on earth does he play the piano with all that bling on his fingers?
“Goin’ Home”: Fats is on his game in this slow blues number supported by seductive horns and a pretty stable rhythm. I say “pretty stable” because there’s a hiccup on the bass drum right before Herbert Hardesty’s tenor sax solo that sounds like the drummer was trying to kill a cockroach. He probably was, since they were recording in New Orleans. The only thing I hated about New Orleans were all those fucking bugs. Yecch!
“Going to the River”: This one slipped into the top 30 in 1953. Fats co-wrote many of his songs with producer and arranger Dave Bartholomew, and this is a classic blues number about a guy who’s going to go to the river and “jump overboard and drown” because his baby’s left town. Although Fats is more famous for his cheerier numbers, he sings this sucker convincingly, like he has tears in his eyes and desolation in his heart. Sad it may be, but it’s a beautiful and sincere performance.
“Ain’t That a Shame?”: Fats Domino’s breakthrough hit peaked at #10 and would have gone to #1 if a.) Imperial Records hadn’t been a podunk label and b.) he’d been a white guy. The truly scary Pat Boone took his highly sanitized version to #1. Did you know that Pat Boone wanted to change the title and the lyrics to “Isn’t It a Shame?” Is that one fucking committed white boy or what? Look, I don’t care if it’s Pat Boone, The Four Seasons or Cheap Trick, no one did this song as well as Fats Domino. The difference in his version is his restrained, clipped vocal, which mirrors the real sentiments expressed in the lyrics: the bitch has burned him, but that’s all over now and he’s moving on. “Oh, well, goodbye.” Shit happens. The guitar and horn accompaniment are equally low-key but very tight; every element in the song supports the all-important beat. You don’t need to rock out full blast or overdo the vocal on this song; to do it right you need the New Orleans touch, nice and easy. Woman’s gone? There are plenty of others showing off their tits on Bourbon Street. Laissez les bon temps rouler!
I do have to add that I am terribly fond of one Pat Boone song: “Love Letters in the Sand.” The bastard whistles on it. I’m a whore for whistling.
“All By Myself”: Sigh. This energetic and delightful follow-up to “Ain’t That a Shame?” made it to #1 on the R&B charts but completely failed to penetrate the pop charts. The segregation of music during this era is befuddling to me. I realize that the African-American performers didn’t have the promo money available to the white stars, but man, those were the people making the best music! Didn’t that count for anything? I can answer my own question, thank you. I love Fats’ vocal here, sung with a wink in his eye and a wallet full of dough ready to treat his lady to a good time. The sax solo is first-class, and the occasional skipping of measures sustains the interest.
“Poor Me”: Now this is fascinating. This is another song that failed to get through to the white people of the time, though a year later they would hear almost the exact same piano runs used in a song that became Fats’ biggest hit. Fats is in total command of the vocal, absolutely killing it on the stop time segments even though the third line requires a very dexterous tongue and command of the scale to fit the syllables into a very short interval. The instrumental passage is rock solid with some great cymbal work . . . shee-it, people of the 50’s! What the fuck was wrong with you?
“I’m in Love Again”: Success! At last! All the way up to #3! ‘Bout fucking time! One of Fats’ most joyful vocals, sung in fabulously high spirits and strongly supported by some great R&B backing, this just had to make the top ten. There’s the great sax solo from Lee Allen, the rollicking piano from Antoine (Fats’ real name) and that great line, “Baby, don’t you let your dog bite me.” Oo-eee!
So what happened between November 1955, when “Poor Me” languished in obscurity, and March 1956 to open the ears of the white American public? Rosa Parks’ arrest? The Montgomery Bus Boycott? The lunar eclipse? What happened was the result of what MLK referred to as “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism”—the “go slow, give people time” approach to human rights. The segregationist mindset (subtle in the North, legal and sanctioned in the South) in the USA was just beginning to crack, and progress on that front was slow and uneven. As late as 1948, R&B was still classified as “race music.” While Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby had smashed baseball’s barrier in 1947, the Boston Red Sox wouldn’t break until Pumpsie Green got the call in 1959. While the historical persistence of segregation infuriates me, it’s more than just being pissed off about politics. Real people got hurt by segregation; in this context, some of the most talented musicians of their era didn’t get the respect or the money they deserved. I’m glad Fats finally became a regular visitor to the hit parade, but he should have achieved that status much sooner.
“Blueberry Hill”: Louis Armstrong, among many others, sang “Blueberry Hill” long before it became Fats’ signature song, and in nine cases out of ten I prefer Satchmo’s versions of popular songs. Not this time. Fats is perfect for this song, laying back and singing it with the tone of someone reliving a special romantic moment tinged with a touch of melancholy. His Creole accent gives his phrasing a certain charm that mellows his vocal and gives it a sincerity that is hard to match. The arrangement is simply marvelous, especially in the gorgeous subtlety of the horns. It’s also extremely refreshing to hear Fats work with a song with greater chordal complexity than the classic three-chord blues structure. What’s remarkable about the performance is that its smoothness is partially engineered: the final version was pieced together from several takes. Dave Bartholomew didn’t even want Fats to record the song, but the Fat Man won out . . . and a rock ‘n’ roll classic was born. “Blueberry Hill” made it to #2, which was as high as Fats would ever get on the pop charts.
“Blue Monday”: “Blue Monday” ranks right up there with “Take This Job and Shove It” as one of the great “work sucks” songs in popular music history. In “Blue Monday,” the object of the animus isn’t the asshole boss, it’s the pattern of workweek exhaustion. The more things change, the more they stay the same, though now it’s more mental and spiritual exhaustion instead of physical and spiritual exhaustion. Fats changed the lyrics from the Dave Bartholomew original, choosing to emphasize the grind by including every lousy stinking day of every lousy stinking workweek (Dave jumped from Wednesday to Saturday):
Blue Monday, how I hate Blue Monday
Got to work like a slave all day
Here come Tuesday, oh hard Tuesday
I’m so tired got no time to play
Here come Wednesday, I’m beat to my socks
My gal calls, got to tell her that I’m out
‘Cause Thursday is a hard workin’ day
And Friday I get my pay
Saturday mornin’, oh Saturday mornin’
All my tiredness has gone away
Got my money and my honey
And I’m out on the stand to play
Sunday mornin’ my head is bad
But it’s worth it for the times that I’ve had
But I’ve got to get my rest
‘Cause Monday is a mess
Most notable from a musical perspective is Hardesty’s eight-bar baritone sax solo on the original; the lower reach of the baritone seriously reinforces the down feeling of the lyrics. Hardesty had never played baritone sax before, but he was apparently a pretty quick study: the solo is absolutely perfect for this melancholy song.
“I’m Walkin'”: This song made it four top 10 hits in a row for Fats! Good for him! A dance floor special that lets you swing and twirl your honey at high-speed, there was no way this was not going to be a hit in the dance-crazy Happy Days year of 1957. Hardesty kicks ass with the sax, and Fats is having the time of his life doing what he does best: making people happy. Ricky Nelson’s version reached the same heights as Fats’ version (#4), thanks to the power of daddy’s television show. I find that outrageous: Ricky Nelson sang this song with zero energy, zero emotion, zero life—and it should have wound up at #0 on the charts.
“It’s You I Love”: Fats was on a roll at this point, and both sides of a rather unremarkable single made it to the top 10. This Latin-influenced tempo lacks the strong beat and forward movement in most of his work. The background singers are a drag, but not nearly as much of a drag as the background singers on the flip side.
“Valley of Tears”: I hate angelic anything in the background of any song. This sounds like it might be a trio or a quartet but I don’t care if it turned out to be The Mormon Fucking Tabernacle Choir, get the fuck out of my earphones!
“Whole Lotta Loving”: After an 18-month slump in the pop charts, Fats gets back into high gear and into the top 10 with a hand-clapping, kiss-smacking barrel of fun. It’s nice to hear him get an extended piano solo, but being true to his music philosophy, he uses the time to accentuate the rhythm with the piano’s powers of percussion rather than dazzle us with melodic runs. Fats knew exactly who he was and who he wasn’t, and he wasn’t Duke Ellington or Oscar Peterson.
“I Want to Walk You Home”: Fats sure did a lot of walking for a big guy! This sweet and easy number is endlessly delightful. I love the way he refuses to Boone-icize his work when he sings: “I wants to walk you home.” It sounds so much more real and sincere than the correct verb agreement. I also love the way the verses end with syllabically-packed lines that roll off his tongue with ease, soaked in the rum of his marvelous accent. The guitar counterpoint is solid, and even better when it shifts to rhythmic reinforcement with some unusually rough chords for the era.
“I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday”: The B-side to “I Want to Walk You Home” gives Fats more opportunity for more vertical melodic movement than most of his songs. He even gets to throw in a glide and makes a game attempt at glissandi . . . but really, this isn’t one of his better numbers. Too jittery.
“Be My Guest”: A nice roller that’s rhythmically similar to “I’m Walking,” the lyrics are full of dance references: Suzy Q, Lindy Hop, The Stroll. It made it to the top ten, but I don’t know . . . Fats sounds like he’s getting a bit tired here. Is his tank running dry? Mellowing out, perhaps?
“Walking to New Orleans”: Enter Bobby Charles, a younger songwriter who idolized Fats. The story is that Fats had recorded one of his songs, and while on tour in Lafayette, he invited Bobby into his dressing room. As hospitable as his public persona would have us believe, he then invited the younger man to visit him in his home in New Orleans. Bobby said he didn’t have a car and would have to walk. That tiny utterance inspired Bobby to write “Walking to New Orleans” for Fats in fifteen minutes. Bobby eventually made his way to The Big Easy and played it for Fats, who tinkered with the lyrics and put it to record. Only afterwards did Dave Bartholomew decide to overdub the mimicking strings that give the song a more melancholy feel. The ironic beauty of the song is that though Fats is walking home because his girl played him for a sap and spent all his money, Fats sounds positively joyful about going home. His vocal is completely sincere, heartfelt and god, I love the way he drops the “s” on New Orleans. The character of this song may have been a sign that Fats did indeed want to take it down a notch, but at least he made his last trip to the top 10 a memorable one.
“My Girl Josephine”: This is a pleasant number that made it into the top twenty, but really lacks the verve of his earlier work . . . though I do love the way he pronounces it umber-ella. Hey! I have a thing for Creole accents. Wanna make somethin’ of it?
“Let the Four Winds Blow”: I think this was the next-to-last great Fats Domino song (with the last being the mysteriously missing “I Hear You Knocking.”). It doesn’t quite have the intensity of his great songs of the 50’s, but he sounds pretty happy and the sax solo is reminiscent of what we heard during his peak years. A toe-tapper if there ever was one.
“Jambalaya”: Fats does a spirited job in this boogie-woogie version of the Hank Williams’ classic, but as a certified Hank Williams aficionado, I’m rather partial to the original. I do think Fats’ phrasing and expressiveness is pretty impressive, though, and he always sounds happy when he’s singing about Louisiana.
I always love it when people overcome obstacles and get the chance to fulfill their destiny. Fats Domino was designed for one purpose: to make people happy and have a good time doing it. He left us with rock ‘n’ roll classics that have stood up extraordinarily well through the years and will likely live forever. I’d love to look back at my life with the same kind of pride Fats Domino deserves to feel about his.
Laissez le bon temps rouler!