Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy - 1954
Starting off this stellar record is "St. Louis Blues." You won't be able to get enough of this rendition. We play it again and again. The horns churn up a rocking tempo for this dusky number. Clocking in at nearly nine minutes it is full of frequent back-and-forth vocals. Jazz vocals usually don't make the cut for the VVers, especially not female vocals. However, the W. C. Handy classics played by Louis Armstrong and his band set the scene for some flawless bluesy-jazz singing. Besides Armstrong's always-pleasing, grizzly voice and distinct personality, credit must go to frequent collaborator, Velma Middleton. Her rich old-timey voice (it probably didn't sound "old-timey" then) is the perfect accompaniment for Armstrong's tooting trumpet. Although it's "the blues," it sure does sound like these two singers are having a grand time. Speaking of Armstrong's trumpet, it is powerful enough to provide a narrative in most of the songs; lyrics aren't needed.
"Yellow Dog Blues" follows with a slow start that gradually morphs into a closing "Cha cha cha chaaaaaaaaah, tooot!" A swinging version of "Loveless Love" is about as "oldie but goodie" sounding as they get, reminiscent of "When the Saints Go Marching In." There are some slower tracks as well to even out the tempo like "Aunt Hagar's Blues" and "Beale Street Blues" (seven of eleven tracks on this albums have "Blues" in their title, so you know it's the blues). What is clear in these songs is that every piece of the music is played with purpose. Bleating horns or piano flourishes are integral parts of the whole, not just there just to fill out the songs. "Long Gone" is just a fun one, full of story-telling and even laughing during the lyrics. You can hear the rest of the band in the background "Whoo-yeah!" -- the modern equivalent of getting juiced for a guitar solo -- when Louis and company are set to rip into a finale. These guys are pumped up! There's an up-tempo, walking bassline that leads into a drum solo on the quick and tight "Ole Miss" that is about as catchy an anything these VVers have ever listened to.
Back cover notes, by celebrated producer George Avakian, are solid. They are dense. Possibly even printed in 4 pt font. Regardless, if you have to use a magnifying glass, the back cover gives exacting back story of the songs that Armstrong chose from Handy's collection. It's good stuff, but not for this blog.
Hard to believe this record is 60 years old this year. The recording has aged extremely well -- sounding just a lively as when it was first committed to wax. Full disclosure is that we haven't knowingly heard any of Handy's music before. We are really just taking this album for what it is. A masterpiece of composition, talent, and energy. It is a joyous blues classic.