Yesterday I finished writing Chapter Eleven–the next-to-last chapter–of Rhythm Man: A Life of Louis Armstrong. Then, after dinner, I wrote the first two thousand words of the final chapter, in which I tell the story of the making of Armstrong’s 1963 recording of Hello, Dolly! The end is now in sight.
I’m wired far too tight to tell you how it feels to be so close to the finish line, so instead I’ll simply share with you the unedited draft of the opening of Chapter Twelve, hot off the word processor and still smoking.
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On December 3, 1963, Louis Armstrong and the All Stars showed up at a New York studio for their first recording session in two years. Not since they finished work on Dave Brubeck’s The Real Ambassadors had anyone shown any interest in making a new record by the most famous jazz musician in the world. It was taken for granted that Armstrong no longer had anything new to say, and in 1963 nobody wanted to hear anything that wasn’t new: that was the year of Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Bill Evans’ Conversations With Myself, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Getz/Gilberto, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” Miles Davis’ Seven Steps to Heaven, and the Beatles’ “She Loves You.” And while Armstrong was undoubtedly grateful to have been given an opportunity to cut a record after so long a hiatus, this one didn’t add up to much. Instead of an ambitious album-length project like The Real Ambassadors or Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, all that Joe Glaser, his manager, had managed to scrape up for him this time around was a single for Kapp Records, an independent label run by Dave Kapp. The session was to be produced by Dave’s son Mickey, and the A side was a cheery little ditty from a new musical by a little-known Broadway songwriter named Jerry Herman who so far had only one show under his belt. The new show had yet to open, and no one had any idea how it would do. For the flip side, Armstrong and the band knocked out a lightly swinging cover version of “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” a song from Bye Bye Birdie, which had closed two years earlier.
It was, in short, a job of work, a one-shot affair that had been thrown together by Jack Lee, a song-plugger for E.H. Morris, Herman’s publishing company, and Armstrong and his sidemen set to it with their customary professionalism but no great enthusiasm. According to Jack Bradley, a friend who came to the session, the trumpeter “shook his head in dismay” when he looked at the lead sheet for the new song. He preferred “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” and so did everybody else in the studio. Herman’s square-cut tune, by contrast, was naggingly repetitive, his lyrics simple to the point of banality. Mickey Kapp decided that the record needed a little something extra to pep it up and brought in a seventh musician, a veteran session guitarist named Tony Gottuso who also doubled on banjo and lived close to the studio. Except for his sessions with the Dukes of Dixieland, Armstrong hadn’t worked with a banjo player since the early Thirties, and the twangy-sounding instrument was now so totally identified with funny-hat Dixieland and bluegrass that the very thought of using one now must have struck him as embarrassingly old-fashioned. Once the two songs were in the can, he promptly forgot about them and went about his business, flying off to Puerto Rico three weeks later for a holiday engagement at the Hotel San Juan.
Meanwhile Mickey Kapp sent an acetate of the single to Joe Glaser’s office. Cork O’Keefe, an old colleague, dropped by for a visit shortly afterward, and Glaser played the A side for him. “Listen to that, Cork, it’s a fucking hit,” he shouted. For once he was right on the money: “Hello, Dolly!” is a near-perfect pop record, at least as catchy as “Mack the Knife” and very nearly as well played. Like all hits, it is concise (two and a half minutes) and wholly to the point. A crisply played upward glissando by Gottuso leads into a no-nonsense eight-bar introduction by the band, at the end of which Armstrong enters with an equally straightforward vocal in which he loosens up the four-square rhythms of Herman’s melody and puts an even more distinctively personal stamp on his lyric: Hello, Dolly/This is LEW-issss, Dolly/It’s so nice to have you back where you belong. Next comes a rocking ensemble chorus in the band’s very best New Orleans style, after which Armstrong comes back to sing another half-chorus, wrapping it up with a neat little tag that sells the song’s title one last time: Dolly, never go away/Promise you’ll never go away/Dolly, never go away again! In addition to adding Gottuso’s banjo, Kapp had discreetly sweetened the mix with an occasional hint of overdubbed strings, but otherwise “Hello, Dolly!” was a pure product of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars, as plain and tasty as a plateful of red beans and rice….
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More as it happens.
UPDATE: A friend writes:
What a wonderful story about the recording of “Hello, Dolly!” But why are you reading e-mails? The faster you finish, the faster we can all read it!
Hey, I’ve already written 1,600 more words so far today–a fellow has to have some rest!