Nobody can really explain why Louis Armstrong’s ‘Hello Dolly’ hit #1 in 1964. A so-so Broadway show tune, performed by the kind of small polyphonic jazz ensemble Armstrong had pioneered 40 years earlier, “Dolly” felt out of step, and not just with a Top 40 increasingly dominated by rock ‘n’ roll. In the year of A Love Supreme, Out To Lunch, and Wayne Shorter’s Blue Note debuts, Armstrong wasn’t exactly Happening in the jazz world, either. But there they sit: the biggest hits of that momentous musical year were “Dolly” and the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (and, depending on your accounting method, “She Loves You”). They’re twin colossi, seemingly separated by years and miles, one a victory lap in a world-altering career, the other a promise to change the world all over again. Chart scholars seeking answers might be wise to throw up their hands. The pop consensus that purports to speak for all of us doesn’t answer to any of us. Forget it, Jake; it’s Top 40.
Buried within that conundrum lies another: nobody can really explain why Armstrong didn’t hit #1 more often. After all, “Dolly” didn’t depart dramatically from the music Armstrong had laid down in the ‘20s with his revolutionary Hot Five and Hot Seven bands. Armstrong’s small group, the All Stars — the band behind most of the music on the new compilation Hello, Louis! — had existed in shifting configurations since 1947, playing straight-up Louis Armstrong music to the masses. (They hit with “Mack the Knife” in 1956, three years before Bobby Darin’s smash.) Armstrong was a universally respected figure in American culture even though, since the ‘30s, he’d faced accusations of selling out. Jazz critic Gary Giddins has repeatedly shown that for Armstrong, art and entertainment were inseparable. He had an unsurpassed ability to infuse his trumpeting and singing with the full force of his personality, and his personality was unsurpassingly lovable. “Dolly”, fresh from a new Broadway show, may have been a fluke of good timing, but there was much more where it came from.
Case in point: the new two-disc Hello, Louis! The Hit Years (1963-1969), which for the first time compiles the ‘64 album Hello, Dolly!; its 1966 follow up Mame; the 1968 What a Wonderful World; and some stray singles, including the James Bond theme song “We Have All the Time In the World”. Hello, Dolly! was an archetypal quick money-grab, recorded in a single day to cash in while its eponymous single climbed the charts. Armstrong, who’d recorded the song as a demo to promote Jerry Herman’s musical, doubted the song’s quality and initially had trouble remembering it when concert audiences requested it. You don’t hear that skepticism in the music, of course, or in any of the songs that populate the album, be they show tunes, standards, or forgettable trash. Armstrong and the All Stars could shock almost any song into giddy, grinning, obnoxious life.
Armstrong performs every tune with a terse focus that never sounds terse. Listening to him sing and play a melody — say, “You Are Woman, I Am Man”, from Broadway’s Funny Girl — it’s tempting to think he sounds conventional, that he’s simply not doing anything. Before long, you realize you can never predict what he’ll sing or play next. He recklessly slides the word “much” down and around to end a phrase, neglecting the closing “ch” sound; his trumpet solo moves between marcato declarations and softer slurred asides, so deftly the song seems to have been written that way. (It wasn’t.) With a few stray notes, Armstrong can suggest a different rhythm, an entirely different song, that might have been. That all of this sounds both spontaneous and premeditated suggests Armstrong possessed a brutal ability to edit himself on the fly. That he could do so while projecting uninhibited emotional generosity — a quality more readily associated with John Coltrane’s note-heavy A Love Supreme — was a remarkable trick of his trade.
Quoth the brutal editor, in his original “Someday (You’ll Be Sorry)”: “Take it chief… take it chief… take it chief… take it chief… take it BIG CHIEF”! Trombonist Russell “Big Chief” Moore is a blaring brassy wonder here, nearly equaling his boss in the assertive personality department, even finishing solos for Armstrong. The rest of the Hello, Dolly! All Stars — rhythm section, banjo, and Joe Darensbourg on clarinet — swing in a way that seems both rugged and effortless. Well, save for “Moon River”; that one they play straight, despite Armstrong’s efforts to swing it during his solo. There’s also a string section, mercifully buried in the mix except on “Moon River” and the underwhelming “Blueberry Hill” (no trumpet solo). By the time they open “Jeepers Creepers” with two heavenly choruses of trumpet, surrounded by swirling trombone and clarinet, the All Stars sound like they could make art from even the most trivial crap.
It almost comes to that on Mame, appearing here on CD for the first time. It’s an altogether thinner album, with shorter trumpet solos and a bunch of jokey songs nobody ever covers. (About “Faith”, we learn that “Folks who lend cash all have it / Folks who save trash all have it”.) Still, the Mame All Stars — almost entirely different than the band on Dolly — offer some great moments: the slicing banjo of “When the Saints Go Marching In”, the gentle reflection of “Tin Roof Blues” and “Tyree’s Blues”, and the return of Big Chief on Armstrong’s spiritual “Bye ‘N’ Bye”. And new trombonist Tyree Glenn cuts through twice: he plays a commanding solo on “The Circle of Your Arms”, and, on a custard-themed Armstrong original, grunts out tone deaf cries of “CHEESECAKE!” Also, the strings are gone.
They return with a vengeance on What a Wonderful World, though “vengeance” is probably the wrong word for this gentle collection. The orchestral title song you know; its monumental presence in movies and TV shows has become a fact of life. The rest of the album moves from strings to small groups and back again, though even the All Stars sound sleepy on the ballads “There Must Be a Way” and “I Guess I’ll Get the Papers” (no banjo). Standouts are the crackling “Cabaret” and “Hellzapoppin’”, cut the same day as “Wonderful World” but with twice the energy. That said, even slow Armstrong is a master of note placement, and he derives unexpected pleasures from these sentimental songs. They’re warm easy listening for an evening spent savoring the home fires.
“What a Wonderful World” went to #1 in the UK and, after it appeared in the movie Good Morning, Vietnam, hit #32 in the US, 20 years after its initial release. Throughout the song, Armstrong is still Armstrong. The relaxed precision of the line “and I think to myself”, the vibrato trails that complete phrases — these are the marks of his mastery, the moments that stop time. Like all the best hit music, this compilation abounds with such moments. However little it resembles what’s on the pop charts, Armstrong’s music continues to occupy its long moment in our lives.