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I guess I should be grateful to the Whippanong Library of the Morris County Free Library system in New Jersey for a remainder of Henry Pleasants The Great American Popular Singers  as I was able to buy it as a used edition for a very modest price.
On the other hand, it is sad to note that such a definitive book by an educated, recognized authority on the subject is no longer available to a wider public.
Henry Pleasants received his early training as a professional musician at the Curtis Institute in his native Philadelphia. For over thirty-five years he served as music critic and contributor to leading newspapers and musical journals both in the United States and abroad. Besides writing The Agony of Modern Music, Serious Music—and All That Jazz and The Great Popular Singers, he edited and translated volumes of criticism by Eduard Hanslick and Robert Schumann as well as The Musical Journeys of Louis Spohr. Mr. Pleasants also served as London music critic for the International Herald Tribune and London editor of Stereo Review.
From Jolson to Streisand, The Great American Popular Singers presents essays on the singers whose artistry, innovative styles and sheer vocal accomplishments made American popular song uniquely what it was— the true people's music of the Western world.
Henry Pleasants shows us through the lives, careers and evaluation of their musical art, why singers as different as Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Elvis Presley and over a dozen others, are closer to the tradition of bel canto — the basis of all great singing — than are all but a very few classical singers.
Mr. Pleasants finds this great vocal tradition alive in every field of popular music: in country singers (Hank Williams), gospel singers (Mahalia Jackson), blues singers (Bessie Smith and B. B. King), movie and theater singers (Judy Garland and Ethel Merman) and in scores of other singers who are introduced and put in perspective around these central figures.
"The best of them," he comments, "—and some who have not been quite the best — may, in singing for their supper, have harvested a feast. But their familiar designation and dismissal as mere entertainers has discouraged a just appreciation of their artistic accomplishment.”
No one reading The Great American Popular Singers can ever again think of popular singers as less than they really are: not merely entertainers but, as is so vividly shown in twenty-two brilliant profiles and introductory chapters, musical artists working in a great vocal tradition.
As a case in point, I’ve yet to find an analysis and explanation of what made Louis Armstrong a great vocalist that approaches the following treatment by Henry Pleasants in terms of coherence and cogency.
At long last, Pops gets his due as one of the greatest influences in American popular singing in the 20th century, as well as, a recognition of the his uniqueness as a song stylist.
“The Bessie Smith legend dates from her fatal injury in an automobile accident, and has been nurtured by tendentious accounts of what happened between the time of the crash and her death in a Clarksdale, Mississippi, hospital a few hours later. Not until many years had passed would a retrospective assessment of her artistic stature grant her a more satisfactory immortality.
How different the destiny of Louis Armstrong! He had been, at the time of his death, on July 6, 1971, a living legend for half a century, not just to his own black people, nor to the American people as a whole, but to millions of people around the world. He had been, probably, the most famous musician of the century. When a Johannesburg, South Africa, newspaper, in the summer of 1970, polled fifty-six persons at random to find out how many could remember the names of the Apollo 11 astronauts, one girl identified not Neil Armstrong, but Louis Armstrong, as the first man to set foot on the moon.
An exceptional, if charming, notion! The very word legend seems to imply semifiction, or history distorted and inflated by fancy. But Louis Armstrong, lunar adventure aside, had been everything the legend held him to be: the greatest of early jazz cornet and trumpet players; a unique and improbable vocalist; an exuberant and extrovert celebrity; a showman of genius; and an American ambassador more widely known and more warmly accepted than anyone who ever left the White House with a letter of accreditation in his pocket.
It was all true. It was all attractive. Yet, in the end, it was all wrong. Not factually wrong, but wrong because the legend was unjust to the man. Most legendary figures, being only human, fail to live up to the legend. The failure is condoned or denied because the legend, for sentimental or political reasons, is preferred to the truth. In Louis Armstrong's case it was the other way around. The truth surpassed the legend — and challenged credulity!
It must seem not merely improbable, but sheerly impossible that any one man could have exerted so original and so decisive an influence on the evolution of Western music, least of all an essentially unlettered black trumpet player from the slums of New Orleans. But he did. Almost everything we have heard in the past forty years in jazz [1974 at the time of this writing], and in a great amount of popular music not usually associated with jazz, short of folk and rock, derives from Armstrong. As jazz encyclopedist and critic Leonard Feather has written:
“Americans, unknowingly, live part of every day in the house that Satch built. A riff played by a swinging band on television, a nuance in a Sinatra phrase, the Muzak in the elevator, all owe something to the guidelines that Louis set.”
It was he who liberated the improvising virtuoso jazz musician, as soloist, from the tight collective improvisation of New Orleans jazz. It was he who, by his own example on trumpet, pushed back the technical boundaries of traditional musical instruments. It was he who broke the stereotyped rhythmic procedures of early jazz. It was he, more decisively than Bessie Smith, who established those characteristics of American popular singing that distinguish it from any kind of singing based on traditional European conventions and example.
That he should have exerted so decisive an influence on the art of the American popular singer must seem, at first glance, paradoxical. Louis, although certainly one of the most popular singers of the century, was always thought of primarily as an instrumentalist, as a trumpet player, as one who abused his vocal cords to spare his much abused chops. The common view of his singular vocalism is that it proceeded from his playing, that he sang as he played insofar as limitations of vocal compass would permit. One is tempted to suggest that it may have been the other way around, that his playing was an extension of his singing.
His instrumental virtuosity was, I believe, deceptive. The high notes, those devastating excursions above high C, unique and unprecedented in their time, diverted attention from the pervasive oratorical character and eloquence of his playing. Among those whose attention was diverted, and disastrously, were the jazz players of the next generation, and not only the trumpet players. They equaled and even surpassed him in range and dexterity, but they overlooked or ignored or disdained his roots in song.
An important contribution to the vocal or rhetorical aspects of Louis' musicality may be identified, I would suggest, in his association with the "classic" blues singers in the 1920s. The records he made with Bessie Smith are the most familiar example. But he also recorded with many others, among them Chippie Hill, Ma Rainey and Clara Smith.
More was involved in this than Louis' influence upon them or theirs upon him. Jazz and blues converged in the 1920s, much as swing and rhythm-and-blues would converge briefly in Kansas City a decade later. Not only Louis Armstrong, but also Red Allen, Sidney Bechet, Jimmy Harrison, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Tommy Ladnier and Don Redman, among others, worked behind the female blues singers of the time. This collaboration required a kind of playing markedly different from the polyphonic procedures of New Orleans jazz. The instrumentalist both complemented and commented upon the singer's vocal utterance, perpetuating the call and response patterns of some African and early American black idioms, and evolving a concept of instrumental attack, phrase and cadence that would become one of the most distinctive and also one of the most attractive characteristics of jazz.
That Louis Armstrong never forsook or slighted the musician's oratorical responsibility is attributable also to the sensible and restraining influence of Joe "King" Oliver, whose band he joined in Chicago in 1922. He emphasized his debt to Oliver in countless interviews.
Louis rejoiced, of course, in a prodigious facility. As a young man fresh from New Orleans, determined to make his mark in the big city, he was tempted to show off. What Oliver told him runs like a central theme through everything that Louis ever said about his development as a musician and about his musical philosophy.
"Joe would listen to my horn,' he told Steve Allen in a radio interview late in his career, "and I was fly, making all kinds of variations like they're tryin' to call bebop. I instigated all that, 'cause I was so fast with my fingering. But Joe Oliver said: 'No, play lead, play more lead on that horn so the people can know what you're doing.'"
Similarly, he told Geoffrey Haydon, in a television interview for BBC filmed to coincide with his seventieth birthday on July 4, 1970: "I was just like a clarinet player, like the guys run up and down the horn nowadays, boppin' and things. I was doin' all that, fast fingers and everything, so he used to tell me: 'Play some lead on that horn, boy.' You know?" And in the same vein: "Ain't no sense playing a hundred notes if one will do. Joe Oliver always used to say, "Think about that lead!' "
What Joe Oliver was talking about was melody line, or tune. Louis never became a tuneful performer, either on trumpet or as a singer, in the sense of faithfully adhering to the prescribed notes of a song. He made a stab at it in the early 1930s when his prodigious accomplishments on cornet and trumpet, and the unprecedented vocalism of his 1929 recording of Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'," swept him from the black entertainment world tributary into the white American popular music mainstream. The records he made then reveal a young man stylistically ill at ease, seeking to adapt his own musicality to the sweet, vapid, sentimental white popular songs and styles of the time.
Fortunately he failed. Whether as trumpeter or as singer, his musical individuality was too strong, his manner too vigorous, his inventive impulse too sheerly irrepressible. He came close enough to achieving adaptation to make some bad records. He never made a record that was not unmistakably Armstrong, although there are echoes here and there of Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and some of the black female singers who were working more closely to white styles than Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey had worked. Nor did he ever make a record on which he was not conspicuously superior to both the song and the arrangement. But he made many that were marred by creative inhibition and stylistic insecurity.
He solved the problem, eventually, by ignoring white conventions and recasting white music in his own personal and musical image. His heeding of King Oliver's counsel saved him from disaster. It is likely that he never in his entire career sang or played a familiar tune note for note, bar for bar, from beginning to end. But neither did he ever spurn the tune and its chord structure as a frame of melodic and harmonic reference. The modern jazz musician rejects both tune and chords as a frustration of his individual creative freedom, as a violation, so to speak, of a musician's right of free speech. Louis Armstrong had no fear of traditional discipline. It was a challenge both to his invention and his ingenuity. He could accept it with relish and zest. In so doing he set precedents that would become the conventions of American popular singing and give to the singer creative opportunities—and creative responsibilities, too—that he had not enjoyed in Western music since the latter part of the eighteenth century.
Adjectives trotted out to describe the sound of Louis Armstrong's voice have included "hoarse," "rasping" and "gravelly," the last of these being probably the most apt. Humphrey Lyttelton, in a BBC tribute on Louis' seventieth birthday, came up with "astrakhan." I should not have thought of "astrakhan" as a descriptive adjective, but it impressed me at the time as singularly felicitous. The image that has occurred to me most frequently in listening to his later records is that of someone singing through a gargle.
However one chooses to describe his voice, there is no mistaking it. An axiom in the study of singers has it that the great, as opposed to the merely very good, are immediately recognizable. A Caruso, a McCormack, a Tauber—one knows them within eight measures, just as one knows Nat Cole, Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra and Bessie Smith. None was more distinctive, more readily identifiable, than Louis Armstrong.
This probably explains why he had no imitators. He was imitated, of course, but always with a parodistic purpose. The listener knew what the imitator was up to—that it was impersonation rather than emulation. Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra each inspired a generation of emulators, some of them admirable. Red Allen, Jack Teagarden and Jabbo Smith worked close to Louis in style, but they didn't sound like him, although Jabbo Smith may have tried.
What made the sound of his voice so utterly unique was, I venture to suggest, the cumulative effect of night after night, month after month, year after year, of bad singing; bad, that is, in traditional terms of vocal production. His voice had not always been so hoarse, so rasping, so gravelly. He had, at the outset, a reasonably agreeable quality and a reasonably extensive range, roughly two octaves from A flat to A flat. This would represent, in European music, a low tenor or a high baritone.
Louis comes through, on his early records, more tenor than baritone, and that was, I suspect, the beginning of his vocal infirmities. Every once in a while, a fine, free baritone escaped him in the middle of his range, revealing what I hear as the natural color and pitch of the voice. Had he elected to sing conventional ballads in a conventional way, he would have chosen keys at least a third below those in which he actually sang them.
He might have got away with those higher keys, for a time, at least, if he had known how to move from one register to another, to negotiate the "passage," to disguise register breaks and to cover the tone as he moved up the scale. But he knew nothing of such matters. Preferring to work in the upper fifth of his range, he was continually under vocal strain. He did not seem to mind. He may even have liked it. Many black singers, particularly those least susceptible to European musical conventions, have shown a predilection for the sense and sound of exaltation, exhortation and incantation that require a vocal production somewhere between singing and shouting, and achievable only by raising both voice and pitch. Louis Armstrong was one of these.
His procedures as a trumpet player provide the clue. He played higher than anybody had ever played a cornet or a trumpet before him. It was not just the odd, climactic, high E flat, E or F. He played consistently high. The performance was not without its purely exhibitionistic side. He obviously reveled in his ability to astonish. He wasn't, as a young man, above carving the competition. Sam Price, a pianist who worked with most of the great jazzmen of the 1920s and 1930s, remembers an encounter between Louis and Jabbo Smith in Chicago: "Louis played about 110 high Cs, and sheet, that was it; and Jabbo could play."
But the stunting was, I suspect, a by-product. Louis, early in his career, probably didn't know how high he was playing, or that what he was playing was assumed to be impossible. Playing high and recklessly was simply a satisfactory outlet for a musically exuberant and ebullient nature. One of his favorite words was "wailing"—and he used it in special contexts, notably and memorably when he told the Pope, who had asked if he and his wife, Lucille, had any children: "No, but we're still right in there wailin', Daddy!"
He was a wailer as a vocalist, too, and no singer can wail in the middle register. So, singing in a manner which came naturally to him, he sang unnaturally high. Wailing on the trumpet takes its toll on the lips, or, as Louis would have said, the chops. This could be countered by salves. The toll on the vocal cords and the muscles and cartilages of the throat was beyond remedy. The upper A flats, Gs and F sharps of the early records did not last long. To an opera singer the loss would have been a disaster. To Louis it mattered very little. If one note was no longer available, he had others to put in its place.
An example of his resourcefulness, of his inexhaustible fund of musical invention, is afforded by a comparison of two recordings of "Ain't Misbehavin'," the one made in 1929, the second in 1955. On the first, there are many high Gs. On the second there are none. But the two performances sound very much alike, and both are in the same key—E flat. Louis knew what he wanted to do with that song, and what he wanted did not essentially change in twenty-six years. If he could not get it one way, he could get it another. The casual listener, hearing the two records one after another, will not be aware that anything is missing, that anything was changed.
The earlier recording of "Ain't Misbehavin'" is instructive, too, as an example of how, with the great singers, the essential elements of their greatness are evident in their earliest work. It is true of early-Crosby, of early Sinatra, of early Fitzgerald, of early Presley and of early Ray Charles, They may waver a bit as they hit midstream. They may give inferior performances, make inferior records and flounder stylistically as they seek to widen repertoire, to accommodate their native musicality to the requirements of commercial fashion, and to escape being typed as singers of one particular kind of song.
Everything that made Louis Armstrong great is present in this earlier recording of "Ain't Misbehavin'." He subsequently made many inferior records with less congenial material before finally learning to discipline not himself, but the song.
He also learned a lot about his own singing. He never learned to sing. He would have been finished as a singer if he had. But he reacted instinctively to what was best in his singing. His phrasing was always as exemplary as it was original, including the trumpet-derived scatting. His improvisatory flights were almost always just right. But his diction, initially, was negligent and slovenly. He was thinking instrumental, granting that his trumpet playing was rooted in vocalism. As he grew older he learned about the music of language. His diction improved. He mastered the art of milking text. He must have sensed, again probably instinctively, the musicality of his own speech. As his technical prowess and physical resources waned, both vocally and instrumentally, he became more of a talker and less of a wailer.
In the end, as seems to happen with all great singers, he also became the creature of his own distinctive characteristics. He fell into mannerism. His enunciation became meticulous and over articulated. His swoops, slurs and growls became the cliches of predictable artifice rather than the unpredictable expressions of irrepressible artistic impulse. But so profound was his musicality that his procedures, even as mannerisms, still worked. There had always been too much music in his speech to suffer constraint by a mere tune. He had never been, as I have noted, a tuneful musician. As he became even less tuneful with the years, he became somehow more musical.
This was his legacy to those who came after him. All, with the exception of Billie Holiday, were more tuneful than he. They had better, more agreeable, more extensive voices. But from him they learned to escape the strictures of the printed notes and the prescribed rhythms, to distort meter in favor of a more flexibly musical prosody, to work out of syllables rather than words, to take the melodic and rhythmic structure of a song apart and put it together again so that the singer talked as he sang and sang as he talked.
They were untroubled by what remained throughout Louis Armstrong's career, his principal shortcoming as an artist and especially as a singer—his lack of emotional identification or involvement with whatever he was singing about. I was often moved by him both in personal performance and on record, but my response was one of sheer delight with his genius, his taste, his invention and his own obvious pleasure in making music. He was always a joyous, jubilant musician. The toothy smile, the waving white handkerchief, the invitation to the audience to sit back and enjoy some of the "old goodies," the gay palaver with his sidemen — all this was genuine. All this was fun.
It would be unjust, probably inaccurate, to suggest that he was ever anything but serious in his approach to a song. But it may be permissible to suggest that he rarely, if ever, took a song seriously. His identification with the music was intimate, his relationship with the textual content casual and detached, often conveying an undertone of benevolent raillery. But the devices of his musicianship have proved both valid and invaluable to those who have taken their songs more seriously than he — or made you believe they did — notably Frank Sinatra.
Louis Armstrong's importance to musical history is difficult to overestimate, and responsible critics and historians have not shied away from hyperbole. Andre Hodeir, for example, in his Jazz, Its Evolution and Essence, has said of the records Louis made with the Hot Five and the Hot Seven between 1925 and 1928: "I wouldn't go so far as to state that Louis Armstrong was the man who 'invented' jazz, but listening to these records might make me think so."
One of those records was "West End Blues," of which Gunther Schuller, in his Early Jazz, has said:
“The clarion call of "West End Blues" served notice that jazz had the potential capacity to compete with the highest order of previously known musical expression. Although nurtured by the crass entertainment and nightclub world of the Prohibition era, Armstrong's music transcended this context and its implications. This was music for music's sake, not for the first time in jazz, to be sure, but never before in such brilliant and unequivocal form. The beauties of this music were those of any great, compelling musical experience: expressive fervor, intense artistic commitment, and an intuitive sense for structural logic.”
Armstrong's reaction to this kind of commentary was characteristic. When Geoffrey Haydon, in the BBC-TV birthday program mentioned previously, asked him if he had been aware when making these records with the Hot Five and the Hot Seven that he was doing something very important, he replied, "No, we was just glad to play. We weren't paid no money, just was glad to play." Music, as Schuller noted, for music's sake.
The lay music lover or jazz fan, accustomed to think of Louis Armstrong as an amiable and irrepressible entertainer, even as a venerable and lovable clown, would be astonished to learn of the extent of scholarly literature devoted to his music. No one could have been more astonished than Louis himself, or could have found it more bewildering, more incomprehensible. He was not an intellect. But his improvisator-explosions have been copied down note for note and bar for bar in countless books and periodicals, and have been subjected to the most painstaking melodic, harmonic and rhythmic analysis.
The significance of his innovations is implicit in the fact that none of this analysis really works. Notation is inseparable from the European conventions it was evolved to record and represent. It cannot reflect the myriad shadings of attack, color, vibrato, release and so on that distinguish Louis Armstrong's playing and singing. It cannot document the slight deviations from pitch, and their harmonic and melodic connotations. Nor can it reproduce, visually, rhythmic subtleties so foreign to the fractional subdivisions of units of time in the rhythmic organization of European music.
Armstrong's own career after 1930 helped to frustrate any just evaluation of his achievement outside an inner circle of sympathetic and perceptive scholars. By the end of the 1920s he was already a celebrity. Indeed, as early as 1925, when he was twenty-five, he was being billed, probably accurately, as "the world's greatest trumpet player." The role of celebrity suited both his talent and his disposition. He drifted, or was drawn, into the mainstream of popular music, playing anything and everything that came his way. He appeared in moving pictures—usually as Louis Armstrong. He played and sang with popular musicians and popular singers, and not always with the best. He clowned and mugged and rejoiced in such monikers as "Satchmo" and "Pops."
Whatever he played or sang, he did in his own way, and there is no denying that the "way" commonly transcended the "what." He even survived an "Uncle Tom" label that would have been fatal to any other black musician after the mid-1950s. "Sure, Pops toms," said Billie Holiday, "but he toms with class!" As Benny Green, the English jazz critic, pointed out in a seventieth-birthday profile for the London Observer:
“The complaints have all come either from purist critics or political rebels. There is not a single musician of any consequence who takes exception to the personality Armstrong projects on the stage, and for a very good reason. It takes a performer to know a performer.”
If he played and sang to the grandstand, and too often accepted the grandstand's image not only of Louis Armstrong but of jazz itself, he knew exactly what he was doing. "I belong to the old school, you know," he told the French journalist Philippe Adler in 1968, "to the guys who think only of pleasing the public. I gave up the idea of playing for the critics or for musicians long ago." To Geoffrey Haydon he said: "A musician has no business being bored as long as he's pleasing the public." To Max Jones, as recounted in Jones's Salute to Satchmo, he said: "You understand, I'm doing my day's work, pleasing the public and enjoying my horn."
The jazz world, whose snobbery is, if anything, even more distasteful than the complacent snobbery of classical music, never quite forgave him. Sometimes, granting an exception for a seventieth birthday, it seemed almost to have forgotten him — or abandoned him to popular music, although jazz musicians of the generation immediately after his were usually eager to honor their debt. The best of the popular singers, too, acknowledged what their phrasing owed to his example.
Twenty years before Louis' seventieth birthday, Bing Crosby told Ken Murray, in a Down Beat interview: "Yes, Ken, I'm proud to acknowledge my debt to the Rev. Satchel Mouth. He is the beginning and the end of music in America." Similarly, Billy Eckstine, speaking to Max Jones in the winter of 1970: "Everybody singing got something from him because he puts it down basically, gives you that feeling. It's right there. You don't have to look for it."
But to younger artists, further removed from the source in time and example, he seemed an anachronism, both as man and musician. Or he appeared, to put a better face upon it, as a legend. In one sense it was a mark of his stature. Where other musicians of his generation had either to adapt their style to changing fashion or perish, he could adhere to his own style and not only survive, but prosper. But there was tragedy in it, too. He lived to see what was unique and wondrous in his early work become the clichés of the mainstream. He saw the inspired distortions that were the secret of his genius distorted beyond recognition in the work of some of his successors. He did not enjoy the experience.
He made only one bitter record, a parody of the " Whiffenpoof Song," in which he had some wry fun at the expense of the be-boppers, and on that one subject there was no mellowing with the passage of time. He sang the "Boppinpoof Song" on a Flip Wilson television program in the spring of 1971, just a few months before his death. "What's scattin' but notes — but the right notes?" he asked Geoffrey Haydon. "Just to be scattin' and makin' a whole lotta noise and faces, slobbin' all over yourself? No. Let them notes come out right, you know?"
In the span of Louis Armstrong's life and career this bitterness was only a passing shadow.
My whole life [he said in a letter to Max Jones] has been happiness. Through all the misfortunes, etc., I did not plan anything. Life was there for me, and I accepted it. And life, whatever came out, has been beautiful to me, and I love everybody.
Even in the jails, in the old days in New Orleans, I had loads of fans. One morning on my way to court, the prisoners raked pans on their cell bars and applauded thunderously, saying "Louie . . . Louie Armstrong," until the guy who was taking me to court said: "Who are you, anyway?" I said to him, "Oh, just one of the cats."
And that's how it has always been.”