Potato Head Blues

I’ve just spent several hours ploughing through yet more examination scripts – first year ones, not needed before the finals Examination Board. By way of a bit of refreshment I thought I’d listen to this, and enjoyed it so much I thought I’d share it on here.

At one point in the film Manhattan, the character played by Woody Allen makes a list of the things that make life worth living. This record is one of them. Potato Head Blues was recorded on May 10th 1927 in the Okeh Studios in Chicago by Louis Armstrong and the Hot Seven. It’s not actually a blues, but we won’t quibble about that because whatever it is not it is definitely a timeless Jazz masterpiece.

The other members of the band are Johnny Dodds (clarinet, heard to good effect in the solo before Louis Armstrong), Johnny’s brother Warren “Baby” Dodds (drums), Louis Armstrong’s first wife Lil Armstrong (née Hardin, piano), Johnny St Cyr (banjo), Pete Briggs (brass bass or tuba) and John Thomas on trombone. But the star of the performance is, of course, Satchmo himself, who was at the absolute peak of his powers when this record was made. If you have any doubts about what a musical genius he was, go straight to the point (at about 1:50) where he launches into his famous stop-time solo chorus which is just breathtaking in its power and inventiveness. Built from a succession of dazzling impromptu phrases, it explodes into a joyous climax which is beautifully sustained into the final ensemble chorus that follows.  Enjoy!

8 Responses to “Potato Head Blues”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Wonderful music. Lovely. Brilliant.

  2. telescoper Says:

    Two things are particularly amazing about that record.

    One is that Johnny Dodds’ clarinet manages to match Louis Armstrong’s trumpet decibel for decibel. In those days making a record meant standing shoulder to shoulder and playing into a horn. No possibility of adjusting the balance there, which is why you can hardly hear the piano or other instruments. Johnny Dodds’ technique may have been quite crude, but he had to sacrifice a lot simply to be heard on the records. I love his playing anyway because it’s so full of character.

    The other thing that’s amazing is later the same day they also recorded Alligator Crawl, also a masterpiece. What’s more the following day they cut Melancholy Blues, Weary Blues, and Twelfth Street Rag all of them superb and every single one of them in one take!

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    When you’re on form, you’re on form!

    • telescoper Says:

      I spent a lot of this afternoon listening to the Hot Sevens on CD in the garden until the neighbour’s dog started barking.

      It also struck me how many of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet solos start with the same three-note phrase “ba-da-daa” that he uses as an entry on this track. This became something that many musicians of the time copied, not all of them trumpeters.

      Listen to this superb track by Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra – a very underrated band that played at the Paradise Club in Harlem in the late 1920s. The track is called The Boy in the Boat and it features a superb solo by the trombonist Jimmy Harrison. Inspired and influenced by Louis Armstrong, he uses the same entry phrase (about 0:57) and also plays with a high brassy sound like a trumpet. His rhythmically assured playing on top of the syncopated riffs from the reeds is absolutely wonderful to listen to. There’s also a fantastic bit of muted trumpet later on from, I think, Sidney de Paris.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    When you find a great riff, you stick with it – Chuck Berry found one and it always sounds fresh even though he used it to open almost every one of his R&R songs.

  5. […] the young Louis Armstrong belonged to before going on to make the classic Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, one of which I posted a bit ago. It’s interesting how different the earlier band sounds:  with two cornets (King […]

  6. […] which was made in Chicago in 1928. The personnel line-up is very similar to that of the classic Hot Sevens, except that Louis Armstrong wasn’t there. Satchmo was, in fact, replaced for this number […]

  7. […] the young Louis Armstrong belonged to before going on to make the classic Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, one of which I posted a bit ago. It’s interesting how different the earlier band sounds:  with two cornets (King […]

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