Louis Armstrong once described the singing of his friend and peer Bing Crosby as “having a mellow quality that only Bing’s got. It’s like gold being poured out of a cup.” It was a quality that Armstrong himself aspired to. The great trumpeter famously described himself as having a “sawmill voice,” and, indeed, in his younger years particularly it was a deep, gruff, bearlike growl.
In fact, he was the prototype for many successive generations of growlers, any list of which would start with the many jazz-singing horn men who tried to follow in his footsteps (most successfully Jack Teagarden) as well as many distinct individuals in disparate fields such as Howling Wolf, Tom Waits, and even the Cookie Monster. But Armstrong himself always wanted to be a crooner, just as he always tried to get his big band to play as sweet as Guy Lombardo’s; it’s clear as early as on recordings like “Sweethearts on Parade” (1930), a song by Carmen Lombardo that he sings as romantically as possible.
One reason Armstrong was so successful as a pop singer in his fifties and sixties is that his voice had mellowed so much—by this point it was sweet as well as rough—and also because he had kept growing as an artist. Specifically, he was astute enough to learn from the singers who had learned from him—not only Crosby, but the giants of the next generation, like Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald.
Unlike such contemporaries as Duke Ellington and Sinatra, who both went through a fallow period in the early 1950s and then experienced what was regarded as a “renaissance,” Louis Armstrong never required a “comeback”; his popularity never flagged, and neither did his touring schedule or his recorded output. Whereas most recording stars of the period were under contract to only one label at a time, Armstrong was a freelancer throughout the LP era, and (particularly when reissues of 78- era material are factored in) seemed to have a zillion albums coming out all the time from every existing record company.
Some were more purely jazz-oriented, some had a definite pop appeal, some were about re- creating the past and others were about living in the present, some emphasized his trumpet and some his band, and others his singing. But of all these releases, the one that showcases Armstrong best as a vocalist (call him jazz or pop or whatever) is Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson (1957).
This is the one project in which all the elements most fully coalesced: the best accompanist and the most Olympian rhythm section, as well as a sympathetic producer who wanted him to record songs of substance rather than take a quick and often cheap shot at the Hit Parade. This is the record that offers the most irrefutable evidence as to why Louis Armstrong is one of the great singers of all time.
For Louis Armstrong, the album format was the opportunity to go middlebrow. By the 1950s, jazz purists—meaning critics, historians, and collectors— were regarding Armstrong’s classic recordings of the 1920s as high art. These same scholars were at the same time openly dismissive of the pop singles that he was then turning out.
Even as Columbia Records was gathering his Okeh 78s of thirty years earlier onto 12-inch LPs, Armstrong was recording 45s of quasi-novelty tunes with titles like “The Dummy Song.” In between the high art of the Hot Five years and the low-slung singles of the 45 rpm era, Armstrong’s albums were what some would consider middlebrow—that’s how the Great American Songbook was regarded in the years the concept was coming into existence.
The extreme purists (including most of his biographers) would rather that he had just played blues, traditional New Orleans songs, and his own originals—but if he had to play pop songs, then the Gershwins were surely a step up from “It Takes Two to Tango.”
For all his success, Armstrong found himself in a rather awkward place, culturally, during the Eisenhower era: one segment of his audience castigating him for changing his music too much since the Hot Five era, with another group taking him to task for not having changed his politics and general deportment since the 1920s. It seems, in retrospect, that rather too much of this was made by the music press of the moment (who, like virtually all journalists before and since, were always looking for a conflict), and then by historians and biographers in the last fifty to sixty years.
When we look back at the era, we have little choice but to see through the eyes of writers with all kinds of biases. But the unprejudiced reality is that the overwhelming majority of listeners and fellow performers (excepting a few modern jazz militants) adored Armstrong and couldn’t get enough of him, on singles, albums, TV shows, concerts, club appearances, movies, whatever.
They loved his songs, his delivery, his energy, his eagerness to please, his stage antics, and most of all, his playing and singing. Producer Norman Granz was among the first to discover the often intertwined markets for both the older (premodern) styles of jazz and the emerging notion of a standard songbook. The market for both forms was substantial and in 1956, Granz, who had been recording mostly jazz (and certain select singers) for various labels including several of his own, launched Verve Records.
Verve was notable in that it was exclusively directed at jazz fans and song buffs; albums containing classic jazz and standard songs were the primary focus, and what singles it released were strictly an afterthought. Granz was a canny businessman who knew exactly when to get into a market and when to get out. Far from appealing only to highbrows, Verve was so successful that less than four years after the company was founded, he sold his interests outright to MGM for a huge profit.
As Granz and, later, George Wein would learn, this was a period when it was possible to get rich presenting jazz. In a famous phrase attributed to Jerome Kern, “Go on being uncommercial—there’s a lot of money in it.” Granz’s operation could hardly have been possible without Oscar Peterson; as a name artist, he turned out dozens of albums on a songbook theme (and every other theme) with his various trios, and as a sideman he enabled Granz to produce session after session.
No matter whom he backed up, Peterson had the sheer chops, taste, skill, and attitude to keep every date going smoothly. If the discographies are accurate, Peterson recorded the greater part of four albums in four long sessions over two days, July 31 and August 1, 1957: Soft Sands, in which the pianist’s trio was backed by a string orchestra and mixed choir in a format that would later be dubbed “easy listening,” “mood music,” or “make-out music”; a session with the tenor saxophone icon Lester Young released as Going for Myself…; an all-star jam session with trumpeter Sweets Edison and saxophone stars Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan that was released as Jazz Giants ’58; and in addition, he and his trio taped four tunes for the album that became Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson.
Armstrong’s career as an album artist was a particularly vital one: although he had been making records steadily for well over thirty years before the invention of the 12-inch LP, thanks to creative producers like George Avakian and Granz, most of his albums were special projects— quite distinct from his singles. Armstrong in particular utilized the format as a vehicle for team-ups—both actual and virtual.
He worked not only with Peterson, but with musicians as modern as Dave Brubeck, as traditional as the Dukes of Dixieland, and as iconic as Duke Ellington, as well as two of the only singers who flew in his general orbit, Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby.
These team-ups were, in a sense, an extension of the variety show sensibility that was uppermost in pop music at the time—when stars like Dean Martin, Perry Como, and Dinah Shore hosted weekly TV shows in which the singing host was expected to sing duets with the guests. Armstrong not only sang with nearly all of them but with many others, including Frank Sinatra, Eddie Fisher, and Jimmy Durante.
Then, too, his successful songbook albums Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy (1954) and Satch Plays Fats (1955) were presented like team-ups; you looked at the cover of the latter album, with pictures of Armstrong and Waller side by side, and many customers who had more taste (and money) than knowledge probably assumed that Fats was actually playing with Pops.
The title of Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson is a bit of a stretch, but a forgivable one. So too is the cover, which shows Armstrong and Peterson sitting side by side, very casually, on adjacent stools. However, this isn’t The Tony Bennett | Bill Evans Album(s), where two collaborators are on equal footing. Peterson and his working group of the period (customarily guitarist Herb Ellis and Ray Brown, here joined by drummer Louis Bellson) are strictly accompanying Armstrong.
The pianist and several of the others solo occasionally, but there’s no attempt to have them share the spotlight. It’s Pops’s show, and they’re just along for the ride; the four men function as wheels on a car—he couldn’t get anywhere without them, but make no mistake, Pops is the one steering. Armstrong’s relationship with Granz and Verve Records was centered around his initial two team-up albums with Ella Fitzgerald, Ella & Louis (1956) and Ella and Louis Again (1957), followed by the duo’s epic recording of Porgy and Bess.
The collaboration with Peterson was recorded in between all these, not exactly as an afterthought but rather as a collateral benefit. Following the previously mentioned August 1 date, there would be a subsequent Armstrong-Peterson session on October 14, and the two dates became the album. Between the two sessions, a total of fourteen different songs were recorded, all of which are on the current CD edition of the album. (In recent years, a generous amount of “bonus” session material has also surfaced, particularly from August.)
“That Old Feeling” is a prophetic opener: This is the same Satchmo many listeners had been loving for thirty years prior to 1957, and the song itself was twenty years old at that point. (It’s one of many standards by lyricist Lew Brown from the years after the highly successful trio of DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson went their separate ways.)
But there’s definitely a new feeling to this old feeling; never before has that old Satchmo sung with a new piano player like this. The most important feeling—what musicians sometimes call “the time feel” (the overall groove generated by the rhythm section)—is quite new and different from any ensemble that Armstrong had worked with in the past.
Obviously, it was beneficial that Armstrong had already worked with Peterson on the album with Fitzgerald; to my ears at least, he seemed a little tense on those earlier dates, whereas in August and October he seems blissfully relaxed, and much more comfortable with the material. Peterson’s riffy intro on the first track reveals the influence of the King Cole Trio, and it’s apparent from Armstrong’s entrance that the mighty man is in rare form.
There’s no trumpet on this track, but he’s never been greater at using his voice like a horn, punctuating Brown’s lyric with a wide range of nonverbal, hornlike phrases, especially on the second chorus and the coda. “Let’s Fall in Love” testifies to Granz’s knowledge of the American Songbook. Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler wrote the song in 1933 as the title number for a Columbia Pictures comedy, marking their first Hollywood venture and virtually their first assignment of any kind outside the Cotton Club.
It was hardly overlooked in 1933–34 but had seldom been heard in the two decades since. Armstrong backs into the second eight bars like an Olympic athlete getting ready for a jump, positioning himself by getting a running start with a momentary scat interlude.
The trumpet solo here is especially fine; he holds the climactic note much longer than you’d think, and then enters singing with “Yessss, let’s fall in love,” holding that “yes” again much longer than he has to. Both vocals and trumpet are immersed in super-high energy here. Two of the next few songs had started life as jazz instrumentals before lyrics were added. “I’ll Never Be the Same” was first heard in 1931 as a melody written by two New York dance band musicians, violinist Matty Malneck and pianist Frank Signorelli, whom Armstrong probably knew in the early days.
It was originally titled “Little Buttercup” before Gus Kahn gave it the lyric and the title that it’s been known by for the last eighty years, after which point it would, in fact, never be the same. The tempo takes us closer to ballad territory; there’s just a slight tinge of melancholy in Satchmo’s vocal: “Once love was king,” he sings, emphasizing the high note, “but kings can be wrong…yes!”
This is a letter-perfect interpretation: you can see why Sinatra, Holiday, and Fitzgerald all cited Pops as their major inspiration, and, in turn, what he was learning from them. In his younger years, Armstrong might have ended with his signature “oh yeah,” but here he channels that same feeling into the lyric’s final word, “again,” stretching the “a” as if it were the extended “ohhhhhh” of the “oh yeah.” “What’s New?” was also a natural for Armstrong, having been originally conceived as a trumpet feature for Billy Butterfield (himself a Satchmo scholar), as composed by bassist-arranger Bob Haggart, who titled it “I’m Free” before Johnny Burke made it into the song we all know and love.
Yet Armstrong’s treatment doesn’t include any trumpet—or bass and drums, either; it’s a remarkably moving duet for voice and piano, one of the very few times Armstrong ever recorded in such a format. This is one of his all-time-best ballads, particularly among the few he sang in something close to rubato.
When he emphasizes “Probably I’m boring you” in the second chorus, he makes the written words seem like an ad lib, and prepares us for a genuine spontaneous interjection when he sings “Mama, I understand.” This is another superlative lyric reading; Johnny Burke meant the last line to be something of a twist ending: after thirty-two bars of chitchat, the hero surprisingly comes out and admits he still loves the person he’s singing to—he’s been trying to focus on what’s new, but the truth is that he can’t get beyond that old feeling.
Armstrong has, of course, been communicating love in every word, every note, every syllable along the way, making the last line seem even more natural when he reaches it. Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer intended “Blues in the Night” as a movie theme song that encapsulated the true feeling of the blues, both musically and lyrically, in pop song form; when they finished, the unusual structure and extended length of the piece also gave it something in common with classical lieder.
There’s no denying it’s a brilliant and beautiful song, particularly as performed in the 1941 film of the same name. Still, as a song—especially compared with the trim economy of other Arlen-Mercer masterpieces like “One for My Baby” and “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Blues in the Night” has always seemed too much of a muchness. The point of the blues is to be direct and to the point, but “Blues in the Night” is rather overbaked, there’s just too much of it, especially the long, rambling middle section that seems completely unnecessary.
Any kind of a bridge is usually out of place in the blues, and this one (beginning with “The evening breeze will start the trees…” and continuing through “The mockingbird will sing the saddest kind of song…”) is especially so. Bing Crosby didn’t sing that section in his 1941 version, relegating it to a female vocal group, and it still doesn’t need to be there.
It won’t surprise anyone that Armstrong—the greatest jazz singer of all time and a mean blues musician—brilliantly brings out the jazz and blues elements of this movie song, but by making that middle section work so well, he’s also, in a way, making the classical side of the number work better than it has with any other performer. At 5:17, the length and tempo are perfect, as is the relaxed and bluesy tempo provided by Peterson’s quartet—and the great man’s trumpet solo adds even more to the overall impact.
There’s no doubt that Arlen and Mercer heard Armstrong’s recording; one can only imagine what they felt upon discovering how Armstrong realized their aspirations better than any other interpreter, even Sinatra or Ray Charles.
The coda is perfect, with Armstrong altering the final words to “My mama was right—oh, blues every night!” The first words of “How Long Has This Been Going On?” are priceless in and of themselves: “As a tot when I trotted in little velvet panties / I was kissed by my sisters, my cousins, and my aunties.” Everybody— Granz, Peterson, and especially the mighty man himself—is clearly having a joke on the sheer incongruity of this singer with that voice doing those lines.
The laughter is productive, it warms us up for what is one of Armstrong’s greatest vocals on record; he sings with absolute conviction and a sense of humor that brilliantly suits one of the wittiest of all songs by the Gershwin brothers. It’s also one of the very best of the thousands of recordings of this classic from the 1927 Funny Face; the song was a cornerstone of the 1950s Gershwin revival, an era when there were new Gershwin movies (An American in Paris, Funny Face), many performances on television, and tons of 12-inch LPs.
Gershwin was by far the most popular subject for songbooks—Ella Fitzgerald alone did no fewer than three. Ira Gershwin wrote two different verses for “How Long,” one for a man and the other for a woman—although it may seem surprising ninety years later that the “little velvet panties” line was actually the start of the male lyric. (Of all the many heavyweights to tackle the song in this period, man or woman, Armstrong was the only one to sing those particular lines; both Fitzgerald and Carmen McRae begin with the female verse, which starts “ ’Neath the stars, at bazaars…”) “I Was Doing All Right” is a comparatively lesser-known Gershwin classic, from the brothers’ final project, the 1937 film The Goldwyn Follies, in which it was introduced by the recently emigrated Scottish entertainer Ella Logan.
Armstrong feels comfortable enough with the tune to open with a trumpet solo—just eight tasty bars at the start—and both the horn solo and the vocal are of an extremely high quality. He’s never been more excited by the prospect of interpreting a lyric on a line-by-line, word-by-word basis, like Sinatra; more than ever, Satch’s famous asides are offered in the service of the text, especially when he takes the word “suffer” out of time and just says it (in both choruses): he doesn’t need to overemphasize it—in fact he makes “suffer” sound more insufferable merely by speaking it.
At the closer, he throws in “I was doing all right, but I’m doing a little better than ever now.” And indeed he is. “Moon Song” had been popular when it was new (introduced by Kate Smith in the 1933 film Hello, Everybody!) but then, like many other songs, was sorely neglected for almost twenty-five years, before experiencing a major resurgence in the album era.
It was usually sung as a slow, melancholy ballad (as Doris Day did it), but Armstrong turns it into a medium-tempo romper (the kind he would describe as “half-fast”). Louis and Oscar are enjoying themselves so much that they go for a full four and a half minutes—it’s not a second too long, and there’s no shortage of trumpet. In the natural order of things, Armstrong had recorded the music of George Gershwin under several circumstances: there was a wonderful “Love Walked In” from 1938, and numerous versions of “I Got Rhythm.”
But for most of his career, Pops had the misfortune to almost completely miss out on the Cole Porter songbook. Finally, in the mid-1950s, that began to change: First, in 1954, Armstrong and the All-Stars played “Don’t Fence Me In” as a duet feature for himself and Velma Middleton; then, in 1956, the All-Stars were part of the all-star cast of MGM’s High Society.
Finally, no fewer than three Porter classics were selected by Granz and crew for this album: “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love),” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and “Just One of Those Things.” “Just One of Those Things” is also full-out Porter at his Porter-iest, a song laden with fantastic imagery (“a trip to the moon on gossamer wings”) and complex, multiple layers of irony—a very different kind of irony than that which had been part of Armstrong’s musical makeup since his boyhood in New Orleans.
In “Just One of Those Things,” the speaker is a typical Porter protagonist—a nonchalant, blasé, presumably upper-class character who pretends not to care when his love affair is finito: “It was great fun / But it was just one of those things,” but the interpreter’s job is to show more pain and passion than the lyric lets on at first, to go behind Porter’s sophisticated veneer—and this Armstrong does brilliantly, both with his voice and his trumpet, in a full-chorus solo. “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “Let’s Do It” were both done at the August session (although not included on the original album release); obviously, Armstrong was getting his feet wet with Porter in a serious way. “Let’s Do It” became the archetype for what Porter called his “laundry list” songs (later examples include “They All Fall in Love” and “Can-Can”). In a less overt way, “I Get a Kick Out of You” also has elements of a “list” song; it could be called a “reverse list” song, since it catalogues those items that do not thrill the speaker.
Armstrong opens with the minor-mood verse: “My story is much too sad to be told…” Yes, this character is another one of Porter’s blasé sophisticates; however, Armstrong doesn’t try to make us believe that he could be such a character—clearly, he has never fought vainly that old ennui in his whole life (or been bored “ter-riff-ically too”) —instead, he reverses the mood, accentuating the positive, and thus making us feel the joy of those things that he actually does get a kick out of.
“Let’s Do It” is also full-fledged Norman Granz; it can be viewed as a follow-up to what the producer achieved a year earlier with Fitzgerald and the song “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” on her Rodgers and Hart songbook.
As in 1956, the idea was to start with a classic show tune, one that had already gone on to become a jazz standard, one with a slightly risqué attitude, and a long, long list of choruses. At the time these songs were written, deep in the 78 era, it was assumed that only a small portion of the words would ever fit on a single of the day, but just as he recorded marathon jam sessions, Granz was also one of the first to record ultra-length versions of these now iconic standards, including chorus after chorus.
Armstrong and Peterson take the whole thing very slowly, in order for the singer to extract the maximum value out of every one of Porter’s witty turns of phrase, the first chorus (which describes courtship rituals among various nations of the world), skipping then to the third written chorus from the show (which delineates the mating habits of the denizens of the deep), and then on to chorus four (now it’s the turn of the bugs, starting with “dragonflies, in the reeds”), and finally the last chorus (officially number five, but only Armstrong’s fourth), which talks about jungle animals (“chimpanzees in the zoos”). The insectoid chorus contains Armstrong’s funniest ad lib yet; where Porter’s line is “Moths in your rug do it, what’s the use of mothballs,”
Armstrong comes up with “Moths in your rug do it—well, looky here, what’s the use of balls— hmmm?” There’s no verse and no trumpet, but we don’t need either. Armstrong builds and builds, finding a different way to be funny and funky with every line. This is a mature Armstrong masterpiece. “There’s No You” and “You Go to My Head” are the two strongest ballads on the album, and are also, respectively, the shortest and the longest tracks.
Like every other musician of his generation, trombonist- bandleader Tommy Dorsey was a major Louis Armstrong fan, and he instilled that love of Pops—as if it needed any instillation—in everyone who ever worked for him. “There’s No You” was published by one of Dorsey’s companies and first recorded by his orchestra in 1945, and it was forever associated with four Dorseyites: writers Tom Adair and Hal Hopper (whose day job was singing as one of the Pied Pipers), and singers Frank Sinatra and Jo Stafford. Armstrong’s “There’s No You” could also be called “There’s No Band”—the whole 2:19 track is just Armstrong’s voice and guitarist Herb Ellis.
The mighty man is most celebrated for his extroverted exuberance, but, particularly in his maturity he knew well how to sing and play in an intimate manner, thus forming a remarkably direct connection with his audiences. On “There’s No You,” that intimacy is expressed entirely vocally, and “You Go to My Head” starts out with one of his best trumpet solos of the period; there’s no flash or dazzle here, none of the trumpet “theatrics” that first made him a superstar, none of the operatic-style high drama.
Rather, every note he plays is at the service of the melody, the lyrics, and the inner meaning behind them both. I’ve never heard him so relaxed and yet so passionate; and after a full, glorious chorus on trumpet, he sings in a way that’s equally potent and communicative.
One can’t imagine any of Armstrong’s trumpet progeny, even those who sang, delivering “You Go to My Head” so meaningfully—not Roy Eldridge, Red Allen, Bunny Berigan—well, maybe Chet Baker. For such an interpretation, no matter what the means of delivery (vocal or instrumental—well, maybe Lester Young), you’d have to go to Armstrong’s vocal descendants—Fitzgerald, Holiday, Sinatra. At six and a half minutes, it is, again, a powerful argument for the LP’s ability to break down the time barrier of the standard single-length format that dominated recorded music up until 1950; some performances are actually worth listening to for longer than three minutes.
Not many, I’ll grant you, but this is one of the few. “Sweet Lorraine” is a unique ballad that spent its whole history firmly within the world of jazz musicians and singers; not, for once, originating in a show, it was composed by Clifford (sometimes credited as “Cliff”) Burwell, a journeyman pianist of the 1920s who, among other things, played in Rudy Vallee’s Connecticut Yankees. (Lyrically, it’s the earliest song of note by famed wordsmith Mitchell Parish.) “Sweet Lorraine” was immediately picked up by clarinetist Jimmie Noone, who in 1928 was, like Armstrong, a New Orleans musician who had settled in Chicago. Early on, it was associated with Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra, and in particular with Noone’s pianist and co-leader, the young Earl “Fatha” Hines. And then it was thanks to Hines that another, even younger transplanted Southerner in Chicago, Nat (not yet “King”) Cole, learned the song. Cole was playing “Sweet Lorraine” with his trio as far back as the late 1930s, but it was after he recorded it for Capitol Records in 1943 that it became a hit and a jazz standard.
Armstrong’s treatment defers to the Fatha and the King (and Peterson is especially mindful of his two piano predecessors), but Armstrong adds his personal stamp, especially with the trumpet; it’s a bit more emphatic than “You Go to My Head”— something about him seems the tiniest bit competitive with Noone, Hines, and Cole—but still amazingly mellow.
Armstrong sings “Makin’ Whoopee” (not on the original album) rather like a veteran campaigner back from the wars, imparting his wisdom to his younger charges—and, in this case, that includes all of us. He’s playing the old stud here, telling us what he’s learned in a lifetime of loving, losing, and loving again.
The tempo is slow, perfect for romantic dancing, but even better for storytelling. Satchmo sings as though he’s seen many a season come and go, and many a reason as well, and, in his many years, much whoopee has been made. Billie Holiday had been doing “Willow Weep for Me” a lot in the mid- 1950s, before both Armstrong and Sinatra, neither of whom had any previous connection to the song, recorded it. It’s safe to say that both Armstrong and Sinatra were inspired by her.
Sinatra’s version, on Only the Lonely, is by far the slowest and the most doleful; Armstrong’s (also left out of the original recording) is much faster and looser, a few beats away from an R&B-style shuffle, and definitely in a solid dance tempo, which he reinforces with a powerful trumpet solo. (Since it derives from the August date, there is, as with the other three tunes, an abundance of alternate takes and session material, and it’s possible to listen to Armstrong and Peterson working out the arrangement, point by point.)
Norman Granz is definitely to be commended for his efforts to record Armstrong as a “serious” popular singer. It may have been the Columbia studio albums Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy and Satch Plays Fats (both produced by George Avakian) that showed that the All-Stars could play more than “Sleepy Time” and “Indiana,” but it was Armstrong’s Verve albums that showed how much he had grown as a singer in the thirty years since he’d first started to vocalize regularly on recordings.
All the well-meaning efforts of these producers were, to an extent, stymied by Armstrong’s manager Joe Glaser; where Granz, Avakian, and Milt Gabler, who produced Armstrong’s singles and albums for Decca, tried to take the long view, Glaser sold Armstrong short in trying to maximize his time by booking recording sessions on the same nights that he was also doing concerts and clubs. As a result, Armstrong was often exhausted by the time he arrived at the studio.
It wasn’t in his nature to hold anything back —he always gave his audiences everything he had, often over two or three sets a night; not surprisingly, sometimes when the tape started rolling at two a.m., the exhausted Armstrong had nothing left to give. With the best of intentions, Granz produced what should have been two classic albums with Armstrong backed by an orchestra led by arranger Russ Garcia, Louis Under the Stars and I’ve Got the World on a String (both mostly also recorded in August 1957).
I always enjoyed those two albums on LP, but hearing them under the closer scrutiny of digital remastering reveals how tired Armstrong was. His trumpet work particularly suffers here, but the vocals too are just not as rich and ripe as his work on the Peterson sessions.
Which underscores why Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson ranks as Armstrong’s single best vocal album. All the stars were in alignment, and it was simply the luck of the draw; his vocal and trumpet chops were in particularly amazing shape.
Alas, where there were two full albums with Fitzgerald and two with Garcia (followed by the Porgy and Bess double-album magnum opus with both Fitzgerald and Garcia), there was only one album costarring Armstrong and Peterson—and he would never make anything else like it, an album of classics from the Great American Songbook with a “modern” rhythm section.
It wasn’t like Satchmo the Great to repeat himself, but, just this once, we wish that he had. More than on any other Armstrong album, this is the one where his voice most sounds like gold being poured out of a cup.