A list that compiles the greatest and most influential names in jazz could fill a volume. Some of the names resound with some great work. However, I am going to consider the recordings of just one of them.
I’m going to take you on a trip back in time to look at the best Louis Armstrong songs of all time. There are quite a few to choose from. But, the story of this man goes far deeper than just choosing a few of the greatest Louis Armstrong songs.
- One Of The Greats?
- Not The Easiest Of Starts In Life
- Why The Brief History?
- When The Saints Go Marching In
- Georgia On My Mind
- Mack the Knife
- The Story So Far
- Hotter Than That
- Hello Dolly
- What a Wonderful World
- Looking for Great Songs by Great Musicians?
- Best Louis Armstrong Songs of All Time – Final Thoughts
One Of The Greats?
There were three sides to the man. Firstly, he was a jazz innovator with plenty of revolutionary ideas. His influences pushed the jazz boundaries a little. Secondly, he was, without a doubt, a great jazz trumpeter and band leader. Thirdly, he was an unlikely pop star.
In the eyes of at least one jazz player I have spoken to; the third diminishes his jazz role a little. He thinks it reduces his position as one of the jazz greats. According to a few, he “sold out,” even though they still recognize what a great trumpeter he was.
Can he be placed in the same conversation as Miles Davis, King Oliver, and Dizzy Gillespie? And on sax as Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins? That is another discussion.
Not The Easiest Of Starts In Life
Born into poverty, he was brought up in New Orleans. He had no instrument in his young years and sang on street corners to get some money for the family.
His father deserted the family when he was young, which left his mother to go out at night to get money. African-Americans were not treated with much respect in those days. Some would say they aren’t today, but it was worse then.
Branded A Delinquent
At age 11, he was in trouble with the law for firing a gun that had six blanks during a party. For that, he was sent to an institution with the charming name of the “Colored Waif’s Home.” You will have got the picture from the name.
Purely By Chance
He found an old cornet while he was incarcerated. He started to learn to play, and music became his passion. Furthermore, you could probably say music saved him from a life that so many others experienced at that time.
On release, he was good enough to get in a marching band and then with a jazz band. He was still in his mid-teens. The rest, of course, is history.
Why The Brief History?
Because when you listen to these famous Louis Armstrong songs, I think it is important to know where they came from. He was given nothing; he had to earn everything. That is worth considering.
And when you listen, not to his successful ‘pop’ singles but his jazz, you realize. Here was a born musician that reached the heights of his trade from a terrible start that placed him way behind most of his contemporaries.
And, fifty years after his death, we still play his music and admire his skills. One of the greats on trumpet, with an instantly recognizable voice and a permanent smile despite everything. Okay, he has our respect; let’s talk about the best Louis Armstrong songs of all time.
When The Saints Go Marching In
The song was originally a Christian hymn, but over the years became a ‘black spiritual’ to use a phrase. No one seems to know its exact derivation, but originally it was quite a slow and sedate song. The song takes its lyrical roots though from the Book of Revelation in the Bible.
Over time, it picked up the tempo when the jazz boys got hold of it. We must acknowledge that this became a jazz ‘standard’ after Armstrong’s 1938 recording.
A Song Full Of Joy And Hope
Described by some as “the greatest jazz song ever,” is pushing its appreciation a bit far, in my opinion. But, one can hardly fail to notice its popularity or its effect.
It is a joyous piece of music, especially when musicians play along in the ‘Armstrong-style.’ And it is ‘his’ style that made the song what it is.
A friend of mine ran the London Marathon some years ago. He ran along near a guy playing this on the trombone for all 25 plus miles. He said he can’t listen to it now without remembering. Why did he choose to play that song? The ‘Armstrong-style’ made everyone feel happy and hopeful.
Georgia On My Mind
Of course, this song is synonymous with Ray Charles. It was written by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrel in the 30s, but it was the Ray Charles 1960 version that everyone remembers. He was from Georgia, of course, so it was ‘his’ song.
Armstrong recorded and released his version to follow Charles’ successful single. The most notable thing about his version of the song is Armstong’s voice. He has this knack of being able to turn his gravelly tones into a sympathetic plea. He does so here with great effect.
A great song with a nice approach to performing it.
Of all the songs by the Gershwin brothers, George and Ira, “Summertime” could be the greatest of them all. There is something about it that captures a time and a place, and a set of emotions.
And, of all the versions recorded and performed, and there are too many to count, this version will be up with the best.
Ella Fitzgerald gives a haunting performance and, to be honest, upstages Armstrong vocally. But, she would have ‘upstaged’ just about everyone. Then again, it isn’t Armstrong’s voice; they were looking to assist with the mood.
The Rough With The Smooth
His trumpet, simple at its outset in the introduction and initial stages, plays its part. Her vocals are smooth and refined. His raspy and a complete contrast. The final section with Louis joining her has a certain unusual combination of her smoothness with his rough gravelly baritone tone.
Some say it is the best version ever recorded of this song. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that, but it is a great version. It brings together two musical giants of the period in an impressive collaboration.
Mack the Knife
This is a song that was composed for a musical, “The Threepenny Opera,” first performed in 1928. The music was written by Kurt Weill, and the lyrics by Bertolt Brecht.
It is what is known as “moritat.” That is a type of what is called “the ballad of a murder.” It was usually performed in the middle ages by strolling minstrels.
From opera to pop…
In this ‘Opera,’ the song opens and closes the performance. It was based on an imaginary ‘dashing highwayman’ called Macheath from the “Beggars ‘Opera.”
That character was based on an actual highwayman named Jack Sheppard. He had been hanged, despite escaping four times for his crimes at Tyburn in London.
Plenty of Covers
The song has been covered by a wide range of artists, from Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra to the most unlikely of people, 60s pop singer Marianne Faithful.
Louis Armstrong recorded his version in 1955. But, it was probably best known for the Bobby Darin version of 1958, which had the most chart success. Darin’s version had an interesting five key changes that cranked up the tension as the song progressed.
Ironically, the subject matter seems to suit Armstrong’s growling voice more. However, it was Darin who hit the #1 spot on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Story So Far
It is interesting to me that despite him being considered a world-class trumpet player, it is his vocals that most seem to enjoy. He can combine his jazz playing with some ‘scat singing’ in the next track.
Hotter Than That
This is a great example of Louis Armstrong in a free expression mood. This is one of the recordings that brought jazzy ‘scat singing’ to a wider audience. His free approach to the song with both voice and horn is a delight to listen to.
For the jazz aficionados, it is quite clear that he was playing on a different level from the rest of the band. His performance was exceptional, but he does seem to be carrying the other members of the band a little bit.
That might be a little unfair on them. Perhaps they were doing what they were told. Nevertheless, you get the impression of his musical and jazz superiority.
These were early days…
1927 to be precise. Already he was showing great ability and innovation in what he was doing. If you want to hear a good example of Louis Armstrong’s early music, then this would be a good song to listen to.
So, we get towards the end of our look at the best of Louis Armstrong. It is interesting how our choice of music is different than it might be for other jazz musicians. We’ll talk about that a bit later.
“Hello Dolly” came from the musical of the same name released in 1964. Carol Channing, who played Dolly, sang the song in the show, and you might have thought she would get to release the single. There is nothing wrong with her version at all; she did a good job of it.
From The Demo
Armstrong was originally asked to produce a demo of the song purely to use as advertising to get the public’s attention. When they heard the demo, they decided it should be the single. His record company decided to release it.
It turned out to be a good decision. It went to #1 in the US, making Armstrong the oldest person to ever have an American chart-topper. Also, it was ranked the third-best single of 1964 behind “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” by The Beatles.
A demo then became Louis Armstrong’s most successful single in America and brought him to a whole new audience.
What a Wonderful World
So, to finish this list of the best Louis Armstrong songs of all time, we go to the song that most people will be expecting.
Great then, and great now…
Whilst “Hello Dolly” was a big hit record in America, this blew the chart wide open in the UK. He sat for four weeks at the top in 1968 amongst some serious opposition for the top spot. Record sales topped over half a million.
In America, it flopped because Larry Newton, the ‘nice’ president of ABC records, refused to promote it. It was released again in 1968 on the back of the film “Good Morning, Vietnam,” and this time rose to #32. Thankfully, Armstrong lived to see the day, and so did Newton.
It brought the now 66 years old jazz guy a new army of fans. But, his health was beginning to fail. He played on, though, even though he probably wasn’t able to scale the heights musically he had.
A Much Loved Personality
His infectious smile and voice still made him one of the most loved personalities around. Is there a better thing you can say about an artist?
He came over to the UK and did two weeks at the Batley Variety Club, a big venue at the time. Even though he wasn’t well-known, he wowed the audience for two weeks. Everyone wanted to see him. And those in the ‘know’ wanted to hear him on that horn.
In Some Ways, A Great Way To Bow Out
We are talking about a man who was known as an influential trumpeter, being best known for records where he sang. There was no other way to finish this list than with this song, though. It just seems to resonate.
It was written by Bob Thiele and George Weiss, and the message is clear. And how much more powerful that message becomes when it is used in the way it was in “Good Morning, Vietnam.” The result of that piece of film-making resonated around the world.
Was it a predictable song to choose for the last Louis Armstrong track? Yes, it probably is. But, sometimes, with some artists, the final song just picks itself.
The Work Of An Artist
So, that completes a look at the best songs by Louis Armstrong. And, for me, some of the best work he did. Maybe he wasn’t the best jazzman of his age, even though his early contributions were enormous. He certainly wasn’t the best singer.
But, he had something that most didn’t have. He was an artist, a total professional, and a good guy. That counts.
It’s the obvious choice for the number one spot on my list, but sometimes, the predictable choice is the only choice.
Looking for Great Songs by Great Musicians?
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Best Louis Armstrong Songs of All Time – Final Thoughts
In many ways, it is almost a struggle to find a song that everyone will know that is just him and a trumpet. That would not be the case for other jazz musicians.
If we were to select the best of Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillepsie, would the list be similar? Or changing instruments, Charlie Parker or Sonny Rollins, are they going to be vocal-based? No, is the answer to both questions.
His Most Popular
The songs Louis Armstrong is most known for in the wider public are songs where his vocal took the lead. This is shown clearly on the last two on our list. His gravelly voice seems to have attracted as much attention as his trumpet playing.
In many ways, some might see that as a shame. Generations may be unaware of what a talented jazz trumpeter he was. Some will say that is a by-product of his moving towards recording vocal pop songs.
More Than Just a Jazz Trumpeter
Maybe he was an all-around entertainer, more so than the other names we have just mentioned. They are revered as the greatest on their instruments in jazz and associated circles.
Louis Armstrong was known as being a great ‘artist,’ in the real sense of the word, with worldwide acknowledgment. And that is his legacy, in my view.
Until next time, let the saints go marching in and let the music play.