“Whip It, Big Sid!”: 75 Years of “Satchmo at Symphony Hall”

We interrupt our ongoing series on Louis Armstrong’s reel-to-reel tapes to celebrate the 75th anniversary of arguably the greatest live recording in the All Stars’s discography, Satchmo at Symphony Hall. As always, we’ll share some treasures from our Archives–including a long audio segment from one of Louis’s tapes that you won’t want to miss–but first, a little backstory.

Louis Armstrong spent the mid-1940s traveling around with his big band, mostly playing military bases while Decca only released two new Armstrong singles between 1943-1946. It seemed like Armstrong might have been fading out but he came roaring back in early 1947: his new records on RCA Victor were selling well; he won awards in Esquire magazine and in the Pittsburgh Courier; he headlined Carnegie Hall for the first time in February; he starred in the motion picture New Orleans, released in April; he was the subject of Robert Goffin’s biography Horn of Plenty, also released in April; and he was a hot commodity on radio, appearing on both Rudi Blesh’s This is Jazz and Art Ford’s Saturday Night Swing Show on April 26.

Both of those appearances featured Armstrong fronting a small group, as did the film New Orleans and the first half of the February Carnegie Hall show. Promoter and publicist Ernie Anderson felt Armstrong was more inspired when playing with such combos and paid manager Joe Glaser a large fee to present Armstrong with an integrated sextet at New York’s Town Hall on May 17, 1947. The evening was a critical and commercial sensation and led Glaser to break up Armstrong’s big band in July 1947. Beginning in August, Armstrong would now be the leader of a new sextet, originally known as Louis Armstrong and His Esquire All Stars. For their debut at Billy Berg’s, Armstrong was surrounded by trombonist Jack Teagarden, clarinetist Barney Bigard, pianist Dick Cary, bassist Morty Corb, and drummer Big Sid Catlett. The results were another box office smash, with the All Stars’s engagement extended two extra weeks into September.

At this point, Glaser began booking the small group on a concert tour across the country, replacing bassist Corb with Arvell Shaw and adding vocalist Velma Middleton, both veterans of Armstrong’s big band days. On the itinerary were dates at Carnegie Hall on November 15 and Boston’s Symphony Hall on November 30. Once again, Ernie Anderson’s interest was piqued.

Anderson had lugged a disc cutting machine to Town Hall, recording the May 17 concert on a series of acetate discs. The results were a success and got the attention of RCA Victor, but Anderson’s equipment heated up towards the end of the show, resulting in some issues with the sound quality. He must have known he could do better and set out to record Armstrong’s two November concerts with the All Stars.

Ernie Anderson, Louis Armstrong, and Joe Glaser. LAHM 1987.14.2208

Anderson recorded the Carnegie Hall show on a series of 16-inch discs in better sound quality than at Town Hall, but because the All Stars had a some long pieces in their book, his discs ran out of space a few times that night, resulting in incomplete performances. Still, Anderson brought the discs to RCA Victor, who now had a choice between Carnegie Hall and Town Hall. They chose Town Hall, releasing six sides on a album of 78s in 1947 (you can listen to Louis read the liner notes, hear the music, and see photos from that historic concert in this post).

RCA put the Carnegie Hall discs on the shelf and that’s where they remained until finally seeing the light of day on Mosaic Records’s 2014 set, Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars, 1947-1958. Some discs were missing so it’s not a complete show, but it’s still worth listening to as the sound quality is excellent and it feels like a run-through for what was soon to occur at Symphony Hall. That 2014 Mosaic Records set is out-of-print, but is available on all streaming services, broken up into three parts. The first part includes the complete Town Hall show, then everything that survives at Carnegie Hall, beginning at Track 22, “Introduction by Fred Robbins,” and running through Track 41, “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” (plus some selections from 1955, not relevant to this post, but still choice Louis). You can listen to it all here:

Posterity must thank Ernie Anderson for recording the Town Hall and Carnegie Hall shows but he must have been frustrated with the issues that plagued both of his efforts, whether it be inferior sound or incomplete performances. He had one more shot at Boston’s Symphony Hall and this time he wouldn’t take any chances with his disc-cutting machine: he hired engineer Pete Frutchey to record the show with the fairly new technology of reel-to-reel tape. The results were terrific, as Armstrong’s All Stars were in peak form and Frutchey was able to capture them in excellent sound, minus the low level of the piano at Symphony Hall.

Though the All Stars had only been in existence for a little less than four months, they had already turned into a well-oiled machine. After a short instrumental “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” (Armstrong didn’t begin singing it regularly until 1952), the show officially opened with an exciting instrumental harkening back to the Hot Five days, “Muskrat Ramble,” which allowed everyone to warm up and get their innings at the same time. Armstrong then revived the protest song, “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue,” which disappeared from his repertoire during the big band years. Now fronting an integrated group for the first time, Armstrong was making statements on race with both his choice of repertoire and his choice of musicians sharing the stage. That was followed by anther exciting instrumental jam, this time on “Royal Garden Blues,” dating back to the King Oliver days.

In this era, the All Stars were truly all stars so Armstrong made sure they were heavily featured. Jack Teagarden was up first with “Lover” and “Stars Fell on Alabama” (reversing the order of Carnegie Hall), Velma Middleton then sang “I Cried for You” and the jukebox hit of the era “Since I Fell for You,” and clarinetist Barney Bigard followed with “Tea For Two” and “Body and Soul.” Except for “Lover,” which he sat out, Armstrong played demanding horn on each of the features, before eventually stepping back into the spotlight for “Back O’Town Blues.” Armstrong’s also front and center for the beginning and ending of “Steak Face” but the meat (if you pardon the pun) is one of Sid Catlett’s great drum features, a delight to listen to that must have been even more impressive to witness, given the audience’s frequent fits of laughter and applause. Armstrong then made his closing announcements over Jack Teagarden’s longtime theme, “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” concluding the first set.

The second set opened with another good old good one, “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” before a slow, passionate “On the Sunny Side of the Street” that added up to seven minutes of pure bliss. Armstrong then returned to his roots for a storming “High Society” before ceding the spotlight to Teagarden again for two more effective features, both with vocals, “St. James Infirmary” and “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home.” Following the order of the first set, Velma Middleton followed with her R&B blues, now with a long spot allowing her to dance (and do her famous split). By this point, the audience had been sitting in the concert hall for about 90 minutes so Armstrong knew it was time to lay a little comedy on them, teaming up with Middleton for the first recorded version of their soon-to-be-famous duet on “That’s My Desire,” which tears down the house.

Barney Bigard then swings like mad on “C Jam Blues” but instead of a second feature, he steps up to the microphone and announces something different: an extended bass feature on “How High the Moon” for Arvell Shaw. It’s kind of cute that Shaw, the one “unknown” at this time, gets his own intro as such a long bass solo must have been quite a novelty at the time, but Shaw breaks it up like everyone else. Sid returns to the spotlight for a burning, boppish “Mop Mop” (renamed “Boff Boff” on the album) before the All Stars go out swinging with “Jack Armstrong Blues,” Armstrong still strong enough to take four climactic choruses after a long night of blowing. Once more, “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” serves as the closing theme and with that, the show was over, clocking in at 2 hours on the nose.

The audience was clearly satisfied, as was a reviewer for the Boston Globe, who turned in this review dug up on Newspapers.com:

After the concert ended, the All Stars continued their tour and Anderson went home with his tapes and that was the end of the story for the next several years. But in December 1950, Columbia Records released Benny Goodman’s historic 1938 Carnegie Hall concert on a 2-LP set and had an immediate smash hit. This got the attention of the other labels, who realized there was a market for live concert recordings issued on the fairly new technology of long-playing albums.

By this point, Armstrong was recording exclusively for Milt Gabler at Decca Records. Ernie Anderson remembered his Symphony Hall tapes and let Gabler know about them. Gabler purchased the masters from Anderson, most likely on January 15, 1951, the date these songs were assigned in Decca’s files at the time. Gabler probably identified a few flaws–the low level of the piano, for one–and wanted a chance to record a live date of his own with the current All Stars personnel (now with Earl Hines on piano) in pristine quality, so he set up the recording of what would become Satchmo in Pasadena on January 30, 1951.

But he also wanted do something with the Symphony Hall recordings and went to work preparing a 2-LP set to be released in late April 1951. It made sense for Ernie Anderson to write the liner notes, allowing the publicist to paint an atmospheric picture of the backstage scene before an All Stars concert. RCA most likely had a similar restriction clause like Decca did, leading Gabler to immediately strike “Back O’Town Blues,” “St. James Infirmary,” and “Jack Armstrong Blues” from the intended release since those three selections were on already on recent RCA releases. Gabler also excised all theme statements and all of Armstrong’s announcements, plus he eliminated Dick Cary’s piano solo on “Royal Garden Blues” and some quiet interplay between Bigard and Catlett at the end of “C Jam Blues.” Everything else was good to go.

Satchmo at Symphony Hall was issued as a deluxe 2-LP boxed set by Decca in May 1951, as well as on two separate LPs, Volume 1 and Volume 2, though with a very noticeable error right on the cover: Gabler accidentally listed “Muskrat Ramble” as “King Porter Stomp”! This would be corrected in future pressings, but here’s an original version from our Jack Bradley Collection (the photo of Louis was taken by Dennis Stock):

LAHM 2005.1.251

Reviews for Satchmo at Symphony Hall were positive but it’s significance took on new meaning when it hit markets shortly after the untimely passing of Sid Catlett, who died from a heart attack on March 25, 1951. He was only 41.

Catlett was forced to leave the All Stars in 1949 due to health concerns but had a happy reunion with his friends in October 1950, when Armstrong brought the entire group to George Wein’s Boston nightclub Storyville, where Catlett was playing with Bob Wilber’s band. Six months later, Armstrong was in Eugene, Oregon when he got the word of Catlett’s passing.

In late April 1951, Armstrong and the All Stars were playing the Tiffany Club in downtown Los Angeles. On April 29, Armstrong turned on his tape recorder and recorded his favorite radio show, Tallulah Bankhead’s The Big Show. He was hanging with Velma Middleton, Los Angeles nightclub owner Stuff Crouch, and drummer Gordon Means of Tulsa. Armstrong had a brand new copy of Volume 2 of Satchmo at Symphony Hall so, with the tape recorder already running, Armstrong and company decided to talk about it.

What we’re about to share is the watermarked audio of the full 32 minutes that followed. Nearly the first ten minutes is taken up by the sound of Velma reading Ernie Anderson’s liner notes, which is charming. But then they start reminiscing about Big Sid, the last time they saw him, his drumming, where they were when they got the news of his passing, and more memories, leading to Armstrong’s heartfelt declaration at 12:55, “I still think he’s the greatest drummer that ever picked up a pair of sticks. And thousands, I’d say millions of people will agree with me, even to listen to these records. The man was just a born genius.”

The conversation continues for several more minutes before Armstrong finally says, “God bless Big Sid” and drops the needle at 19:00 on Catlett’s “Boff Boff” feature from Volume 1 of Satchmo at Symphony Hall. The sound quality isn’t great but we’re letting it run as you’ll get to hear Armstrong and especially Middleton react to the music, the latter shouting, “Whip it, Bid Sid!” multiple times. “Boff Boff” is followed by “C Jam Blues” (Armstrong responds positively to Barney Bigard’s playing, yelling, “Swing me over lightly!”) and “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home.” At 30:51, Louis and Velma come back to the microphone, confused over the title “Boff Boff,” which they know is really “Mop Mop.” Louis finally figures it out: Decca changed the title deliberately “Royalty-fied,” he says, though the album still attributed it to original composer Coleman Hawkins. In the final seconds, Velma reads an article by Herb Caen about Louis and Jack Teagarden visiting an ailing Pee Wee Russell at the hospital in January before the tape runs out.

With that description out of the way, here’s the audio!

LAHM 1987.3.248

For completeness sake, here’s the front and back of that very copy of Satchmo at Symphony Hall Volume 2 Velma read from, which Louis brought back from California to Queens and where it remains in our Archives to this day (and the image at the beginning of this post is Jack Bradley’s copy of Satchmo at Symphony Volume 1, which “Muskrat Ramble” correctly identified):

LAHM 1987.3.808
LAHM 1987.3.808

Louis eventually picked up a later 2-LP reissue of the set and dubbed it to tape numerous times, including on the very last tape he made the night before he died in 1971.

Only one photo survives from the actual Symphony Hall concert and it’s not in our Archives so we’re unable to share it, but here’s a great photo of the group in action at Club Bali in Washington D. C. in June 1948, now with Earl Hines on piano. It’s signed by the members (though that looks like Louis’s handwriting for “Mr. Tea”), with a long inscription from Big Sid, “There is no greater kicks, please believe that. Always happiness, friends. Big Sid Catlett.”

LAHM 1987.14.845

Satchmo at Symphony Hall didn’t see the light of day in the CD era until a 1996 reissue produced by Orrin Keepnews, who eliminated some selections and shuffled the original order. It seemed like that would be the only sanctioned reissue of the album until a major discovery was made in 2011, a tale that will make up the final part of this saga.

Gösta Hägglöf is a name that has been mentioned multiple times on this site over the years. Bitten by the Armstrong bug as a young man in Sweden in the 1950s, Hägglöf dedicated much of his life to Armstrong’s legacy, putting on Armstrong tribute concerts, giving Armstrong lectures, and even starting his own label in the 1990s, Ambassador Records, when he was frustrated by Universal’s non-existent reissues of Armstrong’s Decca recordings. On a personal note, I first connected with Hägglöf in August 2007, a month after I started an Armstrong blog. Over the next two years, we corresponded weekly, with Hägglöf eventually sharing treasure after treasure with me from his large, private collection.

But one thing he never shared was a “complete” version of Satchmo at Symphony Hall he told me he was working on. At some point in the 1950s, Ernie Anderson must have made a copy of his complete Symphony Hall concert tapes, but he made the copy on acetate discs since many folks still did not have reel-to-reel tape recorders. Somehow–I never did get the story–Hägglöf obtained a copy of these acetates and he went to work trying to restore them because the sound quality was incredibly scratchy; whomever had the original records must have played them nonstop.

In March 2009, Hägglöf passed away. In his will, he left us his entire Louis Armstrong collection, probably the largest in Europe. When it finally arrived in Queens in 2011, I dug in and immediately noticed about a dozen CDs and a handful of DAT tapes all marked “Symphony Hall.” These were Hägglöf’s raw copies and attempts to create a complete version of the 1947 concert!

By this point, I had just started helping out Universal, offering input on a 10-CD Armstrong boxed set. I had made the acquaintance of GRAMMY-winning producer Harry Weinger and couldn’t wait to tell him about my discovery. He checked the Universal vaults and they didn’t have anything like this, only the master tapes of the original, edited 1951 Decca release. He noted that 2012 would be the 65th anniversary so we went to work. This was my first set as a co-producer and it was a thrill working with Harry and audio engineer Seth Foster as we set about the task of reconstructing the original concert.

We had to go through Hägglöf’s various CDs to find the best-sounding version and once we did that, we had to grab all the scratchy-sounding theme statements, all of Armstrong’s announcements and the unreleased songs–“Back O’Town Blues,” “St. James Infirmary,” and “Jack Armstrong Blues”–and incorporate them into the material transferred from the original Decca tapes. Also, the Armstrong Archives had a 16-inch acetate disc of part of the concert, donated to us in 1996 under now mysterious circumstances (that was before my time). That disc had a better sounding “St. James Infirmary” and a complete “Royal Garden Blues” with Dick Cary’s original piano solo that had been left off the 1951 release.

It took a long time and a lot of Frankenstein methods, but Satchmo at Symphony Hall 65th Anniversary: The Complete Performances was released in October 2012, offering every scrap of sound from November 30, 1947, all cobbled together from a variety of sources. There was minor grumbling about some of the scratchier spoken announcements and how the sound quality of the previously unreleased selections was below that of the original albums, which is true, but as a historic document of an incredible night of music by one of Armstrong’s best editions of the All Stars, it can’t be beat.

Alas, the original 2-CD set went out-of-print earlier this year (though it can still be found online), but it is streaming everywhere music is streamed. Here it is on Spotify but you can find it on Apple Music, Amazon, Tidal, YouTube, etc.:

In 2020 I was invited to join scholar Loren Schoenberg’s “Jazz for Curious Listeners” series for the National Jazz Museum in Harlem to discuss Satchmo at Symphony Hall. If you’d like to hear us talk about the album and play some of favorite selections, check out this video:

If you allow, I’d like to conclude with one more quick personal note. I teach a “Music of Louis Armstrong” course at Queens College and always spend a good chunk of one of my classes analyzing this show. The All Stars was seen by some as a return to Armstrong’s roots and at first glance, at trumpet-trombone-clarinet front line playing tunes like “Royal Garden Blues” and “High Society” does make it appear to be a revival band of some sort. But first glances can be wrong as this music was brought up-to-date to 1947 standards with a rhythm section swinging like mad, Sid Catlett dropping bombs, the horns seamlessly switching from New Orleans polyphony to tight riffs. From a repertoire standpoint, you get the entire history of jazz: New Orleans (“High Society,” “Back O’Town Blues”), Chicago (“Royal Garden Blues”), the Hot Five (“Muskrat Ramble,”) Louis’s big band hits (“On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Mahogany Hall Stomp”), a protest song (“Black and Blue”), a comedic duet (“That’s My Desire”), Ellington (“C Jam Blues”), Swing Era standards (“Lover,” “Stars Fell on Alabama,” “Tea for Two,” “Body and Soul,” “I Cried for You”), R&B jukebox hits (“Since I Fell For You,” Velma’s “Hey-Baba-Le-Ba” inspired blues), touches of bop (Shaw quoting “Ornithology” on bop anthem “How High the Moon,” Catlett’s “Mop Mop” feature), and standout features for some of the greatest individualists in the history of the music (Bigard, Teagarden, Catlett). There’s no single category to describe all of the above–it’s not Dixieland, it’s not just traditional jazz, it’s not just swing (though it all swings), it’s not bop–it’s just good music, which is all Armstrong wanted to provide to the world.

Published by Ricky Riccardi

I am Director of Research Collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum.

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