The top 10 records in New York City fifty years ago this week: The Beatles, The 4 Seasons, The Beatles, The Beatles, Louis Armstrong & The All Stars, Al Hirt, Diane Renay, The Dave Clark Five, The Searchers, The Rivieras. Over at the other hit music station: The Beatles, The Beatles, The 4 Seasons, The Beatles, Hirt, Armstrong, Renay, The Beatles, The Rivieras, The Beach Boys. Louis Armstrong chased The Beatles for a few weeks with “Hello, Dolly!,” and ultimately got to #1 for a week or two (depending on which survey you trust more), and that was big pop news because Armstrong was an old jazz dude (63, not old compared to Paul and Ringo now, but old to be living among them in hitville) and hadn’t been on the singles chart for more than seven years, since he made a minor splash with “Blueberry Hill” (a reissue of a 1949 track, released to compete with the Fats Domino smash). “Hello, Dolly!’ stayed in the top 10 until June, hanging on as other Beatles records — and other British Invasion records — came and went, and still you look at those charts and wonder what on earth was happening.
It was the nature of hit radio then to be all-embracing. Even as The Beatles swept in and claimed a big chunk of airspace, there was still some room, as “Hello, Dolly!” hung around, for girl groups (The Dixie Cups), sophisticated Bacharach pop (Dionne Warwick), ska (Millie Small), Motown (Mary Wells), bossa nova (Stan Getz with Astrud Gilberto). Even so, the whole “Hello, Dolly!” thing was a curiosity. It was the title song from a Broadway musical, songs by Jerry Herman, but how many people who listened to WMCA and WABC even cared about that? Who was this Dolly person, where has she been, and who is this Louis (pronounced, by himself, as Lew-Iss, like Jerry, and not Lou-ee, like Prima), a virtual stranger to pop radio, although by most knowledgeable reckoning the most important musician of the 20th century? How unfair to us that this was our generation’s introduction (unless you were lucky, as I was, that his music was already in the LP collection) to Armstrong.
It’s a jaunty little jam, a snappy 148 seconds, most of it a swinging-enough Armstrong solo, but there’s something off-putting about it. the banjo-strummin’, the sketchy storyline. It makes me vaguely uncomfortable, the whole tone of it, even though there’s nothing overt happening: Dolly was away, now she’s returned (it’s like “Kitty’s Back” in that way), and Louis is happy about it for some reason. “Find her an empty lap, fellas!,” he commands, like he’s buying table dances for his pals, so it’s probably not his girlfriend. A party girl? I guess in the context of the musical, this let’s-hear-it-for-her razzamatazz makes some narrative sense — it is the name of the play — but something about the faux-Dixieland arrangement makes it all feel sort of minstrely, and look at those two top 10 lists up top: it’s the only record by a black artist in there at that moment, and it smacks not only of pre-rock & roll, not only pre-war pop, but of an older tradition. “The band’s playin’ one of our old favorite songs from way back when,” he sings. Yeah, way way back.
There were so many cover versions, and it won the Grammy for Song of the Year. Think about that for more than two minutes and your head will explode. Song. Of the Year. The year being 1964. OK, let’s factor in the anti-rock bias, so no Lennon & McCartney win (“A Hard Day’s Night” was nominated). What about “The Girl From Ipanema”? Other songs from 1964: “Under The Boardwalk,” “Dancing In The Street,” “Walk On By,” “Don’t Worry Baby”…pick any week, and there are twenty songs better than “Hello, Dolly!” I’m still stumped by this.
Herman tried to repeat the “Dolly!” formula with the song “Mame,” from the same-named musical, and Armstrong recorded that one also, and here’s where it gets even more convoluted. The original lyric contains this adorable couplet: “You make the cotton easy to pick, Mame/You give my old mint julep a kick, Mame.” And there are lines about the plantation humming and the old magnolia tree and “those banjos strummin’” (making overt what was implied in “Dolly!”). What is going on? She makes the cotton easy to pick? There’s also a reference to Mame having some responsibility for making “the South revive again.”
I would not want to have been the A&R person at Mercury Records whose job it was to present this song to Mr. Armstrong. “Uh, Satchmo, sir, you know that big hit you had two years ago, that ‘Dolly’ song? Well, here’s one by the same writer and it has that pop-Dixie feel…Oh, yeah…’the plantation,’ I can see where that might…right, that ‘cotton picking’ line, we can…Look, let me call the publisher on this, maybe…” In the end, Armstrong evaded the sticky issue: “You got the whole place hummin’ since you brought Dixie back to Dixieland” (not a hell of a lot better), and “You make your Louis [Lou-ee this time, as in ‘Louie, Louie’] feel like a king” in place of the potentially squirm-making cotton reference.
Browse through the Louis Armstrong ‘60s discography, and you can see that it was a wide-ranging decade for him. He appeared in the film Paris Blues. There was a long-overdue collaboration with Duke Ellington in ’61, and later that year a project with Dave Brubeck. And the “Dolly!” aftershock led to some interesting sessions and performances, including a set filmed in July 1965 for Shindig. He cut an album of Disney songs, and recorded “What A Wonderful World.” He did a country session in 1970, and the same year did a duet with Johnny Cash on “Blue Yodel Number 9” on Cash’s TV show. Until “What A Wonderful World” had its unexpected revival, his later years were mostly remembered for that time when he went head-to-head with The Beatles and knocked them out of the #1 spot for the first time since they’d claimed it in January 1964. That’s a nice statistic, but it isn’t a great record, There’s another Broadway tune on the flip of the Kapp single, and I’ve always liked it better; it’s from the first Broadway musical I ever saw, and it never fails to make me smile: “Satchmo’s got a lot of livin’ to do,” he says. Play it, Satch.