Shellac Spotlight: Louis Armstrong & His Hot Seven, “Willie the Weeper” / “Alligator Crawl” (Okeh 8482)

  • Original 1927 pressing


  • Louis Armstrong, cornet
  • Johnny Dodds, clarinet
  • John Thomas, trombone
  • Lil Hardin Armstrong, piano
  • Johnny St. Cyr, guitar
  • Pete Briggs, tuba
  • Baby Dodds, drums

Recorded May 7 and May 10, 1927 at Okeh Studios, Chicago

So far, Deep Groove Mono’s coverage of 78s has been limited to the very first 78 I ever acquired and the Dual idler wheel turntable I recently picked up for its popularity with 78 collectors. Since I have replaced that first 78 with a cleaner copy, abandoned the economical Califone portable featured in that post, and now prefer my modified Technics 1200 to play 78s over the Dual, this in some ways is my inaugural 78 post.

I have managed to build up a modestly-sized 78 collection over the past six months, and without trying to sound too self-congratulatory, I worked hard for it. It took a lot of research, shopping, patience, reception of packages, cleaning, critical listening, transferring, and photographing. Time for me to finally relax and enjoy the fruits of my labor.

For Jazz Historians

I have always taken an interest in the historical roots of the hard bop I cherish most. After exhausting all my resources for bebop 78s recently, I shifted gears to collecting original vocal versions of my favorite jazz standards. But jazz history is deep as the ocean, and it surely does not end with the white popular vocal artists featured on most of these earlier records. The music of colossal jazz legends like Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller was clearly a major influence on my favorite bop musicians, and even if it isn’t naturally the first music I would reach for, I still felt a drive to understand it and the way it’s connected to bop. Maybe I would develop a more genuine interest in the music from there; either way, the records those guys put out have historical value to me.

In the process of exploring “hot jazz”, I stumbled upon the Instagram page of Hot Club of New York. Founded and maintained by a young, bright WKCR alum and disciple of Phil Schaap that I only know as “Fat Cat”, his passion and enthusiasm for hot jazz is infectious, and it surely inspired me to further explore the subgenre.

Ever since I watched Ken Burns’ (somewhat controversial) Jazz documentary, I had been curious about Louis Armstrong. The thing I noticed right away about that documentary (probably true of any history of jazz) was how unanimous the interviewees seemed in their agreement that Louis Armstrong is essentially the gravitational force of creativity at the center of the jazz galaxy. More than any other figure in the music’s history, experts seem to agree that Pops is tops. For obvious reasons, this white boy born in 1980 had trouble understanding that universal sentiment, but I too wanted to share in the knowledge of Armstrong’s lasting influence on jazz.

Author Gary Giddins’ input on Satchmo made an especially strong impression on me. Giddins spoke about Armstrong’s importance with certainty and conviction. There was also a moment in which I really felt I understood just how special Louis Armstrong was. During footage of an October 21, 1933 live performance with his orchestra in Copenhagen, his immense charm and skill is on full display as he effortlessly shifts between addressing the crowd, dancing along with the music, and taking his solos with utmost poise and seriousness. Fashioning a white rag to wipe the sweat from his brow, one can’t help but remember trumpeters past like Buddy Bolden who would drape a rag over their hand to protect the secrets of their fingering from onlooking players. Witnessing Louis’ swagger then made it perfectly clear why he was far and away “the man” in his day.

For Record Collectors

Once I started researching Armstrong’s 78 catalog, it didn’t take long to realize that his Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings for Okeh in the late 1920s are considered by many to be the creme-de-la-creme. So I started listening on Spotify. Of the dozens of sides I heard, two stood out above the rest. Not only that, both were originally issued on the same 78, and even more coincidental, there was a decent copy for sale on eBay — surprising since these Louis Okeh 78s seem rare and in regular demand.

I decided to take a chance on the disk, which was graded “V” (I have learned that V for 78s is more comparable to VG- with LPs). There’s something about these really old 78s where the older the record is, the more forgiving I am of playback issues. The record proved conservatively graded, and even with some minor playback issues I decided it was worth the price of admission (my time collecting has shown me that effectively determining what does and does not constitute an “enjoyable listen” is a skill that needs developing). And I’ll be honest: these gorgeous Okeh labels and their highly-stylized typography inevitably enhance my enjoyment. Perhaps a less shallow assessment would be that records like these are pieces of history that make listening exciting in a special way.

For Music Lovers

I still have a lot to learn about the history of Louis Armstrong’s small groups, but I have managed to figure out that these are some of the earliest sides cut by the newly-formed Hot Seven in Chicago in early May 1927. Tuba and drums were added to what by modern standards seems like an odd conception of a rhythm section, which in the Hot Five consisted of a pianist and banjoist. Pops is still on cornet at this point, and while we catch the band in the middle of a one-year Kid Ory hiatus here, trombonist John Thomas succeeds at filling his shoes, and clarinetist Johnny Dodds remains faithfully flanking our leader to complete the septet’s front line.

The band comes roaring out the gate at the beginning of “Willie the Weeper”, an old Vaudeville song that saw a sort of resurgence around the time this disk was cut. For the very first moments of the take the band is in complete rhythmic unison, creating momentum that makes me nod my head every time. No doubt this is busy music. The parts individually have a beautiful simplicity but together they ensue a happy sort of chaos that is a proven hallmark of hot jazz.

I’ve heard many historians say that one of the great original contributions Armstrong made to jazz was the way he created space for soloists to make their mark on a tune. In “Willie the Weeper”, John Thomas leads off and does not disappoint. In fact, while casually perusing my Hot Five and Hot Seven playlist on Spotify, this was probably the first solo that made my ears perk up. I continue to fashion hot jazz as a little ‘silly’ sounding (regardless of how ignorant or historically invalid that opinion may be), and while I find Thomas’ solo fits this description to a tee, I find it entirely captivating at the same time.

Dodds comes in next and steals the show. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of joining a virtual meeting of the Hot Club of New York on Zoom, at which time Fat Cat proceeded to school me on the brilliance of Johnny Dodds. With embellishments shifting at each chord change, Dodds resolves the first and second halves of his solo with a matching pair of high notes that create a most satisfying sense of cadence.

I’m not sure how typical this was of Armstrong but he lets his bandmates take the lion’s share of the spotlight here. After a brief appearance by Satch, pianist Lil Armstrong pounces through her solo and is followed by guitarist Johnny St. Cyr, who registers yet another catchy solo for the group. The leader then triumphantly returns with a chorus that is pure rhythm. Accompanied by Baby Dodds’ syncopated bashing of a choked cymbal, the two proceed to create a bouncing rhythm that makes it impossible to sit still. They are eventually rejoined for a victory lap by the rest of the band and they ride out the side together.

Things slow down on the B-side with “Alligator Crawl”. Written by Fats Waller, I wonder if Louis learned of the song back when he was playing with Fletcher Henderson in New York. Dodds opens things up and is followed by a chorus from the band. Then we finally get to hear Louis unleash over Pete Briggs’ bossy tuba and Baby Dodds’ choked cymbal, which again, along with Armstrong’s highly rhythmic sense of playing, provides motivating syncopation. St. Cyr enters jarringly just as Armstrong exits, does some strumming, and the band plays the tune out.

I’m not sure how much more Hot Five and Hot Seven stuff I’m going to collect but this disk definitely does it for me. Stay tuned, I’ll be back with another Shellac Spotlight post soon!