Louis Armstrong’s distinctive vocals and seminal trumpet playing ensured he was one of the most feted musicians in the middle part of the last century. While he was most closely aligned to the jazz fraternity his huge body of work often crossed over to the blues and pop genres which meant his audience came from every walk of life. From the very start Satchmo (as he was often known) recorded a fine collection of Christmas songs, from novel takes of old favourites to fiery new standards for which he would become synonymous. Such was the spread of his Christmas recordings over a long career that he never recorded a dedicated Christmas album so his songs were dotted amongst the otherwise non-Christmas related LP’s or released as standalone singles.
The first sign of a winter Satchmo came way back in 1925 as his career was starting to take off. The instrumental ‘Santa Claus Blues’ was released on a 78 disc and has that vintage feel so redolent of recordings from that era. Remarkably it would be a further 30 years before Armstrong returned to songs of the season. And it would be with arranger and composer Gordon Jenkins and his orchestra that Armstrong would turn out a batch of his finest Christmas recordings in 1952. Both ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Winter Wonderland’ were low tempo affairs but the combination Armstrong’s low slung vocals and Jenkins lush arrangements made for festive heaven.
In the build up to Christmas 1953 Pops (another nickname of Armstrong’s) proved that he was at the absolute peak of his powers when with able backing from his session players the Commanders he gave us ‘Zat You Santa Claus? And ‘Cool Yule’, a pair of shimmering classics that would have impressed at the best cocktail parties no matter what the time of the year it was. The fact that both songs (and 3 others) were recorded over a 24 hour period just shows the class of the man and the talented people that surrounded him.
A year later in 1954 and Pops was getting together with Velma Middleton for ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ which appeared as b-side to his ‘That’s My Desire’ single. It was a skit to be sure but not many versions of the song that appeared in its wake could outdo its cheeky charm. The Christmas songs continued to come thick and fast throughout the mid-50’s with Armstrong teaming up with the brilliant conductor Benny Carter for ‘Christmas In New Orleans’. Brass heavy and slightly less electrified than the previous year’s recordings this was still a classy Christmas production. ‘Christmas Night In Harlem’ was also recorded during this seminal session and while it focused more on the vocals rather than on Armstrong’s blazing trumpeting this was just another example of the coolest yule ever put to music.
Satchmo’s second album with Ella Fitzgerald in 1957 called ‘Ella and Louis Again’ included their classic ‘I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm’. With plenty of references to snow and December this is ideal Christmas material as the chemistry of the duo and the precious piano tinkling created the warmest of sounds. Following a big break from seasonal material Louis emerged again in 1970, much wiser and perhaps a little more world weary (that said he was about to record ‘What A Wonderful World’ so all was not lost!) with ‘Here Is My Heart For Christmas’. The song proved to be sentimental and a world away from ‘Cool Yule’ but was still miles ahead of the competition. The very next year in 1971 Louis’s fabled gravelly voice proved to be the perfect vehicle for his spoken word ‘The Night Before Christmas’ which proved to be his last Christmas recording.
There are many compilations that pull Satchmo’s Christmas efforts into a meaningful whole. The first compilation of note arrived in 1996 when ‘Christmas Through The Years’ served up a 10-song collection of Armstrong’s best known Christmas songs. While not comprehensive it has proven to be the best of many of its ilk. Many of the other Christmas compilations he appears on include most of his songs but also include his ‘friends’ which means there are song inclusions by different artists. A little bit odd so maybe it is best to stick with ‘Christmas Through The Years’.
Gifts I'm preparin'
Louis Armstrong, 'Zat you, Santa Claus?
For some Christmas sharin'
But I pause because
Hangin' my stockin'
I can hear a knockin'
'Zat you, Santa Claus