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Sound City: a record store closes after 18 years; Louis Armstrong, W.C. Handy, Vilma Middleton and St. Louis Woman

Sound City was my local record store in Long island City till I stopped frequenting the place a couple of years ago because I was buying all my music on line. It closed on Sunday after an 18 year run.

“When I started here there were five record stores along Steinway Street,” the owner Gus explained. Gus is around 50 years old with long straight hair to his shoulders though he doesn’t look like a hippie refugee. “I was the last man standing,” he explained. “and now there is none.”

“I mean, I lost you, my most loyal customer. What was left?”

For years and years, every other Friday I would go to “Sound City” and blow my paycheck. First on vinyl and then, after vinyl had dwindled to 12 inchers for DJs only, CDs. Gus had weekly releases on the Friday before the Tuesday, he had $5 discounted CDs and $2 used CDs and I would spend a Friday evening scouring through them looking for that one great buy. He could order you anything you wanted before Amazon stole his business.
But Gus wasn’t particularly knowlegable about music and particularly clueless about hip hop and that wasn’t why I went there for the most part. What Gus had was an assistant name Frank, a Vietnam vet who had done session work with some of the jazz greats. Frank knew so much about jazz it was ridiculous -what I learnt from him I couldn’t have learnt from a million Itunes. He pinpointed albums by guys like Charlie Mingus that opened up difficult music to a beginner. I can’t thank him enough and half my money went on jazz for years till I managed to get a handle on the genre.
Now, on a Tuesday I wake up early and download songs. It’s not the same as sitting around with Gus and Frank on a Friday night talk politics and pop. In many ways it’s much better but it is antisocial and whatever social community there is on line it is simply not the same as the give and take of a record store. “Sound City” will be missed.
A glance down at the “About me” section of this blog should express simply enough my feelings about Louis Armstrong. I am going to tell you about “St. Louis Blues” -Armstrong (and everybody else) has covered this song many, many times (I must have a dozen versions) but never better than on the 1954 album “Louise Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy”. Playing backup were his third(?) grounp, the All Stars, following in the wake of Hot 5, Hot 7 and Big band. The charming, fun, gifted and funny Velma Middleton shares vocals. This version of “St. Louis Blues” (Sometimes called “St. Louis Woman”) is to Armstrong what “Imagine” is to Lennon: it doesn’t begin to tell the entire story but if you HAD TO choose only one song…

Armstrong, in the presense of the father of the blues W.C. Handy, is playing a supremely sophisticated form of blues. It is the blues, it is all blue notes, it has the sexuality of the blues, but it has the instrumentation and the power of jazz.

From Armstrong’s introductory high note trumpet we are in another world of music and from Velma’s first verse the blue is turning rapidly to black: “I hate to see that evening sun go down because it makes me feel like i’m on my last go round.”
Velma spent much of her career playing Armstrong’s feminine foil but, perhaps in keeping with the times, all sex was implied: the romance (even on stuff like “Baby It’s cold Outside” -What’s in this drink?” she wonders while Armstrong makes jokes about being on the wrong side of town) an in-joke. Not here. The guys like her “because she takes her time”. Armstrong gets his faced smacked by a gypsy and threatens velma with violence till the trimphant ending eith the trumpet and trombone trading notes.
It is debatable but Armstrong might have been at his height in the 50s. Look at it this way: from the early 20s to the early 60s he was the greatest musician in the world but the greatest vocalist only from the mid 40s to the late 50s
When people call Jazz a great art form they mean this version of “St. Louis Woman” as Armstrong takes Handy’s deepest feelings and deepens them further: female sexuality, sorrow, death, discrimination, violence, freedom. An act of transmogrification in under nine minutes.

Like i said, before there was Louis Armstrong there was nothing. Armstrong is the greatest popular musician of all time.

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