Ricky Riccardi tells the story of his Grammy-winning Louis Armstrong liner notes

When Ricky Riccardi was growing up in Toms Rivers, N.J., in the ’90s, most kids his age were digging George Michael or A Tribe Called Quest. Riccardi, meanwhile, was into classic Motown and vintage movies from Hollywood’s golden era. At the age of 15, he discovered Louis Armstrong.

Riccardi became mesmerized and slightly obsessed. He devoured everything he could get his hands on about the famed New Orleans jazz musician. He went on to earn a master’s degree in jazz history and became the director of research collections at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in New York, the home where Satchmo spent his final years. Riccardi also teaches a graduate course on the celebrated trumpeter, and he’s the author of Heart Full of Rhythm: The Big Band Years of Louis Armstrong and What a Wonderful World: What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years.

This past Sunday, Riccardi won a Grammy Award for best album notes for his work on The Complete Louis Armstrong Columbia and RCA Victor Studio Sessions 1946-1966, a seven-CD boxed set released by Mosaic Records that includes more than three hours of bonus material, including unissued takes, rehearsals and even studio discussions.

“I learned everything I know about jazz from liner notes,” Riccardi said in his acceptance speech. “The music of Louis Armstrong changed my life, and that’s the crux of this box set.”

Right before the Grammys, Riccardi joined us for a conversation.

I have a feeling that when you were younger, there were plenty of times when you couldn’t wait to get home with an album and read through those liner notes.

It’s funny… Being nominated for a Grammy is an out-of-body experience. It doesn’t even seem real. I’m having fun with it because every time I tell somebody under the age of 30 that I’m nominated for a Grammy, first they lose their minds. Then here comes the question: “What for?” Then I have to explain “best album notes.” It’s so heartbreaking, but it’s so funny watching their face go huh? Album notes? What does that mean? It’s kind of a dying art, but for [my] generation, I’m proud to admit that I learned more about this music and more about jazz history from liner notes than anything else. I read a lot of books, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a textbook or anything like that. I was buying CDs, buying LPs and reading Dan Morgenstern, George Avakian, Gary Giddins, Stanley Crouch and [Robert] O’Meally. They would take you inside the music, behind the scenes. They would tell you what to listen for. That was my education. To be a part of this category — even if it seems like a bit of an anachronism in 2022 — it’s an honour of all honours.

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When I first reached out to you, I asked you to pick out some of the songs from the box set to talk about. One of your choices was Mack the Knife. Tell me about this track.

This was maybe my favourite moment from the production side of things. So many people might just stream, you know, The Complete Miles Davis or The Complete Thelonious Monk. You don’t really know what goes into it. For this set, I knew the vision. I knew I wanted it to be Columbia and RCA from 1946 to 1966. We had this great team and we put together the dream tracks. [We] submit the wish list and then Sony has to approve it, and then they send the tapes. We showed up at Battery Sound and there were boxes and boxes of tapes. We didn’t know what to expect. Sure enough, there’s a tape marked Mack the Knife. A lot of folks associate [that song] with Bobby Darin or Ella Fitzgerald, even Frank Sinatra started doing it in the ’80s. But Louis was the one who really swung it for the first time. He does it for Columbia in 1955, has one of the biggest hits of his career, plays it every night for the rest of his life. Everybody knows Mack the Knife, everybody knows Louis Armstrong’s record, but I had never heard of an alternate take. I didn’t even know something like that existed. We fire the tape up, and the first sounds on the tape is the band rehearsing. You hear Louis’s trumpet and them talking it over. I’m like… This is gold. This is absolute gold.

Legend always had it that the San Francisco trombonist Turk Murphy wrote an arrangement of Mack the Knife for Louis Armstrong, and when you listen to that finished 1955 record, there’s not much of an arrangement. It just sounds like they’re jamming on Mack the Knife. When we started listening to the tape, there was an arrangement. There were these weird modulations and all this stuff that never made it into the final take. When we listened to it in the studio … We all just started hooting and hollering and cheering. We could not believe that this was the making of one of Louis Armstrong’s greatest studios. We were there in the studio hearing how it took shape. [In the first take,] Louis stumbles at one point. He’s supposed to sing the phrase “dropping down,” but he accidentally sings “drooping down.” On the next take he corrected himself, but then the producer George Avakian got a kick out of it and [told him to] sing “drooping down.” We actually reprinted Louis’s lyric sheet in the booklet for the Mosaic set, and you could see he wrote in the margins, “drooping down.” Bobby Darin, Sinatra, they all sing “drooping down,” but it all came from this [first] take with Louis Armstrong stumbling over the word.

Tell me about Chantez Les Bas.

Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy is my favourite album of all time. I once said in a lecture that if politicians promised a copy of that record in every home that they’d win in a landslide. That record could change the world. This is George Avakian’s crowning achievement to get Louis Armstrong on Columbia to record 11 compositions by W.C. Handy, the father of the blues. I urge everybody to listen to that record. The Mosaic set has the original record in its entirety, but it also has close to 100 minutes of alternate takes. Chantez Les Bas is one of the highlights of the original record. It’s one of Handy’s more obscure tunes. In George Avakian’s liner notes, he writes about how in the studio, they got so carried away that Louis was about the end the song but his trombonist Trummy Young got so excited that he kept on blowing, so they blew an extra chorus. They got really worked up and extra excited. You think yeah, it’s a cute story, but maybe it’s a myth. We get these tapes from Sony and boom, there it is: the first take of Chantez Les Bas, and it’s a chorus shorter. They do stop on time. It actually makes the master take with the extra chorus that much more dramatic.

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You mention in your album notes that between 1946 and 1966, Louis Armstrong was viewed by a lot of critics as someone whose best days were behind him. Can you shed some light on that? What was happening during that time that would make someone think Louis Armstrong was done?

This was something that dogged Louis Armstrong for the last 30 years of his life, and it continued to dog his legacy after he passed away. We’re over that now, thank goodness, but this has been the pet peeve that inspired me to go into this world. Once I got into this jazz world, I started reading this narrative that when you listen to Louis Armstrong in the 1920s, that’s a serious artist. That’s not an entertainer, that’s an innovator. That’s a guy who’s very serious about his art, and he completely changes the way people play their instruments, how they sing. What a groundbreaking, revolutionary, incredible genius. And then in 1929, he decides to start recording [gasp] pop tunes. He has a big band, god forbid a big band. He starts making movies, and he’s funny in these movies. So, 1928 represents this breakoff point — the height of his art before he sells out. For the rest of his career, he’s always been compared to the 1928 version of himself. The critics are not listening. He’s still playing incredible trumpet. He’s singing better. He’s more popular than ever. He’s navigated all the different trends in music and in jazz. Instead of appreciating that, it was always, “He had to do it by selling out. He had to go commercial. He had to be an Uncle Tom.” I’ve written two books that literally begin in 1929. You think that’s where the story ends? No, this is where the story begins. I always find it fascinating to see this African-American man in the late 1920s completely blow up the world of pop music from the inside. He changes it forever. It would never be the same after that. One of the fun things I’ve done is go through the newspaper articles of the 1920s, and the supposed serious artist who was making all these masterpieces was scatting, doing comedy, drag routines, pop tunes. He was doing the same thing he did for the rest of his career, but for some reason, people can’t have art and entertainment together. If it makes you smile and feel good, then something must be wrong. That’s something that Louis did not subscribe to, and it’s something that I don’t subscribe to, so I’ve been on this 27-year crusade to get people to focus on the totality of the man’s career. Once a genius, always a genius.