In their June issue, The Atlantic asks, “What is the Most Influential Song of All Time?”
Some of the answers submitted by celebrities include “We Shall Overcome,” “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Respect,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Amazing Grace.”
I don’t think you can come up with a definitive answer. An argument can be made for all the songs listed above and a few others. Of course, it also depends on what is meant by “influential.” A song that influenced music, a song that changed history . . ?
In the Atlantic, singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell mentions Louis Armstrong’s 1928 recording of Joe “King” Oliver’s “West End Blues.” That song, to my mind, is a very strong contender.
On June 28, 1928, a 26-year-old Louis Armstrong walked into a Chicago recording studio with his Hot Five band and changed music history. The recording was of a song called “West End Blues,” composed and first recorded several months earlier by Armstrong’s mentor, Joe “King” Oliver. On that day in 1928, Armstrong stepped out of his mentor’s shadow and came into his own.
Armstrong and the Hot Five’s recording of “West End Blues” features an incredible piano solo by Earl “Fatha” Hines, one of Armstrong’s great friends and important collaborator. Armstrong’s 15-second trumpet intro and his eight-bar solo near the end are nothing short of epic. But what makes the song so influential to me is Armstrong’s singing. His simple and understated vocal styling on this song is one of the earliest recorded examples of scat singing.
Louis Armstrong, universally recognized as one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, is also one of the most influential singers, an aspect of his career that is often overlooked. Armstrong set singers free. No longer did they have to possess what was traditionally considered a “good” singing voice. No longer did they have to conform to a restrictive vocal style. Armstrong wasn’t the first to sing scat, or croon with a bluesy tone, but he almost single-handedly took that kind of singing out of the backwater, or out of the alley and put it on main street. Artists including Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald were greatly in Armstrong’s debt. And without him, there would have been no Elvis, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, or Aretha Franklin. If Armstrong had not come along, perhaps someone else would have, but then again without Armstrong, perhaps singers would still be sounding like Rudy Vallee or Kate Smith.
King Oliver named this song for New Orleans’ West End, a popular picnic and entertainment area on Lake Pontchartrain. I used to live on West End Boulevard less than a mile from the lake.
Now, without further ado, “West End Blues”: