Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Heebie Jeebies

Louis Armstrong
Originally uploaded by mwthomas87.

Louis Armstrong's 1926 recording of Heebie Jeebies
was not the first song to introduce skat singing to the world, but it probably did more to popularize the vocal jazz form than anything before it.
What was originally intended to be a novelty song and the B-side behind Cornet Chop Suey turned out to be Armstrong's first hit, selling more than 40,000 copies within a few months.
The song starts out fairly simply with a strumming banjo and a piano establishing the basic rhythym before being joined by trombone, clarinet and Armstrong's coronet. It is a bright and peppy number, but what distinguishes it and makes it stand out is Armstrong's vocals in the middle of the song.
The Heebie Jeebie was a popular dance at the time and the lyrics which can be found here are not particularly remarkable except for Armstrong's enthusiastic delivery:

Say, I've got the heebies,
I mean the jeebies,
Talking about
The dance, the heebie jeebies,
Do, because they're boys,
Because it pleases me to be joy!
Say, don't you know it?
You don't know how, don't be blue,
Someone will teach you;
Come on, and do that dance,
They call the heebie jeebies dance,
Yes, ma'am,
Papa's got the heebie jeebies dance!

At this point, Armstrong suddenly takes off with a lengthy chorus of nonsense syllables that meld with the music:

Say, come on, now, and do that dance,
They call the heebie jeebies dance,
Sweet mama!
Papa's got to do the heebie jeebies dance!
Wooh! Got the heebie jeebies!
Whatcha doin' with the heebies?
I just have to have the heebies!

The legend that has evolved around this song is that Armstrong's skatting was not intentional and was prompted by his accidently knocking the sheet music to the floor in the middle of the recording. Because recordings were expensive, the producer did not want to stop and signaled for Louis to continue, which he did despite not knowing the words.
Of course, this isn't really what happened, but it is a fun story nonetheless and one that Armstrong is said to have encouraged after a while.

In the book that accompanies Ken Burns' Jazz documentary, Mezz Mezzrow, a Chicago-born clarinetist and contemporary of Bix Biederbecke, is quoted saying that for months after Heebie Jeebies was released you would hear people greeting each other all over Chicago with Louis' riffs and skatting to one another...

"Louis' skatting almost drove the English language out of the Windy City for good."


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