13 October 2015


In the beginning there was a composition by the young Fats Waller. He probably composed it in 1927 and he called it Alligator Crawl. It acquired words by Andy Razaf, so it was also available as a song: Alligator Crawl is so appealing - A creepy rhythm that will tickle your toes. Never fails to bring a happy feeling - Its tempo has a charm that grows and grows .... etc.

In 1934, Fats Waller himself recorded it as a piano solo. His version makes it sound like a boogie-woogie blended with a rocking catchy song. You can hear it on YouTube BY CLICKING HERE. I believe this version is still popular as a party piece for solo pianists. Bert Brandsma has kindly supplied me with an analysis of the structure:

1. 16 bars in C (2 times 8)

2. The 24 bar A B A form in C 
Modulation to F
3. Theme in F 

But in May 1927, Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven (including Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Johnny St. Cyr on guitar and Pete Briggs on tuba) had made a lusty three-minute recording in Chicago of Alligator Crawl. Their version has not much in common with the later recording by Fats Waller. Instead of the 16-bar sections (8 + 8 bars) it has four 12-bar blues sequences. It plays the 24-bar theme only once (from 1 min. 10 secs. to 2 mins. 05 secs. during the performance). Although these 24 bars seem (to my ear) to use the same harmonic sequence as Fats Waller, Louis plays a melody that is almost totally different, apart from the famous opening two bars:

so, in effect, only 55 seconds of Armstrong's 3-minute recording sound anything like Waller's. In most respects the Hot Seven interpretation is so different from the other that the two versions sound like two different pieces of music.

This led me to speculate that Armstrong (and his pianist wife Lil Hardin) took just a musical idea and the harmonies from the Waller 24-bar theme and re-structured them in their own way, allowing for some tremendous fresh invention. My guess was that Lil Hardin's was the brain behind the project. With her classical training and skills as a jazz composer and arranger (constantly in use with this band in the mid-1920s), not to mention that she plays the piano on the recording, I would not be surprised if there is as much Hardin as Waller in the Hot Seven 1927 recording. Even the four 12-bar blues sequences (especially the ensemble one that is repeated) in the Armstrong version are not any old improvisations: they are majestic - and linger in our minds.

But the great Australian jazz researcher Bill Haesler has pointed out to me that there is also a richly-orchestrated and precisely-played recording of Alligator Crawl by 'Doc' Cook and His Doctors of Syncopation. This recording appears to have been made only a month after that of the Hot Seven. You can find it on YouTube and you will note that the composer is definitely given as Waller and that it includes some 12-bar sections reminiscent of Armstrongs's, as well as the 24-bar theme.

Could the Hot Seven have started by looking at the the same musical arrangement that Doc Cook used so precisely - re-interpreting it freely in their own way? Quite probably.

So I have to come to the conclusion that Waller probably wrote a 12-bar theme as well as the famous 24-theme when he originally composed the piece, but that he chose to re-write the tune, dropping the 12-bar theme and replacing it with some new 16-bar material, when he came to record it as a piano speciality seven years later.

Unless somebody finds a manuscript or orchestration from 1927, we may never know the full story.

Bill Haesler also pointed me to Ricky Ricardi's Dippermouth Blogspot, where Armstrong's performance is analysed and the writer also provides this information: 
"Alligator Crawl" was originally titled "House Party Stomp" and "Charleston Stomp" before publisher Joe Davis gave it the final title..... 

A theory of Erwin Elvers of Luetjensee, Germany, is that the Alligator Crawl played by Armstrong was based on a Spencer Williams composition from which Fats Waller adopted the 24-theme for his own composition. But this theory - though it appeals to me as plausible - seems unsupported by paper records. See Dick Baker's research at http://dickbaker.org/stompoff/index.pdf.

Parlophone put out a version with the title as Alligator Blues and the composer as 'Williams'. Perhaps that's what influenced Erwin Elvers; but both the title and the composer on this label are are surely incorrect:
Adding a little to the confusion, some early Armstrong recordings do indeed give the tune the alternative title of Alligator Blues; and there actually is a tune called Alligator Blues that was recorded also in 1927 by a band called John Hyman's Bayou Stompers, but I can assure you Hyman's is a totally different piece of music. (John Hyman was the name used at the time by the cornet player John Wigginton Hyman - later better known as Johnny Wiggs). And adding still more confusion, there is a 1927 recording by Fess Williams' Royal Flush Orchestra of Alligator Crawl. It includes echoes of the 12-bar theme but not of the 24-bar, as far as I can tell.

Whoever was responsible for 'composing' its melodies and arranging its structure, it's the Hot Seven version that most bands try to copy these days. Fortunately the Hot Seven recording has survived the passage of time really well, as you can hear on YouTube. It's there for us all to study:

Its structure is as follows. It comprises eight segments:

1. Introduction : 2 bars (cornet) in the key of F.
2. 12-bar Blues in F, solo clarinet.
3. 12-bar Blues in F, ensemble.
4. 4-bar Modulation, clever, mainly on G7, leading to a change to the key of C.
5. 24-Bar Theme ensemble (structured a - b - a) in the key of C (the phrase given above appears in the 'a' parts; and the 'b' part uses some minor chords).
6. One bar in which Louis modulates the key back to F (making the previous theme virtually stretch to a highly unusual 25 bars).
7. 12-Bar blues in F, guitar.
8. As No. 3 above: 12-bar blues in F, ensemble, with athletic improvisations by Louis.

And if you would like to examine a 21st-Century version by the great young band Tuba Skinny, I can tell you they have recorded it on their Pyramid Strut CD, and you can watch them (on YouTube, thanks to the generosity of the great video-maker digitalalexa) playing it in public. You will find that Tuba Skinny take the tune a shade more slowly than Louis but they follow meticulously the structure and spirit of his recording, right down to that 'extra' bar I have called Segment 6 (watch out for it at precisely 2 mins. 13 secs. into the video). But of course, being Tuba Skinny, they (in particular Shaye on cornet) have introduced exciting alternative improvised phrasings of their own. Watch the performance by clicking here.