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Who Stole Luis Russell and His "Call of the Freaks"?

Updated on June 24, 2014
Billrrrr profile image

Bill Russo is featured in the film & TV show, The Bridgewater Triangle & has written several books (both fiction & non) on Amazon Kindle.

AMAZING 1920s seminal recording - Call of the Freaks

Luis Russell we hardly knew ye



I’ll give you the answer to the 'who' right away. Louis Armstrong did it.

The Hello Dolly & What a Wonderful World guy. That Louis Armstrong. Yes, he did it and he even admitted it.

So Armstrong is the Who, but the Why will come later. First I will answer your obvious question, “Who is Luis Russell?

The answer to that question is not easy. You really should ask me who he could have become if he was not stolen.

I think that he would have been Bing Crosby, John Bon Jovi, Tupac Shakur, Arthur Fieldler, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Snoop Dog, Kayne West, Eminem, or Barry Manilow.

He would have been them or like them.

He started young and he started big. By the age of twelve, he mastered the guitar, piano, trombone, and violin. He did have a bit of help. His Dad was a music teacher of Afro-Caribbean ancestry. The family lived in Panama.

Before Luis was old enough to shave, he was hired in Silent Movie Cinemas to play the instrumental accompaniment to the ’flickers’.

At age seventeen, in 1919, he won three thousand dollars in American money in a lottery and used the money to move himself, his Mom and his sister to the United States. They settled in New Orleans, where Luis quickly got work with some fine jazz groups.

An eager student, he was able to study piano under Steve Lewis - who was one of the founders of Jazz around 1900 in the Crescent City’s Storyville section.

Storyville, called ‘the district’ by the locals was the authorized Red Light district for many years.

It also was where much of the early Jazz was conceived and nurtured.

In 1917 when the city shut down Storyville, many of the great jazzmen moved to Chicago. Luis himself, left New Orleans for the Windy city in 1924 after five years in “the Big Easy“

In Chicago, he hooked on with Doc Cooke and the great King Oliver. In 1927, at the age of twenty-five, Luis made his final move. It was to New York City where he started his own band and it was a good one.

His band was one of the first to develop and play “Swing Music”.He developed the 'call and response' pattern that was later used by all the big successful bands including the Dorseys, Goodman and Glenn Miller.

Great examples of this new form can be heard on a half dozen sides he cut all dealing with the 'garbage man' theme

"Stick out your can, here come the garbage man

in the morning

Stick out your can, here come the garbage man

in the evening"

Those 'call and response' lyricis are from the haunting “Call of the Freaks” made in the 1920s…the tune has the potential to be a hit even today.

Russell cut numerous variations of the 'Freak'. Several had names like 'garbage man blues' and all of them employ the C & R theme and references to the garbage man checking out cans.

In one of the earliest talking blues, a philandering garbage man tries to tell his wife that he is only doing his job. He says, 'honey, I have to check out all the cans...cause I'm the garbage man!"

In a way, the Luis Russell band was too good. Red Allen often ‘borrowed’ it for his recording dates. Jelly Roll Morton used it on several of his sides. A young Louis Armstrong liked the band so much he used it on half a dozen recordings and then simply took over the band in 1929. Luis Russell was still the ‘real’ leader and the creative force behind the group but for years all the recordings were credited to Louis Armstrong.

In the early 30’s Armstrong toured California and Europe, so the band reverted back to Luis Russell and he cut some landmark recordings…but Armstrong came back in 1935 and the band again reverted to him.

In 1943 Russell went out on his own and for five years led the group in gigs at the Apollo and Savoy in New York and at Atlantic City in New Jersey.

In 1948, Russell’s bookings dried up and he opened a toy store with the occasional gig and a few music students. He spent the last fifteen years of his life in musical obscurity, while the man who stole his orchestra went on to world wide fame and great wealth.


Now the Why - as in Why did Louis Armstrong steal Luis Russell’s band?

The answer in part is because Luis Russell was black and in the 1920s and 30s during the Great Depression it was hard for a white musician to get bookings, and near impossible for an unknown black man.

So when Armstrong and others used Russell’s band on recordings and for club dates, they were actually doing Luis and his men a favor.

I know this and I appreciate what they did, but when I listen to some of the Russell recordings from the 1920s, I can’t help but wonder what the man could have done if he could have been on his own.

If you like early Jazz and want to check out his work for free, go to the music site, “Last.fm” you can listen to the Call of the Freaks at no charge. You can hear more Luis Russell and thousands of old time jazzmen and women by visiting WWW.Jazz-on-line.com. This incredible site has music from about 1910 to 1950. You can listen or download.

Check out the two videos I have posted. The first is a video set to "The Call of the Freaks"

The term in the 1920s was not used in the same way it is today and Mr. Russell cut about a dozen songs with "Freak" in the title, he did not mean any disrespect to people with disabilities, rather it was kind of a generic term for bandsmen and followers, not unlike "hepcats".

The second video is Luis' lovely daughter "Cat" in a live NYC performance. Go to her website and hear the title cut from her 2010 CD. "This Heart of Mine". Google Catherinerussell.net


Cat Russell (Luis' Daughter) Live in NYC

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    • Billrrrr profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Russo 

      7 years ago from Cape Cod

      I have found and posted, the You Tube video of the 'Call of the Freaks'. Luis Russell was far ahead of his contemporaries.

      President Cal Coolidge should have made Mr. Russell the Music Laureate of the Unites States so that he could have made his own music instead of selling out to Louis Armstrong.

    • Billrrrr profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Russo 

      9 years ago from Cape Cod

      Thanks for the comment. Check out the "Call of the Freaks". It's an unusual song with an arrangement far ahead of its time.

    • Cris A profile image

      Cris A 

      9 years ago from Manila, Philippines

      This is an interesting mix of music trivia and a bit of history. Thanks for reacquianting us to Luis Russell. And thanks too for the link, I'd pay it a visit! :D

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