This is the fifth installment of Satch’s Tracks, our weekly exploration of what’s in Louis Armstrong’s record collection, and the first one to feature one of Armstrong’s own recordings. It probably won’t be the last because Armstrong was one of the few artists who delighted in listening to his own music and a fairly comprehensive collection of his own works.
Today’s recording is from one of the career-defining evenings of Armstrong’s life, his concert at New York’s Town Hall on May 17, 1947, 73 years ago this week. Armstrong’s big band was on fumes but his sporadic work with small groups in this period always won the plaudits of the critics and the applause of the crowd. Finally, a sold-out show at Town Hall pushed him and Joe Glaser over the edge, leading to the disbanding of the big band and the formation of a new small group, the All Stars.
The Town Hall concert was produced by Ernie Anderson, who wisely recorded the music from the evening on a series of acetate discs. During the recording ban of 1948, RCA Victor still had Armstrong under contract so they reached a deal with Anderson to release six performances from Town Hall: “Rockin’ Chair,” “Save It Pretty Mama,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Back O’Town Blues,” “St. James Infirmary,” and “Pennies from Heaven.” RCA released it as a 78-rpm album as well as a new 10-inch long-playing album as part of its “Treasury of Immortal Performances” series, alongside works by Benny Goodman, Caruso, Wagner and more.
Armstrong owned the 10-inch LP and in the early 1950s, dubbed it to tape. Here’s his copy:
And here’s the liner notes on the back cover:
The notes feature what is described as Fred Robbins’s speech from the opening of the Town Hall concert. Disc Jockey Robbins did give a speech–but this wasn’t it. Still, one cannot blame him for taking the time to write and edit a new, heartfelt tribute to Armstrong. Clearly, the trumpeter was touched, remarking, “Isn’t that wonderful?” twice while reading it. (Robbins was later chosen to deliver the eulogy at Armstrong’s funeral in 1971.)
And now for a special treat: Louis Armstrong at home, dubbing this record to tape and reading the liner notes before spinning the music!
At that point, Armstrong dropped the needle and spun the six tracks that made up the original RCA LP. Here are those classic performances via Spotify:
Now, time for more bonuses! For decades, it has been assumed that the only photo of the Town Hall concert that survived was this gem, taken by William P. Gottlieb:
But exploring Louis Armstrong’s personal collection a little deeper actually turns up a series of unpublished images from this historic concert! They are not professional photos like Gottlieb; in fact, they seem amateurish, snapshots taken by a fan or friend, mostly out of focus. Armstrong didn’t seem to mind and took to them with his trusty scissors to use for his collage hobby.
Only one of the photos made it onto an actual tape box collage, but it’s a gem, featuring Armstrong and trombonist Jack Teagarden in a duet, most likely on “Rockin’ Chair,” a high point of the evening.
Some of the others were cut up but only survive as loose artifacts:
The two remaining images survive as untouched snapshots.
In the early 1980s, French RCA obtained the rest of Ernie Anderson’s acetate discs and issued the complete Town Hall concert as a 2-LP and eventually a 2-CD set. In 2014, the recordings were remastered and reissued by Mosaic Records on a set that is currently on Spotify. Thus, even though the complete concert wasn’t issued in Armstrong’s lifetime, there’s no better way to close than to share the full audio from one of the truly historic nights in Armstrong’s career.