For the second straight week, “Satch’s Tracks” is covering one of Louis Armstrong’s own albums, but today’s is a special choice as it was 50 years ago today that he finished recording what was his penultimate studio album, Louis Armstrong and His Friends. And though the theme of these Virtual Exhibits is “That’s My Home” and not a comprehensive look at Armstrong’s studio recordings, this selection fits perfectly because of the preparation Armstrong did for it from his home in Corona, Queens.
The album was the brainchild of Bob Thiele, the man responsible for “What a Wonderful World,” as well as Armstrong’s landmark 1961 sessions with Duke Ellington. Recording “What a Wonderful World” without the permission of ABC-Paramount President Larry Newton led to a falling out between Thiele and ABC and the formation of his own record label, Flying Dutchman, in 1969.
Without anyone to second guess his recording choices, Thiele knew he wanted another opportunity to make an album with Armstrong. The problem was Armstrong was ailing, having spent much of the first half of 1969 in intensive care at Beth Israel Hospital and much of the second half convalescing at home.
Doctors forbid Armstrong from playing the trumpet in public, but he began making regular TV appearances in early 1970, singing old favorites and telling stories. Thiele ran into Armstrong at the Grammy Awards on March 11, 1970 and pitched him the idea to record a new album, a mix of contemporary covers and some chestnuts. Armstrong was interested and invited Thiele to his home to discuss it more.
“I went to Louis’ place in Queens for around four to five hours and played him my suggestions,” Thiele recalled. “I took along demo discs and lead sheets and Louis transferred everything to tape.”
Indeed he did. He copied most of Thiele’s materials to “Reel 101” of his collection, reusing the box of a Tonight Show appearance
What did Thiele bring along with him? The answers are in Armstrong’s catalog page for this reel:
From Armstrong’s note at the top of the page, it’s clear that Thiele already pitched the concept with Oliver Nelson as arranger. An excellent saxophonist, composer and arranger, Nelson had a long association with Thiele, having recorded many of his albums, including the seminal Blues and the Abstract Truth, for him at Impulse. The choice of Nelson signaled that this would be a hip, contemporary album, not a “Hello, Dolly!” knockoff.
After that, Armstrong dubbed Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’ (Echoes),” the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” Pete Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome” from his 1963 Carnegie Hall concert and Leon Thomas’ “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” all of which made it onto the album. For the sake of completeness, Armstrong also dubbed a couple of flip sides, “Rainmaker” by Nilsson and “You Know My Name” by the Beatles.
Thiele also brought along “Give Peace a Chance” and “Remember Love” by the Plastic Ono band, which Louis dubbed to a separate reel. Here it is in his own handwriting:
Want to listen along to the original recordings Armstrong used to prepare for the album? Here’s a Spotify playlist!
Thiele also brought along sheet music for a few of the songs; Louis’s copies still survive in our Archives today. Here is his copy of “Let It Be”:
And here is “Give Peace a Chance”; notice the handwritten note, “4 singers.” According to Thiele, “He thought he had to sing the patter that goes with it, and goes at a very fast clip. He was relieved when I told him I’d have a vocal quartet take care of that. And he liked the message idea I was very happy about the concept for this one–it’s more of a black music concept that you usually get, a gospel feel.”
And though we already covered this in our Civil Rights post, Thiele’s words on “We Shall Overcome” are also worth repeating. Thiele admitted to being skeptical about the idea but when he mentioned it, “Louis’ eyes lit up,” he recalled. “He reached up and pulled down a tape of the Martin Luther King funeral that he’d made. We played it and he said he loved the way the choir sang the piece during the service. We talked a lot about King and religion.” Again, here is Armstrong’s personal copy of the sheet music:
That took care of half the proposed album; Thiele also selected two standards, “Mood Indigo” and “My One and Only Love,” which Louis didn’t need to prepare for. “Mood Indigo” was on the 1961 Ellington collaboration that Thiele produced and he was quoted at the time as saying he always wanted “another crack at it.” Armstrong also didn’t need to prepare for “Boy From New Orleans,” an autobiographical spin on “When the Saints Go Marching In” with lyrics by Ruth Roberts and co-composer credits for William Katz and Thiele himself.
In fact, Thiele’s fingerprints would be on several of the album’s songs. “What a Wonderful World,” credited to Thiele and George David Weiss, would get an updated remake, with a new, touching spoken monologue delivered by Armstrong. Then there were three brand new compositions by longtime associates Weiss and Pauline Rivelli, “His Father Wore Long Hair,” “Have I Gone Dreamy” and “Here is My Heart for Christmas.” The latter was recorded at the May sessions and only released during the holidays; it remains little known and is unavailable on the main streaming platforms.
“His Father Wore Long Hair” did make it onto the album, but it’s arguably the weakest song on the set. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to hear how Armstrong approached it so we are share the demo recording he dubbed multiple times on Reel 101:
And here is Louis’s copy of the lead sheet:
“Have I Gone Dreamy” is interesting enough to spend some time with because it was really just Erroll Garner’s beautiful composition “Dreamy” with new lyrics, ostensibly by Weiss. In the end, “Have I Gone Dreamy” never even got recorded, though Oliver Nelson did write a full orchestra arrangement of it for Armstrong that survives in our Archives. A quick Google search shows that no one ever recorded Weiss’s lyrics; thus, for the first time, we’re happy to share the demo recording, featuring an unidentified vocalist and pianist. Any Garner fans out there? Revive these lyrics, and be sure to give Weiss the credit (and if anyone wants to revive Nelson’s arrangement, we have that, too!).
Finally, Thiele allowed Armstrong to make one choice of his own: “This Black Cat Has 9 Lives,” written by longtime friend Lorenzo Pack. Pack was a heavyweight boxer in the 1930s who trained with Joe Louis and won his 13 fights before suffering a series of losses to tough contenders like Jersey Joe Walcott and “Two Ton” Tony Galento. Pack seemed to hit hard times–there are references to him panhandling outside of Jack Dempsey’s restaurant in the 1960s–but he remained part of Armstrong’s New York entourage, attending the sessions for Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography and receiving a shoutout on “Song of the Islands.”
Pack wrote “This Black Cat Has 9 Lives” after Armstrong emerged from intensive care in 1969. Armstrong insisted he record it as part of the album and had a demo made so Oliver Nelson could create an arrangement. Again, we don’t know who the vocalist is, but this is the demo as heard on one of Louis’s tapes (repeated three times so he could get a feel for it):
With all of that music in his ears, Armstrong was ready to go when he got to RCA’s studios in New York City in late May for three sessions taking place on May 26, 27 and 29.
We will be back with a second part on Monday that will find us leaving the confines of home and instead providing an intimate glimpse at what happened in the studio, thanks to photographs by Jack Bradley, Nelson’s arrangements and much more. But so you, dear reader, can do some preparation of your own, here’s the link to the original album on Spotify. Listen along and be sure to come back on Monday for the second part of our 50th anniversary look at Louis Armstrong and His Friends!