Last week, we took you inside of Louis Armstrong’s home as he met with producer Bob Thiele in March 1970 to begin preparing to record an album to be issued in time for what Armstrong believed to be his 70th birthday in July. Armed with recordings by Harry Nilsson, the Beatles, Leon Thomas, the Plastic Ono Band and Pete Seeger, as well as new compositions credited to Thiele, George David Weiss and Pauline Rivelli, plus one written by Armstrong’s old friend Lorenzo Pack, Armstrong went to work, dubbing the material to tape and familiarizing himself with the music.
The album, Louis Armstrong and His Friends would be recorded over three sessions at RCA Studios in New York City on May 26, May 27 and May 29. Armstrong was still not allowed to play his trumpet (though he warmed up at home every day) so it would be a vocal-only album, but he’d be backed by a dynamic studio orchestra playing new arrangements by Oliver Nelson.
Lucille Armstrong got Louis to the studio an hour early for the first session on May 26, where he was greeted by a surprise gathering of friends and admirers, there to throw him an early birthday part. Among the gatherers was Louis’s close friend Jack Bradley, bearing his ever-present camera. We’re making the conscious decision to depart a bit from our “That’s My Home” theme to instead take you inside the studio to show how this album was recorded and rely heavily on Bradley’s photos, which were acquired by the Louis Armstrong House Museum thanks to a grant from the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation in 2005. All of the following images were digitized from Bradley’s original negatives thanks to a grant from Fund II Foundation.
First, a series of photos from the birthday party–what a gathering!
Bradley was also astute enough to shoot some of the other visitors at the session even when they weren’t in conversation with Louis.
Eventually, it was time for cake!
Finally, it was time to record some music. Oliver Nelson had prepared four arrangements for the date: “Mood Indigo,” “What a Wonderful World,” “My One and Only Love” and “Here is My Heart for Christmas.”
For this first session, Nelson eschewed horns and instead assembled a large string section and a killer rhythm section. For posterity, here are the names of all of the musicians on this date:
Louis Armstrong (voc), Arnold Black, Selwart Richard Clarke, Winston Collymore, Paul Gershman, Manny Green, Harry Lookofsky, Gene Orloff, Joe Malin, Max Pollikoff (vln), Julien Barber, Alfred Brown, David Schwartz, Emanuel Vardi (viola), Charles McCracken, Kermit Moore, George Ricci, Allan Schulman (cello), Richard Davis, George Duvivier (b), John Williams Jr. (elb), Sam Brown, Kenny Burrell (g), James Spaulding (fl), Frank Owens (p), Pretty Purdie (d),
“Mood Indigo” was up first. As mentioned last week, Bob Thiele had recorded Armstrong and Duke Ellington’s performance of this number in 1961. At that time, Louis and Duke didn’t have the sheet music and neither man remembered the lyrics. Louis wrote down the first line then just wrote “SCAT VOCAL” and took off from there.
In 1970, Armstrong finally had the full set of lyrics in front of him; here’s the first page of his vocal part:
Nelson simply wrote the lyrics and original melody out for Armstrong across three pages but in his last chorus, Armstrong filled in the holes with some delightful scatting. “Sure is a lot of gumbo in that one,” Armstrong exclaimed after a take, according to journalist Al Aronwitz. Here’s the finished recording, which also features James Spaulding on flue:
Next up was a remake of “What a Wonderful World.” In full disclosure, this post was begun over the weekend as protests over the killing of George Floyd swept the nation. We quoted Armstrong’s speech on our social media pages and feel that it is just as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.
But what is the full backstory of this speech? It actually dates back to 1968, another candidate for the most turbulent year in the history of the United States. When Armstrong originally recorded “What a Wonderful World” in August 1967, ABC Paramount did very little promotion and the record sold very few copies in America.-
But it was a worldwide smash and displaced the Beatles and Rolling Stones at the top of the British pop charts in 1968. Bob Thiele had been battling ABC Paramount head Larry Newton over the recording (which Newton felt was a waste of time and money because it didn’t present Armstrong in the mold of “Hello, Dolly!”) and now scored the victory of a worldwide hit, allowing him to turn the single into a full-length album in the summer of 1968. Artie Butler was hired to write new arrangements, which would be recorded in Las Vegas with the All Stars and a small string section.
Between the original recording of “What a Wonderful World” in August 1967 and the recording of the rest of the LP in July 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated and the country was plagued by riots over race and injustice in the streets. Someone–perhaps Armstrong, perhaps Thiele, perhaps Butler, perhaps “Wonderful World” co-composer George David Weiss–had the notion that the country needed a healing message and Armstrong was the perfect person to deliver it.
Thus, a touching spoken-word speech was composed to be delivered over the first half of “What a Wonderful World,” with Armstrong finishing it in time to sing the bridge. Here is a typed version:
Butler eventually wrote the speech out by hand in Armstrong’s copy of the arrangement:
Alas, for unknown reasons, this version of “What a Wonderful World” was never recorded (Butler did the arrangements for the rest of the 1968 sides but in recent years, has made numerous claims that he arranged the original “What a Wonderful World”; no, that was arranged by Tommy Goodman).
But Thiele knew a good idea when he saw it and having Armstrong back in the studio in 1970 after two more turbulent years in this country gave him the opportunity the finally remake “What a Wonderful World” with a spoken word introduction. This time Armstrong worked on his speech with George David Weiss, who typed it up on his personal stationary, though it appears Armstrong did add the handwritten tweaks and made at least one change in the studio, substituting “gassuh” for “gas” (and confounding those trying to transcribe the statement on the internet in the 21st century).
The spoken introduction is quite affecting, and as always referenced, extremely timely in the tension-filled times of 2020. Some YouTube videos have chopped off the speech and added it to the original 1967 recording. But don’t sleep on the rest of the recording as it’s quite wonderful, with Nelson giving it a real church-like atmosphere (great piano work by Frank Owens) and incorporating some really effective changes in the feel (brilliant drumming by Pretty Purdie). Whether you haven’t listened to it in a while or if it’s in your regular rotation, take a few minutes to listen to the remake of “What a Wonderful World”:
For the third selection of the first session, Thiele chose the standard “My One and Only Love,” surely with the version by Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane in mind since that, too, was originally produced by Thiele. Armstrong had never recorded it previously but the 1953 composition by Guy Wood and Robert Mellin was right in his wheelhouse and he managed to contribute another affecting performance.
Here’s the audio of “My One and Only Love”:
George Wein watched Armstrong in action on this number and, according to a press release, pointed “out to anybody who would listen that Louis phrased and worked his way through a lyric just like Billie Holiday.”
There was still one more song to record, “Here is My Heart for Christmas,” another Weiss-Thiele-Rivelli composition that would be released as a single during the holidays. The song was a bit of a throwaway and remains almost unknown–it’s not even streaming everywhere–but it’s harmless and features another fine Nelson arrangement. Here’s the audio courtesy of YouTube:
But “Here is My Heart for Christmas” is most notable for the arrival of the date’s final special guest while Armstrong was recording it: Miles Davis. Miles snuck up on Armstrong and Jim Parslow was in the perfect position to capture this striking photograph of a smiling Miles approaching a sullen Louis, each man’s usual countenance reversed:
As soon as Louis realized it was Miles, he greeted him with a warm smile, a moment capture by Jack Bradley, standing a few feet away from Parslow. Iconic!
Al Aronwitz was there and recounted the dialogue between the two giants of the music. Miles asked, “Isn’t the orchestra too low for you?” Louis brushed him off with, “You know I don’t care nothing about…” with Aronwitz unable to hear the rest. When Miles left, Armstrong shouted, “Always glad to see you, Miles.”
George Wein noted Miles’s presence and told Aronwitz, “They called Louis an Uncle Tom. Now it’s a different era. That man there is the true culture. Everything in music is traceable to him.”
Miles soon left and Aronwitz left with him, Miles telling the reporter, “They take advantage of his age. They really drain you to make you sound as if you’re in heaven. It don’t matter. He’s got so much soul, he makes it sound good anyhow.”
Aronwitz quickly wrote up his experience of the May 26 session, which appeared in the New York Post on May 27. It’s a great summary of an action-packed day in the studio for Louis Armstrong.
Armstrong’s work was done for now but he would be back in the studio the following day to record three more selections. Stay tuned for the third part of our 50th anniversary look at Louis Armstrong and His Friends later this week!