50 Years of “Louis Armstrong and His Friends”: The May 29, 1970 Session

We have reached the final chapter, friends. To be honest, I thought of Louis Armstrong and His Friends as a one-time “Satch’s Tracks” post a few weeks ago–and then the events of the world exploded and there was something about this album, and especially the songs covered today, that seemed so relevant and timeless and important, we realized it was time to pause the “That’s My Home” theme and instead spend some time with this work.

If you’re just showing up now and want to be caught up, Part 1 covered Louis’s preparation at home, Part 2 covered the May 26 session and birthday party and Part 3 covered the May 27 session, while Hyland Harris and I also spent 32 minutes chatting about it on last week’s installment of “Hanging With Hyland.” A quick summary is Bob Thiele had the idea to do a contemporary-sounding album with Armstrong singing messages of healing after the turbulent 1960s. Armstrong had been ailing and wasn’t able to play trumpet but he threw himself fully into the project, which would feature him singing a wide variety of material, all of it arranged by the great saxophonist and composer Oliver Nelson.

Louis Armstrong examines an Oliver Nelson arrangement as Bob Thiele and Nelson look on at the May 29, 1970 session. Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1645b-12

The first two sessions relied on a the sound of strings, flute and a positively grooving rhythm section driven by drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie. The May 29 session would be horn-heavy and featured quite a lineup of greats. Here’s the personnel: Louis Armstrong (voc), Thad Jones, Jimmy Owens, Ernie Royal, Marvin Stamm (tp, flh), Garnett Brown, Bill Campbell, Al Grey, Quentin Jackson (tb), Robert Ashton, Ray Beckenstein, Danny Bank, Jerry Dodgion, Billy Harper (saxes), Chuck Rainey (elb), Sam Brown, Kenny Burrell (g), Frank Owens (p), Pretty Purdie (d), Gene Golden (congas).

And perhaps most importantly for the purpose of a Virtual Exhibit, Jack Bradley was back with his camera to capture the numerous images in this post. Here’s the killer trumpet and trombone sections in action:

Trumpets left to right: Jimmy Owens, Thad Jones Ernie Royal and Marvin Stamm. Trombones left to right: Garnett Brown, Al Grey, Bill Campbell and Quentin “Butter” Jackson. Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1645b-04

Bradley didn’t get a good photo of the reed section, but he did get a few of the rhythm section.

Chuck Rainey, Gene Golden and Bernard “Pretty” Purdie. Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1645b-01
Kenny Burrell, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie and Frank Owens. Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1645b-29

Nelson also assembled a vocal choir made up of Carl Hall, Janice Bell, Ila Gowan, Matthew Ledbetter and Tasha Thomas that immediately made its presence felt on the first number of the date, “Give Peace a Chance.”

Members of the choir look over “We Shall Overcome” on the May 29 date. Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1645b-27.

As mentioned in the first part of this series, Armstrong originally balked when he saw the sheet music and the fast-talking, “rap” portion. “He thought he had to sing the patter that goes with it, and goes at a very fast clip,” Thiele said. “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.”

The room was once again filled with special guests, including Ornette Coleman, Bobby Branca, Bobby Hackett, Carman Moore, Stanley Dance, Tony Bennett, Eddie Condon and more, many of them returns from the first session. For “Give Peace a Chance” and “We Shall Overcome,” all studio guests were invited to stand up and sing along. A copy of the singalong lyrics were handed out to all participants; here is Jack Bradley’s copy.

LAHM 2006.1.479

Bradley managed to get a shot of of most of the guests as they awaited their big moment (Ornette is visible in the background in the center).

Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1645b-18

Here’s another Bradley shot of the choir that also shows Oliver Nelson at his perch, as well as some of the reeds, giving a good idea of the cavernous size of RCA’s Studio A:

Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1645b-34

Louis eventually took his place and Bradley snapped this photo, which gives a good view of Louis’s perspective and how even when recording in the cold confines of a gigantic studio, he could still be inspired by the presence of a live audience.

Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1645b-19

Finally, here is the audio of “Give Peace a Chance” as it appeared on the finished album:

Some writers such as Gary Giddins have felt that Armstrong “wasn’t buying” the message and humorously punctured it, a la Fats Waller, with his declarations of “Give a piece” at the end. Personally, I don’t hear it that way (though I do think there is a touch of that on the unedited “Creator Has a Master Plan” we shared on Friday). The choir does the heavy lifting as Louis only has one line to deliver but as usual, he finds creative ways to deliver it, infusing it with plenty of soul and passion. (The co-MVP of the track might be bassist Chuck Rainey, not yet 30-years-old and before his seminal work with the likes of Aretha Franklin and Steely Dan; beautiful, funky bass lines!)

Next up would be the emotional high point of the date and one of the emotional high points of Armstrong’s recording career: “We Shall Overcome.” As previously discussed, Armstrong was most affected by the version performed at the funeral for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, while Thiele had also given him a copy of Pete Seeger’s 1963 version from Carnegie Hall to study.

Oliver Nelson wrote another striking arrangement to feature the choir, but also included a spot for Armstrong to give a speech. On “What a Wonderful World,” Armstrong prepared his speech in advance, tweaking it in the studio, but looking at his part here, it’s clear he just improvised his words on “We Shall Overcome” in the “Vamp” section. Here’s his part:

LAHM 1987.13.431a-19
LAHM 1987.13.431a-19

Numerous photos survive with that part visible on the music stand so in a reversal of protocol, we’re going to share the audio first so you can listen while viewing the images.

As they began recording “We Shall Overcome,” first the choir rose:

Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1645b-21

The speech Armstrong delivered is quite moving: “Oh, my, my, what a beautiful song. Our song, too. I want every sister and brother up there to sing like they’ve never sung before for old Satchmo. Let’s go!” And with that, the studio guests rose to join Armstrong in singing the anthem for Civil Rights.

Not to get sidelined from this incredibly emotional performance, but in one of the surviving photos, a curious figure appears in the upper left hand side of the studio audience, seventh from the left: Jack Bradley! It’s a mystery but since Thiele also had Jim Parslow there to take photos, one wonders if Bradley had Parslow take some photos because the opportunity to document his singing on an actual Louis Armstrong recording was probably too great to pass up!

Jack Bradley appears seventh from the left, with mustache and wavy hair. Photo possibly taken by Jim Parslow. LAHM 2006.1.1645b-24

Of the 34 photos that survive from the May 29 session, Bradley only appears in three, the one above and two similar images taken seconds before or after. He even took a shot from the bleachers that captured a photographer, again, probably Jim Parslow, on the floor, behind the music stand to the left.

Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1645b-20

Regardless of who took it (Bradley is in it so it wasn’t him), this is a particularly triumphant photo as Armstrong looks particularly proud of the performance. Some in the studio that day recalled that he had tears in his eyes by the end of “We Shall Overcome.” It’s hard not to listen to it without tearing up, too.

Photographer unknown. LAHM 2006.1.751

With the two emotional singalongs finished, the choir was let go and it was time to start swinging. An autobiographical version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” titled “Boy From New Orleans” was prepared for Armstrong as a way of summing up his entire life, thanks to lyrics by Ruth Roberts, William Katz and Thiele (the same trio responsible for turning Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” into “Duke’s Place”). It’s quite possible that this was finalized just before the session because nothing of it appears in Armstrong’s materials he used to prepare for the album. Not only that, but Nelson didn’t have the title and just stamped each part with “SAINTS.”

LAHM 1987.13.411-19

Judging from the photos, it took Armstrong some time to familiarize himself with the routine in the studio. Jack Bradley was able to leave the sidelines and capture some intimate shots of Louis studying the score with Nelson and Thiele looking over his shoulder.

Louis looks over the arrangement for “Boy From New Orleans” (marked “Saints”) with producer Bob Thiele and arranger Oliver Nelson at the May 29, 1970 session. Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1645b-13
Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1645b-12
Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1645b-10
Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1645b-14

Going over the arrangement in the studio, it was decided that the first six bars of Nelson’s arrangement be cut so it just began with those two ascending lines. Also, the last chorus, where Armstrong touchingly thanks his fans, is written with the standard “Saints” melody in Armstrong’s part but once recording, Armstrong turned it into a half-spoken, heartfelt recitation. This song would gain further poignancy in the following year as Armstrong began performing it on television and closing his live concerts with it; in fact, it was the final song he performed at his final live engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria in March 1971. With that in mind, here is the swinging, yet touching “Boy From New Orleans”:

Three songs were now finished and Nelson had two arrangements left to record: “Let It Be” by the Beatles and…”This Black Cat Has 9 Lives” by an unknown, down-on-his-luck boxer named Lorenzo Pack. Time was running out so it seemed like a no-brainer that producer Thiele would try to steer Armstrong towards a Beatles cover but in the end, Armstrong chose “This Black Cat Has 9 Lives.”

Why? It’s only speculation but Pack, as discussed briefly in part one of this series, was an old-friend of Armstrong’s who lived nearby in Queens. Pack’s switch from boxing to songwriting was met with much publicity in 1944, but a quick Google search also finds articles that mention him panhandling near Jack Dempsey’s restaurant in Manhattan in the 1960s. Pack was in the hospital with a stroke at the same time as Armstrong in 1969 and wrote this song for his friend after they both recovered. Thus, knowing what we know of Armstrong’s big heart, it makes sense that he would insist that he record his friend’s composition to do him a solid and help get him some royalties; goodness knows the Beatles didn’t need that!

From left to right, Slim Thompson, Timmie Rogers, Lorenzo Pack and Louis Armstrong at January 1957 recording session for Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography. Photo by Paul Studer. LAHM 2017.2.125

Nelson wrote another fine arrangement with a killer opening (that’s begging to be sampled or remixed in some way) and Armstrong clearly loves the lyrics and loves the message but let’s face it, Lorenzo Pack wasn’t John Lennon and Paul McCartney and the structure of the song is too repetitive, the melody is a bit stiff and the closing “Meow” is cute but, as today’s youth would say, a little “cringey.” Regardless, here’s what would become the final selection on Louis Armstrong and His Friends, “This Black Cat Has 9 Lives”:

Armstrong went on The David Frost Show 11 days later and told guest host Orson Welles all about the song, mentioned Pack and even sang a line from it, eliciting cheers from the audience. A July 21 column by Earl Wilson noted, “Ex-fighter Lorenzo Pack, whose troubles are covered in his story ‘This Black Cat Has Nine Lives’ is happy that Louis Armstrong recorded it on the Amsterdam label.” A follow-up column from Wilson on December 23, 1970 added that Pack’s song was also “the basis for a book he wrote about fighting his way back from a stroke.” Pack must have been close with Wilson as a 1974 column mentioned that Pack’s story might be turned into a movie by Berry Gordy and that Stevie Wonder was “very enthusiastic” about the project. The book never materialized but it appears that Pack did get the sheet music for his song published, mysteriously referring to it as the theme from “The Book.” Here is Jack Bradley’s copy:

LAHM 2008.4.502

That left one more tune–but it wasn’t to be. “‘Let It Be’ was also set for the sessions,” Thiele said afterwards. “Oliver Nelson had the arrangements all the written but everybody was so wiped out at the end of the third night that we just let it go.” A Louis Armstrong cover of “Let It Be” remains one of the great missed opportunities of Armstrong’s career, especially since the arrangement was there and Thiele chose to do more forgettable fare like “Here Is My Heart For Christmas,” “His Father Wore Long Hair” and even “This Black Cat Has 9 Lives” (no disrespect to Lorenzo Pack) instead. However, Nelson’s full arrangement does survive in our Archives; here’s the first page of Armstrong’s part:

As a footnote–and to bring it back to our “That’s My Home” theme–Louis was filmed in the summer of 1970 in his den by George Wein for a documentary on his tribute at the Newport Jazz Festival that summer. While discussing Mahalia Jackson and gospel music, Louis broke into a few seconds of “Let It Be,” giving us a tantalizing glimpse at what a recording with Oliver Nelson could have sounded like.

“Wiped out,” as Thiele said, Louis, Nelson, the incredible musicians and the studio guests departed the studio, ending the May 29 session. Thiele went to work on postproduction edits, the most noticeable being the overdubbed flute intro and Leon Thomas vocal on “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” Studio guest Stanley Dance wrote the liner notes and Thiele put together a gatefold album cover to accommodate numerous photos by both Jim Parslow and Jack Bradley. Louis Armstrong and His Friends hit stores on July 4, the day Armstrong celebrated what he believed was his 70th birthday. Here’s a copy he autographed and mailed out to for Swedish friend Gösta Hägglöf later in 1970:

LAHM 2011.20.76
LAHM 2011.20.76
LAHM 2011.20.76

Thiele aggressively marketed the album, sending out a four-page press release by Ian Dove (many quotes from which appeared in this series), as well as photos. Here’s an original advertisement that appeared in Billboard:

Billboard reviewed it in its July 25 issue, writing, “Louis Armstrong is still going strong at age 70 and this package was put together, with the help of some friends, in tribute to that birthday celebration. Armstrong is in his best warm, raspy form as he goes over ‘We Shall Overcome,’ ‘Give Peace a Chance,’ ‘Everybody’s Talkin” and ‘What a Wonderful World,’ among others.” The same issue mentioned the album’s release and singled out “We Shall Overcome” not in the “Jazz” section but rather the “Soul” section along with mentions of new releases by Dione Warwick, Lee Morgan, B. B. King and more.

Over in the jazz world, Doug Ramsey reviewed it for Downbeat in December 1970 ad gave it four stars, writing, “He is the father of jazz singing and he transforms everything he sings.  That was true of Blueberry HillC’est Ci Bon, and Hello Dolly, and it’s true of some of the novelty numbers in this album.  His improvised lyrics at the end of ‘Give Peace a Chance’ and his inspired singing on ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’ are moments to cherish….But the LP also contains some solid jazz material, and on ‘My One And Only Love’ and ‘Mood Indigo,’ Armstrong demonstrates what phrasing can mean to the interpretation of a melody.  Nelson’s arrangements complement Louis beautifully.  Leon Thomas is a strong and very classy singer, but Pops outsouls him on ‘Master Plan.’” Of “We Shall Overcome,” Ramsey wrote, “…the anthem gets its most moving performance since the civil rights days of the early ‘60s.  If the creative level throughout were up to the level of ‘Overcome,’ ‘Indigo,’ and ‘Love,’ this would be a five-star album.  It is excellent, and those three pieces make it essential.”

To come full circle, after all the preparation that took place at home, Armstrong was pleased to finally add the finished album to his tape collection. It first appears on Reel 111, which also contained TV and radio appearances from July 5 and July 8 respectively, dating this to shortly after the July 4 release date. :

But instead of ending with Louis, we’re going to give the last word to Ralph J. Gleason, who wrote about the album for the New York Post in a June 30, 1970 article titled “Everybody Loves Pops.” Gleason described “We Shall Overcome,” writing, “A guest at the party told me it was the most moving musical experience of his life.” Gleason then quoted the unnamed guest, who said, “Louis gave that song, which even if it is the hymn of the Sixties’ integration movement, is still a tattered and threadbare song, almost a cliche, the kind of vocal sound you would expect from the celestial chorus.” Gleason also quoted Thiele, who said, “We hoped to make a good record,” he said, “but we never thought we’d have a masterpiece.”

But Gleason saved the best for last and his closing words are a fitting end to this series and perhaps explain why we at the Museum found exploring this album so cathartic in the wake of all the protests currently taking place around the world. As the song says, “We Shall Overcome some day.” Maybe “some day” is closer than it’s ever been. Here’s Gleason:

“There’s a lot of theory about Louis and what his charm is but none of it, it seems to me, really gets to the point. Certainly Louis is the product of his time and certainly he is not a black power figure like Rap Brown, and hence, not threatening. But Louis’ appeal and charm have been mostly overwhelming in concert where his race and his admiration of American music or irreverent. He has cut across all barriers, transcended all inhibition and prejudice and become a man of the whole world. ‘Everybody loves Pops’ is a cliche, of course. But like other cliches it is also true. And all the countries of the world, wherever he has been over the years, everybody does love Pops.”

“I hope that Louis’ record of ‘We Shall Overcome’ gets to be the number one record in the world and stays in that spot a long, long time. We are in desperate straits these days and we need the kind of soul food Louis and very few others can provide. This is a time of despair, of bleak horror and disillusionment and the world, and certainly this country, stands on the edge of cataclysmic evil. Louis may help us, God bless him.”

Published by Ricky Riccardi

I am Director of Research Collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum.

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