Louis Armstrong’s 1969-1971 Scrapbooks: Scrapbook 1, Part 2

Last week, we took you through a page-by-page exploration of the first half one of the handful of scrapbooks Louis Armstrong created in the last two years of his life. As promised, here is part two, much of it coming from March-April 1970.

We open with one of Louis’s collages, made out of Christmas greetings sent from Francisco Viale, the mayor of San Remo, Italy, where Louis performed in 1968. As seen in the last installment, he made quite an impact on San Remo and continued to receive correspondence from those he met there long after he left.

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And another holdover from Part 1, a photo of Louis at the tribute to Teamsters Vice President Harold Gibbons from December 3, 1969:

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But now, it’s time for something different and time to introduce the main characters of this part: Israeli trumpeter Yakov Uriel and his bride Yaffa, signed to Louis on March 10, 1970. We’ll see more of Yakov in just a few pages.

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The next page features two somewhat random images: one of Louis and a nurse at what we’re assuming is Beth Israel Hospital in February 1970 (he continued going for regular checkups), and a photo of daytime talk show host Mike Douglas, who started having Armstrong as a guest somewhat regularly in March.

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Staying in March 1970, here’s a clipping from the March 24, 1970 issue of the New York Daily News that Louis covered in Scotch tape and stuck to the page.

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Time has clearly not been kind to that clipping, which is unreadable, but thanks to the digitized 21st century, the Daily News archive is available at Newspapers.com, so we can finally see what Louis clipped out. It’s not exactly crystal clear but at least we can now make out that it’s a photo of Louis and Celeste Holm with clowns Coco and Coconut at the UNICEF Night at The Greatest Show on Earth, Ringling Bros., Barnum and Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden on March 23, 1970.

This next page stumped me for years as I thought that Louis’s copy of this c. 1899 photo of Eubie Blake and Howard “Hop” Johns was personally inscribed by Blake himself. However, Googling it recently has turned up other identical prints, which made me realize it was a promotional image tied into the release of Blake’s 1969 2-LP Columbia album, The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake. If you indulge me in playing detective a bit, I really do try to date everything I can find since it was the one thing Louis rarely did with his tapes and scrapbooks. Louis owned The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake and dubbed it to tape, Reel 89 of his post-1969 collection. Immediately preceding it on the tape are recordings of a few songs from the Broadway musical Look to the Lillies, a musical that only ran from March 29, 1970 through the end of April. It was so short-lived, a cast album was never recorded–so how did Louis Armstrong get a copy of some of the songs? In early April 1970, Louis began traveling to Philadelphia once a week to film an episode co-hosting The Mike Douglas Show; after five weeks, everything assembled and all five episodes aired the week of May 25. The first show, filmed sometime in April, featured Shirley Booth–star of Look to the Lillies. Thus, Booth must have had some recordings of the music and gave them to Louis, who dubbed them to tape, immediately following it with the Blake set. And because of the dates of all this–the Douglas photo, the Booth appearance, the Blake photo–we can now assume we’ve reached April 1970 both in this scrapbook and on the tapes (one day I’ll do a separate series on those last 160 or so tapes and their corresponding collages).

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With that out of the way, it’s time to dig into the story of trumpet Yakov Uriel. In his syndicated “It Happened Last Night” column of March 16, 1970, gossip columnist Earl Wilson noted, “Louis Armstrong was at El Avram to hear Israeli trumpeter Yakov Uriel.” Perhaps no one could have predicted it, but Armstrong and Uriel hit it off, starting a friendship that was commemorated in multiple newspaper articles of 1970. This New York Post article from August 12 of that year does a great job of explaining their relationship:

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If you cannot zoom in and read the above article, it states that Louis and Lucille ended up at El Avram at 80 Grove Street in Greenwich Village to catch the 23-year-old Uriel in March. Owner Avram Grosbard wrote the entire story of El Avram on this website, including many photos (including one with Louis). As described by the Post reporter in 1970, “El Avram, located on the south side of Sheridan Square, is peculiar in several respects First of all, it has a tiny bar on the main level and downstairs, a huge room complete with bandstand, stage and dance floor. Its owner, Avram Grosbard, modestly describes it as America’s No. 1 Mediterranean night spot, but its décor is strictly Spanish – left over from the previous tenant, El Chico. The club offers a mix bag of talented performers, ranging from Israeli to Greek, Arabic, Armenian and Turkish, backed by a band that plays music from all those countries plus Italy, France and Spain as well. But since the band is not basically a jazz group, it was with some surprise that its members began to notice various musicians stopping by to listen and to talk. But even that didn’t prepare them for seeing Louis Armstrong walk in one evening.”

“I play for many people,” Uriel explained, “And I am not nervous. But when I saw Louis Armstrong and I knew he would be listening to me, I was nervous. We all were. So we played ‘Hello, Dolly’ for him, and he came up on stage and sang it with us. That made me feel better, but it was still upsetting. But then he told me that he liked what I did. And that we did not play the same style, but we both had the same feeling for notes. And then he told me that he hadn’t heard such a good tone in a long while and told me not to imitate any other trumpet player I listened to, that I should just develop my own style and in my own time. What a beautiful man. And what a beautiful thing to say to me.”

A photographer was present and sent along a series of 8 x 10’s of the March gathering, which Armstrong used to fill up the next several pages of his scrapbook. Lucille is pictured in a few, as is El Avram owner Avram Grobard and members of the house band (I’ve been able to identify drummer Avi Farin and guitarist Manny Katz but if anyone knows the rest, let us know!)

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Avram Grobard on left. LAHM 1987.8.53_41
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Uriel continued, “And then, a few days later, he sent me a box with eight beautiful sterling silver mouthpieces in it. I was so grateful.” This might be speculation, but I do wonder if this is the present Uriel received:

Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1674b-02

That photo was taken by Jack Bradley at a IBM event at the Hilton Hotel in New York in February 1968 when Armstrong was presented with a case filled with nine Bach mouthpieces. Since I’ve been working with the Armstrong Archives since 2009, I’ve always wondered what became of this artifact. We DO have one Bach mouthpiece so doing some simple math, it’s possible Louis kept one for himself and sent the case with the other eight to Uriel.

Uriel was so touched by the present, he returned the favor for Armstrong’s upcoming July 4, 70th birthday: “I sent him a birthday present of a Bible that I brought back from Israel when I went over there to be married a few months ago,” Uriel said. “I inscribed it: ‘To Louis Armstrong, whose people made music from the Bible, from Yakov Uriel, whose people wrote it.’”

Photos from 1971 show that the Armstrongs proudly displayed the Jerusalem Bible on a coffee table in the living room of their Corona, Queens home. That’s where it has remained since the Louis Armstrong House Museum opened in 2003, where it has been seen by thousands of visitors from around the world–including Yakov Uriel himself.

In February 2019, we were honored to receive a surprise visit from Uriel, who was especially thrilled to see the Bible on display. As a postscript to this story, here is a photo of Uriel holding it during his 2019 visit:

It’s tough to top the story of Louis Armstrong and Yakov Uriel so we’re going to conclude this part and finish up our look at this scrapbook next Monday, which will take us to mid-to-late 1970 for some beautiful photos of Louis at Newport and back home in Queens.

Published by Ricky Riccardi

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

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