“My Fifty-Fifth Birthday Celebration”: Happy Birthday, Louis Armstrong!

It’s July 4 weekend, which means it’s time to celebrate what we here at the Louis Armstrong House Museum refer to as Louis’s “traditional” birthday. For much of his life, Louis claimed he was born on July 4, 1900, but a baptismal certificate discovered by Tad Jones in the 1980s featured a birth date of August 4, 1901. There’s no proof that Armstrong even know about the August 4 date; his mother maintained it was July 4 and Louis used that date on documents even as a teenager.

Thus, because Armstrong only knew and believed July 4 (he did appear to add a year to make himself appear older as a teenaged musician in New Orleans), we still devote July 4 to celebrating Louis (don’t worry, we celebrate him on August 4, too; if any one deserves two birthdays it’s Louis Armstrong!).

July 4 used to mean a jazz concert in the packed Armstrong House Garden, complete with cake and red beans and rice. Alas, because of Covid-19, the Armstrong House Museum is closed to the public so there will be no in-person celebration. But one of the silver linings of the pandemic has been the establishment of this “That’s My Home” website, which would not have existed otherwise. Thus, in the tradition of making lemons out of lemonade, we’ve reached into our Archives to turn this post over to a guest columnist: Louis Armstrong himself.

After the publication of his 1954 autobiography Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, Armstrong almost immediately began working on a sequel, spending some time on it in 1955 and writing small chapters on various incidents happening in his life, such as performances at the Newport Jazz Festival, at Castle Farms and with Guy Lombardo all of which took place that summer.

On July 4, 1955, Armstrong had a rare day off and enjoyed his birthday at home with friends in Queens. The next evening, his birthday was celebrated at Ralph Watkins’ Manhattan nightclub “Basin Street.” A star-studded audience showed up, including multiple photographers. Upon the conclusion, he wrote a short chapter simply titled “My Fifty Fifth Birthday Celebration – Fourth of July Nineteen Hundred and Fifty Five.”

1987.2.118

For this soon-to-be-aborted attempt at autobiography, Armstrong wrote his sections out by hand and they were then typed up by either himself or one of his secretaries (most likely Velma Ford), using Louis’s own typewriter with italicized font, though without his idiosyncrasies, such as ellipses and parenthetical asides. The text is kind of smashed together so we’ll share the images of the originals and then a transcription below.

1987.2.118
1987.2.118
1987.2.118

On the first page, Armstrong mentions those in attendance such as Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Joe Glaser, Dorothy Kilgallen, Bobby Hackett, Red Allen, Charlie Shavers, Eddie Barefield and more. Here is a photo from the night with some of the above pictured (Ellington on far left):

Louis cuts the cake surrounded by Duke Ellignton, Dorothy Kilgallen, Lucille Armstrong, Jimmy Dorsey, Joe Glaser, Bobby Hackett and others. LAHM 1987.14.1486

Someone grabbed a shot of the leftover hunk of cake Armstrong writes about:

LAHM 1987.14.3286

The above two photos were found in Louis’s personal collection. In 2016, we acquired hundreds of negatives of Armstrong that were taken by the great photographer Burt Goldblatt, thanks to the generosity of Rich Noorigian. Burt was at Basin Street on July 5, 1955 and found in his collection were some unpublished images from the birthday celebration. Thanks to Cynthia Sesso of CTS Images for all she does for Goldblatt’s photography and the photography of so many other legends of the jazz world!)

For the remainder of this post, we will share a transcription of Armstrong’s words about his 55th birthday celebration (all typos are his), interspersed with Goldblatt’s photos from that night, plus three audio tracks recorded by the All Stars at Basin Street on July 2 and issued by our friends at Dot Time Records on The Nightclubs in 2017.

The story is told a bit strangely as Armstrong works backwards, describing the July 5 evening at Basin Street before almost restarting the tale on the next page (one wonders if he temporarily lost the first page and started again) and then backing into the story of his birthday celebration on July 4. It’s quite touching and though we don’t have any photos from that Queens gathering (though we have two from May 1955 that we’re including), we feel that sharing Armstrong’s words is the perfect way to ring in our own celebration of his traditional birthday.

Take it, Satch!

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5 July 1955

We hit the band-stand at our usual time, 9 O’Clock. There were many admirers on hand to greet me. Before the first show was over only a few scattered seats remained untaken. At the conclusion of the first show many patrons came back to my dressing room to say “Happy Birthday”. Between sets the “Ralph Sutton Trio” held the stand down. They played many of my old favorites after my first set, as a birthday tribute to me. 

Photo by Burt Goldblatt. LAHM 2016.2.2-17

During our second set we played many request tunes, as we were flooded with requests. Members of the group, and myself always welcome requests. Some of the requests were: “Someday, Blueberry Hill, Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans,” , and several others.

Shortly before 11 O’Clock, a couple of waiters and about three buss-boys brought a huge cake from the kitchen. It was very decorative and artistically displayed. While it was being slowly rolled toward the stage, my trombonist, Trummy Young, began to play “Happy Birthday”, and everyone followed by singing it. It was a great moment for me, as I was surrounded by my loyal fans and fellow musicians. Someone from the band-stand called Jimmy Dorsey, who was seated near the band-stand to come to the stand, then the ball began to roll, he in turn called Duke Ellington, and immediately public consent elected Duke, Master of Ceremony. Inside of a few minutes the stage was filled with musicians and other figures in the entertainment world.

Photo by Burt Goldblatt. LAHM 2016.2.2-29

Some of the persons making up this group, were as follows: Fred Robbins, Disc Jockey & Promoter, Charlie Shavers, trumpeter, Dorothy Kilgallen, Columnist and TV Personality, Eddie Barefield, Reedman and arranger, Joe Glaser, my boss and many others. My darling wife was called to the stand to help me cut the huge cake. She was dressed very pretty and everyone extended her warm greetings too, as she represented the other half of ole Satchmo.

Photo by Burt Goldblatt. LAHM 2016.2.2-30

Cake was passed to several of the patrons, as the atmosphere throughout the Club, took on a real birthday spirit. I took a short intermission to get the cake off of my hands, so I could play a dedication number to my friends. “Here is a little number I want to dedicate to all the musicians in the house and peticularly to that crowd that just left the stand, a little Muskat Ramble”, I announced upon my return to the stand.

Duke and his party was to my right, Jimmy Dorsey and his party was right in front of me, Joe Glaser and a few members of his staff, were midway the club in front of me, Red Allen and all of the boys from the Metropole, were seated near the Club entrance to my left. Big Chief Moore, trombonist, formerly with my big band, made a request from his table and was obliged. Throughout the night everyone had a wonderful time, and ole Satchmo just knocked himself out. This party brought back many memories for me. For the past seven years I have had just about the same fans and musicians to attend my birthday part, but this year by it being held in New York, gave me a chance to see some of my old friends, that always work the New York area. Many of the musicians are from New Orleans, my home town. 

Some of the waiters helped my valet to put the remaining part of the cake, in my car, so it could be taken home. It was a deliciously baked cake, and I believe just about everyone at too much of it. The doctor’s office must have been filled the next day, tee hee. 

Photo by Burt Goldblatt. LAHM 2016.2.2-14

We met an enthusiastic crowd as always. The Band hit at about 8:30 P.M. Many of my loyal fans knew about me breaking a traditional birthday celebration, held for the last seven years at the Blue Note Night Club, in Chicago. They felt eager to bestow their good wishes and felicitations upon ole Satch, ha ha. Shortly after midnight my fans, fellow musicians and Club Employees began to extend me greetings of a happy birthday. The management had officially decided to give me a party on the fifth of July, since the fourth of July came on a Monday, our day off. 

Charlie Shavers, (the trumpet man of the Late John Kirby fame), recently working with Benny Goodman, came by after his ‘gig’ at the Metropole Cafe, where he is heading his own Combo, to extend warm greetings. Although he was there nearly every night to chat or have a few cold ones with me, (my man he’s a great Cat). Before the night had completely elapsed, I had to ‘drape’ the “Bopping Poof Song” on the folks. It’s hard to believe, but whenever, or wherever we perform this tune, the Bopping Boys enjoy it just as much as the paying customers. Shortly before we hit the theme climaxing the night’s entertainment, Charlie Shavers asked me from his Band Stand table, to play “Someday”. From the beginning to the end he got his ‘natural kicks’.

Louis performing “The Boppenpoof Song.” Photo by Burt Goldblatt. LAHM 2016.2.2-12

Lucille, my lovely wife, was waiting in my dressing room. After the show, she put a few drops in my eyes. I had caught cold in my eyes, during the rehearsal for the “Band Show,” a summer replacement for the “Jackie Gleason” show. Then Lucille went to the parking lot to get the car, and soon thereafter, we were homeward bound. 

It was nearly 9 O’clock on the 4th of July, before Lucille and I went to bed. We just sat around talking, playing tapes, looking through many odds and ends we had thought about, while on the road trip. I arose around 4 O’Clock in the evening. Lucille had planned on having a few of my friends for dinner, so she got up a little earlier than I did. She had given the cook and the caretaker the day off. A friend of mine, William Green, from Washington D. C., was expected over early to help Lucille on a few chores in preparation of the dinner. She had bought a new barbecue apparatus, a portable type similar to a small kitchen range. Barbecued chicken, macaroni salad, crackers, break, potatoe-chips, pickles, iced tea and strawberry flavored punch, yum, yum, yum, had been the menu Lucille planned. 

Louis relaxing in his den in May 1955. Photo by Ernie Anderson. LAHM 2012.40.187-05

The guests commenced arriving in the neighborhood (literally speaking), at 6:30 O’Clock. It was quite a hot day. When I came down stairs, I made a grand entrance clad in my Bermuda type apparel, and headed directly to my favorite lounge spot in my back yard. My guests greeted me with the familiar tune “Happy Birthday”, smilingly and appreciatively, I received it. 

Our picnic table was set-up and the dishes and food was placed on it. Lucille became a trifle disturbed about a few pieces of barbecue that had been burned. Everyone assured her the burned portions didn’t extend beyond the outer skin of the chicken, and that the inner meat would be unharmed. While I sat there ‘digging’ some of my friends and Lucille bring the food from the kitchen to the table, my appetite had developed just about enough sharpness to make quite an incision, in the vittles, tee hee. A most pleasant sound reached my ears when Lucille said, “Well OK everybody, we’re ready to start”, “OK honey, I’ll sit right here uhhh”, I remarked very relaxingly. The plates were served and the feast began. Words cannot express how much we all enjoyed the tastey prepared food. Dinner was over in about 40 minutes. Everyone helped in the cleaning up, so we could all sit around and converse. We told jokes, sipped a few cold ones (beer), and snapped a few pictures. Someone said look, Lucille was bringing the birthday cake out. I cut the first slice to start the ball rolling and one of the ladies helped Lucille to slice enough cake for everyone. 

The men decided they would like to see my Den, “OK Boys, let’s go, you can play tapes, look at pictures, or ‘cool it’, on the front porch”. Some of the ‘Cats’ looked at my unique display of pictures, on my wall and ceiling, yes I said ceiling; one or two took some pictures of themselves, and the rest of them headed for the front porch to enjoy the cool breeze it offered and the cold brew (beer) that went along with it, ahhhhh.

Louis getting his haircut in his den in May 1955. Notice the collages taped to the walls. Photo by Ernie Anderson. LAHM 2012.40.187-19

Nearly an hour had past before my valet, Dr Pugh and his madam decided to leave. You know leaving a party has an epidemic effect, one start it off, and the rest fall right in line. So Lucille’s sister called a cab for the guests whom were without cars. By the time the ab had arrived, everybody had said “ good night, I really enjoyed myself” about three times; but they all were in earnest. Honest the goodness, we all had a jubilant time. It’s been extremely hard for me and Lucille to recall a more enjoyable birthday celebration together. The family-like atmosphere is what did it.

Published by Ricky Riccardi

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

One thought on ““My Fifty-Fifth Birthday Celebration”: Happy Birthday, Louis Armstrong!

  1. What a wonderful telling of the events by Pops!
    I sometimes mention to guests at the LAHM that now we all use “lol”,
    But in his writing he would say “tee he” for laughing.

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