Louis Armstrong passed away in his sleep in the early hours of July 6, 1971, 49 years ago today. He spent his final day in his den listening to music and dubbing records to tape. What was the final music his listened to? This Virtual Exhibit will tell the tale of Louis Armstrong’s final tape.
I don’t write about myself often on this site but by way of introduction, my name is Ricky Riccardi and I’m the Director of Research Collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum. When I was hired as Project Archivist in 2009, one of my tasks was to perform “retrospective conversion,” going through all previously cataloged items, renumbering them and enhancing their catalog descriptions when appropriate. By the time I was hired, I had already logged three years as a researcher listening to dozens of Louis’s precious reel-to-reel tapes. But when I began the retrospective conversion process, I noticed that not all of Louis’s tapes had been transferred to CD, including this reel, with the accession number 1987.3.590:
On the surface, it looked like any other, a black Scotch box with a plaid stripe on the right side. I had probably seen a few hundred like it, though most usually contained one of Louis’s collages. But when I turned it over, I saw some writing–Lucille’s handwriting–on the bottom of the back of the box:
If you can’t make it out, she wrote, “Last Tape recorded by Pops. 7/5/71.”
And then I opened the box and sure enough, the original tape was inside…..never copied.
Louis used to write lists of the contents to each tape but this box had no such sheet, meaning there was no way of knowing what was on the tape without playing it. Because it wasn’t copied, I correctly assumed that there wasn’t anything earth-shattering on it, no “goodbye” to his fans or final secrets from his life.
But the question remained: what were the last songs Louis Armstrong listened to on the very last tape he made, the one still in the Tandberg tape deck in his home in Corona, Queens when he passed away?
Unfortunately, the answers to those questions would have to wait as I was hired under a two-year grant and transferring tapes wasn’t part of it. At the end of the second year, I had finished everything covered under the grant and thankfully was retained as full-time Archivist for the Museum. Now, without a grant over my head, I could dig into things I wanted to work on, as well as explore mysteries that cropped up during my first pass through our collections. Such as, what was on Louis’s last tape?
But there was one gigantic obstacle in my way: I had no idea how to work a reel-to-reel tape deck. Record player, cassette, CD, MP3, bring ’em on. Reel-to-reel? I was lost. 3 3/4 speed? 7 1/2? Half-track, quarter-track? What?
We have a terrific audio lab right in our workroom at the Archives but I didn’t know the first thing about copying the tapes. Fortunately, our Director at the time, the late Michael Cogswell, was a pro. But the first time he sat me down to show me how to do it, the machine didn’t work. Naturally. We had to find a repair place, deliver it, wait, pick it up, etc. Months passed.
By the time the machine returned, fixed, Michael had more or less moved full-time from his office at the Archives to an office next door to the Armstrong House in Corona. I knew it would be difficult to get him back at the Archives long enough for a reel-to-reel tutorial and sure enough it was. More months passed.
But finally, in February 2013, the stars aligned and Michael was able to train me on the ins and outs of working with tape. I didn’t dive right into the last tape and instead practiced with some others that just contained dubs of commercial recordings, fixing splices, switching speeds and feeling pretty sure of myself after a day or two.
Finally, around 11 a.m. on an early February day, I was ready. I explained to my volunteer, Harvey Fisher, what was about to happen. I went into the stacks, grabbed the tape, sat at the tape deck and loaded the tape onto the hub. I hit “Play” and held my breath as it started spinning. This is what came out:
“Listen to the Mockingbird,” Louis’s 1952 collaboration with Gordon Jenkins. I have probably heard this record 50 times, maybe more, over the years. But something about this occasion started affecting me, knowing it was one of the last things Louis ever listened to. After it ended, I didn’t know what to expect. There was silence and then I heard record scratching and a needle drop. “That Lucky Old Sun” followed. You know, the one that “rolls around heaven all day.” Phew.
As soon as I heard it, I knew Louis was listening to the Decca compilation of his work with Gordon Jenkins, Satchmo in Style.
“Listen to the Mocking Bird” was the final track on side 1. Had he dubbed the rest? Yes, and this is where I must digress for a moment from the story of the final tape. In May 1971, Louis returned home from a near-death, two-month experience in intensive care at Beth Israel hospital in New York. Once he started feeling better, he went back to making reel-to-reel tapes, but this time started a brand new series: “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings.”
All Armstrong wanted to listen to was his own music and those who visited him remembered he often played along in an effort to build back his chops. By this point, he was recording direct from record to tape so he no longer recorded the ambient sounds of his den, which often captured him playing, talking to friends, answering the phone, etc. But the tapes survive and between the end of May and his passing on July 6, he made almost 20 volumes of “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings.” Future editions of this series will tackle those separately as they contain some moving collages and excellent playlists from his final days.
Volume 17 of “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings” ended with the first part of Satchmo in Style and also included the following masterpieces (these photos are of Louis’s personal copies). Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson (Louis’s copy was signed by disc jockey Jack Lazare):
Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy (this is one of three vinyl copies Louis owned):
Satch Plays Fats as it was issued on an LP, Satchmo For You, which Louis’s notes tell us he bought in Japan:
And a 1967 2-LP compilation of his later Decca recordings (mostly from Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography), The Best of Louis Armstrong:
Here’s the track listing of that last one:
And then he began dubbing Satchmo in Style, running out of space after “Indian Love Call.” To take you through Armstrong’s process, he would then catalog the tape, writing the song titles on the blank back sides of his “Lose Weight the Satchmo Way” diet charts. His blue marker was running out of ink, poetic in a way to think of Armstrong’s life also fading fast as he wrote these words:
And then as the last part of his process, Armstrong decorated the outside of the tape box with a collage. He was reusing an old box that once contained recordings by Italian singer Ray Martino; on the back he just stuck a new label of it denoting the presence of “Miscellaneous Recordings.”
But on the front cover, he chose a photo of him in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1923. Considering that this was one of the final collages he ever made, the choice is quite touching (the image was cut out of a Swedish newspaper tribute to Armstrong from July 4, 1970 and sent to him by Gosta Hagglof in early 1971; you can view the full Swedish page here).
That ends the story of “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings” Reel 17. Returning to the story of his final tape, he picked up where Reel 17 ended with the continuation of Satchmo in Style, but as we’ve established, there’s no handwritten contents sheet, nor a collage; this is truly the last tape.
After “Listen to the Mocking Bird,” Armstrong flipped the disc over to side two and continued recording it until the end. On and on it went: Louis’s parody of boppers on “The Whiffenpoof Song,” his passionate singing of Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees,” the romping “Bye and Bye” (with its chorus of special lyrics paying tribute to dead jazz musicians….seriously), the fun Halloween novelty “Spooks” and finally, Jenkins’s beautiful version of Armstrong’s theme song “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.”
I felt tears in my eyes while dubbing it at the Archives and turned to Harvey sand said, “I’ve listened to these tracks for over 15 years….but they’re really getting to me today!” He agreed.
I secretly hoped the tape ended there. Could anyone think of a better final tune to end his life listening, too? But no, I heard the whir of a new record spinning, the needle dropped again and I waited for what followed:
“Muskrat Ramble” from Satchmo at Symphony Hall. Here’s Louis’s copy:
I then noticed something: Louis’s reel, at 3 3/4 speed was spinning REALLY slowly. And there was a LOT of tape left. So I went back to other work, but kept it transferring. Louis listened to and recorded the entire 2-LP set, probably with fond memories of the musicians and friends on that album who were no longer living: Velma Middleton, Sid Catlett and Jack Teagarden.
Almost two hours went by. I was at my computer when all of a sudden I realized “Mop Mop” was on…the final track! I stopped what I was doing and stared at the spinning reels. Would “Mop Mop” be it? Or would there be more? It ended. Silence. Whir of a record. Needle drop. There was more:
“Can’t We Be Friends.” Ella and Louis. Here’s Louis’s copy, a rare His Master’s Voice pressing from London:
Wow. One of my personal favorites, such a joyous, delightful, peaceful album. I let it roll: “Isn’t it a Lovely Day,” “Moonlight in Vermont,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Under a Blanket of Blue,” “Tenderly,” “A Foggy Day,” “Stars Fell on Alabama,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “The Nearness of You”…..
Uh oh….it was time for the final track of the original album.
“April in Paris.” Too beautiful to comprehend. That vocal (“April in Praris”), that trumpet solo (holding the note into the bridge like Sinatra), that final, perfectly phrased trumpet coda after Ella’s vocal. Gorgeous.
Once more, I waited. There was still some tape left.
Silence. No whir. No needle. That was it. I fast forwarded through to the end of the reel. Nothing. Just to be safe, I flipped the reel to see if there was anything on the other side. There wasn’t.
The last song Louis Armstrong listened to on the very last tape he made on July 5, 1971 was “April in Paris.” For authenticity, here’s the audio of it transferred from Louis’s tape, complete with hiss and various pops and clicks from his vinyl copy:
Upon the conclusion, Louis left his den and headed down the hallway to his bedroom. According to Joe Muranyi, Lucille told him that Louis was feeling frisky and tried to initiate “the vonce.” She declined. He went to sleep. About 5:30 in the morning of July 6, Louis Armstrong passed away in his sleep.
Can you think of a better way to go out? I can’t. After over ten years on the job, listening to and transferring that tape remains one of the highlights of what has been a dream job. The only way to properly close is with some music to remember him by on the anniversary of his passing. Here’s a Spotify playlist containing ALL of the music contained on Armstrong’s final two tapes, as described above. All that’s missing is the whirring and hissing of the vinyl but it still sounds just as good as when Louis listened to it in his den 49 years ago…