Louis Armstrong spent about 70 years on this planet, 28 of them in Corona, Queens. Yet time and again, we find ourselves returning to the last two years of his action-packed life. Why is that? Mainly because the theme of this site is “That’s My Home,” focusing on how Armstrong occupied himself when he was at home–something that rarely happened before 1969.
Don’t get me wrong, he loved every moment he spent at home in Queens, but from the time he moved in in 1943 until he ended up in intensive care in late 1968, Armstrong maintained a grueling pace of about 300 days a year on the road. But after two life threatening stints in the hospital, Armstrong returned home in May 1969 and for the first time in decades, was told to just stay home and rest.
Perhaps sensing what this would do to her husband’s psyche–for years, he famously railed against taking vacations and wouldn’t think of retiring –Lucille Armstrong renovated Louis’s den while he was in the hospital, making sure that two brand new Tandberg tape decks were installed directly behind his desk as part of a state-of-the-art stereo system.
Armstrong had already amassed a collection of hundreds of tapes, but hit a dry spell in the mid-to-late 1960s. He stopped making tapes entirely in this period, with reports in 1967 and 1968 mentioning that he was once again traveling with only a turntable and no longer a portable tape player. But with the new equipment, Armstrong was inspired to start making tapes again–from scratch.
When he first began making tapes in 1950, Armstrong the archivist immediately devised a numbering system, numbering each reel and cataloging them. That first catalog no longer survives but it appears his numbering system got well into the 400s.
Around 1958, he bought a new tape deck and decided to start over, beginning a new catalog and starting with “Reel 1” amassing another 150 or so tapes before running out of gas in the early 1960s.
Back home in 1969 and with time on his hands, Armstrong once again started with “Reel 1.” Most of the tapes he made were of new material, but he also reached back to many of his older tapes from the 1950s and renumbered them (disrupting his earlier numbering sequences entirely). Unlike the old tapes, though, Armstrong now recorded directly from his turntable to his tapes and rarely captured the sounds of his den, including his own voice or trumpet. He designed many new collages on the tape boxes and tweaked some old ones, now using a special kind of white athletic tape that proved to be more durable than the yellowing strips of Scotch tape he used in the 1950s. He even grabbed a stack of lined paper, pre-numbered them, stuck them in a binder and began cataloging each reel.
This is the first part of a series that will attempt to take readers through the final 200 or so tapes Armstrong compiled in those final two years of his life. We won’t be sharing the audio here (though watermarked versions are available at https://collections.louisarmstronghouse.org/ if you create a free account), but we will share the catalog pages and corresponding tape boxes, many with collages and will try to offer context when applicable.
Without further ado, let’s examine the first five tapes from this final series.
Accession Number 2003.197.3
The very first thing Armstrong grabbed on the very first tape he made as part of this series was the version of “Hello, Dolly!” with Barbra Streisand from the film of the same name, which opened in December 1969. He followed with a demo disc he had received in preparation for recording the album Disney Songs the Satchmo Way, featuring seven classic Disney songs he eventually recorded. The first of his own long-playing albums he reached for was the 1964 Kapp album Hello, Dolly!, which was a number one hit on the pop charts at the height of Beatlemania.
Side 1 ended with the complete Disney Songs the Satchmo Way, released in July 1968, just two months before that first stint in intensive care, meaning this was possibly his first deep listen to that late-innings classic. (Note the formal “End of Side 1,” which would almost immediately be eliminated in favor of “S’all,” which Armstrong uses right next to it.)
Side 2 opened with Porgy and Bess with Ella Fitzgerald, an album he had told the BBC he would bring to a mythical desert island during a 1968 interview.
Armstrong hung a “S’ALL” at the end of that page, in this case meaning the end of the album, but there was still some space left on the tape. His next choice was a surprising one: Satchmo and Me, Lil Hardin Armstrong’s 1957 spoken remembrances of his ex-husband. Louis and Lil hit a rough patch in the mid-50s and didn’t speak for a decade. They had a happy reunion in Highland Park, Illinois in 1967 but Louis still felt a chill towards her, describing her as “corny” and blasting her piano playing in a manuscript he began writing while in a dark mood in Beth Israel Hospital in March 1969.
But now, there was Lil, laughing and reminiscing about their good times and her impact on his career. The recording must have sobered Louis up because by the time he made a tape for biographer Max Jones in August 1970 (Reel 124), Louis was giving Lil full credit for engineering his career.
Perhaps it was overwhelming because after side 1 of Satchmo and Me finished, Louis turned to a completely different LP and finished Reel 1 by dubbing a the beginning of Spanish pressing of his old Decca album Jazz Concert (titled Concierto de Jazz) and featuring his 1950 All Stars with Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, Barney Bigard, Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole.
When it came to decorating the outer box, Reel 1 had an inauspicious look: a small square of the new white tape with the number “1” simply written on it, plus a note on the 3 ¾ inch speed.
Accession Number 2003.197.4
Since Side 2 of Reel 1 included two unfinished LPs, it’s not a surprise that Side 1 of Reel 2 picked up with the conclusion of both Concierto de Jazz and Lil’s Satchmo and Me. With time remaining, Armstrong turned to some scattered singles from the 1960s, including four songs he cut in 1967 in which he sang in Italian; his bizarre cover of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream”; the 1967 single of “Sunshine of Your Love” and “Hellzapoppin’” from the What a Wonderful World LP; and a Kapp single, “The Life of the Party” and “You Are Woman, I Am Man.” For the Italian sides, note the word “repeat” in parentheses; yes, Armstrong dubbed each side twice in a row before moving on.
Armstrong followed this with a dub of side 1 of a 1968 Parlophone LP, Satchmo Style, made up of many of the classic sides he recorded with Luis Russell’s Orchestra in 1929 and 1930. Interestingly, he chose not to dub side 2, which featured trumpeter Jack Purvis; I don’t think it’s a slight on Purvis but rather early in this series, Armstrong wanted to keep the focus on his own recordings.
That theme continues on Side 2 as Armstrong dubbed another volume of Concierto de Jazz featuring the 1950 All Stars, plus a French pressing of Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson titled Grand Prix National Du Disque 1960-1961. In the middle of the dub of the Peterson LP, Armstrong dubbed part of the Decca 10” LP The Glenn Miller Story, copying “Basin Street Blues” and “Otch-Tchnor-Ni-Ya” first and returning at the end of the tape for “Butter and Egg Man,” “Margie,” and “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” eventually running out of tape on the latter.
Like Reel 1, the design of the box for Reel 2 isn’t much to speak of, but now Armstrong has added the word “Reel” to his tape.
Accession Number 2003.197.5
With this reel, we now must confront the issue of dates. Louis returned from the hospital in June 1969 and it’s long been assumed that he started this whole reel-to-reel series around that time. But here we are on only the third tape and we have the single of “We Have All the Time in the World” and “Pretty Little Missy,” recorded October 28, 1969 and released in December of that year. And on Side 2, Louis dubbed a letter received from Bill Hassan and his sons for Christmas 1969, following it with a copy of his reply to the Hassan’s: a dub of “We Have all the Time in the World,” a personal message from Louis and two of his 1967 Italian numbers, “Dimmi Dimmi Dimmi” and “Farfallina,” before ending the reel with “The Bare Necessities” from the Disney album.
If Louis’s numbering is to be trusted, this means that this reel-to-reel tape series commenced in December 1969, which makes sense because “Scrapbook 1” started with multiple materials from December 1969 before dipping back to include some materials from the summer of that year.
Note also that under “Pretty Little Missy,” Louis writes “International Music Corporation.” Why would he include the publisher information? Because his longtime manager Joe Glaser passed away in June 1969 and bequeathed to Louis all of his shares in International Music, the publisher of all of Armstrong’s compositions. This was a major gift that assured Louis and Lucille would benefit greatly from Louis’s royalties for years to come (this was in addition to Associated Booking turning over all the money Glaser had set aside for Louis and Lucille, which they promptly spent renovating their home in Queens, eventually buying the house next door and turning it into a Japanese-inspired garden). Louis was not a dumb man and in many of his TV appearances in 1970, he’d try to insert one of his own compositions (usually “Pretty Little Missy” or “Someday You’ll Be Sorry” but also “Back O’Town Blues”).
With Reel 3, we also get our first decorated tape box, with a 1969 photo of Louis and Lucille on the back cover. On the front, Louis dug out a snapshot from an event in the 1950s; Louis, Lucille and Velma Middleton are pictured in the crowd.
Accession Number 2003.197.6
Reel 4 plunges us into some different territory, opening with nearly a full side of non-Armstrong music. First off is what sounds like a demo recording of three recordings by Pete Vuolo, “Confidence” (recorded by Hank Jones on Hanky Panky in 1975), “Those Wonderful Days” and “Don’t Cry the Blues to Me Now.” Armstrong never did anything with them but he did receive numerous demo recordings over the years and recorded a surprising amount to tape. Armstrong followed this by dubbing The World of Frank Ifeld, an album by the Australian country singer that was released in 1969.
After this detour, Armstrong pulled a rarity out of his collection, copying an All Stars broadcast from Hamilton, Ontario in 1962, one that remains unissued to this day. From the All Stars era, Armstrong turned the clock back to the 1920s for the Decca LP Young Louis ‘The Side Man’ (1924-1927), released in 1968 and comprised of recordings of Armstrong with Fletcher Henderson, Erskine Tate, the Red Onion Jazz Babies and Johnny Dodds. Armstrong closed the reel with yet another dub of his 1950 Decca sides, this time the original American pressing, Jazz Concert.
The box for Reel 4 is another first for us, as Armstrong repurposed one of his earlier boxes from the 1950s. If you look closer, there’s some green ink on the cover, which is something he almost exclusively used in the early days of the tapes, plus he now used large swatches of white tape to cover his earlier handwritten notes (it’s almost impossible to read, but the names of Red Nichols and Fats Waller appear faintly under the tape). As for the photos, I have no idea who the three men are with Lucille on the cover or what they are doing (is that a shovel?) but the back of the box features a shot of Louis and Lucille on television in Buenos Aires in 1957.
Accession Number 2003.197.7
This is the first time we find Louis grabbing one of his old tapes and simply renumbering it; it won’t be the last time as 20 next or so tapes are all ones he originally recorded in the 1950s. The hazards of pre-filling out his tape catalog are illustrated here as this fairly short tape only took up part of one side, leaving the rest of Side 1 and all of Side 2 (and three pages of the catalog) empty (we’ll only only include one blank page to illustrate). The contents are wonderful though, a dub of the historic first episode of the Fleischmann’s Yeast Show from April 9, 1937, the first time an African American hosted a nationally sponsored, syndicated radio show. This is followed by “The Okeh Laughing Record” and a short bit from the Hotel Sutherland as Louis introduces a woman he identifies in the catalog as “Madam La Zongura.” The rest of the reel is taken up by Dizzy Gillespie’s Dee Gee recordings of the early 1950s, many featuring the vocals of Joe Carroll (including his Armstrong send-up “Pops’ Confessin’”) and Melvin Moore (in addition to his well-known “I Just Couldn’t Beat the Rap” and “Bopsie’s Blues,” Moore is also heard on the ballad, “How Do I Stand With You,” which doesn’t seem to be in any discographies).
The outer box for Reel 5 is also recycled, a plain Webcor front and a nice picture of Louis with some unidentified sailors on the back, now framed with the new white athletic tape and the new reel number.
That concludes part one of a series that should take much of the rest of 2020 to finish. With our Archives still closed to the public for the foreseeable future because of Covid-19, we’re at least excited to be able to explore and share these treasures with audiences around the world thanks to the magic of digitization. More to come!