Louis Armstrong’s 1969-1971 Tapes: Reels 16-20

Again, for those just joining the party, you can catch up with Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of this series, exploring the reel-to-reel tapes Louis Armstrong made in the last two years of his life. Like last week, we have another run today of 1950s tapes that Louis grabbed off his shelf, renumbered and re-cataloged. Next week, we’ll return to some of the fresh tapes he made in this period but today’s 1950s selections are filled with memorable moments worthy of discussion below.

Reel 16
Accession Number 2003.197.18

Reel 16 comes from 1952, after Louis purchased Jelly Roll Morton’s Library of Congress recordings on Circle Records. For those who have been with us from the beginning, this reel was the focus of our first “Satch’s Tracks” post as it includes an incredible moment where Louis stops Morton’s recording and picks up the microphone to address Morton’s claims about scat singing! After that stunning rebuke–described as “Louis Armstrong Explains Heebie Jeebies”–Louis let the Morton recording continue uninterrupted. Below, Louis writes “South America–Spanish” and indeed the next several selection are entirely in Spanish (many feature a small Benny Goodman Sextet-inspired combo). But Louis’s 1970 memory of “South America” was wrong; as we’ll see in a moment, Louis wrote “El Paso, Texas” on the back of the box. Sure enough, the All Stars played the Palladium Ballroom on April 26, 1952, giving us an exact date for when Louis recorded that portion of the tape.

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On April 19, 1952, Armstrong recorded for Decca while on a tour stop in Denver, Colorado. That meshes with the recordings made from Louis’s hotel room in Denver “Colorada” (which is how he always pronounced it) that open side 2. He opens by dubbing the rest of RCA’s Treasury of Immortal Performances album containing six selections from the historic May 17, 1947. Again, in a previous “Satch’s Tracks,” we included audio of Louis setting up this recording and reading the liner notes (listen and read about it here) but he ran out of tape on “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” He picks up “Ain’t Misbehavin'” from the last chorus here and continues to the end of the album (the 1970 Armstrong point out Bobby Hackett’s obbligtato (or “obligator”) in the notes below). After cheering on the end of recording, Louis calls our attention to Lucille, who apparently sitting there reading “Satchmo in Hawaii,” a piece Louis wrote about his first tour of Hawaii from February 25-March 9, 1952.

But then Louis returns to music and plays Georgia Gibbs’s “Kiss of Fire” and repeats it a few minutes later. Why? Because “Kiss of Fire” is one of the songs Louis recorded in Denver! He doesn’t sing or play along with the tape but it’s a fascinating glimpse of him familiarizing himself with a song before putting his own spin on it in the studio. The first page of the catalog entry for Reel 16, Side 2, ends with two more songs in Spanish, simply described by Louis as “Foreign Numbers (Pretty).”

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But wait, we’re not finished! A rare second page continues describing the contents of Side 2, opening with Louis and Gordon Jenkins’s brand new recording of “Indian Love Call,” released in March 1952. Without any segue, we find ourselves in Portland, Oregan at the home of C. C. Morgan (Louis’s valet Doc Pugh is present but leaves, Louis mentioning that he’s heading to Jantzen Beach). This is most likely in January 1952 as our Civil Rights post contained audio from a tape Louis made at Morgan’s home while reading the January 10, 1952 issue of Jet. (We have documentation of the All Stars in Eugene, Oregon on January 16, 1952 so it’s safe to assume he played Portland before). Armstrong then grabs a 1947 RCA single, “Some Day” and “50 50 Blues” and tells the story of writing “Some Day” in North Dakota before spinning that disc (and beautifully singing along with the end of “Some Day,” which should probably be used for a future edition of “Satch’s Tracks”).

Armstrong then excitedly mentions he’s about to dub the original 1929 “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” which he had been looking for for a while. After spinning it, he calls Morgan over, giggling as he asks Morgan to tell a story about the next selection. Morgan originally doesn’t sound like he wants to talk but then breaks into a full oratory mode, addressing “Ladies and Gentlemen,” which breaks up Armstrong. Morgan, an African American from Birmingham, Alabama, used to play baseball in the Negro Leagues. Morgan tells the story of playing a white Elk’s team in Pittsburgh and losing. As Morgan’s team left the stadium, the white team played “Black and Blue” and “Shine” over the loudspeaker. Armstrong is uproarious as Morgan tells the story and promised to put it in his “story” that he was writing.

(For the baseball historians, Morgan mentions the “Barons,” which would be the Negro League Birmingham Black Barons, but also says he played for an Elk’s team, but that seems to be an accident. Morgan also mentions James West and a quick search of the Negro Leagues’ database shows a result for James “Shifty Jim” West who did play for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1930 and 1932. The same database shows a “Leon Morgan” who played for the Barons in 1928 so possible Leon is “C. C. Morgan’s” real name. The two mention trumpeter Shelton “Scad” Hemphill, who used to tell Louis about what a “good ballplayer” Morgan was.)

After the two men heap praise on Tallulah Bankhead, whom Morgan calls “Miss Alabama,” Louis tells Morgan to finish cooking his beans while he spins “Black and Blue.” This leads to some sweet reminiscing about Connie’s Hot Chocolates being a “helluva show,” with Armstrong taking time to compliment reedman Jimmy Strong, “a man that the world didn’t get a chance to here.” I apologize for the extra long discussion of this tape but thought that seeing Armstrong’s detailed notes might spur some curiosity.

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Our last installment didn’t contain many collages but here’s an effective simple one featuring a smiling Louis on the cover and some handwritten annotations on the bank (containing the key to the El Paso/South America mystery):

LAHM 2003.197.18
LAHM 2003.197.18

Reel 17
Accession Number 2003.197.19

Armstrong no longer remembered the specifics of the “Dixie Ragtime Recordings” that start off Reel 17 but it’s a series of recordings of the Castle Jazz Band of Portland, Oregon. He also didn’t remember the titles, but it consisted of recordings of “Sugar Blues,” “Original Dixieland One-Step,” “Careless Love,” “Sweet Geo rgia Brown,” “Down in Jungle Town,” “Kansas City Torch,” and “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” Armstrong then grabbed a stack of records and began dubbing many singles. Again, because his cataloging is a little all over the place, here’s a list of what he dubbed: Smilin’ Joe’s two-part “ABCs” (recorded in New Orleans); Annie Ross’s “Twisted” and “Annie’s Lament”; a demo recording of an unknown vocalist performing “Spooks,” which Louis eventually recorded for Decca on April 13, 1954; two dubs of “There is No Age” by songwriter Herman Fairbanks, most likely another demo of a song Louis never performed; an unknown vocal group (not The Bobbettes) doing “Mr. Lee”; an unidentified number in Spanish that interpolates “The Trolly Song”; Nick Mayo and Louis Metcalf’s “Frenchman’s Boogie” and “Under the Harlem Moon”; and finally, the Bulawayo Sweet Rhythm Band’s pairing of “In the Mood” and “Skokiaan,” the latter recorded by Louis on August 13, 1954.

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Side 2 is filled with even more records, opening with a dub of the entire Bob Grant and His Orchestra Decca album, Song Hits of 1943 which included everything from “Pistol Packin’ Mama” to “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” to “Pennsylvania Polka.” Other 78s include “Get High Everybody” and “Let Me Down Easy” by Melvin “Lil’ Son” Jackson, “To a Wild Rose” and “Swedish Pastry” by George Shearing, a series of demo recordings of unknown songs by unknown performers, and Louis’s own 1931 coupling of “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” (notice he calls out pianist Charles Alexander in his notes) and “(I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead) You Rascal You.” (Louis Armstrong). He finally pulls out a long-playing album with Joe Bushkin’s Capitol release Midnight Rhapsody, released in March 1956. Kay Starr’s “I Never Saw a Better Day” is from the soundtrack of The Lord Don’t Play Favorites, a Producer’s Showcase TV movie that Louis appeared in in September 1956. He actually recorded that same number for RCA Victor in August 1956 so it’s possible this was once again to familiarize himself with the tune before enterting the studio. On that same note, this true hodgepodge reel ends with the original 1954 case recording of “Mack the Knife” from A Threepenny Opera.

Phew, that is a lot of information! Trying to date this one is impossible as it seems to either a complete mix tape Louis made from scratch in the summer of 1956 or perhaps he assembled bits of other tapes since there’s a strong 1954 component with those Decca demos, before the Nick Mayo songs of July 1955 and the final selections from 1956. Either way, quite a wild mix but perhaps the most interesting tracks are the other versions of “Spooks,” “Skokkian,” “I Never Saw a Better Day” and “Mack the Knife,” again illustrating Armstrong’s process of familiarizing himself with other recordings of the same song he was due to record.

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No collage to speak of for Reel 17, just a new number affixed in early 1970:

Reel 18
Accession Number 2003.197.20

After all of that, it’s nice to have a pretty self-explanatory reel! Reel 18 opens with the conclusion of Frances Faye’s 1957 Bethlehem LP Relaxin’ With Frances Faye before a dub of Duke Ellington’s landmark Columbia recording At Newport. The Armstrong of 1970 no longer remembered the names of all the tunes but adequately described them as “Jump Blues,” “Jump Tune” and “Jump Solo,” calling our attention to the work of Cat Anderson, Jimmy Hamilton and Paul Gonsalves.

LAHM 1987.2.23-46

After Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” Louis picks up the microphone, telling us he’s at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood about to rehearse a special number written by Sammy Cahn for him and Robert Merrill to perform at the Sands in Las Vegas. They go over the entire routine, which is based on “Gallagher and Shean.” Louis tantalizingly tells us about perhaps including “a hunk of Carmen” and mentions “some operatic tune we’re going to wail the hell out of” but no recordings of the finished routine as performed by Armstrong and Merrill have survived.

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Finally, we’re back in collage territory with a 1949 photo of Louis and Lucille with Ernie Anderson’s twin daughters (one of whom, Allie Barnicoat, helped the Louis Armstrong House Museum secure over 250 photos of Louis from her late father’s collection in 2012):

LAHM 2003.197.20

On the back, a wonderfully exciting photo of Velma Middleton going into her dance onstage with the All Stars c. 1953.

LAHM 2003.197.20

Reel 19
Accession Number 2003.197.21

With Reel 19, we’re firmly in Honolulu, Hawaii during Armstrong’s February-March 1952 stay there. First up, Armstrong dubbed a Capitol Records set, Hark! The Years! A Recorded Scrapbook Of Famous Personalities And Historical Events From Two Centuries, narrated by Fredric March (notice the Gettysburg Address; we’ve already shared Armstrong’s version elsewhere on this site). Armstrong follows with something special, the kind of thing that really makes these tapes unique: a recording of a concert given in Armstrong’s honor by the Hawaiian musician’s union on March 2, 1952. The union sent him a copy so Armstrong, in his Waikiki penthouse, narrates the proceedings, including much local Hawaiian music, comedy from The Top Notches (Louis can be heard laughing in the audience), a story by “Sleepy Joe” and a ballad by “The Frank Sinatra of the Hawaiian Islands.” Louis and Velma Middleton break it up with their version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” but the most eye–and ear–opening performance was from trombonist Trummy Young, then living in Hawaii for several years. Back in his penthouse, Louis tells us (he’s alone but is addressing a future audience) that Trummy’s playing better than ever and breaks up recalling Trummy’s signature line, “Aloha, y’all!” Apparently, Louis offered Trummy the job in the All Stars right then and there but Trummy couldn’t leave so suddenly. He’d eventually join the All Stars in September 1952 and wouldn’t leave until December 1963.

LAHM 1987.2.23-48

Side 2 continues with more from the Hawaiian tribute to Louis, opening with even more effusive praise for Trummy Young, whose band performs “Muskrat Ramble” and “Basin Street Blues” dedicated to Louis (little did he know he’d be playing both songs almost every night with Louis about six months later). Louis’s driver, Prince Gary, comes on to talk about his life and about Hawaii before Louis returns to the union concert with more from Trummy, and performances from Velma Middleton (doing “Blue Skies), someone named “Alex,” a Hawaiian trio, “Little Joe” (the most popular singer on the island), the Callowah [sic?] brothers and an unknown banjo player. The reel ends with more of Fredric March’s Hark! The Years, a section on music that must have tickled Armstrong with segments on W. C. Handy and Enrico Caruso.

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It’s fitting that the front of Reel 19 is taken up with photos of Louis and Velma considering how she was featured on the Hawaiian material. There’s also a few random photos of Louis, including one of him at a WPEP microphone, WPEP being based in Taunton, Massachusetts.

LAHM 2003.197.21

And it’s always nice to see Louis’s original cataloging method, filling up the back of the box with a list of what’s on the tape:

LAHM 2003.197.21

Reel 20
Accession Number 2003.197.22

Our Velma Middleton appreciation theme really continues on this reel, which includes audio of Velma by herself hosting what she calls “Satchmo’s Mailbox.” This was actually recorded at an All Stars gig either at the Oasis Club in Los Angeles in December 1951 or Club Hangover in January 1952. Velma lets us hear a short “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” and one chorus of “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” (featuring a short-lived version of the All Stars with Barney Bigard, Russ Phillips, Joe Sullivan, Dale Jones and Cozy Cole) before she comes on the microphone. For a half hour here and a half hour on the other side (she only takes a break to go onstage and perform!), Velma sits with a pile of fan letters, newspaper clippings and magazine articles and reads them all into the tape recorder. That’s wonderful enough but Velma’s overall sweetness and genuine reactions to each letter and article really strike the listener; there’s no way around it, she truly loved Louis (I’m not saying she was in love with him or they had a romance or anything, she just knew how great her boss was and was thrilled excited to document the impact he had on fans, musicians and journalists).

The rest of the reel is fascinating on its own, even though it has nothing directly to do with Louis (I don’t think a single researcher has ever requested to listen to this side). On New Year’s Eve 1951, Louis was in Pasadena, California. At multiple points (some segments mention it’s New Year’s Eve, others say it’s 4 a.m. on New Year’s Day 1952), he turned on KXLA radio and hit record on his tape recorder. Louis doesn’t speak and there are no stories about him but it’s a neat little slice of radio in this era, opening with a children’s show, “Fun Factory,” hosted by “Uncle Lumpy,” who asks everyone to make resolutions. That is followed by “Mustang Music,” a country and and western program, featuring the following sides: “I’m Getting Older Every Day” by Homer and Jethro, “Square Dance Polks” by Rosalie Allen and the Black River Riders, “Wedding Day” by Andy Parker, “Turkey in the Straw” by Harley Luse and the Blue Ridge Mountain Boys, “Still Waters and Green Pastures” by The Ames Brothers, “The Wreck of the John B” by Rex Allen, “Riders in the Sky” by Peggy Lee, “Boggs Boogie” by Noel Boggs, “The Handsome Stranger” by Jo Stafford, “Red River Rag” by Bill Boyd, “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You” by Eddy Arnold and more. There are advertisements for the Tournament of Roses later that day and a promise of Uncle Carl Saunders taking over the air at 5 a.m. but Armstrong ran out of tape by that point.

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Side 2 actually has the start of “Satchmo’s Mailbox” with Velma hearing a few bits of the All Stars on stage, including one chorus each of “Back O’Town Blues” and “C’est Si Bon” before she had to perform.

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Our collage for Reel 20 features an unidentified young girl and a wonderful photo of Louis (both photos potentially taken in his Corona, Queens home), in addition to a shot of an unidentified man walking outdoors (the poster in the back is for the 1948 film The Swordsman with Larry Parks and Ellen Drew if that gives anyone a clue):

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And we close with another mysterious backside which clearly once housed a photo of some sort, but it was no longer affixed by the time Armstrong got around to re-cataloging it in 1970:

LAHM 2003.197.20

A lot of detective work and descriptions went into this installment but I do hope you’re finding this series interesting–we’ll be back with five more reels next Friday!

Published by Ricky Riccardi

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

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