Louis Armstrong’s 1969-1971 Tapes: Reels 21-25

We took last week off from our series examining Louis Armstrong’s 1969-1971 tapes in order to celebration Charlie Parker’s Centennial but we’re back today with a look at Reels 21 through 25.

Reel 21
Accession Number 2003.197.23

Reel 21 is another reel that was originally made in the 1950s with material spanning several years. It opens with dubs of two albums originally released in 1957, Elvis Presley’s Christmas Album and Kai Winding’s Trombone Panorama (interesting that Louis associates Horace Silver’s “The Preacher” with Woody Herman, obviously familiar with Herman’s 1958 version). Side 1 ends with yet another 1957 album, Eddie Heywood’s Canadian Sunset on Capitol. (Go ahead and make your own playlists to replicate these reels, folks!)

LAHM 1987.2.23-52

Side 2 continues with Heywood’s album and then immediately veers into something different and unexpected: “A letter to Joe Glaser – San Francisco Calif. (1945 or 1954) Louis Armstrong – (sender).” A quick personal story, if you allow. If you notice the accession number for this and all of the tapes covered so far, they have all begun with 2003. This is because sometime after Louis (and most likely Lucille Armstrong’s) passing, the first 30 tapes of this series ended up in the hands of producer Milt Gabler, a good friend of Phoebe Jacobs, who was very close with Lucille in her widowhood. Upon Gabler’s passing in 2001, his family kindly donated these tapes to the Louis Armstrong House Museum in 2003. The tapes were digitized but never fully exploited in the mid-2000s, a time when our organization’s energy was focused on getting the House up and running and when the Archives was only manned by part-time staff.

Flash forward to 2009 and I was hired to be Project Archivist, the first full-time Archivist since 2004. I became fixated on the tapes and loved to study a photocopied version of this tape catalog. I had also just submitted the manuscript for what would become my book, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years. The book was due out in 2010 but was pushed to 2011. In early 2010, I was reading this very page when the “Letter to Joe Glaser” caught my attention. I found the digitized version and there it was: nearly a half-hour of Louis Armstrong in January 1954 reading a letter he was about to send Glaser in the aftermath of his wife Lucille getting arrested in Hawaii for possession of marijuana. Armstrong was deadly serious as he made his demands: “But there’s one thing I ask of you and that is, Mr. Glaser, you must see to it that I have special permission to smoke all the reefers that I want to when I want or I will just have to put this horn down, that’s all.  It can be done.  Nothing impossible, man.”

I almost fainted after discovering the tape but still had work duties to perform. That evening, after going off the clock, I stayed on as a researcher, transcribed the entire tape, contacted my editor and rewrote an entire chapter of my book to cover what I called “A Brush With the Law.”

But why was a letter from 1954 on a tape filled with recordings from 1957? And just after the letter, the rest of the tape was filled with audio of a broadcast of The Ed Sullivan Show that aired while Armstrong was ailing from a heart attack suffered in Spoleto, Italy in June 1959–what to make of that? Again, this is a total conspiracy theory but hear me out. In 1954, Armstrong embarked on a new book that would deal with his feelings on marijuana. According to Lyn Murray’s published Hollywood journal, Armstrong passed it around during a September 1954 engagement at the Sands and the musicians thought it was hilarious. A notebook with Armstrong’s 1954 writings eventually turned up decades later….with the first dozen or so pages missing, the pages that most likely dealt with marijuana most explicitly. It’s my feeling that Glaser might have destroyed them.

Flash to 1959 and Armstrong decides to pick up the project again but knows that the first dozen pages are gone. So he turns to his tape collection, digs out this reel and copies it, transcribing much of it. How do we know that? Because in listening to the tape of the 1954 letter, it frequently stops and starts, with loud clicks like someone pressing the “Stop” button on the tape. My feeling is Louis transcribed chunks of it when writing the original marijuana treatise in 1954 and then consulted the tape again while writing “The Satchmo Story,” an unfinished manuscript that is available to read in Louis Armstrong In His Own Words. Early in that document, Armstrong writes about how “this whole second book might be about nothing but gage” but then tellingly mentions he is soon about to celebrate his 59th birthday on the Fourth of July, placing the writing of the document sometime in May-June 1959, right before the heart attack. This makes sense in the chronology of the situation, especially with why he would pull a tape from 1954 in the middle of all this taping in 1959. Either way, Armstrong didn’t finish “The Satchmo Story” either, most likely because of the heart attack, turning his attention to dubbing the Sullivan show from Spoleto as soon as he was feeling up to it. (And the preponderance of 1957 LPs at the start of the reel doesn’t necessarily mean Side 1 was from 1957 as Louis seemed to stock up on records before his six-month European tour of 1959 and those all might have been purchased at that time.)

LAHM 1987.2.23-53

Regarding the outside of the tape box, the front features a great photo of Louis and two unidentified males, all hovering around his tape recorder, while the back is empty.

LAHM 2003.197.23
LAHM 2003.197.23

Reel 22
Accession Number 2003.197.24

Reel 22 picks up where Reel 21 left off, with the continuation of the taping of the July 19, 1959 episode of The Ed Sullivan Show from Spoleto, Italy, where Armstrong was in the hospital recovering from a heart attack. But towards the end of the side, matters seem to go back in time as it appears Armstrong grabbed a tape he originally made around 1954 and dubbed it here. It contains a number of sound recordings, including a demo of Lyn Murray’s “Begin the Begat” from that aforementioned September 1954 run at the Sands, plus the original versions of three songs Armstrong would record for Decca in January 1955: “Ko Ko Mo” by The Crew-Cuts (not Perry Como as cataloged below), “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace and “Sincerely” by “The McGuire Sisters, not to mention some weird demo recordings.

LAHM 1987.2.23-54

The parade of sound recordings continues on Side 2 with both Lyn Murray songs from the Sands in 1954, “Begin the Begat” and “O Dem Golden Slippers,” before a dub of John Cali’s 1958 album The Banjo Minstrel Man. The rest of the tape actually goes back to about 1954 for a conversation at the Hotel Gotham in Detroit with Dink Patterson, Stutz Anderson, Flo Patterson and Billie Wright. It’s another one of those long-ranging conversations that covers everything from dirty jokes to show business stories. It’s poignant to think of the convalescing Armstrong of early 1970 listening to it again and jotting down the names and topics mentioned in the conversation, as seen in the catalog page below. The reel finally ends with a radio broadcast, “From New Orleans to Hobart,” with the Tom Pickering sextet with vocals by Kay Staveley and narration by Ellis Blaine. This would have been recorded during Armstrong’s first tour of Australia from October 24–November 8, 1954.

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The front of Reel 22 includes a photo of Louis and young Gabriele Clonisch, taken on the set of the German film La Paloma, filmed in May 1959 (and keeping the weird 1954/1959 theme of the tape going. The back though features Louis with a bassist who I admit confounds me; at first glance, I thought it was Billy Cronk, a member of the All Stars from late 1961 through early 1963, but that’s not quite write. The back of the box also has “New York Eye Ear Hospital” meaning it originally contained the February 1956 recordings we’ve already discussed at Reel 10. It’s not one of the other All Stars bassists of that period, such as Jack Lesberg, Dale Jones or Squire Gersh–who is it?

LAHM 1987.3.24
LAHM 2003.197.24

Reel 23
Accession Number 2003.197.25

Louis must have really enjoyed that conversation at the Gotham Hotel in Detroit because Reel 23 opens with a repeat of most of it. Matters than turn to KRUX radio in Phoenix, Arizona, where, after the closing theme to The Air Adventures of Jimmie Allen, Louis managed to catch a 40-minute broadcast of Bing Crosby recordings, only stopping the tape to introduce some “cute little gals who just come from school,” letting them take over the microphone to talk and giggle before handing it back to Papa Bing for a while. After recording the news (Senator Robert Taft was predicting he’d have the most votes at the Republican National Convention, dating this whole portion of the tape to the summer of 1952), Armstrong let the tape roll for KRUX’s “Fun Fair” program, including Mel Blan’s “I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat” and “Yosemite Sam,” Jerry Colonna’s “My Fickle Eye” and more fun stuff.

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Side 2 of Reel 23 is actually from the early days of Armstrong’s tape recording hobby. It was trombonist Jack Teagarden who actually got Armstrong interested in making tapes. After Armstrong bought his first machine in December 1950, it was Teagarden who was the first voice on the first tape, showing him how to use it. Teagarden then must have dubbed a few tapes from his personal collection (we’ll encounter more later) and this appears to be one with a number of Teagarden’s own recordings from the 1930s, in addition to works from Art Tatum and Eddie Cantor. Also, the very first thing on the side is a demo of “You’re the Apple of My Eye,” used by Armstrong to familiarize himself with the song before recording it for Decca on February 6, 1951 so this is definitely one of his earlier sides.

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A nice shot of Louis playing on the collage on the front of the box, alongside a photo of Louis’s Glory Alley co-star Leslie Caron (thanks to those who wrote in to identify her!). The back of the box features Arvell Shaw writing his name on the wall of an unknown Parisian cafe in France in 1952.

LAHM 2003.197.25
LAHM 2003.197.25

Reel 24
Accession Number 2003.197.26

Personally, this is one of my favorite tapes, introduced by Armstrong in the den of his Corona, Queens home in the early 1950s, while also pointing our attention to the sounds of the kids in the street “playing hide and go seek. Bless their little hearts.” He announces it’s “V-Disc Time” and indeed does include a few by Charlie Shavers and his first “Jack-Armstrong Blues” with Teagarden, but also includes Charlie Christian’s Vox album of jam sessions from Minton’s in the early 40s, Armstrong’s own Decca recording of “Among My Souvenir” (calling our attention to the contribution of Big Sid Catlett on drums), sneaks in Bert Williams’s “Somebody” and even includes an excerpt from an evening in Corona that features him swapping jokes with Moms Mabley! After that incredible opening, matters settle down with a recording of Tallulah Bankhead’s Big Show from September 30, 1951.

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The Big Show continues on Side 2 before Armstrong reaches way back to dub recordings made at the Second Esquire All American Jazz Concert in January 1945, containing his last surviving recordings with Sidney Bechet, before performances by Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Sid Catlett and more.

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Alas, not much to speak of regarding decorations to the outside of the box, but still worth including for the sake of completeness.

LAHM 2003.197.26
LAHM 2003.197.26

Reel 25
Accession Number 2003.197.27

Finally, after, a long, long run of Armstrong reaching back to his past and renumbering and re-cataloging his 1950s tapes, Reel 25 finally brings us something new: an All Stars performance from the BBC in England on July 2, 1968. It’s hard to convey just what this particular performance meant to Armstrong but suffice to say, it meant a lot. On July 2, 1968, a thinned down Armstrong was feeling good, on the top of the British pop charts with “What a Wonderful World,” in good shape on the trumpet and fronting a very fine, underrated edition of the All Stars with Tyree Glenn, Joe Muranyi, Marty Napoleon, Buddy Catlett, Danny Barcelona and Jewel Brown. But by September 1968, Armstrong was in intensive care, eventually sidelined into 1970.

But at some point in 1969, the BBC sent him a copy of the audio of his two television appearances from England in 1968 and the results knocked Armstrong out. He spent time while convalescing copying it for All Stars such as Joe Muranyi and Danny Barcelona and for friends like Jack Bradley and Jeann “Roni” Failows. Eventually, Brunswick Records worked out a deal to let Armstrong pick his favorite selections, all of which made it onto the LP Louis Armstrong’s Greatest Hits Recorded Live, the only LP to feature the credit “Produced by Louis Armstrong.” Here’s Side 1, with the audio of both BBC shows back to back (one is on YouTube).

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After that breath of fresh air, surprise, we’re back to the 1950s for a dub of the March 23, 1952 episode of The Big Show, recorded while Louis was staying with Major Watkins and his wife Pearl in Tuscon, Arizona. There’s another long spoken word section and once again, the Armstrong of 1970 marks the topics, most of which involved around the film Glory Alley, which wrapped shooting in late 1951.

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And we close with two fine collages, the front featuring the marquee for a bill with Louis and Gary Crosby most likely from their stint at the Chicago Theater in May 1955. And the back is a late shot, most likely from 1968 just before he got sick, of Louis with faithful clarinetist and friend Joe Muranyi in front of the band bus.

LAHM 2003.197.27
LAHM 2003.197.27

That’s all for this in-depth look at Reels 21-25–we’ll cover Reels 26-30 next week. Thanks for reading!

Published by Ricky Riccardi

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

3 thoughts on “Louis Armstrong’s 1969-1971 Tapes: Reels 21-25

  1. The world badly needs Louis’s treatise on weed. Would also be a great way to reach younger audiences with his music. Sounds like a cool project to put some sort of book together.

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