Last week, we promised a long post to scratch the surface of the gigantic topic of Louis Armstrong and Comedy. After assembling it, it was so long that frankly, we weren’t sure how many readers were going to be able to get to the end of it, especially in one shot. Thus, we will be breaking it up into multiple parts and sharing them over the coming weeks. These are the topics we’ll be covering: Armstrong’s formative influences; the role of comedy in his early career and on record; his 1930s film appearances; his Joke Book; examples of Louis and friends telling jokes on his tapes; photos of Louis with comedians; comedy records in his record collection; and finally, his last hurrah in 1970-71 of writing down jokes and telling them in private and onstage right up to the end.
Before we get into that, needless to say, the subject of Louis Armstrong and comedy is a complex one. In the late 1960s, Armstrong referred to himself as “an old ham actor,” someone who loved telling jokes and making people laugh, both onstage and off. Yet Armstrong’s comic side always rubbed some people the wrong way. These posts will not strictly defend Armstrong’s choices but will allow him to speak for himself and will hopefully shine a light on the offstage Louis Armstrong, a man who was the life of every party, who bragged about his comedic movie parts to friends, a man who compiled joke books in his spare time, a man who was truly funny, yet has never been given proper credit for being a gifted comedian. Jazz historians and critics have never covered Armstrong in this way and seminal texts on African American humor (we recommend Mel Watkins’ On the Real Side) don’t include Armstrong because of he’s first and foremost thought of as a jazz musician. You can still squirm and still find it problematic, but there’s no denying that comedy was an integral part of Louis Armstrong’s existence and if you remove it from his persona, you’re not getting the full picture of Pops.
Today’s post will be on Armstrong’s two earliest–and greatest–comedic influences, Bert Williams and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. We’ll begin in New Orleans where Armstrong first encountered the recordings of Williams. He immediately became a lifelong fan; in our Archives, we have 27 Williams 78s in Armstrong’s record collection. Naturally, he dubbed many to tape. In our first audio clip, taken from a 1952 reel, Louis is backstage talking to fans but also attempting to dub the Columbia album Famous Songs of Bert Williams, given to Armstrong’s then-bassist Dale Jones, who often did Williams’s “Nobody” as his feature with the All Stars.
With the dressing room clear, Armstrong reads the liner notes to the album, stopping periodically to make his own comments. “What a man,” he repeats, before reminiscing about the first time he heard Williams’s music in New Orleans and the honor he felt in being asked to record two of Williams’s “Elder Eatmore” routines for Decca in 1938 (more on those in a bit).
In that clip, Louis references the photo of Williams in the recording studio that was included in the original album. For visual purposes, here’s that image:
On this excerpt from another reel, Louis cues up Williams’s 1919 recording of “The Moon Shines on the Moonshine” and mentions, “I used to love this when I was a kid in New Orleans”; yes, he would have been 18 when it was released, but looking back in his 50s, that must have have seemed childhood (also, to stay on the “That’s My Home” theme, listen for the sound of the airplane taking off from nearby LaGuardia, causing Armstrong to tell us, “Don’t pay those airplanes any mind, they’re going over there to the airport. You can’t stop those!”)
An earlier Williams recording actually inspired one of Armstrong’s first experiences as an entertainer–in his mother’s church. The record in question is “How? Fried” and was recorded and released in 1913. This recording is not in Armstrong’s record collection, but is on YouTube (though it’s ironically mislabeled as being Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Exposition Address”!):
In 1970, Armstrong was a guest on The Mike Douglas Show and told the story of telling that same joke in his mother’s church while still a teen, winning laughter and applause for his efforts. To be able to recall the moment and the details of the “How? Fried!” routine almost 60 years later is proof that such a moment made an impact on Armstrong, opening his eyes and ears to the power of comedy. (Around the same time, Armstrong also won an amateur contest at the Iroquois Theater by dipping his face in flour and doing a “whiteface” routine, something else he wrote about in a 1970 manuscript. Comedy was there for him from the beginning.) Here’s audio of the Douglas clip:
As mentioned earlier, on August 11, 1938, Decca Records asked Louis to recorded two of Williams’s routines on a 12-inch 78, accompanied by Harry Mills. Trades at the time hinted that this would be the start of an entire album of Williams’s material, but only the single of “Elder Eatmore’s Sermon on Generosity” and “Elder Eatmore’s Sermon on Throwing Stones” was recorded. Naturally, Armstrong owned a copy of William’s original Columbia record of both selections:
And because it is impossible to find on YouTube or any of the streaming platforms, here is Williams’s “Sermon on Throwing Stones” as dubbed from one of Louis’s tapes (no introduction or commentary but you can hear him puttering away in the background, in addition to another airplane):
With that in your ears, here is Armstrong’s word-for-word recreation–he really did a terrific job!
Armstrong continued his devotion to Williams in the 1950s, even designing this collage devoted to the comedian, affixing the words “A Man of Distinction” next to an image of Williams:
In 1951, Louis was staying at the Dunbar Hotel in Los Angeles while performing with the All Stars. While there, Armstrong and his close friend Julius “Stuff” Crouch found out that pioneering African American actress Laura Bowman was living in Los Angeles. Armstrong and Crouch decided to visit her, bringing along a tape recorder to capture the conversation.
Bowman is far from a household name today she was a mainstay in the films of Oscar Micheaux (check out her Wikipedia entry for a filmography). Bowman also wrote The Voice of Haiti with LeRoy Antoine in 1938; Antoine married Bowman and is also on the 1951 tape (and brags to Louis about Haitian gumbo). In 2018, “The Daily Mirror” reprinted a series of articles about Bowman, including her 1957 obituary, all of which can be read here. But for Armstrong’s purposes, he was more interested in the fact that she toured with Bert Williams and George Walker in the London production of In Dahomey.
I’m not sure if any researchers have utilized this tape, but it’s a fascinating half-hour document that ends with Bowman, slowed down from a stroke, reciting about 15 minutes of monologues, introducing one of her proteges, defending the use of “Negro dialect” and more. For our purposes, here’s the first 11 minutes of the tape, featuring Bowman’s introduction, her memories of Williams and Walker, Armstrong mentioning that he recently spent $100 on Williams records ($1,000 in 2020 money), reminisces about Sebastian’s Cotton Club, Louis doing comedy there with Evelyn Preer and more. This is history:
Williams’s end was a sad one. Beaten down by racism, he combatted depression with alcoholism, passing away in 1922 at the age of 47. Towards the end, he continued appearing on stage after he developed pneumonia, eventually collapsing onstage. The audience thought it was a bit and responded with laughter, causing Williams to remark, “That’s a nice way to die. They was laughing when I made my last exit.” Decades later, Louis Armstrong told multiple people that his ideal way of dying would be to succumb while performing (and he almost got his wish at the Waldorf in 1971).
After Williams died, W.E.B. DuBois wrote, “When in the calm afterday of thought and struggle to racial peace we look back to pay tribute to those who helped most, we shall single out for highest praise those who made the world laugh … above all, Bert Williams. For this was not mere laughing: it was the smile that hovered above blood and tragedy; the light mask of happiness that hid breaking hearts and bitter souls. This is the top of bravery; the finest thing in service. May the world long honor the undying fame of Bert Williams as a great comedian, a great negro, a great man.”
Louis Armstrong might never have gotten the chance to see Williams perform live but the same cannot be said for his next comedic idol, a man who became one of the biggest inspirations of his career, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
Armstrong never grew tired about telling the story of his first time seeing Robinson onstage in Chicago. This next clip is his finest taped version of the story, recorded by Jack Bradley in Louis’s Framingham, Massachusetts motel room in August 1967, an after-hours hang with Bradley, his girlfriend Jeann Failows, road manager Ira Mangel and the actress-singer Sylvia Syms, in Framingham for a production of Funny Girl:
Because of the low fidelity, I have done my best to transcribe the entire conversation. It opens with Bradley turning on the tape recorder just as Louis is mentioning bassist Bill Johnson:
Louis: [Johnson]….traveled on the RKO circuit, way back there, 1915, 1919 or something. So he’s with Joe Oliver on bass. So I say, “Listen, man, I want to see this man, Bojangles. I heard so much talk about him in New Orleans, Bill Robinson and everything.” And when he came down to New Orleans, he played on the same stage where Sophie Tucker and all the stars–and we’re up in the buzzard room! [laughter] You better not even pass that [unintelligible], you understand? So, they all looked like midgets from where we were sitting. And I heard Sophie Tucker sing ‘Some of These Days’ many times and tear up the walls with that thing. But it’s this Bill Robinson, he was at the Erlanger Theater, I’ll never forget it. We’re playing at the Lincoln Gardens–that’s when Chicago was jumping–I’m playing second trumpet with King Oliver, just come out of New Orleans. So he said, “Well, I’ll take you tomorrow, it’s a matinee.” [unintelligible] So I’m sitting there. Everybody’s tearing up the house. Sophie Tucker come up there, “big fat mama,” or whatever it is and she [unintelligible]. And here come Bill Robinson, always kept that beautiful physique and that weight, and he had on a gaberdine suit, I’ll never forget it, brown derby, sharp! To tell you the truth, I never saw a colored man in my life that sharp. New Orleans, they’re wearing box backs and all of that, button shoes and all that shit. And here’s this son-of-a-bitch, walks out and after all the applause died down, says, “Give me a light–my color.” [Laughter. Sylvia Syms asks, “What color was it?”] All the lights went out! Moment of the truth. “Give me a light–my color,” boom! All the lights went out. Isn’t that something? To go through all that [unintelligible] like he does. And he did that dance and at that time, he used to go off the stage, you know, like they used to do ice skating and you couldn’t hear a sound and that fractured the house. And then he come back and tell jokes and everything, and that suit. And from then on, it must have been ten years before I got to know him. And when you look around, Joe Glaser got us doing bills together, you know, and I dug him.
Sylvia Syms: The thing to me that is so fascinating listening to this is that I had never had the opportunity to see this man perform except in films when he did all the Shirley Temple things.
Louis: Who, Bill Robinson?
Sylvia Syms: Cause I didn’t know it, I wasn’t around…
Louis: You never saw him on stage? You missed the thrill of your life.
Sylvia Syms: Yes, I know, that’s why this to me is so fascinating…
Louis: The summitch would walk out there, “How do Mrs. Jones?” Now, who in the hell is Mrs. Jones?
Sylvia Syms: I’m so sorry.
Louis: Oh honey, you missed the thrill of your life.
Sylvia Syms: I missed it completely.
Louis: Well, you was just a young girl. [Crosstalk about when Syms was born] And he could tell a joke and have you hold your–goddamn! He’d walk out there, we was playing at the Empire Room, just a regular cat, and he’d walk out the street, he didn’t finish his show downtown, and he always come where I am, you know what I mean? He’d walk up to the stage and quite naturally, after the applause fell out, he walks in, he’d just tell them anything, he’d tell them about one of them old baptisms down south, you know, where they used to take you in the river, they had robes and everything, grab you, voom! in the water, “Brother, do you believe!” [makes drowning noises] “Do you believe!?” And Bill Robinson says, “Yeah, I believe you son-of-a-bitches are trying to drown me!” [Laugher] Right from out in the streets, he’s going to stop my show….
Sylvia Syms: He was a great actor, too, wasn’t he?
Louis: Ohhhh, what an actor! And his timing was so beautiful.
Ira Mangel: What were some of the–“your mother’s in heaven and your father’s in hell”?
Louis: Yeah, all that shit. He had a million of them. I can tell you all his words.
Sylvia Syms: A great man.
Louis: Oh, honey. And you got to go way back to find out Bill Robinson’s life. Now Mr. Lawrence Goulet [sic? Is this another name he mentions?], any of those people, they don’t know, they’re all babies.
Sylvia Syms: To me, this is one of the most fascinating evenings that I’ve spent in I can’t tell you how long. I’m so grateful for this evening because it’s beautiful. And you speak with–
Louis: Now if I ever write a book, you’ll get it because there’s going to be pages and pages about this man.
Sylvia Syms: You know I will. You’re a very eloquent man, you know that?
Louis never did get around to writing that book but he did write a series of autobiographical manuscripts in the last two years of his life and in one of them, an “Open Letter to Fans,” he reminisced further about Robinson. This is reprinted in Louis Armstrong In His Own Words but for the purposes of this Virtual Exhibit, here are the original pages from this manuscript:
Knowing what an impression Robinson made on Armstrong, one can imagine Armstrong’s delight when Robinson returned the favor just a few short years later. While performing at the Sunset Cafe in Chicago, Armstrong did “Heebie Jeebies” and impressed Robinson, who immediately ordered the sheet music so he could start performing it, too. The incident made it into the Chicago papers and was clipped out by Armstrong and affixed to one of his scrapbooks in 1926:
Eventually, Armstrong and Robinson shared a few bills together, notably at the Strand in early 1939, the Cotton Club in late 1939 and at the Zanzibar for several months beginning in December 1944. In each case, Armstrong’s manager Joe Glaser let the older man have top billing, a rare occurrence. On one of his tapes in 1951, Armstrong told friends, “And ain’t nobody been billed over me since that, since I’ve been with Joe Glaser. Nobody—Bill Robinson, since Bill Robinson, nobody gets billed over Louie Armstrong. You’ve got to be a big sonbitch, boy. You’ve got to be the President of the United States before Joe Glaser stands for it.”
But Armstrong also learned that sharing a bill with Robinson had its own challenges. At the Strand one night, Armstrong was playing “The Skeleton in the Closet” and “just as I was getting ready to hit that high note,” Armstrong wrote in the “Forward” of his 1942 “Joke Book,” Robinson interrupted him on stage and said, “Wait a minute, Satchmo, just one minute!” Armstrong stopped playing, writing that “a gush of wind came from my mouth because I was getting ready to hit that High Ass note.” As Armstrong and his band wondered, “What tha Fuck’s his Story now?” Robinson walked across the stage and gave a photo of a little girl in the audience because she reminded him of Shirley Temple! “No one else in the world could HAVE gotten away with that shit but the great Bill(Bojangles)Robinson….Nobody else would have the nerve anyway…tee heeeee……”
That’s two allusions to Robinson barging in on Armstrong’s act; on The Dick Cavett Show in 1970, Armstrong told a joke about a funeral in New Orleans and mentioned that Robinson enjoyed it so much, he went right onstage and told it as his own! Here’s the joke:
Besides those little bouts of one-upmanship, Armstrong enjoyed spending time with Robinson on and offstage, even learning about food from the older man. Growing up poor, Armstrong admitted in a 1969 interview, “It was a long time before I had a steak….But when I came up here and played in the Cotton Club on the bill with Bill Robinson, I noticed after he got back he got dressed and went out in the room and he was eating. I was talking to him and I said, ‘What is that you’re eating, what kind of steak?’ He said, ‘Filet mignon.’ From then on I had to have filet mignon, if Bill Robinson had one!”
By the time they shared the bill at the Zanzibar, Robinson was 66-years-old and was slowing down a bit. Armstrong observed Robinson closely and told Metronome in 1960, “You’d go back to his dressing room and Bill Robinson would be crouched around the table, tears running down his face, in real agony, and the man would rap on the door and say, ‘One minute,’ and Bill would stand and wipe his face, and put his shoulders back, and grin, and dance on that stage. THAT’s show business!”
“Louie was more like Bill Robinson than anybody I worked with,” Teddy McRae, Armstrong’s music director at the Zanzibar, said. “Now there’s a man with a beautiful mind, Bill Robinson….See, it’s a funny thing about a person. You never know them till you work with them. Bill Robinson was a great man. Had a great, great mind….He was just a beautiful guy. Louie was the same way.” Dancer Honi Coles drew more parallels between Armstrong and Robinson. As will be discussed in a future installment, Armstrong was proud of his comedic roles in films though they made some viewers uncomfortable; Robinson was the same way. . “And, although some people criticized him for the Tom roles in the pictures, he was extremely elated about those movies,” Coles said of Robinson. “He was the happiest man in the world doing things like that with Shirley Temple. Part of it was the generosity that black entertainers showed to whites. We were so happy somebody wanted what we did; we were ready to just give it away. Bill enjoyed teaching Shirley and many other Hollywood stars how to dance; it was the way he was. He was a brilliant man and a complete entertainer, not just a dancer.”
When columnist Earl Wilson asked Robinson about his plans for retirement at the Zanzibar, Robinson responded, “Partner, I feel fine! Way I feel now, I’m jes’ gettin’ ready to start in this business. Sometime I look at myself and wonder what it is make me feel so good.” Armstrong was only 43 but the day would soon come when he would answer similar questions in a similar fashion. Wilson also reported on some of Robinson’s stage patter, which was filled with jokes that were right up Armstrong’s ally. “Can you imagine if they ever caught Hitler in Harlem?” he’d ask the audience. “They’d cut him four ways–long, deep, wide and consecutive.” He also imparted the advice he received as a child to “be careful.” “I’m careful,” he’d say while swinging his cane. “I know jes’ what flat to go in in Harlem and when to come out.” According to Wilson, Robinson’s contributions to the Zanzibar revue “made it Broadway’s greatest show.”
By this time, Robinson was beloved by white audiences. In 1947, he played a benefit in Miami for underprivileged African American children, sharing the stage with an all-white cast in a notoriously segregated city. Afterwards, he received a letter from an older black woman, reading, “I have lived here 60 years, and now I can die happy. For years, I prayed that the white people would learn to love my people, and now I have seen it happen. God bless you all for what you have done.” In March of that year, Robinson suffered a heart attack and was petrified, telling his doctor, “Doc, don’t tell me I can’t dance again. If I can’t dance, I’d rather die.” He was allowed back on the stage but was no longer permitted to do his famed stairs dance, much like Armstrong would later beg to go back onstage even though doctors forbade him from playing the trumpet.
Reading interviews with Robinson in the 1940s, reads almost eerily like reading interviews with Armstrong in the 1950s and 60s. “I give the same performance before 100 people that I’d give before 10,000,” he once told Ed Sullivan in what also became Armstrong’s mantra. When he got to visit the White House and meet President Harry Truman, he told Truman a racial joke and told the press, “He’s my man,” again, something one could easily picture Armstrong, who later called President Eisenhower “Daddy,” doing in such a situation. And in September 1947, Robinson appeared at “Jackie Robinson Day” at Ebbets Field, paying tribute to the pioneering first African American professional baseball player. “I’m 69 years old but never thought I’d live to see the day when I’d stand face to face with Ty Cobb in Technicolor,” Robinson told the crowd, which “brought down the house,” according to the press. Armstrong wound up using the same line with the All Stars for years, first referring to pianist Billy Kyle as “Liberace in Technicolor” and later Trummy Young as “Bing Crosby in Technicolor.”
But just as with the All Stars, many African American writers had problems with Robinson’s act, especially in the late 1940s. In February 1948, Robinson appeared at a Carnegie Hall benefit for the Booker T. Washington Memorial Foundation. Ludlow W. Werner of the New York Age was in the audience and “held his breath” when Robinson was introduced. “Showing his pearly white teeth, and with his eyes flashing in approved minstrel fashion, ‘Bojangles’ began: ‘The number tomorrow will be 483,’” Werner reported. “I groaned aloud as did a lot of other Negroes, because while the white persons in the audience were clapping and laughing, ‘Bo’ had done it again. With just six words he humiliated his race, made it appear as so many white people believe that all Negroes are numbers players and that numbers playing is a popular pastime.” Werner praised Robinson’s dancing but wished “he could continue his stage appearances to dancing only,” much as some jazz writers wished Armstrong would only stick to the trumpet. After Robinson did a routine with boxers Joe Louis and Jersey Joe Walcott, he noticed how Louis and Walcott walked off stage “with locked arms” and told the crowd, “If my people stuck together like those two boxers the Negro would be a lot better off.” Many whites applauded but Werner “wanted to stand right up and ‘Boo.’” Werner saved his strongest ammunition for his close. “‘Bojangles’’ is too talented a dancer to have to ‘Uncle Tom’ along with it,” he wrote. “He made his success as a dancer, not as a clown, nor as a ‘Tom.’ If he keeps on at the rate he’s going, one of these days some Negro will introduce Bill Robinson to an audience not as our ‘beloved ‘Bojangles’’ but as ’Uncle Tom’ Bill Robinson. And ‘Bo’ can blame nobody but his big mouth if that happens.”
It was too much for Robinson to take. “The whole thing was derogatory and he was furious,” Honi Coles remembered. “He called me late that evening saying ‘Come on with me.’ At the time The Age was on 135th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, and he went down there ready to kill somebody. Luckily, nobody was there except a little frightened man running the presses, so nothing happened….His pride was intense. He was just a misunderstood man most of his life.”
One year later, Robinson passed away, making front page news in the black press. The headlines alluded to both his tremendous popularity and his sad ending. “Millions Line Streets for New York’s Biggest Funeral,” read The Pittsburgh Courier headline before adding, “Bojangles Died Broke; Earned Over $3 Million.” The New York Age forgot Werner’s review of the previous year and now eulogized Robinson, writing, “Bill’s public life, despite what might have been said, disputes the accusation of ‘Uncle Tom,’” the Age wrote, adding, “Some critics didn’t like him because he grinned and shot craps. And how can they see the beam in their brother’s eye before casting out the mote in their own? Crap shooting has no racial tag. It is easy to tear down, harder to build up. As Negro as he was, it is to be doubted if Robinson let that fact worry or hinder him as much as it keeps far better educated and cultured products of classrooms all upset and feeling bad most of their lives.”
The fact that both Williams and Robinson had tragic endings was not lost on Armstrong. He learned equally from their ups as well as their downs (as well as those of his other main hero, Joe “King” Oliver) and did all he could to remain on top until the end. When he passed away in 1971, Armstrong was a millionaire and a cultural icon. Some folks only want to talk about his genius as a trumpeter, but make no mistake about it, the lessons he learned from Williams and Robinson about comedy, timing and the stage played a major role in shaping Armstrong’s success. Though Williams and Robinson are forgotten by many in the 21st century (Spotify shows that each get about 1,000 listens a month; Louis gets 6 million), their influence on Armstrong can still be felt in all of his recordings and film appearances. To paraphrase Dizzy Gillespie, no them, no him.
In our next installment, we’ll take a look at Armstrong himself and the role comedy played in his stage appearances and on his recordings of the 1920s and 1930s.