Last week, we kicked off our multi-part examination of Louis Armstrong and comedy with an in-depth look at Armstrong’s two earliest and greatest comedic influences, Bert Williams and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Armstrong saw Robinson at the Erlanger (still named the Palace) in Chicago in late 1922 and had his life changed right then and there. Always a bit of a ham as a child–doing Williams routines in church, winning an amateur contest with a “whiteface” routine–Robinson’s performance showed Armstrong how showmanship combined with skill could win an audience over.
There weren’t many such opportunities in the bands of King Oliver and Fletcher Henderson to win laughs but Armstrong was called upon occasionally to do more than just blow the cornet. It’s worth noting that Oliver’s famed Chicago band was not exactly the Modern Jazz Quartet; on his first night in Chicago, Armstrong was tickled by a comedy routine featuring the sounds Oliver’s muted trumpet imitating a baby while bassist Bill Johnson won laughs by showing the difference between calming white and black babies. Armstrong wrote about it in one of his autobiographical manuscripts:
Armstrong must have been inspired to hear the Lincoln Gardens “thunder with laughter” but he didn’t get the chance to sing or do comedy himself with Oliver until a 1924 tour when Oliver did manage to showcase Armstrong–as a dancer! Here he is telling Orrin Keepnews and Bill Grauer of The Record Changer about it in 1950, mentioning a dance he did where he would “slide and fall” and almost hurt himself, but summing it up by saying, “Always a showman!”
Armstrong’s “Always a showman” remark was corroborated by the drummer in Fletcher Henderson’s band, Kaiser Marshall. Armstrong joined Henderson in the fall of 1924 and stayed for a little over a year. Marshall wrote about Armstrong’s time in the Henderson band in The Jazz Record in 1947. In this excerpt from his article, Marshall writes, “He always a good showman,” and tells the story of one vaudeville night at the Roseland when there weren’t enough acts on the bill. “Louis used to mug around on some of the songs we played, so we got the idea he ought to get out and sing in the show,” Marshall writes. “It took a lot of persuading, but he finally said he’d do it.” The resulting performance of “Everybody Loves My Baby” netted Armstrong first prize and made a fixture of the Thursday night vaudeville bills. Here’s Marshall:
Other vaudeville nights at the Roseland gave Armstrong the opportunity to do a “preacher” routine, burlesquing the figures he witnessed in the New Orleans churches of his youth. Of course, vaudeville night was only one night of the week; Henderson wouldn’t let Armstrong sing the rest of the time he was with the band and definitely wouldn’t let him sing on record (except for a little bit of shouting at the end of only one take of “Everybody Loves My Baby”). Frustrated that her husband wasn’t being properly featured in New York, Armstrong’s second wife Lil Hardin Armstrong sent for her husband to return to Chicago in November 1925. Lil also alerted OKeh records to Armstrong’s return, setting up the famed Hot Five series that commenced on November 12, 1925, 95 years ago next month.
To many scholars, the Hot Five are rightly regarded as the pinnacle of jazz in this period and the pinnacle of Armstrong’s career, with his innovations on the trumpet setting up the jazz vocabulary that’s still in use today. He transformed jazz from an ensemble music into a soloist’s art with his perfectly constructed solos on “Cornet Chop Suey” and “Potato Head Blues.”
He was also funny as hell, something not mentioned as often as his trumpet playing, but it’s true. Some have felt that Armstrong was more of a serious artist while making the Hot Fives, but the evidence on the recordings and in Armstrong’s scrapbooks tells the tale of a more well-rounded entertainer.
From a recording standpoint, all one has to do is listen to the complete Hot Fives to get a fuller picture. Is Armstrong a genius and innovator? Of course. But there was no containing that personality of his, which he unleashed on the very first Hot Five side to be released, “Gut Bucket Blues.”
It wasn’t a vocal per se but Armstrong’s personality broke through the speakers as he cheered the rest of the band on in his own unique, hip fashion. The result was popular enough for E. A. Fearn of OKeh to demand more of Armstrong’s voice. He followed up in February 1926 with his first proper vocal, humorously duetting with Lil on “Georgia Grind” before making history with “Heebie Jeebies” that same day. Armstrong liked to claim that he dropped the sheet of paper with the lyrics and, needing to save the record, started using his voice like a horn. It might or might not have happened exactly that way (he does sound a bit lost towards the end of his first vocal chorus, so it’s possible) but regardless, it’s that personality that shines through; who else was incorporating “Sweet Mama!” into their vocals in 1926?
“Heebie Jeebies” became Armstrong’s first hit and led OKeh to focus more on Armstrong’s voice and showmanship on a series of records cut in June 1926. Again, to serious musicologists like the esteemed Gunther Schuller, the June sides represented the “nadir” of the Hot Fives, but they’re a lot of fun and probably more reflective of what Armstrong was doing nightly in this era. Just a sampling would have to start off with “Don’t Forget to Mess Around,” which Armstrong co-wrote with drummer Paul Barbarin:
Don’t miss the slide whistle solo on “Who’sit”:
Then there’s the “West Indian” routine in the middle of “King of the Zulus,” featuring vaudeville performer Clarence Babcock:
Armstrong remained tickled by that interlude in the 1950s. Here he is on tape, playing the original 78 of “King of the Zulus” for a gathering including New Orleans trumpeter Maurice Durand. As the skit starts, Louis stops the conversation and says, “Maurice, this is a funny conversation!” After alluding to the West Indian accent, Louis listens listens until the end, finally letting out a satisfied chuckle.
Babock returned, without the accent, to call the mock square dance that opens “Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa”:
That’s the recording studio picture of the summer of 1926, but what were Louis’s live performances like? Naturally, there are no recordings but Armstrong’s nightly performances with Erskine Tate at the Vendome Theater and with Carroll Dickerson’s Orchestra at the Sunset Cafe were covered regularly in the Chicago press and Armstrong was able to save dozens of clippings in a pair of scrapbooks that remain two of the oldest artifacts in our Archives today. (Though it should be mentioned that one scrapbook was compiled by wife Lil but the other one was compiled by Armstrong’s then-mistress and future wife, Alpha Smith; some days Lil and Alpha clipped the same articles for their respective scrapbooks!)
The following clippings tell the story of a tremendously popular trumpeter who regularly won applause for not just his trumpet playing but also his singing and his comedy. First, a note on Armstrong wearing “frock coat, high hat and spectacles” as he “preached a sermon on his wicked trumpet”:
The preacher routine also was mentioned in the following clipping. Just under it is a separate clipping about Armstrong’s “Heebie Jeebies” stopping the show at the Vendome:
Another show stopper at the Vendome was “Luis” Armstrong’s performance on “My Baby Knows How,” sung to band member Charles Harris, who wore a wig as the crowd “laughed themselves dizzy.” This article also mentioned Armstrong’s aforementioned sermon:
“Heebie Jeebies” was definitely Armstrong’s big showpiece at the time, mentioned in this blurb about Erskine Tate at the Vendome, calling attention to “Lewis,” who “plays, sings and dances”:
“Heebie Jeebies” was also regularly featured at the Sunset Cafe in 1926:
We can get a taste of what was happening at the Sunset thanks to the Hot Five session of November 16, 1926, which featured Mae Alix (mentioned in the above article) to record for posterity two of the numbers that were part of the Sunset show, “Big Butter and Egg Man” and “Sunset Cafe Stomp.” The trumpet solo is exemplary on “Butter and Egg Man” but Armstrong also shines in his vocal duet with Alix:
Armstrong doesn’t sing on it, but we’ll share the flip side, “Sunset Cafe Stomp” with a booming vocal by Alix to give us a further idea of what was happening at the Sunset:
11 days later, the Hot Five was back in the studio to record another Percy Venable number from the Sunset, “Irish Black Bottom,” again with a very humorous vocal by Armstrong (“I was born in Ireland–HA!”):
By 1927, Armstrong was still at the Sunset, now with Earl “Fatha” Hines on piano. The combination of Armstrong and Hines represented the height of jazz virtuosity, but at the Sunset, the two regularly ended their sets with a Charleston dance that had Chicago audiences screaming with laughter. Here’s a few clippings:
When Armstrong and Hines made their world-changing series of recordings in 1928, the opened up one of the first ones, “A Monday Date,” with a little comedy sketch about “Miss Circe’s Gin!”:
The following year, Armstrong’s star ascended when he conquered Broadway and Harlem with the “Connie’s Hot Chocolates” revue. While his performance of “Ain’t Misbehavin'” routinely stopped the show, Armstrong also took part in a comedy skit with Fats Waller and Edith Wilson, the trio billing itself as “A Thousand Pounds of Rhythm!”
In December 1929, Armstrong recorded the first integrated vocal duet with Hoagy Carmichael on Carmichael’s brand new composition “Rockin’ Chair.” The original recording might not be a gut buster but Armstrong realized this would be a good number to show off his comedic chops on stage. In 1930, he began appearing on vaudeville bills, only doing 20-25 minutes, much of which featured his trumpet playing and singing, but he also managed to squeeze “Rockin’ Chair” in there to get some laughs.
By the summer of 1930, Armstrong was part of a big revue at Sebastian’s Cotton Club in Culver City, California, regularly performing “Rockin’ Chair” with young drummer Lionel Hampton, but also doing a comedic number with African American actress Evelyn Preer, “Poolroom Papa and Schoolroom Mama.” Here’s an audio clip of Armstrong in 1950 talking about this period; because the sound quality isn’t great, a transcription will follow:
Louis: “And I went through all of that, see? During the show, I did my specialty on the floor, Hamp and I did ‘Ol’ Rockin’ Chair’ and we mugged and we used to have them holding their stomach! And when I looked around, I’m doing comedy–Evelyn Preer was out there, who was a big actress. We used to do ‘Poolroom Papa and Schoolroom Mama.’ I’ll never forget it. That was the big laugh we used to do!”
A taste of the fun had at the Cotton Club can be heard on Armstrong’s “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” opening with another comedy sketch, this one featuring Armstrong and Hampton:
The sketches continued when Armstrong returned to Chicago in April 1931, as heard on the first version of his theme song, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” which opens with some back and forth between Armstrong and pianist Charlie Alexander:
The flip side of that record also showcased Armstrong’s comedic side and resulted in one of his biggest hits of the period, “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You,” with “Oh you dog” turning into something of a catch-phrase in ensuing years:
When Armstrong returned to the studio for a series of sessions in November, he recorded straightforward masterpieces such as “Lazy River” and “Star Dust,” but he also found time to finally wax his “Reverend Satchelmouth” preacher routine for the first time on “Lonesome Road.” This record is a trip, with Armstrong pretty much calling out every one in the studio, naming all of the musicians and his friends, inviting some up to the mike, getting in coded references to marijuana and playing a beautiful trumpet solo:
The only other recording Armstrong made in this period to give “Lonesome Road” a run for its money in the comedy department is 1933’s “Laughin’ Louie.” Though there’s a threadbare composition there written by Clarence Gaskill, Armstrong saw it as an opportunity to reenact one of the most popular recordings of the 1920s, “The OKeh Laughing Record.” Known as the first “novelty record” that recording featured the sound of a lone trumpet player struggling to perform while a man and a woman laugh uncontrollably. If you’ve never experienced “The OKeh Laughing Record,” here it is courtesy of YouTube:
How much did Louis love “The OKeh Laughing Record”? At our Archives, we have THREE copies in Armstrong’s personal collection. Here is the label of one, which Armstrong dubbed a “Work Record.”
Armstrong naturally dubbed “The OKeh Laughing Record” to tape a few times; on this one, Armstrong and his friends joined in with the laughing at the end!
Without further ado, here’s “Laughin’ Louie”:
On another tape from the 1950s, Armstrong, sitting by himself, dubbed both “Laughin’ Louie” and “The OKeh Laughing Record” back-to-back. In between the records, he explained the story behind “Laughin’ Louie,” even identifying his friends who spoke on the record (naming Ellis “Stumpy” Whitlock, “Little Claude,” and Armstrong’s adopted son, Clarence Hatfield Armsrong,” who is the who who shouts, “Look out there, Pops!”), then set up and reacted to “The OKeh Laughing Record”. Here is an edit with Armstrong’s commentary, as well as snippets of the music for atmosphere (though listen to YouTube videos for superior quality):
A few years earlier, in late 1931, Armstrong met an African American actor and comedian in Philadelphia named Slim Thompson. The two men hit it off and became lifelong friends. Here’s a few photos of Thompson in Armstrong’s personal collection, the first also featuring radio star Cleo Brown (who would appear on one of Armstrong’s Fleischmann’s Yeast Shows in 1937) as the two seem to be channeling Bonnie and Clyde (who were gunned down in May 1934; this is inscribed October 1935): –
Here’s a publicity photo of Thompson inscribed on the same date as the one above, dedicated, “To Deacon Armstrong, the Worlds Famous Mugger. Love & Kisses ‘Slim’ Thompson 10/12/35.”
Thompson’s mention of Armstrong as the “Worlds Famous Mugger” is an important one. Thompson was a trained actor and comedian and he recognized Armstrong’s natural comedic ability and worked him to enhance it, specifically on perfecting the art of the “mug.” In this tape from the early 1950s, Armstrong and Thompson reminisce about their time together in the early 1930s and how they would write comedy routines in their spare time, reenacting the “pork chop gag” for old time’s sake. After doing it once, Thompson illustrates how it can be improved with a bigger facial gesture. Armstrong laughs and says, “We used to mug!” Thompson agreed, responding, “And we’d mug on it, too!” before stating, “Now what this mugging! We used to do this all the time!” After breaking everyone up again, Armstrong exclaims, “Yeah, look at that son-of-a-bitch mug! Ahhhhh!” Here’s the audio of this rollicking moment:
With Thompson by his side, Armstrong would be ready to unleash his mugging and comic persona in a couple of Paramount shorts to be shot in early 1932. We’ll discuss those and Armstrong’s other film work in the 1930s and 1940s in our next installment on Louis Armstrong and Comedy next week.