“Dig Us”: 60 Years of Louis Armstrong at the Sphinx

Louis Armstrong remains one of the most photographed figures of the 20th century. But one single image seems to stand above the rest: Louis and the Great Sphinx of Giza.

The image pops all up all the time on the internet, including a beautiful colorized version by Jordan Lloyd of Dynamichrome. But image raises more questions than it answers: how did it happen? Who took the photo? What was Louis Armstrong doing in Egypt?

Those are just some of the questions we hope to answer in today’s virtual exhibit, 60 years to day that this iconic photo was shot. And in true “That’s My Home” fashion, we’ll be sharing artifacts and even an entire scrapbook that were saved by Louis and Lucille and discovered in their Corona, Queens residence.

Armstrong’s trip to Egypt took place at the tail end of a State Department sponsored tour of Africa that began in October 1960. Early on in the tour, Armstrong’s mere presence in Leopoldville stopped a Civil War, a story we covered in a previous virtual exhibit. After a grueling November with nonstop tours, Armstrong headed to Paris where he spent the entire month of December filming Paris Blues.

Then it was back to Africa where the strain of the tour really began to affect Armstrong’s band. Trombonist Trummy Young appeared one night with what Armstrong called a “fictitious” doctor’s note stipulating he needed a break. When Armstrong’s manager Joe Glaser threatened to replace him permanently, Young returned to the bandstand without taking his break. Clarinetist Barney Bigard took matters into his own hands one night and simply didn’t show up to a concert.

On January 14, a story ran in the Baltimore Afro-American “Satchmo tired by tour, sent to bed.” It stated the Armstrong “was suffering from ‘intense fatigue'” and that his doctor, Alexander Schiff, “advised him to call off a press conference scheduled for the weekend.” However, no such break from performing ever came to fruition and Armstrong continued performing through Senegal, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Ethiopia.

It was in Sierra Leone on January 16 that vocalist Velma Middleton suffered a paralyzing stroke. The band had to continue their tour and Velma was left behind, tragically passing away on February 10. Armstrong was devastated by the death of his longtime friend and got heavy criticism for leaving her but he defended himself by saying “the show must go on” and had obligations to perform in places he never had visited and would never visit again–including Egypt.

Armstrong spent five days performing in Khartourm, Sudan before departing on January 27 for Egypt. Here’s a photo of Louis and Lucille that Lucille titled “Lovebirds on the Nile.”

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Upon entering Cairo on the 27th, the Armstrong’s immediately had to visit American Express for a currency exchange. Here’s Louis’s receipt:

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Armstrong would perform once concert in Cairo on the evening of January 28, but had to spend part of that day at a reception given by the American Embassy at 11:30 a.m. Here’s the Armstrong’s invitation, sent from G. Frederick Reinhardt, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt (United Arab Republic), 1960–61.

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The invitation was in an envelope with the name Kamal el-Mallakh on the back. el-Mallakh was a renowned Egyptian archeologist best known for discovering the King Khufu Solar Ship near the Great Sphinx of Giza in 1954 (read more about him on his Wikipedia page and in his New York Times obituary). He would become a key figure in showing the Armstrongs around the wonders of Egypt. Here is a photo of el-Mallakh found in the Armstrong’s personal collection:

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And here, in what we assume is el-Mallakh’s handwriting, is a note with Louis and Lucille’s name in hieroglyphics. It also mentions Al Ahram, the Egyptian newspaper that el-Mallakh wrote for and letter became Associate Editor of; anyone have access to their digital archives? There might be even more to this story buried there!

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Come January 28, Louis and Lucille wined and dined (and smoked) at Ambassador’s Reinhardt’s Reception and were then whisked by el-Mallakh and a small contingent to the location of the Great Sphinx of Giza, where the photos were taken that are now considered iconic. At some point in the day, Armstrong stopped off at an orphanage to play for the children of Cairo. After that, Louis had to get ready for his concert before departing Egypt the next morning for Nice, France, officially ending his grueling State Department tour.

Sometime after January 28–potentially before he even left Egypt if they were quick–Armstrong was presented with a gift: a scrapbook containing photos from his day in Cairo. We assume it was a gift, as the captions identify all those present (and are not in Louis’s style, which we’ll see at the end of this post).

Without further ado, though, we would like to share the entire contents of this incredible artifact, with short commentary throughout. The small sticker on the front is no longer affixed properly but unfolded, it reads, “CAIRO UNITED ARAB REPUBLIC – JANUARY 28, 1961.”

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And here are the opening pages of the reception:

“CLIMBING AN OLD ARAB STAIRCASE”
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“TALKING TO A CARETAKER IN OLD CAIRO”
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“WITH SOME OF THEIR HOSTS (left to right) Zygmunt Nagorski (USIS Cairo, Inf. Officer), Hamdi Fuad (Al Ahram – Cairo daily), Kamal El Mallakh (Al Ahram)” LAHM1987_08_41_004
“EATING EGYPTIAN ‘KABBAB’ – TO BE OR NOT TO BE?”
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“ARE YOU MARRIED?”
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“JOHN ESTERLINE (USIS Cairo, PAO) JOINS THE PARTY”
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“FEEDING TIME with Kamal El Mallakh (Al Ahram – Cairo)”
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“AND WHO ARE YOU, MADAM?”
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“MARSHALL BERG (USIS Alexandria, PAO) GETS INTO THE ACT”
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This next caption is interesting because it documents Armstrong not wanting to get political and discuss the situation with Patrice Lumumba in the Congo.

“I AM A MUSICIAN, NOT A POLITICIAN” (“How about Lumumba, Mr. A?” – HAMDI FUAD, AL AHRAM)
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“IT WAS A RIOT… (John Esterline nursing his tie)”
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“ADMIRERS SURROUND HE ALL OVER AFRICA”
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“JOHN SLOCUM (USIS CAIRO, Cult. Officer), MONIRA NASSIF (wife, Chief Cenzor, Cinema Department, Ministry National Culture)”
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“IBRAHIM EZZAT (Rose El Youseff, Cairo weekly) ADELE ISSA (USIS Cairo)”
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“A GROUP OF THINKERS”
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If you ever wanted to see a photograph of Louis Armstrong smoking a hookah, look no further than this next photo:

“THE HOLY BOOK FORBIDS NARCOTICS”
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“I DO…..I DO……I DO”
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With that, we finally arrive at the photos with Great Sphinx, obviously taken at another point in the day as Lucille has changed her outfit. Here’s the first photo:

“AND THE SOUND – NEW AND FERSH – KNOCKED DOWN HIS NOSE”
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Kamal el-Mallakh appears in this next photo and signs it alongside the caption, making me think he might the one who presented this album to the Armstrongs.

“THREE OF THEM LISTENED TOGETHER. Kamal El Mallakh 1961”
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The original caption for the following photo is no longer affixed but it remains quite a powerful image: Armstrong in the center of a sea of joyous children at an orphanage in Cairo. It’s no surprise that this was a featured image in Meridian’s traveling exhibit “Jam Session: America’s Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World” several years ago.

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In case anyone is wondering, no, the home movie footage Lucille is shooting in the following photograph has never turned up–such a shame!

“CAMEL WAS THE ONLY ONE WHO DID NOT ASK FOR A TICKET (‘Thanks for playing for me, anyhow’)”
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And finally, after all of that, the final image in the book, the one we’re celebrating today:

“LOVE FROM THE FIRST SIGHT”
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All that’s left of the scrapbook is the back cover, where Kamal el-Mallakh’s name is written one more time, but now there is another name, “Dr. R. El Mallakh, Colorado – Boulder Colorodo University, U.S.A.” Sure enough, a little Googling leads to the discovery of Ragaei W. El Mallakh, born in Cairo, Egypt on March 5, 1925 and a, Professor of Economics at the University of Colorado at Boulder from 1956 until his death in 1987.  Was this a note for Louis or Lucille to look up Kamal’s brother if they were near Boulder? Also, it’s worth noting that Ragaei El Mallakh was the founding director of ICEED, the International Research Center for Energy and Economic Development. Upon his passing, he was succeeded by Dr. Dorothea El Mallakh, who is the Executive Director of ICEED to this day; do the current members of the El Mallakh (or el-Mallakh) family know of their historic connection to Louis Armstrong?

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When we first started putting together this virtual exhibit, the main goal was just to share the above scrapbook but we continued doing some digging in our Archives and found some bonus gems to share. First off, there’s the question of who exactly took these photos? Multiple photo outlets from the Associated Press to Getty claim ownership to this photo but no one credits a photographer, nor are any of the prints in this album stamped with any names (nor are the various other prints we have of the main Sphinx photo in our other collections). It appears the mystery might be solved in this little handwritten note: “Artin DerBalian c/o American Embassy, Garden Embassy, Cairo, U.A.E.” But in the left corner is another note clearly in Lucille’s handwriting: “Shot photo of us at Sphinx.” That seems good enough for us–thank you, Artin DerBalian for these immortal photos!

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Louis and Lucille’s personal collection also includes other photographs from the Sphinx, none featuring Louis but there’s some wonderful shots of Lucille, plus another couple of glimpses of Kamal el-Mallakh and the rest of their party.

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The wire services must have had a photographer present, too, as this photo of Louis on the camel appeared in the newspapers back home, but if you look closely, it’s not the same one as in the scrapbook so the provenance of it isn’t exactly known (could have been one of DerBalian’s alternate shots, too).

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Finally, we close with Louis, back home again after this historic, but exhausting tour. Armed with a bunch of newspaper clippings, he set about creating a scrapbook of his own, offering his own captions in pen (this is the same scrapbook with some of the Congo clippings featured in our aforementioned virtual exhibit). Here’s Louis and Lucille eating what Louis simply calls “GOOD FOOD.”

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And we end where we began: with the Sphinx photo. Don’t miss Armstrong’s clever play on the old cigarette slogan “I’d walk a mile for a Camel,” changing it to “A CAMEL WALKS A MILE FOR SATCHMO.”

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Of the Sphinx photo, Louis simply wrote, “DIG US.” 60 years later, we’re still digging.

Published by Ricky Riccardi

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

2 thoughts on ““Dig Us”: 60 Years of Louis Armstrong at the Sphinx

  1. Wow! Incredible! I loved Louis and his music and humor so much going back to my high school days in the ’50’s…..my boyfriend was part of a DixieLand Jazz Band in Ithaca, New York and played lots of his music! Such great memories of better days in so many ways. Many years ago I bought a signed photo of Satchmo which lives on the wall by my piano.

  2. Thank you. What an incredible experience touring so many countries in Africa. Absolutely fabulous I’m sure but exhausting work, changing cities every & countries every 2-3 days. Glad to see they were able to enjoy themselves and see the sites and culture of Egypt.

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