60 years ago today, Louis Armstrong’s vocalist Velma Middleton tragically passed away, alone in a Sierra Leone hospital after collapsing on January 14 in the middle of a grueling tour of Africa. She was only in her mid-40s (she publicly gave her birthday as September 1, 1917 but legal documents have turned up with a birth year of 1915).
Velma never got the respect she deserved in her lifetime, especially from critics, who mocked her weight and rolled their eyes at her comic duets with Louis. But audiences around the world loved when she and Louis would team up with one of their specialties like “That’s My Desire” or “Baby It’s Cold Outside” or when Velma would climax a romping blues with a jaw-dropping series of splits. She also made a lasting impression with her fine vocalizing on seminal albums such as Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy and Satch Plays Fats.
But more than any of that, Velma was family. She joined Armstrong’s big band in 1942, having first shared a bill with him in 1936. She was already a favorite in Harlem, but critics were against her from the start. One, writing for the black newspaper The New York Age, set the template for 25 years of reviews with this 1936 blurb: “Velma Middleton cannot sing and is much too weighty to dance, but she tries to do both. The result to this reviewer is pathetic, though some may find it funny.” Still, Velma remained busy, working with Erskine Hawkins (she married pianist Avery Parrish) and Jimmie Lunceford before joining Louis in 1942. She left for a short time in 1943 to join a revue headed by Bill Robinson but soon found her way back to Armstrong’s outfit, remaining with him until the very end.
We’re happy to report that Velma is finally getting the respect she deserves 60 years after her passing. Anytime we post photos of her or videos of her duets with Louis on our social media pages, the responses are always overwhelmingly positive. Maxine Gordon, the biographer and widow of Dexter Gordon, is currently researching Velma’s work and life story in tremendous depth for inclusion in a future book. It’s safe to say that in 2021, Velma Middleton is loved.
In our Archives, we have hundreds of reel-to-reel tapes that Louis Armstrong compiled, in addition to photographs and scrapbooks. After analyzing them all, it’s clear that Louis was closer with Velma than just about any other musician. She’s all over his tapes, always invited to the backstage or hotel room hangs when none of the other All Stars were present. She’s in countless photos and even in many of Armstrong’s collages. And whenever Velma was under attack, such as when Benny Goodman didn’t want her to do her numbers during a 1953 joint tour or when the Newport Jazz Festival asked her not to perform during Armstrong’s 1957 set, Armstrong sprung to her defense with fierce devotion and anger. In both those cases, Velma performed in the end (and broke it up).
Armstrong made this collage in the final weeks of his life, featuring two beloved, departed All Stars, Velma and Big Sid Catlett (the other side of the box added a third, Jack Teagarden):
Armstrong was widely criticized for carrying on with his tour when Velma fell ill. Such criticisms bothered him as Armstrong was definitely from the “show must go on” wing of the old school. A letter does exist of Armstrong writing to his manager Joe Glaser about how sick Velma was and how Glaser needed to try to help her out. But she was already paralyzed on one side of her body and would never make it out of the Sierra Leone hospital. On one tape, Armstrong vented about how he didn’t even miss shows when his mother and father died and that especially being overseas, there were contracts to play cities he had never played (and would never play again) so he felt his duty was to perform for those fans. But he always sounded heartbroken when discussing what happened to Velma.
Joe Glaser did pull strings to get her body back to the United States and paid for a big funeral for her at Convent Avenue Baptist Church in New York City on February 21, 1961. Armstrong and the All Stars could not attend because they were still on tour, though Glaser tried his best to get out of contracts to allow them to get back to the United States in time. Izzy Rowe wrote about it in The Pittsburgh Courier on February 25, 1961, also describing Middleton’s deteriorating condition before the tour and how Armstrong tried preventing her from even making it:
“Joe Glaser, president of the Associated Book Corp., tried in vain to cut Louis Armstrong’s tour of Africa by one month. to enable Satchmo to be on hand for the funeral of Velma Middleton. Pops and the All-Stars really wanted to make it, but the tradition of the theatre, ‘the show must go on’ is most binding by contracts. The flamboyant personality of Velma Middleton, the big mama of the jazz world, who died in Sierra Leone, the West African territory, which comes into freedom in April, has left a pall in musical circles. In more ways than one, she gave her life for the profession she loved. Featured with Armstrong for some 16 years, she has unnoticeably been unable to walk for over a year, because of her abundant weight. So in love was she with the spotlight, and the happiness which exuded from her every action on stage, she refused to give up. When Louis was leaving for his State Department sponsored tour of Africa, he offered to pay her salary for six months to stay at home, because, like Velma, he knew that the end was approaching—approaching fast, unless she took it easy. With Louis and Velma, there was a certain theatrical kinship, which came over the spotlight to embrace an audience with more method than mechanical action. About her was that certain something, which is sought by many, but found by few. On and off the stage, everybody had a nice word for Velma. Though she has taken her place in that silent world, where the sounds of many jazz greats are beyond earthly earshot, those who knew her best will forever hear her, when Pops hits the sweet notes of, ‘The Saints Go Marching Home.'”
Jack Bradley did attend Velma’s funeral and saved the program for the service, reprinted below.
Bradley also saved this touching personal remembrance of Velma, written by Bradford Daniel and published in Sepia magazine in June 1961:
We don’t want to get too grim, though, even on this sad anniversary, especially when Louis and Velma lived to bring joy to the world. All you have to do is head to your record collection or YouTube or any of the streaming platforms to experience their magic together and it’s still guaranteed to make you smile after all these years.
But we did want to share something special from our Archives on this occasion. As mentioned above, Velma is featured on dozens of Louis’s private tapes, often in a raucous, party atmosphere. (Our colleagues at the New Orleans Jazz Museum have a common refrain they like to repeat: “We want to party with Velma Middleton!”) Those can potentially be the subject of a future (adults only) entry. But the theme of this site is “That’s My Home,” giving glimpses of what Louis did when he was at home in Corona, or at least offstage in a hotel room somewhere.
Because of their grueling schedule, Velma Middleton didn’t get to spend a lot of time at home either, but she did have a family she loved to visit, including a son and her beloved mother. We don’t know the date but it’s either late 1957 (see the dates of the songs mentioned below) or early 1958; there’s a mention of Boston which tips it in the direction of 1958 as the All Stars played a few weeks at Blinstrub’s in January 1958. Either way, with a rare short vacation, Velma went back home to her family. On one day off, she fired up her own tape recorder, gathered the family around and made a tape specifically for Louis, who naturally added it to his tape collection.
On today, the 60th anniversary of Velma’s passing, we’d like to share the complete tape Velma and her family made for Louis (the audio is watermarked with beeps to prevent commercialization. Here’s how the tape breaks down:
Velma and her family say hello to Louis; Arthur Middleton gets on the mike and says hello after finishing his homework; Velma’s son Emmanuel, or “Manny,” sings Johnny Mathis’s “Chances Are” (Mathis released his hit single on August 12, 1957); Velma’s mother says hello to Louis; “The Professor” says hello to Louis; Velma describes dinner (mentions Swiss Kriss); Velma’s mother sings “Throw Out the Lifeline”; Dottie Middleton says hello to Louis and recites a poem; Freddie Middleton says hello to Louis and sings “Gold Mines in the Sky Far Away” and “God Bless America” (Velma joins in at the end); Velma asks Freddie to sing “The Lord’s Prayer”; Arthur Middleton recites the poem, “My Policeman”; Velma sings “Them There Eyes”; Velma reads a review of Louis’ London benefit for Hungarian relief from December 1956; Velma plays a recording of ”You Send Me” (Sam Cooke) (repeated once; Cooke release this single on September 7, 1957); Velma sings ”A Good Man is Hard to Find”; Velma flips the tape and continues ”A Good Man is Hard to Find”; Velma signs off, “I’ll dig you later–solid!”
Here’s the audio:
Isn’t that beautiful? Immediately, you get a sense of what a genuine, loving person Middleton was. We have to ask but does anyone out there know what became of Emmanuel Middleton or any of the other family members heard from on that tape? We’d love to hear from any descendants of her family!
That tape represents the offstage Velma Middleton but we’d like to leave you with something special from her onstage work. In 2020, we were contacted by someone who wished to remain nameless. It turns out in early December 1960, he was a sailor stationed at Abidjan, Ivory Coast in West Africa. Armstrong’s All Stars passed through and did an “impromptu” concert for the sailors on one of the destroyers. Though forbidden from recording, the sailor in question set up a reel to reel tape recorder 50 feet away from the stage and captured what is currently the last known live performance of Velma Middleton with the All Stars. The gentleman in question donated a digital recording to our Archives, for which we remain eternally grateful.
Thus, here it is, Velma Middleton and Louis Armstrong performing “St. Louis Blues” and “Ko Ko Mo” with Trummy Young, trombone, Barney Bigard, clarinet, Billy Kyle, piano, Mort Herbert, bass, and Danny Barcelona drums in December 1960:
And yes, on “St. Louis Blues,” Velma sings of Louis, “I’m gonna love that man, til the day I die.” She wasn’t wrong. In the Sepia article above, Velma is quoted as once saying, “I just wanted, I guess, to be recognized for doing something – I didn’t mean to be better than anyone else – I simply want to do something good – leave something on this earth to be remembered by.”
We love you, Velma Middleton.