On Tuesday, February 23, the Louis Armstrong House Museum will be presenting “Billie + Q&A and Billie + Louis Panel Discussion” in partnership with Greenwich Entertainment, BBC Music and New Black Films. The event will be streaming live at noon EST on our Facebook page and will feature a dynamic panel discussion with Jazzmeia Horn, Jose James, Catherine Russell and Naomi Extra, moderated by Armstrong House Executive Director Regina Bain.
The inspiration for the event is the recent release of Billie, a new, critically-acclaimed documentary directed by James Erskine and currently available on Amazon. The film and the upcoming panel discussion inspired us to give Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday the “That’s My Home” treatment. Thus, we won’t get into discussions of specific songs or about Armstrong’s acknowledged influence on Holiday’s singing (she always named him and Bessie Smith as her two biggest inspirations), and instead will focus on Holiday-centric materials found in Louis and Lucille Armstrong’s personal collection.
Naturally, there are photos, such as this backstage gem that looks to have been taken in sometime in 1950s (for those who know Billie’s dogs, that’s her chihuahua, Pepi, a gift from Ava Gardner and seen in many offstage photos from the 1950s):
The following publicity photo was also found in the Armstrong Collection, signed to “Eddie, Moon Face”–we don’t know who it was but he obviously left it behind and somehow it ended up in Louis’s possession:
Holiday first shared a bill with Armstrong at Connie’s Inn in 1935 and would occasionally be a featured part of his revue during the ensuing years but the earliest artifact we have is a clipping from 1941 in one of Louis’s scrapbooks documenting when Billie was hired to play Bessie Smith in Orson Welles’s proposed film of Louis’s life story, a film that sadly was never made.
The idea for that film was later recycled into New Orleans, a film that purported to tell the true story of the origin of jazz but got bogged down in a silly subplot involving unnecessary white characters and infamously cast Holiday not as Bessie Smith, but as a maid.
Holiday later wrote of the terrible time she had on set, feuding with actress Dorothy Patrick, not showing up to set and fighting efforts to get her to speak with what she called an “Uncle Tom feeling.” Armstrong enjoyed his time making the film, surrounded by so many New Orleans musicians he had known for decades, in addition to getting the chance to play Holiday’s sweetheart. Here’s how he wrote about it in a private letter to his friend Madeleine Berard in 1946:
Armstrong did indeed “like that very much”; in fact, he got a little more explicit with how much he liked the idea in a 1947 letter to his Chicago friend Dwight “Dite” Myers:
When it came time to take publicity photos, someone–perhaps Lucille Armstrong, who appears in one photo from this series–snapped away candidly while Billie and Louis posed:
Billie’s boxer “Mister” then made an appearance while Louis was getting ready for a shot:
Holiday didn’t come out in this next photo but you can still get a glimpse of her warmly adjusting Louis’s tie:
That last photo was from a session that produced some wonderful publicity photos that have become ubiquitous in the internet age. Here’s a finished print:
The tie-straightening moment eventually saw the light of day, as glimpsed in this magazine spread with four images from that photo session:
Louis and Billie also took time out to pose with this unidentified man with a trumpet–can anyone out there identify him? We’ve had good luck with asking our readers in the past–if you know, leave a comment!
Louis once owned a print of that same photo but used it as the basis for one of his collages; in fact, this image is the cover of Steven Brower’s book, Satchmo: The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong:
And here is the back of that same tape box, with the rest of the photo:
Louis also kept a copy of the February 1947 issue of Ebony in his personal collection. Here’s the cover:
Inside the issue was a beautiful, long spread about the filming of New Orleans, with many great photographs. Here is the entire article, scanned from Louis’s copy:
The photo on the next page features both Billie and Lucille Armstrong!
The same month that Ebony hit the stands, Armstrong performed his first ever concert as a headliner at Carnegie Hall on February 8, 1947. In the second half of the show, Billie was the special guest, singing “Don’t Explain” and “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.” A photo was taken backstage of Louis, Billie and Leonard Feather and became the basis for another of Louis’s tape box collages:
Armstrong and Holiday worked a number of dates together in 1946 and 1947. Joe Glaser had both artists under his management and growing despondent over Holiday’s drug usage, began booking her more with Louis so he could watch her more closely. Here’s Louis’s copy of a concert program for an engagement at Boston’s Symphony Hall in April 1947:
One month later, Holiday was busted for possession of heroin just after sharing a bill with Armstrong at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia. Joe Glaser most likely was behind the arrest as he figured jail time might be the only thing to help her clean up her act. She went to prison until March 1948 and lost her cabaret card, making it impossible for her to sing at venues that sold liquor. Yet, like Louis, she remained fiercely loyal to Glaser until the end of her career.
In 1949, Holiday and Armstrong both found themselves under contract for Decca Records. Milt Gabler, who first paired Armstrong with Ella Fitzgerald, teamed Armstrong and Holiday up for their one and only studio session, recording a pair of James P. Johnson-Flournoy Miller compositions from the musical Sugar Hill, “You Can’t Lose a Broken Heart” and “My Sweet Hunk O’Trash.” Here’s an original 78 label, with Holiday getting first billing.
“My Sweet Hunk O’Trash” caused some controversy when Armstrong’s utterance of “How come, baby” was interpreted by some to be “F*** ’em, baby.” Decca actually had someone who was decidedly not Armstrong overdub a more clearly enunciated “How come” on future pressings! Here’s the original version–judge what Louis says with your own ears ….
For those wondering if Holiday appears on any of Armstrong’s famed private reel-to-reel tapes, the answer is “no” if you’re hoping for intimate glimpses of the two giants chatting informally or swapping stories. But Billie’s presence is felt on one tape, that was commercially released by Dot Time Records on its wonderful compilation, The Nightclubs, in 2018. The moment in question comes from a live All Stars performance at Club Hangover in San Francisco in March 1952, not listed in any discographies and recorded by Armstrong himself. While performing “West End Blues,” a slight commotion can be heard in the beginning–it’s the arrival of Billie Holiday! Louis manages to sneak her name into his scat solo and if you listen carefully, you can hear Billie’s voice cheering him in on from the bar.
Louis then formally introduces Billie and dedicates “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” to her. Check out the full Nightclubs release to hear that magical performance (Holiday, alas, doesn’t join him) but here’s the introduction:
Naturally, Armstrong’s tapes are saturated with Holiday’s music and we still have a number of her records in his record collection at our Archives. Here’s a sample:
In 1956, Holiday and journalist William Dufty collaborated on Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. Armstrong picked up a January 1958 edition for his library, as pictured here:
Dufty might not have been an Armstrong fan like Holiday was, writing in 1954, “It’s been years, almost 15 in fact, since Louis could be taken seriously as a musician.” But after Holiday’s death, Dufty recalled this experience, which has since grown into legend. “Louis attained sainthood in his lifetime. Billie was the unrepentant sinner. Billie accepted this and understood it….When Edward R. Murrow chronicled Armstrong’s triumphant world tour in a full-hour TV show, Billie viewed the first half in charitable silence. When Murrow interrupted for the commercial, Billie breathed a prayer: ‘God bless Louis,’ she whispered. ‘He toms from the heart.'”
Armstrong himself never commented on Holiday’s comment–any insinuations of “Tomming” were usually met with his wrath–but after Holiday’s tragic passing in 1959, Armstrong was asked to contribute a statement. We don’t know what this was for or if it was every published, but here is his final word on Holiday, typed and with his own handwritten additions in the margin:
For more on Billie and Louis, don’t forget to join us on Facebook Live on Tuesday, February 23 at 12 p.m. EST!