Last week, we kicked off our look at the tapes Louis Armstrong made in the final weeks of his life. That post has all the backstory but the quick summary is after being released from the hospital after a life-threatening heart attack, Armstrong gave a long interview with the German Jasmin magazine, then began making a new series of reel-to-reel tapes, which he dubbed “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings,” made up (almost) solely of dubs of his own music from throughout his 48-year recording career.
Reels 1-4 of the series featured simple covers with the reel number simply drawn by Armstrong on the front and back. The reels were filled with repetition and Armstrong’s handwritten catalog sheets were filled with typos and unsteady penmanship; clearly, he was still far from 100%. But by Reel 5, his handwriting was getting stronger and he was able to put together a collage on the front of the box.
Today’s series, most likely compiled in early-to-mid June 1971, features what appears to my eyes to be Armstrong repurposing older, already collaged tape boxes. As related a few times on this site, Armstrong got his first tape recorder in 1950 and started a series at Reel 1. In 1958, he bought a new tape recorder and started a new series, also at Reel 1, combining (and in many cases ruining the audio quality of) some of his original reels. In 1969, he started again at Reel 1, making new tapes, but also copying and sometimes combining many of his older reels. The following collages have the look and feel of his 1950s work so I’m assuming that the original reels were copied elsewhere and now Armstrong was repurposing the original boxes, covering up any of the original, fading Scotch Tape with strips of new Masking Tape, eventually topped with a small piece of white athletic tape, notating the reel number, speed, and occasionally the series name, “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings.”
With that preamble out of the way, we’ll pick up the story with Reel 6. Both collages feature images of Louis with unidentified fans, but the locales depicted in each one remain unknown (Armstrong made many collages with other photos of him and fans in that office setting in front of those widow blinds):
When we last left off with Reel 5, Armstrong wandered a bit from his theme, dubbing Pearl Bailey’s LP, Pearl’s Pearls, most likely sent to him in conjunction with his appearance on Bailey’s ABC TV variety show earlier in the year. Reel 6 begins with the conclusion of that album, “I Never Met a Stranger” and “Mama, A Rainbow.”
Next, Armstrong reached for an acetate disc of a demo recording of two sides (the disc has a “JAC” label but is not an issued single), “The Color of a Man” and “That’s Pops.” One of the sides has “Douglas Grant” handwritten on the label, so that’s what Armstrong uses in his catalog sheet. But a little digging deeper shows it must be 12-year-old Robert Douglas Grant Jr., who would go on to star as Zack on PBS’s The Electric Company later in 1971. A New York Times article on child actors from August 3, 1970, notes that Doug Grant was appearing in The Landlord with none other than Pearl Bailey so there’s definitely a connection to all of this. The Times article also hints that Grant was singing, writing songs and even writing plays at 11-years-old, so it’s possible that he wrote “That’s Pops” himself. It’s a cute tribute to Louis and Grant does an excellent job of imitating Armstrong’s gravel voice throughout. Grant died in 2018; it’s a shame we didn’t know about this connection until putting this post together, otherwise, it would have been helpful to get the official backstory on the song.
With those two discs out of the way, Armstrong returned to the theme at hand with a Parlophone compilation of his Hot Five and Seven recordings with the somewhat audacious title Louis Armstrong: His Greatest Years (one has to wonder how he felt about that description since Armstrong truly believed he got better with age):
After filling up the rest of Side 1 with his 1920s masterworks, Armstrong skipped ahead to the late 1950s for Side 2, opening with the soundtrack of the film The Five Pennies followed by a 1964 compilation of Armstrong’s Verve recordings, Verve’s Choice: The Best of Louis Armstrong:
Moving on to Reel 7, the photo on the front of the box depicts Louis with the All Stars (Trummy Young and Mort Herbert can be seen) at a jam session in Norway in 1959. I don’t know who the violinist is, but according to Anthony Barnett, he’s playing a Norwegian hardanger fiddle. The back of the box shows Lucille talking to an unidentified man:
As for the contents on volume 7, finally something different: Armstrong’s Decca recordings of the 1930s and 1940s! The reel starts off with a dub of the Jazz Classics album that featured many of his more New Orleans-flavored big band performances, including remakes of “West End Blues,” “Savoy Blues” and “You Rascal You.”
Next, a dub of the soundtrack to the 1956 film High Society:
Side 2 opens with some special: the 1967 Decca album with the classic Dan Morgenstern notes, Rare Items 1935-1944. It’s sad to think that the music from that period was once considered “rare” (sadly, it remains that way with many listeners), especially when considering this compilation contained classics like “Swing That Music,” “Thanks a Million,” “Jubilee and “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue. I’m sure Louis enjoyed reading along with his friend Dan’s passionate defense of this period of his music, one of Morgenstern’s most influential pieces of writing.
Then for something else a little different, Armstrong copied the RCA Victor compilation In the 30s/In the 40s, with some of the great big band records from the early 1930s and a short sampling of his work for the label in the 1940s.
To close the reel, though, Louis when for something else, choosing to write very carefully in capital letters:
POP – Made in Sweden
EN KV’A’LL PA GRONA LUND
EN AFTON VID KLAMPENBORG
ALLAN EHWERT. OLLE JOHNNY’S Orch
A little Googling tells us this was a recording by Swedish composer and singer Allan Ehwert and the song titles are “En kväll på Gröna lund” and “En afton vid Klampenborg.” I don’t know how it ended up closing a volume of “Armstrong’s Personal Volumes” but there you have it!
The collage found for “Armstrong Personal Recordings” 8 definitely seems to be an older one, judging by the look and condition of it. The front of the box has Louis posing in his bathrobe with two unidentified female fans…just look at the expression on his face!
The back of the box has an MGM publicity photo from 1956 distributed in Europe -and a snapshot of Louis with Jack Teagarden, Arvell Shaw and an unidentified man:
The contents of this volume are pretty straightforward: a dub of another volume of Louis Armstrong: His Greatest Years featuring his 1928 recordings with Earl “Fatha” Hines, a compilation of all his 1964-1966 Mercury singles simply titled Louis, and the 1960 classic, Louie and the Dukes of Dixieland. I like how Louis mashes all of his recordings together; it’s how I prefer to listen to them, too. Never mind going strictly chronological; it’s Louis so you know it’s going to be good, so why not mix it up a bit? (These tapes are crying out for Spotify and Apple Music playlists–if we have time, we’ll start making them.)
And if you get a thrill of Louis, weeks (days?) before he died, writing out the titles of all those 1928 numbers with Hines, check out the tape contents sheet inside the box:
“Armstrong Personal Recordings” 9 (1987.3.323) has a personal favorite collage featuring two cartoon hedgehogs called “Mecki and Mickie” (originally of “The Hare and the Hedgehog,” from the brothers Grimm’s famous fairy tale collection), clipped from a famous German TV magazine most likely in 1959 (thanks to author Daniel Stein for the identification):
The back of the tape box has a great photo of Louis obviously cracking up a friend with one of his favorite jokes:
This reel featured another hodgepodge of Pops, finishing off Louis and the Dukes of Dixieland from the previous volume, then another compilation of his 1957 Verve recordings, two songs he recorded in Italian in 1967, a V.S.O.P. collection of Hot Five recordings and finally, two more 1967 Italian recordings at the end. Here are Armstrong’s handwritten notes:
“Armstrong Personal Recordings” 10 features one of Louis’s more artistic collages on the front; his angle, the way it’s cut, the little “Louis Armstrong Orchestra” sign…wonderful:
The back of the box has a rare picture of the early 1954 All Stars with Billy Kyle, Trummy Young and Milt Hinton–arranged sideways:
We close today with another straightforward mix, opening with another Audio Fidelity album, 1959’s Satchmo Plays King Oliver, followed by another His Greatest Years Hot Fives best-of and the Russell Garcia-arranged 1957 Verve album, I’ve Got the World on a String.
Like his patented “S’all,” Armstrong also frequently ended reels with “UNFINIS,” his unique way of nothing that he ran out of tape before completing the final number. We’ll pick up with the rest of I’ve Got the World on a String an examination of Reels 11-15 in our next installment next Monday but come back later in the week for a look at some of the letters Armstrong wrote to friends in this period.