As the 50th anniversary of Louis Armstrong’s passing approaches, we have already published two detailed pieces on the tapes he made in the last week of his life, as well as the first complete publication in English of a long interview Louis and Lucille did with the German magazine Jasmine on May 25, 1971.
Today’s post will be a little different as we will focus on some of the surviving letters that Louis wrote to friends in this period, as well as a look at photos of Armstrong taken by 21-year-old Annie Leibovitz.
Interestingly, none of the letters we’re sharing today exist in original form in our Archives. A photocopy of the first ended up in Jack Bradley’s hands at some point, while the other two have ended up being auctioned multiple times over the years, each time with a full transcript published. And obviously, rights to the Leibovitz photos do not belong to the House Museum so we will be sharing a scan of the original Rolling Stone article. Thus, we’re stepping a bit out of our “featured in our Archives” comfort zone but feel these materials fill in more details for what we know of Armstrong in his final days.
We’ll start with Leibovitz’s photos, shot during one of her first assignments for Rolling Stone; she was only 21-years-old. In the most famous of her photos of Armstrong, a baseball game is on television in the background and judging by the look of it, it appears to be Shea Stadium. Checking the 1971 baseball schedule, the Mets returned to Shea on June 8 for a homestand that ended on June 20 so her photos were most likely taken in that timeframe. Also, note the cane as Armstrong still needed to get around the House at this point. Here’s a lo-res version found online:
And here’s how it appeared in the August 5, 1971 edition of Rolling Stone:
The accompanying article was a long tribute to Armstrong penned by Ralph J. Gleason titled “God Bless Louis Armstrong,” winner of the ASCAP Deems-Taylor Award, “designated to encourage, recognize and reward excellence in music writing.” Here is the title of the article, paired with a beautiful Leibovitz photo of Louis in his den, surrounded by his tapes:
Leibovitz also shot Armstrong playing trumpet while seated on the tub in his first-floor mirrored bathroom. We originally were going to just crop the photo but the pull quote is too important to leave out as it is the driving force behind everything we do at the Armstrong House Museum, the Armstrong Archives and this “That’s My Home” site as Louis says of his tapes, “It’s my side of the story and it will keep.”
We’ve also kept this paragraph which references Louis’s lip salve, which come back into play later in this same post (but Gleason got the location wrong as it was manufactured in Mannheim, Germany, not Holland). There’s also a Swiss Kriss plug, leading into a Leibovitz photo of Louis opening his den desk drawer to reveal a lifetime supply of Swiss Kriss sample packets!
A beautiful Leibovitz portrait of Louis and Lucille, the love really shining from Louis’s eyes:
Finally, the last Leibovitz photo in the Rolling Stone issue is this one, spread over two pages, an ailing Armstrong still radiating love and happiness in his den:
Interestingly, perhaps the best-known photo from the shoot didn’t end up in the original issue. Rolling Stone most likely passed on it because you can see the weariness in Armstrong’s eyes, but of course, that’s a big part of the story considering that he would be gone in less than a month. It makes a striking juxtaposition with the beaming Satchel-mouthed smile in the photo above. Leibovitz herself admitted to being initially disappointed with her visit to Corona as she wanted to do something a little more unposed and Armstrong couldn’t help turning on the showman’s charm. However, she later learned to embrace Armstrong’s attitude, saying, “You know something is not 100 percent right. You admire the professionalism. You admire that the show must go on. You admire that even in this sort of tired and exhausted state, he’s going to give you his best. Those are all very fascinating and admirable moments.” Here’s the image in question as taken direct from Leibovitz’s official Instagram page in 2020:
That concludes our look at Annie Leibovitz’s photos from June 1971, but now it’s time to turn our attention to some of Armstrong’s correspondence from the same time period. The first surviving letter is to clarinetist Slim Evans, whose real name was Otis Neirouter (his 1924 recordings with the Chubb-Steinberg Orchestra of Cincinnati and young Wild Bill Davison are on YouTube). By 1971, Evans, a recovering alcoholic, was a patient-member of the VA Extended Care Hospital in Los Angeles and was a regular pen pal with Armstrong. Evans seems to have been happy to share copies of his Armstrong letters, as photocopies of various letters have ended up in multiple jazz archives; we’re not sure where the originals reside but we hope they’re safe. Evans even sent Armstrong photos of himself playing, such as this one from March 1971, part of Louis’s collection in our Archives:
Our copy of Armstrong’s later to Evans is a faded photocopy and includes Evans’s commentary throughout in the margins. We’ll share the first page to give a flavor but will provide a transcription of much of it below:
Here’s a transcription, doing our best to reproduce Armstrong’s idiosyncratic style:
May 30th, 1971
Man’ I am back- in Trim. Slim. Yar sar’ this was a tough one this time (in the hospital) Hmm the (Cats people) every wher out East were betting money that I would’nt make it this time. (4) weeks I was in Intensive Care’ sick as a bitch. But Doctor Zuker – Lucille and the Lord and Mee- Tee Hee- we had something going. Ol Swiss Kriss was in there with us. Yas Lord – Ol Satch is back on the mound again and am eating – like a dog. I received your letter with the money in it that you sent me thanks a million.
I’m home doing a lot of recording at home putting all of my Tapes that I’ve made through my years. So- since I’ve I’m at home they keep me busy and great company for me. You look good at the jam session that you played. And I’ll bet — you’ blew-up a storm. You were born to play the clarinet. I’ve always liked your style and your sense of phrasing that will carry you to your grave. Something – nobody’s gonna take from you. Blieve – that. I sorta feel the same way about myself ofcourse I’m not braggin. You know that. Anyway keep blowing. A lovely- great consolation to ya.
That’s the way I feel. Yes- when I can pick up my horn + blow a few beautiful notes I am at peace with the world. My doctor a (hip rascal”) gave me permission to blow a little lightly everyday before my dinner. Sorta slip up on it and getting a strong lip and building up an embusure (embrusure HMM) or amberchure’ you know I am trying to say–good strong crumb-lip crushers. Tee Hee. I most feel good – aye? Well- the crisis all over, so why sit around and worry about the past.
Everyday’ I am stronger. Lucille Throwing those (3) hots (MEALS) under my belt everyday. Swiss Kriss every night when I go to bed. Just make’s life very fine for me. With the slogan’ Leave it all behind ya’ is all right with me. My doctor on his visit at my house within a week after he examined me thoroughly, he told me man- you’re the getting wellest- quickest human being that I’ve ever has as a patient that you ever seen. Oh’ he’s so happy over it. Nice eh?
So Slim -tell all the gang hello for me and everything. Copersetic and the goose hangs high. Yea’ good night pal. Night now. From Your boy
On the last page, Evans explained what the money line was about, noting that he had asked for “five bills” in a Valentine’s Day card to Louis (which Louis turned into a collage) and Louis sent him $600. Evans paid Armstrong back and even included a copy of the check he sent Louis. He also included a copy of the famous Swiss Kriss “keyhole” card that Louis included with this letter, noting that he (Evans) had taken Swiss Kriss every night since Louis told him about it at Mardi Gras in 1955!
The next surviving letter is one Armstrong wrote Erich Kauffmann on June 14. For decades, Armstrong was a fierce advocate of “Ansatz Cream” a lip salve made in Manheim, Germany by trombonist Franz Schuritz. Schuritz eventually renamed the salve “Louis Armstrong Lip Salve,” with Armstrong refusing to take a penny for the endorsement as long as Schuritz kept manufacturing it (Armstrong also always insisted on paying for it). Schuritz’s daughter Hilda married a man named Erich Kauffmann, who eventually handled the business affairs of Schuritz’s company. In 1952, Armstrong traveled to Manheim for the first time and met with Schuritz’s family. In this photo, Armstrong examines a tin of lip salve with Schuritz on the left, Lucille next to Louis, and trombonist Trummy Young seated on the right; we’re assuming that Kauffmann is the man standing on the right but cannot be 100% sure:
In January 1970, Armstrong appeared on The Dick Cavett Show and gave quite a plug to Schuritz and to the lip salve. Armstrong sent a tape of the appearance and a lengthy letter to Kauffmann, ordering more lip salve in the process. The two began corresponding regularly and a number of Armstrong’s letters have since turned up at various auction houses.
At some point, Kauffmann sent Armstrong a trombone as a gift. Armstrong was touched and wrote Kauffmann a thank you note on June 14, 1971–though it’s dated June 14, 1970. This might come as a surprise to many, but when it came to dates, Armstrong’s life was such a fast-paced jumble, he often wrote the wrong year! Usually there are clues inside his letters that help with the correct dates but that’s just a warning to not always take the date of an Armstrong letter at face value (something that will come back into play next week). Thus, the letter in question to Kauffmann is dated as June 14, 1970 (and is still listed that way where it is currently for sale) but it actually from 1971.
On the web, only a blurb from the first page and the complete fourth page exists, so what we have to share is very incomplete but is still touching. ” I was really sick this time,” Armstrong wrote to Kauffmann. “Everybody thought that I would die. But the Lord Jesus — my Doctor — and my wife Lucille were right there with me at all times– so I came through alright.”
The fourth page includes some interesting information that requires a bit of detective work as Armstrong references a trombone that was a gift from Schuritz. In a 1961 letter from Armstrong to Kauffmann (which was also auctioned off in 2018), Armstrong tells Kauffmann that he’s looking forward to receiving Schuritz’s trombone as a keepsake. It appears that the trombone did not arrive until 1971 and reading between Armstrong’s lines, it seems that Schuritz had passed away by this point but must have conveyed his wishes to gift the trombone to Armstrong before he passed. Armstrong writes:
“I shall have that horn for a present from Mr. Schuritz the rest of my life. I won’t let anyone touch (put their hands on it). It Is a beautiful trombone. Thanks again. It was very thoughtful of you. I am sure you realize that I am proud to have it. Mr. Schuritz always a dear friend of mine. I often think of him. God Bless his Soul. You are a nice man, also. Your little GrandDaughter is very cute. Infacts – you and your whole family are cute people and we love you’s. From your friends, Satchmo and Lucille Armstrong.”
Once again, this is a foreshadowing type of post as the trombone will come back in a big way in a piece we have planned for next week.
Two days later, Armstrong wrote to his young disciple, trumpeter Chris Clifton, though he was still hazy on the year and dated it June 16, 1970. Armstrong had been mentoring Clifton since he was a teenager in the 1950s; Clifton sent Armstrong photos and tapes and Louis added them all to his collection, still part of our Archives. By 1971, Clifton was living in Detroit but worked with Lil Hardin Armstrong in Chicago and the Tuxedo Brass Band in New Orleans, which is where Clifton remained until his passing in 2018. Over the years, Clifton also auctioned off many of his original letters from Armstrong, many of which still turn up online, but in 2002, he made sure to donate color copies of each one to our Archives. Thus, though we don’t have the original, here is Clifton’s copy of what Armstrong wrote:
Armstrong’s reference to “I haven’t seen or heard from our boy Jack Bradley since he was here with you” must have sounded an alarm for as soon as Clifton received Armstrong’s reply, he must have phoned up Bradley and the two planned to visit Armstrong immediately. The story–and photos–of that visit will be shared in Monday’s post.