“Armstrong’s Personal Recordings”: Louis Armstrong’s Final Tapes Part 3

In case you’ve missed it, in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we examined the first 10 volumes of what Louis Armstrong dubbed “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings,” a series of reel-to-reel tapes comprised (mostly) of his own recordings that he assembled, listened to, cataloged and played along with in the final weeks of his life.

We’re picking up the story today with Reel 11, which features a real gem on the front of the box, an early 1940s photo of Louis and Lucille Armstrong backstage at the Howard Theater in Washington D.C. Since Lucille was such an important part of Louis’s life in these final up-and-down years, it’s only appropriate that he would dedicate a collage to her (Armstrong’s collection contains multiple copies of this print so it’s nice to picture him grabbing one from the stack at this late stage in the game to make this):

LAHM 1987.3.470

The back featured an envelope from letter sent to Louis by photographer Bill Mark on January 31, 1971. Louis probably liked its dedication to the first men on the moon and figured it would make a nice piece of art as is:

LAHM 1987.3.470

Reel 10 ran out of tape in the middle of “We’ll Be Together Again” so Reel 11 opens with that song dubbed in full and the completion of the 1957 Verve album I’ve Got the World on a String. From there, Louis jumped way back to the 1920s for a Young Louis Armstrong collection of his recordings with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Bandthe Red Onion Jazz Babies, Trixie Smith and more, originally released on Riverside Records in 1957.

LAHM 1987.2.114
LAHM 1987.2.114

The very long Side 1 concludes with the first few selections of another 1957 Russell Garcia-arranged album for Verve, Louis Under the Stars:

LAHM 1987.2.114

Side 2 opened with the rest of Louis Under the Stars before another V.S.O.P. album of 1920s recordings:

LAHM 1987.2.114

Note on the top of the final page, Armstrong lists the name of singer “Lillian Delk Christian,” as three of her sides appeared on the compilation. We should mention that Armstrong had all eight volumes of the V.S.O.P. (Very Special Old Phonography) series on two 4-LP boxed sets released on CBS in Italy. Here’s the cover of the box containing volumes 1-4:

LAHM 1987.3.792

The reel closed with a German album on the Amiga label of more Hot Five recordings, Old  Time Jazz. We have a copy in our Jack Bradley Collection…or is it??? More in a bit….

LAHM 2005.1.27

Though his handwritten contents sheets were usually pretty straightforward, he couldn’t help but write after “Who’s It,” “SATCHMO PLAYS SLIDING WHISTLE.” (Also note the Dan Quayle-approved spelling of “Potatoe Head Blues.”)

LAHM 1987.2.114

By Reel 12, Armstrong is clearly feeling his oats again, designing brand new collages on both sides. In 1970, the great British singer Beryl Bryden visited Louis and Lucille in Corona and even took some terrific photographs of Louis at home, all of which can be seen in this 2020 post on one of Louis’s scrapbooks. It only made sense for Louis to repay the favor by creating a new collage tribute to Bryden (“Swing Singer”) on the front of Reel 12:

LAHM 1987.3.324

The back of the box also contained  a special collage featuring a snapshot of Louis and Lucille sitting at a table surrounded by others, including Count Basie, at Basie’s home in nearby Jamaica, Queens. Feeling chatty, Louis decided to annotate the photo right on the tape box, writing, “Taken at ‘Catherine’ and ‘Count Basie’s ‘Swimming Pool,’ at his Birthday Party’ August, 1969.”

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Here’s a cropped version of the above photo, still covered in Scotch tape, but giving a slightly better view of some of the party’s attendee’s:

LAHM 1987.3.324

After continuing with the Amiga Old Time Jazz album (and once again pointing out that he played slide whistle on “Who’s It”), Louis chose something different, another Amiga compilation, Pioneers Des Jazz, featuring not only his own music, but Mezz Mezzrow and Sidney Bechet, Bix Beiderbecke, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Butterbeans and Susie, Piron’s New Orleans Orchestra, the McKenzie-Condon Chicagoans, Victoria Spivey and many more. Here is our copy in the Jack Bradley Collection:

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Look carefully on the top right corner of the above LP cover: note the “X.” That is something Armstrong only did towards the end of his life, his was of “crossing off” an LP to let himself know he had dubbed it to tape (in the 1950s, he used strips of tape with the word “RECORDED”). As will be covered later in this post, Bradley visited Armstrong in this period so it’s now my assumption that Louis gave both Amiga albums to Jack after dubbing them (the earlier one even has vestiges of Scotch tape on it).

For his handwritten contents sheet, Louis wrote out the performers of each song and couldn’t resist another note on King Oliver’s “Buddy’s Habit”: “SATCH PLAYS THE WHISTLE.” For years, some historians wondered if it was actually Louis or Baby Dodds playing the slide whistle on that recording, but there it is, in the man’s own hand.

LAHM 1987.2.58
LAHM 1987.2.58

The second half of this reel was founded out by another volume of the V.S.O.P. series covering the Hot Fives and Sevens–note Armstrong’s black marker running out of ink, replaced by a blue one that isn’t much better…perhaps a metaphor for Armstrong’s fading days on Earth….:

LAHM 1987.2.58
LAHM 1987.2.58

For the front of “Armstrong Personal Recordings” 13, Louis chose a picture of him smiling with some pretty happy fellows, most likely fans but if anyone looks familiar, please let us know.

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And for the back, a photo of his old friend Jeann “Roni” Faillows. Jeann met Louis in the late 40s and became a part of the entourage anytime he was in New York, usually entrusted with helping him catch up with fan mail. Sadly, she’s mostly forgotten today but she’s most responsible for introducing two of the all-time great Louis-lovers to the man himself, bringing Dan Morgenstern backstage at the Roxy in 1950 for his first meeting with Louis, and later dating Jack Bradley for about ten years and hooking Jack up with Louis, as discussed in the first part of our tribute to Bradley here. This photo was actually taken in Louis’s den in Corona by Paul Studer in January 1959:

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However, if you look in the back of the photo of Failows, you’ll notice Louis’s handwriting from the 1950s, marking the original contents of the reel. I can make out “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” and “Indiana” on the left side and “Velma’s Blues,” “That’s My Desire” and a “Cozy Cole” feature on the right, so it probably originally housed an All Stars set from circa 1953. As detailed last time, my hunch is that Louis was re-using tape boxes for the “Armstrong Personal Recordings” project because a reel with that exact track listing from the 1953 tour with Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa can be found elsewhere in our Archives in a blank box. Maybe the reels were getting mixed up, but all that mattered was his new series of “Armstrong Personal Recordings.”

Louis continued with his series of Amiga LPs (and with his faded blue marker) , opening this reel with one volume that included some Hot Fives and other tracks with King Oliver, Bertha “Chippie” Hill, Sippie Wallace and Butterbeans and Susie. Another Parolophone His Greatest Years LP followed (with another plug for his slide whistle playing on “Who’s It”!) before Louis zoomed to the 1960s for his first dubbing in this series of the 1968 album, What a Wonderful World.

LAHM 1987.2.58
LAHM 1987.2.58
LAHM 1987.2.58
LAHM 1987.2.58

Armstrong seems like he once again reused an old collage for the beat-up box that makes up “Armstrong Personal Recordings” 14. The front features a Philadelphia Evening Bulletin review of an All Stars show from late 1952 or early 1953–upside down.

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For those who would like to read the article, here it is right-side-up!

LAHM 1987.3.326

The back of the box featured a 1956 publicity shot of Louis with the title of the German version of the MGM film High Society, Die Oberen Zehntausend (translation “The Above Ten Thousand”):

LAHM 1987.3.326

Armstrong has now switched to a new black Sharpie marker, causing a little bleeding through on his handwritten notes. Reel 14 is an all All Stars affair, opening with the conclusion of What a Wonderful World, then continuing with 1955’s two volume At the Crescendo. These were Spanish issues of the original Decca LPs, so Louis diligently wrote the Spanish title for each track, followed by the English translation:

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A first: Armstrong uses the back of the first page to continue cataloging. And yes, every page we have shared in this series was written on the back of a “Lose Weight, The Satchmo Way!” diet chart!

LAHM 1987.2.60

After finishing the Spanish translations of At the Crescendo, Armstrong finishes the reel with the start of another Decca live All Stars LP, Satchmo at Pasadena (this is the English edition):

LAHM 1987.2.60
LAHM 1987.2.60

After re-using a few old collages, Louis again felt inspired to create something new for Reel 15, now titled “Armstrong + Guest Recordings.” On June 11, 1970, Louis appeared at an event at the Rainbow Room with Lauren Bacall; more photos from the event can be glimpsed in the aforementioned scrapbook post. For this reel, he took one of those photos and really cut it up and rearranged it on the front of the box, throwing in an advertisement for Satchmo Plays King Oliver for good measure:

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The back of the box featured a photo of Louis and members of the New York Philharmonic rehearsal for Louis’s famed July 1956 concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein:

LAHM 1987.3.327

So, why “Armstrong + Guest Recordings”? Because this tape featured dubs of a couple of Swedish bands performing songs associated with Armstrong. This was all due to the efforts of Gösta Hägglöf, one of the all-time great Armstrong fans. Hägglöf was bitten by the Armstrong bug in 1949 and made sure to attend all of the trumpeter’s Swedish performances throughout the 1950s and 1960s; Hägglöf and Armstrong also had their photo taken together before Hägglöf conducted a long interview with him backstage in 1965. Hägglöf was not a musician but he was dedicated to putting together groups of Swedish musicians to perform music associated with his hero, often producing concerts and recordings of their efforts. Hägglöf had sent Armstrong a bunch of Swedish hot jazz recordings, which impressed Louis greatly. On February 11, 1971, just before the Waldorf engagement, Armstrong wrote the following letter to Hagglof:

LAHM 2004.78.10

Hägglöf later related to me that that one sentence, “Keep up the good works,” was enough to inspire him to dedicate the rest of his life to Armstrong’s life and music. Hägglöf died in 2009 and in his will, left his entire Armstrong collection to the Louis Armstrong House Museum.

Hägglöf was so touched by Armstrong’s letter that he immediately sent him two more Swedish albums he produced, Swing Society’s Swingin’ the Louis Armstrong Songbook and a self-titled album by the Purple Rose Orchestra recorded in Stockholm in late 1970. Here are Armstrong’s handwritten pages for both albums, making sure to give Hägglöf credit (though misspelling his last name “Hägglöt”):

LAHM 1987.2.61
LAHM 1987.2.61

We’ll have more on the above albums in a minute but first, Armstrong remembered to resume where Reel 14 left with the continuation of Satchmo at Pasadena, as seen above.

But then for something completely different: Armstrong grabbed a copy of a brand new single by The Fifth Dimension comprised of “Viva! (Viva Tirado)” and “Light Sings.” The Fifth Dimension!  Both tracks were released in 1971 and hit the charts in May and June of that year, more proof that Louis was not only working on this series in those last weeks, but he was still keeping tabs on the latest trends in pop music.

With some space left, Armstrong began dubbing his 1957 Decca LP Louis and the Angels, concluding the reel:

LAHM 1987.2.61

That’s the conclusion of the reel but it is not the conclusion of this post. You see, when Armstrong dubbed Swingin’ the Louis Armstrong Songbook, he was not alone: he was in the middle of being visited by trumpeter Chris Clifton and longtime friend and personal photographer Jack Bradley–who brought along his camera.

As discussed last week, Armstrong wrote to Clifton on June 14 and mentioned he hadn’t seen or heard from Bradley in a while. That was probably enough for Clifton to arrange a trip to Queens with Bradley, sometime in that June 16-June 30 period (Bradley’s visit would also lend credence to my aforementioned hunch that he left with Armstrong’s copies of those Amiga LPs as a parting gift).

Bradley was also close friends with Hägglöf, showing him around during a trip to New York City in 1965 and often trading letters and tapes of rare Armstrong recordings. For the cover of Swingin’ the Louis Armstrong Songbook, Hägglöf used a color photo Bradley shot of Armstrong at the Louie and the Dukes of Dixieland session. Thus, Bradley couldn’t resist taking a few photos of Armstrong in the middle of listening to his friend’s album.

We’ve shared a few of these images on the “That’s My Home” site in various posts over the past year but here they are in proper context, shot in late June 1971 while Louis was making the very tape described above:

Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1697d-17
Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1697d-20
Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1697d-21

In 2002, Chris Clifton handwrote his memories of Louis, including reflections on that visit that day. Here are Clifton’s words, interspersed with more of Bradley’s photos:

“About a month or so before [Armstrong] passed away (it’s even hard to write!), Jack Bradley and I spent the day with him at his house in Corona. Lucille was expecting us and ushered us up to Louis’ den on the 2nd floor.”

Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1697c-04

“The first thing he said to me was, ‘Well, Pops, are you ready to take over the captain’s chair?'”

Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1697c-25

“I haven’t answered him to this day! How do you answer Louis Armstrong when he says something like that to you??”

Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1697c-22

“Shortly, Lucille brought in some drinks. I forget what. Through the years. I had been thru several different drinking regimes with Pops, from beer to B+B, to Courvoisier 5 star Cognac, and of course, the infamous ‘Cherry Herring.'”

“I noticed on his desk was a pack of ‘DORAL’ cigarettes instead of the Camels I was so used to seeing him smoke. When I expressed concern to Lucille that perhaps he shouldn’t be smoking at all, as frail as he was, she quickly (and rightfully so) shushed me up and said, “Well–he’s got to do something.”

Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1697c-03

“That day was the last time I heard him play his horn. He put on his vocal recoding of Joyce Kilmer’s ‘TREES’ on the reel to reel tape recorder behind his desk and played his ‘SELMER’ along with it.”

“I had never heard anything so beautiful and moving in all my life and I shall remember every note till the day I die!”

Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1697c-17

Clifton’s story gives me chills every time I read it but for those keeping score, we have not encountered “Trees” yet–but we will….on the last tape Louis ever made the night before he died. Now, for the detectives out there, it does not appear that Clifton and Bradley visited Louis on July 5; neither of them ever told any stories like that and one would think they would have mentioned it. So this once again points to the varied nature of Louis’s method; he could have started “the last tape” with “Trees” and other Gordon Jenkins sides, taken it off the tape deck, recorded other stuff, and then put it back on the night before he died. Also, “Trees” appeared on another tape Louis made in 1970, “Reel 54,” so perhaps he pulled it down at random to play in the background while his friends were over.

Either way, it’s an incredible story and speaks to the fact that Armstrong really was starting to get himself back in shape in late June. How much so? On June 23, Armstrong invited the press over to his his home to play trumpet for them and to read an “Open Letter” to his fans–all of which will be discussed in our next post, coming up on the 50th anniversary, June 23.

Published by Ricky Riccardi

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

2 thoughts on ““Armstrong’s Personal Recordings”: Louis Armstrong’s Final Tapes Part 3

  1. You are taking us right there with Louis…heart-breaking and beautiful all at the same time.

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