If you’ve been with us this month (if you haven’t, you can now catch up on all of our 1971-related posts in one place), it’s been quite a roller coaster. Louis Armstrong barely emerged from the hospital in May 1971 and as soon as he began feeling a little better, started making a new series of reel-to-reel tapes, comprised almost entirely of his own recordings. His first entries were filled with repetition, didn’t feature any collages and his handwritten contents sheets displayed fragile penmanship rife with uncharacteristic errors.
But with each passing entry, Armstrong has gotten stronger and stronger, designing new, intricate collages and pulling varied material from his record collection instead of repeating the same few albums over and over. He was playing the trumpet again, writing letters to friends and as June went on, began inviting visitors to his home. This included members of the media on June 23, who got a free concert in Armstrong’s den from Armstrong and Tyree Glenn before Armstrong read an open letter to his fans, thanking them for their get-well wishes and promising to perform for them once again.
This feeling of optimism and hope is inspiring but needless to say, the end is near. We’ll have our time to shed a tear when we finally reach the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s passing next week, but today’s post will feature the tapes that finished up the “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings” series, plus a bunch he definitely made in the last two weeks of his life, but ones he never got around to numbering or cataloging.
We’ll pick up with volume 16 of “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings,” featuring photos on the front and back of the tape box of Louis with unidentified friends and fans (Lucille can be spotted on the back cover):
Last time out, “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings” volume 15 ended with the first half of the 1957 Decca LP Louis and the Angels so it makes sense that volume 16 begins with the conclusion of that LP. Next up is a 1967 Columbia compilation of Armstrong’s 1950s works, Louis Armstrong’s Great Hits, midway through making his dub, Armstrong abruptly switches to something entirely different: recordings of news reports chronicling his life-and-death battle for survival in March and April, culminating in a report that Louis returned home in May. He must have really enjoyed playing these back, knowing he was home and feeling better all the time. He even dated the broadcasts on his Tape Contents Sheet, March 18, 1971, April 2, 1971 and May 7, 1971:
We haven’t shared any audio in this series because just about everything on these tapes is a commercial recording and can easily be found on any streaming service, but here are the news reports Armstrong saved:
After that triumphant ending, Armstrong finished off his Greatest Hits dub and continued in a 1950s mood by dubbing the Columbia LP, Ambassador Satch (switching to a faded blue marker we saw last time out; there’s still no concrete explanation for Armstrong’s system to figure out his process for making the tapes and when he cataloged them).
Onto Reel 17, which is really the first part of what we refer to as Louis’s “last tape,” something we’ll detail again on July 5. On the front cover, he chose a photo of him in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1923. Considering that this was one of the final collages he ever made, the choice is quite touching (the image was cut out of a Swedish newspaper tribute to Armstrong from July 4, 1970 and sent to him by Gosta Hagglof in early 1971; you can view the full Swedish page here).
Armstrong was once again reusing an old box that once contained recordings by Italian singer Ray Martino; on the back he just stuck a new label of it denoting the presence of “Miscellaneous Recordings.”
Volume 17 of “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings” was filled with masterpieces (the following photos are of Louis’s personal copies), opening with Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson (Louis’s copy was signed by disc jockey Jack Lazare):
Then Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy and Satch Plays Fats as they were issued on a 2-LP set, Satchmo For You, which Louis’s notes tell us he bought in Japan:
A 1967 2-LP compilation of his later Decca recordings (mostly from Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography but also a string of his popular hits for the label), The Best of Louis Armstrong:
Here’s the track listing of that last one:
And then he began dubbing a compilation of his Decca work arranged by Gordon Jenkins, Satchmo in Style, running out of space after “Indian Love Call.” Here are Armstrong’s catalog pages, still using the fading blue marker:
Reel 17 was now complete and indeed, Armstrong would start another reel with the conclusion of Satchmo in Style–and that would be the last reel he ever made. But again, trying to analyze his process is impossible as Armstrong took a detour for volume 18 of “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings.” First, the collages, the front of the box featuring what appears to be an unidentified musician, judging by what looks like a band uniform:
On the back, character actor Allen Jenkins as clipped from a publicity photo from the 1939 film Going Places, also starring Louis Armstrong:
For completeness, the full photo from Armstrong’s personal collection, without any of his scissor-work:
And in case that looks familiar, Armstrong used the other part of the photo for a collage on Reel 50, back in 1969 or 1970 (discussed here):
Though Armstrong made collages and numbered the box Reel 18, for the first time, he did not create a handwritten contents sheet–yes, folks, it’s getting late in the game around here. We have dubbed the tape and it’s a compilation of Armstrong big band broadcasts from 1944 and 1945. After studying the track listing, the only LP compilation with the exact same track listing is this bootleg release–which famously used Jack Bradley’s photo of naked Louis on the front cover (without crediting Jack)!
For the collectors out there, because Armstrong died before cataloging it (and because it no longer survives in his collection), here’s the back cover from an edition in our Robert Hilbert Collection, with Hilbert’s handwritten notes on the broadcasts on the back cover:
That technically is the end of the formal “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings” series but we’re not through yet. After Armstrong’s June 23 meeting with the press, he became the subject of numerous newspaper stories in the coming days–many of which he saved and turned into tape box collages. Those would end up being the last collages Armstrong made and will be the subject of our next post later this week, which will also touch on a visit from clarinetist Joe Muranyi on July 2, Armstrong’s final letters, and what turned out to be his last birthday party on July 4, 1971.