“That Cat Ain’t Never Gonna Die”: Louis Armstrong’s Final Collages and Last Birthday Party

In our last post, we discussed that Armstrong finished putting number “18” on a reel of “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings” but did not make a handwritten contents sheet for said reel. We also mentioned that Reel 17 contained the first half of what would eventually become Armstrong’s last tape, to be discussed here on July 5. Yet Armstrong was a busy man between June 23 and July 5, welcoming visitors, trimming news clippings about his improving conditions, writing letters and celebrating what would be his last birthday.

We’ll start with what we know are Armstrong’s final collages and tapes, even though they didn’t get the “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings” designation. In Part 3 of that series, we shared the cover for “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings” Reel 15, which featured photos of Armstrong and Lauren Bacall from a Rainbow Room event in June 1970. He must have had some extra photos from the event nearby, which made up the following collages:

LAHM 1987.3.489
LAHM 1987.3.489

As you can see, it is only marked “Empty” by Armstrong on the outside of the box. So how do we know it’s from the end of Louis’s life? Because the tape inside is not “empty” but rather contains audio of his March 1, 1971 Tonight Show appearance to plug the Waldorf engagement, and we know he didn’t get to hear that until he came home in May. It also contains audio of a previous tribute at the Waldorf in November 1970. Both events ended up part of the much longer “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings 5” mixtape (described here). Thus, it seems “Empty” really meant to Louis, “I already copied this material and can now tape over this reel or put a fresh reel inside this empty box.”

That tape actually contains a dub of only Armstrong’s Tonight Show segment. Louis also had the master tape of the entire episode, with commercials (and a great routine by Albert Brooks). That one, most likely sent directly from the network, was housed in another “Empty” box he decorated with some wonderful pictures. On the front, a wonder newspaper juxtaposition of two photos of Louis and Lucille kissing, the first one their wedding day in 1942, the second a Jack Bradley photo from 1967:

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On the back, he annotated a photo from the time he stopped a civil war in the Congo in 1960 (quite a proud moment to look back on so close to the end of his life!):

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Earlier this week, we shared audio from “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings” 16 when Armstrong dubbed multiple news reports from March, April and May 1971 charting his life-and-death struggle in the hospital. Armstrong obviously didn’t record those himself; instead, Armstrong was friends with famed recording engineer Tony Janak, who seemingly recorded audio of every newscast on television and would send edited copies to friends/clients/celebrities if their name was mentioned. Janak sent Armstrong the news reports on a single reel that took up less than three minutes. Though Armstrong dubbed it to another tape, he knew that Janak’s reel had too much blank tape to waste. Thus, instead of describing it as “Empty,” he made a new type of note calling it a “Filling Up Reel.”

That’s all well and good but it’s the collages that really tug at the heart strings: Louis and Jack Teagarden on the front, Louis with Velma Middleton and with Big Sid Catlett on the back. Teagarden, Middleton and Catlett were arguably Armstrong’s three closest musician friends. All of them were now deceased. Thus, Armstrong must have had some heavy nostalgia pangs as he put these collages together, not knowing (or maybe he did), that he was literally days away from joining them:

LAHM 1987.3.582
LAHM 1987.3.582

There’s a similar look and feel to this next tape box, which even features a numbering system, the front being “1,” the back being “2.” Another “Empty” designation proves false as this reel contained the Barnard Brothers sound recording The Naked Dance from Australia, with a spoken introduction made for Tom Pletcher, all of which ended up on early volumes of “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings.” There’s even some Joe Bushkin and Bing Crosby recordings but in all honesty, they sound like recordings that might have been on the original tape, most likely from the early 1950s, with Armstrong taping over the rest with the Australian recording in 1971. Either way, for the collage, Armstrong reached back for a photo of his 1927 Sunset Cafe “Stompers” band with Earl Hines among others and cut it and half, splitting it over the front and back of the box:

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LAHM 1987.3.504

Louis’s 1927 Stompers also made their way onto the front of another Tape Box marked “Empty” in this period but this time there was truth in advertising as all that exists is the empty box with no reel inside:

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On the back of the box, another gem from just a few years later, Louis with Luis Russell from the time he fronted that stomping band between December 1929 and January 1930:

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In last week’s post about the June 23 media visit to Armstrong’s home, we shared this photo of Louis and Tyree Glenn in Armstrong’s den:

(Original Caption) “Satchmo” Jams. New York, New York: Famed trumpeter Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong died, July 6, at his home at the age of 71. Out of the hospital after a long illness, Armstrong in a jam session with sidekick Tyree Glenn (left), June 23, while recuperating at home. On the mend, he was allowed to play one hour a day.

If you peak in the upper right corner of the above photo, you’ll notice a tape box collage staring at us. It is the following one, featuring a 1931 image of Louis visiting the Municipal Boys Home in New Orleans with Lil Hardin Armstrong, Peter Davis, Capt. Joseph Jones and Manuella Jones:

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Note that Armstrong has marked the tape as “Empty” but it actually contained a reel with the audio of Armstrong’s June 1970 TV appearance on Dial M for Music. We’ve already seen that cataloged elsewhere as part of the “Armstrong’s Personal Tapes” series, once again illustrating that Armstrong’s system is almost impossible to crack. As speculated earlier, perhaps having dubbed it, Armstrong marked it as “Empty” as a note that he could tape over it? Or did “Empty” mean it hadn’t been assigned a catalog number yet? We might never know.

Honestly, there must be ten more similar “Empty” tape boxes, but my gut tells me they were made before Armstrong’s heart attack in March 1971 as the contents on on the outer cases and on the actual tapes is almost exclusively from 1970, when Armstrong was hard at work at his regular reel-to-reel indexing. One tape, though, is on the border and is worth discussing. It contains an episode of The Mike Douglas Show from May 29, 1970, but also half of Armstrong appearance with Douglas on February 16, 1971, followed by audio of Armstrong on the Dick Cavett Show on February 22, 1971, a week before the Waldorf engagement began. Nothing else is dated but since it’s another late collage, we might as well share it, too, since it could from this late May-June period. The front of the box contains a striking collage from Carlos de Ratzitzky (dated 1969), who was born in London but spent much of his adult life in Belgium, serving as Vice President of the Hot Club of Belgium. The collage doesn’t depict a Belgian scene, but Armstrong still wrote “Brussells Belgium” on the bottom probably as a way of notating that’s where de Ratzitzsky lived (for a much deeper discussion of this mysterious collage, please see Matthias Heyman’s 2019 article in the Jazz Research Journal).

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Armstrong paired the above collage with another type of collage, this one made up of images of jazz musicians and sent to Louis by Bill and Janet Hassan (whose sons read this site–we hope to do a piece on Louis’s friendship with the Hassan family in the future!):

But the main reason that tape is worth including is because of the location of the other half of Armstrong’s February 16, 1971 Mike Douglas appearance. If you’ve been following this series, you should know by now that Armstrong hosted Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams on June 21 and then invited a bunch of reporters and photographers to his home on June 23. Multiple stories hit the news wire at once in late June and many copies ended up in Armstrong’s possession. Louis wasn’t leaving the house much in this period so I doubt he headed to the newsstand to pick up all these obscure papers. Instead, someone must have sent him the clippings, so giving a few days for the mail to be delivered, these probably got to him by June 30. They soon made their way onto various tape boxes, assuredly making them Armstrong’s final collages.

Thus, the second part of that February 1971 Douglas show is on the following tape. The front of this one features a photo of Louis being honored at the Massachusetts state capitol in Boston in 1958 with Senator John E. Powers and other politicians. 

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That’s all well and good, a special moment in Louis’s life that he had many pictures of (including almost an entire scrapbook’s worth). But what about the back of the box?

LAHM 1987.3.488

New York Daily News clipping from June 25, 1971, showing Louis playing with Tyree Glenn in the background and a headline that he’s “Swinging Again to Music.” You’ll notice the “Empty” again, but it’s not. This tape actually has the recording of Louis and the All Stars from Sparks, Nevada in June 1964 that we encountered on “Armstrong’s Personal Tapes” 5 (yes, the same reel with the 1970 Waldorf tribute and 1971 Tonight Show appearance encountered on another “Empty” tape mentioned last week), plus audio of the aforementioned first half of his appearance on the Mike Douglas Show on February 16, 1971.

This next box contains another June 25, 1971 clipping, this one from the New York Times, including one of the photos of Louis and Lucille on their living room couch on June 23. In the bottom corner is the Eddie Adams photo of Louis smiling from June 21, clipped out by Armstrong, along with a headline, “Back Smiling.” There’s even a longer article on the right side, difficult to read but we’ll have more legible clippings to share below.

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The back of the box features clippings from the Pacific Stars and Stripes with one of Eddie Adams’s photos from June 21….including a caption in Japanese! That’s what I mean by it taking Louis at least a few days, maybe a week, to have these articles sent to him:

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The above reel contained two of Armstrong’s TV appearances from 1971, The Dick Cavett Show (broadcast February 22) and The Pearl Bailey Show (broadcast January 23). Armstrong must have enjoyed the Bailey appearance because he dubbed it from scratch again on the next reel we’re about to share, then included audio of an appearance on The Mike Douglas Show from May 1970. But the audio’s not important, it’s the collages and this one has two more powerful ones:

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There’s lots going on in that one but most notable is the headline for Armstrong’s impending 71st birthday celebration on July 4, two days before he died. Armstrong’s scissors also spotlighted phrases like “Everyone’s Favorite” and “The Golden Horn Once More.”

The back of the box featured even more, with Louis cutting out various phrases like, “Why, Hello Satchmo,” “Satchmo Comes Home,” Relax Satch,” “Blow, Satch, Blow,” “Satchmo Back Smiling” and “Satchmo: Chops Are Fine” (he annotated the main article as being from “Wash. DC”).

LAHM 1987.3.484

But the best-known collage from this series is one from The Register in Orange County, California. This one starts on the front and continues around back:

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LAHM 1987.3.471

Though not marked “Empty,” that box was indeed left without a reel inside.

We also realize the above stories are difficult to read with all the Scotch tape, but almost every one was based on the original Associated Press reports filed by Mary Campbell, which we shared in last week’s post. Some friends sent Armstrong copies of the clippings as they spotted them. Here’s a few extra ones found in Louis’s collection that he didn’t have time to turn into collages, opening with a UPI version of the story written by Patricia E. Davis and featuring a remarkably touching headline, considering it was published on July 4:

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The following article adds “Whispering” to the set list of songs Armstrong and Tyree Glenn performed in the den on June 23:

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Here’s the Pacific Stars and Stripes AP article from the periodical that we saw in an earlier collage, sent to Louis by an unidentified friend, who wrote “GREAT!” in the margin:

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Multiple friends sent Armstrong clippings, such as Floyd Levin of California, who typed a “Happy Birthday” message directly onto the newspaper:

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Armstrong, in turn, also shared some of them with some of the folks in his life. We’ve already discussed Erich Kauffmann, the son-in-law of the late Franz Schuritz, who manufactured Armstrong’s lip salve in Mannheim, Germany. The Reuters report of the June 23 visit was written by Ross Gilligan, who wrote, “Then [Armstrong] and Tyree Glenn staged a jam session in Satchmo’s study. He perched a sun hat on his head and led off, with Glenn playing a giant trombone presented to Louis by the family of his lip salve manufacturer, the late Franz Schuritz, of Mannheim, German. Satchmo took a few minutes to warm up then he and Glenn were off, taking in such numbers as ‘Whispering’ and closing with ‘If We Never Meet Again.’ It was a fitting finale.”

When Armstrong came across a Reuters clipping that mentioned Schuritz and the trombone, he excitedly sent the clipping to Kauffmann with a letter dated July 2. This letter showed up once in an auction and though all traces of it have seemingly disappeared from the internet, I was able to transcribe it when I first spotted it several years ago. It’s the last surviving Armstrong letter that we know of:

“I thought you would like to read this Article in the newspaper from San Francisco, California. They also mentioned Mr. Schuritz + his lip salve that I am still using. The Gentlemen that’s standing beside me is Tyree Glenn, my Trombone Player – he is playing Mr. Schuritz’s Trombone. I had it all cleaned up. It look that Beautiful way we love.
I had it cleaned up just fine and I had a Bran new Trombone case made for it. I shall Cherish and keep this Horn (the trombone) among my treasure chest all of my life. Now for my health, I am glad to say that I am feeling fine and almost well. Just a little weakness in my legs. And I will soon walk without my walking cane. I have a very good Doctor and my dear wife Lucille who takes real good care of me, she also sends love to you and your wonderful family. Gutta’s daughter, which is your Granddaughter, looks beautiful. She sure has grown. She is going to be a real nice young Lady. You all must be very proud of her. Lucille and myself, we remember her when
She was a little Baby. We remember Gutta when she was a little Baby also. Kids grow up so fast, don’t they? Lucille’s niece, who is a grown young lady, have three children and we just love them very much. They are so nice to have around aren’t they? Real great company. The photo that you sent to me of yourself, I also put it into my ScrapBook. Also Gutta’s little girl. I practice on my (Horn) (meaning) my trumpet every day a half hour before my dinner. And I am very happy about it. I shall say more in my next letter. It is a real pleasure to write a letter to you. So stay well and happy.
From your pal
Satchmo, Louis Armstrong.

***********************************************

It’s also possible that Armstrong wrote two beloved short manuscripts, “Our Neighborhood” and “Barber Shops,” in this period. We have discussed those and shared them in full in this 2020 post by Adriana Filstrup so you can check them out there. We’re not 100% sure if the hospital stay Armstrong refers to in “Our Neighborhood” is the 1969 stay or the 1971 stay but the reference to 29 years on the block is a good indication that both manuscripts came from this late June-early July 1971 period.

Armstrong also invited some friends over for dinner on July 2, including All Stars clarinetist Joe Muranyi–who brought a tape recorder. Muranyi gave me a copy of what he called “the last supper” before his 2012 passing and I’d like to share a few excerpts here. Perhaps the most touching moment occurred in Armstrong’s den, when Louis used the opportunity to once again address his fans:

At the end of the clip, Lucille can be heard buzzing Louis for dinner over an intercom system. Once downstairs, Armstrong kicked off dinner by saying Grace, a clip we have used in the dining room on tours of the Louis Armstrong House Museum over the past few years:

Over dinner–a soul food feast that included ribs, which Louis refers to as “naked bones”–conversation turned to the construction of the Armstrong’s new Garden, and specifically the installation of a new outdoor bathroom. Muranyi makes a straight-faced joke referencing an outhouse that initially seems to go over the guests heads but once they catch on, Lucille springs into action with a hilarious rebuke, while Louis demonstrates that his sense of humor was fully intact:

Two days later, Armstrong’s 71st birthday was celebrated in the press, such as in this column by Joe Delaney, who clipped it out and sent it to Louis with a “Happy Birthday” message. Delaney also relates a phone call with Lucille the previous week, in which she relayed, “Pops’ chops are up, he is off medication, eating whatever he pleases but a little more moderately, and his treaders (legs) are giving him trouble.”

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Chicago-based songwriter Charles J. Levy, who went by the stage name “Creole Charlie” and wrote the 1968 book Voluntary Servitude: Whites in the Negro Movement for Harvard University, also wrote on July 4. He mentions sending another news clipping, so perhaps one of his earlier letters contained one of the clippings that was turned into a collage, while this one contained the ones Armstrong didn’t get to. Levy composed two songs with Armstrong’s name on them, “You’re in New Orleans” and “Leave It All Behind Ya,” referenced here and also often by Louis but neither song was ever recorded.

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African American actress Hilda Haynes sent Louis a copy of Florence Scovell Shinn’s 1941 book of affirmations, Your Word Is Your Wand, inscribing it, “To Louis, a wonderful human being and a superb Genius. Love, Hilda July 4, 1971.” Here’s a copy of the note Haynes sent along with the book:

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LAHM 1987.9.51
LAHM 1987.9.51

At some point on July 4, Armstrong received an “Honorary Life Membership” plaque from the nearby Flushing Meadow-Corona Park World’s Fair Association:

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Armstrong celebrated his 71st birthday at home in Corona. We don’t believe there are photos from the festivities, but for the sake of completeness, we’re going to share two photos from this period. In our first post on “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings,” we shared two snapshots of Louis in a pink shirt, riding his stair chair and sitting by himself on his living room couch, definitely taken between late May and July 6, 1971. There are two more snapshots from that occasion, one of Louis on the couch with an unidentified young man and another of him outside (with his Budweiser hat on and looking terribly skinny), standing with an unidentified lady. We do know that he had some guests over on the Fourth of July so it’s very possible these are from his last birthday but if not, at least we will have shared all the surviving photos from those final weeks of his life:

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LAHM 1987.14.3663

In the second photo, Armstrong is standing in alleyway next to his front door, with neighbor Adele and Selma Heraldo’s home on the other side of the wall. Selma referenced that alleyway in this 2002 interview with Michael Cogswell and the cake her mother made for Louis’s last birthday:

Selma makes it pretty clear in that clip that it was a small gathering, with Lucille’s sister and children (could the young man in the above photo be one of Louis’s godchildren?) enjoying themselves. Word also got to then-Columbia University student Phil Schaap that Armstrong spent part of his birthday with friends in his new Garden listening to Schaap’s “Louis Armstrong Birthday Broadcast” on WKCR radio.

However, one article came out soon after Armstrong’s death that told a different story. Patrick Scott covered jazz for the Toronto Star and was well connected with not just musicians, but had profiled Armstrong extensively in the mid-1960s and got to know his inner circle well, such as road manager Ira Mangel. Scott wouldn’t reveal his sources but here’s the article he published:

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If you can’t read it, Scott wrote:

“Jazzman Louis Armstrong played and sang himself to death at his own birthday party, The Star learned today. Although only his closest confidants will confirm it, the desperately sick Satchmo defied his doctors’ strictest orders–and fulfilled a promise to himself–playing his trumpet and singing far into the night at a private party in his home here on his 71st birthday Sunday. Only 24 hours later, his weakened heart stopped beating and he was found dead in bed.

“Close friends of Armstrong also revealed last night that his health had deteriorated far more drastically in recent months than had been acknowledged publicly. In addition to the kidney infection that brought him near death two months ago in New York’s Beth Israel Hospital, Armstrong was suffering from severe heart spasms, a serious liver condition and, finally, pneumonia.

“Yet until he blew his last note Sunday night–reportedly in a rousing finale to When The Saints Come Marching In–Armstrong continued to insist that he planned a comeback this fall. His spirit, however, proved to be stronger than his heart, and medical reports officially attributed his death yesterday to heart failure.”

To be honest, such details never appeared in any other stories at the time and Lucille Armstrong surely never told such stories so it’s possible the rumor mill got out of control in the hours after Armstrong died and Scott ran with what he was told without time to fully fact check. Or it’s possible that if it did happen as Scott described, Lucille could have felt guilty at letting Louis entertain in his condition and didn’t want to take any responsibility for what happened after. Personally, as much as I like drama of Scott’s version, I’m siding with Selma’s description of a low-key affair since she was there, plus Lucille told the press on June 23, “I think at this particular time it would be an injustice to Louis to have people in. We’ll just be quiet…just the two of us. And since he can’t have sweets I’ll probably just bae a cupcake and put a candle on it and say ‘that’s 71.'”

That quote comes from Patricia Davis’s extended coverage of the June 23 visit to Corona, which continued to run in multiple newspapers around the world on July 4 and 5, now tied in to Louis’s 71st birthday. Though we’ve already seen part of this next quote in a headline above, it’s worth closing with Davis’s description of Armstrong playing “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” that June day:

“Taking a chorus, eyes closed, ever-present white handkerchief clutched in his left hand, Satchmo ran off a series of clear, clean notes, whose mellowness and phrasing proclaimed that he has lost none of his touch. Then he laid down his horn, wiped his chops with the handkerchief, pointed to a photograph of himself and mused:

“‘See that cat? You can’t kill him, man. That cat ain’t ever gonna die. We just gonna keep on going, just going. Yeeeaaah, man!”

Have a Happy Fourth of July, everyone. Make to sure to listen to some Pops (we recommend, the WKCR Birthday Broadcast still going strong 50 years later. We’ll be back on Monday with the story of the last tape Louis Armstrong made.

Published by Ricky Riccardi

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

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