[Author’s Note: A longer version of this piece was published on this site in 2020. This updated version has removed discussions of other tapes that have recently been covered in our special 2021 series on Louis Armstrong’s final tapes. You can read the entire series here.]
Louis Armstrong passed away in his sleep in the early hours of July 6, 1971, 50 years ago. He spent his final day in his den listening to music and dubbing records to tape. What was the final music he listened to? This Virtual Exhibit will tell the tale of Louis Armstrong’s final tape.
I don’t write about myself often on this site but by way of introduction, my name is Ricky Riccardi and I’m the Director of Research Collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum. When I was hired as Project Archivist in 2009, one of my tasks was to perform “retrospective conversion,” going through all previously cataloged items, renumbering them and enhancing their catalog descriptions when appropriate. By the time I was hired, I had already logged three years as a researcher listening to dozens of Louis’s precious reel-to-reel tapes. But when I began the retrospective conversion process, I noticed that not all of Louis’s tapes had been transferred to CD, including this reel, with the accession number 1987.3.590:
On the surface, it looked like any other, a black Scotch box with a plaid stripe on the right side. I had probably seen a few hundred like it, though most usually contained one of Louis’s collages. But when I turned it over, I saw some writing–Lucille’s handwriting–on the bottom of the back of the box:
If you can’t make it out, she wrote, “Last Tape recorded by Pops. 7/5/71.”
And then I opened the box and sure enough, the original tape was inside…..never copied.
Louis used to write lists of the contents to each tape but this box had no such sheet, meaning there was no way of knowing what was on the tape without playing it. Because it wasn’t copied, I correctly assumed that there wasn’t anything earth-shattering on it, no “goodbye” to his fans or final secrets from his life.
But the question remained: what were the last songs Louis Armstrong listened to on the very last tape he made, the one still in the Tandberg tape deck in his home in Corona, Queens when he passed away?
Unfortunately, the answers to those questions would have to wait as I was hired under a two-year grant and transferring tapes wasn’t part of it. At the end of the second year, I had finished everything covered under the grant and thankfully was retained as full-time Archivist for the Museum. Now, without a grant over my head, I could dig into things I wanted to work on, as well as explore mysteries that cropped up during my first pass through our collections. Such as, what was on Louis’s last tape?
But there was one gigantic obstacle in my way: I had no idea how to work a reel-to-reel tape deck. Record player, cassette, CD, MP3, bring ’em on. Reel-to-reel? I was lost. 3 3/4 speed? 7 1/2? Half-track, quarter-track? What?
We have a terrific audio lab right in our workroom at the Archives but I didn’t know the first thing about copying the tapes. Fortunately, our Director at the time, the late Michael Cogswell, was a pro. But the first time he sat me down to show me how to do it, the machine didn’t work. Naturally. We had to find a repair place, deliver it, wait, pick it up, etc. Months passed.
By the time the machine returned, fixed, Michael had more or less moved full-time from his office at the Archives to an office next door to the Armstrong House in Corona. I knew it would be difficult to get him back at the Archives long enough for a reel-to-reel tutorial and sure enough it was. More months passed.
But finally, in February 2013, the stars aligned and Michael was able to train me on the ins and outs of working with tape. I didn’t dive right into the last tape and instead practiced with some others that just contained dubs of commercial recordings.. I was fixing splices, switching speeds and feeling pretty sure of myself after a day or two.
Finally, around 11 a.m. on an early February day, I was ready. I explained to my volunteer, Harvey Fisher, what was about to happen. I went into the stacks, grabbed the tape, sat at the tape deck and loaded the tape onto the hub. I hit “Play” and held my breath as it started spinning. This is what came out:
“Listen to the Mockingbird,” Louis’s 1952 collaboration with Gordon Jenkins. I have probably heard this record 50 times, maybe more, over the years. But something about this occasion started affecting me, knowing it was one of the last things Louis ever listened to. After it ended, I didn’t know what to expect. There was silence and then I heard record scratching and a needle drop. “That Lucky Old Sun” followed. You know, the one that “rolls around heaven all day.” Phew.
As soon as I heard it, I knew Louis was listening to the Decca compilation of his work with Gordon Jenkins, Satchmo in Style.
“Listen to the Mocking Bird” was the final track on side 1. Had he dubbed the rest? Yes, on “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings 17,” which we discussed recently in Part 4 of our series on all of the tapes Louis Armstrong made in his final weeks. As discussed in that post, Armstrong dubbed the first half of Satchmo in Style as Reel 17….then devoted Reel 18 of the “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings” series to dubs of mid-1940s radio broadcasts featuring his big band. And as chronicled last week, he decorated several tapes with collages made up of news clippings from late June and early July 1971, often using boxes he marked as “Empty” because he had dubbed the contents elsewhere in the “Personal Recordings” series.
It’s almost impossible to crack the “code” of Armstrong’s method but we know his “last tape” picked up where Reel 17 ended with the continuation of Satchmo in Style. As we’ve established, there’s no handwritten contents sheet, nor a collage; this is truly the last tape.
After “Listen to the Mocking Bird,” Armstrong flipped the disc over to side two and continued recording it until the end. On and on it went: Louis’s parody of boppers on “The Whiffenpoof Song,” his passionate singing of Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees,” the romping “Bye and Bye” (with its chorus of special lyrics paying tribute to dead jazz musicians….seriously), the fun Halloween novelty “Spooks” and finally, Jenkins’s beautiful version of Armstrong’s theme song “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.”
I felt tears in my eyes while dubbing it at the Archives and turned to Harvey and said, “I’ve listened to these tracks for over 15 years….but they’re really getting to me today!” He agreed.
I secretly hoped the tape ended there. Could anyone think of a better final tune to end his life listening to? But no, I heard the whir of a new record spinning, the needle dropped again and I waited for what followed:
“Muskrat Ramble” from Satchmo at Symphony Hall. Here’s Louis’s copy:
I then noticed something: Louis’s reel, at 3 3/4 speed was spinning REALLY slowly. And there was a LOT of tape left. So I went back to other work, but kept it transferring. Louis listened to and recorded the entire 2-LP set, probably with fond memories of the musicians and friends on that album who were no longer living: Velma Middleton, Sid Catlett and Jack Teagarden.
Almost two hours went by. I was at my computer when all of a sudden I realized “Mop Mop” was on…the final track! I stopped what I was doing and stared at the spinning reels. Would “Mop Mop” be it? Or would there be more? It ended. Silence. Whir of a record. Needle drop. There was more:
“Can’t We Be Friends.” Ella and Louis. Here’s Louis’s copy, a rare His Master’s Voice pressing from London, with a handwritten “X” on the cover, something Louis sometimes did as a way of notating he had dubbed the record to tape:
Wow. One of my personal favorites, such a joyous, delightful, peaceful album. I let it roll: “Isn’t it a Lovely Day,” “Moonlight in Vermont,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Under a Blanket of Blue,” “Tenderly,” “A Foggy Day,” “Stars Fell on Alabama,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “The Nearness of You”…..
Uh oh….it was time for the final track of the original album.
“April in Paris.” Too beautiful to comprehend. That vocal (“April in Praris”), that trumpet solo (holding the note into the bridge like Sinatra), that final, perfectly phrased trumpet coda after Ella’s vocal. Gorgeous.
Once more, I waited. There was still some tape left.
Silence. No whir. No needle. That was it. I fast forwarded through to the end of the reel. Nothing. Just to be safe, I flipped the reel to see if there was anything on the other side. There wasn’t.
The last song Louis Armstrong listened to on the very last tape he made on July 5, 1971 was “April in Paris.” For authenticity, here’s the audio of it transferred from Louis’s tape, complete with hiss and various pops and clicks from his vinyl copy:
Upon the conclusion, Louis left his den and headed down the hallway to his bedroom. According to both Joe Muranyi and Jack Bradley, Lucille told them at different times that Louis was feeling frisky and tried to initiate “the vonce.” She declined, fearing for his health. He went to sleep. About 5:30 in the morning of July 6, Louis Armstrong passed away in his sleep.
Can you think of a better way to go out? I can’t. After over ten years on the job, listening to and transferring that tape remains one of the highlights of what has been a dream job. The only way to properly close is with some music to remember him by. We’re posting this on Louis’s “traditional” July 4 birthday, July 5 is the anniversary of the “last tape” and July 6 will mark 50 years since he passed away. Thus, if you need something to listen to to celebrate Pops, we made a Spotify playlist containing just about all of the music contained on Armstrong’s final tapes, as described in the past month, over 33 hours in all. You’ll notice that we kept the repetitions because there were certain items–Hello, Dolly!, the V.S.O.P collections of his 1920s recordings, his Verve work–he returned to multiple times in this period. And of course, some selections have not made it into the streaming world, alas, so you’ll have to dig out Louis Armstrong’s Greatest Hits Recorded Live, Erskine Tate’s “Static Strut,” 1933’s “Swing You Cats,” the High Society soundtrack, Pearl Bailey’s Pearl’s Pearls, and a few others. All that’s missing is the whirring and hissing of the vinyl but it all still sounds just as good as when Louis listened to it in his den 50 years ago…