The funeral of Louis Armstrong took place 50 years ago today. In our last post, we introduced Phoebe Jacobs, who showed up after Louis passed away to help Lucille Armstrong get in touch with the media and to begin planning the funeral. The first order of business was to have Louis’s body lie in state at the 7th Regiment Armory on Park Avenue in Manhattan for two days so fans could say their last goodbyes. Tens of thousands of people from all over the world passed through the Armory, as described in these articles in the New York Post, New York Daily News, and Newsday, as saved by Lucille and Phoebe:
While Armstrong lie in state, Lucille Armstrong welcomed Louis’s second wife, Lil Hardin Armstrong, as well as his sister Beatrice “Mama Lucy” Collins and two half-brothers, Willie and Henry. There wasn’t enough room for everyone to say at the Armstrong’s home, so Lil stayed with next-door neighbors the Heraldos (daughter Selma Heraldo remembered Lil only brought white shoes and they had to use black shoe polish to make them look more appropriate for the service).
Photographer Beuford Smith captured these photos of Lucille and Lil arriving together at the Armory, and also one of Lucille and “Mama Lucy” arriving with two older gentlemen I assume are Louis’s half-brothers; our eternal thanks to Mr. Smith for donating these, and many other images from that day, to our Archives, in 2013:
Meanwhile, Lucille had to plan the funeral with great assistance from Phoebe Jacobs. Though Louis had spent years telling reporters about the New Orleans-styled send-off he envisioned for himself, with musicians coming from around the world to blow for him, Lucille chose to go another route. She booked the small Corona Congregational Church for the service and did not include New Orleans-type “second line” celebrations; in fact, she was “adamant” that no musicians were to perform. Corona Congregational could only hold 500 guests and they all had to be specially invited; here’s a photo from our Archives of the funeral from the back of the church:
Once the politicians, celebrities and VIPs got their invitations, there wasn’t room for many of Armstrong’s true friends, such as Jack Bradley. Lucille spoke to Jack and told him that he was “like a son” to them, but added, “Of course, we’re limited in tickets to the funeral and the politicians and the songwriters must come first. I hope you understand that.” Bradley, who thought he might be a pallbearer, was hurt but ended up having a busy day anyway, as will be discussed later in this post.
Ella Fitzgerald would be attending the funeral, but as the story went, was too upset to sing. Instead, Peggy Lee, a close friend of Jacobs’s, was asked to do “The Lord’s Prayer,” and Al Hibbler was chosen to sing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and a slow version of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Dr. Billy Taylor would speak and the eulogy would be delivered by disc jockey Fred Robbins.
Thousands of people lined up on the streets of Corona, gathering in front of the Armstrong House and stretching all the way to the church a few blocks away. Here’s one photo Phoebe Jacobs saved of some of the children of Corona, who made signs as they waited for the procession to pass:
The best footage of what was going on outside Corona Congregational was provided by the Italian RAI television network and is available on YouTube. RAI couldn’t get inside the church but had cameras outside the Armstrong’s home when they left for the funeral (you’ll see Lucille, Lil and Louis’s adopted son Clarence on the front steps), a reporter outside of the church during the service, they were stationed at Flushing Cemetery for the burial, and had shot footage of Armstrong’s body at the Armory, too. The amount of people in the streets is staggering (footage starts at 1:25):
For what happened inside the church 50 years ago today, this Hearst Metrotone tribute from 1971 includes some clips, along with introduction by Dr. Billy Taylor and some other clips of Armstrong (including footage of him doing “Boy From New Orleansn” at the Waldorf in March 1971):
For a more complete picture of what happened inside Corona Congregational Church 50 years ago today, we must turn to the Voice of America, which broadcast the entire service to listeners around the world, opening with a somber, emotional monologue from Willis Conover (Conover’s words appeared in slightly edited form as “The Funeral of Louis Armstrong” in the July 31, 1971 issue of Stereo Review). Conover made sure a copy of the tape was sent to Lucille Armstrong; here is the complete watermarked audio of that broadcast:
That is quite a rare broadcast but the real treasure of this Virtual Exhibit is still to come. CBS wanted to do something special for Armstrong and blocked out an hour of prime-time space to air a tribute, Louis Armstrong 1900-1971, to be hosted by Walter Cronkite. CBS’s team of researchers sprung into action and quickly landed on Jack Bradley, asking him for photos.
“Oh, that’s great,” Bradley responded. “Are you having music?” Assured they were, Bradley followed up, “May I ask who you’re having?” In 2008, Bradley relayed their answer: “Doc Severinsen, J. J. Johnson, Cannonball Adderley and then it went downhill after that.”
“No, that’s no good,” Bradley told CBS. “These are all great musicians but they had no direct relationship with Louis and if you’re going to do that, I don’t want to sell you any of my pictures.”
“Oh really?” came the reply. “You feel that strongly?” Bradley stuck to his guns. “Definitely!” he responded. “You obviously don’t know what the hell you’re doing.”
Instead of hanging up on him, CBS invited Bradley to come meet with them. At the meeting, Bradley gave them a list of names including Roy Eldridge, Bobby Hackett, Zutty Singleton, Tyree Glenn, Ella Fitzgerald, and more. “They listened to me–I couldn’t believe it,” Bradley said in 2008. CBS told Bradley to start making calls and he eventually assembled a band with trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Bobby Hackett, trombonist Tyree Glenn, tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson, pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, bassist Milt Hinton, drummer Buddy Rich and fresh from the funeral, Peggy Lee on vocals.
Bradley asked for a credit on the screen and to be paid for helping to assemble the band–and was refused on both counts–but Bradley was invited for the rehearsal and filming and they did send a limousine for him to be taken to Queens for the funeral and back. Though he didn’t make it inside the church, Bradley snapped many photos from outside:
Back home, Bradley was satisfied with how the CBS tribute turned out. “All in all, it certainly came off better as far as I was concerned than the original band they had planned,” Bradley said in 2008. “I’m proud of that.” We’ll share more of Bradley’s story and images when we resume our tribute posts to Louis’s late friend in the near future, but here is one of his photos of this incredible assemblage:
At 7:30 p.m. on July 9, 1971, CBS aired Louis Armstrong 1900-1971. A copy of the broadcast was sent to Lucille Armstrong and it has remained in our Archives it was brought over from the Armstrong House 30 years ago. As far as we can tell, it was never aired again and has never appeared on YouTube or anywhere else online. Thus, we are proud to present this transfer of the original 16mm film, digitized thanks to a grant from Fund II Foundation.
The next day, Louis’s funeral was covered in news outlets far and wide. Lucille, again with the aid of Phoebe Jacobs, saved dozens of clippings, keeping some in folders, while others were placed in scrapbooks by Jacobs. Here is just a sampling of some that they saved:
Lucille also managed to save Jet magazine’s coverage of the funeral, which heavily criticized it for being “white and dead” compared to the “black, alive and swinging” public celebration that was held in New Orleans. Here is the complete article, with many photographs and detailed descriptions of both memorials:
Jet also published a longer, more formal obituary of Armstrong that included a notable quote from a “bereaved” Lucille telling the publication why her husband wasn’t buried in New Orleans: “Except for his sister, Beatrice, and his half brothers, Henry and William Armstrong, he has nothing in New Orleans….He hasn’t lived in New Orleans since he was 19, and although he was born there, he considered New York his home. After all, he spent 40 years of his life here.” This second Jet article also reproduced the following beautiful photo, taken in the Armstrong’s living room sometime during Louis’s June 1971 media visits:
That concludes a pretty thorough look at the radio, television, and print coverage of Louis Armstrong’s funeral, but as lagniappe, we’d like to close with the text of Fred Robbins’s eulogy, which he gave to Lucille after the funeral. Most excerpts focus on the “Move over, Gabriel line,” but the complete text is very touching:
It might appear there’s nothing left to cover in our series on Louis’s final weeks and the aftermath of his passing–but no, there’s still much more to come. As news of Armstrong’s death hit the airwaves, condolence letters, telegrams, mass cards and more came flooding in. Lucille saved thousands of them and next week, we will share some of the most memorable offerings from around the world. (Did YOU or your family write to Lucille after Louis died? Let us know a name to look up and if we can find it, we will share it.)