“It’s Awful Nice To Be Up There Among All Them Beatles”: The Story of “Hello, Dolly!”

On this date in 1963, Louis Armstrong stepped into a recording studio for the first time in over two years. He knocked out recordings of two Broadway showtunes–one, the title song from a production that hadn’t even opened yet–and went right back to performing nightly with his All Stars. Six months later, one of the songs he recorded was on the top of the pop charts, having knocked the Beatles from the number one spot they had owned for 14 weeks.

Yes, friends, this is the story of Louis Armstrong and “Hello, Dolly!”

This initially started as another installment in our tribute series to the late Jack Bradley but though Bradley will be a part of it, the enormity of “Hello, Dolly!” dictates that this will take the form of one of our “That’s My Home” virtual exhibits as we will be sharing some very special treasures direct from Armstrong’s home in Corona, Queens.

As described in our recent Bradley posts, Armstrong was still incredibly busy in 1963–minus his rare time off to go on a cruise ship vacation with Lucille. But he hadn’t made any commercial recordings since The Real Ambassadors in September 1961. Part of it was rock ‘n’ roll had turned the recording industry into a young person’s game and Armstrong had only been recording albums, not singles, for the last several years. Also, Joe Glaser had priced Armstrong out of the budgets of many of the major labels; Audio Fidelity had to pay $40,000 to get Armstrong into the studio in 1960 and Columbia only was able to afford Armstrong’s participation in The Real Ambassadors because the success of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” gave the pianist some clout in who he wanted to record with. The lack of recording opportunities didn’t bother Glaser, who was making a fortune (for himself and, to be fair, for Armstrong, too) by charging–and receiving–exorbitant fees for Armstrong’s one-nighters.

This all changed when Glaser was contacted by Jack Lee, a song plugger who worked for the music publisher E. H. “Buddy” Morris. What happened next was described by Jimmy Breslin in a piece that ran in newspapers across the country in late March 1964:

“[‘Hello, Dolly!’] came from a fellow named Jack Lee, a music publisher, who walked into Joe Glaser’s office one day and said that he had a song made to order for Armstrong. Lee spread the music out on Glaser’s desk and, fingers snapping and foot tapping in tune to an atrocious singing voice, squawked out the tune. Glaser, who whispers in a voice most people use for a shout, picked up the tune with him. It was brutal, but nobody else in the office laughed while they did this. Because Joe Glaser had a far-off look in his eyes, the big money look.”

“I’ve been Pops’ manager like 38 or 40 years and I’ve known Jack for 30 years,” Glaser said in the May 3, 1964 issue of the New York Daily News. “We were looking for a single for Louis to make. He didn’t want to do another album, which would earn him maybe $25,000. What he needed was another single like ‘Blueberry Hill’ or ‘Mack the Knife’. So Lee sang ‘Dolly’ in his terrible voice, but the beat was right. It’s a simple song, and it’s maybe optimistic. Then Louis heard it and he said, ‘I like the song’ and we got a demo.”

That last line is a key part of understanding the Louis Armstrong-“Hello, Dolly!” saga. After “Dolly” became a hit, many stories were told that Armstrong didn’t know what he was about to record, hated the song, and was angry that he had to even record it. Bassist Arvell Shaw was the primary offender for telling this tale, once recalling that Armstrong was so incredulous that he had to record “Dolly,” he erupted, “You mean to tell me you called me out here to do this?” before adding that he “hated it.” Shaw was a marvelous musician but almost all of his tales of his time with Armstrong should be taken with a grain of salt as he was a true “print the legend” storyteller.

Breslin’s article accurately details what actually happened: “Two weeks [after Lee showed the song to Glaser], Armstrong sat in his house in Corona, Queens, with the demonstration record of ‘Dolly.’ For two weeks he walked around humming it and trying a few notes of it.” The New York Daily News corroborated this in their May 1964 story about “Dolly,” writing, “Meanwhile, back in his Corona, Queens, home, Pops was walking the living room in carpet slippers, listening to the demo and deciding what he wanted to do with it.”

Our Archives bear this out as we have a tape Louis made in the Den of his Corona, Queens home that consists of nothing but Armstrong listening repeatedly to demos of “Hello, Dolly!” and another tune from the score of the show, “A Penny In My Pocket,” in addition to James Darren’s rendition of “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” from a 1963 album of songs from Bye Bye Birdie.

The entire tape is not worth sharing here as Armstrong doesn’t “hum” or play “a few notes on it”; the most interesting thing he does is ask his wife Lucille for lunch, specifically a beer and an egg and liverwurst sandwich (musical geniuses–they’re just like us!). Here’s a taste of the end of one of the “Dolly” spins, Louis’s lunch order, then the start of Darren’s “A Lot of Livin’ to Do”:

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The recordings Armstrong listened to over and over are all on YouTube so here they are in better fidelity so you can get an idea of what he used to prepare for the date. First, “Dolly” (with prominent banjo throughout, perhaps subliminally planting some seeds):

Here’s “A Penny in My Pocket”:

And James Darren’s “A Lot of Livin’ to Do”:

“A Penny in Your Pocket” is rarely mentioned in conjunction with Armstrong, but Armstrong was also sent a lead sheet to study:

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And here’s the first page of Louis’s copy of the lyrics:-

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Perhaps Louis was given a choice and voted for “A Lot of Livin’ to Do”; can’t blame him. Here’s a copy of the sheet music he was sent (also published by Edwin H. Morris so Jack Lee wouldn’t have minded if Armstrong chose this instead of “Penny”):

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While Armstrong was in training, Joe Glaser was struggling to convince any of the major record labels to record “Hello, Dolly!” “I offered it to three top recording companies,” Glaser told the New York Daily News. “They all turned it down. Why? Because we wanted to make a single for the over-all trade. And they wanted to make an album, which has a relatively small sale.”

The record companies weren’t the only ones who were lukewarm on the idea; composer Jerry Herman later told the Daily News that he “said, ‘My God, no,’ when my publishers called to tell me Louis Armstrong was going to record the song. I thought they were kidding. I couldn’t think of anyone less likely to succeed with it.”

Finally Glaser had an inspired idea. “So I called my friend Dave Kapp, whom I’ve known maybe 20 years, and his [son] Mike, at Kapp records,” he said. “Dave says, sure, he’ll make it. Louis has made records for all the big labels, Columbia. RCA-Victor, but he’s not under contract to anyone at the moment.” 

Going to Kapp must have felt like going back home. Kapp was started by Dave Kapp in 1954, five years after the passing of his brother Jack Kapp, founder of Decca Records and the man who signed Louis to that label back in 1935 (and who also recorded him for Brunswick as far back as 1926). Dave Kapp ran the label but he let his 33-year-old son Mickey, or Mike, Kapp run the date. “There wasn’t anything unusual about the recording session,” Mickey Kapp told the Daily News in 1964. “I was in charge of it. You don’t know Satchmo. I call him one of the sleeping giants, like Bing Crosby. Like Armstrong, Bing can have a hit record any time he really wants one, and like Louis, he’s a millionaire. But Pops loves to work because he doesn’t really know any other kind of life. He needs nudging and direction, and he hadn’t had a hit since ‘Mack the Knife,’ back in 1955.”

One example of Mickey Kapp’s “nudging and direction” was to have Armstrong personalize the lyrics, writing in Armstrong’s part to have him sing “Hello, Dolly, it’s Louie, Dolly,” as seen in this page from our Archives: 

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According to Terry Teachout’s Pops, Armstrong grunted, “It’s Louissss” in the studio and made sure to sing it that way once Kapp started rolling tape.

Here’s a battered copy of the lead sheet also found in Louis Armstrong’s Collection, with Jack Lee’s name on the bottom, and some handwritten edits in Louis’s hand:

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Armstrong had his All Stars with him for the December 3, 1963 date, including Trummy Young on trombone, Joe Darensbourg on clarinet, Billy Kyle on piano, Arvell Shaw, on bass and Danny Barcelona on drums. Again, according to the legend of “Dolly,” Armstrong was unhappy with the playback and it was decided that banjo was needed. Trummy Young called Tony Gottuso who came down to the studio to overdub his part, which went a long way towards making “Dolly” standout in 1964. I have no great reason to doubt this but Jack Bradley and Jeann Failows were at the date and simply wrote “Tony Gottuso was added” not exactly specifying “added later” or simply added to the regular All Stars. A later Newsweek article gave Kapp Records the idea for adding the banjo, but also didn’t detail if that was the plan from the start or last-minute inspiration.

Regardless of when Gottuso performed his banjo, Mickey Kapp did goose the recording in postproduction with a discreet layer of strings (arranged by Robert Davie, according to the surviving parts in our Archives) and a tack piano hammering out the chords. Here’s the finished result, as heard on an interesting stereo mix Universal Music (who now owns Kapp) only issued one time, on the 2000 set, The Ultimate Collection:

Sure is a perfect record, isn’t it? When Joe Glaser first heard it, he exclaimed to long-time associate Cork O’Keefe, “Listen to that, Cork, it’s a fucking hit!” On a personal note, I have a vivid memory of being at the Armstrong House while Jon Faddis rehearsed his band before a children’s concert in our Garden. “Hello, Dolly!” came over the ambient music and Faddis quieted his bandmates before scatting and gesturing along with Armstrong’s trumpet solo, finally admitting that it would be impossible to play a more perfect solo on that song than what Armstrong did. Having one of the greatest living trumpeters give that solo the stamp of approval makes it all the more ironic that “Dolly” became the go-to piece evidence for critics who bemoaned that young fans who only discovered Armstrong in the 1960s (supposedly) had no idea that he was such a great musician.

With “Dolly” out of the way, the All Stars turned their attention to “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” with Gottuso switching to guitar. The result was more magic and something that legitimately excited those in the studio:

Two of those present were Jack Bradley and Jeann Failows. They wrote about it in their February-March 1964 Coda column with Bradley infamously throwing his enthusiasm behind “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” with only a short mention of “Dolly”! Here’s what they wrote:

“Now to the news: We’ll naturally start off with the King. Louis and the All-Stars recorded two sides for Kapp Records on Dec. 3. Banjoist Tony Gattuso was added. They recorded ‘Hello Dolly’ (by Jerry Herman) from the new musical of the same name (starring Carol Channing). The second title is the one to watch for: ‘A Lot Of Livin’ To Do’ (by Charles Straus [sic]), from the show ‘Bye Bye Birdie.’ Pops did the vocal chores on both. ‘Lot Of Livin’ really got to swinging like mad on the last chorus, with Louis soaring above it all. Credit is due Dave Kapp for recording this. With the proper promotion, this could become another ‘Mack The Knife.'”

Bradley did bring his camera to the date–at least I’m fairly certain he did. Here’s where Bradley’s sometimes shaky memory let him down. The following photo survives in multiple prints in the Jack Bradley Collection and on the back of each, Jack identified it as either being the “Hello, Dolly!” session, a Mercury date, or a Brunswick session from 1967!

Photo by Jack Bradley. 2006_1_730b_001

However, “Dolly” seems to get the edge when combined with this photo, taken the same day:

Photo by Jack Bradley. 2006_1_729

However, on the back of Jack’s lone print of the above photo, he identified the men flanking Armstrong as Jerry Herman and Dave Kapp. When my book What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years was published in 2011, I had just started working on the Bradley Collection, taking Jack’s notes as gospel, repeated his identifications. Well, anyone with access to Google can tell you that that is not Jerry Herman on the left and when Mickey Kapp passed away in 2019, the photo that ran as part of his New York Times obituary illustrated that the man on the right was indeed Mickey, not Dave, Kapp.

Who is the man on the left then? He also appears in photos Jack Bradley took of Armstrong’s November 3, 1964 Mercury session. I put one of those photos up on Facebook once and asked if anyone could identify him with no luck. Since this was a Kapp date and he also appeared at a Mercury date, I figured he couldn’t be associated with any of the labels. Then it hit me: the cause for the November 3 date was to have Armstrong record “Faith” from the Broadway musical If I Had a Ball. A quick search of the sheet music from that musical shows that it was also published by E. H. Morris. Thus, my hunch is it’s Jack Lee! A deep search of the music trades such as Billboard, Cash Box, and Variety show many mentions of Lee over the years, always in association with Morris Music, but never with any accompanying photos. If I’m wrong, please leave a comment, but it sure makes sense to me.

Armstrong and the All Stars went right back to work; Jack Bradley was present just three nights later when Armstrong performed in Newark, New Jersey. Here’s one photo of the concert that conveys the spirit of the night; no one in this photo could have predicted what was about to happen when “Hello, Dolly!’ would be released!

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Backstage, Bradley’s camera caught some wonderful glimpses of Armstrong’s serious side, including this one, capturing the trumpeter in what appears to be a moment of anger:

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A visit from tenor saxophonist Big Nick Nicholas didn’t seem to bring much cheer:

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Finally, Bradley’s camera caught a smiling Armstrong, relaxing while sitting on a chair backwards:

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One All Star who had no trouble smiling for Bradley’s camera was Trummy Young:

Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006_1_1655-03.

Perhaps one of the reasons Young was smiling was he was about to put in his notice and get off the road after having joining the All Stars in September 1952. As fate would have it, “Hello, Dolly!” was his last recording with Armstrong and would be heard by more people than anything he had previously waxed with the trumpeter.

In their Coda column, Bradley and Failows wrote, “This record date was historic in that it was Trummy Young’s last one with the All-Stars. After twelve years on the road, Trummy finally decided to give Mr. Glaser his resignation. He said his reason was due to his wife’s illness and also because the road was impairing his own health. After spending two weeks in Puerto Rico with the band, he arrived in  N. Y.C. on Jan. 2 and took a plane to his wife and home in Los Angeles. He plans to sell his home there and then move his family to Honolulu (where he had been living and working when Louis sent for him in 1952). He intends to form another group and get himself a nice steady little gig like he had before.”

Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006_1_1655-08

 “While with Pops, Trummy must have recorded close to 200 sides. Listening to these, one can realize that the All-Stars have lost their most valuable musician (next to Louis, of course). During his service with the group, his style became almost an extension of Louis’. His solos were Louis-inspired and he oft-time sounded like Louis’ trumpet when he’d play those Louis phrases in the upper register. In ensembles, his punch and drive couldn’t help but boot Louis to even greater heights. Trummy never hesitated to praise Louis verbally as well. He let it be known that this man is a genius and he held him in the highest regard, even though they were close personal friends.”

Jeann “Roni” Failows and Trummy Young in Newark, New Jersey, December 6, 1963.Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006_1_1655-31

“When friends and fans heaped praise upon Trummy, he usually shifted the conversation to Pops. He told a lot of cats that Louis was THE man – and a lot of them listened. We already miss this warm, sensitive musician and wish him the greatest of success in the future.”

Failows and Bradley noted that Young’s replacement was Russell “Big Chief” Moore, who performed in Armstrong’s big band in the 1940s. Moore was only supposed to be a temporary replacement because the ultimate plan was to bring Jack Teagarden back into the All Stars, but that plan came to a sad ending when Teagarden passed away on January 15, 1964 at the age of 58.

One day after Teagarden died, Hello, Dolly! opened on Broadway, starring Carol Channing; it was a smash hit. “‘Hello, Dolly’ opens; Critics Toss Hats” read the headline in the January 25, 1964 issue of Billboard. “The critics flipped,” the article stated. “‘Don’t bother holding onto your hats,’ said Walter Kerr in The Herald Tribune ‘because you won’t be needing them. You’d only be throwing them into the air, anyway. . A musical comedy dream.’ Howard Taubman in The Times said, ‘…has qualities of freshness and imagination that are rare in the run of our machine-made musicals.’ Other critics concurred.”

Billboard noted that RCA Victor had recorded the Original Cast Recording but Dave and Mickey Kapp were ready to release the real recording that would put “Hello, Dolly!”–the song and the musical–over the top. Armstrong’s single was featured in the “Pop Spotlight” of Billboard’s February 1 issue, the magazine raving, “Satchmo’s muscular singing prevails on this unique interpretation of the Broadway smash theme. Banjos are spotlighted, too, on this Dixie flavored outing. Tops for station programming.” One week later, Cash Box named it as a “Best Bet,” writing, “‘Hello, Dolly’ is Gotham’s latest musical hit and its tuneful title song is delightfully performed by Armstrong and his New Orleans-sounding All -Stars. Can come-up with the sort of heavy airplay that leads
to chart sales.”

Here’s a copy of the original 45 sleeve (note Louis is wearing the same polka-dot shirt as in the Jack Bradley photos shared above, confirming they were taken on the December 3 date):

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Once issued, the Kapps weren’t prepared for what happened next. “As I said, things went smoothly and we really didn’t know what we had until the orders started snowing us under,” Mickey Kapp told the Daily News. “Sure, you plug a record, but you never know when the lightning will strike.”

Lightning must have struck fast because one week later Kapp took out a half-page ad in the February 8 issue of Billboard (note that this and all the following reproductions of charts comes from the indispensable World Radio History website):

At some point, Armstrong had to begin performing “Hello, Dolly!” during live shows with the All Stars. I’ve already mentioned some caveats when it comes to Arvell Shaw, but here’s what he told Ken Burns: “Three or four months [after the session], we were out on the road doing one-nighters in Nebraska and Iowa, way, way out.  And every night we’d hear from the audience, ‘Hello Dolly, Hello Dolly.’ The first couple of nights Louis ignored it, and it got louder, ‘Hello Dolly’. Louis looked at me and said, ‘What the hell is ‘Hello Dolly’?’ I said, ‘Well, you remember that date we did a few months ago in Chicago? One of the tunes was called ‘Hello Dolly’, it’s from a Broadway show.’ We had to call and get the music and learn it and put it in the concert. The first time we put it in the concert pandemonium broke out because we were so far out he didn’t even realize he had a big hit.”

Checking Armstrong’s date book for February, it was a month was an unusual amount of days off but here’s some locations where “Dolly” could have made its debut:

February 7 – Durham, North Carolina
February 8 – Chapel Hill, North Carolina
February 9 – Norfolk, Virginia
February 10 – Salem, Virginia
February 11 – Fort Eustis, Virginia
February 13 – Cleveland Ohio
February 14 – Columbus, Ohio
February 15 – Middle Island, New York
February 16 – Whitehall, New York
February 22 – Stowe, Vermont
February 23 – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

“Dolly” entered the Billboard “Hot 100” at number 76 in the February 15 issue though a bigger trend in music made the cover: Beatlemania had arrived in the United States!

The following week, it was Armstrong who was mentioned in a Billboard cover story. “The music and drama of Broadway is making solid impact on the record company scene this season,” Mike Gross wrote. “Not since the heyday of ‘My Fair Lady’ have the diskers looked to Broadway product with such bullish attitudes. In addition to a much larger spread of record company involvement in legit properties than ever before, the singles field also appears to be bubbling with tunes of Broadway origination from companies that don’t have the original Broadway cast set. For example, Kapp Records is currently running with Louis Armstrong’s slice of ‘Hello, Dolly,’ an RCA Victor property….”

In that same February 22 issue, Armstrong’s “Hello, Dolly!” moved up to number 52 on the “Hot 100” and was number 19 out of 20 selections on the “Middle-Road Singles” chart (Al Hirt’s “Java” was number one). In the February 22 Cash Box, “Dolly” debuted in their Top 100 at number 68.

Three days later, Robert Sylvester wrote in the New York Daily News, “On the subject of ‘Dolly,’ it begins to sound as though Louis Armstrong finally has a hit record with that theme song. Louis could blow pure beauty over the years and only us jazz buffs bought his records. So now he sings that ‘Dolly’ theme, mangles the lyrics a little, and it’s on the radio all the time.” Sylvester’s views were corroborated in Billboard as “Dolly” hit number 38 in the “Hot 100” on February 29 and 27 on March 7. (It was 35 and 22 on the Cash Box charts on those respective weeks.)

But it was at this time that Louis ended up in Beth Israel hospital where he was treated for phlebitis in his left leg. He ended up spending over a week there, long enough for the rumor to spread that he died of a heart attack! Armstrong said, “It was weird, man,” and addressed the rumors, telling the UPI, “Well, you just tell them cats who are trying to push me out the door that there’s nothin’ wrong with the ole ticker or anything else.”

If he wasn’t fully aware of the impact of “Hello, Dolly!” yet, Armstrong got the message when confronted by a Beth Israel nurse, a story he told the BBC in 1968:

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Armstrong left Beth Israel hospital on March 19 but not before posing for a UPI photo that appeared in many newspapers:

Before Armstrong left Beth Israel, he was visited by columnist Jimmy Breslin, who was the first to really tell the story of the making of “Dolly” in a column that was printed in newspapers around the nation. Joe Glaser eventually made it part of Louis’s concert program, as clipped here:

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I’ve already quoted from this article earlier, but here are some more scenes from the hospital, as reported by Breslin:

“People keep coming up to me about ‘Dolly’ and sayin’, ‘you’re doing all right. You’re selling records right behind the Beatles,’ ” Armstrong said. 
The gravel chuckle came out again. “I say you just stayin’ amongst ’em you doin’ okey.”
“Imagine that?” somebody in the room said. “Fifty years of being the greatest musician in the country and Pops winds up after the Beatles.” 
“Oh never mind them Beatles,” Armstrong said. “I’m with the Beatles. Music is music. There’s all kinds. But it all come from the same place. It all come from old, sanctified churches. I don’t care how they change it, old sanctified churches is the essence of it.” 
When Louis came into the studio to record the tune, he had it down his way, and all you have to do to hear it is put on the radio, or pass by any music store. It is sung by a man who is 64 and sits in a hospital with glasses perched on his nose and who says, “come here, baby,” to the nurse and who has lived three or four lives. 
“I like it real fine,” Satchmo was saying. “It’s just the thing for my teenage audience.”

A few days after being released from the hospital, Armstrong was invited to appear on the game show What’s My Line. As the story goes, Joe Glaser had made a deal giving Hollywood Palace the rights to the first televised performance of “Dolly” but that went out the window when Arlene Francis spontaneously asked Louis to sing a chorus and responded with a swinging a capella rendition (newspaper reports stated that Armstrong was due to perform it on the April 4 episode of Hollywood Palace but he had to cancel because of the phlebitis). Here’s the entire wonderful What’s My Line segment:

Armstrong remained at his Corona, Queens home into early April. By the time of Jack Bradley and Jeann Failows’s next Coda column, they reported, “King Louis Armstrong entered Beth Israel hospital for a week in March. Pops had phlebitis in his left ankle; this is a swelling of the veins. He was on crutches for a while (strange sight to behold) and I’m glad to say he is now at home, comfortable, with his Brown Sugar.”

While at home, Armstrong was visited by WNEW disc jockey and longtime friend Fred Robbins. Robbins recorded a touching interview Armstrong, mostly about “Dolly” and The Beatles but also subjects such as the passing of Jack Teagarden. If you have made it this far into this post, we have a reward for you: the (watermarked) audio of the entire Robbins broadcast of April 19, 1964, featuring his conversation with Armstrong (but also weather, commercials and more). Here’s the tape box, which Armstrong tagged as “Reel 97” in his personal collection:

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And here’s the audio, starting with Part 1:

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And Part 2:

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The broadcast dramatically ends with Robbins announcing that “Hello, Dolly”!” was the number one record in the country. He might have been getting a tad ahead of himself–perhaps he was referring to an item in the April 11 Billboard that WMCA’s program director “have bounced the Beatles from first play list,” replacing them with “Dolly”; WNEW might have followed suit. But there’s no denying that Armstrong was poised to take over the number one spot, something that would have seemed impossible just weeks earlier. Armstrong’s “Dolly” finally hit number 10 on the Billboard “Hot 100” on March 21 and moved up to 8 on March 28. But even though it reached number 7 on April 4, The Beatles now had the top five singles on the “Hot 100”!

That didn’t bother Joe Glaser, who told Billboard in its April 11 issue that he planned to release a long-playing Armstrong album to capitalize on the success of “Dolly,” but he still insisted that was not his initial plan. “I wanted Louis to do the single because I wanted to prove a point; namely, that Louis could come up with a smash single if he had the right material,” Glaser said. “Nobody wanted to cut singles with him. So Jack Lee (of E. H. Morris) and I talked to Dave Kapp, and we got the single. Kapp is to be commended. He helped us prove our point.”

On March 30, Armstrong and the All Stars traveled to Las Vegas for a long engagement at the Riviera Hotel. “Dolly” was now a showstopper during Armstrong’s live performances, doing four or five encores each show. “I like that tune,” he told a Newsweek reporter in mid-April. “It’s got a good feeling, it’s a good, happy one. Of the recording, Armstrong said, “We didn’t have no arrangement or nothin’. We just scat out our parts. I played it the way I am, Satchmo’s way. The people don’t forget that old beat. They know the essence, and it’s Satchmo.” After mentioning that “Dolly” was “a favorite of Luci and Lynda Johnson,” President Lyndon Johnson’s daughters, the Newsweek article concluded with Armstrong saying, “It’s awful nice to be there among all them Beatles.”

While the All Stars were in Vegas, Dave Kapp managed to book studio time for Armstrong to record ten tracks for the eventual Hello, Dolly album. Bradley and Failows first reported that all ten selections were done on April 18, something that has continued to be reported all of these decades later, but the late discographer Jos Willems discovered that, in actuality, the All Stars recorded five songs on April 7 (“Hey, Look Me Over,” “I Still Get Jealous,” “Some Day,” “You Are Woman, I Am Man,” and “Be My Life’s Companion”), three on April 9 (“Jeepers Creepers,” “Blueberry Hill,” and “Moon River”) and the final two (“It’s Been a Long, Long Time” and “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” on April 11.

The same day as the last session, both Cash Box and Billboard now placed Armstrong in the number 5 spot (The Beatles had 14 singles in that same “Hot 100”!). Meanwhile Dave and Mickey Kapp were hard at work to rush out the Hello, Dolly! album, even sharing the cover art in the April 18 Cash Box. But that same issue had another interesting, somewhat brazen Armstrong-related item on page 2:

Yes, Columbia Records, who undoubtedly was one of the labels that originally passed on “Dolly,” scrounged around The Real Ambassadors session tapes and decided to put out a single of the previously unreleased “Nomad,” backed by the tender “Summer Song.” Cash Box approved, writing, “Louis Armstrong, who is presently riding high with his ‘Hello, Dolly’ stanza on Kapp, could well go the hitsville route with this Columbia teaming-up with Dave Brubeck tabbed ‘Nomad.'” But even with the “Move Over Dolly” dare, it was “Nomad” that sank without a trace while “Dolly” hit Cash Box‘s number 3 spot. (Audio Fidelity also got into the act in May, releasing a single of “Frankie and Johnny” and “I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None of This Jelly Roll” from the 1959 LP Satchmo Plays King Oliver, while Decca did the same later that month, putting out a single with two 1950s works, “Sincerely” and “I Laughed at Love”).

Kapp’s mad dash to release the Hello, Dolly! album was chronicled in Cash Box‘s April 25 issue: “The ‘live’ recording, at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, was completed by label vp Mickey Kapp on Sat., April 11 at about 3:30 in the afternoon. Initial editing took place until 6PM and by 1 AM Sunday morning the tapes were on their way to New York. Dave Kapp was on hand at the airport in the wee hours of the morning to greet the arrival of the Kapp personnel. More editing on Sunday, mixing on Monday and shipping on Thursday completed the rush act.” Over in Coda, Bradley and Failows wrote, “Amazingly, this album was on sale at Goody’s record shop here in NYC on April 22, just two short weeks after it was made.” Bradley even cut out an ad for it:

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And of course, Bradley immediately bought a copy; here’s just one (in Mono) out of multiple copies in the Jack Bradley Collection:

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The April 25 Cash Box quoted Al Cahn, Kapp’s national sales manager, “Orders are so heavy that it’s almost impossible to keen up with them.” Cahn told them that orders in excess of 100,000 units were in prior to the record’s release. The release inspired a full page-ad in the May 2 Cash Box from the Kapp Distributors of America:

The LP was exciting but perhaps more exciting was the single of “Hello, Dolly!” was now in the number 2 spot in both Billboard and Cash Box, behind only “Can’t By Me Love.” With the buzz approaching a fever pitch, the New York Daily News did a two-page spread on the background of both “Hello, Dolly!’ the song and the show. Jerry Herman was quoted as saying, “Mr. Armstrong made it his own, changed it to a jazz beat, and when I heard the line, ‘Hello. Dolly! This is Louis, Dolly,’ which isn’t in my lyrics, I thought it was inspired. I think he deserves 90% of the credit for making the song such a national sensation.” I’ve already quoted this article throughout this piece but here is the full spread as saved by Jack Bradley (and with lots of great quotes from Carol Channing):

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Finally, one week later, on May 9, 1964, the impossible happened:

Yes, 62-year-old Louis Armstrong had knocked The Beatles off the top of the charts!

Interestingly, Cash Box kept Louis at number 2 that week but finally put him in the number 1 spot on May 16:

In an accompanying article, “Louis’ ‘Dolly’ Makes It To The Top,” Cash Box wrote, “All that was needed to crack the Beatles’ hold on the first slot on the Top 100 was a show song performed by an artist well into his 60’s. That effort has come along in the form of Kapp Records’ ‘Hello, Dolly!’ by Louis Armstrong, which this week moves into the number 1 spot on the listing, replacing the Beatles’ Capitol disking of ‘Can’t Buy Me Love.’ Beatles product from one of three labels-Capitol, Vee Jay or Swan had held down the top spot on the chart since the beginning of the year. ‘Hello, Dolly!’ is not only the first top 10 show song since Vic Damone’s ‘On the Street Where You Live’ (from ‘My Fair Lady’) in 1956, but also the first title song of a musical to reach the top.”

In the May 15 New York Daily News, Ed Sullivan congratulated his old friend in his column, though he gave Joe Glaser a little too much room to let his imagination run wild (the story with King Oliver is not true and Louis was singing long before he met Glaser):

LAHM 2008_5_33-44~001

It was fun while it lasted but Armstrong’s time at the top of the pop charts was short-lived as he was replaced by Mary Wells’s “My Guy” and The Beatles’ “Love Me Do.” It continued a slow, gradual descent but was still a big enough seller to be certified Gold, ending the year as Billboard’s number 3 top selling single of 1964, behind only “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.”

And Armstrong wasn’t quite done yet. He finally performed “Hello, Dolly!’ for The Hollywood Palace, which aired it on May 30. That was probably enough to give the LP a boost, eventually hitting number 1 in the June 20 issue of Billboard and after a few weeks at number 2, it also went to number 1 in the July 4, 1964 issue of Cash Box, the same day Armstrong celebrated his 64th birthday.

By that point, Kapp had released a single of “I Still Get Jealous” from the LP, which quickly hit the Top 100 lists in both trades and started rising “in rocket fashion” according to Cash Box. Kapp smelled another winner and quickly reissued a new cover of the album calling out “I Still Get Jealous”; here’s Jack Bradley’s copy:

LAHM 2005_1_454

“I Still Get Jealous” peaked at #45 on the Billboard “Hot 100” and #33 in Cash Box, ending the dream of another number one hit.

Still it had been quite a start to 1964 and I think it’s appropriate to publish Bradley and Failows’s summary from the June-July issue of Coda: “Hello Louis! You’ve done it again. ‘Hello Dolly’ is currently the head of the country: we’re so glad. Credit goes to Dave Kapp – the only record company exec.  with the foresight, confidence and taste to record ‘Hello Dolly’ and push it as a single. The Armstrong-Dolly combination was turned down by numerous top recording companies, including Columbia and Capitol Records. Dolly has already sold over a million records.”

Of course, the Beatles weren’t going away any time soon; with the recent publicity blitz for Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary, we thought we’d share an outtake from The Beatles’ 1964 Christmas message in which they had some fun in attempting to play a bit of “Hello, Dolly!” with kazoos! (Starts at 35 seconds in.)

After more performances in Vegas (and Sparks, Nevada in a set found on Louis’s reel-to-reel tapes and issued by Dot Time Records in 2019), Louis came back home to Queens, where he was celebrated at “Louis Armstrong Day” at the 1964 World’s Fair. Jack Bradley was there and that’s where we will pick up the saga of Louis and Jack next time.

Published by Ricky Riccardi

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

2 thoughts on ““It’s Awful Nice To Be Up There Among All Them Beatles”: The Story of “Hello, Dolly!”

  1. Beautifully researched, organized & written, Ricky! I must have played “Hello Dolly” hundreds of times over the years – strictly as an instrumental – with my Rowdy Rooters, both here and all over Europe. The crowds always loved it and it was always a great tune to play jazz on, but your article taught me more about the background of the tune and Louis’ involvement than I’d ever heard before! I’m really looking forward to Part Two! Keep up the great work!
    ( :-}) )

  2. That photo with Louis in what looks like a bib, and Mickey Kapp on the right? The man on the left is definitely Jack Lee. I know, because he was my uncle, married to my mom’s sister. I remember going to his house in New York when I was a kid, and seeing photos of him playing golf with folks like Dean Martin. As a teen, I also went with him to the Fillmore East one night, while he was scouting an opening act, whose name I don’t remember, but the headliner was Jethro Tull.

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