In many way, looking at photos of Louis Armstrong can feel like looking at a Rorschach Test. A single image can invoke lots of complex feelings. Where some people might see joy, others see pain. Some are charmed by Armstrong’s smile, others feel uncomfortable. Some just feel warmth, others sense inner turmoil. Some marvel at his ability to remain real, others see a willingness to be phony to please others. Only Louis Armstrong himself knew what he was thinking and feeling at all times so projecting one’s own diagnoses on images that are 50-60 years old feels like a waste of time, yet it’s completely natural to want to do so.
This is all a preamble to the dozens of photos we’re going to share of Louis Armstrong in today’s post, each one ripe for a potential psychological analysis that we are not the ones to deliver. Every conceivable mood will be conveyed and maybe that’s the simplest takeaway: that Louis Armstrong was a human being who could feel joy, pain, fatigue, warmth, and every other “normal” feeling in the course of a day just like anyone else.
After the success of “Hello, Dolly!” in 1964, only one man thought that Armstrong would be a natural choice to pitch toy dolls (or dollies, if you will) to little girls. That man was Henry Ornstein of Topper Toys, who passed away in 2021 (read his New York Times obituary here). Ornstein was developing a new doll as part of his Suzy Homemaker series, Suzy Cute. Who better to serve as the pitchman for a new doll than the guy singing “Hello, Dolly!” on the radio all day?
Somehow, Ornstein made a deal with Joe Glaser (most assuredly for an astronomical fee) and Armstrong was all his on January 6, 1965. Armstrong had just returned for a whirlwind tour of Australia, New Zealand, India, Japan, and San Francisco, and was supposed to have three days off at home before going right back on the road, but one of those days would now be spent filming and recording a commercial for a Suzy Cute doll.
We have no idea of what Armstrong thought about this suggestion but ever the professional, Armstrong showed up ready to treat it seriously. Ornstein and Ray Martin wrote a minute-long jingle (kind of a mash-up of “It’s a Long, Long Time” changes, borrowing the bridge from the standard “Sugar”) and Armstrong came in to record it. When day was done, Bradley went home with Louis’s part; here it is in case anyone wants to play or sing along:
Some years ago, a complete take of the “Suzy Cute” jingle turned up online and is now part of the collection at Archive.org. Here’s the audio!
If one ever needs evidence of how Armstrong treated everything he ever recorded with sincerity and never went through the motions a single time, let that stand as exhibit A. Only the first minute was going to make it into the commercial but wanting to get into the spirit, Armstrong exhorts the unknown band to “swing it,” throws it to the clarinetist for a solo, then picks up his own trumpet to take the second section! After the smooth trombone takes the bridge, Armstrong returns and wails, in Herculean form for the year 1965, before passing it to another unnamed trumpeter (if anyone has any guesses as to the personnel, let us know in the comments!). Feeling good, Armstrong loosens up in the last chorus with his responses to the girls’ chorus (they seem to hesitate at one point, perhaps thrown of by his swinging rephrasing of the melody). There seems to be a bit of confusion at the end, too, but Armstrong keeps scatting and the band follows his lead into a vamp towards a joyous ending. Only Louis Armstrong could inspire me to write such an enthusiastic, long paragraph describing an unused take of of a Suzy Cute doll jingle!
With the recording in the can, it was time for Armstrong and the young actresses to take their parts on the set to film the exact commercial. Just to get it in your minds, here’s the finished one-minute spot, as it appeared on television in the mid-1960s:
A 30-second cut also survives–in color!
With all of that out of the way, it’s time for the reason we are assembled today: to share Jack Bradley’s photos from the commercial shoot. Jack didn’t always come equipped with limitless film but for the Suzy Cute shoot, we have nearly 100 images, mostly black-and-white negatives, but also some color slides. We’re not going to share everything–some shots are similar, some are blurry–but we’ll come close.
And to revisit our initial paragraph, Bradley’s photos capture Armstrong in a variety of moods: genuine smile, show business smile, extreme exhaustion, potential annoyance, but then you’ll see the professional come to life as he always gives 100% when the cameras are rolling. I don’t think much commentary is needed so here they are, the best of the Suzy Cute shoot (though come back at the end for a recap, Bradley’s insight into Joe Glaser, and some audio from Louis and from Bradley himself).
First, a seated Louis and the girls during the “Oh yeah” portion of the shoot:
The next series depict Louis and the girls now dancing around during the bridge of the tune, (“You can bend her arms, bend her knees, and bathe her, too,” the last part of which was accompanied by some handkerchief work):
The following two photos only survive as prints, without negatives, but theywere favorites of Jack’s, published multiple times over the years, so they’re worth sharing:
The next two photos only survive on a stapled contact sheet, with no negatives or prints but even in the diminished quality, they’re worth sharing for the differing moods:
For this next sequence around the table with the doll paraphernalia–and without the girls–Bradley switched to color film:
That Henry Ornstein of Topper Toys in that last photo. In the interest of thoroughness, we should point out that in 2016, Ornstein told Newsweek, “Armstrong was getting so drunk that at the end he couldn’t walk. I remember, when we finished, I had him on one side, my assistant on the other side, and we actually dragged him along the floor, down the steps and out to the car.” That was Ornstein’s memory at age 93 and though anything is possible, we should state that no other such stories exist in all the eyewitness accounts of Armstrong at work. I personally asked Bradley about this shoot in 2010 and he recalled everyone having a lot of fun, but didn’t remember Louis being fall-down drunk; in other conversations, Bradley stressed that Louis never drank while working (after hours would be a different matter). And though his moods run the gamut in these photos, he doesn’t appear, to my eyes, to be particularly inebriated.
Anyway, with that out of the way, here’s the final batch of Bradley photos, now capturing Armstrong alone in front of a white backdrop for him to mime to the solo portions of the jingle. Bradley had a good vantage point and the results contained some of Bradley’s personal favorites of the thousands of photos he took of Louis; he made prints of these in all sizes, but these uncropped images are scanned from the original negatives:
That concludes the best of the Bradley negatives–but it’s not the end of our story. From being around Louis regularly since late 1959, Bradley had grown somewhat accustomed to the intimidating presence of Joe Glaser, but he was still admittedly terrified of Louis’s longtime manager and friend. Eventually Bradley got invited to Glaser’s office, where he shared some of his photos of Louis (including, by accident, a photo he had taken of Louis naked from behind, which did NOT go over well!). Glaser ended up buying three of the Suzy Cute photos, which he turned into publicity photos to be distributed by Associated Booking Corporation. None of the three depict Armstrong at his best, which says more about Glaser’s eye, but at least Bradley got a payday. Here are the three Glaser chose:
Armstrong kept a stack of the next shot autographed so he could them out if he was in a hurry; we still have a handful in our Archives:
In 2008, Jack Bradley was interviewed by Michael Cogswell and David Ostwald at his Cape Cod home. In this lengthy excerpt, Bradley offers his impressions of Glaser and his relationship with Armstrong; note, this clip contains strong language and is not appropriate for those under the age of 18:
Because the negative hasn’t turned up, we’re not exactly sure when this next photo was taken, but now seems as good a time as any to share Bradley’s most striking capture of Armstrong and Glaser together in the 1960s:
To return to Suzy Cute, it’s only fair to give Louis Armstrong the last word. He left the studio that day on January 6, 1965 (dragged out according to the dubious claim of Henry Ornstein) and went back on the road the next day. Ornstein must have rushed the final edit of the commercial onto television airwaves in record speed as it came up during a tape recorded conversation between Louis and members of the New Orleans Jazz Club that took place at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis on February 20, 1965. Helen Arlt complimented Armstrong on it and said she wished she had brought a doll for him to sign for her daughters. After offering to mail an autograph, Armstrong earnestly complimented the little kids in the commercial:
A picture is worth a thousand words and by our count, that means the Jack Bradley photos in this post alone could inspire over 60,000 words, but we’ll close with Armstrong’s summation of his experience: “We had a lovely time there.”