In the previous installment of this series, Louis Armstrong relaxed at home with Jack Bradley and Dan Morgentern, polishing off a bottle of Slivovice plum brandy in the middle of a rare extended break from performing. Just days later, Armstrong and the All Stars traveled back to Europe for another tour, arriving back in the United States in late June. Armtrong would be celebrating his 65th birthday at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City and Bradley would be there for the entire weeklong engagement, often with his camera in hand.
In fact, Bradley took so many photos during Armstrong’s week at the Steel Pier that we have decided to make this a two-part entry. This will be another packed post with dozens of offstage glimpses of Louis, the All Stars, and other friends and associates and then we’ll be back next week with Bradley’s photos of Armstrong in performance. In addition to photos, Bradley and then-girlfriend Jeann “Roni” Failows took notes in a little reporter’s pad, while Bradley shared any programs and advertisements he could get his hands on, such as this one:
As can be seen in the above image, Louis followed an appearance by Louis’s friends, the Dukes of Dixieland. When Armstrong arrived in his dressing room, the Dukes had scrawled messages all over the mirror, as captured in this Bradley photo:
Some are tough to make out but “LOUIS” is in bubble letters at the top center, followed by “We love ya – [trumpeter] Frank Assunto,” “Hi Louis How Are You? [drummer] Barrett Deems,” “Me too, Louis and Many More [pianist] Gene Schroeder,” with clarinetist Jerry Fuller signing his name in the center.
The man on the left in the above photo is Louis’s beloved adopted son Clarence Hatfield Armstrong. At some point in the 1950s, Louis arranged Clarence to be “married” a woman named Evelyn Allen, who acted as more of a caretaker to the developmentally disabled Clarence. Evelyn had a son named Sonny, who soon took the name of Sonny Armstrong; he is the man on the right in the above photo. Here they both are with Louis:
Clarence, Evelyn, and Sonny ended up staying in a nearby Atlantic City motel with Bradley, Failows and other friends, which turned into a party every night (and often resulted in angry calls from the front desk; more about that in the audio excerpt at the end of this post). But speaking of party, the Steel Pier engagement opened on Louis’s 65th birthday, or as Bradley wrote in his notebook “Epic July 4 Birthday.” Here’s the cake:
And here’s Louis and Lucille arriving backstage for the celebration:
If you read the July 4 rundown of events, you’ll notice that Louis was far from alone on the Steel Pier bill, which still used the word “vaudeville” in 1965. The movie McHale’s Navy Joins The Air Force would be playing all day long in the Casino Theatre at the front of the pier, almost every screening preceded by “The Fabulous ‘DANCING WATERS’ Direct from the World’s Fair.” At 1 p.m., Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the pop group fronted by Jerry Lewis’s son, would begin the stage show. At the end of the pier was Marine Stadium, featuring the world famous Diving Horse and an extra added attraction, Harriet Beatty, the “World’s Foremost Woman Lion Trainer.” A “Stars of Tomorrow” children’s show took place at the Midway Theater in the center of the pier. And finally, Louis did three sets at 3:30, 8:30, and 11:00 in the Marine Ballroom, with Claude Thornhill’s Orchestra playing for dancing in between. (On a sad note, Thornhill died of a heart attack on July 1, just three days before the engagement, and his band performed under the direction of Johnny McAfee.)
That’s a lot of entertainment, which the Steel Pier could barely fit on its marquee, as shot by Bradley:
Bradley did get a few shots of Claude Thornhill’s Orchestra; here’s one:
And for those curious, yes, he got a photo of the Diving Horse, too!
Okay, with the other acts and scene setting out of the way, let’s focus on Louis and the All Stars. The band had a few new faces since the last time Bradley saw them live as Buddy Catlett replaced Arvell Shaw for that short European tour that began in late May. Here’s a few photos Bradley took of the new bassist, who would remain with Louis until the fall of 1968:
But there was also a new face making his All Stars debut on clarinet–though he was an old face to Louis–Buster Bailey. Bailey first performed with Armtrong back in King Oliver’s band in 1924 and the two men soon after conquered New York with Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, Bailey staying for over a decade. Bailey was thrilled to be reunited with Armstrong but the grueling pace of life with the All Stars proved to be too much for Bailey, who would turn 63 on July 19, as he eventually passed away in 1967. But for now, he was happy to be there and Bradley was happy to take many photos of a clarinetist he valued more than his predecessor Eddie Shu:
While we’re on the subject of the All Stars, Billy Kyle was still holding down the piano chair and posed for some excellent portraits that Bradley sold to Joe Glaser to use as publicity photos:
Tyree Glenn had taken over the trombone chair in February but the Steel Pier engagement marked only his ninth performance with the All Stars in the United States because the band had spent so much time overseas. Bradley hadn’t shot Glenn with the All Stars yet so this is one of his first photos of the two new men in the band, Glenn potentially teaching Bailey some of the band’s routines since Bailey didn’t have time for a proper rehearsal:
Bradley also caught Glenn and Kyle fooling around on the Atlantic City boardwalk:
We don’t know who took this photo, but here’s Bradley and Failows also having some fun with these Steel Pier cutouts:
And here’s Bradley with Newark-based trumpeter Leon Eason, a close friend and fellow Armstrong devotee who recorded a couple of sides for Blue Note in 1959:
Thanks to Bradley’s notebook, we know the date of the above and following photos as Bradley scrawled, “Wed 12 noon – Leon – boardwalk scenes,” and Wednesday was July 7. Eventually Louis showed up to make his walk to the Steel Pier and Bradley was there to start snapping as a crowd started to gather (the man on the left is Ira Mangel, who took over as Louis’s road manager from Pierre “Frenchy” Tallerie after Armstrong’s Iron Curtain tour of March-April 1965):
Another new face was Bob Sherman, who took over as Armstrong’s valet after Armstrong’s most trusted confidant Doc Pugh had to retire due to vision problems; Sherman is at the right in this photo from another day, carrying Louis’s trumpet case, with Clarence leading the way:
Eason had this next photo cropped and blown up to nearly six feet tall where it was framed and hung in a bar he ran in New Jersey; it is now in our Archives:
Naturally, the autograph seekers began seeking Armstrong out; here’s a beauitful photo taken just after Armstrong signed a little girl’s piece of paper:
On another day, Bradley caught Armstrong walking the boardwalk alone and knew it wouldn’t last long so he snapped a quick photo:
Jeann Failows soon joined him:
Followed by more autograph seekers, much older than the little girls from earlier:
Armstrong always made time for everyone who wanted some time with him:
Not that it didn’t take a toll on him. On another day, Bradley switched to color film for Armstrong’s boardwalk stroll and captured him in a particularly weary mood, but still stopping to sign autographs:
It’s never a smart idea to read too much into a photo that captures a second in time, but in these next two photos, Armstrong seems like he has the weight of the world on his mind:
The weariness occasionally also shows up in Bradley’s backstage photos of Armstrong in Atlantic City, which makes sense considering Armstrong was now in his mid-60s and still performing three shows a day with hardly a day off on his calendar:
But to prove my point about looking too deeply into the subtext of these photos, here’s a series of Bradley photos taken either just before or after the above two and you can see Armstrong in great humor in the same setting:
The man cracking up in the above photo is pioneering African American comedian Timmie Rogers, who began touring with Armstrong’s big band in the 1930s as part of the dancing act of Timmie and Freddie. In 1944, Timmie went on his own as a stand-up comedian and even adopted “Oh yeah” as his catchphrase. Bradley picked his brain backstage and according to his notebook, Rogers told him Armstrong “caused me being what I am today.”
Rogers wasn’t even the only pioneering Black comedian to visit Armstrong backstage; on Saturday, July 9, Armstrong was visited by Moms Mabley. Like Rogers, Armstrong and Mabley had some history as the two appeared in Swingin’ the Dream on Broadway in 1939, when Moms was still billed as Jackie Mabley.
That same night, Armstrong was also visited by gossip columnist Earl Wilson:
Bradley even captured Armstrong backstage with another great jazz photographer, Duncan Scheidt:
In this next photo Armstrong poses with his vocalist Jewel Brown and an unidentified man. Bradley’s notebook provides no clues–is he just a fan or does anyone out there recognize him? Let us know!
Our final photo for this first part on Louis Armstrong’s 1965 engagement at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City is a gem–and it wasn’t even taken by Jack Bradley. When Armstrong resumed touring Europe after his six week layoff, he had a new member in his entourage, photographer John Loengard, hired by Life magazine to shoot Armstrong onstage and off for what would would eventually be that magazine’s famous April 1966 cover story. Loengard was present at the Steel Pier and took many wonderful shots that did not end up in the published issue. He gave a bunch of prints to Louis and we still have them in our Archives–except one. The following shot was given by Louis to Jack and Jeann Failows because it captures the couple perfectly, sitting in the front frow and absolutely having the time of their lives, even though they had seen Louis perform dozens of times by this point:
We don’t own the rights to Loengard’s photos but still thought that was worth sharing as it is a negative Bradley shot of the print so he could crop it and print up more–the 1960s method of scanning!
If you’re still with us, you know I like to end with little gifts for those souls who stick it out to the end of these masive posts. In the late 1980s, Bradley planned on writing a book that unfortunately never came to be. He sat down for a series of conversations with Richard Shaw, who it was planned would serve as co-author. In this excerpt, Bradley basically sums up this entire post, talking about the Steel Pier, Buster Bailey’s nervousness at joining the band, the backstage atmosphere, the presence of John Loengard, and more:
We’ll have more from that conversation in the next part of this series, which will exclusively focus on Bradley’s photos of Louis in performance at the Steel Pier in 1965.