When Louis Armstrong left the Steel Pier in Atlantic City on July 10, 1965, he embarked on a tour of one-nighters across the United States and Canada, barely getting a day off for several months and not returning to New York until Thanksgiving, November 25. As alluded to at the end of the last post, this was the tour that really seemed to make a dent in Louis’s psyche. After taking six weeks off in April and May for major dental work, the 64-year-old legend was now traveling nonstop on the band bus and was no longer able to comfortably execute his usual Herculean level of trumpet playing. He gave multiple interviews over the course of this tour, alluding to the end possibly being near. He reminisced to Richard Meryman of Life about how much happier he was in New Orleans. He told Patrick Scott, “I don’t want to be Satchmo anymore” and said he definitely didn’t want to be doing this when he was 70.
In October, he told the Associated Press, “I got 12 weeks off next January and I may just dig this retirement jazz for size. Man, there just ain’t no days off. Just looking at that itinerary makes me tired. When I retire I’ll spend my time helping other young boys like I was helped myself. Three’s lots of other things I can do like spending my time listening to other performers and visiting people. Just having myself a ball. I got a nice home in Corona, N.Y. I also got me a young wife who say’s she’ll cook me anything I want to eat — and Daddy, that’s livin’.”
That quote also appeared in Jack Bradley and Jeann “Roni” Failows’s December 1965-January 1966 Coda column, which began, “This seems to be Louis year. He is being honored here and abroad. One reason is that he is celebrating his 50th year in show biz and everyone seems to want to help him celebrate.” Bradley and Failows also reported, “On Dec. 2 there will be a show business ‘Salute to Louis Armstrong’ at Carnegie Hall, honoring him as ‘Man of the Year.’ Proceeds of this evening are for the AGVA Youth Fund. Sammy Davis Jr. heads the committee. Many of the top names in show business are expected to be on hand, especially Ol’ Satch himself. Tickets from $5.00 to $50.00 ea.”
That Carnegie Hall concert will make up the second half of this post but the first half will deal with something else that happened that same week: the filming of Sammy Davis Jr.’s new motion picture A Man Called Adam. In this film, Davis played troubled trumpeter Adam Johnson, heading up a stellar cast that included Ossie Davis, Cicely Tyson, and Frank Sinatra Jr. Armstrong was cast as Willie “Sweet Daddy” Ferguson, a thinly veiled version of himself: an aging trumpeter thought to be behind the times by Davis’s character. There was definitely some “art imitating life” going on as Davis was one of Armstrong’s most vocal critics after the trumpeter spoke up about Little Rock in 1957, something neither Louis nor Lucille ever forgot. But by all accounts, they got along well during the filming of A Man Called Adam.
Bradley hadn’t seen Armstrong since Atlantic City but was now prepared to spend almost a week straight with him, as Armstrong invited him to the set of the film, back to his home in Queens, and to the Carnegie Hall show. Bradley had his camera present at every stop along the way and his images from that week in 1965 will make up the remainder of the post.
First, some photos from the set–actually the Harlem nightclub Small’s Paradise–where Bradley got a shot of the chairs for the two stars:
Here’s Armstrong taking a lunch break in his chair as Jeann Failows looks over the script with him:
On set, Bradley captured Davis lighting a cigarette for Armstrong, a beautiful photo of two giants who might have had some differences, but left quite an impact on the culture:
Here’s Davis in action during Adam Johnson’s performance in the final scene of the film:
It was a long day on set and a tired-looking Armstrong passed the time chatting with another actress who played one of the waitresses in the nightclub scene:
Cicely Tyson can be glimpsed in the background of this photo (Louis played her grandfather in the film):
Now is a good time to share this striking 1981 video of Ossie Davis describing his time on the set of A Man Called Adam and specifically how it changed his perceptions of Louis Armstrong.
Davis describes seeing Armstrong’s tired, serious face, something already showcased in some of the above shots but especially in this series of portraits of Armstrong taken by Bradley on the set of the film:
Those photos and Ossie Davis’s story have the power to make one weep but please also know that Armstrong had fun, too, as seen in these two Bradley photos of him fooling around on set with Cicely Tyson:
Bradley often would use a roll of film across different nights and venues so we should point out that most of the above photos, including the ones of Louis at the table with the actress shared space on the same roll of film as photos Bradley took back at Armstrong’s home in Queens. Here’s Louis in the kitchen (before the blue remodeling of 1970), with Failows and longtime friend, actor and comedian Slim Thompson:
Failows took over the camera duties to get a photo with Bradley, Armstrong and Thompson:
And finally, someone–perhaps Lucille Armstrong–shot this photo of Louis with the happy couple:
(Unrelated, but for the sake of completeness, that same roll of film has Bradley photos of Henry “Red” Allen performing with Kenny Davern on clarinet, Herb Gardner on trombone, Big Nick Nicholas on saxophone, Sonny Greer on drums and Eddie Wilcox on piano–what a time to be in New York and a reminder that Bradley took a lot more photos than those of Pops.)
The photos of Armstrong laughing with Cicely Tyson also share the same roll of film as the start of photos of the aforementioned Carnegie Hall concert of December 2, 1965, which makes sense as Bradley later wrote in Coda that the concert occurred after a long day of filming. Bradley would be there, thanks to tickets left by Joe Glaser, shortly after Glaser purchased four of Bradley’s photos (at $15 apiece). Here’s a copy of Bradley’s thank you letter:
Let’s share Bradley and Failows’s Coda column now, which puts the Carnegie Hall show in perspective, interspersed with photos, beginning with one of Failows and trumpeter Leon Eason outside the venue:
“On Dec. 2nd AGVA honored Louis Armstrong’s 50th anniversary in show business at Carnegie Hall. We must report as it was quite disappointing to us and perhaps to Louis as well. A steady stream of ‘show biz’ personalities paraded all around the stage. They had little or nothing to do with Louis and his music.”
“It was a rough night for Louis. He had been working all day on the filming of ‘A Man Called Adam’ (and quite a few long days before this one). He and his band arrived at Carnegie Hall shortly before 9 o’clock and didn’t get to go on until 11:30. By this time most of the audience was tired — there was no intermission — and ready to call it a night. It was a weekday and they had to work the next morning.”
“Louis was presented with various plaques and scrolls including one from N.Y.C. presented by Senator Jacob Javits. Other awards came from the American Federation of Musicians and AGVA.”
“By now Louis only had time for Indiana, Blueberry Hill and Hello Dolly before delivering a short but very sincere few words, thanking everyone. In his speech he traced his career from the poor boy on the streets of New Orleans to his life today. Louis is beautiful. He said that this would never have been possible without the wonderful musicians and fans who have supported him through the years.”
We’ll pause there and present some of Bradley’s photos of the All Stars during their short set with Louis, trombonist Tyree Glenn, clarinetist Buster Bailey, pianist Billy Kyle, bassist Buddy Catlett, and drummer Danny Barcelona:
Back to Bradley’s Coda recap:
“Among those performers, Arthur Prysock, Harry Hirschfield, Smith and Dale, Leslie Uggams, Adam Keith, George Kirby, Xavier Cugat, Connie Francis, Henny Youngman, Tom Jones, Fran Warren, Milt Kaman, Connie Boswell, Sheila and Gordon McRae, Myron Cohen, Arthur Tracey and Sissle and Blake. Joey Adams was M.C. and Sammy Davis Jr. was there too. Accompanying these performers was a fine orchestra directed by George Rhodes. Included were trumpeters Snookie Young, Ernie Royal, Doc Severinsen and Ray Copeland; Trombonists J.J. Johnson, Eddie Bert; Saxophonists Frank Wess, Jerome Richardson, Haywood Henry; bassist Milt Hinton, drummer Herbie Lovelle plus a few violins.”
Bradley took photos of just about every act that night, too. We won’t share them all as it’s literally dozens of non-Louis photos but here’s a sampling just to give a flavor of the show business assemblage that performed at the event (alas, in case anyone asks, we don’t have any of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake; perhaps they are on another roll of film we do not possess). Here’s Connee Boswell:
Sheila and Gordon McRae:
Smith and Dale:
Charo (there with Xavier Cugat, not pictured here):
And here’s some more photos of Louis onstage with Joey Adams and Sammy Davis Jr.:
Finally, Bradley’s summary in his Coda column:
“Tickets were from $5.00 to $50.00, money going to the AGVA Youth Fund. $90,000 was raised that night. This affair might have been a fitting tribute to ‘Show Business’ but certainly a far from apt tribute to our man – Louis. We’re waiting for a ‘Jazz Tribute to Louis Armstrong.'”
Such a tribute would still be a few years away (I’m thinking of Louis’s multiple 70th birthday celebrations in 1970). It’s interesting to point out that Bradley’s summary of the evening was understandably much more positive in his thank-you letter to Joe Glaser (also interesting is the reference to Failows as his “wife”; many friends took to calling them Jack and Jeann Bradley but they actually never did tie the knot in their decade together):
As a postscript, A Man Called Adam was released in August 1966 and Bradley gave his review in the pages of Coda:
“The film A Man Called Adam premiered Aug. 3 at RKO Theatres in NYC. If you are interested in jazz you should catch this movie – despite the usual Hollywood yarn of the troubled jazzmen who goes from bad to worse in the various smoke-filled rooms, at least the musicians are portrayed as real life characters who speak normally and whose troubles are understandable. Sammy Davis Jr. plays the lead – a tortured trumpet player who, as we expected, dies trying to reach the last high note. For us – Louis Armstrong was the star. This may be his greatest speaking role – he is in many scenes and always comes across unaffected and very humanly himself. Louis and the All Stars did a club scene, rendering ‘Back O’ Town Blues.’ Shown on the screen with the band were John Brown on bass and Jo Jones at the drums – though the sound track actually had Buddy Catlett and Danny Barcelona. Also advertised were ‘Muskrat Ramble’ and ‘Someday Sweetheart’ – though we didn’t hear them when we dug the film. The musical score was by Benny Carter with Nat Adderley doing the trumpet work for Sammy Davis. Mention should also be made of a fine tune called ‘All That Jazz’ sung by Mel Torme. Last Dec. at Satchmo Night at Carnegie Hall, Davis announced that though he worked hard and did his best – he’d stand before the camera and give his all – the camera would close in on Louis’ face and expression and the scene would be Louis’.”
And for those who haven’t seen it, Armstrong’s “Back O’Town Blues” is now on YouTube in excellent quality:
Shortly after Armstrong’s action-packed week in New York, the All Stars hit the road again and Bradley wouldn’t get the opportunity to take copious photos of the band in action for another six months. By then, one of the longest standing members of the band had passed a way, a sad story we’ll tell in our next installment.