Louis Armstrong’s 1969-1971 Tapes: Reels 51-55

Back in 2020, we started a series on this site devoted to the reel-to-reel tapes Louis Armstrong made between getting out of the hospital in the spring of 1969 and his passing in July 1971. With a newly remodeled den and no gigs on the horizon, Armstrong started re-cataloging his reel-to-reels, beginning with a new “Reel 1.” The 1969-1971 series was a combination of new tapes and new collages, as well as old tapes and collages he originally made in the 1950s but now outfitted with new numbers. As part of the series, we shared the front and back of each collage box and the relevant pages from Armstrong’s handwritten catalog pages, offering bits of commentary and occasionally audio samples from the tapes.

We got through the first 50 reels but then other projects got in the way and since early 2021, we’ve mainly focused on tributes to the late Jack Bradley, as well as an extensive series covering Armstrong’s activities in his final days. The Jack Bradley series is far from over and will return to its regular weekly in the near future, but we’ve received a number of requests to do more with the tapes so we’re resurrecting this series on Armstrong’s 1969-1971 reels! Again, if you’d like to catch up with the old series, here’s the link, but for now, let’s dive back in.

Reel 51
Accession Number 1987.3.351

We begin with Reel 51, which contains a dub of Jelly Roll Morton’s Library of Congress recordings. Armstrong owned the entire series as issued by Circle Records and ate up multiple reels of tape devoted to Morton’s story (though as we’ve covered before, Armstrong wasn’t averse to correcting Morton when he felt the need!). Reel 51 is actually a continuation of Reel 50, which was also devoted to Morton:

LAHM 1987_2_23~115
LAHM 1987_2_23~116

The collage on the front of Reel 51 is a classic, with a famous (or infamous) Swiss Kriss “keyhole” photo, a photo of Louis with an unidentified man (road manager Pierre “Frenchy” Tallerie is at left), and a clipping of Chicago comedian Allen Drew getting his hair “processed.” I did a deep dive search and found the photos come from a Jet magazine story, “Should Negro Men Marcel Their Hair?” published on September 24, 1953. (Interestingly, Allen Drew died in late February 1970, right around the time Armstrong was making these tapes–perhaps he made this collage in tribute?)

LAHM 1987.3.351

The back of Reel 51 features another photo of Armstrong with an unidentified fan, this one taken at the Blue Note in Chicago in the early 1950s. Armstrong became a big proponent of using that white athletic tape on these 1969-1971 reels and really went to work on this one, using it it to frame the photo in a unique way:

LAHM 1987.3.351

Reel 52
Accession Number: 1987.3.352

Not much to write about Reel 52, which concludes “The Saga of Mr. Jelly Lord,” as the Circle Records series of Morton’s Library of Congress recordings was titled. Armstrong usually ate up every free inch of tape but interestingly left side 2 blank:

LAHM 1987_2_23~117
LAHM 1987_2_23~118

The collage on the front of Reel 52 contains a postcard from Lucille Armstrong, sent to Louis while she was on vacation with her friend, Lossie Smith. If you can’t make it out, it reads:

“Hi Darling:
Just a scene of the hotel we’re staying at in Acapulco. This would send you I know. Lossie sends her regards and I send you heaps of love. See you soon,
Mama Armstrong”

LAHM 1987.3.352

The back of the box features an advertisement for a performance Armstrong gave for the Foundation for Hearing and Speech Rehabilitation in Highland Park, Illinois on July 28, 1959. The advertisement contained the “Ambassador Satch” photo of Armstron gand a drawing of him that was used for several years in concert programs and promotional materials. Once again, Armstrong chopped it up and rearranged it into something new:

LAHM 1987.3.352

Reel 53
Accession Number: 1987.3.338

With Morton out of the way, Armstrong turned to his favorite artist to record–himself. Beginning on Reel 53, Armstrong began dubbing the 4-LP Decca set Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography, which remained a favorite of his until the very end of his life. This reel contains a good chunk of the stet, though not everything. In the tape catalog pages, check out some of Armstrong’s notes, calling attention to Yank Lawson’s trumpet work on “Snag It” and mistakenly naming “Gully Low Blues” as the first Hot Five number, confusing it with “Gut Bucket Blues” (his original spoken introduction confused the two, too). (And I’ll save the dated Dan Quayle jokes for Armstrong’s spelling of “Potatoe Head Blues”!)

LAHM 1987_2_23~119
LAHM 1987_2_23~120

The collage on the front contains the packaging for Hawaiian Surfrider After Shave Lotion, a gift Louis tells us at the bottom, from Jim Quimby of Honolulu, Hawaii. Did Jim Quimby ever know his gift was repurposed in this way? Louis left the back of the box empty, but nothing could have topped that striking front!

LAHM 1987.3.338
LAHM 1987.3.338

Reel 54
Accession Number: 1987.3.354

Reel 54 continues the dub of Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography before switching over to another Decca compilation of Armstrong’s recordings with Gordon Jenkins on side 2, ending with the beginning of Ella and Louis, the Verve masterpiece from 1956:

LAHM 1987_2_23~121
LAHM 1987_2_23~122

For Reel 54, Armstrong finally grabbed some recent materials, giving us an idea of when he made these tapes. The front features a column in the Queens Voice from Allan McMillan, who had been chronicling Louis’s career in the Black press since the 1930s. In the blurb, McMillan relates a phone call he recently had with Louis, who called Barbra Streisand “one of the nicest stars he had ever worked with.” The bottom contains the caption for a famous photo of Armstrong and Streisand in the film Hello, Dolly!, an image that will appear on a future tape box.

And on the back cover, a Jack Bradley photo of Louis and John Barry from the recording session of “We Have All The Time in the World” on October 28, 1969, as published in Downbeat on Christmas of that year:

LAHM 1987.3.354

Reel 55
Accession Number: 1987.3.355

We conclude today with the conclusion of Ella and Louis before a dub of the complete 2-LP Satchmo at Symphony Hall set. Next to “Steak Face,” Big Sid Catlett’s immortal feature, Armstrong lets us know that the title of that tune was the “NAME OF MY TOY BOSTON BULL DOG.”

LAHM 1987_2_23~123
LAHM 1987_2_23~124

As promised, the front collage on Reel 55 contains the photo of Louis and Barbra Streisand as published in the Queens Voice in January 1970 for which Armstrong used the caption on the cover of Reel 54:

LAHM 1987.3.355

The back of Reel 55 contains James O’Connor’s review of Hello, Dolly! in the Queens Voice, published December 26, 1969, praising “that great old gentleman of song, Louis Armstrong” (and closing his review with “P.S. It didn’t have to be ‘dirty’ to be GREAT!”). Note Louis also lets us know that there’s “More Space” at the end of the reel, as he apparently left it blank after Satchmo at Symphony Hall concluded.

LAHM 1987.3.355

And that concludes our re-entry into this series with much more to come in the coming weeks as we continue to chronicle the music Louis Armstrong listened to and the collages he made in his final years.

Published by Ricky Riccardi

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

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