Louis Armstrong’s 1969-1971 Tapes: Reels 101-105

The last few entries in this series have been stuffed with rare audio excerpts from Louis Armstrong’s tapes, especially focusing on his 1970 television talk show appearances that you won’t find anywhere else. However, today’s post represents a transitional one, with no collages and no audio to share (except for some Spotify playlists), but still some interesting backstories as Louis prepares for his next-to-last studio album.

Reel 101
Accession Number: 1987.3.401

We actually discussed this tape in detail back in 2020, the first part of what became a four-part series on Louis Armstrong and His Friends, but it’s still worth rehashing some of those details here. That album was the brainchild of producer Bob Thiele, the man behind the concept of “What a Wonderful World” in 1967. Thiele ran into Armstrong at the Grammy Awards on March 11, 1970 and pitched him the idea to record a new album, a mix of contemporary covers and some chestnuts. Armstrong was interested and invited Thiele to his home to discuss it more.

“I went to Louis’ place in Queens for around four to five hours and played him my suggestions,” Thiele recalled. “I took along demo discs and lead sheets and Louis transferred everything to tape.”

Indeed he did, copying most of Thiele’s materials to Reel 101 of his collection–here’s Louis’s playlist:

LAHM 1987_2_23~218

From Armstrong’s note at the top of the page, it’s clear that Thiele already pitched the concept with Oliver Nelson as arranger. An excellent saxophonist, composer and arranger, Nelson had a long association with Thiele, having recorded many of his albums, including the seminal Blues and the Abstract Truth, for him at Impulse. The choice of Nelson signaled that this would be a hip, contemporary album, not a “Hello, Dolly!” knockoff.

After that, Armstrong dubbed Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’ (Echoes),” the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” Pete Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome” from his 1963 Carnegie Hall concert and Leon Thomas’ “The Creator Has a Master Plan” (composed by the late Pharoah Sanders, who passed away just last week), all of which made it onto the album. For the sake of completeness, Armstrong also dubbed a couple of flip sides, “Rainmaker” by Nilsson and “You Know My Name” by the Beatles.

Thiele also brought along “Give Peace a Chance” and “Remember Love” by the Plastic Ono band, which Louis dubbed to a separate reel, Reel 113, which we’ll get to probably next week.

Want to listen along to the original recordings Armstrong used to prepare for the album? Here’s a Spotify playlist!

If you’ve been following this series for awhile, you’ll know that Louis dubbed Martin Luther King’s funeral coverage to multiple tapes; we shared the complete audio of it in this post and noted that Armstrong dubbed it again and excerpted “We Shall Overcome” again on Reel 91. Thiele admitted to being skeptical about the idea but when he mentioned it, “Louis’ eyes lit up,” he recalled. “He reached up and pulled down a tape of the Martin Luther King funeral that he’d made. We played it and he said he loved the way the choir sang the piece during the service. We talked a lot about King and religion.” Thus, Louis’s own tapes also played a part in the preparation for this album.

Thiele and Armstrong also chose the standards “Mood Indigo” and “My One and Only Love,” plus an updated version of “What a Wonderful World” and an autobiographical version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” to be titled “Boy from New Orleans,” all of which Louis didn’t need to prepare for. The rest of Reel 101 is filled with demo recordings Thiele brought of three brand new compositions by longtime associates George David Weiss and Pauline Rivelli, “His Father Wore Long Hair,” “Have I Gone Dreamy” and “Here is My Heart for Christmas,” which we spent more time with in our 2020 post about the preparation for this album. Finally, Louis able to make a choice of his own, throwing his friend Lorenzo Pack a bone by recording his “This Black Cat Has 9 Lives,” the demo version of which appeared on multiple reels Louis made, repeated three times in a row on Reel 73.

With all of that settled, Armstrong most likely devoted much of April and May 1970 to listening to this reel over and over again before heading to the studio in late May to record the album. As for the box, Armstrong repurposed the “Direct Recordings” box of his April 3, 1970 appearance on The Tonight Show, guest hosted by Flip Wilson, which he dubbed to Reel 100 (audio of which can be heard here). Here’s the front and back:

LAHM 1987.3.401
LAHM 1987.3.401

Reel 102
Accession Number: 1987.3.402

For proof, dear reader, that I am digging in and learning about these tapes at the same time you are, way back on Reel 86, I discussed a reel Louis made that included dubs of 1956 Epic LPs Johnny Dodds and Kid Ory and Ellington Sidekicksspeculating that someone must have sent Louis them on tape because he didn’t have the track lists and had to speculate on what he was listening to. That speculation turned out to be right as he dubbed the original tape again to Reel 102, giving up entirely on trying to name the songs, as seen on his bare bones catalog pages:

LAHM 1987_2_23~219
LAHM 1987_2_23~220

Well, here’s the proof, the original black tape box featuring a label featuring the names of both albums, most likely typed up by Tony Janak, the engineer who sent Louis multiple tapes in this period (also note that this reel is in 7 1/2 speed, which Louis typically shied away from, though it resulted in better sound quality; Louis was a 3 3/4-speed guy).

LAHM 1987.3.402
LAHM 1987.3.402

Reel 103
Accession Number: 1987.3.403

The same thing for Reel 102 carries over to Reel 103. Previously I speculated that someone maybe from Columbia Records sent him dubs of the 3-LP Columbia “Jazz Odyssey” boxed sets, The Sound of New Orleans and The Sound of Chicago. Here they are again on Reel 103 and Reel 104, most likely also sent by Janak. This at least gives me an excuse to share the Spotify playlists I made for each set again–here’s The Sound of New Orleans:

LAHM 1987_2_23~221
LAHM 1987_2_23~222

Notice that one of Janak’s labels seems to have been peeled off in the lower-right hand corner and instead Louis put a random strip of tape in the center of the front of the box and signed his autograph!

LAHM 1987.3.403
LAHM 1987.3.403

Reel 104
Accession Number: 1987.3.404

Definitely the shortest catalog entry we’ve seen thus far, Reel 104 contains another dub of The Sound of Chicago–listen along on Spotify here:

LAHM 1987_2_23~223
LAHM 1987_2_23~224

Louis also autographed the box for Reel 104, but this time kept Janak’s original label notating the contents of this tape:

LAHM 1987.3.404
LAHM 1987.3.404

Reel 105
Accession Number: 1987.3.405

Finally, for Reel 105 we something different but also something that places us firmly in the middle of the Louis Armstrong and His Friends recording sessions, or at least in the aftermath. Louis first took a liking to the trumpet playing of Jimmy Owens when he heard him take a solo on The David Frost Show in early 1970. During the recording of Louis Armstrong and His Friends, Owens was in the trumpet section and passed along this tape of him performing with the Radio Orchestra of Holland in May 1969:

LAHM 1987_2_23~225

We’re actually going out of order and sharing the box for Reel 105 now because it’s related to Owens’s gift. First the front of the box, which Louis dates May 27–most likely an error as will be explained below–and identifies as being Owens’s:

LAHM 1987.3.405

But now the back of the box, which Owens touchingly dedicated, “To Louis Armstrong, I know you collect tapes. Here is one of me. Hope you enjoy it. Always, Jimmy Owens, May 29, 1970.”

LAHM 1987.3.405

Sure enough, May 29 was the actual date of the Louis Armstrong and His Friends session that Owens was a part of. We don’t have a strong photo of the two trumpeters together but Jack Bradley was sitting with the guests and snapped this photo with Louis dead center, Oliver Nelson and Bob Thiele behind him, and Owen in the trumpet section on the far right, easy to spot with his signature Afro from that period:

Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006_1_1645b-20

That was the final recording date for that album so we’re most likely in June 1970 when Armstrong rested at home for much of that month, making more tapes. And never one to waste tape, he noticed that the Owens tape only had three songs that filled up one side of the tape–so Armstrong filled up the other side himself! First, he dubbed Dean Martin’s hit 1964 album Everybody Loves Somebody and then perhaps inspired by the Italian flare of Dino, turned to the recordings of his friend from San Remo, Lara Saint Paul for more selections from this “Italian Girl”:

LAHM 1987_2_23~226

Armstrong would finish the Lara Saint Paul album on Reel 108–but what of Reels 106 and 107? Those would be filled with audio of Louis’s appearances on The Mike Douglas Show the week of May 24, 1970 and we’ll have audio of those in our next installment!

Published by Ricky Riccardi

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

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