In the previous installment of this series, we made multiple allusions to Lloyd Von Blaine, explaining that we would need a separate post to fully delve into the background of his relationship with Louis Armstrong, but more importantly, to set up a rollicking, hilarious reel-to-reel tape they made in September 1970 that will be shared at the end of this post.
To begin, who was Lloyd Von Blaine? There’s a bit of mystery about him, despite being a regular presence in newspapers from the early 40s through the mid-80s, we couldn’t find a single obituary for him. Thanks to research from reader Simón Sotelo, we know Von Blaine was born on June 2, 1908 and died in May 1986, but it’s also possible the “Von” was a nickname. A World War II draft card survives for a Lloyd Harrison Blaine living in in Washington D. C., also born June 2, 1908 in Oakwood, Texas. Some of his early mentions in the press refer to him as “Lloyd (Von) Blaine” so it’s possible the “Von” was a nickname, but it definitely became part of the full name he gave the press as he gained more notoriety, so we’ll refer to him as such throughout this post.
He first shows up in the Black press in September 1943 as the owner of the “newly opened and swanky Bengasi, a tavern” in Washington D. C., where he lived for much of the 1940s and 1950s. One month later, he showed up in Billy Rowe’s Pittsburgh Courier for the first time, a notice that he was in Chicago looking to sign up talent to appear at his nightclub. By 1946, Von Blaine was running a new nightclub, the Cimarron. It was there where he was applauded by The Pittsburgh Courier in 1948 for his idea for a six-month moratorium on segregation and discrimination in D. C.
Two years later, Von Blaine made an effort to get more African Americans engaged in politics by throwing a $100-a-plate fundraiser for Democrats. He opened up a new Bengazi Room in Annapolis, Maryland in 1955 and eventually made his way to the northeast by the early 1960s, running one spot in Atlantic City before starting to make his presence felt in Harlem. In 1962, he and Selwyn Joseph bought the legendary Frank’s Restaurant in Harlem, which had been around since 1920.
Von Blaine thrived in the 1960s, welcoming New York City Mayor John Lindsay and other big shots to Franks (though the restaurant had come under fire from Black Nationalists for having an integrated waitstaff; Von Blaine responded, “Why rock the boat?”). Getty Images only has a single photo of Von Blaine and it’s from a 1967 dinner for Katherine Dunham with Harry Belafonte, Vincent Sardi and others:
However, Von Blaine was voted out of the corporation and fired from Frank’s under murky circumstances in 1968, threatening to sue in return. Instead, he turned back to politics (no longer stumping for the Democrats; he became Director of the Council of 100, an organization of Black Republicans in the early 1970s). More importantly, he also got involved in the world of show business publicity, forming a new PR firm, Von Blaine Enterprises, in June 1969.
While Armstrong convalesced at home in late 1969, Von Blaine wrote to David Gold of Associated Booking with an idea: since Armstrong was turning 70 in 1970, how about a big concert be held for him in Madison Square Garden with all proceeds being put in a brand new Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation? Gold wrote back on December 8 and thanked Von Blaine for his interest but said that certain things had to be done to start a Foundation and while it was a good idea, he wasn’t interested in exploring it at the time. However, behind the scenes, Von Blaine had already setting matters in motion; a letter from Show Publications on December 29 promised Von Blaine Enterprises $25,000 for a “Louis Armstrong International Tribute” to be held at Madison Square Garden on May 18, 1970 but only if Von Blaine would “complete the formation of the tax exempt charitable organization known as the Louis Armstrong Foundation.”
It turned out Von Blaine was lucky: the idea of a Foundation was appealing to Louis and Lucille Armstrong, who overruled Gold and their lawyer Aaron Shapiro and set up the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, signing the official paperwork in February 1970. According to the late Phoebe Jacobs, the Armstrongs put $40,000 of their own money in to help jumpstart the Foundation.
Von Blaine went to work, attending Ella Fitzgerald’s opening at the Waldorf with Louis and Lucille in late March 1970. The same week, he threw a party for the committee to plan “An International Tribute to Louis Armstrong”; columnist Betty Granger Reid attended and wrote in the New York Amsterdam News, “Give Lloyd Von Blaine credit for setting up an atmosphere which brought people together for fun and inspiration to make ‘Pops’ Armstrong feel like a ‘million.'”
Not everyone felt that way. Jesse H. Walker wrote in the Amsterdam News, “Will the testimonial for Louis Armstrong come off in May in Madison Square Garden as planned? Or will the sponsors et al kill it off in a donnybrook over sharing the spoils? The bulk of the money is supposed to go to a new foundation in Louis’ name for the disadvantaged. Or that’s the way it was planned originally before the wolves set in. There’s also the worry about how the black militants will react. Well, unknowing to some, Louis Armstrong has long been a fellow who has ‘done his thing’ with the kids–before it was ‘the thing’ to do.”
Sure enough, the May 18 date fell through, but Von Blaine soon booked Madison Square Garden for October 15, an engagement plugged by both Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett during Armstrong’s July 1970 appearances on their shows (heard in this post). On August 8, Von Blaine put out a press release that was picked up by the New York Amsterdam News:
Once again, though, something happened that we’re not quite sure about–it wasn’t mentioned in the press–and the concert was postponed again, never to take place. Armstrong had an incredibly busy run in September and October, appearing on The Flip Wilson Show and The Johnny Cash Show, performing on trumpet with his All Stars for the first time in two years at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, and flying to London for a special Command Performance for Prince Phillip. Perhaps Armstrong needed a break, causing the Garden concert to be scrapped again.
Whatever the reason, during that busy stretch of time, Armstrong grew close to Von Blaine, spending a great deal of time with him in Las Vegas and out in Hollywood when he filmed The Flip Wilson Show. During that trip, they made a tape together that is the main event of this post.
Armstrong arrived in Los Angeles on August 31 to rehearse for The Flip Wilson Show before taping it on September 4. Upon arrival, he had lunch with jazz legend Benny Carter and comedy writer Sid Kuller, who presented him with a new composition, “Integrate the Love,” ostensibly to be performed on the Wilson show. Kuller might not be a household name now, but at one time, he was a household name in the world of black entertainment, according to Redd Foxx, best known for co-directing and helping to pen the lyrics for Duke Ellington’s ahead-of-its-time theatrical production Jump for Joy. His association with Armstrong went back to the 1950s, when he scripted a routine for Armstrong and opera star Robert Merrill that was a hit in Las Vegas and was performed on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town.
Kuller gave Armstrong a tape of someone singing “Integrate the Love” (at the end of the tape, Louis compliments the singing of Lyn Murray, who was best known as a composer and conductor; has anyone ever heard him sing?). Here’s the back of the box of the original 3 1/2″ reel:
As was his method, Armstrong would learn the song by listening to the tape over and over. He brought along a portable AIWA tape deck and set it up in his hotel room, where he was visited by Von Blaine. Armstrong was still feeling his oats, excited to go back to work, and he definitely responded to have a new African American friend in his life.
As Armstrong dubbed Kuller’s tape, he switched it off and started talking to Von Blaine. Almost immediately, Armstrong was slipping in curses and telling risque jokes as if it was 1951 again. After a few minutes, he put “Integrate the Love” back on, then had Von Blaine help him sing it, before eventually enlisting Lucille Armstrong to join in, too. In between, Armstrong told more jokes and spun tales of his early days in New Orleans, sprinkling in plenty of four- and twelve-letter words for good measure. It was really a throwback to the types of tapes he made throughout the 50s, the kind that had stopped abruptly in recent years.
In the end “Integrate the Love” got cut from The Flip Wilson Show and was never heard from again, except from the people who heard this tape–and as it turns out, a lot of people wound up hearing this tape. In a column Von Blaine penned after Armstrong passed away, he offered the following reminiscence about this moment:
“On several of his engagements, we accompanied him. After his appearance, the four of us would spend the next few hours in his suite talking, joking and listening to music. On one of these occasions during his taping the Flip Wilson Show, he was rehearsing a tune with his ever present tape recorder and I asked how it worked. In showing me, it finally turned out to be a tape whose subject matter was impromptu with both of us speaking freely for two hours and he was so fond of this session that he had 100 copies made and mailed to 100 persons that he felt would appreciate it. He named it Von and Louis.”
Sure enough, in our Archives, we have Louis’s multiple copies, but we also have copies sent to right-hand-man Jack Bradley, clarinetist Joe Muranyi, and Swedish fan Gösta Hägglöf. When first putting this post together, we toyed with just including a short, G-rated sample but no, we’re going to share the full 50-minute opus–watermarked for protection, as we always do–with a big fat parental warning that this content is not suitable for children, but is very suitable for adults.
This tape is prime example of Armstrong’s sense of humor, particularly when he was offstage among friends. He’s lightning quick and uses curse words almost rhythmically, not just for the sake of being vulgar. He finally gets to tell his full joke about Soviet Union Premier Alexi Kosygin, which he told 90% of on The Mike Douglas Show before remembering the offcolor punchline and bailing. Von Blaine is a good foil as he’s a little squarer and a little too enthusiastic, so Armstrong has fun occasionally needling him (it helps that Von Blaine is a good laugher). With the release of the wonderful new documentary Louis Armstrong’s Black and Blues, there’s a lot of focus on the tapes where Armstrong sounds hurt and angry, especially about matters related to race. Those tapes are very real and very worthy of study and discussion, but it should be noted that there are many more tapes like the current one, where Armstrong is cutting up the entire time (an entire documentary can be made about Armstrong the comedian). To sum it up, if this tape doesn’t make you laugh out loud at least one time, something’s wrong!
Without further ado, here’s the audio:
If you missed it in the last post, here’s the excerpt from Louis’s handwritten catalog pages for this portion of Reel 130 (note we now know the location of the recording: the Century Plaza hotel in Los Angeles):
Unfortunately, we don’t have any photos of Armstrong and Von Blaine together (at least that we know of; researching this post has given us a better idea of Von Blaine’s appearance so he might still turn up in a previously unidentified image), but the Jack Bradley photo of Louis on the phone laughing uproariously at the top of this post was taken in the summer of 1970 and we think, effectively summarizes the mood of the tape. It’s one of the last taped examples of Armstrong sounding like the life of party and, knowing that he wanted his friends to enjoy this tape, we’re happy to have shared it in this post.
But it’s far from the last tape Louis made and we’ll resume our usual series next week with another doozy that will feature more unedited master takes from Louis “Country and Western” Armstrong, an unedited conversation with Joe Delaney, some great collages, audio of Louis on The Flip Wilson Show and The Johnny Cash Show, and much more.