In our last post on Louis Armstrong’s 1969-1971 tapes, we mentioned that Reel 163 featured the only extended sequence on all of the tapes of Louis and his adopted son Clarence Hatfield Armstrong together. We promised to share that audio in a separate post–and this is that post, but it’s also much more: it is our tribute to Clarence and his beautiful relationship with Louis.
Clarence was born on August 8, 1915, the son of Louis’s cousin Flora Myles (or Miles) and a man Louis remembered as “Copper Cent John” Hatfield. However, Louis’s sister Beatrice remembered him as “Joseph” Hatfield, while Clarence’s Social Security application is available on Ancestry.com and it lists a man also named “Clarence Hatfield” as his father. Members of the Myles family appears in the 1900 and 1910 census but Flora isn’t mentioned in either, so it’s assumed she was born after the 1900 census and perhaps living with another family member (or simply not enumerated) in 1910. Louis wrote in detail about the circumstances of the birth of Clarence; the following passages are from the original typewritten manuscript of Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, before it got into the hands of the Prentice-Hall editors (we’ve done our best to replicate Louis’s typing style, retaining his typos and ellipses; the actual pages are too faded to share):
“During the time that my cousin Flora was going places with those strange kids, she came in contact with a very funny musician….. It was an old white fellow by the name of Hatfield… I forget his first name…. Some of the old men call him …. Copper Cent John……. Copper means ‘one penny, that’s not much money…. That was Hatfield Nick name….. He would have these colored girls, come up to his house, which was an old beat up one, – and ask them an unfair question… (you know what I mean?)…Hmmm?…, Well, if you don’t get it,… You can just figure it out when I tell you that my cousin Flora Miles, became pregnant… we all did not know what to do about it…. I being just a youngster myself, and never witnessed anybody being pregnant before…. I noticed, Flora getting larger and larger….. And finally here come, a fine fat little baby boy,… She named him Clarence.. Clarence Hatfield ofcourse…… From the first day my Flora’s baby was born, until this day, we haven’t seen Mr Hatfield….. All the other girls flora ran around with, – after seeing what happened to Flora, and a couple other kiddies, they commenced to staying home with their parents…. Scared to death… Everybody was telling old man Ike Miles, Flora’s father, to have Hatfield arrested… But that did not make sense at all…. The first place, Mr Hatfield was a white man,- and the judge would have thrown it all out in the streets, including Clarence the baby, if we would have tried to make an attempt to have him arrested… So we threw it out of our minds, the next best thing… And that was, to try and struggle through that, and take care of Clarence myself….. And believe you me, that my friend, was really a struggle….. “
As one gets older, memories sometime get tied to major events–in this case, Armstrong writes about a hurricane that happened “the day Clarence was born,” which again, was August 8, 1915. The New Orleans Hurricane of 1915, or “The Great Storm of 1915” as New Orleanians called it (thank you, Dan Meyer!) didn’t actually hit the city until September 29 and lasted through October 1, so Clarence was about seven weeks old, not a newborn but Louis’s memory still understandably connected the two events almost 40 years later. With that in mind, here’s the next passage from Louis’s manuscript:
“At the time his mother Flora Miles died, she was living with my cousin Sarah Ann, who was a very jolly young lady and the sister of Flora, had a big heart, and would do anything within her power to help make someone happy…. She and my mother Mayann were running mates… They would go places together… Places where we kids dared not poke our heads in…Tee Hee…. Ever since was born to Flora, she’s been having her troubles…. First place, – the day Clarence was born, it was a great big storm, – one of the worst storms-New Orleans ever had, up until that time… I can remember it the same as it happened yesterday…. This storm blew down houses…Killed a lot of people, animals, put plenty of people out in the —streets, homeless….. The storm was so strong until, the ‘slates off the roof of the houses, became loosened, and commenced to flying up, and falling to the ground, sticking up in the peoples heads, as they passed by, killing them….. And the more I tried to get home to Mama, the more the storm would say to me, boy, if you know whats, good you, you will try to find shelter, some place…. But, I beeing a very kid, I did not know what to do….. I could not get back to where I had came from, because, ‘that was too far… And those slates were falling all around me…..”
“Finally I managed to reach home, all soaked and wet…. Mayann- Sarah Ann, and the rest of the family who were in at the time the storm started, were all ‘scared stiff…. They just knew I was sucked up by that awful storm…Hmmm… And I was real frantic, because,, all I could see, while I was struggling to get home, was the storm, blowing the family off to some strange neighborhood… It was really terrific….. We hug’d–eachother, and crying at the same time…. And with tears in my eyes while I was hugging Mayann, I happened to look into the bed(the only bed) where mother-my sister and I slept, and there and behold, was the baby, Clarence…… The birth of Clarence made my moment(that moment) very pleasant. You can say’that again… The birth of the baby, taken all the gloom out of us all………The next morning, the sun came out, real bright and pretty… There were smiles on everybody’s faces at home… And all over the city…. “
“My cousin Flora Miles, was never the same…. I am sure the shock from the storm and the birth of Clarence, had something to do with her death… Then too, in the south, especially in those days, it wa’snt very easy to get to a doctor… Or, it wasn’t very easy to get ‘money to go to a doctor… We could not offord a doctor at two dollars per visit…Nay Nay…. We needed that money to eat off of. Ofcourse we did everything we could for Flora before she died … But, ‘that wasn’t enough… And the Charity Hospital was over crowded… With storm victims all out into the yards of the hospital….”
Now here’s where things get a little murky. Armstrong seems pretty clear that Flora died in the aftermath of 1915 hurricane. Ancestry.com doesn’t offer any death certificates for Flora Myles (or Miles)….but does have one for Flora Meyers–on September 24, 1924 at the age of 22. While that might be an entirely different person, it should be pointed out that the draft board wrote both of Flora’s brothers’s surnames as “Meyers” on the 1918 World War I draft registration cards so it could have been a common mistake. Also, Louis’s sister Beatrice remembered Flora being in the House of the Good Shepherd, which was a place for young girls convicted of sexual delinquency. What’s most fascinating about the death certificate for Flora “Meyers” is it’s almost exactly at that time that Clarence was sent to live with Louis and Lil in Chicago; Clarence specifically recalled it was 1924 and Louis was already writing letters to Lil referencing Clarence’s behavior in February 1925. Thus, it’s quite possible Louis was covering something up about why Flora wasn’t raising her child (she isn’t listed in the 1920 census either, but Clarence is).
But regardless of the status of Flora during those years in New Orleans, it’s clear that Louis took an active role in young Clarence’s life. In his manuscript to My Life in New Orleans, Armstrong added:
“I became much attached to Clarence, as the years rolled by, and he started to growing…. My cousin Flora must have felt that she was going to die… Because she gave Clarence to me just before she passed away… And changed his name from Clarence Hatfield to Clarence Armstrong and it has remained that way ever since………….. As Clarence grew up, he became attached to me also… Because every time he looked up, he was looking into my face, smiling at him, or tickling his lil, tooties…. He always had a very cute smile, and I would spend hours, playing with him….”
Armstrong was around 14-years-old when Clarence was born and now found himself helping to support a newborn baby, in addition to his mother and other family members. A few years later, on March 19, 1919, Louis married Daisy Parker and soon moved into a new home on Melpomene Street. While young Clarence was staying with them, an incident occurred that altered the course of Clarence’s life entirely. Here is Louis again in the unedited manuscript to Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans:
“There were some awful situations that happened in that house, some which I’ll never forget… First, I want to say, by this time, Clarence was about three years old.. But he was still in dresses.. Down there, all kids wear dresses until they are a real large size… Clarence was a kid, (the same as all kids who love to wander around the house-a lot; and Clarence was no exception… This place where we lived, had two Porches – a front one and one in the back. On the second floor we lived… Ofcourse in those days the word Porch was unheard of… we called them ‘Galleries… Well this gallery where we stayed was an old one, – and it had began to kind of slant a little, and when it would rain, – the water which fell on this gallery, would run down ( roll off) the(gallery,) the same as if it was rolling down a wall, or, etc….
“Oneday, while it was raining like mad, – real hard.. Big sheets of rain was falling… Daisy and I were in the front room listening to some new record I had just bought that was the new release (of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band… We had one of those Upright Victrolas.. Which we were very proud of.. The records were Livery Stable Blues – and the first Tiger Rag, ever to be recorded… Its the first one I had heard.. P.S. and between you and me, its the best…. Clarence Hatfield (my cousin Flora Miles, illegitimate child) was living with Daisy and I by this time… Afterall, Flora (as I’ve mentioned further in my story is my dear cousin.. And since I was the only one in the family at the time she was born, who was making a fair amount of money I adapted Clarence, the day he was born… So from there on out, and until this day, Clarence always called me his father…
“On this bad – rainy day, while we were listening to these fine recordings Clarence was playing with some toys I had bought for him.. He was in the rear room, which was the kitchen for us… Not noticing him, when we wondered out of the kitchen on to the back porch where it was raining so terribly hard… Just like a kid, (not satified playing where it is very comfortable they will invaribly,go to some other place where there’s danger every time…
“While Daisy and myself were still playing records, – all the sudden we heard Clarence Crying… Real Frantic like… So we ran to the rear door to see what was the matter… I was real frightened when I looked on the porch and I did not see Clarence… But I could hear him Crying (real loud) then I looked down to the ground, and there was Clarence (a little fellow) coming up the steps crying and holding his head… He had slipped off the porch, by it being so wet, he lost his balance and fell to the ground… Wich was real good luck for him… The average child probably would have gotten killed… But for Clarence, the fall only set him back behind the average child, Four Years…Wooeee, I was ‘scared …. As Clarence grew up, – that same fall kind of hindered him through life… But he’s my Son, – so what happened to him, I was still with him…. I had some of the best Doctors anyone could get, to examine Clarence and they all agreed that the fall he had, caused him to the feeble minded… That’s what they all said, thats, why Clarence,s mind is four years behind the average normal child…I took Clarence to all kinds of schools, as he grew.. I also took him and enrolled him into a Catholic School.. They kept him there several months and sent him back home to me, saying, the same thing the rest of the doctor said…. So I got so disgusted with all the running around they were giving Clarence until I decided to take over and teach him myself….
“And since Clarence has always been a nervious sort of fellow… Since he would never be able to work and make his own living, I set up a routine in life for him, where he would be happy the rest of his days… He and I both were (and still) attached to eachother… I managed to work and support him, and teach him the necessary things in life… Such as being Curteous, have respect for other people, and last but not least, have good common sense… He managed to learn quite a bit of reading and writing and spelling, etc, enough to help him get along in this world… I always managed to have someone look after Clarence when ever I had to travel or go to work… The musicians – actors, infact, everybody who I’d ever introduced Clearance to they all taken a liken to him, right away… As we used to say (in New Orleans) Clarence never was a ‘Sassy’ Child….”
Louis might have tried different schools and other tactics but the fact was Clarence was now developmentally disabled and would require special attention and care for the rest of his life. 1919 was also the year Louis began working on the riverboats with Fate Marable, which took him away from New Orleans for much of the year. Perhaps this is why Clarence is listed in the 1920 census as living as a boarder at 1303 Perdido Street, the home Louis was raised in with his mother and sister, though they no longer resided there. (Maybe my speculative side is running wild but listed just above Clarence is “Sarah Taylor,” married, 24-years-old, which meshes with the above mentioned cousin, Sarah Ann Myles, born c. 1895–perhaps cousin Sarah got married and was raising Clarence in this period?)
Louis eventually left New Orleans and went to Chicago, married Lillian Hardin, spent a year in New York, then returned to Chicago to settle down with Lil. Clarence remembered going up to Chicago in 1924, which is when Louis officially took over as his adopted father (though it seems there was never any official adoption papers). Louis wrote about this period in a notebook he sent to Belgian author Robert Goffin in 1944:
“When Clarence was around ‘Six years old–I had just married ‘Lil.’ She and I moved into a fine apartment also just like mother’s. I had the folks down in New Orleans whom l left Clarence to live with while I went to Chicago–I had them to put a ‘Tag on Clarence–put him on a train and send him to me. It was one swell–Grand Re-union. He’s been in Chicago ever since. He stayed with ‘Lil and I the whole time we were married. Then when ‘Lil’ and I Bought a Home on 44th St. in Chicago, Clarence had his special room. Went to school everyday–They transferred him to a School where they teach the Backwards Boys, etc. There he turned to be one of the Best ‘Base Ball, ‘Basket Ball and ‘Foot Ball Players in the whole school. And everybody knows him–And calls him Little ‘Louis Armstrong. In fact–that’s the only name he knows of now.”
The earliest photo of Clarence comes from this late 1920s period and features him with Louis and two unidentified men, though Jack Bradley noted on the copy of one print we have of this image that the large man was associated with the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club in New Orleans and other boy on the left was his son. Louis had a wallet-sized print of this photo and had it taped at different times to his trumpet case and to a tape recorder. We received a donation of one of Armstrong’s tape recorders in 2017 and the wallet-sized photo was still stuck to it. Jack Bradley asked if he could shoot it back in the 1960s and captured this uncropped image, taken from the original negative; Clarence is on the far right:
However, things were not always happy for Clarence when living with Louis and Lil, especially as their marriage began to fall apart. Louis wrote to Robert Goffin:
“But still with all of that swell Home, Lil, ,and I had–There was not happiness there. We were always Fussing and threatening to ‘Break up if I ‘sat on the ‘Bed after it was ‘made up. Why–‘Lil would almost go into “Fits” (Spasms)–etc. And poor Clarence my adopted son with his nervous self–used to almost Jump out of his ‘Skin when ‘Lil or Lil’s mother would ‘Holler at him.– Most of the times it was uncalled for. Lil and her mother had some bad tempers. And it would make my Blood ‘Boil when I’d see them Abuse, my Son ‘Clarence. When ever they–especially Lil–would ‘holler at me I’d tell her ‘Just where to go. I’d say–“Aw ‘Woman–‘GO ‘TA ‘HELL.”
By this point, Louis was already beginning to see young dancer Alpha Smith on the side. The 1930 census shows Clarence still living with Dempsey Miller, Lil Hardin Armstrong’s mother, as Louis and Lil gave a New York address and spent much of that year in California. But at some point, Louis moved Clarence out of Lil’s home entirely and into the apartment of Alpha’s mother, Florence Smith, who lived at 3525 South Parkway. Armstrong wrote to Goffin:
“The first night I taken Clarence down there to meet Mrs. Smith, Mr. ‘Woods (Mrs. Smith’s husband) and ‘Alpha–‘Clarence was so ‘glad over it. Just the idea–he could talk ‘free without some one ‘Hollering at him and ridiculing his ‘Affliction, etc. And he didn’t have to put on “Airs with a certain ‘Spoon for this and a certain ‘fork for that. And as well as Clarence loves to eat and as well as I love to see him eat–He could eat at Mrs. Smith’s house until his little heart’s content. I could see the ‘Joy in Clarence’s eyes when he looked around at me and said, as he ‘Bit down on a nice Hot ‘Biscuit–He said-“Pops” (that’s what he calls me) he ‘said-“this is where I should be living instead of staying out there with Lil.” Well sir–I was ‘Speechless for a moment then all of a sudden I smiled at him and said–“Yes’ Clarence-you are right. And here’s where you are going to stay–Right here with Mrs. Smith. Not only that–‘you are going to spend the rest of your life with Mrs. Smith.” I had a sorta feeling within myself that I’d soon get with Alpha anyway.”
Louis was right. He and Lil separated in the summer of 1931 and Louis began living with Alpha full-time that year. Of course, he spent much of that time of the year on the road, including a long stretch in Europe, but he felt comfortable knowing that Clarence was happy with Alpha’s mother and her husband, Noah Woods. Whenever Armstrong was in Chicago, he’d be sure to spend time with Clarence–here’s a a beautiful snapshot of the sharp-dressed pair taken in the Windy City in 1933, the same year Clarence shouted “Look out there, Pops!” on Louis’s recording of “Laughin’ Louie” (also discussed in our previous post):
After spending a year-and-a-half in Europe, Armstrong returned to Chicago in early 1935, where he still kept his residence with Alpha, though he would soon go back on the road more frequently. On February 14, 1936, Armstrong appeared at a party in his and Duke Ellington’s honor at Tony’s Tavern. In this famous photo, you can spot Louis on the left side of the table with Ellington on one side of him and Alpha on the other. Directly across is Ellington bassist Wellman Braud and just over Braud’s shoulder is Clarence’s head:
Louis and Alpha finally married in 1938 but it was a stormy union, with the wheels already falling apart in late 1939 when Louis met Cotton Club dancer Lucille Wilson and began an affair. Alpha responded by cheating on Armstrong with drummer Cliff Leeman, which was more than Louis could handle. He divorced Alpha in 1942 and from all evidence, never spoke to her again. In his 1954 Ebony cover story “Why I Like Dark Women,” Louis referenced Alpha being dead–but it turns out she didn’t pass away until 1960! In a tape recorded conversation from 1953, Louis mentioned that Lucille was fond of Lil and that they were good friends, but added, “That’s the only one Lucille runs with, Lil,” insinuating that Alpha was persona non grata.
But in that same Ebony article, Louis wrote, “My divorce from Alpha didn’t end my friendship with her family. After she died I took care of her mother for a number of years. It was a pleasure to help her because she was such a wonderful old lady.” Indeed, Alpha might have “died” in Louis’s eyes, but Clarence remained with Florence Smith at 3525 South Parkway until her death in 1953. That’s the address both Clarence and Mrs. Smith gave to the 1950 census and it’s the address Clarence gave on his World War II draft registration card. It’s interesting to note that in all the census records, he gives his name as “Clarence Hatfield,” but on this document, it’s “Clarence Louis Armstrong” (with Mrs. Smith listed as Clarence’s “Grandmother”):
It’s also noted that Clarence didn’t work and never would have to; Louis saw to that, writing to Goffin in 1944, “Since I’ve taken care of him, all of his life I see no reason why I should expect him to go out and get a Job. He has a tendency to be rather nervous–I am sure it came from that fall–I always see that he is with people whom understand him and know how to treat him and keep him happy. Of course I pay them well. Of course that happens nowadays since I travel quite a bit–And too much traveling and exertion is a little strenuous for Clarence.”
Though living in New York, whenever Louis would pass through Chicago in the 1940s, he would always take Clarence out to a nightclub. This was the time of the nightclub photographer, when you could take home a souvenir photo from your time at a particular nightspot. Armstrong collected dozens of such photos and Clarence is in many of them. Here’s a run of the best, dating from the 1940s and possibly the early 1950s, opening with a beautiful one of Louis and Clarence backstage at the Band Box in Chicago–look at the look of love and affection radiating from Louis’s eyes!
Here’s one from the New Grand Terrace Cafe, which operated between 1937 and 1950, featuring Lionel Hampton joining Louis, Lucille and Clarence:
Here’s one from Club DeLisa apparently taken during World War II (“V for Victory”):
One from the New Club DeLisa (“The Harlem of Chicago”), now with valet Hazes “Doc” Pugh, who joined in the mid-1940s, on the far right:
A fun one from the Club DeLisa that includes Doc Pugh, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Louis and Clarence (chowing down in spaghetti) and two unidentified men hamming it up, possibly some of Louis’s comedian friends:
A last one from the New Club DeLisa, a big gathering with Doc Pugh on the left side, Lucille way in the back, and on the right side, Louis, Clarence, an unidentified woman, Cozy Cole, Lil again, and Chicago drummer Red Saunders. This one is signed “To Clarence from Lil Armstrong”; there’s another inscription on the lower right side to Clarence–perhaps it was his birthday party–but the ink is a little faded and all that can really be made out a “D” at the start and “e” at the end (perhaps “Dixie”?):
Also from the World War II era–the cover states “V At Home, V Abroad”–is this photo from the Charlie Glenn’s New Rhumboogie Cafe, 343 East Garfield Blvd. in Chicago. This one was found in a scrapbook belonging to Lucille’s sister Janet Wilson, who is seated with Clarence. In middle are two of Louis’s Chicago friends, Ruby Boyd and Ernest “Six” Smith. Louis looks almost gaunt here; he lost a lot of weight in 1942 for some Hollywood appearances, bragging to friends about his “Harper’s Bazaar 9 Day Diet”:
Not an official souvenir photo, but here’s another shot of Louis with a crowd of friends in the 1940s. The white man standing with glasses on looks like Frank Holzfeind, so it’s possible the is the Blue Note on Chicago; much more on that venue in a bit. Clarence at the far right; the woman with the big smile next to Louis also appears in some photos of holiday gatherings with the Armstrongs that we’ll share in a bit, but alas, her name is lost to history as of now:
Here’s that same unidentified woman in a photo definitely taken at the Blue Note in Chicago in the late 1940s; in fact, I think the woman on the left might the same woman to the left of Louis in the photo above. And this is pure conjecture but I do have to wonder if either the older woman in this photo or the older woman in the photo above is Florence Smith, Alpha’s mother:
Here’s another photo from the Blue Note taken on January 1, 1949 that was found in Arvell Shaw’s scrapbook; the All Stars were in the middle of quite an engagement at that Chicago nightspot, performing from December 6, 1948 through January 10, 1949. This photo sleeve features the handwriting of Shaw’s future wife, Madeleine Berard, in French but it translates to, from left to right, “Arvell Shaw, bass player from Louis Armstrong; Adrienne, a friend, Odetta Shaw, sister of Arvell; me!!; Tilly, a friend of Sid; and Sidney Catlett, drummer for Louis Armstrong.” But if you look in the background, there’s Clarence (the woman next to him gave me Billie Holiday vibes at first, but Holiday was at Billy Berg’s in Hollywood on January 1, 1949, so it’s not her):
This next photo is a real treat. It also comes in a Blue Note souvenir photo sleeve but it took a little detective work to date it. Louis and Lucille are there, and Clarence is at the bottom, looking into the camera. Also present are two All Stars, drummer Big Sid Catlett and bassist Arvell Shaw. But then you’ll also spot clarinetist Peanuts Hucko (seated to the right in front of his wife, the vocalist Louise Tobin, who recently passed away in 2022), pianist Dick Cary (seated next to Sid, staring at the camera), and to the left of Louis, the eyes and forehead of Bobby Hackett. A quick search of Newspapers.com showed that Eddie Condon led a band at the Blue Note in May 1948 with Hackett, Cary, Hucko, Bud Freeman on tenor, future All Star Irv Manning on bass, and Zutty Singleton on drums. And to take it one step further, another search shows Armstrong and the All Stars only played one night in Chicago in May 1948 at the South Chicago Community Center at 8 p.m. on May 26, 1948; they must have dropped by the Blue Note afterwards. Freeman, Manning, Singleton and Condon didn’t make the photo but it’s still a fun one:
Back to Arvell Shaw’s scrapbook, he had a nightclub photo souvenir card autographed by many of those present in the above photo–but alas, over the years, the photo detached from it! Perhaps it was the same one? Still, it’s interesting to see the autographs; Louis has taken his time and underlined that this is for “Marthe,” while Arvell seems to have written on the right side, “My Best Regards to Madeleine Mother”–or “Mather”? Or did he mean “Marthe,” too? Regardless, in between we get the signatures of Big Sid Catlett, Bobby Hackett, Strother Washington (Google turned up nothing but I found a newspaper article from 1935 about Strother Washington being the proprietor of the Black Spider nightclub in Chicago where Tiny Parham performed; perhaps he’s the older African American gentleman next to Shaw in the photo above), Zutty Singleton, Dick Cary, Louis, Lucille, and Clarence (though that seems to be Louis’s handwriting signing his name):
Speaking of Eddie Condon, on June 11, 1949, Armstrong appeared on the pioneering television program The Eddie Condon Floor Show, which aired out of New York City on NBC’s WNBT affiliate. Condon was actually sick so the guest host for that particular broadcast was pianist Joe Bushkin. Sadly, video has not survived of any of Condon’s television shows, but there’s plenty of audio including a gem from the June 11, 1949 episode. Yes, this post has shared plenty of Armstrong’s outdated language to describe Clarence’s condition, terms that would be considered offensive in 2023, such as “feeble-minded” and “backwards.” But if you have any doubts for the love Louis had for Clarence, listen to this beautiful segment when Armstrong brought Clarence out on live TV to have him say a few words to the audience; even without the visual, the warmth and the pride comes shining through:
Clarence did make occasional trips to the east coast during this time. In addition to the above television appearance in New York, here’s another nightclub photo, this one of Louis, Lucille and Clarence taken at Charley Johnson’s Club Harlem in Atlantic City, New Jersey:
And once on the east coast, Clarence would be invited to Louis and Lucille’s home in Corona for gatherings, such as this famous one from the early 1950s. And wow, I personally have been looking at this photo for about 15 years but after the run of nightclub photos shared above, I now see some very familiar faces! In fact, I’m now wondering if it’s taken in Chicago–possibly Christmas dinner during that 1948 Blue Note run? That’s Lucille on the left, Clarence is third from the left and next to him is Ernest “Six” Smith from Chicago. Then standing up is the unidentified smiling lady from those Chicago photos! Next to the man carving the turkey is Doc Pugh. Everyone else now looks familiar but I’m not sure if I’m seeing things or if some of them are in the above photos; that’s definitely Velma Middleton on the right.
And one final image from that same gathering, this one with Louis’s tape recorder spotted on the right, furnishing the soundtrack to the party–oh, if only he identified these people on the back of the print! (Clarence is seated and laughing, lower left):
Here’s an alternate take featured on one of Louis’s tape boxes:
Actually, the tape recorder, if it’s Louis’s, would date those photos from after December 1950, which is when Louis bought his first tape deck. The whole inspiration for this post is the audio we’re about to share of Louis and Clarence talking and eating together in 1951, a sequence that begins with Louis in the middle of telling about a tape recorder he is going to gift him.
From there, Louis and Clarence are off and running for nearly 30 minutes–here’s the entire audio of this segment:
To help guide you through the above track, here is a detailed description. As mentioned, the first words you hear are Louis saying, “It ain’t the money,” explaining to Clarence that he’ll let him “tear out” on a tape recorder once they make sure “this gadget” is working. Then about 40 seconds in, Louis switches into interviewer mode, asking Clarence to come closer and tell him what he’s been up to. Clarence responds that on May 16, he went to see the Brooklyn Dodgers play the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field; sure enough, the newspapers back Clarence up as that’s exactly who played on that date (the Cubs won 14-4). Baseball was a passion for Clarence, Louis, and for Joe Glaser and a brief discussion ensues with Clarence predicting the Yankees–Glaser’s team–would tear the Chicago White Sox up (they did indeed go on to win the World Series in 1951).
At 1:30, Clarence talks about how happy he is that Louis is in town and also names valet Doc Pugh and the members of the All Stars: Earl Hines, Jack Teagarden, Arvell Shaw, Cozy Cole, Velma Middleton, and Barney Bigard. Louis tells Clarence to “wipe his chops” because “that beer is running down your bosom there,” causing them to laugh. They then talk about a “funny cat” named “Face,” but they can’t remember his actual name. Clarence then mentions how the Blue Note isn’t always crowded but when Louis is in town, “it’s packed and jammed.” “Isn’t that nice?” Louis responds. “That makes us like to blow, too.”
At 3 minutes in, Louis moves to another part of the room and Clarence asks, “Can you get away with that?” referencing the tape. Louis tells him to move the microphone over to the table he’s sitting at. As they get situated, Clarence talks with great affection towards Louis, mentioning that folks kept asking him, “When’s your father coming?” Clarence would respond, “Keep it cool, he’ll be here.” Louis offers a “ciga-rootie” and Clarence accepts and mentions that something “knocks him out,” but I can’t tell if it’s Louis’s lighter or the tape recorder. Louis says he could turn on the radio for some background music, “but I don’t want nothing to disturb our party. Cause you know how we get together and talk serious.”
At 4:50, Louis reminisces about Clarence’s first night in Chicago when Louis sent for him to come up from New Orleans. Clarence had a tag on him and upon reuniting with Louis, immediately beat him in a game of “cooncan,” a rummy-style card game. Louis asks Clarence for his memories of the train trip up to Chicago and Clarence mentions that it was Louis’s sister Beatrice–better known as “Mama Lucy” or “Mama Lou”–who brought him to the train, along with another lady Mama Lucy gave instructions to regarding Clarence. Clarence mentions he’s going to be 36 in August and Louis jokingly calls him an old “son-of-a-……”
Lucille enters at 7 minutes in and Clarence excitedly asks her to join them. Lucille demurs at first but eventually comes on the microphone and talks with Clarence for a bit. Louis tells him to “work his chops” and ask some questions. But first, Lucille says she’s going to take milk of magnesia, eliciting a whoop of surprise from her husband. Louis jokes about the size of her spoon and breaks Clarence up with a line about not wanting Lucille to put anything so big in her mouth. Lucille says, “I don’t eat what you eat” and Louis says, “Keep it clean,” cracking up Clarence yet again. It’s clear that Louis and Clarence shared the same schoolboy sense of humor! Louis finally imparts his philosophy 10 minutes in: “the more you shit, the thinner you git!”
Louis and Clarence examine Lucille’s large spoon and Louis says it reminds him of the big soup bones they used to make soup in New Orleans, which inspires a moan of satisfaction from Clarence. More talk on laxatives and bowel movements follows–this is pre-Swiss Kriss–and we learn that vocalist Ann Baker told Louis he had the “best control” in the world, able to play an entire show after a big spoonful of the laxative Pluto Water!
Around 12 minutes in, Clarence wonders if the tape is still running and Louis assures him that it is and wants to keep it running since they have “a million things to talk about.” Louis compliments Clarence, telling him he looks great and Clarence says he exercises by playing ball. Clarence proudly talks about being named the captain of a baseball team and Louis responds “That’s wonderful” with pride.
At 13:30, “Hoppy” enters with their lunch, but Louis isn’t sure if they have any forks. Louis reminisces about his mother Mayann, saying, “She’d grab that big plate in her fingers and knock out all the rice you could squawk about. We didn’t worry about no forks.” As they divvy up lunch, Lucille orders a ham and egg sandwich on buttered toast, with Hoppy dutifully taking the order. Louis unpacks their Chinese food and talks about how pretty it is, saying, “You ought to take a picture” (Louis would have loved social media). At 17 minutes, Lucille asks Louis for a kiss as she’s about to take a nap; Louis obliges and you can hear some flirtatious laughter. Not much happens for a few minutes after that, though Lucille asks for extra blankets because she’s cold; “your blood’s thin” Louis tells her.
Finally, around 21 minutes in, Louis and Clarence get down to eating their Chinese food, Louis talking about his love of fried rice, “good and greasy.” Louis talks about playing in Miami and getting the fried rice and egg foo young for supper. “You don’t eat that other stuff no more, do you?” Clarence asks, adding, “You used to get it all the time, Pops.” Louis thinks about it and asks some questions, finally figuring Clarence was thinking of: “Chinese sausage but it’s made out of fish!”
This inspires Louis to tell a risque joke. As Lucille’s sandwich arrives, Louis tips Hoppy with a “rock piece,” telling him that when he used to be a bellboy in New Orleans, he made sure he got his tips first before making his deliveries! Clarence then takes over with a risque joke of his own that is admittedly difficult to follow but Louis is with him all the way and after cracking up at the punchline, Louis says, “Clarence, you gassed me, Papa” as the reel comes to a close. Talking baseball, eating Chinese food, reminiscing about the old days, swapping dirty jokes–it’s a beautiful snapshot of their father-and-son relationship.
That concludes the main inspiration for this post, but we’ve decided to take Clarence’s story until the end. According to Ancestry.com, Florence Smith, Alpha’s mother, passed away in 1953. Louis didn’t want Clarence to live alone in Chicago so he moved him to New York soon after, setting him up in an apartment and even paying for a “wife,” a caretaker named Evelyn Allen, who had a son named Leon, but was better known as Sonny; he would take on the name Sonny Armstrong. (Though in full disclosure, in researching this post, I discovered a marriage certificate for Evelyn H. Allen and Clarence L. Armstrong married in New York–on September 2, 1939! Either it’s a complete coincidence regarding the names or Louis had tried to arrange this marriage when Clarence was 24 and it didn’t work out. Either way, it seems off, as Clarence is listed in the 1940 and 1950 census as “Single” and living with Alpha’s mother in Chicago with no mention of Evelyn in either record.)
Clarence, Evelyn, and Sonny were a frequently presence during Armstrong’s life in the late 1950s and 1960s. Here’s a Paul Studer photo of all three with Louis and two of his closest friends, Slim Thompson and June Clark, at one of the Decca recording sessions for Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography in January 1957:
Originally, Clarence and Evelyn lived in Brooklyn; Clarence sent Louis this snapshot and wrote his address on the back:
In 1957, Evelyn and Clarence moved into a new apartment at 1170 East 224th Street in the Bronx. Evelyn wrote a handwritten letter to Louis on March 27 that is a mixture of joy (Clarence looking “too sharp”) and sadness (Clarence’s fear that Joe Glaser was going to send him away if anything happened to Louis). Here’s the letter with a transcription below:
How are you. We hope well. Clarence enjoyed himself the day we came to your house for Dinner. Clarence is telling the family how you dressed him in the Suits because you know he loves clothes. I am buying his shoes, socks, shirts today he picked them for Easter. He is just to sharp. He was worried over your illness and Blew his top. But after he sent you the telegram for your concert He felt much better. He cried like a baby. He said He thought Mr. Glazer was going to send him away. Well Pops we Have a happy Home again. Clarence have a Big yard where he can play ball. Upstairs next to our Bedroom Clarence is making a Den like yours. I Had the T. V. fixed and everything is O. K. It is no one up here to tell him bad things. I have the Rent + Bills covered. But I need $150 One Hundred Fifty dollars for Security.
Your loving Cousins Evelyn + Clarence.
Louis would continue supporting Clarence until the end of his life and was always happy to see him out and about. Here are some photos in Louis’s collection from Clarence’s New York years:
As you can tell, Louis used his scissors on the above photo, most likely intending to use it in one of his collages. Clarence also became the subject of a few of Louis’s reel-to-reel tape box collages in the 1950s and 60s; here’s a selection, the first one signed by Clarence himself for Louis and Lucille:
The image of Clarence lighting a cigarette for Louis brings to mind Louis’s friend Jack Bradley, who first came on the scene in 1959. Jack, girlfriend Jeann “Roni” Failows, and trumpeter Leon Eason were present at a recording session when Louis pulled out a cigarette, causing Clarence to immediately shout, “Give Pops a light!” sending everyone scurrying for a lighter. We have multiple cards and letters between Bradley and Eason and Bradley and Failows where they invoke that catchphrase. Naturally, Bradley’s camera captured Clarence in a variety of settings throughout the 1960s–here’s some of our favorites (most of which have been part of our Jack Bradley series of posts).
Louis sadly passed away on July 6, 1971; Clarence attended the funeral, sitting in the second row on the left side of Corona Congregational Church, directly behind Louis’s sister Beatrice:
Two years later, Louis’s headstone was put up in Flushing Cemetery at a ceremony photographed by Jack Bradley. Here’s a photo from the event, with Clarence on the far right:
Sadly, that’s the last photograph we have in our Archives of Clarence Hatfield Armstrong–but he lived on for 25 years after it was taken. For the most emotional report of how Clarence spent the 1970s and early 1980s, we must turn to the late Tom Cosentino, who wrote about Clarence on his blog back in 2010. Tom seemed to have misremembered Evelyn’s name as “Miss Lillian,” but besides that, this is an essential piece that shines light on not just Clarence, but on how to be a better human being:
WHAT I LEARNED FROM CLARENCE ARMSTRONG
Last night I watched a documentary on the Ovation television network on jazz legend Louis Armstrong. I’ve always been fascinated with the man known as “Satchmo,” not only because of his music, which I love, but because of a boyhood tie that I have to him.
During the course of the documentary, reference was made to Louis’ adopted son, who was retarded. No name was given, but I knew what they were talking about, for he was my friend Clarence, a person I first knew as a little boy as Ooga Booga.
I grew up in the northeast Bronx on a street called Oakley. The cross street was Fenton Ave, and a few house up that block was a woman named Miss Lillian. That was the house that Clarence lived in as well. Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of friends until I was 8 and I was allowed to start playing in the street and nearby school yard of my boyhood school, P.S. 78. From my backyard, I would see Clarence pass my house every day, wearing his Mets cap. I never really talked with him. Then, when I started playing ball in the street with the other kids up my block, I heard them call him by another name, that of “Ooga Booga.” The kids were afraid of him and would tease him for chewing on his tongue. When they would see him they would taunt him with the cry of “Hey, Ooga Booga, Hey Ooga Booga” and then run. I’m ashamed to say, I joined in.
Then, one day, Clarence called me out and said he would tell my father. When I was home that night, I asked my parents about Clarence. They then told me that he was the son of Louis Armstrong. They even told me that Louis used to come up to the house to see Clarence when they first moved in. I knew Louis Armstrong was a musician, and knew him from television and the song, Hello Dolly. What I didn’t know was that Miss Lillian had married Clarence under an arrangement with Louis Armstrong. They had a son who used to play the trumpet out of his window all the time. However, he later died, although I do not know the reasons.
Knowing now the background of Clarence, I was carrying the guilt of being one of the abusive kids taunting him. The next time I saw him, I didn’t run but said hello. Clarence started talking to me about his love, baseball. This would begin years of dialogue on the Mets. Even though I was a Yankees fan, Clarence knew I loved baseball too. He would make up trades for the Mets, ringing my door bell to tell me the Mets got Reggie Smith from the Red Sox or Tony Perez from the Reds and other such All-Stars. Of course, they never traded anyone for these players, but I caught on and just kept the discussion going. Many times, he would ring my doorbell to tell me his news. My dad or mom would have to rescue me by coming out to tell me to finish my home work or have dinner.
I remember the one trade that was really made that thrilled Clarence was when the Mets got Willie Mays from the Giants. Clarence was literally jumping for joy that day. He would often jump up and down when he was excited, yelling as loud as he could. He was a little boy in a grown man’s body.
I communicated my discovery of Clarence’s background and love for baseball to my friends and they quickly caught on too. Soon Clarence began hanging out with us, watching us play. We’d even let him coach some times. He quickly became our mascot and lookout, watching for kids from other blocks that might look to start trouble with us.
Not only was I able to get to know Clarence, but I would visit and say hello to Miss Lillian nearly every day. Sometimes she would even give me a present.
When Louis Armstrong died in July, 1971, I remember WPIX carrying the funeral live on television. There, I got to see Clarence getting into a limousine. It confirmed for real, his relationship with the famed trumpeter.
As the years progressed and we all got older, we continued playing ball all the way through our college years. Clarence was there with us, watching and cheering us on as always. He was still making up trades. In fact, if the Mets hired Clarence, they may have won a few more pennants.
Clarence was Catholic and I would often walk and attend Mass with him at St. Phillip & James Church on Boston Road. Many parishioners would shy away, but I would sit with him in a side pew.
Sometimes when Clarence would ring my bell it wasn’t always about baseball. I can remember one time when he called on me to tell me a member of his daddy’s band had died.
After watching the documentary last night, I decided to look up information on Louis Armstrong, hoping to find mention of the adopted retarded son I knew as Clarence. Why I never did this earlier, I don’t know, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a link in the Wikipedia entry to a story written by Gary Giddins in the Village Voice in 2003 that outlined the history of Clarence. It turns out; Clarence was the son of Louis Armstrong’s cousin Flora. As Giddins’ account, posted below, points out, Louis began supporting Clarence when Louis was just 14. It became a lifelong pursuit, as Clarence was Louis’ only child.
“A few steps into the archive I was stopped dead by a pasteboard blowup of a photograph that had never been published, showing Armstrong and his adopted son, “Clarence Hatfield.” I had never given Clarence much thought, having heard he was mentally retarded and died a long time ago, hidden away.
But here he was: beaming backstage at the Band Box, a club in Chicago, in the 1940s, nattily dressed in a double-breasted suit not unlike the pinstripe tailored for Armstrong, who also beams, with unmistakable paternal pride. Clarence and their relationship sprang to life, sending me back to Armstrong’s account in Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, to appreciate for the first time its affectionate candor regarding his only venture into paternity. Clarence was born in 1915 to Louis’s teenage cousin, Flora, apparently after she was molested by an old white man her father felt powerless to challenge. Louis’s first sight of the baby washed “all the gloom out of me.” He took it upon himself, at 14, to get a job hauling coal (immortalized in the 1925 “Coal Cart Blues”) to support the baby and the ailing mother, and assumed full responsibility after Flora’s death, marrying his first wife and adopting the three-year-old at 17. In that period, Clarence fell off a porch and landed on his head; doctors judged him to be mentally impaired. When Louis married Lil Hardin in Chicago, Clarence joined them, and Louis never forgave Lil—who claimed that Clarence was never legally adopted—for her impatience with him. When he left Lil for Alpha, he brought Clarence along.
Eventually, Clarence was set up in the Bronx, where he was married in an arrangement of convenience financed by Louis.”
Miss Lillian eventually passed and I got married and moved to New Jersey, losing any connection I had with Clarence. My dad and brother who were still living there told me that his house had been boarded up and Clarence taken away one day. They never knew what happened. After reading Gary Giddins’ story, I now know he died in 1998. I now have to read Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans and learn more.
Clarence Armstrong forever changed my life for he taught me how to deal with others. Appearances and background don’t matter. It’s what’s inside a person that counts. It’s something I’ve tried to carry through on throughout my professional career.
I can still see him cheering for us, tongue hanging from his mouth and his Mets cap hanging sideways on his head as he jumped up and down. “Tommy, Tommy” I can hear him yell. “The Mets just got Albert Pujols. They gonna have a bad ass team this year!”
Buried in Cosentino’s piece is the sad news that Sonny Armstrong died and eventually, one day Clarence and Evelyn’s apartment was boarded up and Clarence was “taken away.” I’ve spent the better part of the afternoon looking for obituaries and/or death certificates for Clarence and Sonny but without any luck. Clarence apparently had a Louis Armstrong trumpet he gave to Sonny and Sonny gave it to a woman he dated before he passed away; she auctioned it off in 2014. (If anyone out there sees or has an Armstrong trumpet missing a second valve, that’s Louis/Clarence/Sonny’s horn.)
The auction listing is the only mention of Sonny’s name as “Leon”; there are references to a Leon Armstrong passing away in New York in 1983 and and other in 1984, but I’m not sure if that’s Sonny. Did he take on the surname Armstrong? Did Evelyn? Or Hatfield? But reading between the lines, Cosentino, who was born in 1962, met Clarence when he was 8, placing the beginning of his story in 1970, which checks out with his mention of seeing Clarence at Louis’s funeral in 1971. And he mentions Clarence still being around for Cosentino’s “college years,” presumably putting us in the 1980s.
But Clarence isn’t in any of the photographs from Lucille Armstrong’s funeral in 1983 and he wasn’t at any of the public events that took place between 1986 and 1991 when Queens College announced its acquisition of the Armstrong House and Archives. As referenced above, by this point Clarence was living at the Hebrew Home for the Aged, a nursing home in Riverdale, NY. This could not have been a cheap luxury so one must assume that Louis’s financial support of Clarence was passed to Lucille and in turn, she passed it along to the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation to continue paying for Clarence’s living expenses after passed, but I have no concrete evidence of this.
Clarence eventually passed away on August 27, 1998, after his 83rd birthday. For what happened next, I asked David Ostwald to tell the story. Here’s David:
“A few years after Michael Cogswell arrived at the Armstrong House in 1991, we learned that Clarence Armstrong was alive, but living in a nursing home and not lucid. We nevertheless tried to plan a visit with him, which never materialized. So the news of Clarence’s death in 1998 had an extra measure of sadness, which deepened when it turned out there wasn’t enough money to fully cover the funeral. Jack Bradley, knowing that Louis would not have allowed Clarence to be forgotten in death, immediately sprung into action and raised the shortfall with donations from himself, Dan Morgenstern, and me. Jack also paid for a death listing in the NY Times (see below), arranged for pianist Chuck Folds to play and patched together a nice biography of Clarence’s history as Louis’ adopted son (see below) for distribution at the funeral. Thanks to Jack’s efforts, there was a nice turnout. I believe the speakers included (but I can’t remember for sure) Dan Morgenstern, Jack, and George Avakian. All in all, it was a beautiful send-off for a beloved member of Louis’s family.”
Here’s the death listing Bradley paid for:
Here’s the four-page funeral program Bradley put together, mostly made up of photocopied excerpts from Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans and other writings referenced above:
On the last page of the program, Bradley mentions that Evelyn died “a few years” after Louis and Clarence lived in a nursing home for 25 years, but that doesn’t mesh with Cosentino’s memories. The Social Security Death Index does list an Evelyn Armstrong born in 1915 having passed away in 1986; if that’s true and if Sonny passed away in the early 1980s, then that gives credence to Clarence ending up in a nursing home circa 1986.
Regardless, we’d like to thank David Ostwald for sharing the above memories and mementos. And in Jack Bradley’s Collection is a postcard David sent Jack that really sums up this loving gesture:
Indeed, Jack Bradley did Pops proud–so did David Ostwald, Dan Morgenstern, George Avakian, Michael Cogswell, Nancy Bradley, Tom Cosentino, Evelyn Allen Armstrong, Leon “Sonny” Armstrong, Lucille Wilson Armstrong, Alpha Smith Armstrong, Lillian Hardin Armstrong, Daisy Parker Armstrong, Florence Smith, Mary Ann Albert, Sarah Ann Myles, Flora Myles, and all of the other folks who made Clarence feel special during his 83 years on this planet. To paraphrase what Pops said at the end of that tape, Clarence, you gassed us, Papa.
4 thoughts on ““My Adopted Son”: The Story of Clarence Hatfield Armstrong”
This couldn’t be more beautiful or more thorough. Lovely!
Impressive. Absolutely “out of the park” impressive. Mr. Ricciardi never disappoints when it comes to scholarly works, or passion in all things Louis.
I’m not crying. You’re crying.
Excellent! I enjoyed the whole story. Just made me love Louis Armstrong even more.