Louis Armstrong’s 1969-1971 Tapes: Reels 166-170

It’s been a couple of weeks since our last post in this series, as we devoted last week’s entry to the story of Louis Armstrong’s adopted son, Clarence Hatfield Armstrong. But we’re back now and folks, this is most likely the next-to-last installment of a series that began way back in 2020. As usual, there’ll be plenty of collages and audio so let’s jump right in.

Reel 166
Accession Number: 1987.3.464

To refresh your memory, we are firmly in February 1971. Armstrong had performed with the All Stars for two weeks in Las Vegas in late December-early January and complained to his doctor, Gary Zucker, that he was experiencing shortness of breath. On January 18, Armstrong was presented with a contract to perform at the Waldorf-Astoria in March and he signed it, even though Dr. Zucker warned him he could die on stage. Armstrong probably should have just rested but his will to perform was too strong and he kept going, playing at the National Press Club on January 29, at a Cerebral Palsy telethon on January 31, and on television appearances on talk shows hosted by David Frost, Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas, and Johnny Carson, some of which will be shared later in this post. He also blocked off time in February to write letters to friends, to do photoshoots at his home for Esquire and Time magazines, and to record a reading of “The Night Before Christmas,” which will also be addressed shortly.

But in his downtime during this unexpected flood of activity, Armstrong continued making reel-to-reel tapes. Reel 166 is another example of a tape Armstrong originally made in the 1950s and was now re-cataloging at the end of his life. It opens with three tracks from Ella and Louis Again, recorded in 1957, then jumps back to April 29 and May 6 1951 for two episodes of Tallulah Bankhead’s radio program The Big Show. In between is a Nat King Cole recording from 1945, “I Tho’t You Ought to Know.” Interestingly, Armstrong lists Joe Bushkin on his catalog pages but he’s not on the tape; my guess is Armstrong associated Bushkin with Bankhead as the three of them had some good times together in the early 1950s and in a memory lapse, assumed Bushkin was on a tape that featured Bankhead (in addition to Ethel Merman, Jimmy Durante, Groucho Marx, Fred Allen, Milton Berle, Lucienne Boyer, and more). Here are the catalog pages:

LAHM 1987_2_102~001
LAHM 1987_2_102~002

The cover of the box features a 1950s photo of Louis with a woman holding his trumpet. She has inscribed it, “Louie are you looking for Lucille – just the same, am glad to be your friend. Florence.” Probably just a fan, but if she rings a bell or looks familiar, let us know! Below is a snapshot of an offstage occasion with Cozy Cole, Louis, Barney Bigard (wearing glasses), and unidentified man who also looks familiar–could it be Noel Coward? Joe Glaser also booked him and Louis wrote his name on the above catalog sheets, but he doesn’t appear on the tape.

LAHM 1987.3.464

The back of the box has a shot of Trummy Young at the microphone with Louis backing him up, paired with a nice closeup image of Louis:

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Reel 167
Accession Number: 1987.3.465

Now we come to the unsolved mystery of how and why Louis Armstrong found himself recording Clement Clark Moore’s poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”–on February 26, 1971. We have a lot of business papers from the last two years of his life, but we don’t have anything asking Louis to do this. Reel 167 opens with two complete readings of the poem, which Louis describes below as “Louis Satchmo Armstrong talking to all the Kids from All over the world – at Xmas Time.” After Louis died, the best parts of both readings were edited together and made into a single, distributed by Continental Records as part of a promotion where one could obtain a copy for just 25 cents when buying a carton of cigarettes.

However it happened, Armstrong’s reading soon became a holiday staple, something that was amplified in 2022 when we at the Louis Armstrong House Museum sent one of Armstrong’s unedited readings to the good folks at Verve records. They had Sullivan Fortner perform a piano accompaniment and even made an animated video to accompany the finished product. It was part of the hit compilation LP, Louis Wishes You a Cool Yule, which ended up on the Billboard charts! If you haven’t seen it, here’s the very cute animated video:

So there’s proof how material on this tapes can be updated and turned into hit material over 50 years after it was recorded! But since our focus is on the original tapes, we’d like to share both unedited, unaccompanied readings, watermarked as usual for copyright protection:

Louis Armstrong reads “A Visit from St. Nicholas” – two takes. February 26, 1971
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When Armstrong celebrated his 70th birthday in July 1970, he was the subject of multiple radio and television tributes, many of which ended up on tape. One of them was hosted by Chuck Cecil of KFI radio in San Francisco as part of his long-running show, “The Swingin’ Years.” It originally aired on July 2, 1970 and appeared on Armstrong’s Reel 123. When Cecil rebroadcast it on December 26, 1970, it was taped off the air by Armstrong’s longtime friend Millie Hoffman, who sent to Louis as a gift. That rebroadcast makes up the bulk of Reel 167, a worthy retrospective of Armstrong’s career featuring interviews with Barney Bigard, Joe Darensbourg, Alton Purnell, Leonard Feather, Earl Hines, Louis himself, and many more. Since we didn’t share it the first time around, here it is in complete form now!

Chuck Cecil, “The Swingin’ Years” tribute to Louis Armstrong, July 2, 1970, rebroadcast December 26, 1970.
LAHM 1987.3.465

Finally, on February 10, 1970, Louis appeared on The David Frost Show alongside his longtime friend and disciple Bing Crosby. Though Armstrong was sent a copy of the full 90-minute broadcast, he made an edit for the end of Reel 167, opening with Frost’s introduction, then a segment of Crosby’s interview where Frost shared an animation that went along with Bing’s “Where the Blue of the Night,” and finally Armstrong’s entire sequence: “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” (with trumpet), conversation with Bing and an impromptu duet on “Blueberry Hill,” “That’s My Desire” (with Tyree Glenn) and finally, “Boy From New Orleans.” Here’s Louis’s “best-of” edit:

Louis Armstrong on “The David Frost Show,” February 10, 1971
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It’s a pretty packed tape, requiring four catalog pages, Louis making use of the front and back of his “Lose Weight the Satchmo Way” diet charts:

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As if the above contents were not enough to prove that we’re firmly in February 1971, the front of Reel 167 features an ad for Louis Armstrong’s Greatest Hits Recorded Live, the Brunswick LP Louis produced that was released that month. A lot of Armstrong’s TV appearances in this period were to promote this album. According to the February 13 issue of Cash Box, “Within the next 30 days, Armstrong will appear on three key network TV shows, ‘The David Frost Show,’ ‘The Dick Cavett Show,’ and Johnny Carson’s ‘Tonight Show,’ each of which will feature a visual plug for this live album.” Here’s Armstrong’s visual plug on Reel 167:

LAHM 1987.3.465

On the back, a simple, yet affecting collage of Louis looking up to the two things that meant all the world to him: Lucille and his trumpet. For decades, Armstrong would tell his wives “the horn comes first” but seeing the way Lucille had taken care of him since he first got seriously ill in 1968, it appears that she might have edged out the trumpet or at least equaled it in terms of placement:

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Reel 168
Accession Number: 1987.3.466

Side 1 of Reel 168 is devoted to the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., specifically an album released after King’s assassination in 1968 titled Free At Last:

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Side 2 of Reel 168 is mostly a dub of Reel 167, with Armstrong once again dubbing his reading of “The Night Before Christmas,” Chuck Cecil’s 70th birthday tribute, and portions of The David Frost Show from February 10, 1971. I don’t have a lot to write about this reel–but I will momentarily so keep scrolling for some fascinating insight on why Armstrong might have made this particular tape and for whom he shared it with:

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Armstrong corresponded with clarinetist Slim Evans–real name Otis Neirouter–for decades, going back to when Evans and Bix Beiderbecke would go see Armstrong perform at the Sunset Cafe in the 1920s. Evans thought of Armstrong as a musical father and would always send him greeting cards addressed as such. Hence the front and back of the box for Reel 168 is made up a Valentine’s Day card sent by Evans (or “Slimmy-bimmy” as he writes) in February 1971 “With Love To Dad”:

LAHM 1987.3.466
LAHM 1987.3.466

Reel 169
Accession Number: 1987.3.467

Reel 169 again opens with a third-straight dub of the February 10 episode of The David Frost Show but then we come to something different audio of Armstrong’s February 22 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. This was a big one for Louis as he’d be reunited with most of the All Stars and would be plugging the Greatest Hits LP and the Waldorf gig. Dr. Zucker be damned, Armstrong was feeling good. On February 21, Armstrong wrote a letter to Slim Evans, thanking him for the above Valentine’s Day card and adding, “Your boy Satchmo is getting pretty sassy these days. Blowing his black ass off. I knew I could, all the time. My fans and friends, quite naturally they’d be a little uneasy about things, but as for me, they’re my chops. I wear them 24 hours a day, and I keep them in good trim.”

He attempted to prove it on Cavett, calling the demanding instrumental “Ole Miss,” backed by regular All Stars Joe Muranyi on clarinet, Tyree Glenn on trombone, and Marty Napoleon on piano, plus two high caliber subs, bassist Milt Hinton and drummer Jo Jones. Even when Armstrong played this nightly during his Herculean days in the 1950s, he didn’t solo on it, but on Cavett, he took two choruses. Granted, it’s not the Louis of 1954 or even 1964 but he did somehow manage to get back into the very good shape he was in in 1968, the period when the Greatest Hits album was recorded live. Thanks to YouTube, here is the video:

Of course, once the performance was over, Armstrong’s legs look shaky as he needs a little help getting off the stage and over to the panel. Once there, he looks tired and a little gray but is filled with stories and good humor. He seems at first to demure when Cavett asks him to do one more song but he comes back and performs a touching “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.” Here is the watermarked audio of Armstrong’s appearance:

Louis Armstrong on “The Dick Cavett Show,” February 22, 1971.
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The Cavett Show sent Armstrong a copy of the broadcast that faded during Nora Ephron’s spot, but the video of the complete episode survives and Armstrong did remain on the panel for the rest of the show, interacting with Ephron and other guests Kaye Ballard, and Jack Barry. Though not on Armstrong’s tape, a few moments are worth highlighting from the second half of the show. During her segment, Ballard mentions that they shared an agent in Joe Glaser, causing Armstrong to praise Glaser, summing it up by stating, “To me, Joe Glaser was Jesus”–he looks like he still hadn’t gotten over Glaser’s passing in 1969.

But an even more affecting moment cames when Jack Barry–the once disgraced host of the rigged game show Twenty-One–noted that he was watching Armstrong’s performance alongside Lucille. Barry quoted Lucille as saying, “You know, Louie’s been quite sick. I’m so happy to see him back there. All he was worried about, would he ever blow that horn again.” I think it’s an important quote because we now know the end was near and we see that he doesn’t look great and wish he might have stopped–but at the time, this was actually what Louis wanted more than anything in the world. If you’ve been with me for much of this series, you’ll know the long road back, the embarrassing appearance on Cavett’s show in January 1970 when TV critics wrote that he should never play again, all the other TV spots where he didn’t play–now he was back, he was playing, and telling friends that he was “blowing his black ass off.” It’s a sad ending for us because it means the end of Louis Armstrong’s life in this realm, but it was a triumphant ending for him because he was going out swinging.

Armstrong turned the Cavett show off to begin recording some more LPs sent to him by his Swedish friend Gösta Hägglöf. Hägglöf has become something of a regular in this series–oh how I wish I knew then what I know now when I corresponded with him back in 2007 and 2008–even appearing on one of Louis’s collages. We’ve shared this letter before but since today’s post is devoted to the month of February 1971, it’s worth sharing one more time, a letter Armstrong wrote to Hägglöf on February 10, noting, “All of those Albums you’ve been sending to me are all Gems. Keep up the good works.” That line inspired Hägglöf to remain dedicated to Armstrong’s legacy until his own passing in 2008. Here’s the letter:

LAHM 2004.78.10

The “gem” Armstrong chose to dub on Reel 169 was one Hägglöf produced for Kenneth Records, a Stockholm Stompers LP titled Hot Onions and featuring the great Armstrong disciple Bent Persson–who is still with us in 2023–on trumpet. Here’s the first catalog page:

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A brief detour but on the back of that page, Lucille Armstrong wrote the address of Catherine Basie, Count Basie’s wife, who lived in nearby St. Alban’s, Queens. This was always a mystery to me until the fall of 2022 when I was contacted by Benjamin Houtman, who is working with the Basic Collection at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers. Benjamin wrote to share that he had come across a tape in the Basie Collection that was clearly made by Louis Armstrong. What were the contents? Martin Luther King’s Free At Last album of speeches and Chuck Cecil’s 70th birthday tribute to Louis–in other words, an exact dub of Reel 168! I do wonder if Armstrong made copies for other friends or perhaps he and the Basies had a talk about MLK and Louis promised to send them some of the speeches he had in his collection. This is all speculation but the contents of Reel 168 and the address for Catherine Basie on the catalog pages of Reel 169 definitively show that Louis made that tape in this February 1971 period:

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Reel 2 opens with more of the Stockholm Stompers before we get to a recording that ties in with something we shared back in our 2020 post “Our Neighborhood.” In that post, we shared a manuscript Louis wrote towards the very end of his life–either February 1971 or more likely, June 1971, after the Waldorf and his succeeding heart attack–titled “Barber Shops.” It’s a touching reflection on the many barber shops in his Corona, Queens neighborhood, including the “soul” shop he frequents–Joe’s Artistic Barber Shop–and the Spanish shop he goes to when Joe’s is closed. Armstrong writes about the Spanish barber shop:

“And they all remembered me when I was touring all over the world –blowing my little trumpet –singing and entertaining them, which they’re very happy to remind me of it. Just think in those days. They all (most of them) have married and have big families and have instilled in their children’s minds how they enjoyed Louis Satchmo Armstrong’s music. And their kids should do the same. I see the warmth the foreigners give to me –the same as my soul brothers.” Armstrong notes that felt inspired to ask them for musical recommendations, eventually buying a record and adding it to his private collection. In the manuscript, Armstrong took great pains to write in capital letters, “LOS EXITOS DE ARMANDO,” calling it “a real beautiful album.”

Sure enough, Armstrong dubbed a copy of Angel Maldanado’s LP Los Exitos De Armando Manzanero, to the next portion of Side 2 of Reel 169–I love it when the manuscripts and the tapes work hand-in-hand.

Armstrong then returned to Sweden with another Gösta Hägglöf production, To Corrine and Adeline, by trumpeter Rolf Wahl and Friends (with Jens “Jesse” Lindgren on trombone, who is also happily still with us and who was thrilled to learn that Louis listened to his music during a visit to our Archives some years back).

Armstrong closes Reel 169 by beginning a dub of a hit record of the time, Neil Diamond’s Tap Root Manuscript, which was released on October 15, 1970. Armstrong got through the first few songs–“Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Feel Life,” “Cold Water Morning,” “Done Too Soon,” and “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”–before running out of tape. Here’s the catalog pages:

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We’ve had a good run of collages today but Reel 169 is a plain box with just Armstrong’s catalog number and tape speed added to the front and back:

LAHM 1987.3.467
LAHM 1987.3.467

Reel 170
Accession Number: 1987.3.468

This is it–the final numbered tape in the series (though technically not The End as will be explained momentarily). It opens with the continuation of Neil Diamond’s Tap Root Manuscript before Armstrong chooses something entirely different, Belle Barth’s risque 1962 album In Person. Perhaps I’m looking too into it but the handwriting certainly changes when Armstrong gets to the Belle Barth recording. When I did my series on the tapes Louis made in June and July 1971, I noted that his handwriting looked fragile at first–he also used a lot of black marker, which will come into play on the next page. It’s possible we’re post-Waldorf heart attack at this exact point:

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The rest of Side 1 and much of Side 2 are devoted to a compilation of Armstrong’s 1924-25 recordings made with Sidney Bechet and Clarence Williams’s Blue Five; the Discogs website gives a date of 1973 for this CBS compilation but that might be an error because it mirrors the recordings Armstrong includes here in the same order; perhaps there’s an earlier reissue that I’m missing but for now, here’s the second page of Armstrong catalog notes:

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After more Bechet-Clarence Williams sides, Armstrong concludes Reel 170 with Side 2 of Belle Barth’s For Adults Only; notice the black marker comes out, which might place us in May or June of 1971:

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For Reel 170, Armstrong grabbed a box that clearly once contained Reel 45; the original stick can be glimpsed on the front, on top of a photo of Louis and Lucille in front of an Avio Linee Italiane airplane; that airline stopped running in 1952 and Louis only traveled to Italy with Lucille in 1949 and 1952 so this is apparently from one of those years (I’m guessing 1949 since Louis was noticeably heavier in 1952). I don’t know the three men surrounding them:

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On the back of the box, another photo from the same occasion, though Louis looks a little more weary here; a bit odd that there’s no other musicians or usual members of Armstrong’s entourage with them:

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And that’s it–almost! With Reel 170, Armstrong’s run of tapes that began when he came home from Beth Israel Hospital in the spring of 1969 came to an end. He began the Waldorf engagement on March 2, had a major heart attack soon after it ended and didn’t return home until May 8. After convalescing for a few weeks, Armstrong went back to making tapes but this time started a brand new series from scratch called “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings,” made up almost exclusively of dubs of his own recordings. As he did in 1969, he apparently played along with them every day, building his lip back up for another tour that sadly never came. I have covered all those tapes in detail–and a whole lot more–in my 1971 series of posts from 1971.

But as I’ve coyly alluded a few times, I’m not quite done. Armstrong continued making tapes and collages right up to the time of the Waldorf engagement and he made a few more after his heart attack that don’t fit into the “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings” series. This “orphan” tapes don’t have reel numbers, they don’t have catalog pages, and they don’t have any notes–but the collages have clippings from March, April, and May 1971 and the tapes themselves have recordings from February and March (including TV appearances on The Mike Douglas Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson), so they’re clearly from this period, but Armstrong died before he could add them to his numerical run.

Thus, there’ll be one more post to tackle all of these such tapes and once that been published, then every single tape Armstrong made between the spring of 1969 and his passing on July 6, 1971 will be accounted for on this site. Thanks for reading–the end is near!

Published by Ricky Riccardi

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

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