In our previous post, we reached “Reel 170,” the final reel Louis Armstrong put a number on and wrote catalog pages for before entering the Waldorf-Astoria for a two-week engagement that began on March 2. One day after ending his run, Armstrong had a major heart attack and wouldn’t make it back to Corona until May 8. Between that date and his death on July 6, he threw himself fully into making more reel-to-reel tapes and more collages.
This is when he started a new series, “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings,” about 20 tapes that were just made up of dubs of his own music, from 1923 with King Oliver to the 1971 release Louis Armstrong’s Greatest Hits Recorded Live. He wanted all of his recordings in one place, possibly because he knew the end was near and wanted an easy-to-find account of his recording career, but those who visited him also remembered he played along with these tapes, getting his lip back into shape. It worked as Armstrong invited the press over to his home for multiple dates beginning around June 21 and played the trumpet for them, promising his fans he’d soon be ready to go back on a tour that sadly never came to be.
I chronicled the “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings” series and those press interviews and photographs in a long series of posts from 2021, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Louis’s passing. But the same time Armstrong was putting together those tapes of his own music, he was also making new tapes and collages of material from just before the Waldorf engagement, tapes that clearly would have been numbered in the 170s and 180s if Armstrong had lived long enough to catalog them. Some of this material was covered in one of those 2021 posts but we’re going all in today to share the details of these tapes.
Without the numbered system to give us some structure, I’m going to be a little all over the place but all of the works that follow definitely come from Armstrong’s final weeks. He was all the way back into his collaging phase and had some photos lying around of himself and Lauren Bacall from a Rainbow Room event from June 1970. He used one of them for the cover of “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings” number 15, but he used some others for this first box, which is marked “Empty”:
I guess now is a good time to try to untangle Armstrong’s cataloging system–this box or the tape must have been “Empty” at one time, but I’m assuming that was the last step in his process: once a reel was made, he’d peel off the “Empty” label, put a new number on the box and then get to work writing his catalog pages. Most of the boxes today are of this kind, marked “Empty,” but assuredly not.
For example, the above tape contains audio of his March 1, 1971 Tonight Show appearance to plug the Waldorf engagement, and we know he didn’t get to hear that until he came home in May. It also contains audio of a previous tribute at the Waldorf in November 1970. Both events ended up part of the much longer “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings 5” mixtape (described here). Thus, it seems “Empty” could have also meant, “I already copied this material and can now tape over this reel”–perhaps if he lived longer, he would have taped over this reel with new material since he had copied it.
But while we’re here, we should share the audio of both of these treasures, with a bit of backstory. First, the Tonight Show appearance from March 1, 1971, Louis’s final TV appearance, on which he performs “Pretty Little Missy” (sounding strong on the trumpet) and “Blueberry Hill” with the All Stars (Tyree Glenn on trombone, Joe Muranyi on clarinet, Marty Napoleon on piano, Arvell Shaw on bass, and Danny Barcelona on drums):
Next, the November 8, 1970 Waldorf tribute to Louis–which was sponsored by The Rinkydinks, a social and civic organization made up of the wives of jazz musicians–part of which was broadcast on Willis Conover’s Voice of America program. In this segment, you’ll mainly hear the voice of disc jockey William B. Williams, who introduces some of the luminaries present, including Marty Napoleon, Gene Krupa, Dr. Gary Zucker, Lionel Hampton, and Conover himself, who presents Armstrong with a book, Such Sweet Thunder: Forty-nine Pieces on Jazz, written by Alexy Bataschev of Moscow. Conover reads Bataschev’s inscription, but here’s the cover and the inscribed page as we still have Armstrong’s copy of the book in our Archives:
William B. Williams then brings up Armstrong, who mentions that he had just returned from London and stopped off in Hollywood to record his appearance on The Pearl Bailey Show before returning to New York.
At that point, the musical portion began, with Armstrong backed by a small contingent that included Tyree Glenn, Marty Napoleon, and Lionel Hampton. Unfortunately, as Conover mentions up front, the placement of the musicians and Armstrong made it impossible for him to tape the musical portion of the evening–or so he says. One can hear a taste of “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” and Louis sounds fine on the microphone and I’ve surely heard worse bootlegs, even if the band might be a little distant. One wonders if he didn’t have permission from some of the artists to record–more on that in a second–or perhaps the quality of the music was subpar, especially if Louis was far away from the band, making it hard for him to hear them. Just as they’re about to get going, Conover comes on to explain the situation and instead plays the studio recording of “Boy From New Orleans” from Louis Armstrong and His Friends before cutting back to Louis’s goodnight.
Now, here’s why this is an extra missed opportunity–according to press reports of the event, Armstrong was eventually joined onstage by Aretha Franklin! I honestly never knew about this until researching this post and from a quick Google search, Franklin never mentioned it either, but here’s Allan McMillan in the December 1, 19170 Philadelphia Tribune: “The surprise of the evening was the appearance of Soul Sister Aretha Franklin, who came on and sang ‘Hello, Dolly’ with Louis Armstrong. She was terrific and sober.” And over in the Baltimore Afro-American, Mary Valentine wrote that Franklin “joined Satch in a real session.” They also included some photos that are unfortunately too dark in the digital reproduction of the issue, but it’s still worth sharing to know that photos might exist somewhere and that the attendees included Rinkeydinks Mona Hinton, Catherine Basie, and more:
With all that out of the way, here’s audio of an interesting but ultimately disappointing 14-minute Voice of America segment. Could the unedited tapes survive in Conover’s collection at the University of North Texas or with the Voice of America tapes in the National Archives in Washington D. C.? As posited above, perhaps Franklin’s Atlantic contract precluded her being recorded–or perhaps it was a trainwreck–but the thought of an Armstrong-Franklin duet boggles the mind. For now, here’s what does survive:
Back to Johnny Carson for a moment, the reel above actually contains a dub of only Armstrong’s Tonight Show segment. Louis also had another reel with all of the above and 23 more minutes from that show, including a great routine by Albert Brooks and a segment with Sue Anne Langdon. For the Carson historians, here’s the audio of that portion of the show (the video is lost, alas, taped over by the network before Carson took control of his show in 1972):
That tape, most likely sent directly from the network, was housed in another “Empty” box he decorated with some wonderful pictures. On the front, a wonderful newspaper juxtaposition of two photos of Louis and Lucille kissing, the first one from their wedding day in 1942, the second a Jack Bradley photo from 1967:
On the back, he annotated a photo from the time he stopped a civil war in the Congo in 1960 (quite a proud moment to look back on so close to the end of his life!):
On “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings” 16, Armstrong dubbed multiple news reports from March, April and May 1971 charting his life-and-death struggle in the hospital. Armstrong obviously didn’t record those himself; instead, they were sent to him by famed recording engineer Tony Janak, a frequent presence in this series. Janak sent Armstrong the news reports on a single reel that took up less than three minutes. Though Armstrong dubbed it to another tape, he knew that Janak’s reel had too much blank tape to waste. Thus, instead of describing it as “Empty,” he made a new type of note calling it a “Filling Up Reel.”
That’s all well and good but it’s the collages that really tug at the heart strings: Louis and Jack Teagarden on the front, Louis with Velma Middleton and with Big Sid Catlett on the back. Teagarden, Middleton and Catlett were arguably Armstrong’s three closest musician friends. All of them were now deceased. Thus, Armstrong must have had some heavy nostalgia pangs as he put these collages together, not knowing (or maybe he did), that he was literally days away from joining them:
There’s a similar look and feel to this next tape box, which even features a numbering system, the front being “1,” the back being “2.” Another “Empty” designation proves false as this reel contained the sound recording The Naked Dance from Barnard Brothers of Australia (including trumpeter Bob Barnard, who passed away in 2022), with a spoken introduction made by cornetist Tom Pletcher, all of which ended up spread out on early volumes of “Armstrong’s Personal Recordings.” There’s even some Joe Bushkin and Bing Crosby recordings but in all honesty, they sound like recordings that might have been on the original tape, most likely from the early 1950s, with Armstrong taping over the rest with the Australian recording in 1971. Either way, for the collage, Armstrong reached back for a photo of his 1927 Sunset Cafe “Stompers” band with Earl Hines among others and cut it and half, splitting it over the front and back of the box:
Louis’s 1927 Stompers also made their way onto the front of another Tape Box marked “Empty” in this period but this time there was truth in advertising as all that exists is the empty box with no reel inside:
On the back of the box, another gem from just a few years later, Louis with Luis Russell from the time he fronted that stomping band between December 1929 and January 1930:
Earlier, we mentioned that many media members and photographs visited the Armstrongs at home in June 1971. Here’s a photo of Louis and Tyree Glenn playing together in Armstrong’s den on June 23:
If you peak in the upper right corner of the above photo, you’ll notice a tape box collage staring at us. It is the following one, featuring a 1931 image of Louis visiting the Municipal Boys Home in New Orleans with Lil Hardin Armstrong, Peter Davis, Capt. Joseph Jones and Manuella Jones:
Here’s the front of that particular box, commemorating Armstrong’s return home to New Orleans to perform on October 31, 1965, his first time there in a decade (he also cut out a plug for the New Orleans Jazz Museum’s “Jack Bradley Collection”):
Note that Armstrong has marked the tape as “Empty” but it actually contained a reel with the complete audio of Armstrong’s June 1970 TV appearance on Dial M for Music, which already was dubbed to Reels 111, 119, and 148. This was actually the master tape, which we used when we shared the audio in our post on Reel 111.
Many tapes we’ll be discussing today contain material already dubbed elsewhere in this series, such as this mystery “Empty” tape that contains an episode of The Mike Douglas Show from May 29, 1970 and an episode of The Dick Cavett Show from February 22, 1971, a week before the Waldorf engagement began, both of which we’ve shared in the past. But it also contains half of Armstrong’s appearance on The Mike Douglas Show from February 16, 1971, an episode we have not yet encountered before now. We’ll share the surviving audio below but first, the striking collage from Carlos de Ratzitzky (dated 1969), who was born in London but spent much of his adult life in Belgium, serving as Vice President of the Hot Club of Belgium. The collage doesn’t depict a Belgian scene, but Armstrong still wrote “Brussells Belgium” on the bottom probably as a way of notating that’s where de Ratzitzsky lived (for a much deeper discussion of this mysterious work of art, please see Matthias Heyman’s 2019 article in the Jazz Research Journal).
Armstrong paired the above collage with another type of collage, this one made up of images of jazz musicians and sent to Louis by Bill and Janet Hassan (whose sons read this site–we hope to do a piece on Louis’s friendship with the Hassan family in the future!):
So where is the other half of the February 16, 1971 Mike Douglas Show? On a tape that’s located in a box decorated with a photo of Louis being honored at the Massachusetts state capitol in Boston in 1958 with Senator John E. Powers and other politicians, perhaps repurposed from the late 1950s:
But what about the back of the box?
A New York Daily News clipping from June 25, 1971, showing Louis playing with Tyree Glenn in the background and a headline that he’s “Swinging Again to Music.” You’ll notice the “Empty” again, but it’s not. This tape actually has the recording of Louis and the All Stars from Sparks, Nevada in June 1964 that we encountered on “Armstrong’s Personal Tapes” 5 (yes, the same reel with the 1970 Waldorf tribute and 1971 Tonight Show appearance encountered on another “Empty” tape mentioned above), plus audio of the aforementioned first half of his appearance on the Mike Douglas Show on February 16, 1971.
We’ve edited both parts of The Mike Douglas Show of February 16, 1971 together, but it’s still not complete, alas, opening with Armstrong in mid-sentence talking about the painting Tony Bennett gave of him in London in October 1970 that now hung–and still hangs–in the Den of the Armstrong House. Armstrong then sings “Boy From New Orleans”–you’ll hear where it gets woozy at one point, which was the end of one tape, but then it picked up on another tape for the finish. Armstrong gives the band, led by Joe Harnell, a terrific compliment, mentioning that Tyree Glenn wanted to go down to Philadelphia with him like he usually did when Armstrong made a TV appearance but Louis said no, Harnell’s band knew what to do for him!
At that point, Eddy Arnold joins the panel and introduces a performance from 14-year-old Louie Roberts. The official Eddy Arnold Instagram recently shared this wonderful photo of Douglas, Armstrong and Arnold; Douglas is holding a copy of Louis Armstrong’s Greatest Hits Recorded Live on his lap:
And here’s the best we could do with the surviving audio of this appearance:
This next box contains another June 25, 1971 clipping, this one from the New York Times, including one of the photos of Louis and Lucille on their living room couch taken on June 23. In the bottom corner is an Eddie Adams photo of Louis smiling from June 21, clipped out by Armstrong, along with a headline, “Back Smiling.”
The back of the box features clippings from the Pacific Stars and Stripes with one of Eddie Adams’s photos from June 21….including a caption in Japanese!
The above reel contained two of Armstrong’s TV appearances from 1971, The Dick Cavett Show (broadcast February 22) and The Pearl Bailey Show (broadcast January 23), which we have shared in our posts on Reels 166-170 and 161-165 respectively Armstrong must have enjoyed the Bailey appearance because he dubbed it from scratch again on the next reel we’re about to share, then included audio of an appearance on The Mike Douglas Show from May 1970 (audio of all the May 1970 Douglas shows can be heard here). But the audio’s not important, it’s the collages and this one has two more powerful ones:
There’s lots going on in that one but most notable is the headline for Armstrong’s impending 71st birthday celebration on July 4, two days before he died. Armstrong’s scissors also spotlighted phrases like “Everyone’s Favorite” and “The Golden Horn Once More.”
The back of the box featured even more, with Louis cutting out various phrases like, “Why, Hello Satchmo,” “Satchmo Comes Home,” Relax Satch,” “Blow, Satch, Blow,” “Satchmo Back Smiling” and “Satchmo: Chops Are Fine” (he annotated the main article as being from “Wash. DC”).
These collages are fascinating because we know they’re some of the last ones Louis created, but we’re now encountering more and more material we’ve already covered on the tapes themselves–something that connects the next batch we’re about to tackle.
Reels 155 and 156 contained recordings of the All Stars in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from November 28, 1957, a concert that also appears on another mysterious “Empty” box from this period. On the front is a photo of Louis and George Wein taken during the May 1970 sessions for Louis Armstrong and His Friends (though the caption tries to pass it off as Newport 1970):
Speaking of Newport 1970, that tribute to Armstrong was climaxed by Mahalia Jackson, who appears on the back of this box:
A wonderful photo of Mahalia and Louis from the Newport 1970 concert appears on the back of the following box, with a news clipping dated January 3, 1971:
The front of the above box has a January 27, 1971 advertisement for Louis’s final engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria:
That above tape is filled with material Louis already dubbed to the incredibly long Reel 153, including a visit from the Brown family who lived across the street in Corona, and dubs of records by Bix Beiderbecke, Tito Puente, and others; we covered all of that reel (with audio) in this post.
In a similar fashion, when we covered Reel 158, we mentioned that it contained a dub of a Mort Herbert LP and audio of Louis on The Milton Berle Show. Those recordings are contained on the following “Empty” box, which has a signed photo of the late trumpeter Chris Clifton on the front. This is clearly a 1950s tape–you can even spot the original reel number of 34–and Armstrong just copied it to Reel 158 in late 1970:
Armstrong had hundreds of these postcards made up, featuring a drawing of him playing the trumpet that often was used in his concert programs. He taped two side-by-side to the back of this box:
Going back to the big 70th birthday tribute at the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival, Armstrong received multiple recordings of that event, which he dubbed to Reels 148-150, but he had another set which he dubbed to the following reel, not marked “Empty” but rather with a small “3” on the top left of the front and a “4” on the back. The cover is made up of news clippings from a New York Daily News photo feature on Armstrong that ran on December 6, 1970:
Since the photos on Armstrong’s box are tough to see, here’s the full two-page spread (thanks to Newspapers.com), albeit in black-and-white:
The back of that tape box has a matchbook from Jim Colosimo’s Cafe in Chicago–“A. Capone, Manager”–with a revue starring Al Jolson with music by Isham Jones’s Ragtime Band. It looks like these were mass-produced; a quick Internet search shows you can find them on eBay, Etsy and other spots on the web–here’s what Louis did with his:
Yet another 1950s tape that was reused on Reel 154 follows, this one containing coverage of Louis as “King of the Zulus” at the 1949 Mardi Gras and a 1950s tape with conversation and dubs of many recordings. It’s all here on the following tape, decorated with a new cover made up of a photo of Louis and Lucille that was published on January 29, 1971. In the photo, Louis and Lucille are on seen boarding the plane to London in October 1970, a trip that definitely took an adverse toll on the trumpeter’s health:
The back of the box is a gem, an envelope sent to Louis in 1970 (the year is visible but it’s hard making out the date) from a fan in Czechoslovakia simply addressed to “Louis Armstrong, Corona L. I. USA”–and it got delivered!
Many of these “Empty” boxes contain audio of Armstrong’s various television appearances from 1970 and 71. This next one contained the master tape of Louis’s October 1970 appearance on The Johnny Cash Show, which we shared here. The front appears to have a photo of young Lucille in mid-dance, but it’s admittedly hard to make out her face:
The back features a Paul Studer photo of Jeann “Roni” Failows, helping Armstrong with his fan mail in his Corona, Queens Den in 1959:
Here’s the full uncut photo, scanned from Studer’s original negative:
Armstrong’s February 11, 1971 appearance on The David Frost Show–which we shared here–is on this next “Empty” box. In our previous post, we described a tape Armstrong made for Count Basie’s wife Catherine–a member of the Rinkeydinks–which recently turned up in the Basie Collection at the Institute of Jazz Studies. Since the IJS has the tape, we know he sent it, but it appears this must have been the first attempt at a box, as it’s autographed by Louis and was originally inscribed “To Catherine Basie” before he put the “Empty” sticker over it:
There were also lots of little notes on the back, all of which got crossed out with black marker and completely covered with masking tape:
This next tape contains another dub of the February 22, 1971 Dick Cavett Show but it also has audio from 1953 of a gathering at Louis’s home with Lillian Friedlander and Slim Thompson, recordings of Louis’s brother-in-law Charlie Phipps singing, and a tape of Louis rehearsing with Marty Napoleon, all of which we shared when it originally appeared on Reel 156. The box containing this tape is another one marked “Empty,” but one that originally housed the May 29, 1970 Mike Douglas Show, crossed out by Louis:
That 1971 Dick Cavett Show crops up on yet another reel filled with 1970 material, including Sun City Scandals (which we shared here) and The Flip Wilson Show (which you can hear here). Here’s the box, which Louis originally described as “Empty Box” before scribbling over the word “Box”:
There are a number of tape boxes that are actually empty or contain blank tapes; we’re not going to share them as it’s mostly Louis just writing “Empty” over and over again, but here’s one where he wrote “Real Empty,” which could be a pun or just a mistake; it also looks like it originally housed a tape sent by Tony Janak, but Louis covered up the details:
Louis also had two reels of leader tape which he decorated with wonderful collages. At some point in 1970, Louis got an AIWA portable tape deck, which he used in California when making his September 1970 tape with Lloyd Von Blaine. Here is the box of leader tape he used for that machine, adorned with a December 1970 newspaper article about Louis’s October 1970 appearance on The Johnny Cash Show. Louis has annotated it, “CASH AND SATCHMO ‘SWUNG’ IN ‘NASHVILLE’ TOGETEHR”:
For the back of this tape, we need to go backwards a bit and once again share the front of Reel 163, which featured an image of “Claire and Bob” at the Grove in California:
For the AIWA leader tape box, Armstrong used an uncut version of the same photo of Claire and Bob, this time seated with himself and Lucille visible. Can anyone make out Bob’s last name? I see a “lull” in the middle but am having trouble getting the rest–would like to properly identify this couple that’s immortalized on two of Louis’s collages:
Armstrong also had another roll of leader tape, this one again numbered “1” on the front and “2” on the back. Armstrong a copy of an autographed program for his October 2, 1950 engagement at the Town Casino in Buffalo, so he chopped it up to make these collages, which have the signatures of Louis and Earl “Fatha” Hines on the front, and Arvell Shaw, Cozy Cole, Velma Middleton, and Barney Bigard on the back. Only Jack Teagarden is missing, though there is a mysterious autograph of what appears to be “Mayo Dios” on the back:
Finally, we come to the last subseries of tapes: collaged tape boxes marked “Empy” that were actually empty–no reel inside. This first one probably stemmed from when Armstrong first seriously started re-cataloging his tapes in 1969; the front and back are decorated with coverage of the film Hello, Dolly!, released in December of that year:
This next “Empty” box has another collage originally created in the 1950s and just marked “Empty” in that 1970-71 period. The front features Armstrong in action in the mid-1950s with Trummy Young, Barney Bigard, and Arvell Shaw visible:
And on the back, an absolutely joyous photo of Lucille, Louis and Velma Middleton, originally signed “To Our Boy ‘Turk'”–perhaps Murphy?
Going back to Louis’s final days, the front of this tape features clippings from the May 1971 issue of Jazz Journal, including images of Louis, Fats Waller’s manager Ed Kirkeby, and for good measure, a trumpet in between:
On the back, a New York Daily News clipping about the Armstrong’s purchasing the lot next door to their Corona, Queens home and their plans to build a Garden there, which eventually was finished after Louis passed away:
And finally, perhaps the best-known collage from this series is one from The Register in Orange County, California on June 24, 1971. This one starts on the front and continues around back:
On the back, a smaller headline from the Miami Herald of June 25, 1971. Though not marked “Empty,” that box was indeed left without a reel inside–perhaps this would have housed what was his last tape?
And with that, we’ve come to an end, a series that began in 2020, blow-by-blow accounts of over 200 tapes Louis Armstrong assembled in his final two years, plus we shared every single collage and every single catalog page from those tapes, not to mention dozens of hours of audio. Speaking of audio, that was something that we were hesitant to share during the first part of the series, but then we realized we were protected by the watermarked beeps, so we went all in; check back on some of the early posts in the series as we might revisit some of them to add some audio links.
I will also grab all the posts I did on the “Armstrong Personal Recordings” series from 1971 and add them to this page, where all the posts on Louis Armstrong’s 1969-1971 tapes will live. Thanks for reading and listening (and this is not the end of this site by any means–we’ll resume our series on Jack Bradley soon and are always taking requests. What would you like to see next? Comment below!)–Pops is Tops!