“The Greatest Photo Taker”: Remembering Jack Bradley Part 32–Funny Girl Cast Party and Reno Letter 1967

This is the third, and final, post of our three-part series on Louis Armstrong’s August 1967 engagement at Caesar’s Monticello in Framingham, Massachusetts. If you’d like to catch up, Part 1 focused on photos Jack Bradley took of Armstrong, his sidemen, and entourage at the Monticello Motel, while Part 2 was stuffed with dozens of photos of the All Stars onstage, as well as almost an hour of previously unheard audio.

This final installment is devoted to something of anomaly that occurred that week in Framingham and bridges together both the Monticello motel and stage. It was quite a week in Framingham; while Louis Armstrong was performing at Caesar’s, a touring production of Broadway’s Funny Girl was taking place at the Carousel Theater from August 7-12.

At this point in his career, Armstrong usually spent his days resting, conserving his strength to get through the nightly show. But being in one place for over a week–specifically the Monticello Motel–Louis must have felted rest–or restless–enough to seek out a performance of Framingham. This article from the August 17 Fitchburg Sentinel gives us the backstory and helps us date it: Louis attended the Wednesday matinee on August 9, and the Funny Girl cast returned the favor by seeing Louis’s show at 1 in the morning on Friday, August 11:

Naturally, Louis didn’t attend the Funny Girl matinee alone; Jack Bradley came along with him and saved a copy of the program. Here’s the cover:

LAHM 2008.3.270
LAHM 2008.3.270

And of course, Jack Bradley brought along his camera and got some wonderful photos of Louis with the cast, namely Carol Lawrence:

Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1690-14
Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1690-13

Two more with Lawrence and one of the male actors (I don’t think it’s James Mitchell, but I could be wrong; any ideas?):

Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1690-17
Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1690-16

And here’s a few of Louis with the woman Frank Sinatra referred to as the “world’s greatest saloon singer,” Sylvia Syms:

Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1690-11
Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1690-10

As relayed above, Louis invited the entire cast to a special, private All Stars performance in the early hours of August 11. Afterwards, Louis changed out of his band uniform and joined the cast for a postshow hang at Monticello. Here’s some wonderful Bradley photos of this moment:

Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.951
Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.893a
Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.891

Tyree Glenn joins Louis in this next photo, and that’s Isabel Sanford over Sylvia Syms’s head:

Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.947
Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1594-08
Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1594-09

Now for the fun part: the evening did not end there! Louis invited Sylvia Syms and Carol Lawrence back to his motel room to keep the party going alongside Jack Bradley, Jeann “Roni” Failows, and road manager Ira Mangel. At some point, it became a pajama party, as captured by Bradley’s camera:

Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1594-10
Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1594-11

And now the final bonus: Jack Bradley could sense that Louis was in a good mood and turned on his tape recorder, capturing about 25 minutes of unfiltered conversation. Louis himself had stopped making these types of tapes by this point, so it’s precious to have this snapshot of Louis in 1967, raving about Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Bing Crosby, Al Jolson and other greats of yesteryear, talking about Lil, Lucille, Clarence and much more.

The first several minutes are dedicated to Louis’s remembrances of seeing Bill Robinson in Chicago in 1922; we shared the audio in this previous post, which also includes a transcription of this segment. Around 5:35, Louis talks about writing a book, which Sylvia Syms encourages him to do. Louis mentions that she’ll be in the book, too, followed by some unintelligible comments that break up Jeann Failows (she later recalled that Louis was making a play for her but Syms wouldn’t play along because she was friends with Lucille Armstrong). At 6:30, Louis praises Al Jolson, but can’t answer Syms’s question if he was a nice man. At 7:13, he tells a short version of his favorite Russian Kosygin joke before reminiscing about the “youngsters” he saw come up such as Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo (the “mail carrier” who hipped Louis to Bing was Jack Randall, who gets a namecheck during Louis’s 1931 recording of “Lonesome Road”).

At 10:04, Louis breaks everyone up with his use of the phrase “take inventory,” which he used to describe intimate moments his wives. This actually leads to a fascinating discussion of his first two wives, with one of his only spoken descriptions of first wife Daisy Parker, “the biggest whore in Gretna” in his words. He fills in some gaps about Daisy’s later life as she eventually moved to Chicago and got in a knife fight at a barroom with someone who denigrated Louis. This happened in the 1930s, when Louis was married to Alpha Smith; don’t miss Louis’s line at 12:03, “I hadn’t seen her, you know, intercourse-ly, in a long time,” which again breaks up the room.

Louis then brags about Lillian Hardin Armstrong being the valedictorian of Fisk University (which wasn’t true) and talks about their home on 44th Street in Chicago and the lots they had in Idlewild, Michigan. Louis told Lil could have the Idlewild lots, but Lil insisted he keep them. There’s talk about how Lil still felt about Louis in 1967, with Louis mentioning a reunion they had backstage at Ravinia in June 1967. Louis also tells a story about Lil’s mother “Decie,” who had a stroke, and once inquired about getting some of what Louis was smoking (I can’t quite make out the phrase, but it’s after Louis says, “In those days we were blasting” so there’s no doubt about the substance in question).

Louis’s adopted son, Clarence Hatfield Armstrong (the subject of this post) is up next at 14:25, with Louis talking bluntly about Clarence’s father “Copper Cent John” and Clarence being “four years behind the average child.” There’s humorous, loving stories about playing games with Clarence before Louis mentions that Clarence is now married, saying, “His wife, he’s doing all right. She’s crazy about him–and he shoves in his regards!” Again, Jack Bradley’s infectious laughter leads the charge; each explosive laugh causes Louis to state, “That’s my life,” like a stand-up comedian returning to the theme of his special. But then he gets serious, saying Clarence gets an allowance and Joe Glaser insists to Louis, “I’ll take care of Clarence.” Louis then mentions his daughter Sharon, noting that Joe Glaser didn’t want him to even come back and look after him, promising he’d take care of her himself, sending money and making sure she and her mother had a home. “So everybody’s happy,” Louis sums it up, even adding that his home is paid for a few seconds later. Louis takes great pride that he was able to take care of all of these different people in his life.

But then he grows a bit darker, talking about a time someone disparaged Louis at a barber shop while Clarence was there and Clarence–“strong as an ox”–was ready to fight for his honor. This causes Louis to lament how “our people” struggled, in his opinion, because “they don’t pull together because they’re like a barrel of crabs on our side.” He asks, “Now why would a son-of-a-bitch say something about me?” and adds, “I mean, I’m playing benefits,” before returning to the Clarence story. When Syms expresses doubt that people actually had problems with Louis, he says, “No, honey, you’ll find a lot of dog-ass people,” leading Failows to share how she had gotten in “punch-fights over Pops” with some “dumb, stupid evil people.”

As Louis grows angry and vents about the race riots then taking place, Syms changes the subject at 18:15 and starts praising the relationship of Lucille and Louis and how Louis is “her baby.” Louis mentions he’ll call Lucille in the morning to tell her, “I’ll be straight for Reno.” What follows in unintelligible but draws a huge laugh; Armstrong’s stand in Reno would begin on September 5 and one can assume Lucille would join him there–but it’s insinuated that between now and then, Louis would do as he pleases.

A little later, Syms gets Louis back on the subject of his book–he says he doesn’t want to write a “fucktitious story”–joking that she can’t wait to read the chapter he promised to write about her. Louis immediately offers her some Swiss Kriss, saying he just “took two” and gives a preview of the sounds that will wake him up at 8 a.m. After much laughter, Syms says she’d like to go home to try the Swiss Kriss but Louis says it’ll be better if she stays and takes it with him there–as Pops would say, oh, you dog. Syms demurs and Louis tells a story about Tyree Glenn taking Swiss Kriss and a laxative discussion commences, leading to the information that the woman on the Swiss Kriss package was the wife of the “Swiss Kriss man”–not sure who that is. As a point of reference, here’s a Swiss Kriss packet saved by Jack Bradley himself:

LAHM 2007.1.171

At the very end, one final interesting insight occurs at 24:20 as Louis says Joe Glaser gives him “hell” for all the free publicity he gave to Swiss Kriss, telling him to “put your name on it!” Louis then turns to music, mentioning that he had many opportunities to list his name as a co-composer of various songs but he chose not to, saying, “I think that’s corny.” He admits he could always use the money, “but it’s the idea of it, the principle.” Thus, when one sees Armstrong’s name on a composition, the odds are he probably had something to do with it at some point (though it wouldn’t surprise me if Glaser did put his name on some later things like “Short But Sweet”). Small talk winds down and Bradley turns off the tape, putting an end to one rollicking conversation–here’s the audio!

Louis Armstrong, Jack Bradley, Jeann Failows, Sylvia Syms, Carol Lawrence, and Ira Mangel in Louis Armstrong’s Motel Room, August 1967
LAHM 2017.5.1

Armstrong’s engagement in Framingham concluded on August 12, but before he left the area, he’d play a one-nighter at the Beachcomber on Cape Cod on August 14. I don’t believe Bradley and Failows attended the actual engagement, but Jack did snap some photos of Jeann in front of the sign:

Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1665-09
Photo by Jack Bradley. LAHM 2006.1.1665-10

From there, Louis and the All Stars traveled back to New York, performing in Central Park on August 15 and hitting the recording studio on August 16, knocking out four songs for ABC-Paramount: “The Sunshine of Love,” “Hellzapoppin’,” “Cabaret,” and a new selection by George David Weiss based on an idea by the session’s producer, Bob Thiele: “What a Wonderful World.”

Jack Bradley chose to remain in New England into September, so he wasn’t able to take any photos of the Central Park show or the “What a Wonderful World” recording date. This is slightly off-topic because it doesn’t involve Bradley, but a little known fact is that after recording “What a Wonderful World” on August 16, Armstrong appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson that same night. The Carson folks sent Armstrong the audio and we’re happy to share the watermarked audio now as it contains strong performances of “Cabaret” and “Blueberry Hill,” and some banter between Johnny and an energetic Louis:

Louis Armstrong on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” August 16, 1967
LAHM 1987.3.698

The All Stars went back out on the road soon after the appearance, eventually settling into Harold’s Club in Reno for an extended engagement from September 5-25. Clarinetist Joe Muranyi checked in with Jack and Jeann via a very enthusiastic postcard, postmarked September 9 (Muranyi was one of many who assumed Bradley and Failows were married, addressing “Jack and Jeann Bradley,” but they never did wed):

LAHM 2008.1.236
LAHM 2008.1.236

If you can’t quite make out Muranyi’s handwriting, he wrote, “Pops is in marvelous shape!! He dropped 20 years according to Ira [Mangel]. He’s blowing like mad – high notes & all. I never expected to hear him play like this again!”

Just days later, Jack and Jeann, still residing in Rhode Island, received a letter from Louis Armstrong himself, written from the Red Carpet Motor Lodge in Reno. Here’s the envelope; Failows indeed was a member of the Woman Army Corps, but the reference to Bradley as a “buck private” is one of Pops’s jokes:

LAHM 2008.1.6b

Louis was in rollicking form, opening with one of his risque poems–the full letter needs to be read to be fully appreciated so here ’tis!

LAHM 2008.1.6b
LAHM 2008.1.6b
LAHM 2008.1.6b
LAHM 2008.1.6b

The letter kind of speaks for itself but a few things are worth pointing out. Lucille is now with Louis and apparently still recovering from the surgery she had over the summer, doing well enough to almost be able to do the “vonce” again (I don’t think I need to translate that slang term). Louis mentions sending a “Swiss Kriss” photo to Humphrey Lyttelton and “picture [of] me on the throne.” Yes, that’s the famous “keyhole” photo; Louis had 8 x 10’s printed up of that several years earlier–vocalist Catherine Russell has home movie footage of a part at the Armstrong’s home in the early 1960s where Louis was giving them away to guests–but Jack helped Louis with the design and printing of the wallet-sized card that quickly became Armstrong’s favorite thing to give to his fans. There’s also a very nice endorsement of the trumpeter Leon Eason, a close friend of Jack and Jeann’s who also will soon start showing up in Jack’s photos.

Louis was clearly in good spirits in Reno and, according to Muranyi, playing better than he had in months, but the good times came crashing down at the end of the engagement when Armstrong contracted pneumonia and ended up in the hospital for the second time that year. Instead of taking six weeks off, Armstrong was only there for 3 or 4 days this time before going back to work; Bradley’s friend Dante Peine of the Hot Club de France cut out this clipping and sent to him with a handwritten message of “Thank Heavens!”

LAHM 2008.1.241-14

Louis was heading back to New York and so was Jack; they’d cross paths again in a recording studio on October 9, which will be the subject of the next post in this series. Thanks for reading!

Published by Ricky Riccardi

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

Leave a Reply

error: Content is protected