It's a rainy Sunday here in New Jersey and I can't think of a better way to beat the rainy day blues than by watching footage of Louis Armstrong. YouTube is the greatest invention in the world and there are tons of wonderful Armstrong videos but this one is my favorite:
Are you properly stunned? That comes from the January 1, 1960 episode of NBC's Bell Telephone Hour. The first part is "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child, originally recorded by Armstrong in 1958 on the album Louis and the Good Book. On that album, Armstrong is only backed by a choir arranged by Sy Oliver. In three minutes, that particular performance conveys everything that's magical about Louis Armstrong: the trumpet solo is filled with haunting emotion and an intense blues feeling while the vocal is infused with tremendous sorrow and passion. And for good measure, Armstrong adds some laughs at the end, joking with Sy Oliver that he's not hungry because he just had black-eyed peas and rice! It's a little bit of everything that makes Louis Armstrong special (much like "Tight Like This" from 1928).
Flash forward to this performance from 1960 and I think it's breathtaking, perhaps the most chilling footage of Armstrong ever captured. He's 100% serious during "Motherless" and he shows what a great actor he was through his facial expressions and hand gestures. When the famous smile comes at the end, it's like looking at the sunshine. As Armstrong himself said about this broadcast, “That’s the first time I played ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’ and even those cameramen and everybody was wiping their eyes.” Armstrong continued, saying, “Well, that song’s right in that feeling. I can see myself in that church sitting by my mother when I was a little old boy. You feel them things.” It was watching a performance like that one, of Armstrong on television, that Iola Brubeck knew she wanted to write a musical for him. The project, of course, turned out to be the wonderful Real Ambassadors. And I have shown this clip to people who don't really care for Armstrong and even they have to admit, it hits them pretty hard.
But again, just like the studio version, one can't wallow in sorrow all day as right around the corner is a happy, free-wheeling version of "Muskrat Ramble," always one of my favorite Armstrong performances during the All Stars years. The church choir is okay (they couldn't hire a bassist?) but the real surprise is Armstrong answering them with scat phrases of his own. When he picks up the horn, he improvises a while, throwing in some nice glisses (the choir throws 'em right back) before he finally kicks in with his set solo for the final two chroruses, one he worked on and refined for years until he got it just right...and he sure as hell did as every time he played it, it was always a cause for jubilation. And yes, for those scoring at home, that's a high concert E at the end...and this was just about six months after the illness in Spoleto, Italy and only about five months after he started touring regularly again. Yeah, Pops, I can watch this video all day...