I'm starting this entry at 9:16 p.m. on August 4, which means that in less than three hours, Louis Armstrong's 108th birthday will be over...but hey, it's technically still the 4th, so I'm going to celebrate it anyway right here, right now. First off, I'm back in New Jersey after my dream trip to New Orleans. I still have more pictures to share but they're on the laptop which is not with me right now, so I'll have to save those for another day. But it was just a Pops lovefest from the start to finish and it warmed my heart to see my presentations go over so well with the crowds down there. I also ate to point of nearly dying but that's a story for another day...needless to say, I love New Orleans!
But I also love Louis Armstrong (does it show?) and I wanted to do something quick for his birthday. At my final presentation, I closed with a poignant clip from the David Frost Show of Armstrong singing "Boy From New Orleans." The song was an autobiographical take on "When the Saints Go Marchin' In," recorded with a big band arranged by Oliver Nelson for the Bob Theile-produced album Louis Armstrong and Friendson May 29, 1970. It's one of the highlights of that erratic outing and oddly enough, the only song on the entire album that swings. Oliver wrote a great chart and the studio band swung like mad, driven by Frank Owens and Bernard "Pretty" Purdie's work in the rhythm section. It's a perfectly appropriate song to listen to on Pops's birthday because of the lyrics really are a fun way of picking up on the saga of Satchmo. Dig it:
Isn't that a lot of fun? Well, if you know Pops's story, you might know that Armstrong's health was still in recovery during the making of that album and except for a bunch of television talk show appearances, he hadn't performed live with the All Stars since September 1968. But Armstrong rallied that summer and ended up doing two weeks in Las Vegas with his small group, splitting the bill with Pearl Bailey. He made more television appearances (now playing trumpet), flew to London for a benefit one nighter and did another run in Vegas in December. Feeling cocky, Armstrong took a two-week engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria's Empire Room in March 1971. According to reviews of Armstrong's opening, he was still in good form, playing the trumpet and putting on his usual, entertaining show. But midway through, it all proved too much for him and Armstrong began ailing. Somehow, he fought his way through the pain to finish the engagement, but had a heart attack two days later. He recovered and went home briefly but the end came on July 6 of that year.
So why the sad story on such a celebratory day? And what does it have to do with "Boy From New Orleans"? Good questions (glad I asked them). From my research, Armstrong was closing out his Waldorf shows with "Boy From New Orleans." Thus, the last words ever spoken by Armstrong on stage of the slow final chorus of this tune:
Now all through the years,
Folks, I've had a ball
Oh thank you Lord
And I want to thank you all.
You were very kind to old Satchmo, yes.
Just a Boy From New Orleans.
It's pretty chilling stuff to just read them but it gets even more poignant. When Armstrong began performing "Boy From New Orleans" live, he slowed the tempo in half, keeping it at a medium-to-slow bounce, thus, making that last chorus much more drawn out. Something that almost sounds upbeat and cute on the studio record became tremendously emotional on the stage. Also, as I started by saying, I have video of Armstrong singing the song on the David Frost Show, filmed in January of 1971, just months before the end. The first time I saw him sing that last chorus, I cried like a baby. He delivered it with the most serious expression imaginable, only smiling a little during his "thank yous." When I showed it in New Orleans, I could barely talk before and after it and people came up to me afterwards to tell me what an emotional impact it had on them.
Unfortunately, I cannot share the Frost footage online. But Armstrong did perform it live at a National Press Club concert from the same week of the Frost show. Give it a listen and let those words sink in. It was a perfect song to conclude his career; to the very end, he always remained quite simply a boy from New Orleans. Happy Birthday, Pops...