With the holidays behind us (and I hope each of you dear readers out there had the best one of your life), it's time to press ahead with the next in my series of posts featuring the audio and video described in each chapter of my book, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years. When we last left our hero, he was on top of the world as "Hello, Dolly!" was on top of the charts. He ended 1964 with another minor hit in "So Long Dearie" and was still blowing in peak form on tours of Australia and Japan.
The beginning of 1965 brought a new All Star into the fold as Tyree Glenn replaced "Big Chief" Russell Moore on trombone. Eddie Shu was on clarinet, Billy Kyle was on piano, Arvell Shaw was on bass, Danny Barcelona was the drummer and Jewel Brown was still the female vocalist. It was this group that backed Armstrong his epic tour of Iron Curtain countries in March and April of that year. First up was Prague and in the book, I argue that Louis was still knocking it out of the park. I've diagnosed this stage of Louis's career with the malady "Cootie Williams Syndrome," meaning Louis lost a little of his velocity in the mid-60s but his sound was almost bigger than ever and he made sure to pace himself and edit his set solos a bit so he could still hit the high ones right on the nose. Need proof? I knew you'd ask. How about "Royal Garden Blues":
The next stop on the tour was East Berlin. In the book, I write about Louis's testiness during his opening press conference. Here's a YouTube video with a report on this tour; the video is in German but they don't overdub Louis's voice. Go to 6:23 to see a very, very serious Louis:
That seriousness carried into the concert hall where Louis's version of "Black and Blue" became a transcendental experience. It's also been called the climax of my book. I did my damndest to describe every second of the performance as I knew that the great majority of my readers had never seen or heard it. Well, there's no more excuse for that! Here's the audio:
And this past February, I used it as my closer during a series of "Louis and Race" lectures at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. The great Michael Steinman was there with his trusty video camera and captured it. So yes, it's a video of a video, but I think you'll see what moved me so much when I first saw and later, chose to write about this performance:
And speaking of videos, "Royal Garden Blues" from the same concert is on YouTube and DailyMotion. I'm not allowed to embed the YouTube version but please enjoy Pops and the All Stars tearing it up here from DailyMotion (after a little commercial):
After cracking the Iron Curtain, Louis and the All Stars flew back to the States, stopping off in California to film an episode of "The Hollywood Palace" with Louis as host. I didn't have time to mention it in the book look for it on YouTube if you have the time (it's broken into four parts). It's wonderful evidence of how great a "Louis Armstrong Show" would have been. Back in NY, Louis had major dental work done, having a new bridge put in, and took took six weeks off to recover. Towards the end of the hiatus, Louis welcomed his friends Dan Morgenstern and Jack Bradley over to his Corona pad. With a tape recorder running, they polished off a bottle of Slivovice plum brandy and had an incredibly insightful discussion. I posted the entire 2 1/2 hours
here so I'll kindly wait while you check that out (and don't forget the Slivovice).
When Louis went back to work, he started right in with a tour of England and Paris. Surviving audio shows that he was still playing great. Here's "Back O'Town Blues" in England, his first gig back on the mound (and no it's not 1970 as the video states):
But it didn't take long before Pops realized that something wasn't quite right. The dental work had changed something and Louis had to work extra hard to push his set solos out. He soon realized that he had to cut back on some of his horn work. For example (and I'll have more about this in a future edition of "Anatomy of an All Stars Concert"), during the Iron Curtain tour, Louis was playing a lot of the old favorites: "Royal Garden Blues," "Basin Street Blues," "The Faithful Hussar," "Muskrat Ramble," etc. These songs still popped up after the dental hiatus but with far less frequency. A show in Vallejo, California on July 25, 1965 found Louis in very good form, but he only really played on "Indiana," "Black and Blue," "The Bucket's Got a Hole In It," "Hello, Dolly!," "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" and "Tin Roof Blues. " But when he did play, wow! Here's something I've never shared before, "Barbecue" from this Vallejo concert. The sound is a bit distant and there's a hiss but Pops's comes through. There's slight hesitation here and there but he pushes through it and comes up with some nice, new stuff (like a quote from "Chicago" in the closing ensemble). Buster Bailey's on clarinet now, by the way....enjoy:
But it was around this time (literally about 10 days later) that Toronto journalist Patrick Scott spent a day with Louis. Scott painted a portrait of Louis looking exhausted onstage and being depressed and wanting to retire offstage. My book has all the quotes and details but suffice to say, Louis couldn't retire as Joe Glaser had bookings going well into the next year. Louis kept up the grind, though his decline continued. While recording the soundtrack to "A Man Called Adam" in late 1965, Louis and the All Stars recorded a version of "Muskrat Ramble" on which Louis simply sounds tired. It also contains the last surviving solo Louis ever took on this warhorse:
Louis did have a bit of a triumph at the end of 1965 when he returned to New Orleans after staying away for ten years. It was there where he reconnected with Peter Davis, who taught Louis how to play the cornet at the Colored Waif's Home. They soon appeared together on "I've Got a Secret," where host Steve Allen made the bizarre decision to ask Davis to play the cornet on live TV....even though Davis hadn't played in decades! The results are sad but poignant as Louis lovingly guides him around the melody (when they jam on it, Louis's chops do sound great). Here's the video:
As 1965 turned in 1966, Louis was still on the road, traveling during a tough winter in an unheated bus, which was enough to claim the life of his longtime pianist Billy Kyle. But by the summer of 1966, Joe Glaser decided to give Louis a break, a three-month engagement in "Mardi Gras" with Guy Lombardo and his Orchestra that took place in Jones Beach, a short drive from Louis's Corona home. Though Louis got to sleep in his own bed for a long stretch, it didn't magically repair his chops. He wasn't even asked to play during a Capitol recording session of the two new tunes from "Mardi Gras," which I shared and blogged about here.
And at the end of the run, Louis actually recorded a single for Columbia, with "Cabaret" being the "A" side and a rare instrumental version of "Canal Street Blues" on the flip. Here's "Canal Street":
And here's the full blog I did on Louis's history with "Canal Street Blues," which puts this performance into more perspective:
Canal Street Blues Blog
"Cabaret" came off better and was immediately added to the band's live repertoire. I write of Louis's hesitating, almost meek solo on his performance of it on the "Ed Sullivan Show" but I realize that performance has been pulled off of YouTube (and can now be purchased for $1.99 on iTunes). Soon after, it was back to the road for Pops. A performance survives from the Arie Crown Theater in Chicago in December 1966 and judged on its own merits, it's very good. But compared to what started off this blog from early 1965, the decline is inevitable: Louis has officially now stopped playing his set solos on "Indiana" and "Muskrat Ramble," to name two, and he had to alter his playing on the rideouts on "Ole Miss" and "The Faithful Hussar" because he couldn't quite shoot for the lights as he did just a few years earlier. For an example, here's "Muskrat" again, arguably more lively than the "Man Called Adam" one but nothing like the 1950s versions:
I think I'll share the link to the final post I wrote about "Muskrat Ramble" because it has more details about these performances and this stage of Louis's career: Muskrat Ramble Part 6 Because, to quote myself in that blog, "When I say 'Louis's decline was in full force,' it's not like he was making bad music or not able to play the horn. He just could no longer do what he used to make sound so easy on this song between 1947 and 1959."
This was a very thick blog because it was a very thick chapter. But the chapter ends with Ed Berger talking about going to see Louis in late 1966 and how he still had a sound unlike anyone else at the time--and Berger saw Miles, Dizzy and the Duke Ellington trumpet section during the same time period just for good measure. Thus, to close, let me go back to Arie Crown again in December 1966 and share something I've never shared before, "A Kiss to Build a Dream On." The sound quality is, again, far from perfect, but I love Louis's solo on this. He only plays eight bars up front instead of his usual 16 and there's a couple of quasi-cracked notes in the solo to hammer home the point that this is a 65-year-old man on the decline. But the majority of it is simply beautiful, with Louis coming up with some lovely new lyrical ideas. I think it's a perfect closer for this blog and for this chapter, demonstrating that through it all, Louis still had a lot of magic left in his playing at this late stage: