45 years ago today, Louis Armstrong began his comeback. What was he coming back from? Plenty. His health had been in steady cline during the second half of the 1960s, especially in 1967 when he had to cancel a slew of engagements--twice--for bouts with pneumonia. By 1968, he had dropped a dramatic amount of weight, but it didn't help. In September of that year, he ended up in intensive care for heart and kidney trouble, came home in January and ended up back in intensive care shortly after, this time until April. While at Beth Israel, Armstrong's longtime manager Joe Glaser was admitted after complications from a stroke; he passed away in June. A grief-stricken Armstrong, having lost his manager and facing the prospect of never being able to perform again, turned his despair into prose, handwriting a somewhat bitter manuscript about how his African-American fan base betrayed him. Things were bleak (for those interested in the nuts and bolts, my book covers the last few years of Armstrong's life in detail).
But slowly, he got out of it. ABC news visited him at his home in Corona, Queens on his July 4 birthday and filmed him playing a snippet of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" on the trumpet. When the newscaster asked Armstrong if there was anything he still wanted to accomoplish, Armstrong replied, "Yeah, keep living. I ain't through yet."
Still, Armstrong had to remain at home convalescing until the doctors gave him the okay. He still hit the scene occasionally, singing with Duke Ellington's band at the Rainbow Room and catching Russell "Big Chief" Moore and Emmett Berry at the Riverboat in Long Island that summer. On October 16, he and his wife Lucille attended game 5 of the World Series, watching his neighbors, the Miracle Mets, clinch the championship.
But Armstrong lived to make music and even though he was almost a full year away from being able to do concerts, he still yearned to make music for his public. On October 28, 1969 he got the chance through a very unlikely situation. Composer John Barry personally visited Armstrong in Corona with the opportunity to record "We Have All the Time in the World," a brand new song that would be used in the upcoming James Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
Armstrong, as popular as he was, probably wasn't the public's first choice to record the new song for the latest Bond film. "'All the Time in the World' is my personal favorite," Barry said. "I think that might have a lot to do with the experience we had in New York with Louie Armstrong and that afternoon we recorded it. It wasn't the popular choice at the time, because we always used, you know, the Tom Joneses, the Nancy Sinatras. And i said, 'Look, it's about a man singing about the September of his years.' And I thought Louie Armstrong singing 'We Have All the Time in the World,' it just rung true and [producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli] loved the idea, there were no arguments. But to work with this guy in the studio, he was the sweetest, humblest guy."
Armstrong prepared for the session, writing out the lyrics in long hand and studying them (his handwritten lyrics are still part of the collections at the Louis Armstrong House Museum). When he arrived to the studio, he remained ever the professional, even though his health was precarious. Lyricist Hal David remembered, "He was a sick man at the time. After he did his first take, he came over to me and, you know, 'Did I do it good? Don't be afraid to tell me, I want to do it good.'" Armstrong's friend Jack Bradley was there and snapped this photo of David and Barry with Pops:
In the end, Armstrong was more than good. Barry was right; Armstrong was the ideal person to sing the sentiment of the song, especially with everything he had gone through the previous year. His voice was now "burned to a husk" in Gary Giddins's phrase, but that just lent a deeper emotion to the performance. Here's the original recording:
Armstrong loved the song and was happy to have had the opportunity to record it. "He came across and he thanked me for asking him to sing the song in the movie, which--I mean, I was in such awe of the gentleman that the fact that he took it upon himself to sing the song for us, we were so honored that he should come across and very gently say, 'Thank you,'" Barry remembered. "It was a testament to the gentleman, the kind of gracious gentleman that he was."
Unfortunately, On Her Majesty's Secret Service was kind of a dud and Armstrong's recording never made a dent on the charts. That didn't stop him from performing it on television after the film came out. I don't have these versions to share, but on Louis's reel-to-reel tapes are lovely live versions from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in February and The Merv Griffin Show in March. But like "What a Wonderful World," it would take a posthumous use of the song to bring about its revival.
In 1994, 25 years after the original recording and 23 years after Armstrong's death, Guinness used "We Have All the Time in the World" in a television commercial that ran in the UK. All of a sudden, people were clamoring for this long-forgotten Louis Armstrong recording, to the point that it hit the UK music charts! Here's that original commercial:
In the ensuing 20 years, the song has become one of Louis's best-known, garnering over a million YouTube views and being a favorite at weddings. Just add it to the list of posthumous Louis Armstrong rediscoveries that keep happening every time his music is used in film or on TV. Timeless.
But wait, there's more!
The "We Have All the Time in the World" story has become somewhat well-known but nobody (except me, I think) ever talks about the flip side recorded that same day, "Pretty Little Missy." This was a composition based on "Perdido" that was put together by Armstrong and longtime pianist Billy Kyle, based on a riff Kyle used to play on his "Perdido" piano features. Armstrong seemed to legitimately love it (and especially the way he could subversively transform "Pucker up" into "Fuck her up" without the audience noticing), recording it multiple times over the years and performing it often in concert.
He hadn't done "Missy" in a while at the time of the 1969 session and Kyle had died on the road in February 1966. So with a comeback looming and a possible James Bond-associated hit record in the can, why the hell would Louis Armstrong record "Pretty Little Missy" as the flip side? Simple: Louis Armstrong was a smart man. When Joe Glaser died in June 1969, he left Louis Armstrong all of his shares of his publishing company, International Music. Some have brushed this off as Glaser's final insult but it was a big deal, something that kept Armstrong's bank account full when he wasn't able to work (telling Mike Douglas in 1970, "I've been out of work for two years and haven't asked for anything yet") and allowing Lucille to never need to work during her 12-year widowhood. The money and royalties that came from Armstrong's compositions (and others) through International Music was quite sizable.
So Armstrong's not dumb. Now that he's getting a bigger piece than ever of International Music, he makes frequent TV appearances in the last two years of his life performing either (or both) "Someday You'll Be Sorry" or "Pretty Little Missy," telling Dick Cavett in July 1970 that he was going to play "Someday" "to pick up a little ASCAP change."
Armstrong must have put in his request to do "Missy" early because at the October 28 session, he had a full-blown arrangement by the great Torrie Zito made for the full orchestra, including strings and an organ. Unlike every previous version, which tended to be fast an exciting, the 1969 "Missy" has a gently loping shuffle feel to it, allowing Armstrong to really relax. Armstrong’s voice, though charred a bit more than usual, radiates its usual warmth and joy….though I think he manages to stick in a "Fuck her up" the second time on the bridge, no?
But the main event is a half-chorus of trumpet playing that proves that there was still some life in that old horn. The tone is fragile in the beginning but it gradually swells and though he has a little trouble with a high note towards the end of the solo, it's a swinging outing, full of classic Armstrong ideas and phrases. The first time I heard it, I actually cheered! And when he reprises the vocal and sings the cute lyrics over surging strings, I welled up with tears. The track is a triumph and it marked the last time he would ever play the trumpet in the studio. How fitting that the last thing he played was that signature little lick that everybody still uses to this day to impersonate him?
Without further ado, here's "Pretty Little Missy," transferred from a 45 I bought on eBay and pitch-corrected by my pal Phil Person:
So why does everybody know "We Have All the Time in the World" but nobody knows "Pretty Little Missy"? Guinness aside, the original United Artists 45 seems to have barely been circulated. After the 1994 revival, "We Have All the Time in the World" has been issued on a variety of CDs, but "Pretty Little Missy" never graduated beyond a handful of European 45s and one German LP.
A few years ago, my friends at Hip-O Select put out a 2-CD set, Hello, Louis! The Hit Years, 1963-1969, which collected the full Hello, Dolly, Mame, and What a Wonderful World albums in one place, plus a few obscure Kapp singles from 1968 and "We Have All the Time in the World" from 1969. It was a well-done set but when it came out, I was disappointed that the included "We Have All the Time" but not "Pretty Little Missy" and took them to task for it right here on my blog. Producer Andy McKaie was kind enough to write back with the sad news: "We tried to license in 'Pretty Little Missy' (the B side of the Bond theme), but found no one who would step up and acknowledge ownership, neither EMI (who now own U.A. Records) or MGM, to whom the Bond theme reverted would claim ownership of the B side, unfortunately."
There you have it. When possibly the biggest music corporation in the world can't license this song, the prospects of it ever getting a decent release in digital age are grim. I'm not saying it's "West End Blues" (and some readers out there might be rolling their eyes at how long I'm devoting to an obscure version of "Pretty Little Missy") but it would be nice to hear it in decently remastered sound, not from my personal crackly 45 copy.
Anyway, Louis Armstrong's comeback began 45 years ago today and though he died less than two years later, let's be honest, Armstrong's music is better appreciated today than ever before. We have all the time in the world to attempt to grasp the enormous impact he had on our music and our world.