Last week, I needed a Louis quote for something at work and grabbed a copy of the November 1967 issue of Harper's featuring perhaps my all-time favorite extended profile of Louis Armstrong, "Everybody's Louie," by Larry L. King. I'm not the only one to feel that way. The copy I grabbed at work was Louis Armstrong's. After he passed away in 1971, Lucille Armstrong saw to it that King's article be reprinted in the program to Louis's funeral, the only such piece to get such treatment. That's a helluva endorsement.
I've long loved this piece and made use of it in my own Armstrong biography. But after digging it out last week, I couldn't put it down, quickly copying it so I could read it on the commute home. One week later, I posted a chunk of it on Facebook to positive feedback. And now, I feel it's time for more people to know this work, courtesy of my blog.
If you don't know King, no this isn't the Larry King of CNN fame. Larry L. King was a journalist and author, who won his biggest fame by writing The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. But in the summer of 1967, he was assigned by Harper's to follow Louis Armstrong around during engagements in Washington D.C. and Atlantic City and do his best to make his readers feel as if they, too, had just hung out after hours with the great Satchmo.
King succeeded on all accounts. His profile has some real laugh-out-loud moments but there's also brutal honesty and moments of pain, especially when Louis confronts issues of race. There's even some "greatest hits" stories about New Orleans, King Oliver, being held up by gangsters, taking Swiss Kriss and more. If you're not in the mood for a full biography of Louis and just want something that's all killer and no filler--and straight from Louis's mouth--"Everybody's Louie" is all of that and more.
As of now, this article is not available anywhere online except to subscribers of Harper's. (It is still available in the late King's 1985 anthology, Warning: Writer at Work: The Best Collectables of Larry L. King.)I hope they don't come after me but I think it's worth re-printing here in separate installments. I'd like to type the whole thing up myself but for one thing, I don't have time, but also, in this day and age, I don't know who has the attention span to read it all in one sitting. So this week--as I near my 600th blog post--I'll post one section at a time. Here's the beginning. Enjoy.
by Larry L. King
"When I blow I think of times and things from outa the past that gives me a image . . . A town, a chick somewhere back down the line, an old man with no name you once seen in a place yo udon't remember. What you hear coming from a man's horn, that's what he is."
Perhaps you have not heard of my singing with Louis Armstrong. Nobody reviewed us for Downbeat and we didn't get much of a crowd--just the two of us. This impromptu duet with Pops (also Satchmo, Louie, Dippermouth, "America's Ambassador of Good Will") took place last July in his suite at the Chalfonte, a resort hotel on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, around five o'clock of a groggy morning.
For several hours we had been "stumbling over chairs"--Satchmo's euphemism for serious tippling--while he reminisced, smoked an endless chain of Camels, and poured with a quick hand. This mood carried him back almost sixty years to New Orleans' Storyville section where as a boy he delivered coal to the cribs of certain available ladies, lingering to monitor honky-tonk and sporting-house bands until "the lady would notice me still in her crib--me standing very silent, digging the sounds, all in a daze--and she would remind me it wasn't no proper place to daydream."
Storyville was wide open in those days. Liberty sailors, traveling drummers, cotton traders, and assorted bloods in hot pursuit of fun mingled with prostitutes, pickpockets, musicians, gamblers, street urchins, and pimps. It was located directly behind Canal Street and touching the lower end of Basin in the French Quarter, and it had everything from creep joints where wallets were removed from the unwary during sex circuses to Miss Lulu White's Mahogany Hall on Basin Street with its five posh parlors, fifteen bedrooms, and $30,000 worth of artfully placed mirrors. Miss Lulu hired "none but the fairest and most accomplished of girls," and Jelly Roll Morton played piano for her. In 1917 the Navy Department sent in a task force to clean up the district after too many sailors turned up robbed, drugged, or dead. Preachers railed against this sinkhole, but it was the place where jazz was born and where Daniel Louis (pronounced "Louie") Armstrong, literally before he was out of short pants, learned to play a little toy slide whistle "like it was a goddamn trombone." The boy strolled behind brass bands at street parades, funeral processions, or in horse-drawn bandwagons to tout their appearances at local clubs. "Two bandwagons would park head-to-head," Armstrong remembers, "and blow until one band was reduced to a frazzle." The Armstrongs lived in a cement-brick house on Brick Row. Armstrong's grandmother bent over a tin tub and corrugated washboard to scrub white families' clothes and his father, when he was around, attended turpentine boilers. There was a decrepit neighborhood tavern called the Funky Butt, which Armstrong remembers for its bands and its razor fights. A detective grabbed Armstrong for celebrating for eighteen months to the New Orleans Colored Waifs' Home. At nineteen he married Daisy Parker, the first of his four brides. One night she caught Louis with another doll and chastised him with a brickbat. "I ain't been no angel," Pops confessed that morning as we lounged in the Chalfonte, "but I never once set out to harm no cat."
Louis Armstrong's marvelous memory took me back to the night he arrived in Chicago in 1922, up on the train from New Orleans to join King Joe Oliver's Creole Jazz Band as second trumpet for $50 a week. "I was carrying my horn, a little dab of clothes, and a brown bag of trout sandwiches my mother, Mayann, had made me up. Had on long underwear beneath my wide-legged pants--in July. I am just a kid, you see, not but twenty-two years old, don't know nothing and don't even suspect much. When we pull into the old La Salle Street station and I see all the tall buildings I thought they was universities and that I had the wrong town. Almost got back on that rail-runner and scooted back home."
He spoke lovingly of old pals: King Oliver, Jack Teagarden, Kid Ory, Bix Beiderbecke, and a hot-licks bass drummer everyone recalls only as Black Benny. ("All dead and gone now, them swinging old cats-and I've took to reading the Bible myself.") Between dips into his on-the-rocks bourbon Armstrong hummed or scatted or sang snatches of his ancient favorites. "Hotdamn"--he would say, flashing his teeth in that grand piano grin--"you remember this one?" and out would pour Didn't He Ramble, Gut Bucket Blues, Blueberry Hill, Heebie-Jeebies, Black and Blue.
In part two, King relives the adversity he faced in trying to even spend a little time with Louis, his initial cautious conversations with him and sums up Armstrong's recent infirmaries.