Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"Everybody's Louie" by Larry L. King - Part 2

Continuing from Part 1 of Larry L. King's 1967 Harper's profile of Louis Armstrong, here is Part 2. This section introduces the two major parts of Louis's entourage in this period, valet Bob Sherman and road manager Ira Mangel (King spelled his name "Mangle" throughout; I've corrected in my typing of the original article). I always found this part fascinating because it shows how Louis was being protected in this period of his life. In the 1950s, he was really his own man, hanging out all night with friends, making reel-to-reel tapes, etc. Everyone hated road manager Pierre "Frenchy" Tallerie, but he served mostly as Joe Glaser's spy, letting Glaser know when someone was misbehaving. Louis's longtime valet Doc Pugh was Louis's confidant and also the man who was the gatekeeper into Louis's dressing room and even hotel room. It was a grind but Pops seemed to make the most of each one, especially when he was making those tapes.

But things changed in the mid-1960s. With the popularity of "Hello, Dolly!" Louis was more in demand than ever before but his health and eventually his chops were starting decline, adding a little depressing to his psyche. He stopped making those famed reel-to-reel tapes entirely. Doc Pugh retired in 1965 due to vision problems and died a few years later. Frenchy also stepped down after a grueling tour behind the Iron Curtain in 1965. Ira Mangel, who had been road manager for numerous bands, including Charlie Barnet's, joined in the summer of 1965 and new valet Robert Sherman joined around the same time. With Louis's health declining, as King chronicles in this section, Mangel and Sherman were now on hand to make sure Louis got plenty of rest--something Louis himself was not interested in. I don't think he was personally as close to Mangel and Sherman as he was with Doc Pugh, hence his seemingly begging for King's after-hours company. But enough for me, here's the second part of Larry L. King's "Everybody's Louie."

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II

Just how I presumed to sing with him remains unclear and possibly indefensible. Earlier, in a noisy penny arcade on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, I had proposed to his traveling manager, Ira Mangel, that I perform on stage with Armstrong at one of his three-a-day shows. Mangel, a stoic man of generous figure, ate peanuts, staring, while I explained. I would describe both the elation and the dread of appearing with the most celebrated figure in a filed wholly alien to my talents, a man who has been called "an authentic American genius" for his contributions to jazz. Paul Gallico and George Plimpton had done the same thing in sports, I recalled to Mangel, boxing Jack Dempsey and Archie Moore, golfing with Bobby Jones, pitching to Mantle and Mays. Their first-person stories permitted the average sports fan to consort vicariously with champions. Out there on that stage, moving into the spotlight to join Pops in Blues in the Night or perhaps even Hello Dolly, I would represent all my peers.

Ira Mangel has been in show business almost as long as pratfalls. He is neither easily rattled nor easily amused. When my special plea was done Mangel gazed into my face, chewing all the while. When the peanuts ran out he smiled and walked away.

Now, days later, sitting at a table holding the wreckage of our midnight snack (sardines in oil, Vienna sausages, Chinese food, soda crackers, pickles, beer) Pops and I somehow cut into That's My Desire. My uncertain baritone mingled with the famous voice that has been likened to a "cement mixer ... rough waters ... iron filings ... a gearbox full of peanut butter ... oil on sandpaper ... a horn wailing through gravel and fog."

Once--when I came in on the break behind him at precisely the right point--Pops gave me some skin. He reached out his dark old hand just as he does on-stage when Joe Muranyi has ripped off an especially meritorious stretch on clarinet, and I turned my hand, palm up, as I had seen Muranyi do. Leaning across sardine tines and cracker wrappers Pops lightly brushed my open palm in a half-slap, the jive set's seal of approval, the jazz equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor. And there was good whiskey waiting in the jug.

We had already siphoned off generous rations, waving our arms a bit much, gently boasting and exaggerating. "Hey, Pops," my host said (it is his all-purpose salutation, as well as what friends call him, and saves everybody memorizing a lot of troublesome names), "this is the way I get my kicks. Having a little taste ... talking over the olden times in Storyville and Chicago ... remembering all the crazy sounds that always seemed to be exploding around you and inside you. Everything made music back then: banana men, ragpickers, them pretty painted streetwalkers all singing out their wards--oh, yeah! Everything rocking and bobbing and jousting and jumping." He grinned that huge, open grin again. "Ya know, Pops," he said, "my manager, Je Glaser--Papa Joe, bless his ole heart he's my man, we been together since we was pups, why to hear us talk on the phone you'd think we was a couple of fairies: I say, 'I love you, Pops,' and he say, 'I love you, Pops'--well, anyhow, Joe and Ira and all them people don't like for me to talk about the olden days. All the prosty-toots and the fine gage and the bad-ass racketeers. But hell, Man, I got to tell it like it was! I can't go around changing history!"

(Often one gets the feeling that Pops prefers those "olden days" to the frantic existence that has become his life. He once told writer Richard Meryman, "I never did want to be no big star....All this traveling around the world, meeting wonderful people, being high on the horse, all grandioso--it's nice--but I didn't suggest it. I would say it was all wished on me. Seems like I was more content, more relaxed, growing up in New Orleans. And the money I made then--I lived off it. We were poor and everything like that, but music was all around you. Music kept you rolling.")

Thought two weeks earlier Louis Armstrong wouldn't have known me from any other face in the multitudes, we had reached a stage of easy friendship--all thanks to him. For tough I have known three Presidents and two wives, I sat down to face Armstrong that first night in Washington with a head full of wind and dishwater. There seemed nothing I was able to ask or say, not even banal comments about Washington's dreadful humidity, for on the couch beside me sat a living legend, a talent so long famous and admired that I considered him of another age and so was struck dumb in his presence--as if I had come upon Moses taking a Sunday stroll in the Gaza Strip or had encountered Thomas Jefferson at a Democratic National Convention.

Downstairs, I knew, Shriners offered hotel bellboys five-dollar bribes for Louis Armstrong's room number. No telephone calls were put through to him from the Shoreham front desk unless you knew a special secret. In Armstrong's suite (a palace of curved glass, rich draperies, soft carpets, and pillows of psychedelic hues) he sat wrapped in a faded robe. A white towel around his neck soaked up juices from the last of the evening's two one-hour shows, while Pops accepted photographs of himself from a thick stack presided over by his hovering valet, Bob Sherman. On each he scrawled, "Hello, Louis Armstrong" in a round, uneven hand. Ira Mangel asked his star if he would like a drink, a snack, another pen, a crisp handerkerchief. Mopping his brow, Louis declined with grunts and headshakes. "You go ahead," he said as I sat there tongue-tied and witless. "Ask me anything you wnt. Won't cramp my writing style. Just doing the bit for a few of my fans." Out of the silence Ira Mangel suggested that Armstrong discuss a recent TV tape cut with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass: perhaps Armstrong would compare the two generations of music and judge the younger man's artistry. "Oh, yeah," Armstrong said. "He blows pretty, all right. Nice young cat." Mangel then prompted him to say something of his popularity with the public, his friendships in show business, the world figures who have toasted him. "Everybody's been real nice," Pops said.

Mangel's helpless shrug left me on my own. Finally I said, "Well, I seem to have come down with a bad case of buck fever. Can't think of a damn thing. Maybe I'd better run along and return another night." Quickly Armstrong cast aside his pen. A look of pain passed his face. "Aw, naw!" he said. "It ain't like that! We'll just loaf and chew the fat and have a little taste of bourbon and if we feel like stumbling over chairs--well, hell, we all over twenty-one! Ira, get my man a little taste." THen he launched into a story, and the generous act got me functioning again.

The men who handle Armstrong thought we got a little too chummy. Valet Bob Sherman, a dapper middleweight with a heavyweight's torso and a Sonny Liston scowl when one is needed, nailed me backstage at the Steel Pier. "You'd better cut on out tonight after about an hour," he said. "Otherwise, you're gonna wear Pops out. He needs rest." Later, when I tried to leave at a decent hour, Pops protested. "Man, I'm just starting to roll. Won't be hitting the sheets for some odd-hours on. Here"--he splashed liquid into my glass--"relax and have another little taste." Waiting in the wings for his introduction one matinee, mopping his face and carrying that golden trumpet, he waved me over: "Where'd you go last night, Pops? Had to stumble over chairs all by myself. Ira and them people keep you away from me?" Well, yes, I admitted. "Aw, they ought not to do that!" Armstrong said. "They know Pops is still gonna be unwinding when first light comes. Don't pay them people no mind."

Armstrong's associates can hardly be blamed for their vigilance: he is a most valuable commercial property. Last spring a two-month recuperation from pneumonia cost more than $150,000 in bookings. His sixty-seven years, his respiratory ailments, and his grinding travel schedule--Ireland, England, Denmark, France, Spain, Tunisia, New England, the Midwest, the West Coast and two major TV bookings in August and September alone--cause concern for his health.

He is not the world's most docile patient. He walked around with bronchial pneumonia for two weeks last spring before anyone knew it. His trombonist, Tyree Glenn, was one of his first hospital visitors: Pops coaxed him into rehearsing a duet he wanted to put in the show. Nurses managed to clear the room only after a one-hour concert. The Washington booking was the first to follow his illness. Yet he stayed up all one night reveling with me, another with old music-world cronies (Duke Ellington and Clark Terry turned up at the Shoreham on July 4th to lead the midnight-show crowd in singing Happy Birthday to him), and on his night off he dropped by Carter Barron Amphitheatre to catch Ella Fitzgerald's performance--and ended up doing several numbers with her. Pops played two shows of his own each night and one two-hour benefit for wounded Vietnam veterans at Walter Reed Hospital.

A week later in Atlantic City he stunted and cheered at a nightclub until dawn, and the following night railed-in vain--when he learned that Ira Mangel had wired a second club expressing regrets that Pops would not catch the late show as promised. "Damnit!" he complained. "All them cats over there live and breathe Louis Armstrong. They love Pops! If I go back on my word to them it's like, why hell, it's like the United States Marines losing a goddamn war!"

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Part 3 will be posted tomorrow but here's a bonus for those making this journey with me. First, here's a link to a video of Louis's arrival in Dublin, Ireland on July 30, 1967, just weeks after his time with King. Mangel can't be seen in it but that's Bob Sherman leading the way into Louis's tiny dressing room around the 2:02 mark. It's a valuable video because it captures a bit of the weary pre and post-show Pops, but also shows him turning it on both onstage and in the little interview at the end.

And finally, a terrific photo from the Jack Bradley Collection of the Louis Armstrong House Museum. This was from a night in October 1967 when Jack visited Louis in Chicago and joined his entourage to catch a late show by Jimmy Durante. The party continued at the famed Palmer House, where this photo was taken. From left to right: Bob Sherman, Jack Bradley, Louis Armstrong, waiter, Lucille Armstrong, Ira Mangel, Dr. Alexander Schiff.


Part 3 resumes tomorrow with the funniest section of the piece on Louis's health remedies including, naturally, Swiss Kriss!

1 comment:

Lemonlymelon said...

This is so wonderful. I really appreciate you taking the time to do this.
And wow, that video... I did not expect that. It's very emotional (at least for me) to see him offstage. I've only ever seen interviews where he is his usual self. This is touching.