Friday, December 5, 2014

"Everybody's Louie" by Larry L. King - Part 4

In many way, this is the main event of Larry L. King's 1967 Harper's piece, "Everybody's Louie." King sets up some of the criticisms being hurled at Louis in that period--some that still dog him to this day--and then, once Louis was ready to talk, just let him take over. Some of the following passages can be found in both my Armstrong biography, as well as Terry Teachout's Pops, but reading it all--in one almost entirely uninterrupted monologue--is a highly emotional experience.

A few notes: this section had a few asterisks, which I've maintained. I also changed one date, as Louis said he signed up with Glaser in 1931 when it was actually 1935. Also, as frank as Louis is throughout, there is one white lie: he says he "quit messing around" with marijuana "many years ago." King didn't touch it during Louis's lifetime but when he reprinted the piece in his 1985 anthology Warning, Writer at Work, he added a new asterisk at that point, stating, "In truth, Armstrong smoked grass until he died in the early 1970s; fearful of being busted, however, he had friends carry it for him and smoked only among those he trusted." Indeed, Louis continued smoking regularly until at least 1969, when two stints in intensive care finally convinced him to put it down.

Other than that, this is the real, true, unvarnished Louis Armstrong. As he says about King Oliver, bless him.


Louis Armstrong is sophisticate and primitive, genius and man-child. He is wise in the ways of the street and gullibly innocent in the ways of men and nations. After four marriages, reform school, international fame and personal wealth, there is still a fetching simplicity about him. (Of his friend Moise Tshombe, kidnapped and facing a return to the Congo, he says, “I pray each night they won’t kill him. When I played Africa in [‘60] that cat was so nice to me. Kept me in his big palace and all…fed me good…stayed up all night gassing. I had this little tape recorder that cost me several big bills and Tshombe dug it so much I laid it on him. They ain’t gonan kill a sweet cat like hat, are they? So many he hung out with the wrong cats—that any reason to kill a man?”)

The on-stage Louis Armstrong is all smiles and sunshine, almost too much the “happy darky” of white folklore. When he has finished Hello Dolly in a spasm of body shaking, jowl flapping, and gutteral ranges, and has the joint rocking with applause, he sops at his ebony, streaming face with his white handkerchief and rasps, “Looka here, my Man Tan’s coming off!” Maybe his white audiences break up, but they no longer laugh at such lines in the black ghetto. One soon learns that this “happy” image is not all stagecraft; privately Pops is often full of laughter, mugging, instant music, irrepressible enthusiasms, and vast stories of colorful misinformation.

He is not Old King Cole merry old soul, however; his waters run much deeper. I have seen Pops swearing backstage between numbers, his face wrinkled and thoughtful and sad only seconds before he burst back on stage, chest out, strutting, all teeth, and cutting the fool. He can be proud, shrewd, moody, dignified—and vengeful. “I got a simple rule about everybody,” he warned me one evening. “If you don’t treat me right—shame on you!”*

[*Armstrong despises a couple of comedians who use their audiences or associates as targets in their acts. “Ain’t noting funny about putting another man down,” he judges.]

Cross him or wound his pride and he never forgets. My innocent mention of a noted jazz critic set off a predawn tirade. “I told that bastard, ‘You telling me how to blow my goddamn horn and you can’t even blow your goddamn nose.’” When he was young and green somebody gave him fifty dollars for a tune he had written called Get Off Katie’s Head. “I didn’t know nothing about papers and business, and so I let go all control of it.” Pops did not share in the money it made under another title. He has never performed the tune in public and never will. Of his father, Pops said, “I was touring Europe when he died. Didn’t go to his funeral and didn’t send nothing. Why should I? He never had no time for me or Mayann.”

He is big on personal loyalty. “Frank Sinatra—now there’s a man carries a lot of water for his friends. A most accommodating gentleman—if he digs you. My wife, Lucille, she’s another one that when she’s with you she’s with you one thousand per cent.”**[**Lucille holds the record as Mrs. Armstrong. They have been married twenty-five years, and live in Queens on Long Island.] And my mother, why she would work with you—laugh, cry, or juice with you. Oh, what a sweet and helpful girl Mayann was. Only tears I ever shed was when I saw ‘em lower her into that ground.”

He is generally a relaxe man, able to take a quick nap I strange rooms or on buses. “I don’t like nothing to fret me,” Pops said. “You healthier and happier when you hang loose. Business I don’t know nothing about and don’t want to. It must have killed more men than war. Joe Glaser books me, pays my taxes and bills, invest me a few bundles. Gives me my little leftover dab to spend. And that’s the way I want it. Don’t want to worry all time about that crap! I don’t even know where I go when I leave this pier until today I overhear Ira say something about Ireland and France and such places. I go wherever they book me and lead me.” (Both Armstrong and Joe Glaser are wealthy men. Armstrong commands top money—$20,000 to $25,000—for guest shots on television. He accepts eight to ten such jobs each year.)

Nothing worries Louis Armstrong for long. “Mama taught me,” he says, “that anything you can’t get—the hell with it!” This philosophy may be at the root of Armstrong’s rumored differences with militants of the Black Power generation. Nobody has flatly called him Uncle Tom but there have been inferences. Julius Hobson, a Washington ghetto leader, said during Armstrong’s Shoreham appearance last July, “He’s a good, happy black boy. He hasn’t played to a black audience in ten years. I’m glad I saw him though, but I wouldn’t come here if I had to pay. He’s an interesting example of the black man’s psychology but if he took this band”—two whites, three Negroes, a Filipino—“down on U street it would start a riot.” Armstrong, who remembers that not long ago everyone cheered him for having an integrated band, is genuinely puzzled by such comments.

He was not eager to talk civil rights. When I first mentioned the subject, as he dried out between shows in the dingy dressing room at Atlantic City, Pops suddenly began to snore. The next time he merely said, “There is good cats and bad cats of all hues. I used to tell Jack Teagarden—he was white and from Texas just like you—‘I’m a spade and you an ofay. We've got the same soul—so let’s blow.’”

One morning, however, he approached the racial topic on his own. “When I was coming along, a black man had hell. On the road he couldn’t find no decent place to eat, sleep, or use the toilet—service-station cats see a bus of colored bandsmen drive up and they would sprint to lock their restroom doors. White places wouldn’t let you in and the black places all run-down and funky because there wasn’t any money behind ‘em. We Negro entertainers back then tried to stay in private homes—where at least we wouldn’t have to fight bedbugs for sleep and cockroaches for breakfast. Why, do you know I played ninety-nine million hotels I couldn’t stay at? And if I had friends blowing at some all-white nightclub or hotel I couldn’t get in to see ‘em—or them to see me. One time in Dallas, Texas, some ofay stops me as I enter this hotel where I’m blowing the show—me in a goddamn tuxedo, now!—and tells me I got to come round to the back door. As time went on and I made a reputation I had it put in my contracts that I wouldn’t play no place I couldn’t stay. I was the first Negro in the business to crack them big white hotels—Oh, yeah! I pioneered, Pops! Nobody much remembers that these days."

“Years ago I was playing the little town of Lubbock, Texas, when this white cat grabs me at the end of the show—he’s full of whiskey and trouble. He pokes on my chest and says, ‘I don’t like niggers!’ These two cats with me was gonna practice their Thanksgiving carving on that dude. But I say, ‘No, let the man talk. Why don’t you like us, Pops?’ And would you believe that cat couldn’t tell us, Pops? So he apologizes—crying and carrying on. Said he was just juiced and full of deep personal sorrows—something was snapping at his insides, you see—and then he commenced bragging on my music. Yeah! And dig this: that fella and his whole family come to be my friends! When I’d go back through Lubbock, Texas, for many many years they would make old Satchmo welcome and treat him like a king.”

“Quite naturally, it didn’t always test out that pleasurable. I knew some cats was blowing one-nighters in little sawmill stops down in Mississippi, and one time these white boys—who had been dancing all night to the colored cats’ sounds—chased ‘em out on the highway and whipped ‘em with chains and cut their poor asses with knives! Called it ‘nigger knocking.’ No reason—except they was so goddamn miserable they had to mess everybody else up, ya dig? Peckerwoods! Oh, this world’s mothered some mean sons! But they try such stunts on the young Negroes we got coming along now--well, then the trouble starts. Young cats, they ain't setting around these days saying 'Yessuh' or 'Nawsuh.' Which I ain't knocking; everybody got to be his own man, Pops. No man oughta be treated like dirt."

"If you didn't have a white captain to back you in the old days--to put his hand on your shoulder--you was just a damn sad nigger. If a Negro had the proper white man to reach the law and say, 'What the hell you mean locking up my nigger?' then--quite naturally--the law would walk him free. Get in that jail without your white boss, and yonder comes the chain gang! Oh, danger was dancing all around you back then."

"Up north wasn't much to brag on in many ways. Not only people put your color down but you had mobsters. One night this big, bad-ass hood crashes my dressing room in Chicago and instructs me that I will open in such-and-such a club in New York the next night. I tell him I got this Chicago engagement and don't plan no traveling. And I turn my back on him to show I'm so cool. Then I hear this sound: SNAP! CLICK! I turn around and he has pulled this vast revolver on me and cocked in. Jesus, it look like a canon and sound like death! So I look down that steel and say, 'Weeelllll, maybe I do open in New York tomorrow.' That night I got every Chicago tough me or my pals knew--and it must have been eighteen hundred of 'em--to flock around and pass the word I wasn't to be messed with. And I didn't go to New York. Very Very shortly, however, I cut on out of town and went on tour down South. And the mob didn't mess with me again. They never wanted me dead, wanted me blowing so they could rake in my bread."

"You was running a very large risk to buck them mobsters and all the sharpies. They controlled everything. Cross 'em just so far--and BLIP! Your throat's cut or you're swimming in cement with lumps on your head. You needed a white man to get along. So one day in 193[5] I went to Papa Joe Glaser and told him I was tired of being cheated and set upon by scamps and told how my head was jumping from all of that business mess--Lil, one of my wives, had sweet-talked me into going out on my own to front some bands and it was driving me crazy--and I told him, 'Pops, I need you. Come be my manager. Please! Take care all my business and take care of me. Just lemme blow my gig.' And goddamn that sweet man did it! Sold his nightclub in Chicago where I had worked and started handling Pops."

"Sometimes Joe Glaser says I'm nuts. Says it wasn't as bad as I recall it. But then Papa Joe didn't have to go through it. He was white. Not that I think white people is any naturally meaner than colored. Naw, the white man's just had the upper hand so long--and can't many people handle being top cat."

"Passing all them laws to open everything up--fine, okay, lovely! But it ain't gonna change everybody's hearts. You know, I been reading the Bible this last little bit and them Biblical people had wars and riots and poverty and bad-asses among 'em just like we got. Nothing new happening!"

"It's much the same they talk about making marijuana legal. They think they're gonna do that and say, 'Everything's cool now, babies, it's all right and set square.' But how about them poor bastards already been busted for holding a little gage and have done their lonesome fifteen and thirty and fifty years? My God, you can't never never make it all right with them! Many years ago I quit messing around with that stuff. Got tired looking over my shoulder and waiting for that long arm to reach out and somebody say, 'Come here, Boy. Twenty years in the cage!' BLOOEY! Naw, they can't undo all the years of damage by passing a few laws."After a moment's brooding he said, 'That's why I don't take much part in all this fandangoing you hear about today. All I want to do is blow my gig."

Louis Armstrong’s first professional gig—as a substitute cornet player in a Storyville honky-tonk—brought him fifteen cents. He was fifteen years old. “But I sang for money long before I played for it,” he says. “When I was around twelve we formed this quartet—me, Little Mack, Georgie Gray, and Big Nose Sidney. We’d sing on the streets and in taverns—pass the hat; might make six-bits, a dollar. Good money. After hours all them prostitutes would be juicing, having a little fun, and they would offer us big tips to entertain ‘em. Carried their bankrolls in the tops of their stockings. Some would hold us on their laps and we would sniff the pretty scents and powders they wore.”

Though he had taught himself to play the little toy slide whistle and a homemade guitar, Armstrong really familiarized himself with musical instruments in the New Orleans Waifs’ Home. He began with the tambourine, then the snare drum, then ran through the alto horn, bugle, and cornet. Soon he was the leader of the Waifs’ Band, playing picnics and street parades. Old-time drummer Zutty Singleton, a boy then himself, was so astounded at hearing Armstrong’s horn that he moved closer to see if the boy was actually playing those fabulous notes. On his release from the home, Armstrong took one-night jobs filling in with bands until a few months later he landed a regular job at Henry Matranga’s in Storyville. “I wasn’t making no great sums so I kept on delivering coal, unloading banana boats, selling newspapers—though there never was any doubts I would follow music at that point. Had to work for extra bread, you see. For when I am sixteen I start hanging out with the pretty chicks and need operating money.”

King Joe Oliver took Louis Armstrong under his wing. “He was the best,” Pops says. “Laid a new horn on me when mine was so beat I didn’t know what sounds might come out of it. Advised me…took me home for red beans and rice feasts. Taught me about blowing trumpet, too. Lotta claims been made that Bunk Johnson put me wise to trumpet—Bunk hisself helped that story along. No such thing. Joe Oliver was the man.”

When King Oliver left Kid Ory’s brass band to go it alone, seventeen-year-old Louis Armstrong took his chair. In the eighteen months he played with Kid Ory at Pete Lala’s, Armstrong’s reputation grew. He was with the Tuxedo Brass Band in 1922, when King Oliver called him to Chicago—then the center of jazz as New Orleans once had been. In 1924-25 Armstrong was with the Fletcher Henderson band but quit because “The cats was goofing and boozing—not blowing. I was always deadly serious about my music.” From Henderson he joined Lil Hardin’s group (she was his second wife) and also worked in Erskine Tate’s pit orchestra at the Vendome Theatre in Chicago. Then he went to work at the Sunset Club for Joe Glaser—who immediately billed him as “The World’s Greatest Trumpet Player.” This title had been generally conceded to Joe Oliver—and King Joe was playing at a rival club nearby. It came down to a head-on contest between the two great trumpeters. “I felt real bad when I took most of Joe Oliver’s crowds away,” Armstrong says now. “Wasn’t much I could do about it, though. I went to Joe and asked him was there anything I could do for him. ‘Just keep on blowing,’ he told me. Bless him”*

[*Years later, when Joe Oliver was on the financial skids, Armstrong several times helped him.]

This passage begins with King describing Armstrong in action while performing "Hello, Dolly!" live. Here is an unissued version from the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, broadcast on the radio on July 22, 1967:

King doesn't write about it, but Armstrong's chops were a bit erratic during the summer of 1967 and you can hear a few weak moments at the start of his "Dolly" solo. But he fights his way out of it and turns in an outing completely devoid of his set quotations from the period, such as "Japanese Sandman." Joe Muranyi told me about how Louis loved to change it up on "Dolly" and this is a good example of that. Once the trumpet solo is over though, Armstrong's personality takes over and you can really hear "the joint rocking with applause" in King's words. 

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