Saturday, December 6, 2014

"Everybody's Louie" by Larry L. King - Conclusion

We've come to the conclusion of my reprinting of Larry L. King's 1967 Harper's profile, "Everybody's Louie." King originally broke it into six sections, but the sixth and final one consisted of only three paragraphs so I've included it here for the sake of completeness.

On a personal note, I've mentioned how much I love this piece a few times over the past week. It had a big impact on me when I first photocopied it at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in 2003. I was writing a thesis on Louis's later years and here was King, setting up what would be the themes of my master's work and my eventual book, followed by Louis expertly defending himself. Still touches me to this day. I hope this rare masterful piece of writing has affected you a fraction of the way it has affected me.

V

Armstrong first played New York in 1929, fronting the old Carroll Dickerson band at Connie’s Inn in Harlem. He arrived there with four carloads of sidemen, ten dollars, and after two car wrecks en route. “Blew four shows a day,” he remembers. “Wild stuff. Knocked myself out—blowing crazy and carrying on. Going in with cold chops. Wonder I got a dime’s worth of chops left.” In mid-1932 Armstrong made his first swing through Europe—and Europe flipped. By 1935 few disputed that Louis Armstrong was the king of jazz.

Though with the advent of television and smash hits like Hello Dolly** [**”The best-selling record of all time”—Ira Mangel] Armstrong became more popular than ever, jazz purists say that he is no longer inventive, that he is too commercial, too much the clown. A decade ago Raymond Horricks wrote that his trumpet playing “in recent years…has declined as a creative force on account of the contact with unsympathetic supporting musicians and of Louis’ own increased exploits dressed in he cap and bells of a court jester.” Even a dust jacket plugging a record Armstrong made with Ella Fitzgerald carries the curious advertisement: “Unfortunately, of late, Louis has confined himself almost exclusively to remaking the blues of an earlier age and pedestrian popular songs so that each impression was but a fainter and dimmer carbon of the original talent.”

He is impatient with this criticism. “Aw, I am paid to entertain the people. If they want me to come on all strutty and cutting up—if that makes ‘em happy, why not: For many years II blew my brains out. Hitting notes so high they hurt a dog’s ears, driving like crazy, screaming it. And everybody got this image I was some kind of wild man. Joe Glaser told me, ‘Play and sing pretty. Give the people a show.’ So now I do Dolly how many times? Six jillion? However many you want to say. Do it every show. And you got to admit, Pops, it gets the biggest hand of any number I do.

“There’s room for all kinds of music. I dig it all: country, jazz, pop, swing, blues, ragtime. And this rock ‘n’ roll the young people believe is a new sound—babies, it comes right outa the old spirituals and soul and country music and jazz. Like I have said, ‘Old soup warmed over.’

“Each man has his own music bubbling up inside him and—quite naturally—different ones will let it out in various ways. When I blow I think of times and things from outa the past that gives me a image of the tune. Like moving pictures passing in front of my eyes. A town, a chick somewhere back down the line, an old man wih no name you seen once in a place you don’t remember—any of ‘em can trigger that image. Or a certain blue feeling or a happy one. What you hear coming from a man’s horn—that’s what he is! And man can be many different things.”

Pops is right: if the critics have soured, the people have not. “Can’t even go to a baseball game,” he said one night. “Went to one Dodgers-White Sox World Series game and cats was climbing all over my box seat. Some of the players asked what in the hell was all that commotion up in the stands. Sometimes them big crowds can spook you. Get to pressing you and grabbing your clothes. You get a funny feeling they might trample on you. Especially in Europe. I draw a hundred thousand people over there blowing outdoors. And they go crazy.”

Each afternoon and evening a limousine with Pops and Bob Sherman in the back seat made its way slowly along the Boardwalk; police and firemen walked ahead to clear the massed crowd. “Hey! That’s Louis Armstrong!” someone would shout, starting a stampede of old women, small children, bald-headed men. (“Hey, Louie, looka me!” “Satchmo—over here!”) They clawed at the car, knocked on windows, snapped cameras in his face , tried to poke their hands inside for handshakes. Pops smiled and waved in return, seldom missing anyone , though he might be chattering away about Storyville.

Through the entire Atlantic City engagement a wizened, aged little man in hand-me-down clothes haunted the backstage area. After each show Pops courteously received him in his dressing room. “You really got your chops tonight, Pops,” the old man would invariably say. Armstrong would beam: “Aw, thank you, Pops. How you been?” After a few moments the old fellow would go away content. I later learned that he is known to Armstrong’s entourage as The Clipping Man. “He lives in Philadelphia,” I was told, “and anytime he sees Pops’ name in the paper he clips it and mails it to him. If Pops plays within a hundred miles of Philadelphia he makes the scene and hangs around for his two or three private moments after each show.” The Clipping Man was around so much that for days, seeing him standing patiently in the wings or sitting on a bench backstage, silent and pensive, I had presumed him to be a stagehand. One night he encountered me in the alcove outside Armstrong’s dressing room. “You know Pops long?” he asked. No, only a few days. “I been good friends with him for thirty years,” The Clipping Man said.

VI

One night near the end of Pops’ ten-day Atlantic City run we dallied in his dressing room long past midnight, having a little taste while on video-tape heavyweight contender Joe Frazier repeated his brutal knockout of George Chuvalo. Freshly toweled by Bob Sherman, wearing a faded robe and a handkerchief tied around his head so that he resembled Aunt Jemimah. Pops bounced around the cramped room, grunting and grimacing as the gloves thudded against flesh, sucking in air and occasionally throwing an uppercut on his own.

After he dressed we walked along the Steel Pier, dark now except for a few dim lights on the outer walkway. The noisy crowds had been dispersed and the gates locked; a few sleepy night watchmen prowled the shooting galleries, fun-house rides, and endless rows of concession stands. Strolling the walkway, we could hear the ocean boiling beneath us. Pops peered up at a tall tower from which a young blonde on horseback plunges into a giant tank of water three times each day. He shook his head. “Ain’t that a hell of a way to make a living? And them cats in there fighting on the box—beating each other crazy for the almighty dollar. Pops, some people got a hell of a hard row to hoe.”

We paused at the end of the pier jutting into the Atlantic; Pops lit a cigarette and leaned on a restraining fence to smoke. For long moments he looked up at the full moon, and watched the surf come and go. The glow from his cigarettes faintly illuminated the dark old face in repose and I thought of some ancient tribal chieftain musing by his campfire, majestic and mystical. There was only the rush of water, gently roaring and boasting at the shore.

“Listen to it, Pops,” he said in his low, chesty rumble. “Whole world’s turned on. Don’t you dig its pretty sounds?”

******************

I love that "Whole world's turned on" ending. And now a little laginappe, as New Orleans folks like to say. This is a family blog (even though I enjoy a colorful four-letter word every now and then) but I have to get x-rated right now so stop reading if you're sensitive to "adult" situations. I've included a little bonus at the end of each of my posts, but this one is really something else. In 1999, a work was published titled Larry L. King: A Writer's Life in Letters, Or, Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye. King's letters ended up at Southwest Texas University and the curator over there, Richard Holland, put together this anthology of King's private writings. Included is a July 12, 1967 letter to Willie Morris, Editor-in-Chief of Harper's.  King knew he was striking gold but he now had a story he knew could never see the light of day. Still, he needed to tell someone and that someone was Morris. This story has been published for the past 15 years, but I don't know how many Louis nuts know about it so here 'tis, one "lost" anecdote from King's time with Armstrong:

July 12, 1967

Mr. Willie Morris
Editor-in-Chief
Harper's

Dear Wilie:
 I have marked this "very personal" out of a sense of protecting the sweet young things who secretary faithfully in your care, but just had to tell the story. Last night, after Louis Armstrong's show, I juiced with him in his suite until 4 a.m. and got some tremendous stories. One cannot be trimmed nor altered to make the Harper's scene, but I don't want it to go completely to waste:

"Man"--Louie says--"if there is one thing I try to be it is tolerant! But I can't stand squares--especially square chicks. Now, you get all turned on to some chick, see, and you think she's grooving with you and the next thing you know you in bed with her and all her clothes come off and you think, "yeah, Pops, crazy Man, everything gonna be okay.' Then you drop down and kiss a couple of inches below the navel, Man, and she sit up and cross her legs and look all bug-eyed and say in this hysterical voice, 'You ain't a cocksucker is you?' And all you can do with a square chick like that is either get up and put your britches on, or else say 'Yeah, baby, that's my bag' and get on with it. But she's already spoiled the fun."

"Pops" and I have, as you see, gotten down to the basics. . . .

Larry L. King died on December 12, 2012. Oh, if only I knew he was still around when I was doing my Armstrong research! Nevertheless, as much as he accomplished--and it was a LOT--I'm most thankful for the time he spent with Pops and the beautiful, humorous, unflinching, dramatic profile he turned in, turning the Louis Armstrong he knew into "Everybody's Louie."

1 comment:

terryteachout said...

For the record, the word "cocksucker" was commonly used by southern blacks of Armstrong's generation to refer not to fellatio but cunnilingus.