Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Louis Armstrong on Desert Island Discs

Anyone remotely familiar with my work with Louis Armstrong knows that I'm always on a crusade.

"Hey, no one's paying attention to Louis Armstrong's later years! I know, I'll write a book on it!"

"Hey, Universal, Gosta Hagglof passed away and in his collection is a complete version of Louis's 1947 Symphony Hall concert....release it!"

"Hey, Sony is sitting on all this unreleased live Armstrong from the 1940s and 1950s...this would be perfect for Mosaic Records!"

I'm always looking out for ways to make Pops available to the public. Just last week, I was back in the studio for Universal, helping to oversee the production of a deluxe edition of Louis's Mercury album Mame, complete with a ton of alternate takes. But I couldn't just rest there, and spent most of the time in the studio talking about how they should release Louis at the Crescendo Club in complete form. They'll look into it....

This is what keeps me going. But when I'm not crusading, I happen to have the world's greatest day job as Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, the world's largest archives for a single jazz musician. Even there, I'm surrounded by Louis's tapes, trumpets, manuscripts, photographs, etc. and I daydream about ways to get those priceless materials more available to the public.

But sometimes I can be so close to the real gold, that I miss an opportunity even when it's right under my nose.

That's what happened this weekend when the BBC released Louis Armstrong's 1968 appearance on Desert Island Discs available to the public for the first time. The media has blown up over this and rightly so, as it's a delightful broadcast. I'm happy to have played a role in this drama and was interviewed by The Guardian and quoted by BBC itself on their story that appeared over the weekend. Social media is buzzing and Louis nuts around the world have been listening and sharing their thoughts with me since it hit. All great!

But in a way, it's funny for me because I have been so familiar with this broadcast for nearly 10 years. As those articles make clear, Louis finished the broadcast and probably requested the BBC send him a copy for his personal collection. They did, putting "Desert Island Discs" on side 2 and an earlier 1965 Humphrey Lyttelton-hosted documentary that originally aired as a BBC Television Show of the Week in 1965 on side 1 (hey BBC: any way you can release the video of that one while we're at it?). They shipped the tape to Louis's Corona, Queens home.

In 1969, Louis emerged from two stints in intensive care in rough shape and was told by his doctors to stay home and rest. Lucille Armstrong had remodeled his den with two new Tandberg tape decks and sometime in late 1969, Louis went back to work, re-catlaloging old tapes and making new ones. He numbered each one, starting with #1. Probably sometime in early 1970, Louis got to the BBC reel and made it Reel 46, affixing a photo of trombonist Tyree Glenn on an exercise bike to the front of the box:

Louis put it back on his shelf and that was that. He passed away in 1971. Lucille Armstrong never threw anything away (bless her) and she passed away in 1983. The tapes--and everything else in the House--eventually made it to nearby Queens College. Michael Cogswell was hired as Archivist in 1991 and immediately started copying Louis's tapes, making them available to the public when the Armstrong Archives eventually opened in 1994. In 2002, Cogswell--now Director--hired an audio engineer to make CD copies of Louis's tapes so now researchers could come in and request reference CDs of just about everything Louis recorded. So the "Desert Island Discs" episode has been available to the public for a minimum of 13 years but most probably, it's been hanging out since the Archives opened in 1994. 

As for me, I made my first trip to the Archives as a researcher in January 2006. I immediately dove into the tapes and didn't emerge for quite some time. On, I believe, my second trip, I requested this tape and loved it. Quotes from both the Lyttelton show and Desert Island Discs made it into my book. Terry Teachout was also visiting the Archives in 2006 and also listening to the Desert Island Discs tape, which made it into his book Pops in 2009. I don't think either of us knew at the time that this was such a rarity. More on Terry in a bit. 

But the main reason I didn't think it was this rare treasure was because of my late friend, Jos Willems. In 2007, I started this here blog and was befriended by Willems, author of the essential Armstrong discography All of Me. Jos used to send me package after package of rare Armstrong recordings and footage. Incredible. And one of those discs included the two July 1968 BBC appearances, Desert Island Discs and Be My Guest. In July 2009--before I had my Armstrong Archives gig--I celebrated the two-year anniversary of this blog by posting the entire audio of Be My Guest. If only I had chosen Desert Island Discs, I could have been in all the British papers six years earlier! 

In 2011, the BBC decided to start a priceless website dedicated to past episodes of Desert Island Discs. On April 4 of that year, Armstrong superfan--and regular reader of this blog--James P. Ralph wrote me personally to tell me that Louis was included and his chosen records were listen....but no audio. What a shame, but again, for all my crusading nature, I never thought, "Hmmm, I should alert the BBC about this immediately!" I just assumed that for whatever reason, rights or permissions or something, they just chose not to share the audio. My mistake.

But cut to November 2014 and the aforementioned Terry Teachout did just that, alerting the BBC that a copy of Armstrong's Desert Island Discs episode did indeed survive at the Armstrong Archives. A short time later, a BBC representative wrote me to see if it was true and I said it was....would they want a copy? Would they! Flash forward to this weekend and the whole world is digging Pops and reading these stories about the finding of the tape. Again, I'm thrilled to have played an important role and getting the audio back to the BBC but I just wanted to take this time to say it was a multi-person effort, starting with Louis Armstrong, who cataloged it; Lucille Armstrong, who saved it; Michael Cogswell, who transferred it and made it available to the public; Terry Teachout, who alerted the BBC that we had it; the BBC, who followed the lead and tracked me down; and yours truly, who was happy to send the audio back across the pond so it could it could be shared again worldwide.

So that's the full story of how the tape made it back to the BBC...but how about the audio? Well, in case you didn't click on it the first time, here it is again. Louis Armstrong on Desert Island Discs - LISTEN NOW! It's about 30 minutes. I'll be waiting...

Done?  Wasn't that great? I think it deserves a few words, but first, let's look at the choices. If Louis Armstrong was stranded on a mythical desert island, these are the eight records he would have brought with him:

"Blueberry Hill" by Louis Armstrong
"Mack the Knife" by Louis Armstrong
"What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong
"Bess, You Is My Woman Now" by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald
"Stars Fell on Alabama" by Jack Teagarden (with Louis Armstrong)
"New Orleans" by Bobby Hackett
"People" by Barbra Streisand
"Bye Bye Blues" by Guy Lombardo

For me, it's been fascinating to see the reactions to listeners on Facebook. Some, seeing how many of his own records that he chose, have assumed that Armstrong didn't truly understand the rules of Desert Island Discs. My friend Michael Steinman made the perceptive point that Louis chose so many of his own because he didn't want to hurt the feelings of any friends he might have omitted. This is a great point as that's the very reason Louis shied away from questions of who his favorite musicians were. 

But after nearly 20 years of studying Armstrong and out, that list is a perfect representation of exactly what Louis Armstrong would have brought with him to a desert island. Let's break it down.
Louis Armstrong loved his own music. To non-musicians, that might not sound like headline news. But go find a musician, any musician, and ask them if they enjoy listening to their own recordings, morning, noon and night. I bet most would run away screaming at the mere notion.

But not Louis. He tried collecting all of his records and when he got his first reel-to-reel tape deck in 1950, immediately started making tapes full of his own music. Some might argue that he did this for study purposes. Yes, he'd occasionally record his own live concerts and would study them assiduously to see what worked and what didn't do he could put on the best live shows imaginable. And as he says on Desert Island Discs after saying he'd also like to bring his own book, "Like I hear my records, all from the first record, you can learn something, I feel. Now I feel just as fresh if I want to play the old tune or the new ones, I've got them right there. Don't have to worry about the arrangement loss. I've got them right there."

But it's more than that. He legitimately was entertained by his own records. I mean, can you blame him?

Armstrong frequently said, "I'm my own audience" and it wasn't just a stock line, Armstrong was 100% real every time he hit the stage. He loved what he did. When I was writing my recent blog on the Crescendo Club date, I listened to him and Trummy Young do "Rockin' Chair," a routine Armstrong had been doing for 25 years at that point. But more than once, he laughed so heartily at some of Trummy's lines that it hit me just how much he really loved those routines. You can't fake that.

Again. to those who think Louis didn't understand the concept or are worried that he was really an egomaniac, he answers all of that when host Roy Plomley asks him if he was surprised about his recent pop hits. "I ain't surprised. Why? If I please myself, I know somebody in the audience is going to have the same mind and thoughts I have about music."

So yes, there's some ego could there not be? He had been told for 40 years that he changed the sound of music. He was mobbed every time he walked out into the public. He stopped a war. You know that must seep in. "Sometime you've got to pat yourself on the shoulders," he says at the end of Desert Island Discs. Didn't he deserve to do that? In 1959, he told another British journalist, "Whatever it is, can't nobody do what I do," and freely admitted, "Now I'm egotistical to say that..." The most important thing is he didn't let it affect his humanity. He could listen to one of his records and say, "Can't nobody touch that," as he told Richard Meryman in 1965. But then he'd stop and talk to some kids, and handout money to some broken-down friends, write long letters to fans he didn't know and settle into his working class home in Corona, Queens. He remained humble to the end...even if he knew that his music was second to none.

And what of his choices? I'm sure there are purists grumbling, "Hurumph, he didn't even choose 'West End Blues'," This true but don't devalue the power of a hit recording. Louis was still playing "Blueberry Hill," "Mack the Knife" and "What a Wonderful World" nightly in 1968 and he could see how much his audiences loved them. That meant more to him than some scratchy 78s.

And besides, he identified with those tunes. While venting about "commercial" music to Meryman, Armstrong said, "But all songs display my life somewhere, and you got to be thinking and feeling about something as you watch them notes and phrase that music--got to see the life of the song. 'BlueberryHill that could be some chick I ain't seen for twenty years, who cares. 'Mack the Knife,' I seen many a cat in New Orleans lying around with a knife to slip in your back and take your money. And I think of that, even if the songs is so commercified."

Of "What a Wonderful World," Louis told the BBC that same week on "Be My Guest" that it brought him "back to my neighborhood in Corona, New York. Lucille and I, ever since we're married, we've been right there in that block. And everybody keeps their little homes up like we do and it's just like one big family. I saw three generations come up on that block. And they're all with their children, grandchildren, they come back to see Uncle Satchmo and Aunt Lucille. That's why I can say, 'I hear babies cry / I watch them grow / they'll learn much more / than I'll ever know.' And I can look at all them kid's faces. And I got pictures of them when they was five, six and seven years old. So when they hand me this 'Wonderful World,' I didn't look no further, that was it. And the music with it. So you can see, from the expression, them people dug it. It is a wonderful world."

So a song that made him think of past loves, a song that reminded him of his upbringing in New Orleans and a song that transported him back to his humble, children-filled neighborhood in Queens. Keep your cadenzas, I think those are pretty great things to be reminded of when alone on a desert island.

Armstrong's other choice involving himself is "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," from Porgy and Bess with Ella Fitzgerald. Louis was proud of that work and if you question his choosing it, well, I'll just assume you've never actually heard this track. If that's the case, take five minutes and have your life changed.

So those are the four Armstrong recordings, though technically there's a fifth in there as "Stars Fell on Alabama" is technically from Satchmo at Symphony Hall. But Louis chose it because he'd like to hear Jack Teagarden on his desert island. Who wouldn't? Teagarden was more than just a trombonist to Armstrong; Armstrong admitted, "he's like my brother," and when pressed to name his all-time favorite musician in 1958, Armstrong responded, "Easy. It's Jack Teagarden." Obvious choice. And if you read my latest blog on Louis's special relationship with Bobby Hackett, you shouldn't be surprised by his choosing Hackett's gorgeous 1955 version of "New Orleans" (with Teagarden again).

Moving on, there are still folks out there who are surprised Louis loved Guy Lombardo so much. It shouldn't be a surprise anymore. Louis made records from 1929-1932 that smacked of Lombardo's influence and he spent much of his life talking about how Lombardo's musicians were his "inspirators." He told Murray Kempton, "They ask me my favorite band and I tell them Guy Lombardo. They say you don't really mean that. And I say you asked me, didn't you?" Plomley inserted "Bye Bye Blues" as Louis's next pick but really, as Louis made clear, it could have been any Lombardo record.

And that leaves one more record, Barbra Streisand's "People," though clearly, if Louis had his way, he would have played his duet with Babs on "Hello, Dolly!" which he had just filmed but wouldn't be released for another year-and-a-half. (Don't worry, he dubbed it to at least ten separate reel-to-reel tapes in the last two years of his life.) Again, this was not a fluke. During the same 1968 UK tour, Louis wasn't traveling with his tape player, but rather a portable turntable and about 20 LPs. Showing them to Max Jones, he said, "But I've got Barbra Streisand--she can sing awhile, can't she?" He then put on an acetate of the duet on "Hello, Dolly" and said, "Sings her ass off," adding, "Say what you like, daddy, but she's outswinging every ass this year." He then told a story of filling out his Playboy musicians poll, saying, "Yeah, on the three places on the poll form for singers, first, second and third, I wrote on mine 'Barbra Steisand' and 'Ditto' and 'Ditto.'" Sounds like desert island material to me!

So those are my explanations as to why Pops's "desert island" choices were so appropriate. Having said that, you can only do so much with eight sides; given a few more, I'm sure Louis would have selected a Bing Crosby number. I'd like to think he'd choose a King Oliver but he was always critical of the 1923 Creole Jazz Band recordings, complaining that you could never hear the lead because Oliver's chops were so weak. And let's not forget about opera; next to his own recordings, Armstrong probably owned more opera records than anything else and I'm sure he would have liked to add a Caruso record or two.

As a postscript of sorts, Louis was asked to do something similar, though on a smaller scale, in July 1956, when he took over the Voice of America, playing disc jockey for five hours. It's one of my favorite broadcasts in the history of recorded sound, one that George Avakian found in his basement, copied for David Ostwald, Ostwald copied for me and I've been quoting and sharing bits and pieces ever since. For the full five hours, all you hear is Armstrong's voice, but clearly there's someone there guiding him. It's also well prepared as Armstrong has all the personnel and discographical info at his fingertips.

Nevertheless, Armstrong devoted one full hour to his favorite music by other musicians and this is what he chose:

"When the Saints Go Marchin' In" by Bunk Johnson
"West End Blues" by King Oliver (the 1929 remake)
"From Monday On" by Paul Whiteman (featuring Bix Beiderbecke and Bing Crosby)
"You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby" by Bing Crosby (with Bob Crosby)
"Summertime" by Sidney Bechet
"St. James Infirmary" by Jack Teagarden (HRS version)
"New St. Louis Toodle-oo" by Duke Ellington
"You Won't Be Satisfied" by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
"'Bout to Wail" by Dizzy Gillespie

Interesting choices, right? The VOA obviously wanted Louis to stick in a jazz direction because after he discusses Diz's record, there's an abrupt shift to him talking about Guy Lombardo. He must have chosen a Lombardo record but it got cut out of the final show (it was taped, not aired live) but the producers decided to leave Louis's Lomardo story in.

The other four hours are devoted to Louis's own music so that love of his own sounds holds over to the 1968 Desert Island Discs. He also chooses a duet with Ella and a feature for Jack Teagarden so ditto on those. I mentioned that he must have chosen a Lombardo disc so Guy remained a favorite. And in the final hour, Louis played his own "Rockin' Chair" from Town Hall and made a point to point out Bobby Hackett's work, calling him one of his favorite trumpet players. So except for neat things like Oliver and Bix and Bing and Duke and Bechet (and Dizzy!), Louis's tastes in 1956 really carried over into 1968.

That ends my little delving into the story of Louis Armstrong's recently unearthed Desert Island Discs appearance. What a pleasure to take a role in the unearthing! There's  lot more I could write about what Louis listened to but I'll save that for another day. Thanks for reading!


RICHIE said...

Loved listening to this. Thank you for the insight to the choices and making it possible. What about his "I'm a freak for tonation". Now if that doesn't show how hip Pops was in 1968 I don't know what does.

Phil said...

Ricky, another superb blog! Thankyou.
And thanks for the mention of ME!

Blimey, fame at last! (although you have mentioned me before, tee-hee.)

So I am sending your blog as an email to my family and friends! Mister Show-Off!

Via f-b, I wrote to a lady who mentioned that she saw Satch at Bingley, asking for her impressions, her memories, but she hasn't replied... yet. Maybe if YOU contacted her, Ricky...

Steven Kozobarich said...

Great interview! Really gives insight into his colorful personality and sense of humor too. Wonderful to hear Louis talking about his childhood days in New Orleans. I love the line he slips in about "eatin' all that cabbage"! Priceless!

mrG said...

You have so many incredible recordings in your collection, and I fear for a day when Google pulls the plug on and all the treasures that could sink from view with it -- have you ever thought of creating a collection page on Brewster Kahle has virtually unlimited space and a university's backing, so it would seem to be a very safe place to offer easy open access to all these things!