Listening to the Book: Chapters 18 and 19

Well, my friends, we've reached the end: the final installment of posts devoted to the music discussed in my book, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years, (which by the way, received an Honorable Mention in the Jazz Times Critic's Poll and a second place finish in the Jazz Times Reader's Poll.....thank you readers and critics!). This idea started on a whim while waiting for a delayed flight to arrive in Baltimore when I was on my book tour in July. I didn't think it would take me into 2012 to finish but the end is here and I hope it's been worth it. (And hey, I haven't pointed this out yet, but look at the snazzy new Search feature I've installed in the upper right corner. If you're ever looking for a particular chapter--or anything, for that matter--searching has never been easier. Ah, technology....)

Chapter 18 of my book is a largely music-less one. It deal with Louis recovering from heart and kidney trouble, unable to perform live with the All Stars and depressed over the passing of Joe Glaser. But by the end of 1969, things were looking up for Louis. The first step back was a session in which Louis recorded the theme song to a new James Bond movie, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." The song was "We Have All the Time in the World" and though it wasn't a hit back then, it has gone on to become one of Louis's most popular selections in recent years. Here's how it sounded:

Everybody talks about that side but the original single had an incredible flip side that I never read a word about: a version of Louis and Billy Kyle's "Pretty Little Missy" featuring a trumpet solo by Louis. He cracks a few notes but overall, I think he sounds stronger than he did on some of his late 60s recordings for Mercury and Brunswick. It's never been issued on LP or CD so here it is from a 45 I had transferred from my own collection (with pitch correction by Phil Person):

Creator unedited:

Feeling his oats, Louis started 1970 with a bunch of TV appearances. On one of the first, "The Dick Cavett Show," he brought his trumpet to show that he hadn't lost anything. However, he also brought an arrangement of "Someday You'll Be Sorry" that featured two choruses of blowing up front, a solo in the middle and a closing cadenza. It was too much for Louis, who occasionally comes up with good ideas, but really sounds frail and a little sour. This is a sad one:

After that performance, the trumpet was silenced. Louis did a bunch of TV appearances, but there would be no blowing for the time being. When he returned the recording studio in May for "Louis Armstrong and His Friends," it would be an all-vocal album. This date had some notable misfires, but also some wonderful moments. Louis felt very strongly about "We Shall Overcome"; you can hear him emoting with every ounce of strength left on this performance, backed by a choir of studio guests made up of numerous celebrities and musicians (Tony Bennett, Ornette Coleman, Eddie Condon, etc.):

If the album had been a bunch of standards, I think it would have been a masterpiece. This touching version of "My One and Only Love," with an arrangement by Oliver Nelson, is a high point:

But too often, the efforts to get another hit led to Louis recording some of the era's more up-to-date numbers. I know there are people that love Louis and Leon Thomas's "The Creator Has a Master Plan" but the issued version has always left me cold. I much rather prefer the version that is just Louis from start to finish:

If you want to hear the original and read a lot more about this session, check out this early blog of mine:
The Creator Has a Master Plan

Shortly after, Louis celebrated what he believed to be his 70th birthday. It was a huge occasion marked by some very big celebrations. The first one was a lovely evening at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Louis's doctors originally didn't even want Louis to fly to Los Angeles, but in the end, he was given clearance and he made the most of it. He was originally just supposed to be a part of the audience but Louis wanted to be part of the show. Hoagy Carmichael was the emcee and introduced Louis early on. As I write about in the book, Louis came onstage with a big smile and a wireless mike, that caught him cursing like crazy about the long walk he had to the center of the stage! Once there, he told his favorite "hamburger joke" and made a comment about him hamming up it. He sure was! If you don't enjoy foul language, don't play this clip, but if you don't mind it, well, listen for yourself!

Louis enjoyed the entire nearly three-hour show and eventually took the spotlight again to sing three songs with an all star band onstage (though not the All Stars). Here's the closing "Hello, Dolly!" with Louis again using salty language to set the tempo:

Next up was a major tribute at the Newport Jazz Festival. This one is on a DVD (in edited form, alas) titled "Good Evening Ev'rybody." Here's the YouTube trailer to get a feel for it:

Over at Daily Motion, a few clips remain, including Louis rehearsing "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," which he insisted on opening with at the show:

Louis Armstrong-When it's Sleepy Time Down South... by redhotjazz

And from the evening, a resplendent Louis doing "Pennies from Heaven" with some great Bobby Hackett:

Louis Armstrong-Pennies From Heaven-1970 Newport by redhotjazz

Feeling good, Louis recorded his final studio album in August 1970, Louis 'Country and Western' Armstrong. It's an unfairly maligned work and it has been out-of-circulation for decades but it contains some very nice moments. One of my favorites is "Almost Persuaded":

Here's my blog on that number and the sessions in general: Almost Persuaded Blog

Just a few weeks later, Louis was given clearance to play with the All Stars again, sharing the bill with Pearl Bailey in Las Vegas, a stand that I have stories about in the book. Sadly, no audio has turned up from that run (Louis was playing trumpet again), but in January 1971, Louis appeared on Pearl Bailey's first TV show and though I don't believe the video survives, here's the audio of the two reprising part of their Vegas act. Here's a "jam session" on "Exactly Like You":

And a very touching performance of "Didn't We" that apparently used to leave the audience in tears each night. If only we could see this performance....

UPDATE: 15 minutes after posting this, my good friend Phil Person alerted me on Facebook that video from this show was posted on YouTube TODAY! Now what the hell are the odds of that? Alas, it's not video of Louis and Pearl but rather from a cute medley featuring Louis, Bing Crosby and Andy Williams singing each other's hits. Still, this means that the complete show must survive. Now....who has it??? Anyway, here's a glimpse of this show and of Louis at the beginning of 1971:

After the Bailey engagement, Louis went back to television, appearing on "The Flip Wilson Show" but without his trumpet. Still, he looked great and sang great on this version of "Mack the Knife":

Later in the show, he joined Wilson for a fun medley. Louis, in casual attire, looks smaller than ever but again, he sounds fine (reprising "The Whiffenpoof Song" bop parody and his "done forgot the words" vocal on "Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas"):

But around the same time, Louis appeared on "The Johnny Cash Show" to promote "Louis 'Country and Western' Armstrong." After a fun opening medley of "Crystal Chandelier" and "Ramblin' Rose," something special occurred: Armstrong and Cash recreated Louis's 1930 duet with Jimmie Rodgers on "Blue Yodel Number 9." Louis pulled out the trumpet and, well, stand back! He'd come a long way from that Cavett show appearance. It's one of Louis's last great statements on the horn. Here's the entire clip:

Unfortunately, not every performance like that. My book has a section on Louis's trip to London for a benefit concert hosted by David Frost at the end of October 1970. This trip was filmed and turned into a documentary, "Boy From New Orleans," which we can all hope will be released on DVD one day. During the rehearsal for the big show, Louis sounded fairly strong on this excerpt from "Hello, Dolly":

And in the dressing room before the show, he warmed up unaccompanied, coming up with some beautiful variations on "When It's Sleepy Time Down South":

But by showtime, Louis was out of gas. On "Hello, Dolly," he had nothing left and had to turn the lead over to Tyree Glenn. The visual is disturbing as Louis had to turn his back and fumble to get any momentum on the horn. The audio is pretty rough going, too:

But Louis wasn't ready to give up. He came back home, rested a bit and then booked two more weeks in Las Vegas into the start of 1971. In January 1971, he appeared on "The David Frost Show" with his trumpet, blowing a bit and singing a gorgeous "When It's Sleepy Time Down South":

Around the same time, did a short set at the National Press Club in Washington D. C. that featured perhaps his last great solo on "Hello, Dolly." Here's the solo:

Isn't that marvelous? The "I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say" quote, the new variations and, as Daniel Farber pointed out to me recently, a snatch of Louis's improvisation from the 1950 record "That's For Me"'s great. No wonder Louis wrote to a friend soon thereafter that he was "blowing his black ass off." (For my full blog on "Dolly" with more on this, click here.)

Louis set out to prove as much on his next TV appearance. He was back on the "Dick Cavett Show" over a year since the disastrous "Someday." He had his All Stars back--Joe Muranyi, Tyree Glenn, Marty Napoleon and two ringers, Milt Hinton and Jo Jones. And to prove that he was feeling good, he called "Ole Miss." This was always a killer in the 1950s and 1960s so it was a daring choice. If you're used to those earlier versions, this one is not going to match up. But considering Louis's health at the time, it's almost miraculous how he leads the ensembles. He even takes a solo, something he didn't do in the 50s and early 60s, opening with a quote from "Goin' Home" (though Jo Jones pushes him too hard and Louis loses a little momentum). Video of this survives at the Louis Armstrong House Museum and if you're ever in Queens, look me up and I'll show it to you because listening is only half the story. Louis still appears shrunken and when he cracks that partial note on his solo, his eyes fill with pain. And when it's over, he doesn't move until he gets help to walk over to Cavett's couch. Something wasn't right. But here's "Ole Miss":

His doctors knew something wasn't right and they begged Louis to cancel his upcoming two-week engagement at the Empire Room of the Waldorf-Astoria. Louis refused. All of the details about this engagement and what happened afterwards are in the book and sadly, no audio has turned up from these gigs. But in my research, I did come across a mention that Louis closed these nights with "Boy From New Orleans," his autobiographical version of "When the Saints Go Marchin' In." When you listen to it, and especially the final speech at the end, well, try not to cry. Here's audio of Louis performing it at the Press Club in January 1971:

And if you want more details on this song, here's my blog on it: Boy From New Orleans Blog.

And that, my friends is that. There's still more story left to cover, but there's no more audio or video to share so it is quitting time. I really hope this series enhanced the experience for those who read my book (and if you haven't read it, whattaya waiting for!?). Let me know cool off for a few days and next week I very well might return to old-fashioned blogging about something other than my book (hmm, January 25 is the 80th anniversary of Louis's "All of Me/Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" session....). Until then....thanks for listening AND reading!


Austin Casey said…
Pops was so off and on as a horn player sounding strong as ever on some stuff and sad on others but the material in this proves he was always the greatest entertainer. In the words of Louis "Thanks a million, a million thanks to you!"
That 1971 OLE MISS is extraordinary, cracked note and all -- with Milt and Jo pushing away. And I can never watch Louis' a cappella SLEEPY TIME without feeling elation and sorrow. He lives, doesn't he -- even with that long walk!
RICHIE said…
Thanks for all of your effort in putting this exhaustive time line together. Because of you the value of everyting Pops, lives on for generations to come. Those of us who witnessed the genius in person are able to relive the magic. Please keep digging in the archives and sharing the treasure. The book is essential reading for all who love Louis.
Dan said…
I think it's safe to say that all of us are in Ricky's debt, not only for the book but for the incredible amount of work it took to produce "Listening to the Book." Hearing the very private moments in which Louis, the most public of jazz artists, plays solely for himself and perhaps TO himself as he warms up on "Sleepytime" was worth staying alive for. Thanks again, Ricky!
sirjuandabicho said…
Hola Ricky, muchas gracias por dedicarle tiempo al blog, sin duda tu trabajo es muy importante; si Rembrandt tiene a Ernst van de Wetering, Louis Armstrong tiene a Ricky Riccardi.
Sin duda Louie es mi músico preferido, pero también soy un gran admirador de King Oliver y mietras escuchaba la grabación "Pretty Little Missy" y llegó el solo de trompeta de Armstrong no pude evitar recordar el solo "Papa Joe" en "Red River Blues" con Clarence Williams' Washboard Five, no por el parecido melódico, sino por ese sonido profundo, lento y melancólico que eriza la piel. Me pregunto ¿como habría sonado una corneta (en lugar de una trompeta)en los labios Louie si la hubiese soplado en sus últimos años?

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