Louis Armstrong's Final Tapes

As discussed last week, the last song Louis Armstrong heard on the final tape he made was "April in Paris." Wow. This came after listening to three of his classic latter-day albums: Satchmo in Style, Satchmo at Symphony Hall and Ella and Louis.

Some of you might have thought, "Hm, he spent his final full day listening to his own music? Did he know he was dying? Was there a reason?"

I'd like to answer by talking a little bit about Louis's final tapes. I have now spent seven years--first as a researcher, now as Archivist--with these tapes and know them inside and out. (I should mention that I do have a book proposal out there for a book on the tapes. Haven't heard anything yet. But if anyone out there has interest in this stuff, let me know and maybe that'll help the cause!) So here's a rundown of the final tapes, complete with images of his tape boxes and contents sheets, all watermarked and taken directly from one of my babies, the Louis Armstrong House Museum's Online Catalog.

Louis Armstrong made hundreds and hundreds of tapes throughout the 1950s--he sometimes said "thousands"; maybe there were more but we have a total of about 800 at the Archives. In the 1960s, he continued to collect and catalog tapes sent to him but between 1961 and 1968, he made very few new tapes. Gone were the spoken word efforts, two hours of Louis and friends chatting about racism, music, telling jokes, etc.

In September 1968, Louis entered intensive care at Beth Israel with heart and kidney trouble. When he got back home in December, Lucille had renovated his den entirely, installing brand new Tandberg tape decks. She knew that this was his hobby and she also knew that he wasn't supposed to travel and perform anymore. Probably as a way to soften the blow, Lucille had the den ready for him to return to his tapes when he got back home.

Louis in his den, c. 1970. Tape deck on left, shelves of tapes on right.
After a short stay home, Louis got sick again and ended up back in intensive care, finally released in April 1969. He spent some time recovering and writing a manuscript he started while in the hospital. Joe Glaser died in June. It was a rough time for Louis. But he had his tapes.

Beginning that summer, Louis started reindexing and recataloging his tapes. From scratch. He grabbed old tapes and put new numbers on them. Thanks to his stereo set-up, dubbing records to tape was easier than ever so he did that, too. He had a kind of white athletic tape that he used on the spines of each box. He'd cut off a piece, handwrite a number on it and affix it to the front and another one on the back. He then had a three-ring binder with loose-leaf paper and he would write down the contents of each reel in his new catalog. The process was very time consuming and no one knows quite what his method was. The catalog was unfinished when he passed away. Lots of old tapes from the 1950s got new numbers (and new white tape), with no rhyme or reason.

But this was his hobby and almost every TV appearance he made in 1970 included a segment of Louis talking about indexing his tapes at home. By February 1971, Louis had re-indexed almost 170 tapes.

This is the front and back of Reel 167, containing, Louis's reading of "The Night Before Christmas," done in his den on February 26, 1971. The front has an ad for his Brunswick LP, Louis Armstrong's Greatest Hits Recorded Live, while the back had a provocative collage of Louis looking up at his two loves: his trumpet and Lucille.

Reel 168 followed and was another February-centric outing with a Valentine's Day card from clarinetist Slim Evans on the front and back, another dub of "The Night Before Christmas" and audio of Louis's February 10, 1971 appearance on The David Frost Show. (Nothing to do with February, but this reel also contains an entire album of Martin Luther King, Jr. speeches. Deep.)

Reel 169 was also made that same late February week, as it includes audio of that David Frost Show plus Louis's appearance on The Dick Cavett Show that aired on February 22. It also included dubs of sound recordings. Swedish Armstrong fan Gosta Hagglof sent Armstrong a bunch of LPs earlier in the year so he dubbed some by The Hot Onions (Louis wrote him a beautiful response on February 10, inspiring Hagglof to devoting the rest of his life to Louis's legacy; his collection is also housed now at the Archives of the Louis Armstrong House Museum). He also found a Spanish version of the 1955 Decca album, At the Crescendo, so he gave that a spin, too, translating the titles in his handwritten contents sheet, from which he would later transfer the contents to his tape catalog. Then, to round out the tape, something completely different: Neil Diamond's Tap Root Manuscript! Don't believe me? Check out these copies from Louis's tape contents sheet:

On March 1, Louis moved into the Waldorf-Astoria, ready for a two-week engagement that doctors warned could kill him. He needed to stay at the Waldorf for all two weeks and needed to rest between shows. Almost at death's door, Louis finished the engagement. The next day, he had a major heart attack and was back at Beth Israel. Clinically dead for 30 seconds, a tracheotomy kept him alive. Finally, tired of the hospital, Armstrong begged to go back home, getting his wish on May 8. His first few weeks back home were terrible: Armstrong couldn't walk and frequently fell, Lucille had to bathe him, he needed an electric stair chair to get up and down the stairs.

But by the end of May, Louis was feeling a little better and started to have occasional friends over, as well as writing to others to let them know that he was coming along. Once he realized he could hobble down the hall to his den and park himself in front of his Tandberg's, he took up his old hobby of taping again. He could have found where he left off in February and continue onward with Reel 170. But no, Louis had something else in mind.

He wanted to listen to his own music.

He had hundreds of tapes with other recordings, with conversations, with friends, with Lucille, with everything and anything you could think of. Though he often taped his own music, it was usually buried in the middle of these "mixtapes." Now he wanted to hear his own music. So he started from scratch with a brand new series he would call "Armstrong's Personal Recordings." This is the first box (this can be found at 1987.3.315 on the Louis Armstrong House Museum Online Catalog. I will post all the three-part accession numbers for each tape if you would like to search there to see more scans and the exact track-by-track listings):

No collage but the white athletic tape is still there with the title of the series. He started the series with the 1964 album containing his biggest hit, Hello, Dolly! He followed that with his two most recent releases, the aforementioned Brunswick LP Louis Armstrong's Greatest Hits Recorded Live (for which he was credited as a "Producer"), and his final studio album, Louis "Country and Western" Armstrong, recorded the previous summer. Then he reached way back to the 1920s for one of those V.S.O.P. (Very Special Old Phonography) albums of the period, this one containing 1928 recordings by the Savoy Ballroom Five. When he was done, he dutifully wrote down every track name on his white paper, his handwriting looking very shaky, and tucked it into the box for future cataloging.

With one tape down, it was time for "Armstrong's Personal Recordings" 2 (1987.3.317):

This tape continued the V.S.O.P album (opening with "Weather Bird") and then continued with a compilation of his 1920s work with Clarence Williams (many vocals by Eva Taylor). Another batch of 1920s rarities follows but this time, Armstrong's contents sheet is mysterious: "P. Pletcher Montage - Mich 47437 Music Tape for Satchmo's Listnings." Using my Armstrong decoder ring (free six six Bisma Rex box tops), I assume that this might be a dub of a tape made for Armstrong by Michigan cornetist Tom Pletcher, or his father, Stew Pletcher, who were from Michigan. The tape consisted of Louis's recordings with Erskine Tate, Lil's Hot Shots, Jimmy Bertrand and Johnny Dodds, all recorded for Vocalion in 1926-1927. 

But with time left on the tape, Armstrong broke it up with a change of pace. Music of another trumpeter sent to him by a friend the previous year. Armstrong didn't know who it was but he liked it. His description of it is on the bottom of the tape contents sheet:
Again, to decipher it, he wrote, "A Guest Trumpet playe plays Beautiful and entertain Louis Armstrong." Louis was a wonderful writer so I'm assuming a medicated, sick haze produced the fogginess of these early writings. But I did find the original tape that Armstrong dubbed and it featured an Australian band led by Les Barnard and featuring the great Bob Barnard on trumpet playing "Who'Sit," "Put 'Em Down Blues," "Ev'ntide" and "I'm in the Market for You." Bob is still with us and when recently told of this, responded that it "floored" him. 

"Armstrong Personal Recordings" 3 (1987.3.318) featured an exact same look as volume 2, with just a "3" carefully scrawled on the bottom of the front of the box. This one started with another in the V.S.O.P. series, containing everything from 1928's "Muggles" through 1929's "Dallas Blues." And then he was back in a 1960s mood, re-dubbing Hello, Dolly! and Louis Armstrong's Greatest Hits Recorded Live and adding 1968's Disney Songs the Satchmo Way for good measure. 

"Armstrong Personal Recordings" 4 (1987.3.319) also featured the same look. Opening with Porgy and Bess with Ella Fitzgerald, it then featured something a little different: Lil Hardin Armstrong's spoken work record from the 1950s, Satchmo and Me. Louis and Lil had a falling out in the mid-50s; in a 1965 profile in a Toronto newspaper, Lil mentioned that he hadn't talked to her in about a decade. In the manuscript he started writing in his hospital bed in 1969, he blasted her for her "corny" piano playing. Back home, he started re-indexing his tapes that year and early on, transferred a copy of Satchmo and Me. It must have really softened him up, hearing the way Lil talked about him. In the summer of 1970, Louis answered Max Jones's questions for his upcoming biography on Louis by praising Lil up and down for the way she pushed him. I really think Satchmo and Me melted the ice between them and it's no surprise that he wanted to add it to his "Personal Recordings." 

Then, after two 1950 Decca goodies, "That's for Me" and "Fine and Dandy," Louis switched moods and dubbed Hello, Dolly! again...for the third time in four tapes!  It must have really brought back some memories that he wanted to relive.

But with "Armstrong Personal Recordings" 5 (1987.3.320), we get something new! Check it out: 
A collage! Okay, maybe not really a collage--more a photo with tape around it--but it's something. Perhaps finally feeling a little more like his old self, it was time to start decorating his boxes like the old days, this one featuring a publicity shot from "The Salvation Army" (he used the rest of the photo on the back). 

This reel started with the conclusion of Hello, Dolly! before another spin of Disney Songs the Satchmo Way before something different--and rare: an entire 11-song set by the All Stars from Sparks, Nevada, June of 1964 (right after "Hello, Dolly!" became a number one single). Someone must have sent Louis the recording and I'm sure he was happy to dub it and hear his old crew (Russell "Big Chief" Moore, Joe Darensbourg, Billy Kyle, Arvell Shaw, Danny Barcelona and Jewel Brown) in their element. 

After the All Stars trip down memory lane, Armstrong became fixated on more recent memories. First, his 1969 single of "We Have All the Time in the World" backed by "Pretty Little Missy." Then a Voice of America tribute to Louis's 70th birthday, featuring audio of a tribute dinner to Louis at the Waldorf-Astoria on November 8, 1970, hosted by William B. Williams. This was followed by audio of Dial M for Music, Father Norman O'Connor's CBS television special from the summer of 1970, when Louis was just starting to get the All Stars back together. 

At the time, that seemed to be the start of a new Armstrong comeback. But the next piece audio contained the end of that comeback: Louis's appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on March 1, 1971, plugging the near-fatal Waldorf gig. It's actually a wonderful appearance, Louis not sounding sick, telling stories, singing "Blueberry Hill" and playing a very good trumpet solo on "Pretty Little Missy." It remains the last surviving audio of Louis Armstrong.

Still feeling like switching it up, Armstrong then put on part of a French Jazz Odyssey LP featuring Hugues Panassie's wife Madeleine Gautier translating Memphis Slim's "Beer Drinking Woman" and Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "I Shall Not Be Moved" (along with the original recordings). And then something entirely different, Pear Bailey's latest album, Pearl's Pearls, featuring "The Leading Lady of ABC-TV." This recording was done to tie in with Bailey's television variety show, on which Louis appeared in January 1971. He started dubbing it on this reel but ran out of tape so he continued on "Armstrong's Personal Recordings" 6 (1987.3.316), which featured these images of Louis with unidentified fans on the front and back:

After finishing off the Bailey album, Armstrong included a single by Douglas Grant featuring a tribute to Louis, "That's Pops." After that excursion, it was back to all Armstrong performances, the rest of the reel containing a Hot Fives and Sevens compilation, His Greatest Years, vol. II (wonder how he felt about that "greatest business"), the soundtrack to his movie with Danny Kaye, The Five Pennies, and a compilation of his 1957 Norman Granz recordings, Verve's Choice.

Louis dug into his photo archive again for "Armstrong Personal Recordings" 7 (1987.3.321):

The photo on the front of the box depicts Louis with the All Stars (Trummy Young and Mort Herbert can be seen) at a jam session in Norway in 1959. I don't know who the violinist is, but according to Anthony Barnett, he's playing a Norweigian hardangerfele. The back of the box shows Lucille talking to an unidentified man.

As for the contents on volume 7, finally something different: Armstrong's Decca recordings of the 1930s and 1940s! The reel starts off with a dub of the Jazz Classics album that featured many of his more New Orleans-flavored big band performances, including remakes of "West End Blues," "Savoy Blues" and "You Rascal You." Then, after a dub of the soundtrack to the 1956 film High Society, he copied the Decca reissue with the classic Dan Morgenstern notes, Rare Items, with favorites like "Thanks a Million," "Jubilee and "Struttin' with Some Barbecue"...sad, that they were once "rare"! (Still are, to many.) I'm sure Louis enjoyed reading along with his friend Dan's passionate defense of this period of his music.

Then for something else a little different, the RCA Victor compilation, In the 30s/In the 40s, with some of the great big band records from the early 1930s and a short sampling of his work for the label in the 1940s. To close the reel, though, Louis when for something else, choosing to write very carefully in capital letters:
POP - Made in Sweden

A little Googling tells us this was a recording by Swedish composer and singer Allan Ehwert and the song titles are "En kväll på Gröna lund" and "En afton vid Klampenborg."

The collage found for "Armstrong Personal Recordings" 8 (1987.3.322) seems to be an older one, judging by the look and condition of it. The front of the box has Louis posing in his bathrobe with two unidentified female fans...just look at the expression on his face!

The back of the box has an MGM publicity photo and a snapshot of Louis with Jack Teagarden, Arvell Shaw and an unidentified man:
The contents of this volume are pretty straightforward: a dub of Louis Armstrong: His Greatest Years featuring his 1928 recordings with Earl "Fatha" Hines, a compilation of all his Mercury singles simply titled Louis and the 1960 classic, Louis and the Dukes of Dixieland. I like how Louis mashes all of his recordings together; it's how I prefer to listen to them, too. Never mind going strictly chronological; it's Louis so you know it's going to be good, so why not mix it up a bit? (He invented the iPod shuffle, folks!)

And if you get a thrill of Louis, weeks (days?) before he died, writing out the titles of all those 1928 numbers with Hines, check out the tape contents sheet inside the box:

"Armstrong Personal Recordings" 9 (1987.3.323) has a personal favorite collage. In my first draft of this blog, I guessed that they might have been bears of some sort but fellow Armstrong author Daniel Stein wrote in to tell me they're cartoon porcupines called "Meckie" from a famous German TV magazine. See the comments below for Daniel's explanation, including a Wikipedia link and German TV program about them. Thanks, Daniel!

And the back has one of the all-time great photos of Louis obviously cracking up a friend with one of his favorite jokes:


This reel featured another hodgepodge of Pops, finishing off Louis and the Dukes of Dixieland from the previous volume, then another compilation of his 1957 Verve recordings, two songs he recorded in Italian in 1967, a V.S.O.P. collection of Hot Five recordings and finally, two more 1967 Italian recordings at the end.

"Armstrong Personal Recordings" 10 (1987.3.469) features one of Louis's more artistic collages on the front; his angle, the way it's cut, the little "Louis Armstrong Orchestra" sign...wonderful:

The back of the box has a rare picture of the 1954 All Stars with Billy Kyle, Trummy Young and Milt Hinton--arranged sideways:

Once again, this reel opened with an Audio Fidelity album, 1959's Satchmo Plays King Oliver, followed by another His Greatest Years Hot Fives best-of and the Russell Garcia-arranged album, I've Got the World on a String.

Since Lucille was such an important part of Louis's life in these final up-and-down years, it makes sense that he would dedicate a collage to her. Here's the front of "Armstrong Personal Recordings" 11 (1987.3.470) with a great early 1940s photo of the happy couple backstage at the Howard Theater:

The back featured an envelope from letter sent to Louis by photographer Bill Mark on January 31, 1971. Louis probably liked its dedication to the first men on the moon and figured it would make a nice piece of art as is:

Volume 11 is a long one, opening with the continuation of I've Got the World on a String. From there, Louis jumped way back to the 1920s for a Young Louis Armstrong collection of his recordings with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, the Red Onion Jazz Babies, Trixie Smith and more. And then it was back to Russell Garcia for his other 1957 album, Louis Under the Stars. He continued with another V.S.O.P. album of 1920s recordings, including some with "Lillian Delk Christian" as he notated on top. The closed a German album on the Amiga label of more Hot Five recordings, Old  Time Jazz. Though his handwritten contents sheets were usually pretty straightforward, he couldn't help but write after "Who's It," "SATCHMO PLAYS SLIDING WHISTLE." Check it out, again from our online catalog:

In 1970, the great British singer Beryl Bryden visited Louis and Lucille in Corona and even took some terrific photographs of Louis at home. It only made sense for Louis to repay the favor by creating a new collage tribute to Bryden ("Swing Singer") on the front of "Armstrong Personal Recordings" 12 (1987.3.324):

The back of the box also contained  a special collage featuring a snapshot of Louis and Lucille sitting at a table surrounded by others, including Count Basie. Louis decided to annotate the photo write on the tape box, writing, "Taken at 'Catherine' and 'Count Basie's 'Swimming Pool,' at his Birthday Party' August, 1969." This is a popular one that was on exhibit at the Armstrong House for a while:

After continuing with the Amiga Old Time Jazz album (and once again pointing out that he played slide whistle on "Who's It"), Louis chose something different, another Amiga compilation, "Pioneers Des Jazz," featuring not only his own music, but Mezz Mezzrow and Sidney Bechet, Bix Beiderbecke, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Butterbeans and Susie, Piron's New Orleans Orchestra, the McKenzie-Condon Chicagoans, Victoria Spivey and many more. Louis wrote out the performers of each song and couldn't reist another note on King Oliver's "Buddy's Habit": "SATCH PLAYS THE WHISTLE." I kn ow some historians have wondered if it was actually Louis but there it is, in the man's own hand. Another volume of the V.S.O.P. series covering the Hot Fives and Sevens rounded out volume 12.

For the front of "Armstrong Personal Recordings" 13 (1987.3.325), Louis chose a picture of him smiling with some pretty happy fellows, but I don't know who they are....anyone there know?

And for the back, a photo of his old friend Jeann "Roni" Faillows. Jeann met Louis in the late 40s and became a part of the entourage anytime he was in New York, usually entrusted with helping him catch up with fan mail. Sadly, she's mostly forgotten today but she's most responsible for introducing two of the all-time great Louis-lovers to the man himself, bringing Dan Morgenstern backstage at the Roxy in 1950 for his first meeting with Louis, and later dating Jack Bradley for about ten years and hooking Jack up with Louis. This photo was actually taken in Louis's den in Corona by Paul Studer in 1957:

However, if you look in the back of the photo of Failows, you'll notice Louis's handwriting from the 1950s, marking the original contents of the reel. I can make out "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" and "Indiana" on the left side and "Velma's Blues," "That's My Desire" and a "Cozy Cole" feature on the right, so it probably originally housed an All Stars set from circa 1953. My only hunch is that Louis was re-using tape boxes for the "Armstrong Personal Recordings" project because a reel with that track listing from the 1953 tour with Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa can be found in the online catalog at 1987.3.560 in a blank box. Maybe the reels were getting mixed up, but all that mattered was his new series of "Armstrong Personal Recordings."

Louis continued with his series of Amiga LPs, opening this reel with one that included some Hot Fives and other tracks with King Oliver, Bertha "Chippie" Hill, Sippie Wallace and Butterbeans and Susie. Another Amiga His Greatest Years LP followed (with another plug for his slide whistle playing on "Who's It"!) before Louis zoomed to the 1960s for his first dubbing in this series of the 1968 album, What a Wonderful World.

Armstrong seems like he once again reused an old collage for the beat-up box that makes up "Armstrong Personal Recordings" 14 (1987.3.326). The front features a Philadelphia Evening Bulletin profile of Louis--upside down.

The back of the box featured a simple publicity shot of Louis from 1956, though this specific card is of foreign origin:

Volume 14 is an all Stars affair, opening with the conclusion of What a Wonderful World, then continuing with 1955's At the Crescendo and 1951's Satchmo at Pasadena. Humorously, these were Spanish issues of the original Decca LPs. Louis diligently wrote the Spanish title for each track, followed by the English translation:

After re-using a few old collages, Louis again felt inspired for "Armstrong Personal Recordings" (1987.3.327). In June 1970, Louis appeared at an event at the Rainbow Room with Lauren Bacall. For this reel, he took one of those photos and really cut it up and rearranged it on the front of the box, throwing in an advertisement for Satchmo Plays King Oliver for good measure:

The back of the box featured a photo of Louis and members of the New York Philharmonic rehearsal for Louis's famed July 1956 concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein:

I mentioned that in February 1971, Louis received a series of Swedish albums produced by Gosta Hagglof. For the start of Reel 15, he dubbed Swinging the Louis Armstrong Song Book, which featured an excerpt from a letter Louis wrote to Hagglof on the back sleeve. After an other Swedish album from the Purple Rose Orchestra, Louis remembered to conclude Satchmo at Pasadena from Reel 14.

But then something completely different: a single by the Fifth Dimension, "Viva Torado," backed by "Light Sings"! I had to look it up: both tracks were released in 1971 and hit the charts in May and June of that year, more proof that Louis was working on this series in those last weeks. I have to again share the Tape Contents Sheet, which is thrilling for me to see my late friend Gosta Hagglof's name, but also for the peculiarity of seeing Louis cataloging The Fifth Dimension!

"Armstrong Personal Recordings" 16 (1987.3.328) featured a tape box with photos of Louis and some unidentified people (Lucille is with him in the picture on back):

After the Fifth Dimension, Louis concluded Reel 15 with the start of the gorgeous Louis and the Angels, which finishes at the beginning of Reel 16. Still in a 1950s mood, Louis continues with a Columbia compilation of Louis Armstrong's Great Hits from that decade and closes off the reel with Ambassador Satch. But it's what pops up in the middle of the reel that is the most interesting: recordings of news reports chronicling his life-and-death battle for survival in March and April, culminating in a report that Louis returned home in May. He must have really enjoyed playing these back, knowing he was home and feeling better all the time. He even dated the broadcasts on his Tape Contents Sheet, March 18, 1971, April 2, 1971 and May 7, 1971:

Louis must have been very nostalgic as he started on "Armstrong Personal Recordings" 17 (1987.3.329) with a collage of King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band with "Little Louie" holding his cornet, ready to conquer the world:

The back of the box shows once again that Armstrong was reusing a box as it mentions Ray Martino and other music no longer present on the reel (he seems to have given up on erasing it and simply put a label "MISCELLANEOUS RECORDINGS" over the original listing:

More 1950s goodness fills up this reel: Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson, Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, Satch Plays Fats, The Best of Louis Armstrong (a Decca compilation of cuts from Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography) and the start of Satchmo in Style, Armstrong's collaboration with Gordon Jenkins. He got as far as "Indian Love Call" and ran out of time, writing, as he always did, "S'all" (meaning "that's all").

"Armstrong Personal Recordings" 18 (1987.3.380) then comes out of the blue with something entirely different. First, the collages, which contain an unidentified musician on the front :

And actor Allen Jenkins in a publicity photo from the film Going Places on the back:

As for the contents, this must have been a dub of a completely different album or tape because instead of continuing Satchmo in Style, this tape contains 15 airchecks of Louis's big band in the mid-40s, a period not really represented on in this series yet, rare stuff like "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" and "Accentuate the Positive."

"Armstrong Personal Recordings" 18 is the last such reel in this series. But what of the rest of Satchmo in Style. As related in my story on Louis's last tape, that final tape (1987.3.590) started off with the rest of that album, continued through Satchmo at Symphony Hall  and finished with Ella and Louis. Lucille wrote, "Last tape recorded by Pops 7/5/71" on that back so we must assume that this was the last one he was working on--and the one he left in the machine--when he went to bed on July 5, only to pass in the early hours of July 6.

However, that's not the end of the story: Louis obviously made other tapes during this last two months at home, tapes he didn't get to number or catalog, but ones we definitely know he used because of the newspaper clippings found on the tape box collages.

One thing we'll never quite know is Armstrong's method. Almost all of the following boxes were marked "Empty." They're not. I can only guess that he designed the boxes first, marked them empty, then put a finished tape in and when he went to catalog it, replaced the "Empty" sticker with a number.

Some of the boxes are actually empty. This reel (1987.3.508) contained a blank tape inside, but the collage contained a New York Daily News Article on the back from May 27, 1971 about the Armstrong's purchasing the home next door and turning it into a garden:

And just for the sake of completeness, here's the front collage, with photos of "Satchmo + His Trumpet," and Ed Kirkeby, "Fats Waller's mgr" (Louis owned Kirkeby's biography of Fats) and a clipping from the May 1971 issue of Jazz Journal:

But most of the "Empty" boxes can be traced to June-July 1971. For example, remember the "Armstrong Personal Recordings" tape with the photo of Louis and Lauren Bacall from 1970? He must have had a few more lying around because he's another creative front and back collage from 1971 (1987.3.489):

How do we know it's from the end of Louis's life? The tape contains audio of that March 1, 1971 Tonight Show appearance to plug the Waldorf, and we know he didn't get to hear thaat until May (it also contains audio of a previous tribute at the Waldorf in November 1970). 

That tape actually contains a dub of the Tonight Show appearance. Louis also had the master tape of the entire episode, with commercials (and a great routine by Albert Brooks). That one was housed in another "Empty" box he decorated with some wonderful pictures (1987.3.486). First, the time he stopped a civil war in Congo in 1960, annotated by Louis:

And on the back, a beautiful montage of photos of him and Lucille kissing that he clipped out of a newspaper: their wedding day on the left and a 1960s shot by Jack Bradley on the right:

And remember the televised news reports about Louis going to into the hospital and coming back home after the Waldorf? Those were all on a single master tape, probably sent to him by his friend Tony Janak, who made a living recording television audio. Because they took up about only three or four minutes of tape, there was more time on the reel to fill up. Hence, Louis described it as his "Filling Up Reel" (1987.3.582). But to get really emotional, look at the photos chose to decorate the box with:

Louis and Jack Teagarden above. 

And one photo of Louis and Velma and one photo of Louis and Sid Catlett on the other side. Teagarden, Middleton and Catlett. All deceased. Think Louis was feeling just nostalgic or mortal?

The most emotional collages are the ones we KNOW come from that last week on Louis's life. On June 23, 1971, Louis was feeling good and wanted to let the world know he was feeling better. He wrote an open letter to his fans (reprinted in my book) and invited the press over so he could not only tell them how good he was feeling but to also host an informal jam session with trombonist Tyree Glenn. Photographs snapped pictures like crazy and ran them in newspapers across the country on June 25 (some stories are also dated from June 23). 

Louis wasn't leaving the house much in this period so I doubt he headed to the newsstand to pick up all these obscure papers. Instead, someone must have sent him the clippings, so giving a few days for the mail to be delivered, these probably got to him by June 30. So here's the final, final series of collages.

This one (1987.3.488) features a photo of Louis at the Massachusetts state capitol in Boston in 1958 with Senator John E. Powers and others. 

That's all well and good, an honor in Louis's life that he had MANY pictures of. But what about the back of the box?

A New York Daily News clipping from June 25, 1971, showing Louis playing with Tyree Glenn in the background and a headline that he's "Swinging Again to Music." You'll notice the "Empty" again, but it's not. This tape actually has a real rarity: Louis and the All Stars live in Sparks, Nevada in June 1964, a set not in any discographies. He finished off the reel with audio of his appearance on the Mike Douglas Show on February 16, 1971. Here's his handwritten contents sheet for the All Stars portion from the inside of the box:
This next box (1987.3.509) contains another June 25, 1971 clipping from the Pacific Stars and Stripes....including a caption in Japanese! That's what I mean by it taking Louis at least a few days, maybe a week, to have these clippings sent to him:

And on the back, even more from June 25, this time a New York Times article with a photo of Louis and Lucille at home looking through a scrapbook and Louis's message to his fans: "Tell 'em I love 'em, that's all." 

This reel contained two of Armstrong's TV appearances from 1971, The Dick Cavett Show (broadcast February 22) and The Pearl Bailey Show (broadcast January 23). Armstrong must have enjoyed the Bailey appearance because he dubbed it from scratch again on the next reel, then included audio of an appearance on The Mike Douglas Show from May 1970. But the audio's not important, it's the collages and this one has two more powerful ones (1987.3.484):

There's lots going on in that one but notable is the headline for Armstrong's impending 71st birthday celebration on July 4, two days before he died. The back of the featured even more, with Louis cutting out various phrases like, "Why, Hello Satchmo," "Relax Satch," "Blow, Satch, Blow," "Satchmo Back Smiling" and "Satchmo: Chops Are Fine" (he annotated the main article as being from "Wash. DC").

But the most famous from this series is one from The Register in Orange County, California. This one (1987.3.471) starts on the front and continues around back:

Yep. "Satchmo Talking In His First Interview Since His Illness: 'Tell all the cats the Choirmaster up there in Heaven will have to was for old Louis.'" Wow. Needless to say, this has become one of Armstrong's most famous collages, used in various books and exhibitions. But what are the contents of this tape? Well....it hasn't been copied yet! Give me a little more time and I'll report back after I transfer it.

That's the story of Louis Armstrong's final tapes. All those unnumbered tapes from June and July 1971, plus 18 tapes of "Armstrong Personal Recordings" and the one final tape he left behind in his machine on July 5. A great genius, conquering a near-fatal heart attack, and using his new lease on life to reflect on his life's work in sounds, words and pictures. And there's something extra touching watching him "recover" as the tapes progress, starting with blank boxes and shaky handwriting, then finishing off with sassy, humorous works of art, chatty descriptions and a feeling of optimism that he was really going to bounce back and be able to entertain his fans once again. It wasn't to be but the music he created and cataloged with such care, will be around to entertain us all for posterity. 


Very inspiring! I hope someday ALL of Pops tapes will be transferred to CD/MP3 and be available for purchase. I'm very glad he recorded at home as much as he did. I really appreciate you sharing this info with us too!
Another great blog Ricky (and I loved the ones on the Victor sides). Just wanted to say that on the photo of 4 happy fellows with Louis, second to left looks awfully like Bud Freeman to me. Couldn't swear to it but definitely a strong resemblance. Cheers, Peter
Sean Savage said…
These collages are beautiful. I know it wasn't intended but the old yellowed tape enhances them even more. I'd love an art book of these scans to thumb through while listening to Pops.
Ricky, What a great job listening to Louie. Your in-the-moment as-you-write comments are a delight. In a hundred years a young fellow inspired like you will analyse your state of mind! Best Wishes.
Ricky Riccardi said…
Thanks, Austin, Peter, Sean and Dan!

Austin, almost all the tapes have at least been transferred to CD but no plans as of now for a comprehensive CD/download release. Hopefully one day! But just about everything on these final tapes is a commercial recording. So you could head over to the Armstrong House Online Catalog and search for the accession numbers (ex: 1987.3.325) and you'll see the track-by-track breakdowns. From there, you can create playlists of your own on iTunes or Spotify to listen to these tapes in the order Louis did! (Alas, he didn't do any speaking on these tapes, just dubbing LPs.)

Peter, yes, Bud Freeman was my original guess, too, but something seems a tad off....too tall, perhaps? I am happy you said that though because it at least opens the door for others who might feel that way, too, or think it's someone else.

Sean, that book already exists! Steven Brower put it together in 2009; it's called "Satchmo: The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong." Big, coffee table book, beautiful, oversize reproductions of the collages. Unfortunately, Brower was not an Armstrong man so the text is full of embarrassing errors (lots of mistakes on Brower's attempts to identify people, too--he mistakes Mezz Mezzrow for Joe Glaser!). I just checked on Amazon and it's deeply discounted, $15, down from $37. Grab it!


And Dan, my mind needs no analysis...everything that flows from it is on the blog already! Hope to see you soon!
Daniel Stein said…
Hi Ricky, great post! Did you know that the characters on "Armstrong Personal Recordings" 9 (1987.3.323)" are actually cartoon procupines called Mecki, from a famous German TV magazine?
Here's the link to the German wiki:

And here's a link to a German TV progra, about them:

Cheers, Daniel
outrage music said…
just wondering, are there comercial releases of those 40s big band airchecks? i'd love to hear them!
outrage music said…
sorry if this goes through twice, i clicked something i shouldn't have, but are there comercial releases, even bootleg lps of those 40s big band airchecks i can have a listen to?

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