"Everybody's Louie" by Larry L. King - Part 3

After setting the scene in Part 1 and chronicling his attempts to get close to Louis in Part 2, Part 3 of "Everybody's Louie" features King getting extremely up close and personal with Pops as Louis demonstrates some of his techniques he used to stay fit in his mid-60s.


Armstrong has a zealot’s faith in certain old remedies. He is quick to offer his medical opinions: “Man, a heart attack is nothing but so much gas accumulated and bubbled over.” Armstrong on cancer: “Nowadays it has come in fashion to die of it. What they call cancer is merely the bodily poisons fermented because people is so full of fevers beating and working in the blood.” Germs: “I always carry my mouthpiece in my hip pocket—never pitch it around where germs can crawl over it and into its parts.” To rid himself of possible heart disease, crawling germs, or malignant tissues, Armstrong recommends the removal of “bodily impurities.” For this he relies on a laxative called Swiss Kriss. It is his old reliable among an assortment of wonder-working products that seems to unusual vigor. One dawn he gave me three Swiss Kriss sample packets. The following night, as we blitzed another midnight snack of sardines and supporting embellishments, Pops asked, “You take your Swiss Kriss yet?”

“Ah…well; not yet.”

“Get my man some Swiss Kriss,” Armstrong instructed Bob Sherman. “Be just the thing to clear him all up. Flush out the bodily impurities.” Sherman didn’t move a step. He dipped into his pocket and produced a thin packet of olive-drab substance.

“Lay it on your tongue,” Armstrong said. “Take it dry, then send some beer chasing after it. Beer all gone? Well, bourbon do it too.” I turned the thin packet in my hands to stall for time. “Active ingredients”—I read aloud—“dried leaves of senna. Also contains licorice root, fennel, anise, and caraway seed. Dandelion, peppermint, papaya, strawberry and peach leaves. Juniper berries—“

“Oh yeah,” Pops broke in. “Got all manner of elements in there. Lay it on your tongue.”

“—Juniper berries, centaury, lemon verbena, cyani flowers, and parsley for their flavoring and carminative principles.”

“Here’s your chaser, Pops.” Armstrong nudged the bourbon glass over while I frantically searched for something more to read. Bob Sherman celebrated my discomfort with a grin as Armstrong, hooting and exhorting like an evangelistic witch doctor, urged the treatment on.

I know not what it tastes like on the tongue of Louis Armstrong. In my mouth it registered flavors of creosote and licorice with slight overtones of Brown Mule chewing tobacco. It neither improves bourbon nor bourbon it. Just as the main body of surprise had passed my host reproved me:

“Looka here, Pops! You left half of it in the bag!” He poked the dose under my nose. “Don’t never do nothing halfway,” Pops said, “else you find yourself dropping more than can be picked up.”

“Take off your shirt” he ordered, suddenly.

“Beg your pardon?”

“Gonna teach you another little trick. Now this”—he grabbed a brownish bottle from a nearby table—“is called ‘Heet.’ H-e-e-t. Swab myself down with it when I come off stage all sopping wet. Cools me down and dries me out and steadies the skin….You ain’t got that shirt off, Pops.” Armstrong circled me like Indians attacking a wagon train, crying a sales pitch as he daubed my chest, ribs, back. “Don’t that cool you like rain?” he said. “Ain’t that a goddamn groove?”

“Now you take a man’s eyes,” he said, ominously. “You ever have any trouble with your eyes?”

“No…not really…”

“Must have trouble, else you wouldn’t be wearing them eyeglasses! This little remedy gonna pull all the bloodshot qualities right outa your eyeballs.” He brandished a new bottle. “Witch hazel. Now, I take these”—he was ripping into a package and extracting two gauze pads—“and I dab a little on there, like this, swoggling it all around. Now I put them babies on your eyelids and I won’t be thirty seconds until you feel it cooling up all the way back inside your cranium!” He marched about, rattling on, while I sat in darkness, feeling like ka man who has stumbled into May Clinic by mistake. “Take them pads off in another three minutes and you can feel heat on the underside like you had fried an egg there! So, quite nat-ur-ally—you gonna see clearer and sweeter and cooler than you ever did see before.”

“You use all sorts of nostrums, don’t you?” I said.

“Use whatever helps. You know, it wasn’t long ago I believed in all kinds of old-timey remedies like the voodoo people. Yeah! Various dusts and herbs and junk like that.” He laughed to think on days when he had been so medically unschooled. “Now I jjust use things do me some good, ya dig? And it works, Pops. Do you know I am the only one left from the olden days in Storyville still blowing? Oh yeah, lotta cats lost their chops. Lips split and goddamn the blood spurt like you had cut a hog and the poor cats can’t blow no more. Now, I got this lip salve I’m gonna expose you to. Keeps my chops ready so I don’t go in there and blow cold and crack a lip like I did in Memphis so bad I lost a chunk of meat.”

Armstrong snatched the pads away and leaned forward with his face almost against mine, pulling his upper lip outward and upward, trying ineffectually to talk under the handicap. I leaned in, much in the manner of a man judging a horse’s teeth for age, and saw in the middle of that talented lip a sizable flesh-crater. “My poor damn chops would be tender as a baby’s bottom,” Pops said. “Oh, no way to tell you how them chops could throb.” He poked a small orange tin at me. “I order this salve from Germany by the caseload. Bought so much the cat that boils it up named it after me. See, it says ‘Louis Armstrong Lip Salve.’ You write something nice about that cat for Pops, ya hear? Aw yeah, he’s fine!” He reached for my pen: “I’ll write it down so’s you don’t forget.”

He selected a cocktail napkin and printed in large, undisciplined letters: ANZACZ CRÈME MADE IN MANNHEIM GERMANY. He turned the napkin over and printed BY FRANZ SCHUITS. “That cat saved my lip,” he said. “Reason his salve’s so good it draws all the tiredness out. So—quite naturally—your chops rest easy. You oughta try some…only you don’t blow so it wouldn’t benefit you.” He daubed his own lips with the wonder potion. “Oh, yeah! I got this other little tidbit here! I see you got weight problems—now no offense, Pops, ‘cause most of us go around bloating ourselves up with various poisons which—quite naturally—causes some heavy stomping on the scales. All the sweets and sugars a person eats just goes right down there and hangs over your belt and looks up at you! Fat is made outta sugar more than anything else—you know that? Yeah! Why, a year ago I weigh two hundred and some pounds and now I’m shed off to a hundred and sixty-some and feel retooled. Between my Swiss Kriss and this Sweet ‘N Low—it ain’t like real sugar, you can eat a ton of this—I got no more weight imbalances which throws the body off center. Here”—he again sprang across the room to produce yet another packet—“it goes groovy on grapefruit. You want to try it? I got plenty grapefruit.”

When I demurred, Pops looked somehow betrayed. “Well,” he said, “you come on back tomorrow night. I’ll lay it on you then, Pops.

“Quite naturally,” I said.


I like adding these little bonuses at the end of each of these posts. Since this one primarily dealt with Louis's health fanaticism, here's a clip of a fantastic interview from the BBC's "Be My Guest" program from 1968 where Louis really gets into talking about his love of Swiss Kriss!

Tomorrow, the fourth section of King's piece features one of the most frank discussions of race ever published during Armstrong's lifetime. 


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