Louis Armstrong and Me

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Legendary American Jazz musician Louis Armstrong entered into my sphere of consciousness sometime in the 1960s via the song Hello Dolly.

Released in 1964, Armstrong’s version of the title tune from the successful Broadway musical was a sensation, taking down the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 ending the Beatles streak of 3 number one hits in row. It won two Grammy’s- for Song of the Year and Best Male Vocal. It was the 3rd biggest selling song that year and at the age of 63, Armstrong became the oldest artist to hold down the number one spot in the Rock era.

I loved the tune and the arrangement but more than anything I loved Armstrong’s vocal delivery, his enunciation in particular.

I spent the next few months learning the song and imitating him until I had what I thought was a pretty good impression down pat. I remember being out on the farm with my Dad around this time and I must have been driving him crazy with my Armstrong because one day he, a man of few words, turned to me and said “enough.”

Sometime later I discovered the old gramophone in the spare back room of my grandparents house. Like all the houses in our district, the old valve driven machines had been replaced with transistor radios and stereos and had been consigned to spare rooms, garages and sheds. I loved these machines with their powerful receivers and deep their sonorous speakers that elicited a sound with an extraordinary presence.

My grandparent’s machine was the size of a small chest freezer and held within an eclectic collection of singles and LPs including a glorious Stan Freberg comedy album, a number of Beatles 45rpms and a Louis Armstrong single, Gone Fishing, a duet with the legendary Bing Crosby.

Once again I found myself enchanted and fascinated by Armstrong’s guttural voice, which in stark contrast to Crosby’s silky crooners tenor, worked magnificently in concord, elevating what was ostensibly a novelty song, into something of real musical value. It was also my introduction to scat singing, (a style often credited as an Armstrong innovation), which Armstrong uses to close the song.

As the years passed my fascination with Louis faded as my musical tastes broadened but he came back into my life a couple of years back through the auspices of my then flatmate Dr Richard Swainson. I vaguely knew he was something of an Armstrong fan and often heard the great mans trumpet drifting out from under his bedroom door but I did not realise how much of a fan he was until the day he corralled me and asked me if I knew anything about Armstrong’s 1963 Hamilton performance at the Founders Theatre.

I didn’t, but Richard had found a bone that he began to gnaw on relentlessly, somewhat excited that one of his musical idols had performed in the city he called home. Historical information about that long forgotten concert was scant, but piece-by-piece, Richard uncovered photos, reviews, advertising and stories from those that had been there.

He struck gold when he scored an interview with the daughter of the legendary Australian concert promoter Harry M Miller, who had organised and financed the tour.

Among the stories shared was the conformation that Armstrong, a life long marijuana smoker and legalisation advocate, did indeed carry his legendary stash with him throughout his NZ sojourn as well as a case of carefully folded handkerchiefs dusted with pharmaceutical grade cocaine.

Brass instrument players need to clear their mouths of excess phlegm while performing, usually into a handkerchief if not straight onto the floor. Armstrong’s apparent technique was to spit into his linen cloth and at the same time take a deep breath of the energising narcotic embedded within.

A great story but one that Swainson was unable to confirm. It was unlikely, he contends, because despite his penchant for Pot, Armstrong is well documented regarding his disdain for harder drugs. He had seen the lives of too many friends and colleagues ruined through the course of his long career, by heroin in particular, to have any truck with their use.

Armstrong and his All-Stars arrived in Hamilton a few hours before the concert, and in Swainson words “Hamilton was in a fairly primitive stage of its development,” and there was nowhere for them to eat, so with the help of a local radio personality, bread and fixings were purchased and sandwiches were assembled by the great man and the said radio personality who confirmed that Armstrong was chatty and completely down to earth, the main thing on his mind being the procurement of souvenir spoons for his wife who was an avid collector.

Armstrong also demonstrated something of his legendary temper and flair for ‘salty’ language when he cornered his drunken bass player and reminded that he had broken one of the bandleaders cardinal rules of band conduct.

As for the few concertgoers Swainson was able to track down, there was unanimous agreement that a good time was had by all and that Armstrong was magnificent.

Finally, after many months of work, Swainson got permission to place a brass plaque in the foyer of the iconic Founder’s Theatre commemorating, almost to the hour, the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s Hamilton concert.

Listen in on Exploring Music: Why Louis Armstrong Matters, Rip It Up Radio:

 

 

 

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