Posted on: Apr 22, 2016 -- Last updated on: Jun 2, 2016
Louis Armstrong House Museum Acquires Only Known Surviving Film Footage of Louis Armstrong Live in the Recording Studio
We are pleased to announce that LAHM has acquired the only known footage of Louis Armstrong in the recording studio, working on his 1959 album, Satchmo Plays King Oliver. Though Louis Armstrong’s genius has long been documented by his recordings, this 33-minute sound film now reveals to the world, for the first time, his genius in the recording studio.
Satchmo Plays King Oliver was originally made for Audio Fidelity records and produced by Sid Frey who was a pioneering visionary in terms of stereo recording. Frey commissioned this film to be made but never released it, nor did he seemingly tell anyone about it, including his daughter, Andrea Bass, who helped the Louis Armstrong House Museum acquire this priceless document; it’s been the best-kept secret in Armstrong studies for nearly 60 years.
Satchmo Plays King Oliver was recorded at the famous Radio Recorders studio at 7000 Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles between September 30 and October 2, 1959 while Armstrong was in California having just appeared on Bing Crosby's television special on September 28. Frey's film captures a relaxed Armstrong at work with the All Stars including jazz luminaries Trummy Young, trombone, Peanuts Hucko, clarinet, Billy Kyle, piano, Mort Herbert, bass and Danny Barcelona, drums. Armstrong had recently suffered a heart attack in Spoleto, Italy in June 1959 but this film shows him looking healthy and blowing and singing at the peak of his powers.
The film begins with two complete takes of "I Ain't Got Nobody," capturing an effervescent Armstrong vocal and sterling work from the rest of the band (including pianist Kyle, playing with a cigarette dangling from his mouth). Armstrong's in good humor but also serious in the studio, signaling for "one more" after the first attempt and winking to his band with approval after waxing what would become the master take. A few minutes of silent footage depict the band, along with studio guests, listening to a playback of a number before they launch into an impromptu performance of "High Society Calypso," a song not included on the finished album. The bulk of the second half of the film is devoted to Armstrong and the All Stars working out a routine on "I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jelly Roll," including rehearsals, breakdowns and some complete takes. Armstrong didn't have any sheet music for this song and on each take, improvises a completely new vocal made up of a mixture of dazzling scat singing and the occasional English phrase. The camera catches Armstrong deep in the creative process, looking up and covering his eyes with his trademark handkerchief as torrents of scat syllables pour out from within. The film ends with a complete take of "Jelly Roll Blues," a slow tribute to Jelly Roll Morton that features some of Armstrong's fiercest blues playing.
"Everyone appreciates Armstrong's genius in the recording studio and we have many beloved albums as proof. But now—for the first time—we have video of Armstrong in the recording studio,” noted Michael Cogswell Executive Director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum. “This is the only known video of Armstrong making a commercial recording and it is an astonishing discovery."
In addition to the film, the Louis Armstrong House Museum also acquired the master tapes for the another Audio Fidelity album from Frey’s personal collection, 1960’s Louie and the Dukes of Dixieland, recorded at Webster Hall in New York City on May 24 and 25, 1960. Frey had recorded a popular series of albums with the New Orleans-based Dukes of Dixieland before teaming them with Armstrong, who said of the Dukes, “They’re home boys.” The resulting album, Louie and the Dukes of Dixieland, was immediately hailed as containing some of Armstrong's most thrilling playing of his career on numbers such as "Avalon," "Limehouse Blues" and "Just a Closer Walk with Thee."
After Frey's death in 1968, ownership of Audio Fidelity's recordings changed hands numerous times; today, many of the original session tapes appear to have been destroyed, something that has plagued various inferior reissues of this music in the compact disc and digital era. However, Frey kept a set of the master reel-to-reel tapes for Louie and the Dukes of Dixieland in stunning stereo sound and those tapes are now part of the Louis Armstrong House Museum's Research Collections, allowing listeners to hear the music as Frey originally intended.
The Louis Armstrong House Museum thanks Andrea Bass and Marty Kirschner and the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation for their help in acquiring this film footage and these master tapes from Armstrong’s Audio Fidelity days.
It's a wonderful world!