The Power of Armstrong’s Voice

Louis Armstrong has one of the world’s most recognizable voices. To many, his raspy voice is iconic, marvelous, beautiful, incredible, and timeless. After reading comments left in the “comment section” of YouTube videos featuring Armstrong’s songs, I was not surprised that many people remarked that his voice inspires smiles and evokes nostalgia. Several recent comments revealed that online users were (re)turning to the sounds of Armstrong and finding his voice a great comfort during this time. For listeners, musicians, and scholars alike, Armstrong is a compelling vocalist because of his distinctive timbre and ability to scat, swing vocal melodies, and phrase vocal lines. Armstrong was not a trained singer and he had a limited vocal range, yet his voice and singing style have had a tremendous impact on jazz and popular singers. Tony Bennett once remarked, “Every great American popular singer from Billie Holiday to Frank Sinatra has learned something from Louis Armstrong.”[1]

Years before Armstrong played his first cornet, his voice served as his instrument. As a child growing up in New Orleans, he developed his singing voice while attending church with his grandmother, Josephine. In the manuscript of his autobiography, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, Armstrong recalls this time:

In those days, of course, I did not know a Horn (a trumpet) from a comb…Of course I went to church constantly…Quite naturally, you know I would…With grandma being a christian woman, as well as my great grandmother…Between the two, they kept me in school, church, and sunday school…And thats, where I acquired my singing tactics, I guess…[2]

During his childhood, Armstrong supported his family by odd-jobbing — selling newspapers or driving a coal cart. Another way he made money was by singing. He sang tenor for a local quartet known as The Singing Fools and roamed the New Orleans streets with the group to earn some change. Armstrong also wrote about his stint with the quartet in his autobiography:

Well sir-we were walking down Rampart between Perdido and Gravier Streets…That’s, the way we used to do our ‘hustiling’…The ‘Lead singer and the Tenor singer would walk in the front together, and the Baritone and the Bass singer would bring up that rear…We would go down the streets, just singing at random, and then finally, somebody would call us to sing a few songs…We would…And then we would pass our hats around…They would donate what ever they could spare…And we would put it all together after it was all over…Then we would ‘divy up….Some nights, most nights, we would draw down a nice little taste. I would make a bee line straight to Mayann [Armstrong’s mother], and dump it right into her lapp…[3]

Singing experiences such as those described above and hearing local singers at bars and honky-tonks in New Orleans instilled in Armstrong a passion for singing. While playing with King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band in Chicago from 1922-1924 and Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra in New York from 1924-1925, Armstrong did not have the opportunity to sing solo, despite repeatedly requesting to do so. It was not until he started making discs with his Hot Five in Chicago in 1925 that he was able to publicly re-emerge as a vocalist.

Listen to Armstrong’s voice at age 25 on “Heebie Jeebies,” a song originally released by OKeh Records in 1926

Several theories have circulated concerning how Armstrong lost his tenor voice with a light timbre and acquired a baritone voice with a raspy timbre. Puberty is one reason for the change in his voice type. Some claim that Armstrong’s timbre was part of his genetic make-up and that his sister Beatrice (aka “Mama Lucy”) possessed a similar tone color. Others claim that his timbre was a lingering symptom of a bad cold he caught while performing with Fate Marable’s orchestra aboard a steamer named Sydney.[4] Writer Terry Teachout claims Armstrong had surgeries on his vocal cords in 1936 and 1937 and that these operations made his voice husky.[5] Armstrong also smoked, a habit which most likely caused him to suffer from leukoplakia, a condition in which growths develop on the vocal cords.[6]

Listen to Armstrong’s voice at age 50 on “A Kiss to Build A Dream On,” a song originally released by Decca Records in 1951

Scholar Jacob Smith states that after the phonograph’s invention, a raspy timbre acquired heightened meaning, especially for Black male performers. He writes that the rasp “indicated blackness, class conflict, masculinity, and catharsis” and also stood in contrast to bel canto (lit. “beautiful singing or song”), which was favored by white performers and listeners.[7] Smith notes that singers such as Armstrong helped popularize the rasp and make it an acceptable, even desired, sound among whites.

During Armstrong’s musical career, his singing and speaking voice became a valued entity, at times transforming into a vocal fetish/object. Fans who coveted Armstrong’s sandpaper voice stuck their heads out the windows of cars, hoping to catch a cold so they could sound like him.[8] Record label personnel deliberately paired him with vocalists (e.g. Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Barbra Streisand) whose timbres clashed with his own to ensure his voice would sound “unique.” What’s My Line? a televised game show that ran from 1950-1967 in which panelists tried to guess celebrities’ identities by asking them questions while blindfolded, had Armstrong as a guest twice. When Armstrong appeared on the show for the first time in 1954, he tried to hide his signature rasp by responding to the panelists’ questions with soft “um-hums.” During his second visit in 1964, he tried a different approach and attempted to answer questions with a high-pitched “yes” or “no.” During the two shows, it did not take the panelists long to discover that the guest was Armstrong or request that he sing for them after playing the game.

Armstrong on What’s My Line? in 1964

What happens when a listener hears his/her favorite vocalist? Several scholars have noted that many listeners have come to believe that when they hear one of their favorite voices, they feel they “know” the singer, or rather, something about his/her identity. Academic Nina Sun Eidsheim comments: “We think that we already know, but in fact we know very little…voice and identity are not situated at a unified locus that can be unilaterally identified.”[9] Additionally, hearing a beloved voice may make a listener feel close to a singer as if an invisible bond is created through the act of listening. At times, listening to a special voice, especially one that is no longer part of a living being, can make a person forget about the singer’s body and his/her lived experiences. Perhaps some of these things occur when people listen to Armstrong’s voice. Armstrong’s voice remains important for reasons other than what it does for listeners, its technical ability, and its aesthetic qualities. During his lifetime, Armstrong’s gravelly voice helped him cross geographical and racial borders and potently articulate his place in the world as a Black male performer of the twentieth century.

[1] “Louis Armstrong: ‘The Singer,’” NPR, August 27, 2007,

[2] “The Armstrong Story,” Object ID: 2016.80.1, January 01, 1954,, The Louis Armstrong Archives.

[3] “The Armstrong Story,” Object ID: 2016.80.1, January 01, 1954,, The Louis Armstrong Archives.

[4] “Louis Armstrong: ‘The Singer.”

[5] Terry Teachout, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2009), 214.

[6] Jacob Smith, Vocal Tracks: Performance and Media (Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press, 2008), 146.

[7] Ibid, 117.

[8] Gary Giddins, Satchmo: The Genius of Louis Armstrong (Boston, MA: Da Capo Press, 1988), 64.

[9] Nina Sun Eidsheim, The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 3.

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