Well-being and Care The Satchmo Way – Part I

Within the American music industry well-known performers must deal with a variety of challenges such as the pressures of fame, loneliness, adrenaline highs and lows, public scrutiny, creative blocks, round-the-clock travel, and inconsistent working hours. In the last several years, some journalists have made attempts to spotlight the topic of “artists’ well-being,” especially young musicians’ mental health issues that adversely affect their safety and productivity. In response to the growing awareness of mental health issues within the music industry, some national and international organizations such as MusiCares and Music Minds Matter offer medical, financial, and personal services for active members of the music community. When Louis Armstrong navigated the American music industry in the twentieth century, terms such as “artists’ well-being” and “mental health” were not popular, and organizations such as those mentioned above did not exist. In such a context, how did Armstrong remain resilient over the course of several decades? What did “self-care” and “care” mean to him? How did he deal with and respond to those who took an interest in his health? How did his friends, fellow musicians, or family support his well-being?

Armstrong’s mother, Mayann, instilled in him the importance of good physical health. In his autobiography, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, he recalls his mother stating the following:  

Always remember when you’re sick nobody ain’t going to give you nothing. So try to stay healthy. Even without money, your health is the best thing. I want you to promise me you will take a physic at least once a week as long as you live. Will you promise?[1]

When Armstrong had opportunities to play with New Orleans musicians as a teenager and young adult, he observed those performing with him and learned from their personal and professional mistakes. For example, while playing with Fate Marable’s Orchestra, he witnessed how excessive alcohol use and food deprivation affected some of his fellow musicians’ ability to work.[2] It is likely that these early experiences and others that occurred later in his life encouraged him to avoid deadly vices and maintain his professional focus.

As an adult, Armstrong had a diet and daily routine that helped him carry on, or as he stated an in interview in 1965, “keep in shape for that grind.”[3] He filled his body with all sorts of vitamins each day. Billy Kyle, an All-Stars member, addressed Armstrong’s health habits in a 1964 newspaper article. He stated, “Louis takes care of himself in a way that would kill other people. All those pills. I once saw him take fourteen vitamin tablets.”[4] In addition to vitamins, Armstrong ingested laxatives to achieve an ideal weight and rid his body of impurities. He began doing so after reading books authored by food scientist Gayelord Hauser that championed the use of them. Armstrong’s favorite laxative was Swiss Kriss. He promoted it to friends, media personnel, fellow musicians, and fans, and let those who took his recommendation (un)happily discover the potency of the tablets on their own.[5]

Armstrong also thought the right food was a key to success. Reporter David Halberstam spent time with him on tour in 1957 and noted that at lunch “he passed out specially prepared chicken and boiled eggs instead of getting out at the stop.” When asked about doing this, Armstrong replied, “can’t eat at those places [off-road eating establishments] and still live.”[6] Featured below are two documents, “Satchmo Sez” and “Lose Weight, the Satchmo Way,” which further illuminate Armstrong’s eating habits, health issues, and pill usage.

Taking care of his lips was another one of Armstrong’s priorities. In several interviews he distinguished himself from certain younger and older trumpet players by pointing out that he, unlike them, “greased his chops” daily. Armstrong soothed his lips in various ways – by applying ice, lathering them with witch hazel, and using lip salve. Armstrong favored lip salve known as Ansatz-Crème, made by Franz Schüritz of Germany, and he helped Schüritz’s business obtain international exposure. Schüritz eventually rebranded his product as “Louis Armstrong Lip Salve.” Despite following a daily routine, Armstrong suffered from lip problems at different times in his career due to overplaying, especially virtuosic musical passages. 

Armstrong spent the majority of his time away from his home in Corona. As a touring musician he often did one-nighters, which meant he was frequently on the move, traveling from one location to another. He followed a diet, took pills, and cared for his lips so he could do what he loved — play the horn. Below is an excerpt from a 1965 cover story, “The Offstage Satchmo,” authored by writer Patrick Scott of The Globe Magazine. In the piece, Scott details a day in the life of Armstrong and pays attention to his pre-and-post show rituals, which included caring for himself as well as his horn. The excerpt sheds light on Armstrong’s busy schedule and his dedication to making fans happy despite feeling “a little beat.”

12:25 AM – Armstrong is still signing autographs as he trudges through the lobby, and all the way up the elevator. Going down the corridor to his room he glances at his watch. It is 12:40. He has one more show in Toronto, after which he must check-out of his hotel, assemble his musicians and accompanying entourage and catch a 5 a.m. plane for Cleveland, where he has a matinee performance the same afternoon, followed by an evening concert. The next day he is due in Hollywood to begin work on a movie. “I’m a little beat, he says, opening the door to his room, “I think I’ll grab a night-cap and tumble into bed.”[7]

The question of how Armstrong’s daily grind impacted his physical and mental health in visible and invisible ways remains important. He never fit the description of a “tortured artist,” but this does not mean that he did not experience high and low mental periods or repeated traumas and stress that affected his well-being as a creative person. Suppose Armstrong had been alive when there was more awareness about the importance of good physical and mental health in the American music industry — what new information would the public learn about him and his career?

[1] Louis Armstrong, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1954), 16.

[2] Ibid, 208-209.

[3] “The Offstage Satchmo,” Object ID: 2003.80.136, August 7, 1965, https://collections.louisarmstronghouse.org/asset-detail/1197930, The Louis Armstrong Archives.

[4] “Satchmo Magic at 64 – 1964,” Object ID: 2003.80.46, January 1, 1964, https://collections.louisarmstronghouse.org/asset-detail/1096431, The Louis Armstrong Archives.

[5] Ricky Riccardi, What A Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 81.

[6] “Louis 1957-1959- Page 18,” Object ID: 2008.2.2., January 1, 1957, https://collections.louisarmstronghouse.org/asset-detail/1197993, The Louis Armstrong Archives.

[7] “The Offstage Satchmo.”

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