Armstrong’s “Social Networks”

On the Louis Armstrong House Museum’s (LAHM) digital collections webpage, I keep a folder entitled “Random Items” that holds a group of interesting but unrelated digitized archival objects. This past week I re-examined some of the objects in the folder, which includes a 1968 telegram written by Armstrong that mentions Barbra Streisand’s voice, a photo of Armstrong performing with Dean Martin on the Dean Martin Show in 1965, the album cover of Disney Songs the Satchmo Way recorded by Armstrong in 1968, and a 1971 condolence letter addressed to Lucille Armstrong by Johnny Mercer. From a scholarly perspective, the aforementioned objects fascinate me because they inspire me to consider Armstrong’s professional “social networks,” which expanded and contracted over time and included musicians, producers, institutions, and audiences. If one were to create a series of maps documenting Armstrong’s professional “social networks,” what would these maps look like and what associations would matter? Should Streisand, Martin, Disney, and Mercer be represented on the maps even though their associations with Armstrong were fleeting?

An example of a social network map from Wikipedia

From a non-scholarly perspective, the aforementioned objects fascinate me because each one is tangible proof that there were short-lived connections between some of my favorite entertainment figures and Armstrong. The life stories and musical creations of Streisand, Martin, Disney, and Mercer impacted me as a child and adolescent, and they continue to do so today in ways both related and unrelated to Armstrong.

In 1963 Armstrong and the All Stars recorded a new single featuring the song “Hello Dolly!” to help promote the upcoming Broadway production with the same name. During the New York studio sessions, Armstrong expressed his initial distaste for the song and ended up changing some of the lyrics. One of the changes he made was altering the beginning of the song so that he introduced himself as “Louis” (hard “s”) rather than “Louie.”[1] Armstrong’s single was released after the opening of the Broadway production in 1964 and it became a hit, eventually outranking some of The Beatles’ songs and earning the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. In 1965, Armstrong won a Grammy for his version of the song. A few years later a movie version of the musical featuring Barbra Streisand was in the works and Armstrong was asked to make a cameo and sing a portion of “Hello Dolly!” with Streisand. Some stand-out moments of this cameo are when Streisand scats while Armstrong sings a straight melody and when Streisand vocally imitates Armstrong while the two playfully deliver the word “yeahhh.”

In 1968, the same year the Hello Dolly! film was released, Armstrong typed a two-page telegram to his friend Jack Bradley. On the second page, he mentions Streisand and the film. He states: “Fine Human Beings Barbra Streisand Is Just as Cute and = More Besides. Those Fine Beautiful Tones She Sings My Gawd. = Hello Dolly Picture Is Really Somphn Else.”

The second page of Armstrong’s 1968 telegram to Jack Bradley, LAHM Object ID: 2008.1.12
Armstrong and Streisand at the premiere of Hello Dolly!

During one of the years in-between recording the “Hello Dolly!” single and making a cameo in the film, Armstrong made an appearance on The Dean Martin Show, which ran from 1965-1974 on NBC. One of the regular segments of the show was having Martin and his musician guest sing lyrics of a song medley solo and together. When Armstrong appeared on the show in 1965, he and Martin performed a medley featuring “Rockabye Your Baby,” When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” An amusing segment of the show is when Martin mimics Armstrong during the performance of “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.” Unlike Streisand, Martin offers both a vocal and presentational imitation of Armstrong. First, he pulls a red handkerchief from his lapel (Armstrong was known for holding a white handkerchief in one of his hands while onstage in case he needed to wipe away sweat). Then, Martin begins to swing his handkerchief while attempting to make his voice sound gravelly. Armstrong responds to Martin’s impression by smiling and exclaiming, “Swing it, daddy!”

Armstrong and Martin on The Dean Martin Show, LAHM Object ID: 2006.1.365

Another one of Armstrong’s late-career musical endeavors was recording the 1968 album Disney Songs The Satchmo Way, featuring ten songs from some of Disney’s live and animated movies and television programs. Creating the album strengthened the Armstrong-Disney connection, initially made when Armstrong performed several numbers aboard the Mark Twain Riverboat at Disneyland in Anaheim, California in 1962. The performance was featured on “Disneyland After Dark,” an episode of the television series Walt Disney’s World of Color. Walt Disney was not present for Armstrong’s boat performance, but the two met before Disney passed away in 1966.

Armstrong performing on the Mark Twain Riverboat at Disneyland, LAHM Object ID: 2006.1.358

On the back of Armstrong’s Disney Songs The Satchmo Way is a reprint of a letter he wrote to the album’s producer, Tutti Camarata. In the letter, Armstrong highlights the song “When You Wish Upon A Star,” originally performed by Cliff Edwards, who voiced the character Jiminy Cricket in Disney’s 1940 adaptation of Pinocchio. Interestingly, Armstrong does not mention the original Edwards movie version and instead refers to Mary Martin’s version. It was Martin’s version that made him fall in love with the piece. Here are some of Armstrong’s words from his letter addressed to Camarata:

Dear Tutti:

I listened to the record you gave me of the tune “When You Wish Upon A Star.” It knocked me out – but way out, Tutti!!! The person that sang the song on the record [Ed. note: It was Mary Martin] thrilled Satch so much I’m writing to you to say this, that chick’s version “Wish Upon A Star” is a gasser, as I see it – maybe it should be a single. You could still put “Wish Upon A Star” with the rest of the tunes in the album, which I am very fond of and very happy I did, but this goldarned “Wish Upon A Star” is so beautiful – and more than that, man – I listen to that tune three or four times at night. Man, did you know I’m a doggoned long time “wishing” cat? Well, I am man.

Armstrong’s cover of “When You Wish Upon A Star” is moving. During his first and second delivery of the penultimate line of the last verse, he changes the lyrics “when you wish upon a star” to “mama, when you wish upon a star” and “baby, when you wish upon a star.” These subtle lyrical changes, Armstrong’s trumpet solo, and his signature voice transform the song into a “Satchmo” number.

After Armstrong passed away in 1971, his wife Lucille received thousands of condolence letters from fans and famous figures. One of the letters she received was from lyricist Johnny Mercer. In the letter, Mercer recalls listening to Armstrong’s early records and meeting him at the Cotton Club in Los Angeles. Some of his complimentary words about Armstrong include the following: “Ginger and I are proud to have known him and been his friends. He was, indeed, a great American original, a great champion, and when I think of him in the Orphan’s Waif Band with his great big trumpet, it touches me “to my soul.”‘ Throughout the years, Armstrong covered several songs with Mercer lyrics. In the 1938 film Going Places, starring Dick Powell and Anita Louise, Armstrong debuted Mercer and Harry Warren’s song “Jeepers Creepers.” Featured below are two of my favorite Armstrong covers of songs with Mercer lyrics — “Fools Rush In” and “Moon River.”

Armstrong had several long-term professional relationships with individuals who had a profound impact on his life and career, but how might one interpret his short-term relationships with individuals who were acquaintances? Are these individuals’ associations with him insignificant? As a music lover who grew up listening to the music of Streisand, Martin, Disney, and Mercer, I consider these entertainers’ associations with Armstrong meaningful.

[1] Ricky Riccardi, What A Wonderful World: The Magic Of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 217.

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