Armstrong as a consumer of twentieth century audio technology

In 1958 an article about Louis Armstrong entitled “He Tapes It All!” appeared in an issue of Hi-Fi at Home, an American magazine publication “targeted at the growing audience for high fidelity home systems.”[1] Unlike other 1950s print media articles written about Armstrong, which portrayed him as a cultural ambassador, icon, and entertainer, “He Tapes It All” offered a seemingly new presentation of him. The article, authored by Charles Graham, fashioned Armstrong as an amateur audio enthusiast by focusing on his home and travel audio equipment and growing reel-to-reel tape collection. In addition to helping diversify Armstrong’s public image for past and present readers, the article provides an alternative profile of a consumer of technology that differs from those featured in dominant written narratives. To this day, many written narratives about American technology document “tales of advantage” of white, elite consumers and inventors, which reinforce the notion that there is a nexus between whiteness, heterosexual masculinity, and technological capability.[2] The article mentioned above and some of Armstrong’s remarks on his interactions with audio technology and recorded sound in various private and public spaces invite a discussion of him as a consumer of twentieth-century audio technology, especially reel-to-reel tape machines.

How and why did Armstrong utilize reel-to-reel tape machines during the mid-and-late twentieth century? Did he use the machines in similar or different ways from general and non-general consumers (e.g. other professional musicians)? How did he self-fashion himself as a modern consumer of audio technology? I propose viewing Armstrong as a special type of consumer, one betwixt and between a general and non-general consumer. Like a general consumer, Armstrong recorded material on his reel-to-reel tape machines and listened to his tapes’ contents for fun. However, unlike a general consumer he developed a numbering system for his finished tapes, catalogued them, and created a visual image, often a collage, for his tape boxes. Like a non-general consumer, Armstrong would capture his informal rehearsals for future studio sessions or upcoming live entertainment programs. Unlike a non-general user, he was less concerned about the content and quality of his tapes.

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Reel-to-reel tape technology originated in Nazi Germany, and the first reel-to-reel tape recorders began circulating there in nightclubs. American engineers stationed in Nazi Germany developed the technology after returning to the United States (U.S.) at the end of World War II. Ampex was the first U.S. company to introduce a line of portable reel-to-reel tape machines for the country’s general public. Unlike wire machines, reel-to-reel tape machines had paper or plastic tape that could be copied and spliced.[3] American consumers had to learn to operate the new machines and turned to television and print media tutorials and advertisements for instruction. As more companies began to market and release the machines, knowing how to set up and use the various recorders became commonplace.

Instructional film on magnetic tape recorders from the 1950s, Recommended sections: 11:22-12:40 (Recording using the microphone), 14:01-15:07 (Connecting the tape machine to the radio), and 15:37-17:00 (Splicing a tape)

In 1950 Armstrong learned the basics for operating a portable reel-to-reel tape machine. In the following clip from Armstrong’s first home recording session, he receives a mini lesson on the technology from trombonist Jack Teagarden. Following this, he begins to casually play his version of “Solveig’s Song” by Norwegian composer Edward Greig. Listening to Armstrong’s tapes from his first home recording session reveals that he was a quick study and eager to capture the sounds of his trumpet, conversations with friends, and recorded music. Throughout the 1950s, Armstrong frequently used two Norleco reel-to-reel tape machines to make his home recordings. Even though he recorded material only using reel-to-reel tape machines, he also owned one of the first compact cassette players, created by Phillips in the early 1960s.

The beginning of Armstrong’s first reel-to-reel tape

Armstrong did much of his home recording in his den, a room “gifted” by Lucille. In the following audio clip, an audio salesman tells Armstrong about reel-to-reel tape machines made by various companies while the two stand in the den. At the end of the audio clip, Armstrong claims he favors Ampex machines, which he refers to as “the boss.” The clip reveals that Armstrong was not an audiophile. Nevertheless, he had a genuine interest in learning about the latest reel-to-reel tape machines.

Armstrong talking with an audio salesman in his den

From 1950 to 1961 Armstrong produced the majority of his reel-to-reel tapes. A busy schedule and declining health slowed his tape-making productivity in his later years. In the following audio clip from a 1970 radio interview, Armstrong mentions how taking some time off following his hospitalization in 1969 allowed him to devote more time to his reel-to-reel tape hobby. In 1969 Lucille helped Armstrong renew his interest in reel-to-reel tapes by arranging for the installation of built-in audio equipment, including two Tandberg tape decks, in his den. Even in his later years, journalists and entertainment hosts asked Armstrong about his reel-to-reel tapes and indexing system. Armstrong was happy to respond to such inquiries and highlight his unique relationship with audio technology and recorded sound.

Armstrong discussing his reel-to-reel tapes and indexing system

Armstrong once declared that his reel-to-reel tapes were “for posterity.”[4] By recording material on his reel-to-reel tapes, he created powerful sonic artifacts for future generations. Armstrong should not only be remembered as a cultural ambassador, icon, and entertainer. He was also a special type of consumer of twentieth-century audio technology who used the latest gadgets for personal and professional purposes. Failing to remember Armstrong as a special type of consumer limits an understanding of who he was and what he accomplished during his lifetime.

[1] “Hi-Fi Music/Music at Home,” World Radio History, accessed April 8, 2021,

[2] Bruce Sinclair, “Integrating the Histories of Race and Technology” in Technology and the African-American Experience: Needs and Opportunity, ed. Bruce Sinclair (Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press, 2004), 3-4.

[3] Andre Millard, “Tape Recording and Music Making” in Music and Technology in the Twentieth Century, ed. Hans-Joachim Braun (Baltimore, MD: the Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 159.

[4] Armstrong claimed that his reel-to-reel tape collection was “for posterity” on one of his 1960s tapes.

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