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Pops + Opera: Louis Armstrong and Robert Merrill's odd couple act

Louis Armstrong with Ed Sullivan
SOFA Entertainment / UMe
Louis Armstrong with Ed Sullivan on 'The Ed Sullivan Show' in 1955.

At one point during his 1955 European tour, Louis Armstrong made an unscheduled pilgrimage. Having just played a concert with his All-Stars, he dashed over to La Scala — to “stand by those big cats like Verdi and Wagner, and take pictures,” he later recalled, “‘cause they figure our music is the same; we play ‘em both from the heart.”

Armstrong’s earnest visit to one of the Old World’s grandest opera houses was hardly out of character, though it might have seemed so at the time. Pops was one of the most popular musicians on the planet in 1955, and generally understood as a genius of a folksier sort. The implicit contrast between his music (earthy, casual) and the operatic canon (elevated, ethereal) led to a bit he developed with Metropolitan Opera star Robert Merrill. On April 17, 1955, they brought it to The Ed Sullivan Show, where it took up the first nine minutes of the broadcast.

The clip had never been released in any form since that broadcast, until its premiere this evening on The Ed Sullivan Show YouTube channel. For fans of either artist — and really, any keen observer of American culture — its shrewd ebullience was well worth the wait.

Armstrong and Merrill converge on camera from two opposing poles: the “Basin Street Club” at one side of the stage, and the “Metropolitan Opera House” on the other. Armstrong sports a roomy suit and bow tie, accessorized with a Scottish tam; Merrill looks impeccably tailored, in a top hat and cape. Their musical interaction extends this comedy of clashes, with Armstrong’s relaxed scatting derailed by Merrill’s operatic baritone, in Italiano.

Then comes some comically pointed banter. “You’ve been singing that long-haired stuff a long time, now, daddy,” says Pops. “What you need is a crew cut.” When Merrill balks, saying his fans would never go for it, Armstrong invites a comparison of record sales. The ensuing exchange is a lighthearted reminder of jazz’s popular reach at the time, in contrast to opera. Which leads Merrill, mock-exasperated, to throw down a challenge.

Robert Merrill and Louis Armstrong
Bettmann/Bettmann Archive
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Bettmann
Metropolitan Opera star Robert Merrill and jazz great Louis Armstring after they switched roles on the last night of a Las Vegas engagement, on Oct. 13, 1954.

“Tell you what, Pops, I’ll make a deal with you,” he says. “You sing Pagliacci, I’ll sing ‘Honeysuckle Rose.’” What follows is a sublime piece of entertainment, as Armstrong sings “Vesti di giubba,” the famous aria, in his gravelly voice: “Ridi, Pagliaccio! / Come and dig little Satchmo!” Then Merrill takes a suave pass through “Honeysuckle Rose,” with Armstrong providing obbligato on his horn. And for a finale, the famous baritone sings “Vesti di giubba” himself, milking the pathos so that Armstrong seems to melt into a sobbing mess. Bravo!

What the televised bit presents as a high/low contrast was decidedly more nuanced, given Pops’ background. As scholar Robert G. O’Meally notes, “Armstrong would have known ‘Vesti la giubba’ as a standard performance piece from his formative years in 1910s and 1920s New Orleans, America’s premier city for live grand opera at the time.” In his book Antagonistic Cooperation: Jazz, Collage, Fiction, and the Shaping of African American Culture, published last year, O’Meally further points to Pops’ stated admiration for opera stars Caruso, Henry Burr and Luisa Tetrazzini.

“Confronted by an interviewer’s general question about opera in 1962,” O’Meally adds, “Armstrong began to sing (in his alluringly scratchy tenor voice) the dramatic lines of Maddalena, Rigoletto’s contralto. The point is that popular arias like ‘Vesti la giubba’ were part of the air one breathed in that city, regardless of race or class.”

Moreover, in Armstrong’s trumpet solos, with their dramatically sustained high notes, one can hear the influence of operatic arias. He was even known to quote from Pagliacci, notably sneaking it into “Tiger Rag” as early as 1930. Blink and you’ll miss it, but on this 1930 recording for OKeh, you can hear the quote at 2:25.

Armstrong and Merrill had actually developed their unlikely buddy act during a residency in Las Vegas, and it was there, at The Sands Hotel, that Sullivan’s crew taped the television episode. Ricky Riccardi, Director of Research Collections at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, sheds some colorful light on the situation in his 2011 book What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years.

As entertaining as his appearance on the Sullivan show was, Armstrong had likely enjoyed something that happened earlier in the day more. “They had rehearsals before the show, the afternoon of the show,” Jack Bradley remembered. “And Louie, like he did with everything, when rehearsal began, he talked to Robert Merrill. He said, ‘You’ve got to try some of this s–t. It’s Swiss Kris and it will cure cancer and cure everything and you’ll love it. I take it every day.’ So to be nice, he took some. And after the rehearsal, [Merrill’s] in his dressing room, warming up. He hit a high C and s–t his pants. You can imagine how Louie loved it.”

Nine days after this episode, Armstrong and his All-Stars recorded “Honeysuckle Rose,” for the album Satch Plays Fats, released on Columbia later in the year. And if Merrill felt in any way humiliated by his, er, unscripted scatting — as one would expect, of a celebrity opera star — he didn’t hold on to any grudges.

In 2000, having outlived Armstrong by almost 30 years, he wrote a letter to The New York Times recalling their kinship, the details of their musical shtick, and the appalling racism he routinely saw Pops shrug off on the Vegas strip. “My great regret is that we never did any recordings together,” Merrill reflected, citing perpetual scheduling conflicts. “A film of our Vegas show exists someplace and I dearly wish I had a copy.”

So Merrill, who died in 2004, would have enjoyed seeing the footage we now, finally, have at our fingertips. “As an artist and musician, Louis was par excellence,” he concludes his letter, “but as a human being, he was supreme. I truly loved the man.”

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes.