The Story Behind Louis Armstrong's Transition from Jazz Man to International Pop Sensation

Sep 8, 2020

Describing Louis Armstrong biographer Ricky Riccardi as merely enthusiastic about Satchmo would be a gross understatement. It’s easier to say he’s dedicated his professional career to setting—and resetting—Armstrong’s historic life to record.

Riccardi has already produced a boxed set of Armstrong’s live recordings with the much-maligned All-Stars band, and he’s currently producing a reissue of producer George Avakian’s historic studio recordings with Armstrong for Columbia Records. That massive undertaking is set for release later this year.

 

Riccardi is the Director of Research Collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, NY and the author of two volumes of scholarly work associated with Satchmo’s legacy.  The newest tome, Heart Full of Rhythm: The Big Band Years of Louis Armstrong, dives into the transformation after Armstrong’s seminal Hot Fives and Hot Sevens jazz recordings of the 1920s into a full-blown popular entertainer reaching audiences across racial and geographical divides. 

He’s already pointed his research at late-period Armstrong of Hello Dolly! and What a Wonderful World fame and clarified the persona many still recognize today—and he’ll get to Armstrong’s formative early years eventually. For now, there’s much rich detail to examine the Armstrong legacy as sequenced from end to beginning.

I spoke with Riccardi via Zoom.  Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

Josh Jackson: I found it interesting that you never intended to start writing about Armstrong from back to front.

Ricky Riccardi: Never, never, never, and it's a funny thing. Actually, I don't want to let the cat out of the bag too much because I have nothing official to announce. But this morning, I had a little free time, and I just started poking around some early Louis artifacts we have at the museum. Even though it's not official yet, I feel like it's going to be incomplete until I complete the trilogy. So give me a couple more years. We'll finish the story.

Josh Jackson: You refer to 1928 as an almost finite pivot in Armstrong's career because he had recorded all this amazing material with the Hot Fives and Sevens. But you also make that year a delineation point regarding how critics viewed his work and how even decades later, people were still assessing his career.  Talk a little bit about what was going on at that time.

Ricky Riccardi: It's the pinnacle. It's the peak of everything Armstrong did and I can't argue when presented with “Weather Bird” and “West End Blues” and landmark recordings with Earl “Fatha” Hines.   Everything he does in 1928 sets up the future of jazz. You can hear swinging and you can hear bebop, because it’s all there.

So there's always this accepted wisdom that 1928 was Armstrong at his most innovative peak, and then at that point he pretty much sells his soul to the devil and goes commercial.  He gets a little Guy Lombardo big band, starts recording pop songs and flash forward to Hello Dolly! and What a Wonderful World and suddenly this man bears no resemblance to his early work.  And I never bought it. I thought that was the perfect place to start the story.

The marquee for Louis Armstrong’s debut at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in August 1935, the first of many such record-breaking engagements at the mecca of Black entertainment.
Credit Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum

Josh Jackson: In fact, you write that his performances at the Apollo Theater in Harlem from 1935 until his last performance there in 1947 prove that he was tremendously popular with Black audiences.  I wouldn’t get that perception from other sources.

Ricky Riccardi: No, no, this is something and other Armstrong biographers have actually gone down that road, saying that Louis loses his Black audience in 1929 once he goes for that pop sound.  You know, he lost the Black audience and never got them back again.

I probably spent more time with the Black press than almost any other artifact. You have his voice. Of course, I always try to lean on him through his tapes, his writings, and everything we have at the Archives.  But thanks to this digitized world, I was able to go down the rabbit hole.

I read articles from the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier, the New York Amsterdam News and the Baltimore Afro-American to see how they are covering him.  There were some interesting debates like, “Is this progress?  Is he holding us back? What's going on here?” I thought that was fascinating to get their take because we usually just rely on the jazz take. But the majority of it was overwhelmingly positive and always praising his personality, the showmanship, and the comedy.
 

Publicity still from the hit 1936 film Pennies from Heaven, featuring Armstrong with his friend and disciple, Bing Crosby.
Credit The Jack Bradley Collection, Louis Armstrong House Museum

And that's when I realized this narrative that Armstrong hits this peak in 1928 was not the complete story.  He's breaking box-office records and breaking down barriers and he's a multimedia superstar. So I said let's just take the stigma off him for a minute and just look at what he's doing as a Black entertainer in the 1930s and conquering one peak after another.

So I think it's high time we realize that this career is not just a great jazz career, but it's an incredible 20th-century story of a genius who overcomes all these barriers and restrictions and everything else —criticism, accusations, the mob, marijuana arrests, you name it. It's all there. And he overcomes it to become the most recognizable man on the planet. There’s no other story like it.

Josh Jackson: How would you characterize how he was able to navigate between two worlds—white and Black. For instance, he comes back to New York after he really starts to become a star and get an audience. How much of that was Armstrong understanding how to get into both of those worlds?

Ricky Riccardi: I think he was the most savvy entertainer on the planet. His whole persona and showmanship and stagecraft was all honed in front of Black audiences in Chicago.  His heroes Bert Williams and Bill Bojangles Robinson taught him everything about comedic timing and how to tell a joke. What he is presenting is an unapologetically Black persona. So when that persona gets him in so much trouble in the '50s, he has so much difficulty with it. He's like ... “Do you know what I've gone through and what this comes from? Know your history.”

In the 1920s, Black audiences in Chicago loved him. He's a God when he starts going out on these vaudeville tours. I found a lot of the original reviews when Variety would review him and a lot of the white reviewers were a little scared. They had never seen the combination of the showmanship, the high notes, the singing, his voice … all that kind of stuff. 

You would read these critics saying, you know, not my cup of tea, but the audience seemed to really like it. And so I think there's something there immediately. I have a quote from Ralph Ellison about white women coming to see him in Oklahoma, basically breaking the law by going to see him in segregated venues. And so I think there was something about his talent that was going to speak to all audiences. He was just the great communicator.

So in this period, he has to go through hell in the South. He has to have basically gangsters manage his career to navigate the business side and all that stuff. Armstrong is not a good businessman. It was a minefield out there just to try to survive.  But in terms of the performances and the music? It was all one big pot to him. The audience was all the same. The music was all the same.

Josh Jackson: What was the larger reason for his popularity—his overwhelming talent or the ready availability of his music on disc?

Ricky Riccardi: Guy Lombardo was the most popular sound in Harlem before Armstrong's records. Some Black audiences understood the love songs and the crooning.  The white audiences were coming from Bing Crosby and Russ Colombo and other crooners, and they'd heard that this was the real deal.  [Producer] Tommy Rockwell realizes this early on. Okeh Records is making race records aimed at the Black community and the urban cities. 

Armstrong signs the historic contract to host the Fleischmann’s Yeast Show on radio, flanked by two of the most important managers of his career, Joe Glaser, left, and Tommy Rockwell, right.
Credit Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum

Rockwell says, 'No, no, no, no, no. We're going to take them off the air and put him on the pop side. We're going to give him the same songs all the white Crooners are doing and watch what happens.'  And by 1931 he's the biggest selling artist at Columbia Records in the middle of the Great Depression. The talent is always there. The music explodes early on.

I think Armstrong was completely on board because when you look at what he's doing, night after night in the 1920s. He's playing with big bands. He's doing “Poor Little Rich Girl” and he's doing all the pop tunes of the day.  He's already doing the big band thing.  He's already doing comedy as part of his nightly routine. So, let's put that on record and see if it translates and my goodness, you know, it basically changes American pop music history.

Josh Jackson: Do you think he loved singing those pop songs? I mean, do you think he really enjoyed them?

Ricky Riccardi: I think he did 100%.  Anytime he was asked to name his favorite records, he would rattle off these 1929-1931 Okeh tracks and I think that was like the height for him. All the Decca Records stuff, anything with really strong melodies. That's where he lived. I use the example “Song of the Islands” in the book.  Writer and musician Gunther Schuller was disgusted by the thought that Louis was battling commercialism and said that was too much. Louis couldn't overcome it.

But in the book, I have a quote from a friend of Louis, Charlie Carpenter, who's African American and later became Lester Young’s manager. He remembered Louis running to his home in the south side of Chicago with that record and playing it and was like, “You have to hear this. I've got strings. I've got a pop song. I'm on this year. I'm breaking through. Isn't this great?”

Josh Jackson: So much of Armstrong’s burgeoning success leads to a complicated relationship with his hometown of New Orleans. In the '50s, he's honored as "King of the Zulus" during Carnival. But talk about that first visit in 1931.

Ricky Riccardi: Louis left home in 1922 and did not go back for nine years. And my favorite quote about that is, he says, 'I've done got northern-fied and forgot about a lot of that foolishness.'

And what he's talking about was the disgusting segregation. After nine years of living in Chicago and Harlem and spending time in these incredible African-American communities, to go back home and be treated this way. His first night on the radio a white announcer calls him the "N" word and won't announce them.

The only gig he can play is for whites-only audience. Then his very last night the band is supposed to finally be playing for an all-Black audience for the first time, and the authorities come in and shut it down. So I think that kind of sets the template for this rocky relationship. He has a lot of fun there, too. 

He meets with his mentor Peter Davis. He buys instruments and a radio for all the kids at the orphanage where he once lived.  There's a lot of beautiful moments, but he also was in no rush to come back here. And from that moment on, to the end of his life, New Orleans becomes a stop on the tour. You know, he would always come back and play it, but he barely if ever spent any extended periods of time there.  

Louis and Lil Armstrong visit Peter Davis and Capt. Joseph Jones at the Municipal Boy's Home (the old Colored Wait's Home) during Armstrong’s return home in 1931. Louis and Lil separated soon afterward.
Credit Villard Padio. Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum

In the '50s they passed a law prohibiting integrated bands from performing in public. I mean, Louis and the All Stars were always integrated. So he stayed away until 1965 and he gave an interview and said, 'I'm not going back there and then have some whites whippin’ on my head because my band is accepted around the world. I can't go home.'

You see the seeds of that in that 1931 trip. There’s this realization of how he came up in life. I think people get touchy about it, but it's why he's buried in Queens, New York.  It’s why his museum is in Queens. I tell people all the time that the years in New Orleans are the most important years of his life. And I don't think a day of his life went by without him reminiscing about his mother, about the food, about King Oliver, about the music he learned, about women, about race. 

He learned about everything in those 21 years.  But he also learned right from wrong, and I think Armstrong was all about being inclusive. He was all about integration. So he realized, “All right, thank you, New Orleans. I'll sing about you. Every night I'll talk about you. Every day I write about you, but I'm not going back home.”

Josh Jackson: You're known as someone who has just such a tremendous knowledge of Pops, which is why you're doing your life's work. Was there something in the research for this book that surprised you?.

Ricky Riccardi: Oh, I'm always surprised. When I started writing this, I said I was going to base this entirely on Louis's words and the words of people who were there. The musicians’ oral histories and the contemporary reporting at the time. So I think that was the big surprise. We talked about the Black press. I thought that was incredible because I kept on reading all this stuff.  Just reading that kind of dual thing where the jazz world is slamming every decision he makes while the Black press is praising every decision he makes. And it's just like, wow, you know, the split is there early.

Josh Jackson: Did Armstrong ever attribute the jazz press or the criticism to racism? What was his take?  

Ricky Riccardi: I mean, he might have. I have a couple of quotes in there where he talked about getting sick of pimply faced white boys always questioning him about the 1920s records, so I know that bothered him. But I also know he was super close with producers like Milt Gabler, George Avakian, and Leonard Feather.  They were all white, and they were all telling these Black artists what their music should sound like.  He was friends with all of them.

But at the same time, I think Armstrong the artist doesn't want to be constantly told that what he's doing at any given moment is wrong and not as good as what he used to be doing. Yeah, I think that's the stuff where he drew the line.

Josh Jackson: “Heart Full of Rhythm” is one of my favorite Armstrong tunes from this period because of that line at the end where he says, “Let the great think I'm small. I'll laugh at them all. Cause I've got a heart full of rhythm.” Why did you choose that title?

Ricky Riccardi: That's it. You just answered the question. Once I really dug into those lyrics, I said, “Well, that's the whole theme of the book. It’s all these so-called great people, musicians or critics or producers or whatever, thinking that Louis was past his prime or thinking he was finished. 

But he is laughing at them because he is a global multimedia superstar and we're still talking about him today. We're not talking about any of them.

Take a look at some more wonderful photos of Satchmo at the Louis Armstrong House Museum Virtual Exhibits here.