Memories by Frank M. Roberts
Note: As those of us in the 50-plus category know, one of the most important names in American jazz, and pop music, is that of the man who was raised in a New Orleans orphanage and who went on to become an international figure, appreciated and loved -- worldwide. I remember when I first met Louis (he prefers that pronunciation rather than 'Louie') Armstrong --- Satchmo.
I met the man in 1965 while I was doing the news on WITN-TV in Washington, N. C. He and his almost as well known sidekicks played a date at East Carolina University in Greenville, N. C. I was, as they say on the farm, in hog's heaven. I made all the phone calls necessary to arrange an interview.
I got started late, but had no intention of missing the first note, of not seeing the beautiful grin, the handkerchief and sweat that were the trademarks of an American institution who was a combination jazz immortal and entertainer. I sat, enthralled and enraptured thru the first half of the concert. The interview was granted during intermission.
When I walked into the room, Louis was applying some lip salve. He was obviously tired but, equally obviously, he was enjoying himself. I had wondered what to ask him and, as I look back, I can't remember what questions came up. Probably the same ones he had answered almost daily for about 60 years. Intermission was short, the room was small. People milled around, and films of Louis just sitting there didn't seem all that interesting.
He suggested, bless his heart, that I meet him and the band at the motel the next morning and take pictures of them carrying their gear into the bus. (Note: In those days the newscaster was also the news gatherer. We were an NBC affiliate, not NBC).
That ayem I was ready. The weather was good and I took off with a grin that 'Pops' would have envied. After I arrived and waited for about 20 minutes, out they came - Louis and the gang.
They smiled, they posed, they cavorted, they put their arms around one another, and they sang barbershop style, and they pretended to play. (This was silent film to serve as background for my narrative), and they pretended to dance.
My mind and my camera were both whirling. This was history. This film would be a classic of its genre. This was the "Gone With the Wind" of newsreels about musicians.
When it was over, a cheerful goodbye. A typical day for them, the day of a lifetime for me. The film would go on during the 6 and 11 p.m. news that night.
Well-ll, at this point many of you readers are probably ahead of me by several paragraphs. This grown man cried, literally, if I remember correctly, when he opened the camera - the empty camera. That night, my news programs closed with my impressions of the great man and his fantastic entourage. And, in the background, thousands of viewers stared for about four minutes at that famous photograph of Louis Armstrong holding trumpet and handkerchief - and grinning broadly.
I loved the man, but I had the uneasy feeling later that I knew what the dickens he was grinning about.
Louis -- you rascal, you!
* * * *
A few things you probably didn't know about 'Pops'. -- He and wife number four, Lucille, enjoyed a long lasting marriage. They lived in a modest home at at 34-56 107th Street, in Corona, Long Island -- about 10 miles from my less than modest home. Lucille was his fourth spouse. He passed away July 6, 1971, two days after celebrating his 71st birthday. He is buried in Flushing Cemetery, not far from his home.
He wrote more than 50 songs and is most closely identified with, "What A Wonderful World" which is often heard in this day and age. It was the number one song in Australia and Great Britain (proper) and was top-10 in Denmark, Belgium, Ireland, and Norway.
As the world knows, he was an international good will ambassador. Some fellow artists criticized him for not taking a stand on the issue of race. He didn't march - he didn't make appearances with civil rights leaders. He explained, "I don't get involved in politics. I just blow my horn."
He dropped out of school to go to work and augment his mother's income. He sang in the streets for money, then worked for a Jewish family. The Karnofsky's treated him as a family member, and encouraged his musical talents. He fired a gun in the air during a New Year's Eve celebration in 1912 and was sent to the Colored Waif's Home For Boys. He had a natural talent for playing the cornet and, by the time he was released from the home in '14 he realized that his life's calling was to make music and, in a short period of time, he was performing with some of the leading bands of the day.
That's Satch - natch.