Randy's Corner Deli Library

19 July 2008

COUNTRY MUSIC IN BLACK AND WHITE: Louis Armstrong's love affair with country music.

Louis Armstrong's love affair with country music.


Slideshow produced by Paul Reyes, Jeff Dailey, Jason Weinheimer. Special thanks to Cowboy Jack Clement for image permission.

THE LAST TIME LOUIS ARMSTRONG CAME TO NASHVILLE was one warm Friday afternoon in early October 1970. His American Airlines Astrojet was a little late, but that didn’t discourage the delegation waiting for him, which included the high-stepping, one-hundred-and-forty-piece marching band from Tennessee State (the major black university in the state at the time), a cadre of country session musicians who’d played with Armstrong, representatives from ABC television, and a flock of local reporters who didn’t know what to make of what was happening.

The Astrojet rolled to a stop, and a small dapper man in a bow tie and dark suit made his way slowly down the steps. The State band exploded into an ear-bursting version of their fight song, drowning out the smattering of applause from fans and musicians. By Armstrong’s side was Lucille, his fourth wife, with him now twenty-nine years. Armstrong himself was approaching his seventies, and was in poor health. His doctors had advised him to stop playing his trumpet and confine his shows to singing; instead, he began secretly practicing in his bathroom at home. (Just a couple of weeks before he came to Nashville, he played a two-week stint in Las Vegas with a version of his All-Stars.) He finally talked his doctors into letting him make the trip to Nashville to plug his newest album and be a guest on the short-lived television program The Johnny Cash Show, which was taped at Ryman Auditorium. “I ain’t never felt better and had less,” he quipped to the crowd.

The Armstrongs were escorted to a room where a press conference had been set up. The first few questions involved Armstrong’s health, and whether he was planning on retiring.

“I told somebody not long ago that I’m going on one more world tour before I call it quits,” he said. “They said, ‘Okay, we’ve got you booked somewhere in East Siberia and see how that turns out.’ I said, ‘That’s all right, man, I hear they got a lotta babes up there, so go ahead and book me.’ But I’ll tell you this: If I do retire, I won’t go back to driving a mule.”

When the laughter died down, talk turned to the new album, Armstrong’s first to feature country songs and a country back-up band. Produced by Jack Clement, Johnny Cash’s longtime friend and producer, the album was due to be released in a few months; instead of the classic Hank Williams/Eddy Arnold repertoire, it included a strange mixture of Nashville products like Claude King’s recent hit “Wolverton Mountain,” the David Houston cheatin’ song “Almost Persuaded,” and the innocuous “Running Bear” by J.P. Richardson (a.k.a. the Big Bopper). Was Armstrong making a statement by recording white, working-class music? “There’s no such thing as black man’s music and white man’s music, as far as I’m concerned. It’s all music, daddy. Now that’s putting it in black and white. It’s all music. It’s all about love.”

Then it was time for Armstrong to go. As he left, he turned to offer a benediction: “The Lord will help the poor, but not the poor and lazy, so get in there and wail.”

Louis Armstrong wasn’t all that unfamiliar with Nashville or country music. In the 1950s and ’60s, when he was still barnstorming the country with his All-Stars—a combo that by then included figures like trombonist Trummy Young, pianist Billy Kyle, clarinet player Edmond Hall, and drummer Barrett Deems—he often played in Nashville. He was a favorite of the Old South, Vanderbilt crowd, one of whom once described his music as “that happy jazz sound,” and he regularly played a concert in the Vanderbilt auditorium to celebrate the Clinic Bowl, a charitable event sponsored by the city’s Chamber of Commerce.

But the first time the All-Stars played Ryman Auditorium, the leading venue in town and home of the Grand Ole Opry, Armstrong was already the center of a disturbing incident. In February 1957, he and his band played a show in Knoxville, Tennessee, at the city-owned Chilhowee Park, for an audience of two thousand whites and a thousand blacks. The show’s announcement triggered protest from a segregationist named John Kasper, leader of the White Citizens Council, who opposed concerts by “racial mixed” bands (as the All-Stars were at the time). The show went on as planned, but midway through an explosion went off near the stage. Incredibly, no one was injured, and Armstrong vowed to continue his Southern tour.

Two weeks later, he was scheduled to play a date at the Ryman. Still nervous over the Knoxville incident, the Nashville police and Ryman’s management decided that the seating for the concert would be segregated. Blacks would all be seated on the main floor, while whites would be seated in the huge wraparound balcony, in the old “Confederate Gallery.” Blacks were furious. The local NAACP chapter, as well as the Nashville chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, organized a boycott of the concert. Letters were sent to local black leaders urging them not to buy tickets; they even wrote to Armstrong’s agency asking that the seating be integrated or the concert be cancelled.

Though Armstrong went on with the show, the boycott influenced the city’s black community; of the two thousand blacks expected to attend, only three hundred showed up, scattered about the cavernous main floor. Upstairs, the balcony was jammed with two thousand foot-stomping, hand-clapping white fans. In a review of the concert, the Nashville Banner wrote: “The nice thing was that ‘Satchmo’ put everybody, like Humpty Dumpty, back together again.” Armstrong’s only comment was, characteristically, couched in musical terms: “Boy, this was a real jam session.” But in its own way, the incident helped galvanize Nashville’s fledgling Civil Rights Movement; within months the legendary sit-ins were mounted at segregated downtown stores and lunch counters.

By the time he arrived in Nashville that October day in 1970, Armstrong had been a major star in American music for over thirty-seven years and had performed everything from jazz classics like “West End Blues” to Hawaiian songs to gospel to pop fluff like “Among My Souvenirs.” His career had started at the very dawn of jazz, when he apprenticed with the great King Oliver band in the South Side of Chicago in 1923. Over the years, he constantly redefined his music, moving from the legendary Hot Five sessions that set the standards for what would be called “Dixieland” to his big band of the ’30s, in which he showcased his soaring trumpet solos on masterworks like “Chinatown, My Chinatown.” By the late 1940s, he redefined his work again, dropping his big band and forming up a tight touring combo called the All-Stars, which at its peak included white Texas trombone player Jack Teagarden, Ellington alumnus Barney Bigard on clarinet, and pianist Earl Hines.

During the course of all this, Armstrong had amassed a discography of well over a thousand records, though only a handful of them could be called country. Still, the ones he did record, he remembered fondly. “I made a lot of country songs way back,” he told a Nashville reporter who was dubious that Armstrong had any idea of what Nashville was all about. “People today don’t know this. I recorded a lot of good ones, like ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ and ‘Cold, Cold Heart,’ and even appeared a time or two with the late Jimmie Rodgers back in the early ’30s. I remember the days when they called country music ‘hillbilly music.’ Then names went to styles of songs like ragtime, Dixieland, bop, or swing. But it all starts way down there in the nitty-gritty.”

The session with America’s Blue Yodeler, Jimmie Rodgers, has fascinated romantic scholars who have insisted on seeing it as a symbolic watershed meeting between two genres, and as one of the first integrated sessions in the annals of country. At the time, neither Armstrong nor Rodgers thought much about it. They met in Holly-wood on July 16, 1930, at the end of a long session to stockpile Rodgers’s records. Rodgers had worked up a version of “Standing on the Corner,” which he was going to call “Blue Yodel No. 9,” and his producer, Ralph Peer, was casting about for a trumpet player to back him up. Armstrong and his wife at the time, the pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, just happened to be in town on vacation, but Armstrong was always up for a little freelancing.

Armstrong had been creating a cottage industry for himself through back-up gigs with a wide variety of blues singers—Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, Bertha “Chippie” Hill, and others. To him, Rodgers was just another singer who needed back-up. The original Victor session sheets don’t even mention Armstrong by name (instead, one reads, “acc. by trumpet and piano”). Nor was his name included on the original releases for the song. For years, the only way to know for sure that Armstrong had been on the session was a handwritten note from Rodgers that mentions him as the trumpet player. One reason for this might well have been that Armstrong was still under exclusive contract to the rival Okeh company (he would soon sign with Victor Records). The fact that Armstrong could remember the session some sixty years later suggests that he, if not his record company, was impressed with the event.

In the 1950s, as Armstrong began to expand his role as an entertainer and singer, he, like almost every other pop singer in New York, tried his hand at some of the new Hank Williams songs that Fred Rose and Mitch Miller were pushing. Armstrong didn’t have the chart success with “Cold, Cold Heart” that Tony Bennett had, or that Joni James had with “Your Cheatin’ Heart”; but his singles were solid journeyman renditions, and each contained a well-wrought Armstrong trumpet solo. During the next decade, Armstrong the singer, following up on “Hello, Dolly” (1964) and “Mame” (1966), found himself venturing into even stranger territory. He recorded “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” for a Disney album, a single with Guy Lombardo, a duet with Barbra Streisand, a tour de force version of “Saints” with Danny Kaye, a disastrous pairing of “Mack the Knife” with the great Berlin cabaret singer Lotte Lenya, and later a version of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” Fortunately, there were moments of glory, too: a series of albums produced by Bob Thiele that featured a modern classic reading of “What a Wonderful World.”

So it wasn’t really that much of a stretch when, in the spring of 1970, Armstrong was approached by two producers—New Yorker Ivan Mogull and Nashvillian Jack Clement—to consider an all-country album. Since the late ’40s, Nashville had been an unheralded center for rhythm & blues, and in more recent years major black stars like Ray Charles (1962), the Supremes (1965), and soul singer O.B. McClinton (1971) had made popular country albums. Furthermore, Jack Clement, who spearheaded the project, was Cowboy Jack Clement, who spent his early days playing and producing rockabilly at Sun Studio in Memphis, and who was now a major Nashville producer pushing his hot new discovery, the first modern black country star, Charley Pride. The reporter who asked Armstrong if his coming presaged an interest in blacks to start performing country hadn’t done his homework.

The album was put together in August. Clement selected the songs and chose the best session players from various studios. Guitarist Billy Grammer led the group, with Larry Butler on piano, Willie Ackerman on drums, and Stu Basore on steel: a tight, typical Nashville sound. The basic tracks were cut at Clement’s studio and then sent to New York for Satchmo’s vocals and a little horn section sweetening. Clement later recalled that they had no trouble adjusting the songs or arrangements to Armstrong’s style. The result, he said, was “very identifiably Louis Armstrong.”

Rather than saddle Armstrong with a familiar round of Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, and Jim Reeves chestnuts, Clement sought out more current songs—ones that would appeal to Armstrong’s sense of humor and emotion, and not insult his musical intelligence. The most popular songs were Nat King Cole’s 1962 hit “Ramblin’ Rose,” David Houston’s career song from 1966, “Almost Persuaded,” and Claude King’s saga song, “Wolverton Mountain” (1962).

Clement added one of his Charley Pride chart-toppers, “The Easy Part’s Over” (1968), and Sonny James’s tragicomic Native-American song, “Running Bear” (1969). Satchmo seems to have the most fun, and gives his best performance, on Clement’s own “Miller’s Cave,” a bloodthirsty account of adultery and murder that sends the singer off with a series of evil chuckles as he fades out. Armstrong applies his best ballad style to “Crystal Chandeliers” (from Carl Belew) and a lesser known country blues number called “Black Cloud,” penned by Bill Brock.

Louis “Country and Western” Armstrong was released on the Avco-Embassy label, out of New York. It sold modestly, and was ignored by all of the Nashville papers. And though nobody knew it at the time, it would be Louis Armstrong’s swan song: the last album of a recording career that spanned six decades and redefined American music.

The Monday after the airport press conference, Armstrong shuffled up the ramp to the Grand Ole Opry stage at Ryman Auditorium, over to where they were filming The Johnny Cash Show. He walked un-steadily to his seat on the set and took a few tentative phrases on his trumpet. Then someone came out and presented him with a white, ten-gallon hat the size of a wedding cake, and he broke into his famous smile. Things loosened up. Backed by show regulars Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family, he did a medley of songs from the new album: “Running Bear,” “Ramblin’ Rose,” and “Almost Persuaded.” Then Cash himself, cracking a rare grin, moved in and sat and talked with him about Jimmie Rodgers, one of Cash’s heroes. Yes, Satchmo remembered backing him on “Blue Yodel No. 9,” and yes, it would be fun to try to recreate it. So with Cash playing Rodgers and Armstrong playing—well, himself—the pair brought the audience back to 1930. Cash and Armstrong swapped choruses on the old blues standard—Cash doing a swaggering vocal, Armstrong playing a dynamic, elegant series of trumpet breaks, in spite of the fact that his doctors in New York had told him to stop playing for good.

In a sense, this was one of those unique cultural cusps that seems to occur only in American music—the kind that gave rise to Western swing, rock & roll, and rhythm & blues, one of the better nights at the Ryman, a place, Lord knows, that has seen its share.

When it was all wrapped-up, Armstrong returned to New York. Within nine months, he would be gone, dying at home in his sleep on July 6, 1971. But one of his great testaments had been left behind in Nashville, committed to film on Cash’s show, seemingly forgotten by Armstrong’s fans, but creating an indelible memory for Johnny Cash, Ray Edenton, Jack Clement, and those who were lucky enough to have been in the Ryman that night. In a technical sense, it would become a lost chapter in country-music history. But in a broader sense, it remains one of those shining, egalitarian experiments in American roots music—which they actually pulled off, like the two great pros they were.

Photograph by Les Leverett.

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