Hear Louis Armstrong’s Last Reel-to-Reel Tape, Made Hours Before His Death (1971)

When Louis Arm­strong first record­ed “Hel­lo, Dol­ly!”, in 1963, he “found the song trite and life­less,” says his biog­ra­ph­er Lau­rence Bergreen, a sur­pris­ing fact since it became one of his sig­na­ture tunes. “Arm­strong had trans­formed the song, infus­ing it with irre­press­ible spir­it and swing,” Marc Sil­ver writes at NPR. He did so all the way to the end of his life, play­ing “Hel­lo, Dol­ly!” after accept­ing an award at the Nation­al Press Club in one of his final per­for­mances on Jan­u­ary 29, 1971. “He sang in a voice more grav­el­ly than ever” and per­formed despite the fact that he “was under doctor’s orders not to break out his trum­pet” after a heart attack that near­ly felled the jazz giant. He died five months lat­er on the morn­ing of July 6th.

Arm­strong spent July 5th, 1971, his final night, at home, relax­ing and record­ing reel-to-reel tapes in his den at his home in Coro­na, Queens. Trans­fer­ring his music to tape and mak­ing cov­ers with his own col­lage art had been a decades-long hob­by for Arm­strong, a life­long archivist and mem­oirist. “

It appears,” the Louis Arm­strong House notes, “his [tape] num­ber­ing sys­tem got well into the 400s.” In 2009, Arm­strong House Archivist Ricky Ric­car­di ran across an odd­i­ty, an unnum­bered tape with no art on the cov­er. The only iden­ti­fy­ing infor­ma­tion came from a note on the box in Arm­strong’s wife’s Lucille’s hand­writ­ing, “Last Tape record­ed by Pops. 7/5/71.”

As Ric­car­di explains in a post here (from a longer series on the last two years of Arm­strong tapes), it would take five more years before he dis­cov­ered the con­tents of the final Arm­strong tape — an audio doc­u­ment of the LPs Satch­mo lis­tened to just hours before his death.

“Final­ly,” Ric­car­di writes, “around 11 a.m. on an ear­ly Feb­ru­ary day [in 2013], I was ready. I explained to my vol­un­teer, Har­vey Fish­er, what was about to hap­pen. I went into the stacks, grabbed the tape, sat at the tape deck and loaded the tape onto the hub. I hit ‘Play’ and held my breath as it start­ed spin­ning.” What came out was “Lis­ten to the Mock­ing­bird” from Armstrong’s 1952 col­lab­o­ra­tion with Gor­don Jenk­ins, Satch­mo in Style.

“I felt tears in my eyes while dub­bing it,” Ric­car­di writes. After record­ing this song, Arm­strong flipped the record over, record­ed the sec­ond side, then went on to record the entire 2‑LP set of Satch­mo at Sym­pho­ny Hall, “prob­a­bly with fond mem­o­ries of the musi­cians and friends on that album who were no longer liv­ing.” Final­ly, Arm­strong put on his first, 1956 col­lab­o­ra­tion with Ella Fitzger­ald, an album, writer and musi­cian Tom Maxwell argues, that made a “cul­tur­al leap [in] the mid­dle of that tumul­tuous cen­tu­ry, that two black per­form­ers could be con­sid­ered the best inter­preters of white show tunes, and that the extem­po­ra­ne­ous heart of jazz could ele­vate the whole to icon­ic sta­tus, deseg­re­gat­ing Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture in just eleven songs.”

After the final song, “Louis left his den and head­ed down the hall­way to his bed­room,” Ric­car­di writes, where, Lucille says, he “was feel­ing frisky and tried to ini­ti­ate ‘the vonce.’ She declined, fear­ing for his health. He went to sleep. About 5:30 in the morn­ing of July 6, Louis Arm­strong passed away in his sleep…. Can you think of a bet­ter way to go out?” It was a peace­ful end to a hard life lived in devo­tion to spread­ing his musi­cal joy. You can hear a playlist com­piled by Ric­car­di of most of the music from Armstrong’s 1969–1971 tapes above. It starts with “Hel­lo Dol­ly!” and ends with the last song on Ella and Louis, and on Armstrong’s final reel-to-reel tape, the last song he ever heard: “April in Paris.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Only Known Footage of Louis Arm­strong in a Record­ing Stu­dio: Watch the Recent­ly-Dis­cov­ered Film (1959)

Louis Arm­strong Remem­bers How He Sur­vived the 1918 Flu Epi­dem­ic in New Orleans

When Louis Arm­strong Stopped a Civ­il War in The Con­go (1960)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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Comments (3)
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  • Charles Lawson says:

    That clip is OBVIOUSLY not from a tape but a disc. What is tru­ly the source of this mate­r­i­al?

  • Charles Lawson says:

    I am sor­ry. I now under­stand that he played along with a disc and record­ed him­self doing so. I was con­fused at first.

  • Charles Lawson says:

    After doing some fur­ther search­ing, I am now very puz­zled about what is tru­ly sig­nif­i­cant here. Appar­ent­ly, he did *not* play along but mere­ly did a disc trans­fer to tape? So, the sig­nif­i­cance is that this is the last such trans­fer he did? There are far bet­ter things to doc­u­ment, I think. This item is his­toric in the sense that this was the last music he heard, I sup­pose. I am sor­ry if I am miss­ing anoth­er point. (The admins should feel free to delete all of my com­ments.)

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