Louis Armstrong, one of the most influential musicians of all time, has a legacy etched into the annals of jazz history. Here though, we’re looking back at what the trumpeter considered to be eight tracks he couldn’t live without. Armstrong’s selection makes a wonderfully insightful playlist and gives us a clear picture of the inner life of one of music’s most beloved characters.
Both Louis Armstrong’s voice and his rasping trumpet are some of the most instantly recognisable sounds in all of music. His career, which spanned five decades – as well as five eras in jazz history -was one of immense creativity and has bought joy to a dizzying number of generations. He is undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in jazz and is regarded as nothing less than a national musical icon in America.
Born in 1907 in New Orleans, Armstrong rose to prominence in the 1920s. Throughout this period, he toured with his band The Hot 5 and recorded his first big hits, ‘Potato Head Blues’ and ‘Muggles’. He soon became known as one of America’s most talented trumpeters and a leading figure in the Harlem renaissance. By the 1950s and ’60s, he was a national icon and acted as something of an ambassador for American Jazz music. Armstrong would release much of his most enduring work during this period, including ‘What a Wonderful World’, ‘La Vie en Rose’, and his famous album with Ella Fitzgerald, Ella and Louis. However, by this time, Armstrong was also beginning to lose his relevance. For artists like Miles Davis, Armstrong’s vaudevillian stage persona was an example of Uncle-Tomism. It seemed linked to America’s history of minstrelsy, which Davis and other post-war jazz musicians criticised.
Nevertheless, his immense output and era-defining hits have established him as one of music’s true icons. So, thank God he was invited into the Desert Island Discs studio back In 1968, which even then had been running for over 20 years. In the classic interview, the original host Roy Plomley sat down with ‘Sachmo’ to talk about life and music. Like every guest before or since, he was asked to choose the eight tracks he would bring with him if he were cast away on a desert island. Guests are also invited to pick a luxury item and a book. Of course, Armstrong chose “his horn”, the instrument which defined his career. And for this book, he decided on his own autobiography, Sachmo, saying: “Sometimes you gotta read about yourself”.
After a quick introduction, Plomey asks ‘Satch’ what he wants his eight choices to do for him on the island. Would they be there to remind him of the past, to cheer him up, or conjure up memories of friends? For Armstrong, his choices are there to help him remember the people he loves, his life in showbusiness, and most importantly, his beloved trumpet.
Perhaps that explains Armstrong’s first choice, ‘Blueberry Hill’ by his own band the All-Stars. It’s worth noting that it’s quite unusual for guests to pick their own work. Armstrong, contrastingly, chose to be cast away with a selection made up of almost entirely his music, a modest five of the overall eight tracks no less.
Moving swiftly on, Armstrong introduces his second choice: “Well, here you got, ‘Mack The Knife’, which is a German tune, which I was the first to record -you know – jazzified. Everyone in Harlem sings this one when it comes on, the whole room singing word for word.” Clearly, a piece of Louis’ heart stayed in Harlem after his experiences there in the 1920s. This choice is, perhaps, a celebration of that furiously creative period.
Taking a quick break from the music, Plomley dives into Armstrong’s defining years, stating how both jazz and ‘Satch’ himself were “born in New Orleans”. Armstrong remembers hearing the cornetist Buddy Bolden playing on the sidewalk outside the music hall before his evening set. He goes on to tell the story of how he learnt to play jazz, detailing how he grew up “around honky-tonks” but didn’t have the chance to learn the horn until he was sent to the orphanage. This wasn’t because his parents died, but because he’d been caught firing his father’s gun: ”Everybody shot their guns, but if you got caught it was a different story,” he explained. Despite his incarceration, Armstrong had the opportunity to join the orphanage band as a drummer before expanding his horizons.
Armstrong’s subsequent choices: ‘People’ by Barbara Streisand, ‘Bye Bye Blues’ by Guy Lombardo, and ‘Bess You Is My Woman now’ from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, are dispersed with notable highlights from his illustrious career. Armstrong then explains how he found his “sawmill” voice, pointing out: “If anybody got it in em, they learn it from the church. I always used to sing with my mother in church. She would raise them high A’s and I’d be there with the Baritone. I used to sing Tenor when I was 12 years old. I had them vocal tones and I kept em.”
Number six on Armstrong’s list is Bobby Hackett’s Band playing ‘New Orleans’, in honour of the city which made ‘Little Louis’ the man he was. His appreciation for Hackett’s virtuosic style is clear from the way he describes all of his notes as “self-playing”. He goes on to talk about the way Hackett “see that all his notes sound just right with that beautiful tone ‘a his. And I’m a freak for tonation.”
Armstrong’s final choices are ‘Stars Fell on Alabama’ by his band the All-Stars, followed by, of course, the immutable ‘What A Wonderful World’, which was released that same year and which Armstrong was, at that time, “playin’ every night in the club”. When asked which song he’d choose above all others, he names ‘Blueberry Hill’ without hesitation: “Right now, it’s like Star-Spangled Banner in America, especially when I sing it.”
And that’s it, the eight songs that the legendary Louis Armstrong couldn’t live without. The selection really is a pleasure to listen to, and Armstrong’s laugh is infectious. Throughout the interview, the jazz icon’s love of life and passion for his work appear as clear as the “skies of blue” he sings about in ‘What A Wonderful World.’
Louis Armstrong’s 8 favourite songs of all time
- • Louis Armstrong & His All-Stars – ‘Blueberry Hill’
- Louis Armstrong – ‘Mack the Knife’
- Barbra Streisand – ‘People’
- Guy Lombardo & His Royal Canadians – ‘Bye Bye Blues’
- Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong – ‘Bess, You Is My Woman Now (from Porgy and Bess)’
- Bobby Hackett’s Band – ‘New Orleans’
- Louis Armstrong & His All-Stars – ‘Stars Fell On Alabama’
- Louis Armstrong – ‘What A Wonderful World’
Listen to the full episode below: