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10 Things To Know About Louis Armstrong

Published: 8/4/2014
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Louis Armstrong (Getty Images / Michael Ochs Archives)

Even people who don’t like jazz know the name Louis Armstrong. The New Orleans-born trumpet player and singer, who would have marked his 113th birthday Aug. 4, was an entertainer who possessed a unique voice and playing style that is still imitated today. During Armstrong's lifetime, only one of his recordings ever reached the No. 1 Billboard spot in the U.S.: his 1964 cover of "Hello, Dolly," which pushed the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love" from the top spot on the Hot 100 chart. Since his death, Armstrong's recordings have enjoyed great popular success, especially his cover of "What a Wonderful World."

Armstrong died in 1971 in the Queens, New York City, home he and wife Lucille had owned for almost 30 years. (That building now is home to a museum devoted to the entertainer, the Louis Armstrong House.) His funeral services provide a glimpse into his popularity among his peers and fans: An estimated 25,000 people paid their respects at his open coffin in the New York National Guard Armory. Among the honorary pallbearers were Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie.

Legacy.com remembers the legendary musician with a list of 10 facts you may not have known about the man nicknamed "Satchmo."

1. Armstrong long told interviewers he was a "Southern Doodle Dandy born on the Fourth of July 1900," according to his obituary by The New York Times. That date is still found in many jazz histories. But in the mid-1980s, Armstrong biographers found his actual birth certificate, which lists his birthday as Aug. 4, 1901.

2. How did he pronounce his name? Was it Louis, the U.S. way, or Louie, as the French say it? Experts at the Louis Armstrong House Museum listened to home-recorded tapes in the collection and said the artist pronounced his name the American way, but Louie was a nickname to which he answered. In 1933 he made a recording called "Laughin' Louie." On his 1964 record, "Hello, Dolly," he sings, "This is Louis, Dolly."

3. As a child, Armstrong's wide smile earned him nicknames like "Dippermouth," "Gatemouth" and "Satchelmouth." The latter became "Satchmo" in the 1930s when a London writer mistakenly contracted the words when he met Armstrong, according to the museum. Armstrong liked the nickname so much he used it for an autobiography and had it engraved on some of his instruments.

4. Armstrong's father left the family not long after his birth. His mother was often out working to support her two children. Armstrong was unofficially adopted by a family of Russian Jewish immigrants, according to the museum. Ken Burns' documentary series on jazz details how this family, the Karnofskys, provided him with meals, gave him a job at their junk shop, and loaned him money to buy his first instrument, a cornet. Armstrong wore a Star of David around his neck for the rest of his life in tribute to the family. One NPR feature noted that Armstrong listened to the parents sing Yiddish melodies to their children. Years later, these melodies appeared in his music.

5. During his lifetime and now long after, Armstrong's way with a trumpet was recognized and appreciated. Fellow musician Miles Davis once said, "You can't play anything on a horn that Louis hasn't played," according to a National Museum of American History biography of Armstrong. Leonard Feather, the critic and author of The Encyclopedia of Jazz, wrote that Armstrong's style, "melodically and harmonically simple by the standards of later jazz trends, achieved in his early records an unprecedented warmth and beauty. His singing, lacking most of the traditional vocal qualities accepted outside the jazz world, had a rhythmic intensity and guttural charm that induced literally thousands of other vocalists to imitate him," just as "countless trumpeters through the years reflected the impact of his style."

6. Armstrong was a bit of a sound pioneer, as NPR noted, when "during one particular song, Armstrong claims to have dropped the lyric sheet, and when the time came for the vocals, he sang hornlike nonsense syllables instead. With that one song, 'Heebie Jeebies,' he literally invented 'scat' and opened up an entirely new world to singers." Armstrong once said that, "If it hadn't been for jazz, there wouldn't be no rock and roll," according to his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame biography.

7. Armstrong's personality won him fans of all colors, something rare for his time. He was engaging and dynamic and is often quoted as calling the interviewer "Pops" or "dude" and "baby." He seemed to see a friend in anyone, no matter their rank. When Armstrong performed for King George V in 1932, he "ignored the rule that performers are not supposed to refer to members of the royal family while playing before them and announced on the brink of a hot trumpet break, 'This one's for you, Rex,'" noted The New York Times in Armstrong's obituary. In 2011, a BBC radio documentary shared private recordings Armstrong had made, including one in which he described the meeting he and his wife had with Pope Pius XII in 1949: "The pope was such a fine little ol' fella, you know. Oh, he welcomes you so nice. My wife had to put on a veil, she sure was cute. … So the pope said, 'Have you any children?' I said, 'No, daddy, but we're workin' on it!'"

8. Armstrong's "charismatic presence allowed him to break through race barriers to become one of the first black superstars – a figure who would eventually become known as America's Jazz Ambassador," according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Armstrong tribute. After World War II, Armstrong was an unofficial ambassador, traveling to Africa, the Middle East and Europe on goodwill missions arranged by the U.S. State Department.

9. Armstrong was long silent publicly on race issues, something that angered some of his African-American fans. Then, in 1957, angry segregationists and the Arkansas National Guard tried to prevent nine black students from entering a Little Rock high school. Armstrong told the media, "The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell!" He also criticized popular President Dwight D. Eisenhower for not actively intervening in the incident, saying, "The president has no guts!"

In 1965, after police attacked peaceful marchers in Selma, Ala., Armstrong told an interviewer that while he did not actively participate in parades or give long speeches, he contributed to the civil rights movement with money. "They would beat Jesus if he was black and marched. Maybe I'm not in the front line, but I support them with my donations. My life is in my music. They would beat me on the mouth if I marched, and without my mouth I wouldn't be able to blow my horn," Armstrong said, according to his obituary by The New York Times.

10. For nearly 10 years, Armstrong refused to play in his hometown of New Orleans because it did not allow integrated bands. He returned in 1965 after passage of the Civil Rights Act. "He triumphantly played with an integrated band in the city's Jazz Museum," The New York Times reported. The city has since embraced its native son, putting his name on Louis Armstrong Park outside the French Quarter, a place where slaves once gathered. The area's airport, in the neighboring city of Kenner, was renamed Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in 2001 to mark the 100th anniversary of Armstrong's birth.

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."

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