If you watch Ken Burns’s ‘Jazz’ documentary you’ll quickly start to believe Louis Armstrong is the closest thing to Mozart in the modern era, as well as the embodiment of the American Dream, but we’ve forgotten that he was just as fascinating outside the concert hall.
1 – He’s the one who finally knocked the Beatles off the charts
In 1964, the Beatles managed to occupy the top of the charts longer than anyone thought possible. Everyone know their reign at the top had to end sometime…but who would be the one to do it?
Why not a 63 year old crooner who hadn’t recorded an album in two years?
When Armstrong released ‘Hello, Dolly!’, the song not only unseated The Beatles from the charts, but also stayed atop the Hot 100 chart for longer than any other song released that year.
To date, he is still the oldest person to ever reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
2 – It’s Okay if you don’t know how to say his name
Do you pronounce the S in Louis, or do you keep it silent? The answer depends on where you live, apparently. Remarkably, Armstrong not only referred to himself using both pronunciations, he even wrote his name differently depending on who he was writing to.
So next time you friend corrects you on this one, set them straight. They’re both right.
3 – He was a member of a very selective secret society
You’ve heard of the Freemasons and the Shriners, but you may not know about the Order of Knights of Pythias. (This might mean they were better than their rivals at being a secret society.)
Armstrong rose to the highest level in the Knights of Pythias, a lofty position where he sat alongside U.S. presidents, Supreme Court Justices, Governors, Mayors, and Senators.
4 – Louis Armstrong popularized scat…by accident
When Armstrong recorded ‘Heebie Jeebies’ with his Hot Five band, he (supposedly) dropped the lyrics sheet and watched helplessly as the page slipped under a door and out of sight. Instead of starting over, Armstrong just kept singing, making up silly words to fill in the lines he couldn’t remember.
It wasn’t the first time anyone scatted, but the song was successful enough to put scat singing into homes everywhere. And it demonstrated that Louis Armstrong could change the course of music by accident.
5 – He talked about poop. A lot
Louis Armstrong was a consummate musician, but his favorite movement couldn’t be heard in a concert hall.
Armstrong loved to eat (a LOT of his songs are about food), and it led to a life-long weight problem. But Armstrong believed he had the solution.
When he was a young boy his mother told him of the importance of laxatives, and Louis never forgot it. He took laxatives religiously, and was not shy to talk about it. In fact, he spread the good news of his favorite laxatives in numerous letters, and when he found a brand he liked he would make sure everyone heard about it, sometimes with uncomfortably realistic descriptions of the results.
While this subject might embarrass most of us, Louis thought nothing of telling people his experiences in the bathroom. In fact, he enjoyed mailing cheeky pictures of himself on the toilet to whoever was on his mailing list.
6 – He made a Civil Rights stand when it counted most
Louis Armstrong didn’t often discuss the Civil Rights movement, but during the desegregation conflict in Little Rock, Arkansas, Louis Armstrong was paying close attention.
When president Eisenhower took no action in Little Rock, Armstrong responded by canceling his upcoming state-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union. Since Armstrong was one of the most in-demand artists in the world, this was a devastating loss to his overseas fans.
And unlike most artists who cancel shows by making a phone call to Ticketmaster, Armstrong had to make his stand directly against the State Department. The jazz crooner was interfering in matters of state diplomacy, and he wouldn’t be budged.
Eisenhower finally intervened in Little Rock, and Armstrong agreed to go on his scheduled tour of South America. Some still disagree with Louis Armstrong’s quiet approach to Civil Rights, but when it was time to step forward, Louis Armstrong didn’t disappoint.