When Satchmo came to town

Published 9:44 pm Tuesday, May 17, 2016

By Frank Roberts

One of the most important names in American jazz and pop music is that of a man who was raised in a New Orleans orphanage and went on to be appreciated and loved worldwide.

I remember when I first met Louis (he preferred that pronunciation to “Louie”) Armstrong.

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I met Satchmo in 1965 while I was doing the news on WITN-TV in Washington, N.C. He and his sidekicks played a date at East Carolina University in Greenville. I was, as they say on the farm, in hog’s heaven. I made all the phone calls necessary to arrange an interview.

I got started late, but had no intention of missing the first note, of not seeing the beautiful grin, the handkerchief and sweat that were the trademarks of an American institution.

I sat, enthralled and enraptured, through the first half of the concert. The interview was granted during intermission.

When I walked into the room, Louis was applying some lip salve. He was obviously tired but, equally obviously, he was enjoying himself. I had wondered what to ask him and, as I look back, I can’t remember my questions. Probably they were the same ones he had answered almost daily for about 60 years.

Intermission was short, and the room was small. People milled around, and films of Louis just sitting there didn’t seem all that interesting.

He suggested, bless his heart, that I meet him and the band at the motel the next morning and take pictures of them carrying their gear into the bus. (Note: In those days the newscaster was also the news gatherer. We were an NBC affiliate, not NBC).

I was ready that morning. The weather was good, and I took off with a grin. After I arrived and waited for about 20 minutes, out they came.

They smiled, they posed, they cavorted, they put their arms around one another. They sang barbershop style, and they pretended to play — this was silent film to serve as background for my narrative — and they pretended to dance.

My mind and my camera were both whirling. This was history. This film would be a classic of its genre. This was the “Gone With the Wind” of newsreels about musicians.

When it was over, a cheerful goodbye. A typical day for them, the day of a lifetime for me. The film would air during the 6 and 11 p.m. news that night.

Well, at this point many of you readers are probably ahead of me by several paragraphs. This grown man cried, literally, if I remember correctly, when he opened the camera — the empty camera.

That night, my news programs closed with my impressions of the great man and his fantastic entourage. And, in the background, thousands of viewers stared for about four minutes at that famous photograph of Louis Armstrong, holding trumpet and handkerchief and grinning broadly.

I loved the man, but I had the uneasy feeling later that I knew what the dickens he was grinning about.

Louis — you rascal, you!

A few things you probably didn’t know about “Pops.” He and wife number four, Lucille, enjoyed a long lasting marriage. They lived in a modest home at at 34-56 107th Street, in Corona, Long Island, about 10 miles from my home.

He died July 6, 1971, two days after celebrating his 71st birthday. He is buried in Flushing Cemetery, not far from his home.

He wrote more than 50 songs and is most closely identified with, “What A Wonderful World” which is still heard today. It was the No. 1 song in Australia and Great Britain and was top-10 in Denmark, Belgium, Ireland and Norway.

As the world knows, he was an international good will ambassador. Some fellow artists criticized him for not taking a stand on the issue of race. He didn’t march, and he didn’t make appearances with civil rights leaders.

“I don’t get involved in politics,” he said. “I just blow my horn.”

He dropped out of school to go to work and augment his mother’s income. He sang in the streets for money and then worked for a Jewish family.

The Karnofskys treated him as a family member and encouraged his musical talents. He fired a gun into the air during a New Year’s Eve celebration in 1912 and was sent to the Colored Waif’s Home For Boys.

He had a natural talent for playing the cornet and, by the time he was released from the home in ’14, he realized that his life’s calling was to make music. Soon, he was performing with some of the leading bands of the day.

That’s Satch.