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Louis Armstrong: 'The Singer'

Louis Armstrong, ca. 1956.
Erich Auerbach
Getty Images
Louis Armstrong, ca. 1956.

Obvious to pop fans, but not always recognized by the jazz community, Louis Armstrong left not one but two great legacies in American music. His trumpet defined the role of the jazz soloist and revolutionized jazz itself, but his singing has been every bit as influential.

Armstrong probably began singing well before he ever picked up a horn, but he wasn't recognized as a singer until long after establishing himself as an instrumentalist. Even then, as a singer, he certainly had his detractors. As early as 1924, Armstrong was summarily dismissed by bandleader Fletcher Henderson when he asked to sing on a record.

Henderson's disparaging comments were neither the first nor the last Armstrong would hear about his singing. Ironically, he soon became the central singer in jazz and pop history. His gritty tenor mirrored his trumpet style and influenced practically every singer in pop and jazz. Artists including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan deeply admired Armstrong's singing and used his example to mold their own vocal styles.

I forget who it was that once said that Louie Armstrong was the greatest singer in the world without a voice. And he was because what Louie did to a song, nobody else could do.

How could someone with an untrained voice — a voice with limited range and a gravelly quality — have such a profound effect on the course of American jazz and popular song? The answer is found in Satchmo's own, disparate vocal influences.

First came his earliest musical experiences, predating any formal training. In constant need of money, the adolescent Armstrong formed vocal quartets and sang on the streets. Also formative was the time Armstrong spent working for the Karnofskys, a family of Russian Jewish immigrants. Armstrong listened to the Yiddish melodies the mother often sang to her children, and these melodies later found their way into his own music.

The New Orleans Creole and black brass bands he heard, and the music of the church, also made a strong impression on the young Armstrong. After gaining notice for his playing, he worked with some of the era's great vocalists, including Bessie Smith. By the time Armstrong got his first phonograph in 1918, he was also listening intently to the recordings of Irish tenor John McCormack and the great Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso.

By the spring of 1925, Armstrong made his first recordings as a leader, with the now-famous Hot Fives and Sevens. Once again, his horn came first and his singing second. It wasn't until several months later, when Armstrong returned to the studio with his Fives and Sevens, that he recorded his own vocals.

During one particular song, Armstrong claims to have dropped the lyric sheet. So, when the time came for the vocals, he sang horn-like nonsense syllables instead. With that one song, "Heebie Jeebies," he literally invented "scat" and opened up an entirely new world to singers.

In 1929, a breakout year for Armstrong the singer, he recorded his first crossover hit with "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," and earned a role in his first Broadway musical, Hot Chocolates, featuring the Waller/Razaff song, "Ain't Misbehavin."

With the dual success of the musical and the song, Armstrong emerged as a popular singer with an entirely new base of fans. Not all of his admirers embraced his newfound pop celebrity status. Many felt as though Armstrong had abandoned "serious" music.

Armstrong was a deft interpreter of lyrics and a masterful singer, but he never considered his art separate from entertainment. Even though much of modern jazz had adopted a more demanding, cerebral form, Satchmo couldn't fathom performing something that wouldn't thrill an audience. His pop hits became a major part of Armstrong's career, and he found great success with them, despite the opinions of critics and fellow musicians.

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