One of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, Louis Armstrong was responsible for innovations that filtered down through popular music to rock and roll.
Armstrong himself put it like this: “If it hadn’t been for jazz, there wouldn’t be no rock and roll.” If it hadn’t been for Armstrong, popular music of all kinds – from jazz and blues to rock and roll – would be considerably poorer. As a trumpet player, Armstrong was a pioneering soloist and one of the first true virtuosos in jazz.
As a singer, he was one of the originators of scat singing, and his warm, ebullient vocal style had a big impact on the way all pop music was sung. As an entertainer, his 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.
Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans on August 4, 1901. While still a teenager, he and three friends formed a vocal quartet. “I used to sing tenor,” he recalled. “Had a real light voice, and played a little slide whistle, like a trombone.” On New Year’s Eve 1912, he was arrested after he fired some shots from his stepfather’s gun. He was sent to the Colored Waifs’ Home. There, he began playing cornet in a brass band. Five years later, he was playing honky-tonks. Another cornetist, Joe “King” Oliver, took a liking to him, and in 1922, he brought Armstrong to Chicago.
Armstrong joined Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, which enabled him to make a sufficient salary, so he would no longer need to supplement his music income with day labor jobs. Oliver’s band was the best and most influential hot jazz band in Chicago at the time. Armstrong lived like a king, in his own apartment with its own private bath. Armstrong made his first recordings on the Gennett and Okeh labels (jazz records were starting to boom across the country), including taking some solos and breaks, while playing second cornet in Oliver's band in 1923. At this time, he met Hoagy Carmichael (with whom he would collaborate later), who was introduced by friend Bix Beiderbecke, who now had his own Chicago band.
Armstrong enjoyed working with Oliver, but his second wife, pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, urged him to seek more prominent billing and develop his newer style away from the influence of Oliver. Armstrong took the advice of his wife and left Oliver's band. For a year Armstrong played in Fletcher Henderson's band in New York on many recordings. After playing in New York, Armstrong returned to Chicago, where he played in large orchestras.
He then began recording under his own name for Okeh with his famous Hot Five and Hot Seven groups, producing such hits as "Potato Head Blues," "Muggles" (a reference to marijuana, for which Armstrong had a lifelong fondness) and "West End Blues," the music of which set the standard and the agenda for jazz for many years to come.
Armstrong was truly a superb musician, but he was also an entertainer of great wit and immense charisma – something that became evident in the late Twenties and early Thirties, when he emerged as a vocalist. Widely imitated, he defined the art of jazz singing, and he had a profound effect on the likes of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. “He put real fun into singing,” said blues singer and songwriter Alberta Hunter. “He really showed us all how to take a song and go with it – you know, improvise on it. And don’t forget scat singing, which Louis invented.”
Armstrong continued to play jazz brilliantly into the Fifties. He also made a successful crossover to pop with such songs as “Blueberry Hill” and “C’est Si Bon.” In the late Fifties and early Sixties, he had even more pop success with “Mack the Knife” and “Hello, Dolly!” The latter song managed to unseat the Beatles from the top of the charts in 1964. That feat made him the oldest musician in Billboard history to have a Number One song.
Louis Armstrong died of a heart attack in his sleep on July 6, 1971, a month before his 70th birthday. The honorary pallbearers at his funeral include Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Pearl Bailey, Count Basie, Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson and David Frost. Louis Armstrong was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
Inductee: Louis Armstrong (trumpet, vocals; born August 4, 1901, died July 6, 1971)