I’ve been totally pre-occupied these last two weeks curating an exhibition of photographs – some of them never before seen – of stars of cinema and music as they passed through my hometown of Glasgow from the 1920s onwards.
Of course, I had to include Louis Armstrong, whose 1956 visit to the city has become the stuff of local legend – though it was his 1962 visit that has a personal significance as that was when my 16-year-old father won a competition to meet him. (The signed photo hung in the family bathroom throughout my childhood – appropriately enough, given Louis’s love of laxatives.)
Anyway, here’s my write-up about what happened when Louis came to town in 1956.
By 1956, when Louis Armstrong made the first of his two post-war visits to Glasgow, he was no longer merely known to jazz fans the world over as the singlemost important figure in the evolution of the music. About to be seen in the all-star Hollywood musical High Society, he was also a household name – an entertainer and movie personality known universally as “Satchmo”.
Armstrong’s return to Glasgow, 22 years after his previous visit, was long overdue – so it’s little wonder there was a great deal of excitement about his back-to-back Kelvin Hall shows in the local press. The build-up started days before his arrival, with the Scottish Daily Express publishing “Satchmo’s Column”, a daily diary – clearly ghostwritten – chronicling his tour of Britain.
Nobody could have been more excited than the Clyde Valley Stompers, the trad band which was invited to appear on the bill alongside Armstrong and his All Stars. Four days before the show, the Evening Citizen published a telegram which the band had received:
“Old Pops is happy to hear that you are working on the bill with my All Stars when we play at the Kelvin Hall on May 15. We have got a wonderful show and my boys are playing greater than ever and I know from your reputation that your boys will help us to give the local cats a good evening’s music they will never forget. Regards, Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong.”
Certainly, no-one who was at the show could ever forget it. Even before Armstrong had set foot on the revolving stage, there was the spectacle of the one-legged acrobatic dancer Peg Leg Bates to file away under “unforgettable”. The Bulletin reported that once the All Stars’ set was underway, “the music was alive and the bubbling energy of Louis infectious”.
Fans had had to wait an hour for their hero, who didn’t come onstage until the second half. It was reported in the Daily Record the next day that he had been giving an impromptu trumpet lesson to eight-year-old Fraser Watson, whom he had spotted clutching his new trumpet amidst the throng of screaming teenagers at the stage door.
When Armstrong did come on, he played for a solid 60 minutes. The only dampener on proceedings was the sight of rows of empty seats near the front – only the less pricey seats had sold out.
Between his two shows, Armstrong feasted on a fish supper brought to his dressing room by the Glasgow-born jazz singer turned Broadway star Ella Logan who was also on the bill. Mamie Crichton of the Evening News was horrified by the choice of food on a triumphant occasion which called for “chicken and champagne”. She described Armstrong eating his fish, with his shirt hanging out, “jacket off, horn-rim spectacles on, a handkerchief tied round his head and his wide, battered lips smeared thickly with his own special lip-salve.”
Don Whyte of the Scottish Daily Express quoted Armstrong’s opinion of his carry-out. “Man, ah couldn’t have done this a while ago with my old stomach trouble. But now ah’ll have blown this lot down after five minutes with my horn.” Armstrong was famous for sharing his favourite laxative, Swiss Kriss, with new friends, but he doesn’t seem to have done this in Glasgow. Instead, Mamie Crichton and the others present backstage were offered diet charts which Armstrong fished out of a huge grip bag and “insisted on autographing for each of us”.
Telling them that he’d lost 15lbs in a year, he said: “You can eat anything you like on this diet, but the secret is – never eat late at night. You take a spoonful of this [he reached into the grip for a jar of white powder] ten minutes after meals, and some of this [in again for a herb mixture] just before you go to bed.”
While fans swarmed outside his police-guarded dressing room, Armstrong also played host to a tailor. Satchmo, you see, had decided that he wanted to be fitted for a kilt – in the Armstrong tartan, of course. In his column in the Express, he explained that his name probably derived from one of Scottish “boss men on the plantations” in the Deep South during the days of slavery. “They knew how to make all the cats toe the line,” he added.
As he was measured by the envoy from Lawries the kiltmakers for the full Highland monty (kilt, shoes, jacket, stockings, balmoral etc), Armstrong told The Bulletin that he planned to wear it on Ed Sullivan’s TV show back in New York – and that his singer, Velma Middleton (all 350lbs of her) would be getting a kilt too. While reporters took notes and local celebrities – including Jimmy Logan, Ella’s nephew – looked on, Armstrong was busy trying to get his vital statistics from his wife, Lucille. Their conversation was reported in the Express:
” ‘Lucille,’ he asked his dark-skinned fourth wife. ‘What size of shoes do I take?’
‘Nine and a half, my man,’ says Lucille.
‘Hey sugar-brown, what size of hat do I wear?’ asks Satchmo.
‘I dunno. You never wears a hat,’ replies Lucille.”
Perhaps Mr and Mrs Armstrong should have consulted Satchmo’s valet, Doc Pugh, who was in charge of the non-Highland part of his master’s wardrobe. Asked by the Express – for the article MacSatchmo Gets Measured for a Kilt – why Armstrong was wearing a blue suit while the rest of his band was in black, Doc Pugh explained that it was because he only had one black suit. “It’s black mohair – and he’s keeping it off because it’s too warm.”
In fact, it was so warm that, upon arrival in Glasgow, Doc Pugh bought 50 white handkerchiefs (at £5, 5s) to pile up on the piano so that Armstrong would always have one handy to mop his sweaty brow during his shows. Glaswegians who had seen him during his earlier visits, in 1932 and 1933, had been appalled by the amount of sweat to pour out of the trumpeter. One newspaper headline had read: “The World’s Hottest Trumpeter Perspires at the Empire”.
Judging by the reviews, Armstrong needed his hanky supply in 1956. The Citizen said: “He never stopped blowing magic out of dat ol’ horn, hopping about, whooping up the solo bits of his colleagues singing solo or duet with the vast Velma Middleton from a throat that must be a landslide of whole rocks down there to produce that sound. The Daily Record reported that Armstrong got “the Kelvin Hall ROAR”, and that “even a three-quarter’s empty first house didn’t put him off his stride.”
Two days after Armstrong’s triumphant return to Glasgow, the papers were still carrying stories about it. The Evening News revealed that just before the concert, Armstrong had lost his mute and an SOS had to be put out to the London makers of his trumpet. A mute was rushed to Euston Station, put on a fast train to Glasgow and met there by Jimmy McCormack, of the well-known city centre music shop McCormack’s. He jumped in a taxi with it and delivered it to Armstrong in time for the first house….
* The City of Stars exhibition – which also features Cab Calloway – runs at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall from February 25 until September.