Jazz supremo Louis Armstrong was among the greatest artists of the 20th century. After all, who among us hasn’t heard of hits like “What a Wonderful World” or “Moon River”? The legendary trumpeter and singer lit up the stage for decades with his unique husky voice and magical smile. Yet this true American icon still had his fair share of skeletons in the closet – from convictions for drug-taking to an alleged secret love child.
40. Armstrong’s wife helped kick off his solo career
When Armstrong met his second wife – piano player Lil Hardin – he was very much part of ensembles. But she was rightly convinced that her husband could be so much more. In 1925 she signed a contract behind Armstrong’s back that would give him solo billing. Hardin had an eye on the marketing, too. She apparently insisted that he be sold as “the world’s greatest trumpet player.” And it worked out, because the jazz legend never looked back.
39. Armstrong was confused about his date of birth
It turns out that Armstrong used to lie about his age. Yet unlike most, the musician claimed he was older than he really was, perhaps in an effort to join a military band or simply to gain access to clubs as a performer when he was under 18. No one knows for sure, but Armstrong’s claim that he was born in July 1900 were proven to be untrue when historian Thaddeus Jones unearthed a details of his baptism record. It stated that the music legend had been born on August 4, 1901 – making him him a full 13 months younger.
38. Rice and beans often popped up in Armstrong’s letters
Armstrong was apparently crazy about rice and beans. And he expressed that love in the most curious of ways. The entertainer was such a big fan of the dish he used to sign off his letters “red beans and ricely yours.” “Soul foodly yours” was another favorite ending for Armstrong, who rather fittingly had a well-known hit titled “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue.”
37. Armstrong boycotted his own state for nine years
Armstrong was a proud native of Louisiana, though he once went nine years without playing in his home state. But what was the reason? Well, the local authorities slapped a ban on racially integrated bands in 1956. The jazz supremo once told English author Max Jones, “They treat me better all over the world than they do in my hometown. Ain’t that stupid? Jazz was born there, and I remember when it was no crime for cats of any color to get together and blow.”
36. Armstrong’s first horn was purchased with the help of a Jewish immigrant family
Armstrong was sadly born into a life of poverty and grew up in a rough New Orleans neighborhood known as “the Battlefield.” But his fortunes thankfully changed after he found work with a family of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. Armstrong performed odd jobs for the peddling business run by the Karnofskys, who also took him under their wing. This future music superstar’s first horn was even funded by a $5 loan from his generous benefactors.
35. Armstrong wore a Star of David despite not being Jewish
Interestingly, Armstrong took to wearing a Star of David throughout his adult life. He wore the pendant around his neck, and it was a nod to the Jewish Karnofsky family. The jazz supremo once wrote, “They were always kind to me. [I] was just a little kid who could use a little word of kindness.”
34. Juvenile detention provided Armstrong’s first music training
Armstrong ended up in juvenile detention as a youngster after allegedly firing a pistol during a New Year’s Eve celebration. But far from going further off the rails, the young man instead used the time wisely. Armstrong later said that his 18-month stay in the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys was when “me and music got married.” He learned to play the cornet and bugle under the guidance of the facility’s resident music teacher: Peter Davies. And the rest, as they say, is history.
33. Armstrong never stopped
Armstrong was irrepressible during his glittering career. He recorded hundreds of songs, played countless concerts, published books and appeared in a number of movies. He was also married four times and allegedly had countless affairs. Contemporaries would remember his moving between gigs – always wanting to play some more. Famously, the man himself once remarked that “where I come from, musicians do not retire. They just stop playing.” True to form, Armstrong only stopped performing when he died.
32. Armstrong gave King George V a new nickname
Armstrong performed in front of all manner of important figures – one of whom was King George V. Yes, in 1932 the jazz heavyweight played to him in Buckingham Palace. And he was rumored to have brought the house down with an off-the-cuff quip directed at the monarch before he started “You Rascal, You.” Armstrong reportedly shouted out, “This one’s for you, Rex!”
31. Armstrong may have had a secret daughter
For decades it was believed that Armstrong didn’t have any children – despite four marriages and countless other dalliances. But a mere 42 years after his death Sharon Preston-Folta stepped forward with the shocking claim that she was his daughter. The marketing expert also alleged that “Satchmo” had secretly supported her and her mother Lucille – a former dancer at New York’s Cotton Club – for 16 years in the form of a house. Apparently, he had also made numerous visits to his other family.
30. Armstrong allegedly made a CIA-sponsored trip behind the Iron Curtain
In 1965 Armstrong surprisingly played a successful two-hour concert in East Berlin. While it has never been confirmed, some believe that the trip could have been organized by the CIA in order to warm relations overseas during the bitter Cold War. Armstrong wasn’t averse to playing abroad, of course; he frequently played in Europe, Africa and Asia.
29. ‘What a Wonderful Word’ could have been a hit for someone else
To the uninitiated, undoubtedly Armstrong’s most famous song is “What A Wonderful World.” Much more pop-focused than his jazz roots, the song – written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss – was actually offered to crooner Tony Bennett before Satchmo ever became involved. It was only because Bennett turned down the song that Armstrong ended up singing what is now one of his enduring signature anthems.
28. Armstrong’s mother and first wife were working girls
Young Armstrong, and those he loved, were raised in tough surroundings in New Orleans. Satchmo’s mother was forced to spend time working as a prostitute to make ends meet after her partner left. But it wasn’t just his mom; Armstrong’s first wife Daisy Parker – with whom he had a fiery relationship – was also a sex worker.
27. Armstrong was once arrested for firing a gun
The jazz legend was no stranger to trouble when he was growing up, and one incident in particular shaped him as a child. In 1912 the then-11-year-old ended up being sent to a correctional facility for young offenders: the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys. But what was his crime? Well, he allegedly fired his stepfather’s gun into the sky during New Year’s Eve celebrations.
26. Armstrong was a big fan of Chinese food
The neighborhood in which Armstrong grew up had a large Chinese immigrant population. As a result, food from the Asian nation was ubiquitous for the young man. And the music legend developed a love of this cuisine that lasted his entire life. He even sniffed out the only Chinese restaurant in Nairobi when he was playing there in 1961. Interestingly, their business card and menu remain in the Louis Armstrong House Museum to this day.
25. Armstrong adopted a disabled boy
Satchmo never had any children – at least officially – but the jazz legend was responsible for a minor. The entertainer adopted his cousin’s child Clarence after his mom sadly died during childbirth. The boy suffered head injuries as a youngster and he was mentally disabled. But Clarence was looked after by Armstrong until his death.
24. Armstrong married four times
Armstrong was a ladies man – of that there is no doubt. As well as four marriages, the music legend had countless dalliances and affairs that inevitably led to difficulties in his matrimonial unions. That said, Armstrong was married to his fourth-and-final wife Lucille from 1942 until his death 29 years later. Lucille was once famously quoted as saying “his trumpet comes first,” so the jazz legend’s beau sadly knew where she stood.
23. Armstrong wasn’t a millionaire when he died
The “King of Jazz” sadly passed away in 1971. At the time, he and his fourth wife Lucille lived in an unostentatious house in Corona, Queens. According to The Irish Times, Armstrong died with just $500,000 to his name. Of course, this is not an insignificant amount, but it’s a long way off the $3 million of his former manager Joe Glaser.
22. Armstrong became ‘Satchmo’ due to a British journalist’s pronunciation
Armstrong had a host of nicknames, with “Satchmo” perhaps most iconic among them. Yet this moniker was actually provided by mistake. Upon his arrival in the U.K. city of Plymouth in 1932, a music journalist greeted the legendary entertainer with his then-usual nickname: “Satchelmouth.” Yet the upper-class English accent resulted in a misunderstanding, and Satchmo was born.
21. Armstrong has a tennis stadium named after him
Many of us are aware that New Orleans’ international airport is named after arguably the city’s most famous son: one Louis Armstrong. Though what’s less known is that one of the main arenas at Flushing Meadows – venue of the U.S. Open tennis tournament – is also named after the jazz legend. But why is that? Well, Satchmo lived just down the road for many years. And the venue wasn’t always used for tennis; it was a famous concert venue in its time, too.
20. Armstrong was also an actor
Over the annals of time, it has been largely forgotten that Armstrong worked as an actor. Yes, the pioneer was actually one of the first black stars in Hollywood. His first appearance on the silver screen was in 1932’s A Rhapsody in Black and Blue. In fact, Armstrong went on to share the bill with legends such as Bing Crosby, Betty Boop, Grace Kelly and Barbra Streisand.
19. Armstrong’s gig at the Waldorf-Astoria contributed to his death
Armstrong’s last ever gig was in the Empire Room of the famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. That was during the fall of 1970, and Satchmo actually had an oxygen rank in his dressing room, according to the Observer website. The years and the lifestyle were sadly taking their toll on the legendary performer at this point. Within 11 months he would be dead – succumbing to a heart attack at the age of 69.
18. Armstrong’s career wasn’t great for his lips
You might imagine that constantly blowing hard on a trumpet for years on end would take its toll on your lips. And you’d be right. Armstrong suffered severe damage to his lips over the course of his sparkling career. They were so frequently split that once they had calloused over, an observer remarked that his mouth looked “as hard as a piece of wood,” History.com writes. Somewhat unsurprisingly, today there is even a type of lip condition now commonly referred to as “Satchmo’s Syndrome.”
17. The only known footage of Armstrong in a recording studio was recently unearthed
Incredibly, there was no known footage of Armstrong in the recording studio – despite the countless hours he must have spent there. But that all changed in 2016 when a film was unearthed. The 33-minute recording features Armstrong producing the album Satchmo Plays King Oliver. Happily, it is now in the hands of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in New York.
16. You’ve been pronouncing Armstrong’s name wrong
Chances are, you’ve been mispronouncing the name of one of the 20th century’s most important musicians all these years. Armstrong himself always called himself Louis the U.S. way – with the “s” pronounced. Why wouldn’t he, given the musician was American after all? Yet most people would say the French-style “Louis” with a silent “s,” which happened to be a nickname that Armstrong also responded to.
15. Armstrong’s old house in Queens is now a museum
The Louis Armstrong House Museum sits in Queen’s, New York. The exhibit is open to the public and is the actual house that Satchmo and his fourth wife Lucille lived in up until the singer’s death in 1971. The furnishings are untouched, and visitors can listen to audio recordings of Armstrong playing his trumpet or even having a meal.
14. President Eisenhower drew Armstrong’s ire
Armstrong was not a man who often spoke out in anger against the perceived ills of society. But the entertainer snapped when it came to the Little Rock Nine incident in which black kids were banned from attending a white school. According to History.com, Armstrong remarked, “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” He also apparently accused “two-faced” President Dwight D. Eisenhower of having “no guts.”
13. Armstrong published a book about how to lose weight
Jazz legend. Trumpet-playing maestro. Writer of self-help books? A little-known fact about Armstrong is that he once had a book published called Lose Weight the Satchmo Way. Obsessed with his weight, the entertainer was a firm believer in the power of laxatives in helping to reduce the pounds. This book offered up a number of tips to help readers to lose and maintain their weight – all of which included the involvement of his favored “cure.”
12. Armstrong once worked as a state-sponsored ambassador
The jazz supremo had a few different roles in his time, but one of his lesser-known jobs was as a state-sponsored ambassador. Armstrong had already racked up the air miles and was known as “Ambassador Satch” for his love of foreign gigs. But the U.S. State Department formally hired Armstrong as a cultural diplomat for a three-month Africa tour in 1960. Suffice to say his visit went down a storm. The New York Times reported that 100,000 Ghanaians went into a “frenzied demonstration when he started to blow his horn” in the capital of Accra.
11. Armstrong lived and died happy
Most people’s overriding memory of Armstrong is of a smiling face. And it was never a facade. Satchmo was deeply content with his achievements in life. The man himself said so in a poignant piece of writing not long before his death. Shortly before dying in 1971, the legendary entertainer wrote, “My whole life has been happiness. Through all of the misfortunes, I did not plan anything. Life was there for me and I accepted it. And life, whatever came out, has been beautiful to me, and I love everybody.”
10. Armstrong was the first African American to host a nationally sponsored radio show
Armstrong was a pioneer in so many ways. Yet another feather in the musician’s cap was his contribution to radio. In 1937 Armstrong hosted Fleischmann’s Yeast Show for a short 12-week stint. In doing so he was the first African American to front a show on the wireless that was nationally sponsored.
9. There is a legend that President Nixon once carried drugs for Armstrong
Arguably the most outlandish claim surrounding Armstrong comes from an apparent episode that took place at an airport. And it allegedly involved Richard Nixon. Depending on which version of the story you care to believe, Nixon was president or vice-president at the time, and the encounter took place in the U.S. or Paris. But the punchline is always the same: that the star-struck Nixon ended up carrying Armstrong’s bags – one of which contained the entertainer’s supply of marijuana. True or not, it’s a great tale.
8. The improvization in one of Armstrong’s hits was actually a blunder
Armstrong is recognized as having brought the “scat” style to the general public with his recording of the song “Heebie Jeebies.” Scatting involved the voicing of nonsense sounds and syllables that performed a type of oral solo. But far from a deliberate ploy, legend has it that Satchmo dropped his lyric sheet during the recording – meaning Armstrong had to make it up as he went along. Thus, the musician scatted.
7. Armstrong was allegedly sterile
The music legend was never officially a father – despite his love of women, countless affairs and four marriages. Though there were strong rumors of a secret love child, many assumed the red-blooded entertainer to be sterile. In fact, a former Armstrong band member called Barney Bigard alleged that he overheard one of the performer’s wives accusing her husband of being as such during a heated argument.
6. At 62, Armstrong beat the Beatles
In 1963 Armstrong recorded “Hello Dolly!” for a musical of the same name to be run on Broadway Hot 100 the following year. Upon the show’s release, Satchmo’s record rocketed to number one on the Billboard chart. In doing so, it displaced two hugely popular tunes by the Beatles. At the ripe old age of 62 – the oldest chart-topper ever at that time – Armstrong had proven his popularity once more. Bigger than the Fab Four, in fact.
5. Armstrong gave out laxatives as gifts
Armstrong apparently developed a devotion to laxatives while in his 50s. In fact, he believed the concoction was precious in keeping his weight down. Swiss Kriss was a particularly beloved brand of the singer, who reportedly used to give boxes of it out as a gift to admirers.
4. Mobsters threatened Armstrong with a gun and a baseball bat
Armstrong was often around a criminal element due to his late gigs in nightclubs across the United States. Many of those venues were owned by mobsters, which meant Satchmo lived dangerously. Upon reneging on a contract, Armstrong was once reportedly visited by a man with a baseball bat, according to Terry Teachout’s book Pops. And on another occasion the jazz legend was said to have been threatened by a man with a gun if he didn’t play a show in New York the following night. Armstrong apparently later said, “Jesus, it looked like a cannon and sounded like death. So I look down at that steel and say, ‘Weeellll, maybe I do open in New York tomorrow.”
3. Armstrong allegedly smoked marijuana and was among the first celebrities to be arrested for drugs
Armstrong had a few passions in his life. Music, women and food all jockeyed for position in his list of favorites. But marijuana was reportedly another contender. The musician became a regular pot smoker and even recorded a song called “Muggles” – using a popular slang term for the drug among musicians of the time. He certainly wasn’t the last entertainer to get mixed up with recreational drugs, that’s for sure. Though he was one of the first to get arrested – receiving jail time after a conviction for smoking in a Los Angeles club carpark.
2. Armstrong had gangster connections and knew Al Capone
Playing in clubs in the 1920s meant there was a decent chance that the performer would come into contact with a criminal element. Even Armstrong’s managers such as Joe Glaser and Johnny Collins allegedly had strong gangster connections. In fact, Armstrong even once reportedly rubbed shoulders with the legendary Al Capone. According to author Terry Teachout, the musician even called him “a nice cute little fat boy.” Fortunately, as far as we know, Satchmo never said that to Capone’s face.
1. ‘What a Wonderful World’ only became a hit after Armstrong’s death
If you were to name just one song most people associate with Armstrong, it would surely be “What A Wonderful World.” But the idealistic hit made a comeback long after the legend had passed away at the age of 69. The song only became deeply entrenched in America’s consciousness after it was in the 1987 movie Good Morning, Vietnam. It’s now a bona fide classic, of course.