Video time, again, folks. Once more, I'm dipping into the never-ending bag of YouTube gifts courtesy of German jazz historian, Franz Hoffman. Last month, Franz started uploading one Armstrong rarity after another, causing me to write this tribute. Inspired, I started a new series of breaking down these videos, starting with a 1968 episode of The Bell Telephone Hour titled Jazz: The Intimate Art. That special was recorded in February 1968 and aired soon after. In my blog on it, I talked about the circumstances of Louis's life in this period, as he spent much of 1967 sick and tired, something that occasionally couldn't hide itself in his shows.
But after shutting it down for the second time in September 1967 due to pneumonia, Louis bounced back with a good stretch of strong playing in late 1967, into 1968--though, as "Jazz: The Intimate Art" demonstrated, he was still tired and pretty run down away from the spotlight. For my second choice in this series, I wanted to choose something from the same period: Louis's appearance on the ABC special Operation: Entertainment.
Operation: Entertainment debuted on January 5, 1968. Produced by the one and only Chuck Barris, the show capitalized on the raging Vietnam War, traveling around to various military bases around the world to showcase various top acts entertaining the troops. Terry Gibbs ran the house band and the show featured different hosts every week. The January 5 premiere was hosted by Rich Little and featured the likes of Vikki Carr and the Lennon Sisters. The following week, George Carlin hosted and presented Roy Clark and Bill Dana (as Commanding General Jose Jimenez). Week 3 aired on January 19, was hosted by Dick Cavett and showcased Joannie Sommers, Richard Pryor, magician Harry Blackstone Jr., the Korean Kittens and Louis Armstrong.
Though it aired on January 19, 1968, the show was filmed at Fort Hood Army Base on December 20, 1967. As I said, this was a very, very good stretch for Louis; a taped show from Miami in November is probably the finest late Louis live show and he sounds great on the later "Jazz: The Intimate Art." I'm sure there were rough nights in between, but those two--and another fine New Year's Eve broadcast from Las Vegas--show that the batting average was quite high in this period.
It doesn't seem like video has surfaced of any of the other Operation: Entertainment episodes (there were 31 in all), if YouTube is to be believed, so we should be extra thankful that Louis's segment exists and is a meaty 8+ minutes. So sit back, relax and enjoy Pops on Operation: Entertainment:
Young Dick Cavett does the introduction (every time Louis appeared on Cavett's talk show in 1970 and 71, Cavett did a variation on this kind of tongue-in-cheek "this is his big break" joke) and them Pops bounds out to Gibbs's big band playing "Hello, Dolly!" He looks good, a little fuller than he would on "Jazz: The Intimate Art," which is from only two months later. He'd continue to lose and lose and lose more weight until he ended up in intensive care in September 1968.
The All Stars are waiting for him when he gets to center stage: Tyree Glenn, trombone, Joe Muranyi, clarinet, Marty Napoleon, piano, Buddy Catlett, bass and Danny Barcelona, drums. With a nice chunk of time to stretch out, Louis opens with his longtime theme, "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." A beautiful touch are the close-ups of the soldiers in the crowd, digging it (and you can hear them cheering and shouting every eye-roll and touch of scat). A rousing "Good evening, everybody" has everyone feeling righteous.
After a plug for New Orleans and gumbo, Louis performs his recent record of "What a Wonderful World." Recorded in August 1967, record company ABC-Paramount put almost no money into promoting it in the United States as the company's president, Larry Newton, thought Bob Thiele had created a dud of a record. However, Louis truly did love the song because it brought him right back to his neighborhood in Corona, Queens. Even though it wasn't selling, Louis performed it on many TV shows during this time, including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Jackie Gleason Show. Even with that kind of exposure--and the fact that Louis was performing it every night after "Indiana," the song couldn't catch on in the US without the almighty radio play. But Newton didn't think of its international appeal and by the spring of 1968, it was a number one hit in England, South Africa and other places around the world.
Back-to-back ballads might seem like an odd way to begin his segment but both songs are simply beautiful and featured a heavy dose of sentimentality, which was not lost on the soldiers. Interestingly, Louis botches the lyric at the end of the second eight bars, but recovers quickly. I've always wondered if that flub has caused this clip to not get the airplay it should. VH1 or MTV once used it on a segment on Louis, but after the first few lines, the faded in the original studio recording. Yeah, Louis has a momentary brain fart but that's a small price to pay for the chance to see him sing it and to see the looks on the faces of the soldiers.
Of course, it wasn't until it was used in the 1986 film Good Morning Vietnam that "What a Wonderful World" finally blew up in the United States and it hasn't looked back since (says the author of the book of that same name). Thus, retrospectively, it's even more touching SEEING Louis sing it to the Fort Hood soldiers, many of whom were probably getting ready to go off to Vietnam, some of them not coming back. There are those who view "What a Wonderful World" as a sentimental song, a tear-jerker, an optimistic plea for love and tolerance or an ironic commentary on this imperfect civilization of ours...you can view the Fort Hood version and make a case for any reading of it.
After the two ballads, Louis leaves them swinging with one of my favorite interpretations of "Hello, Dolly!" Though the height of its fame was over three years earlier, there's no question that "Dolly" still killed when you hear the reactions of the soldiers to Marty Napoleon's piano introduction. Louis sings it with plenty of gusto, but it's the instrumental interlude that contains the most meat. Both Buddy Catlett and the late Joe Muranyi told me how much they enjoyed playing "Dolly" but Louis had quite a few variations to his playing and they never knew what he was going to throw at them (compare this one to the chorus shown on "Jazz: The Intimate Art" to see what they're saying).
For me, and I'm guessing so many others, I first saw this clip in the terrific PBS "American Masters" documentary, Satchmo, based on the Gary Giddins book of the same name. I first saw that when I was a 15-year-old kid, shortly after hearing Louis's music changed my life. That big bang came after already seeing Louis in action in The Glenn Miller Story, but it was Satchmo that really put the whole thing together, with all those great performance clips. The instrumental portion of "Dolly" comes early on in that special and it knocked me out from the beginning--still does! Of course, I had no idea at the time that Louis was going through a life-and-death struggle with his health in 1967 and would be forced to put the horn down for two years less than a year after this performance was filmed. That only makes me treasure it that much more today.
After that terrific chorus (with the requisite quotes of "Stormy Weather" and "Japanese Sandman"), Louis takes it out with the vocal and throws in an encore with everyone clapping along and bedlam ensuing when Tyree Glenn breaks into the twist. I'm sure somewhere that night, some hardened jazz fan watched this segment and groaned: a ballad about the sleepy South, a sentimental paean to war-engulfed world and then a corny showtune that ended with jazz's greatest genius acting as the ringleader of a damn circus instead of presenting the artiste he truly was. Hell, there are still some out there clinging to that line of thinking.
I feel sorry for those people, I truly do. Because it was also in this era of Louis's life that he famously said that he was there "in the cause of happiness." One look at the faces of those soldiers during "Dolly" shows once and for all that Louis never failed that cause a single time in his career. You could sit around and argue about what Louis should have done or didn't do but it's all immaterial. At the end of the day, Louis lived for his audiences and the opportunity to make them happy, even when he was feeling dangerously ill himself. Operation: Entertainment shows this off beautifully and like everything else Louis did, should be celebrated as yet another triumph in a career overstuffed with them.