NPR 100 Fact Sheet
Title: Hello, Dolly
Artist: Words/music Jerry Herman
As performed by Louis Armstrong
Reporter: Murray Horwitz
Interviewees: Jerry Herman, songwriter
Recordings Used: Hello, Dolly, Louis Armstrong
When you talk to a great person at the end of a career, a doctor or a lawyer, a mother or a father, or if you hear a great coach talk about what it takes to win a championship, they'll say that after all the knowledge and all the skill, what it finally comes down to is character. It's true in music, too. The greatest performances go beyond virtuosity, beyond music even, to an assertion of humanity. And in 1964 there was a shining musical moment made almost purely by strength of character.
Louis Armstrong had not heard of the musical "Hello, Dolly!" before recording the title tune. It had been brought to him by a music publisher. The song itself is not a particularly high achievement. At the recording session in New York, December 4th, 1963, Armstrong expressed no great enthusiasm for it. But the songwriter, Jerry Herman, is a canny Broadway craftsman who knows how to write for stars. He gives great performers great opportunities. But he recently told NPR that even he had his doubts about "Hello, Dolly!"
"When a man from my publishing company called me and said, `Louis Armstrong wants to record that,' I laughed. I thought it was the silliest idea that I had ever heard. But I said, `Let him have a good time. I'm delighted,' you know. And when I heard the recording, I fell out of my chair because he turned my 1890's valentine into one of the most famous pop songs of all time."
How did he do it? The song sounds predictable. In fact, it bears such a striking similarity to a 1949 tune by Mack David, "Sunflower," that David sued for plagiarism and got an out-of-court settlement. The treatment of the song is, well, a little corny. There's that banjo. And what's that string section doing there? But as the trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis has said, `In everything he ever recorded, there comes a point where Louis Armstrong let you know that he was Louis Armstrong.' On one level, that point comes right at the beginning when the maestro sings, "This is Louis, (emphasis on the S), Dolly." But for me, the moment is a purely musical one at the end of the first eight measures of his trumpet solo.
First of all, it's a terrific solo, hard-swinging, as Armstrong's always are, but there's this little phrase at the end of the opening. It's that individual stamp, that celebration of freedom and joy that Armstrong tried to put into everything and it never came out stronger than in "Hello, Dolly!"
Arvell Shaw was Armstrong's bassist for over 20 years, including the "Hello, Dolly!" session. He says Armstrong was so unimpressed by the tune he forgot about it. Famously, he seldom listened to the radio, preferring the tapes that he carried with him everywhere. In the winter of 1964 in concerts in Iowa and Nebraska, people in the audience began to shout for "Hello, Dolly!" For a few nights, Armstrong ignored them. Finally, he turned to Arvell Shaw one night and asked, `What's "Hello, Dolly!"?' 'Well, you know, Pops, it's that tune we recorded.'
Armstrong called New York for the sheet music. A rehearsal was held. That night Louis Armstrong and the Allstars played "Hello, Dolly!" and the crowd went wild. By May, the record had incredibly pushed The Beatles out of the number-one spot on the Billboard top 40 for the first time in over three months. And at age 63, Louis Armstrong had become the oldest person ever to have a number-one hit record.
I asked Arvell Shaw, `Why?' He said, `I've been trying to figure that out for 40 years. If somebody could write a book about what made "Hello, Dolly!" a hit, they'd make a fortune.' My answer: Louis Armstrong, pure and simple, the force of his personality, his irresistible humanity. Well, Arvell's not entirely sure about that. He thinks it also had something to do with the timing of a big Broadway hit show and the release of the title tune by a big star. But as he talked, he agreed, nobody else could have taken that song and made it a hit.
Louis Armstrong played for audiences all over the world; for millions in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and for kids eating ice cream on his front porch in Queens. And everywhere he went, audiences responded to him the same way. It used to puzzle me. Musicians have told me, `It's impossible that all those people really understood his music. What they must have responded to was his spirit, his integrity and his life force.' What they understood was Louis.