Jazz Profiles from NPR
Louis Armstrong: The Singer
Produced by Jim Luce and Dick Golden

Louis Armstrong  

Obvious to pop fans, but not always recognized by the jazz community, Louis Armstrong left not one but two great legacies in American music. His trumpet defined the role of the jazz soloist and revolutionized jazz itself, but his singing has been every bit as influential.

Listen to Louis give his philosphy on jazz

Even though Armstrong probably began singing well before he ever picked up a horn, he wasn't recognized as a singer until long after establishing himself as an instrumentalist. Even then, as a singer, he certainly had his detractors. As early as 1924, Armstrong was summarily dismissed by bandleader Fletcher Henderson when he asked to sing on a record.

Listen to Armstrong recall Henderson's advice regarding his singing

Henderson's disparaging comments were was neither the first nor the last Armstrong would hear about his singing. Ironically, he soon became the central singer in jazz and pop history. His gritty tenor mirrored his trumpet and influenced practically every singer in pop and jazz thereafter. Artists including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan deeply admired Armstrong's singing and would mold their own vocal style from his example.

Listen to Bing Crosby describe Armstrong's gift as singer

The question always arises: how could someone with an untrained voice -- a voice with limited range and a gravelly quality have such a profound effect on the course of American jazz and popular song? The answer is found in Satchmo's disparate vocal influences.

First came his earliest musical experiences, predating any formal training. In constant need of money, the adolescent Armstrong formed vocal quartets and sing on the streets. Also formative was the time Armstrong spent working for with the Karnofsky's, a family of Russian Jewish immigrants. Armstrong listened to the Yiddish melodies the mother often sang to her children -- later in life, these melodies would find their way into his own music.

Listen to biographer Laurence Bergreen and historian Dan Morgenstern talk about the influence the Karnofsky family had on Armstrong's singing

The New Orleans Creole and Black Brass bands he heard and the music of the church also made a strong impression on the young Armstrong. After gaining notice for his playing, he worked with some of the era's great vocalists, including Bessie Smith. And by the time Armstrong got his first phonograph in 1918, he was also listening intently to the recordings of Irish tenor, John McCormack and the great Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso.

A lot of people think jazz music is just blowing a whole lot of notes loud. Jazz can be played just as pretty as it can be played loud.
-- Louis Armstrong  

By the spring of 1925, Armstrong made his first recordings as a leader with the now-famous Hot Fives and Sevens. And once again, his horn came first and his singing second. It wasn't until several months later, when Armstrong returned to the studio with his Fives and Sevens that he recorded his own vocals.

During one particular song, Armstrong claims to have dropped the lyric sheet, and when the time came for the vocals, he sang horn-like nonsense syllables instead. With that one song, "Heebie Jeebies," he literally invented 'scat' and opened up an entirely new world to singers.

Listen to Louis explain how he invented scat singing

A breakout year for Armstrong the singer, 1929 found him recording his first crossover hit with "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" and earning a role in his first Broadway musical, Hot Chocolates, featuring the Waller/Razaff song, "Ain't Misbehavin'."

Listen to Armstrong reflect on his first crossover hit, "I Can't Give You Anything But Love"

With the dual success of the musical and the song, Armstrong emerged as a popular singer with an entirely new base of fans. Not all of his admirers embraced his newfound pop celebrity status. Many felt as though Armstrong abandoned "serious" music.

Listen to longtime friend Jack Bradley describe the hysteria surrounding Louis' crossover hits

Armstrong was a deft interpreter of lyrics and a masterful singer, but he never considered his art separate from entertainment. Even though much of modern jazz had adopted a more demanding, cerebral form, Satchmo couldn't fathom performing something that wouldn't thrill an audience. His pop hits would become a major part of Armstrong's career, and he would find great success with them, despite the opinions of critics and fellow musicians.

Listen to critic Gary Giddins explain Armstrong's balance of art and entertainment


View the Louis Armstrong: The Singer show playlist


More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org

More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Feature on Louis Armstrong

More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Profiles show summary on Louis Armstrong: The Trumpeter

ListenListen to the NPR 100 feature on Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues"

ListenListen to the NPR 100 feature on Louis Armstrong's "Hello Dolly"

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for the The Complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens Recordings

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Louis Armstrong's CD The Best of the Decca Years


More InfoThe Official Site for The Louis Armstrong House & Archives