When I was a young boy Louis Armstrong was already a legend. All these rumors that he was not allowed in the country, that he was a junkie, that he’d married a white (gulp) woman. Louis Armstrong? There was no Louis Armstrong. He was a trumpet and a voice you heard on a record in the middle of the night. I would listen and listen to those records.
One day Connie Immerman of the Cotton Club — also famous for Immerman’s Hot Chocolates — said he wanted to introduce me to Louis Armstrong. Connie took me to the Cotton Club, and when I walked in and saw Louis I just gasped.
The first thing Armstrong said to me was, “When were you born?” I said June 18. He whipped out this book he had and flipped through the pages to that date. He turned the book around and showed me the named of other people — famous people — who had been born on June 18. I hoped some of it would rub off on me.
I found out that Louis was terribly weak at memorizing lyrics. His wife would place lyrics all over the house — in his socks, in his shoes, any place he couldn’t miss and so at least would have to look at them a lot.
At the Cotton Club most of the songs were written to help work out a piece of business in the show. They had a little boy for an act and needed a way of getting him into the show. I had the idea of a shoeshine boy coming forward through the tables — which is how “Shoe Shine Boy” got written. I wrote a number for Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “I Bring You Religion On A Mule.” They hired a little white mule. She came riding in on it. Two days later Connie Immerman said to me, “You and your ideas!” I said, “Isn’t the song stopping the show?” Connie said, “Sure it’s stopping the show. Everybody’s quitting. Somebody found out the mule is getting more than the chorus girls.” I’ve never suggested an animal act since.
I became close to Louis Armstrong. One night we covered ten joints in Harlem, and each place somebody was doing Louis Armstrong. In the tenth and last one it was a really terrible imitation. I said, “Louis, why are we here? This man just tries to do everything you do.” Louis said, “He may do somep’n I don’t do.”
I learned that Armstrong’s solos never varied, and I asked him why. He said, “Is it good?” I said yes. “So?” No argument.
Once I saw Fats Waller at a rehearsal with a quart of gin on the piano. “That’s a funny way to run a rehearsal,” I primly said. He answered just fine: “Hey, I get four arrangements to a quart.”
Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller. Can you top them?
[From I SHOULD CARE: THE SAMMY CAHN STORY, by Sammy Cahn, pp. 223-24.]