On and off since late 1950, Louis Armstrong had been documenting his life through tape recordings. He’d record conversations, interviews, personal stories, and other spoken audio. He’d also often play a vinyl record—of his own music or someone else’s—and tape-record that, sometimes introducing each song as he went.
So in 1969, when Armstrong was convalescing at home in Queens, New York, after a hospital stay, he devoted the downtime to his hobby. From then until his death on July 6, 1971, the venerated musician made some 200 tape recordings in his den. His wife, Lucille, even had the room refurbished and outfitted with new tape decks, according to Ricky Riccardi, director of research collections at the Louis Armstrong House Museum.
It was during this period that Armstrong created his final commercial record: a spirited recitation of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” an early 19th-century poem better known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” or just “The Night Before Christmas” (which may or may not have been written by Clement Clarke Moore).
As Smithsonian reports, Armstrong—who got his first Christmas tree at age 40—narrated the Christmas classic at home on February 26, 1971, on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Lorillard Tobacco Company then produced 1 million vinyl copies of it—with an old recording of Armstrong’s “When the Saints Go Marching In” on the B-side—and handed them out for free to cigarette purchasers during the holidays.
“This great man always bubbled with life and his version of ‘The Night Before Christmas’ obviously tickled him as deeply as it should his listeners,” New York Daily News columnist Robert Sylvester wrote in the album’s liner notes. “His ad libs, his accentuation and his pure delight with his ‘acting’ are contagious and bring to us a piece of work which will make us appreciate his great talent year after year as we listen to his Christmas tribute.”
You can listen for yourself below—no cigarette purchase necessary.