With his infectious smile and raspy voice, Louis Armstrong (who actually pronounced his own name "Lewis") won over fans worldwide. To untold millions, every note that he let loose made the world feel a bit more wonderful, and his music is still being discovered by new generations of fans. Here are 10 facts about the life of one of the 20th century's most important jazz musicians.
1. Louis Armstrong spent his adult life celebrating his birthday on the wrong date.
Armstrong used to say that he’d been born on July 4, 1900. Turns out, he was 13 months off. In 1988, music historian Thaddeus “Tad” Jones located a baptismal record at New Orleans’s Sacred Heart of Jesus Church. According to this document, the performer’s actual birth date was August 4, 1901.
No one’s quite sure why Armstrong lied about his age, but the most popular theories maintain he wanted to join a military band or that he figured he'd have a better shot at landing gigs if he was over 18 years old.
2. As an adult, Louis Armstrong wore a Star of David pendant to honor the Jewish family who had employed him.
While growing up, Armstrong did assorted jobs for the Karnofskys, a family of Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants. “They were always kind to me,” Armstrong once reflected, “[I] was just a little kid who could use a little word of kindness.” Apart from monetary compensation, Armstrong was given a hot meal every evening and regular invitations to Karnofsky Shabbat dinners. One day, they even advanced him the $5 he used to buy his very first horn.
3. Louis Armstrong would sometimes use a food-based sign-off.
“Pops” had a special place in his heart for both Chinese and Italian food. But, as a Bayou State native, Armstrong’s favorite dish was always rice and beans. In fact, before marrying his fourth wife, he made sure that she could cook a satisfactory plateful. To grasp how much the man adored this entrée, consider that he often signed his personal letters with “Red Beans and Ricely Yours.”
4. During a famous recording, Louis Armstrong allegedly dropped his sheet music and improvised.
At one point in “Heebie Jeebies”—a 1926 song released by Armstrong and his "Hot Five” band—the singer vocalizes a series of nonsensical, horn-like sounds. Music historians recognize this as the first popular, mass-market scat ever recorded. Ironically, Armstrong later wrote the whole thing off as a big blunder on his part. In a 1951 interview with Esquire, Armstrong claimed to have come prepared with printed lyrics that day. Midway through the recording session, he accidentally dropped them and scatted to fill the ensuing silence. “Sure enough,” he explained, “they … [published] ‘Heebie Jeebies’ the same way it was mistakenly recorded.” However, most biographers believe that Armstrong made up this anecdote and had planned on scatting all along. It's also worth noting that even though he brought it into popularity, Armstrong in no way invented the technique, which dates back to at least 1906.
5. Louis Armstrong used to give away laxatives as gifts.
Between 1952 and 1955, Armstrong shed 100 pounds. Losing weight proved difficult at first, but his luck changed once he learned of an herbal laxative called “Swiss Kriss.” The artist promptly went out, bought a box, and became a lifelong spokesman. After trying it, he said that defecation sounded like “Applause.” Enamored, the musician began handing out packets to admirers, loved ones, and band members. Though he was the product's biggest cheerleader, Armstrong neither requested nor received any payment from its manufacturers.
6. Segregation laws drove Louis Armstrong to boycott his own state.
The year 1956 saw Louisiana prohibit integrated bands. Outraged, Armstrong refused to stage another concert within the state's borders. “They treat me better all over the world than they do in my hometown,” he said. “Ain’t that stupid? Jazz was born there and I remember when it was no crime for cats of any color to get together and blow.” Nine years later, after this ban had finally lifted, he again took the stage in New Orleans on October 31, 1965.
7. While playing before the royal family, Louis Armstrong gave King George V a new nickname.
At His Majesty’s command, several of the biggest names in jazz took their talents to Buckingham Palace, and in 1932, Armstrong was requested for a royal performance. Evidently, the show went well. According to Armstrong, that night’s “biggest laugh” came right before his group started playing “You Rascal, You.” Without warning, he looked straight up at the monarch and hollered, “This one’s for you, Rex!”
8. Louis Armstrong went on several goodwill tours during the Cold War.
Fresh off the wild success of his “Hello, Dolly!” cover, Armstrong made a trip to communist East Berlin in 1965, where he gave a two-hour concert that earned a standing ovation. While not officially government-sponsored, there are some who believe the concert was arranged by the CIA, which would make this just one of the many taxpayer-funded appearances he’d make abroad during the Cold War in an effort to strengthen diplomatic relations overseas. Previously, Armstrong had performed throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa—though he famously canceled a planned 1957 Soviet Union tour, citing the recent Little Rock crisis. “The way they are treating my people in the South,” declared Armstrong, “the government can go to hell.”
9. “What a Wonderful World" was originally pitched to Tony Bennett.
The song for which Pops is most widely remembered, “What a Wonderful World,” was almost never his song at all. After completing the optimistic anthem, songwriters Bob Thiele and George David Weiss thought that Tony Bennett would eat it right up. He subsequently passed, so the duo contacted Armstrong in August 1967.
10. "What a Wonderful World" didn't make a splash in the U.S. until well after Louis Armstrong's death.
The first recording of “What a Wonderful World” was produced by ABC Records, which made no attempt to advertise it domestically. Although the ballad topped the 1968 charts in Great Britain, American sales were abysmal. When Pops (who adored Thiele and Weiss’ masterwork) passed away on July 6, 1971, “What a Wonderful World” seemed destined for stateside obscurity.
Then along came a bare-knuckled comedy called Good Morning, Vietnam (1987). The joyous tune perfectly and ironically clashed with the wartime horrors depicted in one montage, so director Barry Levinson added it to his film’s soundtrack. “What a Wonderful World” struck a chord with moviegoers and was re-released that year, becoming an oft-requested radio hit.