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Louis Armstrong: With Love And Grace, A Final 'Hello'

In January 1971, in one of his final performances, Louis Armstrong used "Hello Dolly" to convey the joy of being alive.
Courtesy of the artist
In January 1971, in one of his final performances, Louis Armstrong used "Hello Dolly" to convey the joy of being alive.

It was one of his final live performances. On Jan. 29, 1971, 69-year-old Louis Armstrong walked onto the stage at the National Press Club to accept an award. He'd planned to perform a couple of numbers and was under doctor's orders not to break out his trumpet, but Armstrong couldn't resist putting on a memorable show. He sang in a voice more gravelly than ever, blew his horn and played a few of his classics, starting with his rendition of "Hello Dolly."

Armstrong first recorded "Hello Dolly" on Dec. 4, 1963. According to Laurence Bergreen's biography Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life, Armstrong "found the song lifeless and trite." But when his manager heard it, he declared it a hit, and indeed it wound up topping the charts. Armstrong had transformed the song, infusing it with irrepressible spirit and swing, and it was no longer a tune about the titular Dolly. When Armstrong sings, "Dolly will never go away," he's clearly talking about himself, so it's understandable why he decided to sing it at the National Press Club near the end of his life. Armstrong's full performance, released in limited edition on vinyl at the time, has just been reissued under the title Red Beans and Rice-Ly Yours: Satchmo at the National Press Club.

On that January 1971 occasion, Armstrong used "Hello Dolly" to convey his sheer joy at being there — at being alive on that day, in that place, doing what he did best, reaffirming his status as America's greatest jazz man. He plays with the lyric to "Hello Dolly," at times deconstructing words into percussive bursts ("Hello, hello, mighty glad, mighty glad"), and his horn solo adds unexpected runs and extra oomph to the familiar melody.

Armstrong died five months after this performance, but he's never gone away. More than 40 years after his death, his music is, as the words to "Hello Dolly" put it, "still glowin', still crowin', still goin' strong."

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Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.