Hello Dolly: Louis Armstrong Almost Missed His Greatest Hit
"Hello Dolly!" was the biggest hit Louis Armstrong ever had. But he almost never recorded it.
Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong was perhaps the greatest jazz musician of the twentieth century. Not only was he the most innovative and influential trumpet player of his generation, he was also a first rate vocalist. In a music career that spanned almost half a century, from his first recording in 1923 through his last in 1971, Armstrong’s music never lacked for an appreciative audience.
But by the early 1960s tastes in popular music had changed drastically. Four young men from Liverpool, called the Beatles, had taken the American pop scene by storm, and there just didn’t seem to be a place among record-buying teenage music fans for the style of music Louis Armstrong had been master of for so many years. He hadn’t had a hit record since “Blueberry Hill” in 1956. In fact, by December of 1963 it had been more than two years since Armstrong had even set foot in a recording studio.
Louis, however, didn't consider that a problem. He was much too busy to spend time in the studio making records. Constantly on tour around the world with his band, the All Stars, he was making more money with his sold-out live performances than he ever had with his recordings.
But on December 3, 1963, Louis Armstrong did go back into the studio to record a song he’d never heard of before and didn’t think was worth his time. But he made the record anyway. And the world changed.
The song was “Hello Dolly!,” a rather simple little tune that didn’t have a whole lot going for it musically. Nobody thought much of it, and Louis himself viewed it with disdain. But by his superb musicianship, he transformed a very forgettable song into a surprise hit and a lasting musical treasure.
This article tells the story of how Louis Armstrong came to record the song, and how it became, as Melody Maker magazine called it at the time, “The hit no one wanted.”
When "Hello Dolly!" reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, knocking the Beatles out of the top spot for the first time in 14 weeks, Louis Armstrong, at age 62, became the oldest artist to ever have a number one hit.
Louis Armstrong Does a Favor for His Manager
Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser, had a friend named Jack Lee, who was trying to promote a new Broadway show that would be opening in just a few weeks. As part of the publicity campaign for the production, Lee was attempting to get a demo recording made of one of the show's songs. As a favor to Lee, Glaser agreed to ask Armstrong to record it.
Lee then went looking for a record company to produce the demo. But, as Glaser recalls, the song was so unimpressive that five labels turned it down before Kapp Records agreed to do it. And even Kapp was reluctant. Mickey Kapp, whose father was the head of the company, remembers how the project was finally approved:
"Jack came to see my dad with the song,” he says. “My dad didn’t want to record it, so Jack went in my office and played it, and I liked it.”
Once the record company was lined up, Glaser set about convincing Louis to do the session. In his book, , which I found to be an indispensable source for details of how events played out, Ricky Riccardi records the memories of Arvell Shaw, the bass player for Louis’s band. What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years
Shaw recalls that the band, known as "Louis Armstrong and His All Stars," was playing at a club called Chez Paris in Chicago when Joe Glaser called and asked them to go to New York for a recording session. It was to be on a Sunday, their day off, and at first Louis didn't want to go because, as he said, “We’re working hard and we need some rest.”
Finally, as a favor to Glaser, Louis agreed to do the session, and the entire band set out for New York. At that point, Louis didn't even know what songs they would be recording.
Louis Armstrong Is Not Impressed With "Hello Dolly!"
Armstrong had agreed to take his band to New York on their day off because he trusted his manager. But when the All Stars got to the studio and Louis was handed the sheet music to the song they were brought there to record, he was not happy.
You mean to tell me you called me out here to do this?— Louis Armstrong's reaction when he first saw the music for "Hello Dolly!"
And he had good reason for his dismay. As Laurence Bergreen notes in his biography, Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life, Louis considered the song “lifeless and trite."
Still, Louis Armstrong was nothing if not a pro, so he set about putting his own inimitable stamp on the sappy little tune. For one thing, he changed some of the lyrics to fit his own style, substituting “Golly gee, fellas, have a little faith in me, fellas” in place of “Take her wrap, fellas, find her an empty lap, fellas” at the end of the song.
The most famous lyric alteration was actually recommended by Mickey Kapp, the session producer. He suggested that Armstrong replace the second “Hello Dolly” with “This is Louie, Dolly.” Armstrong adopted that suggestion, but not before letting Kapp know in no uncertain terms the correct pronunciation of his name: "It’s not Louie, it's Louis!" And perhaps to make sure everybody got the point, what he sings on the record is “this is Louissss” with the s drawn out so that it can’t be missed.
The Song Gets Some Post-Production Help
Even after giving his performance his all, Armstrong realized that the recording needed something more.
“I don't like that,” he said. “Can't something just be done with this record to kind of pep it up a little or do something?"
Trummy Young, the All Stars’ trombone player, suggested bringing in banjo player Tony Gottuso to do the introduction. And Mickey Kapp even dubbed in some barely noticeable strings just before Louis begins to sing.
Still, “Hello Dolly!” made hardly any impression on Louis and his band. They all much preferred the other tune they recorded that day, “A Lot of Livin' to Do” from the Broadway show, Bye, Bye Birdie. As they walked out after their recording session was done, Louis Armstrong and His All Stars left almost all their memories of “Hello Dolly!” behind in the studio.
Some jazz purists accuse Armstrong of selling out his art by playing pop music like "Hello Dolly!" What do you think?
Armstrong’s Version Surprises Everybody
When songwriter Jerry Hermann first heard that jazz superstar Louis Armstrong wanted to record his little ditty, he was dumbfounded. “I thought it was the silliest idea that I had ever heard,” he says. But when he heard the result, he was dumbfounded for a different reason.
The show that would become Hello Dolly! was being previewed in Detroit prior to its January, 1964 opening in New York. At that point the production, which didn't even have an official name yet, was still in rehearsals, and it was during a rehearsal break that Jerry Hermann first heard what Louis had done with his song. The publisher brought a copy of the record and played it for the entire cast and crew. The effect was electric.
In his book , which recounts the story in vivid detail, Terry Teachout records Jerry Hermann’s reaction to hearing Louis’s rendition of his song for the first time: Pops: The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong
Armstrong had made it New Orleans Dixieland. He had taken the parochialism out of the number and substituted a universality. Everyone in the room could tell that this record had “hit” written over it.
The music publisher was the first to speak after Armstrong's growl faded away. "There's the title of your show," he announced. "This record's going to sell a million copies."
Actually, the publisher was a bit conservative in his million-seller prediction. Over the next two years Louis’s single would sell more than three million copies.
Louis, Himself, Is Caught by Surprise
When Louis Armstrong took his band into that New York studio on that December day in 1963, he had no intention of producing a record that would be released commercially. As far as he knew, his recording of “Hello Dolly!” was intended only as a demo to be used in publicizing the Broadway production. But when the brass at Kapp Records heard it, they quickly realized that it had such potential that they needed to get it out into the marketplace as quickly as possible after the show opened on Broadway.
They weren’t long in reaping the benefits of that decision.
The Broadway production of Hello Dolly! premiered at the St. James Theater in New York on January 16, 1964. On February 9th Louis’s recording made its first appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and began a steady rise. By May 9th it reached #1, displacing the Beatles, who had held the top spot for 14 consecutive weeks. And, of course, it began to get massive radio play.
But Louis himself remained blissfully unaware of all the excitement the song was generating. After that Sunday recording session, he and his All Stars continued their touring. It was during a swing through Iowa and Nebraska that audiences began shouting for the band to play “Hello Dolly!”
What is Hello Dolly?— Louis Armstrong when audiences kept calling for the song at his shows
Louis, who famously never listened to the radio, had no idea what they were talking about; the song had made so little an impression on him that he had completely forgotten about it. When bass player Arvell Shaw reminded him of the tune they had recorded weeks earlier, Louis realized he needed to add it to the show.
But there was just one problem – no one in the band could remember how it went! Louis called New York to have the sheet music sent to them. Meanwhile, the band members had to listen to the record to refresh their memories. When they finally did start playing the song during live performances, audiences would go wild. Louis would sing "Hello Dolly!" in every show for the rest of his life.
“Hello Dolly!” Makes Louis Armstrong an Even Bigger Star
The success of “Hello Dolly!” led to some striking results for the latter stage of Louis Armstrong’s career. Although he had been a celebrated A-list star for almost four decades, Satchmo now found his profile being elevated to an entirely new level.
With sales of the single accelerating toward the millions (it would become the best-selling record of 1964), Louis and his band quickly released a “Hello Dolly!” album that went gold and became the number one LP in the country.
Television shows such as The Hollywood Palace and the Ed Sullivan Show clamored for him to come on to sing the song. He even gave an impromptu acapella performance on What's My Line. And when the Hello Dolly! movie was made in 1969, it included a big production number in which Louis and the film’s star, Barbara Streisand, performed the title song together.
Then there were the Grammy Awards. Louis received the 1964 Grammy for best male vocal performance, and "Hello, Dolly!" won the Grammy as the song of the year in 1965. Louis’s version of the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001.
"Hello Dolly!" is now one of the most well known and frequently recorded show tunes of all time. And it all came about because a peerless musician, whose brilliance couldn’t help but elevate even the most mundane material, was willing to give up his Sunday off to help a friend.
© 2019 Ronald E Franklin