Reillys gift to you this wonderful New Years morning is to take two and half brief minutes to experience Louis Armstrong singing ‘What a Wonderful World.’
Reilly knows full well that there are some readers of this post who will understandably bristle at the almost Pollyanna like sentiment of the song.
Some have lost mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters in 2022. Others have broken apart from relationships that once were loving and beautiful. Others again have received health prognoses that are at best scary and at worst terminal.
So, just who was this privileged guy, Louis Armstrong, to make such an outrageously positive statement on life?
• Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans on August 4th 1901.
• Within two years his father abandoned the family and his mother, who was just sixteen when he was born, was forced to resort to prostitution to care for Louis and his sister.
• He was raised by his grandmother until the age of five when he was returned to his mother. He spent his youth in poverty in a rough neighbourhood known as ‘The Battlefield.’
• It was here that he acquired his first nickname, ‘Satch.’ He would dance on the streets of New Orleans for pennies. And in order to prevent the bigger guys from stealing them he’d stick the pennies into his mouth. Someone dubbed him ‘satchel mouth’ because of his mouth acting as a satchel.
• When Armstrong was eleven, he dropped out of school. His mother moved into a one-room house with Armstrong, and her common-law husband, Tom Lee. At the time Louis was pimping for a prostitute named Nootsy, but that relationship failed after she stabbed Armstrong in the shoulder and his mother choked her nearly to death.
• Borrowing his stepfather’s gun without permission one day, he fired a blank into the air and was arrested on December 31, 1912. He spent the night at New Orleans Juvenile Court, then was sentenced the next day to detention at the Coloured Waif’s Home. Life at the home was spartan. Mattresses were absent; meals were often little more than bread and molasses. Captain Joseph Jones ran the home like a military camp and used corporal punishment.
• Captain Jones however, also liked music and introduced Louis to his first trumpet teacher, Peter Davis, who immediately recognised his talent. Upon his release from the Home Louis began to feature in riverboat bands playing trumpet.
• Throughout his riverboat experience, Armstrong’s musicianship began to mature and expand. At twenty, he could read music. He became one of the first jazz musicians to be featured on extended trumpet solos, injecting his own personality and style. He also started singing in his performances.
• It would be churlish to suggest that the rest is history but he would go on to be one of the worlds most loved entertainers. Hits like ‘Hello Dolly,’ ‘Summertime,’ ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ ‘La Vie En Rose,’ ‘Georgia on My Mind,’ endure to this day.
• Ironically, his greatest hit, ‘What a Wonderful World,’ mightn’t have happened at all.
• For some unknown reason something about the song resonated deeply with Armstrong. He was adamant on recording it despite a host of obstacles. He was gigging at the time in Las Vegas, and he chose to record the song at a nearby recording studio. The session was scheduled to follow his midnight show, and by 2 am the musicians were settled and tape was rolling.
• The President of ABC, Larry Newton, showed up at the session. Newton was so unimpressed however with the song that he tried to stop the session. He had to be physically removed and locked out of the studio for his disruption. And then, a second problem arose. Nearby freight train whistles interrupted the session twice more, forcing the recording to start over. Armstrong shook his head and laughed off the distractions, keeping his composure. The session ended around 6 am, going longer than expected. To be sure the orchestra members were paid extra for their overtime, Armstrong accepted only $250, musicians’ union scale, for his input.
• Although originally a failure in the US, it would go on to number one in Top Of the Pops in England in1968. By 2021, it was ranked at No.171 on Rolling Stone’s ‘Top 500 Best Songs of All Time’.
• Armstrongs ability to see ‘wonder’ everywhere is poignantly revealed in this vignette not commonly known about his life. He was once performing in Gretna, Louisiana, when he met Daisy Parker, a local prostitute, and started an affair as a client. He returned to Gretna on several occasions to visit her. He even summoned the courage to look for her home to see her away from work. There he found out she had a common-law husband. Serendipitously, Gretna would subsequently track Louis down and the pair would be married. They adopted a three-year-old boy, Clarence, whose mother, Armstrong’s cousin Flora, had died soon after giving birth. Clarence Armstrong was mentally disabled as a result of a head injury at an early age, and Armstrong spent the rest of his life taking care of him.
• And although his marriage to Parker ended some years later it illustrates the humanity and magnanimity and capacity to see wonder in everything that life threw at him.
• You don’t have to be born wonderful, or into wonderful circumstances, to appreciate wonder all about you.
• There’s wonder all about us, if only we would take the time to pause and experience it.
• Sometimes we have to have the Smácht to follow our deep inner callings and plough ahead with our own dreams despite the resistance of others who may think differently. We need to persist with the fight when results are not necessarily forthcoming. And as Reillys mother would say in exhorting patience – ‘Gods delays are not always Gods denials.’
‘Every time I close my eyes blowing that trumpet of mine — I look right in the heart of good old New Orleans … It has given me something to live for.’
‘Everything that’s really worthwhile in life came to us free; our mind, our soul, our body, our hopes, our dreams, our ambitions, our intelligence, our love of family and children and friends. All these priceless possessions are free, but the things that cost us money are actually very cheap and can be replaced at any time.’
—Earl Nightingale. ‘The Strangest Secret.’
1. What wonderful things happened for you in 2022?
2. What signature tune will you record in 2023?
GREETINGS FOR 2023.
• Reilly was privileged to experience many wonderful moments during 2022. None more-so however than the arrival of Baby Zara who promptly rocked into this world on Friday, December 2022, at 10-30 in Cork University Hospital. As old ‘Pops’ (Louis’ other nickname in that apparently he was awful at remembering names and insisted on calling everyone ‘Pops’) might sing.
‘I hear babies cry
I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more
Than I’ll ever know
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world
Yes, I think to myself
What a wonderful world
• Guíonn Reilly athbhliain suaimhneach oraibh ar fad agus go mbeidh seacht fearr a bheidh sibh uile bliain go h-am seo. (Try Googling the translation of that one!)