The NFSA has released rare footage of the ATN-7 Louis Armstrong television special Riggio Presents Satchmo, unseen since it was first televised in 1965, to coincide with a new documentary on his life, Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues (on Apple TV+ from 28 October 2022). NFSA curator Johanna McMahon shares recordings and stories of Armstrong’s visits to Australia.
During Louis Armstrong’s final visit to Australia in November 1964, he recorded an hour-long performance which has been unseen since it was televised nationwide in early 1965.
The night the show was recorded at ATN-7’s Sydney studios in Epping, the studio sound equipment had to be turned down after each number to soften the raucous applause from the 500-person strong audience. Producer Ron Way commented that he had never heard a response like it – Australians couldn’t get enough of the beloved jazz musician.
Armstrong responded later on Sydney radio station 2GB, 'What about the TV show tonight when the audience cheered, and I had to do 4 encores of 'Hello, Dolly!'. That shows that everybody’s digging the happiness of life and Satchmo’s in town and he digs life.' Decades later and Armstrong’s masterful jazz repertoire and unwavering charisma remain just as enchanting:
Riggio Presents Satchmo was billed as the first in a series of presentations by the tobacco company Riggio (and it's probably not a coincidence that the cutaways to the audience during 'Hello, Dolly!' feature people in the studio conspicuously smoking while enjoying the show). With much of Australian television programming in the 1960s following a music or variety show format, large corporations took the opportunity to affiliate themselves with global stars.
Other sponsor-driven programs included the BP Super Show and the special The Beatles Sing for Shell, also filmed in Australia in 1964. These shows turned stars and brands into household names and, for the first time, brought performances into the homes of the newly television-equipped Australian public.
Armstrong had first visited Australia in 1954, making him the first black headline act to tour the country since the Australian Musicians’ Union implemented a ‘no coloured’ rule 3 decades earlier.
The discriminatory ban on black musicians had been put in place after the deportation of African American jazz musician Sonny Clay and his band in 1928 following a media frenzy and police raid based on sensationalised, and ultimately unfounded, accusations of drug use and miscegenation with white Australian women.
When the ban was lifted in 1954, American promoter Lee Gordon seized the opportunity to pull Australia out of the cultural backwaters and bring Armstrong to Australia. In October 1954, 23,000 Australians saw Satchmo play over 2 nights at Sydney Stadium. This tour, and subsequent tours by black musicians, brought new styles, energy, and ways of performing to Australian audiences which were borrowed and copied by local musicians as rock'n'roll began to boom.
Armstrong returned to Australia two years later in April 1956, and the following month his version of 'Mack the Knife' topped the Australian music charts. Melbourne newspapers called his show 'a real clambake' and said he had 'the rhythm fiends stamping, shouting and whistling'.
In Adelaide, Satchmo jammed and dined at the home of jazz musician and 5DN radio broadcaster Mal Badenoch. That evening Badenoch fed the hungry crowd of Satchmo fans meat pies from his family bakery and Armstrong purportedly commented, 'Meat pies, man? I heard of eatin’ apple pies, mulberry pies, raspberry pies, but never meat pies. I’m heading out the back to eat meat pies.'
In Sydney, Armstrong performed on Jack Davey’s popular radio game show, The Ampol Show, and responded to Jack Davey’s trivia questions jovially:
When Armstrong visited Australia for the third time, in 1963, popular music had changed drastically with the ever-growing popularity of rock music. In an interview with Bob Rogers on Sydney radio, Armstrong stated that he was happy to share the spotlight with a younger generation of rock‘n’roll stars (who Armstrong no doubt helped pave the way for). He nonchalantly told Rogers, 'To me, rock‘n’roll is just like any other church music out of New Orleans in the early days. We used to call that sanctified music… every style that you hear in music is still the same old soup warmed over':
During his final Australian visit in 1964, Armstrong finished an interview with Sydney radio commentator Andrea (AKA Dorothy Gordon Jenner) with the following message to his fans: 'Hello folks, this is Satchmo, it’s my fourth time here… I won’t say goodbye, but I say so long for now. But if I don’t come back, don’t think that Satchmo’s gone or nothing like that. You can say, old Satchmo, old Papa Bear, with Swiss Kriss*, where he keeps everybody [happy] with a laxative… but he'll never die. Goodbye!'.
Armstrong passed away in 1971, but his popularity in Australia was unwavering. As a testament to his legacy, he topped the Australian charts again in 1988 with the posthumous re-release of his hit 'What a Wonderful World', made popular again by the film Good Morning, Vietnam (Barry Levinson, US, 1987). Andrea wrote in her condolences to Louis’s widow Lucille, 'There'll never again be anyone like our beloved Satchmo and I want you to know [that’s] how we Australians feel.'
*Amongst the abundance of dietary advice which Louis Armstrong gave, the herbal laxative Swiss Kriss was his all-time favourite product to spruik.
Special thanks to the Seven Network for the footage and images in this article.
Main image: Detail of proof sheet of ATN-7 production stills from the special Riggio Presents Satchmo, November 1964. Courtesy: Seven Network. NFSA title: 805751