Louis Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901, into a very poor family in New Orleans, Louisiana. His father was William Armstrong (1881-1922) and his mother was Mary “Mayann” Albert (1886-1927. William abandoned his family for another woman when Louis was an infant; Mary left Louis and his younger sister, Beatrice Armstrong Collins (1903-1987) in the care of his grandmother Josephine Armstrong and his Uncle Isaac. Louis moved back to live with his mother and her relatives when he was five years old and then only saw his father in parades. Louis was the grandson of slaves and spent his childhood and youth in poverty in a rough neighborhood. He often said that he was born on July 4, 1900, but a researcher found his true birth date on his baptismal records in the mid-1980s.
Armstrong was “most likely” exposed to music when he attended the Fisk School for Boys. He earned a little money by working as a paperboy as well as selling discarded food to restaurants, but his mother still prostituted herself. Armstrong hung out in dance halls and “listened to bands playing in the brothels and dance halls.” At the age of eleven he dropped out of the Fisk School and joined a quartet of boys singing in the streets for money. He also worked for a Lithuanian-Jewish immigrant family hauling junk; he was treated as a member of the family. He received food and nurture from the family and the influence of a father. He learned how “other white folks” discriminated against Jews and wore a Star of David pendant for the rest of his life.
Armstrong learned to play the cornet and the trumpet. He eventually gained the nicknames of Satchmo or Pops and became a famous American jazz trumpeter, singer, and an influential jazz music figure. He was “renowned for his charismatic stage presence and voice almost as much as for his trumpet-playing.” His influence extended far beyond jazz music for he was “widely regarded as a profound influence on popular music in general.” In an America that was much divided racially, Armstrong “was one of the first truly popular African-American entertainers to `cross over’, whose skin color was secondary to his music.” He did not use his race for political reasons but “took a well-publicized stand for desegregation during the Little Rock Crisis. His artistry and personality allowed him socially acceptable access to the upper echelons of American society that were highly restricted to black men.”
Armstrong married Daisy Parker, a prostitute from Gretna, Louisiana, on March 19, 1918. The marriage did not last long, and the couple separated in 1923. They did however adopt 3-year-old Clarence Armstrong, the son of Louis’ cousin Flora who died soon after giving birth. Clarence suffered a head injury at a young age, and Louis spent the rest of his life taking care of him.
On February 4, 1924, Armstrong married pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong. She was “instrumental in developing his career,” but they separated in 1931 and divorced in 1938. Armstrong then married Alpha Smith, a longtime girlfriend; their marriage lasted four years and ended in divorce in 1942. Armstrong then married Lucille Wilson, a singer, and remained married to her until his death.
None of Armstrong’s marriages produced any children; however, 57-year-old Sharon Preston-Folta claimed in December 2012 that she was his daughter from an affair between Armstrong and her mother Lucille “Sweets” Preston, a dancer at the Cotton Club. Armstrong apparently thought she was his daughter because he paid a monthly allowance of $400 to the mother and child starting in 1955.
Armstrong died on July 6, 1971, from a heart attack in his sleep, a month before he turned 70 years old. He was buried in Flushing Cemetery, Flushing, in Queens, New York City. His honorary pallbearers included Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Pearl Bailey, Count Basie, Harry James, Frank Sinatra, Ed Sullivan, Earl Wilson, Alan King, Johnny Carson and David Frost. Peggy Lee sand “The Lord’s Prayer” at the services while Al Hibbler sang “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and Fred Robbins, a long-time friend, gave the eulogy.”
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