"This is Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong,” the voice resounds, “talking to all the kids from all over the world at Christmastime.” With that, the trumpeter and singer tucks into a lyrical, buoyant reading of “The Night Before Christmas.” He hews to the words but makes them his own in a voice that glitters with joy. When the 69-year-old describes Santa’s “little round belly /that shook when he laughed like a bowl of jelly,” he breaks into a wheezy giggle that sounds like a truck rumbling to life at a green light.
The poem, first published in 1823, would be Armstrong’s final commercial recording. Armstrong taped it on February 26, 1971, on a reel-to-reel recorder at his home in Queens, New York, during his last spell of good health. Four days later, he began an ill-advised two-week gig at the Waldorf Astoria that was followed by two heart attacks, one of them just two days after his final Waldorf show. On July 6, Armstrong died in his sleep, reportedly from heart failure. The recording was distributed that holiday season by cigarette-maker Lorillard, which pressed it onto a million 45-rpm records as giveaways for anyone who bought a carton of cigarettes.
Despite its undeniable charms, the track is not a Yuletide staple and has gotten little attention in biographies, where scholars have been busy on other questions; all have struggled to take the full measure of Armstrong. First, he was the brash young genius who redefined jazz; then, in middle age, a humble colossus who lived to entertain but was stung by jazz purists and some in the Black community who accused him of “buffoonery” at the expense of art and activism. Later, at 63, he bumped the Beatles from No. 1 in 1964 with his version of the show tune “Hello, Dolly!” But “The Night Before Christmas” shows how his unique expressiveness reached beyond music.
“Armstrong had one voice, he had one style,” whether blown, spoken or written, says Ricky Riccardi, the author of two Armstrong biographies and director of research collections at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens. “All of his ways of telling a story feature this same kind of totally swinging voice.”
Though a few monologues appear on his studio albums, the Christmas poem is a closer kin to the homespun readings that pepper some 700 reels of tape that Armstrong recorded for himself. Amid taped conversations and trumpet noodling, there’s a heartfelt 1958 recitation of the Gettysburg Address. These tapes, Riccardi says, show that Armstrong’s stage presence was actually just his natural presence, rich with sincerity and a sense of delight. In that way, the Christmas recording makes for an accidental but fitting coda to his life. It’s a track that Riccardi calls “one last gift” from Armstrong, even though it doesn’t involve a single musical note. Only a voice, warming the silence around it.