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Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Thorndike Biography) Hardcover – May 5, 2010

4.6 out of 5 stars 91 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, December 2009: Crafted with a musician's ear and an historian's eye, Pops is a vibrant biography of the iconic Louis Armstrong that resonates with the same warmth as ol' Satchmo’s distinctive voice. Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout draws from a wealth of previously unavailable material – including over 650 reels of Armstrong's own personal tape recordings – to create an engaging profile that slips behind the jazz legend's megawatt smile. Teachout reveals that the beaming visage of "Reverend Satchelmouth" was not a mark of racial subservience, but a clear symbol of Louis's refusal to let anything cloud the joy he derived from blowing his horn. "Faced with the terrible realities of the time and place into which he had been born," explains Teachout, "he didn't repine, but returned love for hatred and sought salvation in work." Armstrong was hardly impervious to the injustices of his era, but in his mind, nothing was more sacred than the music. --Dave Callanan

Product Description
Louis Armstrong was the greatest jazz musician of the twentieth century and a giant of modern American culture. He knocked the Beatles off the top of the charts, wrote the finest of all jazz autobiographies--without a collaborator--and created collages that have been compared to the art of Romare Bearden. The ranks of his admirers included Johnny Cash, Jackson Pollock and Orson Welles. Offstage he was witty, introspective and unexpectedly complex, a beloved colleague with an explosive temper whose larger-than-life personality was tougher and more sharp-edged than his worshipping fans ever knew.

Wall Street Journal arts columnist Terry Teachout has drawn on a cache of important new sources unavailable to previous Armstrong biographers, including hundreds of private recordings of backstage and after-hours conversations that Armstrong made throughout the second half of his life, to craft a sweeping new narrative biography of this towering figure that shares full, accurate versions of such storied events as Armstrong's decision to break up his big band and his quarrel with President Eisenhower for the first time. Certain to be the definitive word on Armstrong for our generation, Pops paints a gripping portrait of the man, his world and his music that will stand alongside Gary Giddins' Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams and Peter Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley as a classic biography of a major American musician.

Amazon Exclusive: A Letter from Terry Teachout, Author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong

Dear Amazon Readers:

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, my new book, is the story of a great artist who was also a good man.

A genius who was born in the gutter--and became a celebrity known in every corner of the world.

A beloved entertainer who was more complex--and much tougher--than his fans ever imagined.

It's not the first Armstrong biography, but it's the first one to tell Satchmo's story accurately. I based it in part on hundreds of private, after-hours recordings made by Armstrong himself, candid tapes in which he tells the amazing tale of his ascent to stardom in blunt, plainspoken language. I'm the first biographer to have had access to those tapes.

Read Pops and you'll learn the facts about his 1930 marijuana arrest, his life-threatening run-in with the gangsters of Chicago, his triumphant Broadway and Hollywood debuts, his complicated love life, and much, much more.

You'll also come away understanding exactly what it was that made him the most influential jazz musician of the twentieth century, an entertainer so irresistibly magnetic that he knocked the Beatles off the top of the charts four decades after he cut his first record.

If you've ever thrilled to the sounds of "West End Blues," "Mack the Knife," "Hello, Dolly!" or "What a Wonderful World," this is the book for you and yours. Give Pops a read and find out all about the man from New Orleans who changed the face of American music.

Sincerely yours,

Terry Teachout

(Photo © Ken Howard)

Amazon Exclusive: Terry Teachout's Top 10 Louis Armstrong Recordings

In Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, I tell the story of a beloved giant of jazz whose greathearted, larger-than-life personality shone through every record he made. Here are ten of my special favorites:

1. "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues" (1933). Of all Louis Armstrong's records, this is the one I love best. Listen to how he floats atop the beat in the last chorus--he sounds just like a tenor going for a high C.

2. "West End Blues" (1928). The most celebrated of all Armstrong recordings and the quintessence of swing."

3. "Hotter Than That" (1927). “I just played the way I sang," Pops said. His wordless vocal on this Hot Seven track proves it.

4. "Star Dust" (1931). Further proof: listen to how he rewrites the lyrics to this familiar Hoagy Carmichael ballad.

5. "Darling Nelly Gray" (1937). Satchmo transforms an old slave song, backed up by the suavely swinging Mills Brothers.

6. "Jeepers Creepers" (1939). A charming souvenir of Armstrong's film career--he introduced this Johnny Mercer song in "Going Places."

7. "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" (1938). A boiling-hot big-band remake of a classic 1927 Hot Five side in which the trumpeter improves on perfection.

8. "You Rascal, You" (1950). Louis meets Louis in this raucous romp through an Armstrong standard, accompanied to high-spirited effect by Louis Jordan's Tympany Five.

9. "New Orleans Function" (1950). An old-time New Orleans jazz funeral recreated by the All Stars, with Earl Hines on piano and Jack Teagarden on trombone.

10. "Sleepy Time Down South" (1941). Armstrong's theme song, an irreplaceable example of his rich and resplendent lyricism.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Following his biographies of H.L. Mencken and George Balanchine, Teachout turns to another mighty pillar of 20th-century American culture, Louis Armstrong, a black man born at the turn of the century in the poorest quarter of New Orleans who by the end of his life was known and loved in every corner of the earth. It may seem odd to speak of someone of Louis Armstrong's stature as needing recuperation, but his popularity has long been held against him by jazz purists and other music critics. Teachout brings a fresh perspective that, while candid about the ways Pops could hold himself back artistically, celebrates his ambition and capacity for renewal. The other knock against Armstrong is that if white Americans loved him so much, he must have been an Uncle Tom, a notion Teachout neatly demolishes. While Armstrong was keenly aware of the social realities of his time, his relentless work ethic was fueled by an equally intense optimism. (His patience, however, was not infinite; he publicly criticized President Eisenhower as having no guts for failing to enforce desegregation—one of the few celebrities who could be so outspoken without suffering substantial backlash.) Teachout's portrait reminds us why we fell in love with Armstrong's music in the first place. B&w photos throughout, many previously unpublished. (Dec. 2)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Thorndike Biography
  • Hardcover: 650 pages
  • Publisher: Thorndike Press; Lrg edition (May 5, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1410425711
  • ISBN-13: 978-1410425713
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.7 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (91 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,105,164 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By David Keymer TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 17, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Pops isn't just a good biography of Louis Armstrong's full and varied life. It's an exceptionally good biography. It shouldn't replace Laurence Bergreen's excellent Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant life (New York Times Notable Book for 1997) in anyone's library. But Teachout's book complements Bergreen's and it stand on its own as a model of sympathetic, scrupulously researched biographical writing. For those who are interested in him, there is little new that they can learn about the well examined life of this American icon.

As soon as popular critics and serious scholars started writing about that uniquely American pop music, jazz, they wrote about Armstrong. They couldn't avoid it because Armstrong, more than any other individual, set the standards and many of the conventions for jazz, in his playing and his singing. (Where would Bing Crosby have been without Louis to imitate?) He wasn't the first great jazz soloist: Sidney Bechet holds that honor by a few years. And Armstrong's seminal group, the Hot Five (later Hot Seven), played outside the recording studio just one time. It was never a working group, never a combo formed to play in the clubs and dance halls where jazz was being forged in the twenties and thirties.

Trying to imagine jazz without Armstrong is like trying to imagine modern art without Picasso or the essay form without Montaigne. His contemporaries knew it and admitted it. Even those who were on the outs with him -Earl Hines, Coleman Hawkins--knew that Louis was The Man. Red Allen, the trumpeter with (to my mind) the most beautiful sound in jazz, wanted nothing more than to sound like Louis. Jack Teagarden tried to play him on the trombone (and succeeded).
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Louis Armstrong stands as one of the legends of twentieth century music. During five decades as a performer he thrilled audiences with his cornet and trumpet virtuosity, while his gravelly voice made him one of the most popular and recognizable singers of his day. Such a career became the stuff of legend, making it difficult to discern the truth underneath. In this book, Terry Teachout undertakes the difficult task to sift though the legend to discover the man underneath.

In this he is aided by Armstrong, who left behind two autobiographies and numerous audio recordings. From them we learn a man unashamed of his impoverished beginnings in the "black Storyville" neighborhood of New Orleans. The musical scene of the town's brothels and clubs provided the young Armstrong with both his early musical education and his first employment. Teachout goes on to describe his journey during the 1920s from promising young cornet player into the headlining talent he became by the end of the decade. Teachout rightly gives this period, one that saw some of his most innovative music, considerable attention, but he challenges critics such as Gunther Schuller who dismiss Armstrong's work with the big bands of the 1930s and 1940s. These decades dominate the biography, taking up eight of the book's twelve chapters. The final chapters chronicle the established entertainer who faced the twin challenges of aging and the disdainful attitude of the younger generation of musicians who followed in his giant footsteps.

In examining Armstrong's life, Teachout brings to bear his skills as detective and storyteller. He succeeds in depicting a very human yet enormously gifted performer, a talented musician who was also a superb entertainer.
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Format: Hardcover
In reading POPS, I figured that I was going to fill in some of the few gaps of my personal knowledge of Louis Armstrong. After all, I told myself, I played trumpet for a third of my life, have been a fan of jazz for nearly four decades, and actually own several albums of Armstrong's solo and collaborative works. So, how much more could I learn about one of my musical heroes?

A lot, it turns out. My personal gaps were both many and multi-dimensional.

My perception of how Louis (never "Louie") Armstrong and his music were affected by his environment --- his family, contemporaries and mentors --- as well as the influence he had on others and their music was woefully incomplete and in some instances downright inaccurate.

In POPS, author Terry Teachout uses numerous sources simultaneously to paint a picture of what was happening at several points in Armstrong's career --- including adding his subject's own voice via his legacy of letters and personal writings to complete the canvas. He goes into great detail describing Armstrong's relationship with his early mentors and how they shaped both his style and his outward personality. Despite talent and fame that had surpassed those of his mentors, Armstrong always remained deferential; even while occasionally playing second fiddle as a guest in his former master's bands, he never showed them up by outplaying or upstaging them. His respect for the craft and those who had introduced him to it was immense.

In describing Armstrong's early recording sessions, Teachout details the technology available at the time and the limitations it imposed on the instrumentation for the recordings. He then portrays how each member of the recording ensemble related to Armstrong both personally and musically.
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