50 years ago this week Louis Armstrong was riding high, atop the Billboard charts with his first ever No.1. There’s an unlikely tale behind the song that a year later would win the Grammy as ‘Song of The Year’.
In early December 1963 Louis Armstrong went into a New York recording studio, his first session in two years; he was there as a favour for his manger, who in turn was doing a favour for Dave Kapp, the brother of Jack Kapp, the former head of Decca Records, and a song plugger friend. One of the two songs they recorded was from a new Broadway show that was still in pre-production, the other, ‘A Lot of Livin’ To Do’ was from an Elvis Presley inspired Broadway show that had run for 600 performances thathad closed a year or more ago.
Neither song seemed to have what it takes to become a hit, much in the same way that none of Louis’s recent records had; he had last been on the Billboard singles chart in late 1956 with ‘Blueberry Hill’.
Despite everything on 15 February 1964 his new single entered the Billboard charts at No.76, one place ahead of the Dave Clark Five. Twelve weeks later ‘Hello Dolly’ knocked the Beatles, ‘Can’t Buy Me Love; from the top spot, in doing so it ended fourteen straight weeks of The Beatles records at No.1. In the end ‘Hello Dolly’ only spent a week there, and was knocked from the top by Motown’s Mary Wells’s ‘My Guy’ , but who cares, Satchmo was the man to dethrone the Beatles.
While ‘Hello Dolly’ was climbing the charts, Kapp wasted no time in getting Louis and the All-Stars into a studio in Las Vegas to record ten more songs that became the Holly Dolly album. It too proved to be a winner after Kapp rushed out the album in mid-May; by mid-June the LP had gone to No.1 and stayed there for six-weeks, ironically replacing the Original Cast Recording of Hello Dolly.
Perhaps most ironic of all was when Louis and the All-Stars played the Newport Jazz Festival in July. The jazz fraternity was far from complimentary about ‘Hello Dolly’, but despite this he had to play two encores of the song.