1. A Jewish immigrant family helped him buy his first horn.
Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901, into a poverty-ridden section of New Orleans nicknamed “the Battlefield.” His father abandoned the family when Armstrong was a child, and his teenaged mother was often forced to resort to prostitution to make ends meet. Young Louis spent much of his boyhood in the care of his grandmother, but he also found a second home among the Karnofskys, a local Lithuanian-Jewish family who hired him to do odd jobs for their peddling business. The jazzman would later write that the Karnofskys treated him as though he were their own child, often giving him food and even loaning him money to buy his first instrument, a $5 cornet (he wouldn’t begin playing the trumpet until 1926). As a sign of his gratitude to his Jewish benefactors, Armstrong later took to wearing a Star of David pendant around his neck.
2. Armstrong first received musical training during a stint in juvenile detention.
Armstrong spent his youth singing on the street for spare change, but he didn’t receive any formal musical training until age 11, when he was arrested for firing a pistol in the street during a New Year’s Eve celebration. The crime earned him a stint in a detention facility called the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys, and it was there that Armstrong claimed, “me and music got married.” He spent his 18-month sentence learning how to play bugle and cornet from the Waif’s Home’s music teacher, Peter Davis, and eventually became a star performer in its brass band. Armstrong continued honing his skills in New Orleans’ honkytonks after his release, and in 1919, he landed a breakthrough gig with a riverboat band led by musician Fate Marable. “I do believe that my whole success goes back to that time I was arrested as a wayward boy,” he later wrote, “because then I had to quit running around and began to learn something. Most of all, I began to learn music.”
3. His wife helped jumpstart his solo career.
After leaving New Orleans in 1922, Armstrong spent three years playing in jazz ensembles in Chicago and Harlem. He was largely content to be a journeyman musician, but his second wife, a pianist named Lil Hardin, believed he was too talented not have his own band. In 1925, while Armstrong was performing in New York, Hardin went behind his back and inked a deal with Chicago’s Dreamland Café to make him a featured act. She even demanded that he be billed as “The World’s Greatest Trumpet Player.” Armstrong was hesitant at first, but it turned out to be the best move of his career. Only a few days after he arrived back in Chicago, OKeh Records allowed him to make his first recordings under his own name. Between 1925 and 1928, he and his backup bands, the Hot Five and Hot Seven, went on to cut several dozen records that introduced the world to his improvisational trumpet solos and trademark scat singing. The OKeh recordings would later play a key role in establishing Armstrong as a legendary figure in jazz. His marriage to Hardin, meanwhile, proved less successful—the couple divorced in 1938.
4. Armstrong was one of the first celebrities to be arrested for drug possession.
Armstrong made no secret of his fondness for marijuana, which he described as “a thousand times better than whiskey.” In 1930, when the drug was still not widely known, he and drummer Vic Berton were arrested after police caught them smoking a joint outside the Cotton Club in California. Armstrong served nine days in jail for the bust, but despite his brush with law, he continued using marijuana regularly for the rest of his life. “It makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro,” he once said.
5. His playing style took a heavy toll on his lips.
Thanks to a relentless touring schedule and his penchant for hitting high Cs on the trumpet, Armstrong spent much of his career battling severe lip damage. He played with such force that he often split his lip wide open, and he suffered from painful scar tissue that a fellow musician once said made his lips look “as hard as a piece of wood.” Armstrong treated his lip callouses with a special salve or even removed them himself using a razor blade, but as the years passed, he began struggling to hit his signature high notes. The trumpeter was so famously hard on his “chops,” as he called them, that a certain type of lip condition is now commonly known as “Satchmo’s Syndrome.”
6. Armstrong famously criticized President Dwight D. Eisenhower over segregation.
Armstrong’s hesitancy to speak out against racism was a frequent bone of contention with his fellow black entertainers, some of whom branded him an “Uncle Tom.” In 1957, however, he famously let loose over segregation. At the time, a group of black students known as the “Little Rock Nine” were being prevented from attending an all-white high school in Arkansas. When asked about the crisis in an interview, Armstrong replied, “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.” He added that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was “two-faced” and had “no guts” for not stepping in, and declared that he would no longer play a U.S. government-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union. The comments caused a sensation in the media. Some whites even called for boycotts of the trumpeter’s shows, but the controversy soon blew over after Eisenhower sent soldiers to desegregate the schools in Little Rock. “I feel the downtrodden situation the same as any other Negro,” Armstrong later said of his decision to speak out. “I think I have a right to get sore and say something about it.”
7. He served as a “musical ambassador” for the U.S. State Department.
During the height of the Cold War in the late 1950s, the U.S. State Department developed a program to send jazz musicians and other entertainers on goodwill tours to improve America’s image overseas. Armstrong was already known as “Ambassador Satch” for his concerts in far-flung corners of the globe, but in 1960, he became an official cultural diplomat after he took off on a three-month, State Department-sponsored trip across Africa. The trumpeter and his band, the All Stars, proceeded to take the continent by storm. “In Accra, Ghana, 100,000 natives went into a frenzied demonstration when he started to blow his horn,” the New York Times later wrote, “and in Léopoldville, tribesmen painted themselves ochre and violet and carried him into the city stadium on a canvas throne.” One of the most remarkable signs of Armstrong’s popularity came during his stopover in the Congo’s Katanga Province, where the two sides in a secession crisis called a one-day truce so they could watch him play. He would later joke that he had stopped a civil war.
8. At age 62, Armstrong surpassed The Beatles at the top of the pop charts.
In late-1963, Armstrong and his All Stars recorded the title track for an upcoming musical called “Hello, Dolly!” The trumpeter didn’t expect much from the tune, but when the show debuted on Broadway the following year, it became a runaway hit. By May, “Hello Dolly!” had soared to the top of the charts, displacing two songs by The Beatles, who were then at the height of their popularity. At age 62, Armstrong became the oldest musician in American history to have a number one song.
9. The song “What a Wonderful World” was not a hit during his lifetime.
Armstrong is widely remembered for his rosy ballad “What a Wonderful World,” which he recorded in 1967, just four years before his death. But while the song performed well overseas, it was not well promoted in the United States and flopped upon its initial release. According to Armstrong biographer Terry Teachout, “What a Wonderful World” didn’t make a comeback until 1987, when it was included in the soundtrack of the Robin Williams film “Good Morning, Vietnam.” It was then reissued and shot to number 33 on the Billboard charts, and since then it’s become one of Armstrong’s signature tunes.