By Gerry Breen
Louis Armstrong died in his sleep of a heart attack fifty years ago, on 6th July, 1971, a month before his seventieth birthday, but he left a rich legacy of music and song which is still being enjoyed by old fans and new all around the world. He had a memorable rich, gravelly voice that was filled with the warmth of a sunny day.
He was a composer, an influential singer, a master of the trumpet and he had a charismatic stage presence. When Armstrong sang, it was impossible not to fall under his spell.
For someone who brought so much joy to so many people, it is a bit of a shock to discover that there was very little happiness in his own early years. He spent his youth in extreme poverty in a tough neighbourhood of New Orleans, Louisiana.
The place was called ‘The Battleground’ and, apparently, it was very aptly named. His father abandoned the family soon after Louis was born. His mother frequently left him with his maternal grandmother, and he had to leave school in the fifth grade to begin working.
When he was just eleven years’ old, he got into trouble when he borrowed his step-father’s gun, without permission, and fired a blank into the air. He was arrested and was sentenced to detention at the Coloured Waif’s Home. Life was spartan there, with meals often consisting of no more than bread and molasses. Discipline was strict and enforced by corporal punishment.