Louis Armstrong: We have all the Time in the World

Louis Armstrong was one of the most influential figures in the history of jazz. After becoming aware of racism at the age of seven, he rose from the poverty of his early life and was known for his positive attitude.

He let his music do the talking and as well as being an outstanding trumpet player, he was also a singer renowned for his distinct gravelly voice, a composer and occasionally an actor.

As an American icon and international cultural ambassador in the 1950s, he was sponsored by the US State Department to tour Europe, Africa and Asia. Although not a massive political campaigner, he took a stand against President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 for failing to support African American people's civil rights.

Twelve of his songs were posthumously inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame after his death in 1971 and the United States Post Office issued a Louis Armstrong commemorative postage stamp in 1995.

Early life

Armstrong was born in August 1901 in New Orleans, but his father, William Armstrong, deserted the family soon after his birth, leaving his 16-year-old mother, Mary, to raise their son. His grandmother stepped in and helped raise Armstrong. The family lived in poverty in an area so rough it was nicknamed "The Battlefield" by local residents.

Living in a racially-segregated district, he attended Fisk School for Boys. As a child, he did odd jobs for the Jewish Karnoffsky family to earn extra money. They treated him like family because his father was absent and he became acutely aware of racism against them. He wore a Star of David pendant to show his solidarity.

Later, he said they had taught him a valuable life lesson: how to live, describing it as "real life and determination". This positive attitude of rising against adversity remained with him for the rest of his life.

Music

Armstrong grew up around the sounds of jazz, including jug bands, who played using ordinary household objects as instruments. He would listen to jazz outside the New Orleans dance halls, including Pete Lala's, where King Oliver, the American cornet player and bandleader, played live.

He began playing a tin horn himself and his first musical performance was thought to have taken place next to the Karnoffsky's junk wagon in the street, to try and attract customers to purchase their wares. Morris Karnoffsky gave the youngster some money towards buying his first cornet from a pawn shop.

After dropping out of school at the age of 11, in 1912, he formed a musical quartet of boys who busked in the streets to make money. The cornet player, Bunk Johnson, taught Armstrong to play music by ear at a honky tonk bar. By the age of 13, he was seeking work as a musician.

First job

Armstrong found a job playing at a dance hall owned by Andrew Henry Pons, after learning he was looking for a cornet player. This was his first long-term gig as a professional musician, although to earn extra money, he also delivered coal in a wagon drawn by a mule during the day.

From the age of 18, he found work playing in jazz bands on the river boats of New Orleans, joining the Fate Marable band on the steamboat, Sidney, where he learned how to sight-read music. He later described this as his version of going to university.

In 1922, he moved to Chicago to further his career and won a recording contract with Gennett Records in April 1923. This was the start of his long and prosperous recording career, which elevated his status to one of the world's top artists - he became the equivalent of today's celebrity superstars.

Career highlights

Armstrong released a multitude of records between 1923 and 1970 and spent five decades at the top of his profession, spanning different eras of jazz and always remaining on trend with the style of the time.

He was a foundational influence in jazz music, inspiring generations of young musicians, including those from impoverished backgrounds like his own, who believed they could aspire to greater things. He is also credited with shifting the focus of the music from collective bands to solo performances.

He also appeared in cameo roles in a number of Hollywood musical films, including High Society in 1956, Paris Blues in 1961 and Hello Dolly in 1969.

James Bond theme

One of his biggest hits was We have all the Time in the World, written in 1969 by Hal David and John Barry as the theme song for the James Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, starring George Lazenby as 007.

The song's title was taken from Bond's final words in both Ian Fleming's 1963 novel and in the film. They were spoken ironically, following his wife's death.

Barry had particularly wanted Armstrong to record the song, because he felt he could sing the title line with the required irony. Armstrong, who was 67 at the time, wasn't in good health. He had suffered a heart attack in 1959, while on tour in Italy. Although he had recovered, he was told to rest, but carried on touring throughout the 1960s.

By the time We Have All the Time in the World was recorded, Armstrong had fallen ill with heart and kidney problems and was reportedly too ill to play his trumpet, although he managed to complete a masterful job on the song's vocals. It was released as a single in both the US and the UK in December 1969, to coincide with the release of the film.

Popular culture

Following Armstrong's death at the age of 69 in 1971, We Have All the Time in the World became embedded in popular culture. It was used in a Guinness beer commercial in 1994 and a cover version was released for charity by the band, My Bloody Valentine.

Armstrong's version was released again the same year and peaked at number three in the UK singles chart. A BBC survey in 2005 listed it as the third most popular song to be played at weddings.

Many other artists also released cover versions, including the Fun Lovin' Criminals, Iggy Pop, Michael Ball, Shirley Bassey, Alfie Boe and Giorgia Todrani, to name but a few.

John Barry said the song was one of his favourite Bond compositions of all time, citing it as the best piece of music he had ever written for a Bond movie, adding it had also given him the pleasure of working with the great Louis Armstrong.

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