Louis Armstrong’s long-lost appearance on Desert Island Discs has been found by the BBC, one of four castaways including William Hartnell, the original star of Doctor Who, that listeners will be able to hear for the first time in half a century, from Saturday on Radio 4.
The BBC, which began opening up the Radio 4 programme’s archive four years ago, believed the jazz legend’s 1968 encounter with the show’s original host, Roy Plomley, had been lost forever. But it was discovered in Armstrong’s own personal collection, an archive of around 750 tapes that he carefully catalogued and indexed himself, and which is now kept at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in New York.
The recording is now available for the first time since its original broadcast on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs programme. Other archive castaway interviews that have been made newly available feature Wilbert Awdry, better known as the Rev W Awdry, creator of Thomas The Tank Engine, who was interviewed in 1964, Hartnell from 1965 and actor Diana Rigg, star of the Avengers, who appeared in 1970.
Armstrong’s appearance is memorable for a number of reasons, not least because he chooses five of his own records to take with him to the desert island, including What A Wonderful World, which had been a number one hit in the UK in 1968.
“It’s fairly unusual, and certainly people tend not to do it now,” said Cathy Drysdale, series producer of Desert Island Discs. “When we were originally putting the archive together, the Louis Armstrong programme was one of those we thought ‘if only that existed somewhere’, but despite our best efforts it just didn’t turn up. He is so charming, his voice is just thrilling.”
The programme, in which Armstrong tells Plomley about his upbringing in an orphanage and how he learned to sing in church, was traced to the New York museum by listener Terry Teachout, who wrote a biography of Armstrong, Pops, in 2010.
The reel-to-reel tape in its collection is the original copy requested by Armstrong after his appearance on the show. On the other side is another BBC radio programme about Armstrong presented by Humphrey Lyttelton, recorded in 1965.
For his luxury, Armstrong chooses his trumpet, and for his book, his own autobiography. “Sometimes you’ve got to pat yourself on the shoulders,” he tells Plomley.
Ricky Riccardi, archivist at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, said: “Armstrong was the most incredible combination of humble but he also possessed a fairly healthy ego.
“He never lost his humble roots, he loved giving away money, but he was very aware of how important he was in music and unlike most musicians he loved listening to himself, he loved the records.”
But it was also a turning point in Armstrong’s life; his health went into decline a few months later and he was taken to hospital after rapid weight loss on laxatives. Plomley says: “You are about half the size you were when I last saw you. Have you been getting enough to eat?”
“I’ve been getting too much to eat,” replies Armstrong, who died in 1971. “I’ve learnt the psychology of leaving it all behind me every morning. That’s my philosophy. You don’t need it after the taste has gone.”
Plomley, the show’s creator who presented the show from 1942 until his death in 1985, asks Armstrong how it feels to be “pushing aside the 18-year-olds and topping the pops”.
“I ain’t worried about the top record but it’s nice to know,” says Armstrong.
But the prospect of island life is not an appealing one. “I don’t want to fool around with snakes and trees, I’m a city boy after all,” he says. Rather than go fishing he would “just as sooner play baseball and swim”.
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