Lil Hardin Armstrong
|Born||February 3, 1898|
Memphis, Tennessee, United States
|Died||August 27, 1971 (aged 73)|
|Musician, composer, bandleader|
Lil Hardin Armstrong (February 3, 1898 - August 27, 1971) was a jazz pianist, composer, arranger, singer, and bandleader. She was the second wife of Louis Armstrong, with whom she collaborated on many recordings in the 1920s.
Her compositions include "Struttin' with Some Barbecue", "Don't Jive Me", "Two Deuces", "Knee Drops", "Doin' the Suzie-Q", "Just for a Thrill" (which was a hit when revived by Ray Charles in 1959), "Clip Joint", and "Bad Boy" (a hit for Ringo Starr in 1978). Armstrong was inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2014.
She was born Lillian Hardin in Memphis, Tennessee, where she grew up in a household with her grandmother, Priscilla Martin, a former slave from near Oxford, Mississippi. Martin had a son and three daughters, one of whom was Dempsey, Lil's mother. Priscilla Martin moved her family to Memphis to get away from her husband, a trek the family made by mule-drawn wagon. Dempsey married Will Harden, and Lil was born on February 3, 1898. Will died when Lil was seven, though Dempsey later remarried.
Hardin first received piano instruction from her third-grade teacher, Violet White. Her mother then enrolled her in Mrs. Hook's School of Music. At Fisk University, a college for African Americans in Nashville, she was taught a more acceptable approach to the instrument. She received a diploma from Fisk, returning to Memphis in 1917. In August 1918, she moved to Chicago with her mother and stepfather. By then she had become proficient in reading music, a skill that helped her get a job as a sheet music demonstrator at Jones Music Store.
The store paid Hardin $3 a week (US$50 in 2018 dollars), but bandleader Lawrence Duhé offered $22.50 (US$375 in 2018 dollars). Knowing that her mother would disapprove of her working in a cabaret, she made it known that her new job was playing for a dancing school. Three weeks later the band moved to a better booking at the De Luxe Café, where the entertainers included Florence Mills and Cora Green. From there, the band moved up to Dreamland. Here the principal entertainers were Alberta Hunter and Ollie Powers. When King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band replaced Duhé's group at Dreamland, Oliver asked Hardin to stay with him. She was with Oliver at Dreamland in 1921 when an offer came for the orchestra to play a six-month engagement at the Pergola Ballroom in San Francisco. At the end of that booking Hardin returned to Chicago while the rest of the Oliver band went to Los Angeles. She later studied at the New York College of Music, where she earned a post-graduate diploma in 1929.
In Chicago, Hardin went back to work at Dreamland as a pianist in an orchestra for Mae Brady, a violinist and vaudeville stalwart. While there, she fell for Jimmie Johnson, a young singer from Washington, D.C., whom she married on August 22, 1922. The marriage was short-lived, ending in divorce. The Oliver band returned from California and opened at the Royal Gardens with Bertha Gonzales at the piano but soon found itself back at Dreamland with Hardin at the piano.
King Oliver's band was enjoying enormous success at Dreamland when he sent for Louis Armstrong to join as second cornetist. Armstrong was beginning to make a name for himself in New Orleans and regarded Oliver ("Papa Joe") as his mentor. At first, Hardin was unimpressed with Louis, who arrived in Chicago wearing clothes and a hair style that she deemed to be "too country" for Chicago, but she worked to "take the country out of him", and a romance developed (to the surprise of other band members, some of whom had been trying to woo her for some time with no success). She already had divorce experience and helped Armstrong get a divorce from his first wife, Daisy, from whom he had separated back in New Orleans. Hardin and Armstrong were married on February 4, 1924.
Hardin took Armstrong shopping and taught him how to dress more fashionably. She got rid of his bangs and began working to foster his career. She felt that he was wasting his talent in a secondary role. Armstrong was happy to be playing next to his idol, but Hardin persuaded him to leave Oliver and go out on his own. Armstrong resigned from Oliver's band and in September 1924 accepted a job with bandleader Fletcher Henderson in New York City. Hardin stayed in Chicago, first with Oliver, then leading a band of her own. When Hardin's band got a job at the Dreamland Café in Chicago she prepared for Armstrong's return to Chicago by having a huge banner that read "The World's Greatest Trumpet Player".
Richard M. Jones convinced Okeh Records to make a series of sessions under his name: the Armstrong "Hot Five" recordings. With Hardin at the piano, Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, and Johnny St. Cyr on banjo, this group rehearsed at Armstrong and Hardin's residence on Chicago's East 41st Street and held its first session on November 15, 1925.
In the late 1920s Hardin and Armstrong grew apart. He formed a new Hot Five with Earl Hines on piano. Hardin reformed her own band with Freddie Keppard, whom she considered second only to Armstrong. Hardin and Armstrong separated in 1931 when he had a liaison with Alpha Smith, who threatened to sue Armstrong for breach of promise, so he begged Hardin not to grant him a divorce.
In the 1930s, sometimes billing herself as "Mrs. Louis Armstrong", Hardin led an "All Girl Orchestra", a mixed-sex big band which broadcast nationally over the NBC radio network. In the same decade she recorded for Decca as a swing vocalist and performed as piano accompanist for other singers. She also performed with Red Allen.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Hardin worked mostly as a soloist, singing and playing piano. In the late 1940s she decided to leave the music business and become a tailor, so she took a course in tailoring. Her graduation project was to make a tuxedo for Armstrong. It was displayed prominently at a New York cocktail party she threw to announce her new field of endeavor. "They looked at Louis' tux and all the other things I had made and they were very impressed", she recalled, "but then someone asked me to play the piano. That's when I knew that I would never be able to leave the music business." Armstrong wore Hardin's tuxedo, and she continued to tailor but only on the side for friends. Her shirts, which friends received regularly on birthdays, bore a label with her mother's name, "Decie", and beneath that, "Hand made by Lil Armstrong."
Hardin returned to Chicago and the house on East 41st Street. She made a trip to Europe and had a brief love affair in France, but mostly she worked around Chicago, often with fellow Chicagoans. Collaborators included Red Saunders, Joe Williams, Oscar Brown Jr., and Little Brother Montgomery.
In the 1950s, Hardin recorded a biographical narrative for Bill Grauer at Riverside which was issued in LP form. She would again appear on that label in 1961, participating in its project Chicago: The Living Legends as accompanist for Alberta Hunter and leader of her own hastily assembled big band. The Riverside recordings led to her inclusion in a 1961 NBC network special, Chicago and All That Jazz, and a follow-up album released by Verve. In 1962, she began writing her autobiography with Chris Albertson, but she changed her mind when she realized the book would include experiences that might discomfit Louis Armstrong, so the project was delayed until his death. She died before finishing the book.
When Louis Armstrong died in 1971, she traveled to New York for the funeral and rode in the family car. Returning to Chicago, she felt that work on her autobiography could continue, but the following month, performing at a televised memorial concert for Armstrong, she collapsed at the piano and died from a heart attack on the way to the hospital. After her funeral, her letters and the unfinished manuscript of her autobiography disappeared from her house.
Armstrong's composition "Oriental Swing" was sampled by electro swing musician Parov Stelar to create the 2012 song "Booty Swing". The song gained notoriety when it was used in a 2013 Chevrolet commercial.