History, Jazz, Museums/Exhibits, New Orleanians

What a wonderful world: The love story of Louis and Lucille Armstrong

Louis’ fourth and final marriage, to Lucille Wilson Armstrong, was the relationship that would define his life.

Louis Armstrong is one of the most famous musicians that New Orleans has ever produced. The jazz trumpeter, composer, and vocalist is considered one of the most influential musicians that the genre has ever seen. 

While many know of Louis’ accomplishments on stage, little is known about his personal life. Louis was married four times, his first marriage occurring when he was only 17 years old. However, it was his fourth and final marriage, to Lucille Wilson Armstrong, that was his longest. This was the relationship that would define Louis’ life.

Photo courtesy Louis Armstrong House Museum & Archives

Lucille Buchanan Wilson Armstrong was born in the Bronx, on Jan. 13, 1914, to the owner of a cab company. When the stock market crashed and destroyed her father’s business, Lucille was forced to drop out of high school and focus on becoming a dancer. 

From the Cotton Club to courting

In order to help pay the bills, Lucille worked the club circuit dancing in shows in chorus lines. Lucille found great success; she danced on Broadway in the show “Flying Colors” and became a regular dancer in the chorus line at the famed Cotton Club. At The Cotton Club, Lucille received high praise and a local critic even wrote, “the most important contribution to the city’s ha-cha-cha is in the person of an obscure youngster, in the chorus, by the name of Lucille Wilson.”

Now, The Cotton Club was one of the best known Black clubs in New York City. Everyone performed there — Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Lena Horne, just to name a few. As you might have guessed, another notable name performed at The Cotton Club — Louis Armstrong.

After traveling throughout Europe for a bit, performing in the chorus line of various shows, and receiving world-renowned praise for her talents, Lucille returned to The Cotton Club.

Louis and Lucille met at the club in 1939, and Louis was taken with her immediately. Lucille knew who the musician was – her mother was a huge fan and Lucille had been raised on Armstrong’s records. In an interview, Lucille said that she couldn’t imagine why a man who was 13 years older, with so much life experience, would be interested in her.

Photo courtesy of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation

One night, when Louis was at The Cotton Club, he told Lucille that he wanted to buy all of the cookies that she would sell to the dancers and band members, in order to make some extra money. He and a member of his band would then take the cookies and distribute them to children at a local school.

From then on, Lucille and Louis were inseparable- at least when he was in town. Louis traveled frequently, performing in shows, but he did his best to keep the courtship going- he would call and wire Lucille regularly.

The way to a man’s heart is through a bowl of red beans

Even though the romance seemed to be going well, one important piece of business remained: Louis had to make sure that Lucille was able to cook his favorite dish — red beans and rice. Being the good New Orleans-born man that he was, Louis considered red beans and rice his favorite food.

Louis explained in a letter, “[I] said to her, ‘Can you cook red beans and rice?’ She being a northern girl and me being a southern boy, she could see why I asked her that question.”

Lucille had never cooked the dish before, but she asked Louis to give her some time so that she could figure it out and perfect it. Two days later, Louis was at Lucille’s home meeting her family and trying her red beans. He described her version as, “Just what the doctor ordered.”

Photo courtesy Louis Armstrong House Museum & Archives

After they were married, Lucille quickly decided that life on the road wasn’t for her. She wanted to buy a house and put down roots of her own. She had an idea to buy a house, but Louis balked. She decided to buy the house anyway, and in March 1943, Lucille put a down payment on a house in Corona, Queens. The area was not far from the homes of other musicians, such as James Brown and Dizzy Gillespie.

When Louis got back from tour, he saw the house that Lucille had bought and absolutely loved it.

After she purchased the house, Lucille spent less time on the road with Louis, and more time at home. Although she was happy to finally be settled in Corona, Lucille gladly joined Louis whenever he traveled abroad.

Photo courtesy Louis Armstrong House Museum & Archives

The Later Years

In the late ’60s, when Louis’ health began to decline, Lucille converted the den in their home, making it more comfortable for him, and dedicated herself to nursing him back to health.

By 1970, Lucille rarely left Louis’ side, even joining him for TV appearances, much to the delight of audiences. In 1970, she appeared with Louis on “The Mike Douglas Show” and explained how she prepares her red beans and rice.

After Louis died on July 6, 1971, at the age of 69, Lucille dedicated the rest of her life to preserving his legacy. She began traveling the world, giving lectures about Louis’ work and life and met with musicians that Louis worked with (and some he didn’t have the opportunity to work with). 

Photo courtesy Louis Armstrong House Museum & Archives

She also worked to have the Singer Bowl, located in Queens, renamed in Louis’ honor. The Louis Armstrong Memorial Stadium was dedicated in 1973 and held that name until it was demolished in 2016. The new stadium, located on the same site, was dedicated as Louis Armstrong Stadium in 2018.

In 1976, Lucille filed paperwork to have her and Louis’ Corona family home established as a National Historic Landmark and a plaque declaring it so was placed in 1977. The home is now the location of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, per Lucille’s request. The house contains all of the scrapbooks, photos and news clippings that the couple collected throughout Louis’ life.

Lucille passed away on Oct. 3, 1983, in Boston, where she had planned to attend Louis Armstrong memorial events. Lucille’s willed everything to The Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, Inc. and the family home was willed to the City of New York.  Until the end, Lucille was dedicated to her Louis. Her love for the legend can’t be mistaken and will never be forgotten. 

Cover photo courtesy Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation. All other photos courtesy Louis Armstrong House Museum & Archives.

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Trombone Shorty and Orleans Ave. close out the the 50th Jazz Fest on the Acura Stage at the Fair Grounds during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, La. Sunday, May 5, 2019. Only three acts have closed Jazz Fest: Professor Longhair, the Neville Brothers, and Trombone Shorty. Photo by Matthew Hinton