Friday, January 27th, 2023

Pops + Opera: Louis Armstrong and Robert Merrill’s odd couple act

At one point during his 1955 European tour, Louis Armstrong made an unscheduled pilgrimage. Having just played a concert with his All-Stars, he dashed over to La Scala — to “stand by those big cats like Verdi and Wagner, and take pictures,” he later recalled, “‘cause they figure our music is the same; we play ‘em both from the heart.”

Armstrong’s earnest visit to one of the Old World’s grandest opera houses was hardly out of character, though it might have seemed so at the time. Pops was one of the most popular musicians on the planet in 1955, and generally understood as a genius of a folksier sort. The implicit contrast between his music (earthy, casual) and the operatic canon (elevated, ethereal) led to a bit he developed with Metropolitan Opera star Robert Merrill. On April 17, 1955, they brought it to The Ed Sullivan Show, where it took up the first nine minutes of the broadcast.

The clip had never been released in any form since that broadcast, until its premiere this evening on The Ed Sullivan Show YouTube channel. For fans of either artist — and really, any keen observer of American culture — its shrewd ebullience was well worth the wait.

Armstrong and Merrill converge on camera from two opposing poles: the “Basin Street Club” at one side of the stage, and the “Metropolitan Opera House” on the other. Armstrong sports a roomy suit and bow tie, accessorized with a Scottish tam; Merrill looks impeccably tailored, in a top hat and cape. Their musical interaction extends this comedy of clashes, with Armstrong’s relaxed scatting derailed by Merrill’s operatic baritone, in Italiano.