Jazz maestro Louis Armstrong’s music resonated across borders, with his tunes reaching even the ancient sands of Egypt. There, beneath the gaze of the Great Sphinx and Pyramids of Giza, a timeless photograph was taken, capturing Armstrong serenading his wife, Lucille.
In 2016, The New York Times Store shared this iconic 1961 image marking Armstrong’s death anniversary. Yet, the story behind the photograph, held at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens, paints a more vivid picture.
As narrated by Ricky Riccardi, the museum’s director of research collections, the photo was a poignant chapter in Armstrong’s State Department-sponsored Africa tour that commenced in October 1960. Amid the tour, tragedy struck when Velma Middleton, one of his vocalists, suffered a stroke in Sierra Leone. Following the unfortunate loss, Armstrong pressed on, performing in Sudan before his arrival in Egypt.
Preserved in the Armstrongs’ collection are photographs and mementos of their Egyptian journey, including an endearing image named “Lovebirds on the Nile.” Their adventure involved meeting the esteemed archaeologist Kamal el-Mallakh, who led them to the pyramids.
The momentous day of January 28 saw Armstrong at Ambassador Reinhardt’s reception, playing at a Cairo orphanage, and creating iconic images at the Sphinx. The next morning, they embarked for Nice, France, concluding the challenging State Department tour.
While the famous photograph is claimed by multiple outlets, including the Associated Press and Getty Images, the actual photographer’s identity remained a mystery. A handwritten note bearing the name “Artin DerBalian” hints at the likely photographer, a claim supported by Lucille’s note stating DerBalian “shot photo of us at Sphinx.”
This musical snapshot captures the fusion of Armstrong’s melodious notes with the ageless Egyptian landscape – a moment when music history met ancient history.