Lil Hardin was more than just ‘Mrs. Armstrong’

This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.


Lillian “Lil” Hardin was born on Feb. 3, 1898, in Memphis, Tenn. During her early childhood, Hardin shared a household with her grandmother, Pricilla Martin, who taught her many hymns, spirituals, and classical music on the piano. It was during this time that Hardin’s passion for blues began. Soon after, Hardin began playing marches at the Virginia Avenue Grade School, and hymns at the Lebanon Baptist Church Sunday School. Hardin’s mother recognized her daughter’s obvious potential, and consequently purchased a “full-sized upright piano, and enrolled her in Mrs. Hook’s School of Music.”

After only three years in high school, Hardin enrolled in music studies at Fisk University in Nashville. But after three years of intense retraining and study, Hardin yearned to relocate to Chicago for her love of the music scene there. After just three weeks in the “Windy City,” Hardin landed a gig as a clarinetist with Lawrence Duhé’s New Orleans Creole Band, playing at a Chinese restaurant. Soon, Hardin played gigs at more prestigious venues, and after continuing to blossom as an artist, she joined King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band at the Dreamland, which was “the most significant musical association she would make.” Alongside Oliver’s band, Hardin performed for a full sixth-month run in San Francisco, despite their lack of popularity there. While the band was not a smashing success in Hardin’s early years, it lead her to her second husband, Louis Armstrong, who was brought up as a trumpeter by Oliver in New Orleans.  Hardin and Armstrong were married in 1924, and she was a huge influence on Armstrong pushing to become a solo artist, outside the grips of Oliver.

During the 1930s, Hardin continued performing as a leader and soloist, and was often branded as “Mrs. Louis Armstrong.” Yet it is important to note that during this period, Black women were especially relegated to singing or dancing in a chorus line, but by this point in her life, Hardin successfully established a serious career as a respected jazz composer and artist, long before her marriage to Armstrong. Throughout the next two decades of her life, Hardin actually wrote many hit songs for her Louis, including Struttin’ with some Barbeque, which became a Dixieland standard. In 1959, Ray Charles recorded her hit tune “Just for a Thrill,” which also became a major hit.

By 1962, Hardin began working on her autobiography after turning down a potential album recording with Riverside Records. When approached, she asked, “Who would want to listen to that old stuff?” While her autobiography became her new focus, it was never completed as she passed away on Aug. 27, 1971, “during a televised performance paying tribute to her love, Louis Armstrong, who had died a month earlier.”


Doin’ the Suzie Q (1936)

The song Doin’ the Suzie Q was recorded by Hardin in 1936, during a period when novelty dances were extremely popular. The “Suzie Q” is a step in a larger dance known as the “Big Apple” or “Lindy Pop.” The song, led by bandleader Hardin, essentially explains how the move is done, while expressing the excitement and joy that comes with the dance:

Oh, you’re dancin’! Yes, you’re prancin’!
When you hear the music play, that’s your cue.
Yes, you’re truckin’, doin’ the shim-sham.
Then you swing on out and you’re doin’ the Suzie-Q!

“The step is performed with the body bent slightly forward and hands clasped and held low; the right foot is extended to put body weight on the heel, with toes in the air; the foot is waggled back and forth for eight counts as the body swivels and moves from right to left. The movement is then repeated with the left foot. In line dances this step is also known as the heel twist or the grind walk.”


References:

Claude Coyners. “Suzie Q” Grove Music (Oxford University Press, 2020) https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002092730.

Margaret Moos. “My Heart: The Story of Lil Hardin Armstrong.” Riverwalk Jazz (Stanford University, 2000) https://riverwalkjazz.stanford.edu/program/my-heart-story-lil-hardin-armstrong.

Memphis Music Hall of Fame. “Lil Hardin Armstrong.” https://memphismusichalloffame.com/inductee/lilhardinarmstrong/.