After their watershed first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in February 1964, The Beatles had an unprecedented monopoly on the top of the Billboard pop charts until April of that year. But on May 9, an artist broke through the Liverpool quartet’s stranglehold and seized the number one spot with the biggest song of his long career.
It was not a ditty by another long-haired invader from across the pond, but then 63-year-old American jazz musician Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Hello Dolly.”
The next month, the internationally famous jazz trumpet and cornet player put on a show in Fairfield, which then had a population of 20,000 people. The performance by Louis Armstrong and his All Stars took place Wednesday, June 3, 1964, at Redman’s Roller Rink at 2250 N. Texas St. Redman’s later became Skateland Roller Rink and is now the Trading Post.
Like many other children back then, Fairfielder Cheryl Knowles-deMartine recalls being dropped off at the rink by her parents and spending all day there. She later would take her own kids skating with a church group on Rolling with Jesus nights.
According to former Fairfield resident Terry Lanham, Earl Redman, the owner, introduced a major innovation by allowing skateboarders to bring their “sidewalk surfing” indoors into the rink. Another thing Lanham remembers is seeing bands play there, including The Fabulous Wailers and The Golliwogs – who later became Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Famous artists like Fats Domino and Bobby Freeman had performed in this area before at Suisun City’s M&M Skateway in the 1950s, but Louis Armstrong, nicknamed Satchmo, was a superstar. Armstrong was an influential jazz pioneer whose virtuoso musicianship coupled with his trademark raspy voice and charismatic stage presence made him a legend.
Armstrong’s performance at Redman’s Roller Rink was covered locally for the Daily Republic by Ken Kuraica, who had then worked for the newspaper for three years.
“I don’t know why he came to Fairfield; it must have been a last-minute stop,” Kuraica said. “He was so personable and friendly you would have thought he was performing for thousands of people. I’ve always remembered it as a very exciting and special occasion for a 21-year-old.”
According to Kuraica’s article that published the next day, the 500 people who attended were treated to a “night of unequaled showmanship” that featured more than 30 songs.
The admission fee? $2.50.
Songs included “Birth of the Blues,” “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Mack the Knife,” among others. In addition to Armstrong’s vocals, female blues singer Jewel Brown killed on songs like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and “Lover Come Back.”
Armstrong’s huge hit “Hello Dolly” – it is in the Grammy Hall of Fame – brought the house down, and he sang three encores.
In attendance at the show was an 11-year-old Suisun City resident who played clarinet in the Crystal Elementary School band – Johnny Colla, later saxophonist/guitarist/songwriter with Huey Lewis and The News. Colla’s mother Rosie brought him and his friend Allan Cornett to the show.
“At the end of the show I wanted autographs. I went to the men’s room and grabbed some paper towels,” Colla said. “The band’s dressing room was the skate repairman’s room. We opened the door and it was full of smoke and there was a pint bottle sitting there and a couple of old dudes with their shirts off and they were sweaty. Whoever answered the door was gruff and it started to close. Louis Armstrong, bless his heart, said, ‘Oh, hell, Joe! Let him in and sign the boy’s autograph!’ ”
Colla and Cornett then not only received autographs of most of the band (Colla later wrote down the instrument of the respective band members next to their names), but Armstrong also gave them his handkerchief. The two preteens talked it out and it was decided that Cornett would keep the handkerchief and Colla would keep the autographs.
Now 50 years later, Colla has kept the memory of seeing and meeting a jazz legend who performed live in Fairfield. He also kept the autographed paper towel.
“I keep it tucked away in a ‘Pictorial History of Jazz’ next to the picture of Louis Armstrong,” Colla said.
Reach Fairfield writer Tony Wade at [email protected].