Sharon had had it with deception. Her existence had been secret long enough. As a grandmother, she decided to research, and go public with, her past.
“It’s a basic human right to know from whence we’ve come,” Sharon says.
Sharon’s mother, Lucille “Sweets” Preston, carried on a long-term affair with one of the most famous musicians in history. Although Satchmo financed his mistress and daughter for many years, he was married to a different Lucille. Publicly, he denied Sweets and Sharon.
Sweets was a vaudeville dancer in the 30’s and 40’s and also played the “Chitlin Circuit.” (Safe and acceptable venues for African-American performers during the era of segregation.) She was a part of the dance team of Slim & Sweets with her husband Luther Preston.
Slim and Sweets opened for big stars including Satchmo and Billie Holiday. Slim died young. Armstrong, a womanizer, promised Slim’s widow he’d take care of her. He pledged to divorce his 4th wife and marry Sweets. She abided by his insistence that the affair, and their daughter, remain private. Sharon says, “He dangled that elation in front of my mother’s face like a carrot, and she bit, because she adored him.”
Sharon Preston-Folta now lives in Sarasota. We met when she spoke to our YPO Gold chapter (a business group). She’s low key and likable. Not a trace of showbiz flash. She works in advertising for WUSF. After a lifetime of secrecy, she launched a several year quest and self-published a book, Little Satchmo: Living in the Shadow of my Father Louis Daniel Armstrong.
In her book Sharon proclaims “that I do, indeed, exist. That I am not invisible. That I have a history, a legacy, and a voice that deserves to be heard.” She wrote the book, she says, “Not just for my own peace of mind, but for the millions of children who have grown up not knowing their history, living with family secrets, or are growing up in fatherless households… It is for them that I am stepping out of the shadows… for my children and grandchildren. For me.”
(According to the US Census Bureau, in 2014, 17.4 million children under 18 lived in father-absent homes.)
The promised divorce never happened. After several years, the affair ended, though Armstrong’s financial support continued for 3 years after he died.
In 2012, the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper published a story about Armstrong as Sharon’s father, when a series of letters written by the famous musician were on the auction block. The story says, in part: “In letters to Lucille ‘Sweets’ Preston, a performer with whom he maintained a years-long affair, Armstrong made clear that he believed himself to be the father of her daughter, Sharon, who was born in 1955.”
Sharon shares the joys as well as disappointments. Summers on tour with her father were “the highlight of my then young life.” She loved meeting singers like Velma Middleton and Jewel Brown—“always ready with a smile, a few nice words, a piece of candy or two.” Occasionally, she recalls, her father “would play a little something to get the bus swinging.”
Sharon touches upon segregation. She remembers her father warning her, “In this world, no matter how big you get, you will always be a n***r.” Satchmo succeeded as a crossover artist. He cared about his people but “faced mounting criticism for not hitching himself fully and vocally to the Civil Rights movement.”
Sharon and her mom moved from Harlem to Mt. Vernon, NY. At 7, Sharon enrolled in a mostly white Catholic grammar school, “where 95% of the children came from 2-parent families… And so the secrets began anew.”
With time, her father’s visits became “less frequent and more unpleasant.” When Satchmo died in 1971, Sharon and her mom were asked not to attend the funeral.
Sharon, too, had a baby out of wedlock. She was 16. Juggling motherhood, school and work proved daunting and she dropped out of school. Realizing she “wanted more,” she returned to school, graduated with a B.A. in Communication Arts, and began working in media sales. She met and married Howard, a drummer—white, Jewish, with similar background issues. “He was—is—a man I can trust.”
Sharon’s friend, the daughter of a jazz pianist, convinced her to rethink the secrecy with which she lived. They attended a concert together. Sharon writes, “As we swayed to the rhythm and colors and light of the music, my friend turned to me and let it rip. How can you not fight for this? …if you’re not going to correct the lie for yourself, then you have to fight for your grandchildren’s legacy.”
So began Sharon’s exploration involving an entertainment lawyer, an estate attorney, a retired judge and, ultimately, a look at her father’s will. She learned her father’s wife Lucille, who years before had offered to adopt her, had signed an affidavit that her husband never had children. That document, she says, made her “blood boil.” That’s when she decided to tell her story.
“To tell the world that I am here. That I matter.”
(Thanks for sharing your story, Sharon, and for the comfort you bring to others.)