Extraordinary musicianship made Louis Armstrong a jazz legend. Extraordinary showmanship made him a star.

Like Fats Waller, whose ebullience inspired the musical "Ain't Misbehavin'," Armstrong was a magnetic personality, larger than life, and thus an ideal subject, it would seem, for a Broadway show. In fact, if "Satchmo: America's Musical Legend" (which opens tonight at the Kennedy Center Opera House) captures a fraction of his charm, its success would seem assured.

And yet, as with Waller, Armstrong's ability to entertain and tickle the public didn't always serve his music well. Over the course of their careers, both were victims of their success at times, recording material with no more merit than the surface appeal of a novelty tune. A couple of new RCA reissues illustrate the extent of the problem (and how Armstrong and Waller managed to cope with it). Also just released is a series of new CDs that contains some of the finest recordings Armstrong and Waller ever made.

Louis Armstrong: 'Pops'

Of the two RCA reissues, Armstrong's "Pops" (5920-1RB) is by far the more musically rewarding. The 29 performances were recorded in the mid-'40s and feature both big and small bands. Despite a slew of novelty tunes and shallow, derivative songs, most of these selections are redeemed by Armstrong's singing, if nothing else. The way he phrased a lyric, his casual approach to the beat, was almost as influential as the way he phrased a trumpet solo (as just about any Billie Holiday recording will attest), and he's in fine voice here, singing with gravelly gusto.

Jive tunes and novelty pieces were always part of Armstrong's stock in trade -- he recorded them far more willingly than Waller -- and the public's appetite for them only increased their number. In fact, several of the weaker tunes included on this album are Armstrong originals. Most of them, like "Joseph and His Brudders," haven't aged gracefully.

But again, it's hard to resist Armstrong's stirring voice on "Why Doubt My Love?" or his muted trumpet on "Linger in My Arms" or the flash of trumpet brilliance on "I Wonder, I Wonder." Moreover, most of the arrangements are solid, and in some cases surprisingly modern. The paucity of first-rate material is also compensated for by trombonist Jack Teagarden and several other musicians who, like Armstrong, knew how to make a bad song good and a good one better.

(Substandard material wasn't always the problem with Armstrong's recordings. Although he's heard singing tunes by Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin and the like on the recently issued CD "The Silver Collection" {Verve 823 446-2}, recordings culled from a series of 1957 orchestral performances, the arrangements are often marred by an intrusive and sugar-sweet choir of violins.)

'The Complete Fats Waller'

As far as quality songs go, the pickings are even slimmer on "The Complete Fats Waller, Vol. IV" (RCA 5905-1-RB). In his informative liner notes, Richard M. Sudhalter quotes saxophonist Eugene Sedric explaining why Waller recorded so many trifles for RCA in the mid- and late '30s: "They would always give him a whole lot of junky tunes to play because it seemed as if only he could get something out of them."

Sedric's view seems all the more plausible in light of this collection -- it's hard to imagine anyone getting more mileage out of these tunes than Waller. Not the least of his talents was his ability to take a Tin Pan Alley ditty and spoof the entire genre. The combination of his elastic voice, stride piano and quicksilver wit pointed up the sheer silliness of songs like "Let's Sing Again" and the popular cronies who invariably took them seriously. Sly, joyful and feverishly inventive, Waller couldn't abide such staid material, so he refashioned it in his own boisterous image.

While most of the 28 selections on this album are burdened by lackluster lyrics, it nevertheless contains some indisputable gems. "Sposin'," first introduced by Rudy Vallee, is treated to a playful, melodic and thoroughly charming arrangement, complete with scat vocals, humorous asides and some feisty exchanges with trumpeter Herman Autrey. Autrey and the rest of Waller's Rhythm band, as it was called, also shine on "Blackberry Jam," a vigorous and truly spontaneous jam session. Unforgettable, too, is Waller's exuberant "Swingin' Them Jingle Bells."

And on CD ...

Armstrong and Waller are also the focus of a new line of CDs distributed by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab. Neither the Armstrong collection, "Great Original Performances -- 1923-1931 (BBC CD 597), nor the Waller album, "Great Original Performances -- 1927-1934 (BBC CD 598), can be considered comprehensive. With running times of 50 minutes, they overlook a number of key performances from each of the eras surveyed, including Armstrong's "Potato Head Blues" and Waller's "The Minor Drag." However, what is included here is first-rate, highlighted by such masterpieces as Armstrong's "Wild Man Blues" and Waller's "Handful of Keys."