50 Years of “What a Wonderful World”

News • August 29, 2017

Louis Armstrong’s career lasted over 50 years and his legacy continues to influence fans and artists all over the world. During his career, Armstrong appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows, wrote books and letters, and captivated the world with his gravely voice and impeccable trumpet playing one performance at a time. Armstrong gave us countless hits from pop tunes like “Hello, Dolly!” and “Blueberry Hill” to older jazz classics such as “West End Blues” or “When the Saints Go Marching In.” When Louis Armstrong passed away in 1971, few would have named “What a Wonderful World” his best-loved song. Today, it is Armstrong’s most popular recording; appearing in major motion pictures, racking up millions of views on YouTube and regularly leading the jazz categories on streaming music services such as Spotify and Apple Music.

Other artists have covered “What a Wonderful World”, but Louis Armstrong’s cover remains the most popular and memorable version. Despite backlash from music producers and executives who couldn’t imagine Louis Armstrong singing this simple, lovable tune, the was one person who believed in “What a Wonderful World”: the song’s producer and co-author, Bob Thiele. Armstrong conquered The Beatles with “Hello, Dolly!” in 1964, leading him to record a string of “Dolly” knock-offs throughout the succeeding years with varying results. During that time, the United States grew into a more fractured nation with intense, sometimes violent struggles over issues such as Civil Rights and the war in Vietnam. Thiele realized the nation needed a healing message delivered as only Armstrong could deliver it and tapped songwriter George David Weiss to craft the song. Thiele stated, “We wanted this immortal musician and performer to say, as only he could, the world really is great: full of the love and sharing people make possible for themselves and each other every day.”

At first Thiele and Weiss might have been the only two who believed in “What a Wonderful World.” After reading the lyrics, Armstrong decided to cover the song in 1967. His mood changed immediately because the words made him think of one thing and one thing only: his home in Corona, Queens. “There’s so much in ‘Wonderful World’ that brings me back to my neighborhood where I live in Corona, New York,” Armstrong said in 1968.  “Lucille and I, ever since we’re married, we’ve been right there in that block.  And everybody keeps their little homes up like we do and it’s just like one big family.  I saw three generations come up on that block.  And they’re all with their children, grandchildren, they come back to see Uncle Satchmo and Aunt Lucille.  That’s why I can say, ‘I hear babies cry/ I watch them grow/ they’ll learn much more/ then I’ll never know.’  And I can look at all them kids’s faces.  And I got pictures of them when they was five, six and seven years old.  So when they hand me this ‘Wonderful World,’ I didn’t look no further, that was it.  And the music with it.  So you can see, from the expression, them people dug it.  It is a wonderful world.”

The original “What a Wonderful World” was arranged by Tommy Goodman and recorded for ABC-Paramount on August 16, 1967. Larry Newton, still upset with Thiele for recording the number, sabotaged its marketing by not at promoting the record in the United States.  Armstrong did his best on its behalf, singing “What a Wonderful World” in live shows and on television, but, according to Thiele, soon after its release the record hadn’t cracked a thousand copies in America.  It was a different story overseas, where “What a Wonderful World” became a number one hit in England in 1968, staying at the top of the charts for 13 straight weeks, while also becoming a popular hit in other European countries, as well as South Africa. In 1970, Armstrong returned to “What a Wonderful World” for the album Louis Armstrong and His Friends, remaking the song with an updated, funkier arrangement by Oliver Nelson. The most touching aspect of the remake was its spoken introduction, where Armstrong addresses complaints about the world being far from “wonderful” by saying, “Seems to me, it ain’t the world that’s so bad but what we’re doin’ to it. And all I’m saying is, see, what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance. Love baby, love. That’s the secret, yeah. If lots more of us loved each other, we’d solve lots more problems. And then this world would be a gassuh.”

After Armstrong’s death in 1971, “What a Wonderful World” was used in an Exxon commercial, “The Spirit of Achievement is the Spirit of America,” which ran during the bicentennial year of 1976. The song remained forgotten until Barry Levinson’s 1987 film Good Morning Vietnam, when it was used as the soundtrack to a montage of soldiers fighting and dying during the Vietnam War. Reissued as a single to capitalize on the popularity of the film, “What a Wonderful World” finally hit the charts in the United States, rising to number 33 on the Billboard Hot 100. The original ABC-Paramount album was also reissued on cassette and compact disc and was soon certified gold after selling 500,000 copies.

“What a Wonderful World” hasn’t stopped selling and hasn’t stopped being used in films, commercials and throughout pop culture (Armstrong’s vocal has also been appropriated for recent “duet” versions with the likes of Kenny G and Barry Manilow). The songs lyrics combined with Armstrong’s passion continue to make “What a Wonderful World” a timeless classic. With all the recent events happening in the world, it’s no wonder the lyrics to a song performed by someone as humble and influential as Armstrong 50 years ago still remain relevant. One thing remains constant as Armstrong stated, “it ain’t the world that’s so bad but what we’re doin’ to it. And all I’m saying is, see, what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance.”

To learn more about “What a Wonderful World”, don’t miss this special opportunity to see the Louis Armstrong House Museum’s newest exhibit, “50 Years of ‘What a Wonderful World’”. One-of-a-kind artifacts associated with Louis Armstrong’s best-known song including Armstrong’s part from the original arrangement, rare photos from the original 1967 recording date, albums, sheet music, news clippings and much more are on display now through October 16.