The legendary New Orleans singer and trumpeter Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong had been making records since 1923, but in February 1968, at the age of 66, he released “What A Wonderful World,” which would become the biggest-selling song of his long and storied career.
Though renowned as one of the pioneers of Dixieland-style jazz in the 1920s, Armstrong was no stranger to the pop charts in the 1960s, having topped Billboard’s Hot 100 with the Grammy-winning single, “Hello Dolly,” in 1964. But “What A Wonderful World” was very different from what he’d done before; a slow pop ballad that captured Armstrong in a rare reflective mood. With his craggy, weathered voice, he sang a song of hope that seemed to resonate with people everywhere. What made his performance magnetic was its poignancy: it was as if Armstrong, who was in his twilight years and ailing from a heart condition, was taking one last, appreciative look at life and taking stock of the simple things that most people take for granted.
“What A Wonderful World” was written in 1967 by George David Weiss together with George Douglas, an alias for Bob Thiele, Armstrong’s producer at ABC Records. In his 2005 book, What A Wonderful World: A Lifetime Of Recordings, Thiele said that the song was intended as a reassuring antidote to the mounting problems facing America in the late 60s; a time defined by what he described as “the deepening national traumas of the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, racial strife, and turmoil everywhere.”
After hearing Thiele’s demo tape of “What A Wonderful World,” Armstrong was keen to record the tune but Larry Newton, the president of ABC, purportedly hated it and vetoed the idea. Despite Newton’s protests, Armstrong secretly began recording the song in Las Vegas immediately after a show there in September 1967. His vocals were cut live with an orchestra, but the session didn’t go smoothly: two takes were aborted after loud whistles from passing freight trains were picked up by the studio microphones.
But that wasn’t the only problem confronting Armstrong. Larry Newton had come to Vegas to get some promotional photographs of the singer/trumpeter and, when he found out about the recording session, he tried to shut it down. Thiele ended up locking him out, but Newton got his revenge by refusing to promote the single when it was released in America.
Though it flopped in Armstrong’s home country, in other places around the world, especially in Europe, “What A Wonderful World” was hugely successful; it reached No. 1 both in the UK, where it sold 600,000 copies during a 29-week chart run, and Austria.
Armstrong re-recorded “What A Wonderful World” in 1970, a year before his death, adding a spoken intro. Then in 1988, the song was back in the charts when its appearance on the soundtrack to the hit movie Good Morning Vietnam brought it to the attention of a new generation of listeners. Eleven years later, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Since then, a diverse array of cover versions – from Tony Bennett to Joey Ramone and Celine Dion to the Flaming Lips – have helped to cement “What A Wonderful World”’s iconic status.
Decades after its original release, Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” continues to inspire through its timeless message of love, peace, and harmony. For Armstrong, it told a story of possibility. “It seems to me, it ain’t the world that’s so bad, but what we’re doing to it,” he said on the intro to his 1970 version of the song. “All I’m saying is, see what a wonderful world it would be, if only we’d give it a chance.”