A half-century ago, as turmoil and restlessness stemming from the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the rise of feminism, nascent hippie culture and other social and political changes spread across the globe, Louis Armstrong recorded a simple, unapologetic ode to peace and brotherhood that became the final chart hit of his long career, “What a Wonderful World.”
Despite his inestimable role in revolutionizing music in the early 20th century, both as an instrumentalist and as a singer, Armstrong’s career in 1967 was in decline as he was eclipsed in the world of jazz by younger players of bebop and post-World War II styles, and was widely viewed as a quaint holdover from an earlier, more primitive musical era.
But he returned to a recording studio in New York, 3½ years after he’d reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with his version of the title song from the hit Broadway musical “Hello, Dolly!,” and laid down the song written by George David Weiss, with veteran producer Bob Thiele running the session.
Weiss has said that he wrote it specifically for Armstrong, but it was first offered to Tony Bennett, who chose not to record it — until much later in his career. Then it was presented to Armstrong, who also reportedly was reluctant to take it on because of the simplicity, perhaps naivete, of the lyric.
I hear babies cry, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more, than I’ll ever know
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world
But he took it on despite any misgivings. The single was released to little initial fanfare in the U.S. — peaking at No. 116 during a relatively modest five weeks on the chart —i n part because ABC Records, which released it initially, didn’t put much resources into promoting it.
Fans in England, however, couldn’t get enough. It went to No. 1 on the U.K. charts, starting an extended second wind that continued decades later when it was used in the 1987 Vietnam War film “Good Morning, Vietnam.”
With renewed attention from the film, it was re-released in the U.S. in 1988 and this time rose to No. 32 on the Billboard singles chart.
Armstrong’s recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, and the song has since been recorded by dozens of artists including Roy Clark, Nick Cave, Rod Stewart, Sarah Brightman, Ministry, Ziggy Marley, punk rocker Joey Ramone and the ubiquitous wedding version by Hawaiian singer and ukulele player Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.
In conjunction with the anniversary, the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, N.Y., has mounted a new exhibit, “50 Years of ‘What a Wonderful World,’” that features the trumpet he played on the session, photos from the recording date, sheet music, news articles and other related artifacts.
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