Louis Armstrong House Museum
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When Louis Armstrong passed away in 1971, his fans knew him best by the many signature numbers he recorded over the previous 48 years, 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.” Few would have named “What a Wonderful World” as Louis Armstrong’s best-loved song at the time of his passing but in 2017, it is far and away 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.
How did this happen? The Louis Armstrong House Museum will attempt to tell the story with its newest exhibit, “50 Years of ‘What a Wonderful World,’” running from the beginning of June through the end of the year. Among the items on display will be Armstrong’s part from the original arrangement, rare photos from the original 1967 recording date, albums, sheet music, news clippings and much more.
Perhaps the only person who believed in “What a Wonderful World” was 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 for Mercury in the succeeding years with varying results. In 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. “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.” When Thiele told ABC-Paramount President Larry Newton about his idea, Newton thought he was crazy, especially with Thiele’s plan to surround Armstrong with a choir and strings instead of the banjo-heavy Dixieland sound of “Hello, Dolly!” And according to Armstrong’s clarinetist Joe Muranyi, when Armstrong was ran down the melody (which is similar to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”) on his trumpet, he asked, “What is this s#*t?”
But then Armstrong read the lyrics and his mood changed immediately because they 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 all 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 passed away 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. Otherwise, the song remained largely 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). Don’t miss this special opportunity to see these one-of-a-kind artifacts associated with Louis Armstrong’s best-known song, on exhibit at the Louis Armstrong House Museum through December.
About Ricky Riccardi:
"Through a combination of intricate research and unbridled enthusiasm, Ricky Riccardi has become the 21st century's foremost expert on Louis Armstrong." -- Thomas Cunniffe, Jazz History Online
Ricky Riccardi is the Director of Research Collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum and author of What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years. He runs the online blog, "The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong," at dippermouth.blogspot.com and has given lectures on Armstrong at venues around the world, including the Institute of Jazz Studies, the Satchmo Summerfest, the Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival and the Monterey Jazz Festival. He has taught a "Music of Louis Armstrong" graduate course at Queens College and a six-week "Swing University" course on Louis Armstrong at Jazz at Lincoln Center. He has recently co-produced Satchmo at Symphony Hall 65th Anniversary: The Complete Concert for Universal Music and Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars for Mosaic Records. He is also a jazz pianist based out of Toms River, NJ and received his Master's in Jazz History and Research from Rutgers University.
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