Behind The Song: Louis Armstrong, “What A Wonderful World”

It was a number one hit in the U.K. in the 1960s. Then it was a top 20 hit in Italy in the 1970s. Finally, in the 1980s, it charted in the United States, where it had gone nearly unnoticed for two decades. And fifty-three years after it was recorded, Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” was recognized as an iconic standard when its creators were posthumously honored with the Songwriter Hall of Fame’s Towering Song Award in June of 2015 in New York City.

“What a Wonderful World” was written by the team of jazz producer Bob Thiele (under the pseudonym “George Douglas”) and Songwriter Hall of Fame inductee George David Weiss. The original plan in 1967 was for the gravel-voiced, quirky jazz legend Armstrong to release the song as a piece that might quell some of the racial and political unrest in America, given its optimism and celebration of life. But, because of lack of promotion, the record didn’t go anywhere in the U.S., though other countries embraced it.

In 1988 though, thanks to its inclusion in the Robin Williams movie Good Morning, Vietnam, “What a Wonderful World” finally claimed a spot on the U.S. top 40 charts. Armstrong, sadly, was long dead by this time. “What a Wonderful World,” like so many songs that resonate in perpetuity with the masses, expresses simple ideas in a simply constructed piece. “I see trees of green, red roses too/I see them bloom for me and you/And I think to myself what a wonderful world” – that’s the first verse, and it says more in 25 words than many songs say in their entirety.

George David Weiss knew a thing or two about popular songwriting, with a long track record in the big band world and on Broadway. But Bob Thiele was better known for his background with straight-ahead jazz giants like John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. He was a somewhat unlikely author of a piece that combined everyday lyrical sentiments with a memorable pop melody, given the fact that he excelled at an art form the general public has never embraced. Both men are gone now, but the song is what they are best known for in the pop world.

To be selected for the Towering Song Award, a composition has to be recognized as “an individual song that has influenced our culture in a unique way over many years.” The first Towering Song Award was given in 1995, for Herman Hupfeld’s “As Time Goes By,” performed in the movie Casablanca by Dooley Wilson as the iconic character of Sam. From songs as innocuous as “Happy Birthday to You” to deeper compositions like Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” this award is given each year to a song that, for better or worse, has permeated the American consciousness. “What a Wonderful World” obviously qualifies.

Armstrong, of course, was one of the originators of jazz, with an innovative ability on the trumpet and an idiosyncratic voice that changed the way so many jazz musicians looked at music. He sang in what was basically his speaking voice, with a unique delivery and sense of phrasing that made him instantly recognizable. “What a Wonderful World” has also been covered by Tony Bennett (who reportedly turned it down before Armstrong cut it), Joey Ramone, Anne Murray and others, and Armstrong’s version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.

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