The recording session was stopped due to a passing freight train…twice!
What A Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong Orchestra and Chorus
ABC/Paramount 45-10982 (USA) / HMV POP 1615 (UK 1968)
A&M 3010 (USA 1988) / A&M AM 435 (UK 1988)
Recorded at United Studios, Las Vegas, Nevada, August 1967
Released December 1967
Writers George David Weiss & George Douglas (aka Bob Thiele)
Producer Bob Thiele Arranged by Artie Butler
UK #1 24/4/68 4 weeks USA #32 3/88 re-issue
If this was the only recording you ever heard by Louis Armstrong you could be forgiven for not realising that Armstrong was in fact one of the most important and influential musicians of the 20th century. Born on the 4th of August 1901 (or thereabouts), at 66 years of age, Louis Daniel Armstrong became the oldest person to top the UK charts when, ‘What A Wonderful World’, hit #1 in April 1968. (Tom Jones beat this record in March 2009 when, at age 68, he participated in a Comic Relief version of ‘Islands In The Stream’ that went to Number 1) There are many scholars who believe that popular music as we know it might not have existed without the pioneering vocal techniques of Armstrong back in the 1920s. Before his time songs were either shouted, due to the lack of electrical amplification, or simply sung “straight” without any noticeable emotion or improvisation.
Armstrong changed all that with his scat singing and was a direct influence on the 2 men who set the standard for popular singing in the 20th century, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. But Armstrong did much more than that, his cornet and trumpet playing was equally revolutionary which is why, some 80 years since his early performances, he is still respected as, “The first and greatest soloist in recorded jazz”. It was Armstrong’s charismatic personality and innovative performance that helped turn jazz into a popular art form, taking it from smoky brothels on the wrong side of the tracks to Carnegie Hall respectability. Armstrong had a highly successful career in music, on film, radio, television and on record and became what we now call an all-round entertainer (perhaps the first) and a much loved personality.
Armstrong was of course no stranger to the charts, though his forays became somewhat more seldom in the age of rock and roll. His recording of, ‘Mack The Knife’ in 1956 was the one that Bobby Darin copied and took to the top of the charts in 1959, and in 1964 he had a US #1 with, ‘Hello Dolly’, a performance that also won him a Grammy®. (The released version of ‘Hello Dolly’ was in fact only a publisher’s demo version recorded by Louis to help promote the song – there was also a plagiarism issue over ‘Dolly’s likeness with a song entitled ‘Sunflower’ composed by Mack David. Apparently he received a massive $250,000 out of court payment to settle the dispute) Louis’ last big hit in his lifetime might be described by some as a load of sentimental old bunkum; ‘Wonderful World’, was especially written for Armstrong (though more recent information reveals it was first offered to, and turned down by, Tony Bennett), recorded during an all-night session in Las Vegas (not New York as often reported) where he was performing, and Louis loved it, recording it for union scale ($250) so that an orchestra could also be paid overtime for the all-night session.
Session musical arranger Artie Butler recalls an amusing and unusual problem during recording, “It was 2 a.m. when we started to record. I will never forget that in the middle of recording a freight train came into town blowing its whistle. We had to stop the session and wait about twenty minutes. About an hour later the train left town and blew its whistle again. We had to stop the session once more. I remember Louis and I laughing out loud till it hurt. We actually hung on to each other to keep from falling over with laughter. It was really one of the funniest moments of my life. When you stop and think about how lucky and fortunate you are to be given the opportunity to work with an icon like Louis Armstrong, and then twice in the same recording session a freight train blows its whistle and causes you to stop recording. It’s the epitome of Murphy’s law. We finally got the take we all liked around 6 a.m.”
Released during a period of political and racial unrest in the United States, the song certainly suited Armstrong’s unmistakeable gravelly voice and relaxed approach, and though it might appear to be in sharp contrast to the post-San Francisco sentiments of the time, it could well be described as a hippie-anthem for the elder generation. Taken at face value, ‘What A Wonderful World’, is a glorious summation of the simple joys of life. A Number 1 record in Britain, it comes as something of a surprise to discover that this was not a hit in America. While this may well have had something to do with the stringent Top 40 radio formatting that would have excluded such a middle-of-the-road performance, the main reason for this was the fact that ABC Records chief in America Larry Newton hated the record and refused to have it promoted! Thus it only ‘bubbled under’ the US charts at #116 in early 1968 initially selling a meagre 1000 copies. Apparently Newton and the song’s co-writer and producer Bob Thiele – who worked for ABC – had a major falling out at the recording session, Newton wanting to stop the recording since he felt that Armstrong shouldn’t be recording a syrupy ballad. It seems that as a result of this contretemps Thiele resigned his post at ABC the very next day!
However, ‘What A Wonderful World’, has since become something of a standard and when it was featured in the Robin Williams movie, Good Morning Vietnam, in 1988, it made a brief appearance on the US Top 40. In more recent years, the song has become more fully appreciated for its universal sentiments and enjoyed something of a revival following a delightful and touching new rendering by the late Eva Cassidy, which was adapted as a duet with Katie Melua and became a UK Number 1 in December 2007.
‘Wonderful World’ can in fact be traced back musically to the English language nursery rhymes ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ and ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ which utilise a French folk melody first noted around 1761 as ‘Ah Vous Dirai-Je, Maman’ and adapted into 12 variations by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1781. There are also a couple of European Christmas carols that utilise the same melody. This raises the question, since ‘What A Wonderful World’ is now a copyrighted piece of music (and will remain so until 2080) do public performances of ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ and ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ now infringe that copyright? Finally, and considering the provenance of ‘Wonderful World’, an appropriate quote from Louis,: “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.”
(Louis Armstrong’s recording is not to be confused with the similarly titled 1960 hit by Sam Cooke entitled ‘(What A) Wonderful World’ and composed by Cooke, Herb Alpert and Lou Adler in 1959 under the collective pseudonym ‘Barbara Campbell’)
Copyright © 2015 SongStories/Tony Burton
Originally published by Tony Burton, Stavanger bibliotek og kulturhus.