In reading for this post, I was also surprised at finding next to nothing about the composition of the song.
Bob Thiele, who wrote the words, was at the time head of Impulse Jazz, a subsidiary of ABC Records.
When he took that position, he was already a veteran of more than 20 years as a producer of jazz records. His obituary in the New York Times doesn’t even mention his role in this song.
George David Weiss, who composed the tune, studied writing and arranging at the Juilliard School of Music. He later wrote arrangements for Stan Kenton, Johnny Rogers, and Vincent Lopez. Songs he wrote in the 1940s, ’50s, and 60s were recorded by performers the caliber of Les Paul, Perry Como, the Ames Brothers, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, and Nat “King” Cole.
Weiss continued to compose into the 1990s. Besides What a Wonderful World, his biggest hits include Can’t Help Falling in Love (recorded by Elvis Presley) and The Lion Sleeps Tonight.
Louis Armstrong burst on the jazz scene in the 1920s. By the mid 1960s he had become a legend with many hit songs to his credit, as well as movie appearances. The public knew him not only as a musician, but an ebullient, optimistic entertainer with a sunny smile.
In the 1960s rock began to edge out jazz in popular culture. Armstrong’s career still flourished. In fact, his 1963 recording of Hello, Dolly! reached the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for the week of May 9, 1964.
At age 62, Armstrong became the oldest entertainer to reach the top spot. Hello, Dolly! bumped the Beatles from that spot for the first time in 14 weeks. They had three different no. 1 songs during that span.
What a Wonderful World and its times
In the mid 1960s, the country was embroiled in controversies over both the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.
Thiele and Weiss were apparently disturbed by social chaos and wrote the song in 1967 in hope of bringing some reconciliation.
I can find no description of their collaboration on line. No description of who thought of the song or why.
Although Weiss later claimed to have written the song with Louis Armstrong’s voice in mind, in fact, he was their second choice. Tony Bennet declined the invitation to introduce it.
Armstrong’s recording appeared in 1968, perhaps the most turbulent year in America in the twentieth century. It saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Race riots took place in more than 100 American cities. Armstrong, popular with both white and black audiences, exuded optimism. He seemed an ideal ambassador for hope.
When Thiele and Weiss pitched What a Wonderful World to Armstrong, he had just signed a contract with ABC Records. He was looking for material for a new album and loved the song immediately.
The recording, and why it flopped
The recording session took place after one of Armstrong’s performances in Las Vegas in August 1967. Larry Newton, president of ABC Records, had come to town to get some publicity pictures.
He envisioned another Hello, Dolly! and opposed Armstrong singing a slow ballad. He attended the session specifically to prevent the recording. The session proceeded only after someone locked Newton out.
At that time, recording sessions required the entire ensemble to perform through an entire selection as many times as necessary to get an acceptable take. Nowadays, each track is recorded separately and then mixed.
Newton was outside the studio still making his displeasure known. The sound of overnight freight trains near the studio interrupted two takes.
The craziness could have ruined the session. Instead, Armstrong started laughing at it. Everyone else joined in, and with the tension breaking, they continued until they achieved what they wanted.
By that time, the session had run overtime, meaning the musicians had to be paid extra. Armstrong himself accepted only the basic union scale of $250 to make sure the rest got their due.
Newton refused to release the record. ABC’s British partner EMI released it and it soon reached the top of the British charts. Newton still refused to promote it in the US. It appears the single sold only about 1000 copies.
By the end of 1968, EMI forced Newton to release an album that included the song, but they couldn’t force him to promote it to the radio or in records stores. It got no higher than 116 on the Billboard chart.
How What a Wonderful World became a standard
Like Thiele and Weiss, Armstrong believed that the US needed a good dose of optimism and hope. He sang What a Wonderful World in his stage shows and on television.
In the following video, Armstrong tells what the song meant to him.
And here is one of his 1967 performances of it.
A re-release after Armstrong’s death in 1971 enjoyed modest success. Ironically, it took an anti-war protest film, Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), to take the song to a larger audience. There it provided background music behind a montage of scenes of the carnage of war.
The song has suffered other cynical and ironic usages, including the start of a nuclear apocalypse in the earlier film Dr. Strangelove. Mostly, however, uses of it allow the public to respond to the song’s serenity and peace.
Part of what makes the song work, according to rock critic Niel McCormick, is the condition of Armstrong’s voice. It was “so old and cracked that it contains a sense of loss within it, the bittersweet tinge of a man looking back, who has already lived a long life and is acutely aware of how precious it is.”
The melancholic tinge from the weakened voice of an old man may account for the enduring popularity of Armstrong’s recording. It doesn’t keep younger performers from putting their own stamp on it. Listen to this performance by 9-year-old Anna Graceman
I have heard this song sung too often when the singer tries to imitate Armstrong’s gravelly voice. How much better it would be to imitate his authenticity and the mastery of his phrasing.
Bob Thiele, 73, producer for jazz legends / Peter Watrous, New York Times. February 1, 1996
George David Weiss, writer of hit pop songs, dies at 89 / Margalit Fox, New York Times. August 23, 2010.
Smashed hits: how political is What a Wonderful World / BBC News Magazine. December 12, 2011
“What a Wonderful World,” Louis Armstrong: 1967-68 / Jack Doyle, The Pop History Dig, November 7, 2012, last updated September 3, 2016.
Album cover: Fair use from Wikimedia Commons