Aug 06

LOUIS ARMSTRONG – “What A Wonderful World”

FT + Popular39 comments • 8,463 views

#249, 27th April 1968

I went to a wedding at the weekend and this was their choice of first song. In that context, an occasion anyhow suffused with goodwill, it works fine. Otherwise, it’s too cloying for me – an overload of wide-eyed sincerity. Armstrong’s voice, taken just as a sonic event, is really quite strange: all phlegm, growl and chuckle, every line wheezing out but never quite ending. He overplays the wise old grandfather angle – he sounds parodically ancient, preposterously kindly, a giant threadbare teddy bear stuffed with mucus. On the similar, but better, “We Have All The Time In The World”, the obvious contradiction between hopeful sentiment and wizened performance gives the song some bittersweet weight, but this is like a relative’s overlong hug and I’m happy when it ends.



  1. 1
    Tom on 15 Aug 2006 #

    I posted this twice, have attempted to delete one but it refuses to budge from my frontpage. I hope nobody else is suffering from double Armstrongs.

  2. 2
    Pete Baran on 15 Aug 2006 #

    One Armstrong is enough for me.

    I think you might be being a little bit harsh here, though I understand why. Not sure if there is a contradiction between wizened performance and sentiment: surely the old are allowed to be (and often are) more sentimental than the rest of us.

    Though I hated it as the bookend to Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy, (I hated what I saw as Adams using it ironically – not so sure now).

  3. 3
    Admin on 15 Aug 2006 #

    Sorry about that Tom! the front page is cached, and i’ve set the cache to clear when a new item is published, but forgot to clear it when an item is deleted! gone now anyway.

  4. 4
    Tom on 15 Aug 2006 #

    Sorry Pete, my ambiguity: of course the elderly can be sentimental. I meant that there’s a fruitful (if a bit obvious) part-contradiction between ‘having all the time in the world’ and ‘sounding as old as the hills’.

  5. 5
    Chris Brown on 15 Aug 2006 #

    Actually, I’ve grown to love this one. Maybe not a 10 for me but at least a 7. Yes, it’s an unusual voice but I think that’s exactly why it works… if (and indeed when) it’s sung by a more normal singer it’s just schlocky but this performance is what makes it work. Ironically, Cliff had a hit with it (in a medley with ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’, which wasn’t even an original combination).

    This also made him (probably) the oldest living chart-topper, although I don’t think he knew exactly when he was born anyway.

    By the way, I presume that isn’t the original cover. It’s still a bit odd, because this is the one hit he doesn’t play trumpet on.

  6. 6
    Erithian on 16 Aug 2006 #

    Pete – using this song ironically was also done in “Good Morning Vietnam”. This is one of those Number 1s it’s interesting to consider in the context of the time – it reached the top three weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, and with the other goings-on in the spring of 1968 it was probably reassuring to reach for a bit of unironic sentiment. Beautiful piece of music too.

    Chris – yes, he’s the oldest living artist to reach number 1 at 66 (a little older than Hilda Woodward of Lieutenant Pigeon), but everyhit.com gives an honourable mention to Kenneth Wolstenholme, who was just short of 70 when his “they think it’s all over – it is now” World Cup Final commentary was used in “World in Motion”!

  7. 7
    Martin Skidmore on 16 Aug 2006 #

    I thought John Lee Hooker beat the age record with Boom Boom, but I might be misremembering that.

    I think this is a beautiful song.

  8. 8
    Brian on 16 Aug 2006 #

    I wouldn’t have much to say about this song had I not seen a mini-biography on TV last week.

    Considering Armstrong’s life and all he had to put with , it’s quite remarkable that he retained any sort of hope or love left.

    Interesting tid-bit was that he placed in an orphanage at a very young age for allegedly shooting a gun into the air at a New Orleans party. In the orphange he made to join the marching band as form of discipline and he was given a trumpet/coronet to play. And went on , depending on who you believe , to ” invent ” jazz.

    The voice reflects the hardship and through the lyric re-affirms a faith that really has no right to be there.

    Brian in Canada

  9. 9
    pˆnk s lord sükråt cunctør on 16 Aug 2006 #

    armostrong is one of my all-time cultural heroes — all the things g.marcus sez abt ELVIS apply to satchmo AND MORE (ok and minus some)

  10. 10
    Doctor Mod on 16 Aug 2006 #

    I agree completely with Tom, especially regarding the cloyingness of this song.

    It is sad, I think, if this recording is ALL that some nowadays know of Armstrong’s huge recorded output. I say “nowadays” because this song has never gone away. It’s one of those that follow you around via muzak and other public media. Ah, well–sentimentality sells.

    As to age records, I read something a couple of years ago about Yoko Ono having her first (and only) number one at 70 on one of the US Billboard charts (dance music, I think).

  11. 11
    blount on 16 Aug 2006 #

    yeah a ‘walking on thin ice’ reissue topped billboard’s always bizarre dance chart; obv recorded well before she was 70 though. armstrong famously knocked beatles off the top in 64 w/ ‘hello dolly’, hit #7 on the adult contemporary (who knew ac existed in 68 – surely this is a retcon rename of another format right?) w/ ‘mame’ – did ‘what a wonderful world’ appear in a musical? strange intersection between ‘jazz – w/ strings!’ and mancini goo – never the tension of the former or the ridiculousness of the latter, probably would’ve benefited from one or the other. i’m trying to think of what contemporary might’ve bettered armstrong w/ this – judy garland maybe? nearly anyone else would’ve made it unlistenable, either of his high society costars try it and you’ve got the smuggest record ever made maybe.

  12. 12
    blount on 16 Aug 2006 #

    btw any chance ‘tell it like it is’ or ‘gris-gris gumbo ya ya’ topped the britcharts in 68? wondering how many new orleans connex might pop up yet (‘what a wonderful world’ > ‘lady madonna’ ie. 6 > 5).

  13. 13
    intothefireuk on 16 Aug 2006 #

    Can’t agree with the rating. This is surely one of the least pretentious & cynical recordings to reach number one. Louis is hopelessly sincere and that’s what lifts this record out of sclock-dom.


  14. 14
    Chris Brown on 16 Aug 2006 #

    Specialist charts don’t count. And neither do re-issues (if they did, Elvis would be the winner, because he topped the charts 70 years after he was born).
    I have to admit I hadn’t thought of Ken Wolstenholme, although he’s sort of on the borderline between being a member of a chart act (which I would count) and just being somebody who appears on a record (which I wouldn’t); it’s sort of ambiguous because of the one-off nature of Englandneworder.

    Brian’s comment up there reminds me that I heard James Morrison (he’s a bit like James Blunt, but not as bad) explain that his song of the same title was distantly inspired by this, but that he was trying to show the downside of life too. He appeared to think that Louis Armstrong was unaware of suffering, and that he was thus improving upon the original.

  15. 15
    pˆnk s lord sükråt cunctør on 16 Aug 2006 #

    armstrong never heard morrison!! in a key sense he WAS unaware of suffering!!

  16. 16
    Tom on 16 Aug 2006 #

    More than most songs the mark for this one was reliant on my mood on the day I did the write up – I was in a bad one so a 4 it is. Without Armstrong’s sincerity (and the intriguing strangeness of his voice) it wd have been 2 or 1!

    I like sincerity, but I like cynicism too – both can make for great or bad pop. It’s no coincidence surely that this track was covered by the Flaming Lips, who have spent a career using sincerity as an annoying bludgeon.

    As a child of the 1980s I think sincerity allied to ‘pretension’ is my favourite thing of all.

  17. 17
    blount on 17 Aug 2006 #

    the flaming lips covered ‘lady madonna’ too! i suspect!

  18. 18
    Doctor Mod on 17 Aug 2006 #

    As a child of the 60s reborn in the 80s–it’s a long story that needn’t be told–I, too, am quite fond cynicism and pretention.

    Ergo, I have no problem accepting Yoko Ono’s #1 as a REAL #1.

    I’d rather listen to a cynical and pretentious old woman (who can really do the mock sincerity thing while she’s at it) than a sentimental old codger any day.

    I’d go raving mad if I had to listen “Wonderful World’ repeatedly, but just keep on dancing to “Thin Ice.”

  19. 19
    Marcello Carlin on 17 Aug 2006 #

    “Tell It Like It Is” made #49 in Britain in ’67.
    Dr John has never had a British hit single.

  20. 20
    Chris Brown on 19 Aug 2006 #

    I wasn’t attempting a critique of ‘Walking On Thin Ice’ (I can’t really remember what it sounds like) but I take it straight out of contention as a Number One because it was only Number One on the dance chart, and in America anyway. On the basis we’re looking at here, it was a Number 35 (both times, in fact).

  21. 21
    Mary on 11 Feb 2007 #

    I ‘m doing Louis Armstrong on my music assignment. So I need to know a few things…so I think it’s cool if you did some interesting info as well

    PS: How many pieces did he perform and compose? And what were they?
    PPS: My mum’s fav song is what a wonderful world

  22. 22
    Kaylee wintersgill on 10 May 2007 #

    ure songs are beast put some on a web site ……mmm please put what a wonderful world on if you make a site because its my favourite song you are elish and singing xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

  23. 23
    Al Ewing on 11 May 2007 #

    Always remember: URE SONGS ARE BEAST and YOU ARE ELISH

  24. 24
    Hal on 1 Oct 2007 #

    “I never tried to prove nothing, just wanted to give a good show. My life has always been my music, it’s always come first, but the music ain’t worth nothing if you can’t lay it on the public. The main thing is to live for that audience, ’cause what you’re there for is to please the people.”

    — Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong

  25. 25
    Jonathan Bogart on 15 Sep 2008 #

    I used to think this song was sentimental slush and grimace every time it came on the radio. (It’s still awful hearing it used in adverts and brainless films.) But after spending a lot more time with the rest of Armstrong’s catalogue (and not just the crit-approved Hot Fives and Sevens, but the entirety of it), I can’t find it in my heart to dislike it. In fact, those wheezy gurgles at the end of each line I now hear like little oases of hope and joy, pockets in which I’d give anything to live forever.

  26. 26
    Mark G on 15 Sep 2008 #

    Has there ever been a song that’s turned around so much in ‘critical’ appraisal? Back then, it was all about Louis selling out, now it’s a reflection on his life and optimism for the future.

    So, who was right? Who knows…

  27. 27
    The Intl on 17 Sep 2008 #

    I never heard it before Good Morning Vietnam. How did I miss this? Oh wait, April 1968. Now I know: Hendrix, Cream, Airplane. The Hot Fives/Sevens sides ARE glorious in their early swinging grooves, though.

  28. 28
    Matthew on 16 Jan 2009 #

    Sentimentality is good, this is good. Mind you, I can’t extricate it in my mind from montages of war, torture, pollution and violence, or a half-remembered Spitting Image filk of it where the lyrics had become “and I think to myself, we’ve ruined the world”.

    The “wide-eyed sincerity overload” of this is exactly what makes it work: in a world that is constantly finding new ways of going to sh**, the sheer guilelessness of this is eternally heartbreaking. And the fact that it hails from 1968’s summer of optimism, from an age that couldn’t possibly have imagined how bad things might still be able to get, is the cherry on the cake.

  29. 29
    Waldo on 29 Oct 2009 #

    Louis’ wise old git act notwithstanding, this is a beautiful arrangement. But I agree with Tom. I’m glad when the record finishes. The “friends shaking hands” line would threaten anybody’s breakfast and by the time we get to crying babies the game is well and truly up. I can’t believe that Flushing Tennis Club would have named one of their show courts after Satchmo on the back of this. Actually what has Louis Armstrong got to do with tennis anyway? Arthur Ashe, I get and heartily applaud but come on!

  30. 30
    thefatgit on 14 Mar 2011 #

    The connection may only be tenuously genre-specific, but here’s as good a place as any to say RIP Joe Morello. My Dad’s favourite drummer.

  31. 31
    crag on 14 Apr 2011 #


    Louis Armstrong, Jazz trumpeter, Singer(1968)

    Henry Hall, bandleader(1968)

    Sir Alec Rose, sailor(1969)

    Diane Rigg, actress(1970)

    Ian Hendry, actor(1973)

    Michael Bond, writer(1976)

    Kiri Tikaniwa, opera singer(1980)

    Mollie Harris, actress, writer(1983)

    Marco Pierre White, chef(1991)

    Will Carling, rugby player(1992)

    Gavin Laird, trade unionist(1992)

    Neil Simon, playwright(1995)

    Simon Weston, Falklands War Veteran(1996)

    John Cleese, actor, comedian(1997)

    Nicole Kidman, actress(1998)

    Willard White, opera singer(1999)

    Ronald Harwood, playwright(2000)

    Bishop John Sentamu, Bishop of Birmingham(2003)

    Karin Bilimoria, Businessman(2004)

    Ronald Searle, illustrator, writer(2005)

    Nicholas Parsons, broadcaster(2007).

  32. 32
    wichita lineman on 11 Jun 2011 #

    Another “missing” double A side. Brian Matthew just played Cabaret, which was a soft’n’cosy trad version of title song from the 1967 musical. Quite pleasant, but hard to imagine it reaching no.1 on its own strengths.

  33. 35
    Lena on 13 Dec 2011 #

    I want my baby back: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.com/2011/12/sophisticated-misery-englebert.html Thanks for reading, y’all!

  34. 36
    mapman132 on 17 Feb 2014 #

    Four?! Well, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. For me this is a true classic. Strangely, it missed the Hot 100 entirely back in 1968 because some clueless record company executive declined to promote it. Too bad as while sentimental it is, Armstrong’s heartfelt delivery and optimism makes it work for me 46 years later and counting. It’s worth noting that Armstrong had proven he could have US hit singles as his version of “Hello Dolly” had ended the first wave of US Beatlemania four years prior. WAWW would become a belated US Top 40 record in 1988 when Armstrong would’ve been 86 or 87 (depending on who you ask)…possibly a chart record of some sort. I was half-expecting it to be released yet again as a charity record in the wake of Katrina, although perhaps the world wasn’t feeling too wonderful at the time.

    Not quite a 10 for me, but definitely a high 9.

  35. 37
    hectorthebat on 11 May 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    Dave Marsh (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) 969
    Pitchfork (USA) – Top 200 Songs of the 60s (2006) 132
    RIAA and NEA (USA) – 365 Songs of the Century (2001) 84
    The Recording Academy Grammy Hall of Fame Albums and Songs (USA)
    HarperCollins GEM (UK) – Single of the Year 1949-99 (1999)
    Mojo (UK) – The 100 Greatest Songs of All Time (2000) 87
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 696
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Les Inrockuptibles (France) – 1000 Indispensable Songs (2006)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  36. 38
    lonepilgrim on 25 May 2016 #

    at the time my friends and I would get great pleasure from trying to emulate the raspy growl of this song. We’d previously done the same with ‘Wandering Star’. This is pleasant enough but without Louis singing the song veers into greeting cards territory

  37. 39
    Gareth Parker on 29 Apr 2021 #

    A beautiful song and a moving delivery from Louis. 8/10 for me.

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