Friday, October 9, 2009

Louis Armstrong, Eva Cassidy - "What a Wonderful World"

SONG What a Wonderful World

WRITTEN BY Bob Thiele and David Weiss

PERFORMED BY Louis Armstrong, Eva Cassidy

APPEARS ON Louis Armstrong - What a Wonderful World (1968); Eva Cassidy - Live at Blues Alley (1996)

This is one of my favorite songs, but although I like the original Louis Armstrong version, the one that has a special place in my heart is the version by Eva Cassidy. We'll get to that in due time, though. Let's talk about the song itself first, though.

Bob Thiele was a record producer who produced recordings for John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Archie Shepp, and the like when he was head of Impulse! Records. In 1968 he and veteran songwriter George David Weiss wrote this song for Louis Armstrong for a project Thiele and Armstrong were working on. 1968 (for those of you who weren't around yet then) was a pretty tumultuous year; both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated in that year, and protest demonstrations pressing the issues those two were famous for - civil rights and an end to the war in Vietnam. Satchmo wanted a song that would promote positive feelings in the midst of all this strife, and Thiele and Weiss came up with just the right song. It has a hopeful, optimistic tone with regard to the future, with reference to babies being born into the world and having much to look forward to. Satch loved it.

Unfortunately, ABC Records, to whom Armstrong was under contract, didn't like it. In fact, Thiele had to lock ABC sales executive Larry Newton out of the recording session because Newton hated the song and wanted to abort the session. Needless to say, ABC didn't promote the record (first released as a single), and at first it didn't get much play in the US. But it took off in the United Kingdom, where it hit #1 on the singles chart and was the biggest-selling single of 1968.

ABC Records' European distributor EMI forced ABC Records to put out a What a Wonderful World album in 1968, but again, it flopped in the US because it wasn't promoted, while it did well in the UK. Despite ABC's dislike of the song, it gained a measure of popularity because Armstrong sang it every opportunity he got, especially on TV appearances. People loved the song, and loved Satchmo singing it. After his death in 1971 it was rereleased, and from that point on it became a hit and the much-loved standard we've all listened to. It especially became attached to Christmas for some reason; I think Satch sang it on one of Perry Como's Christmas specials, and the image stuck.

So what was all the fuss about with Larry Newton and the other bigwigs at ABC Records? Here are the lyrics; maybe you can figure it out!

I see trees of green, red roses too,
I see them blue, for me and you.
And I think to myself... what a wonderful world.

I see skies of blue, and clouds of white,
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night.
And I think to myself... what a wonderful world.

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky,
Also the faces of people going by.
I see friends shaking hands, say how do you do?
They're really saying, I love you.

I hear babies crying, I watch them grow,
They'll learn much more than I'll ever know.
And I think to myself... what a wonderful world.

Yes I think to myself... what a wonderful world.
Still confused? Yeah, me too! Unless ABC thought it was too sappy for the likes of the great Louis Armstrong. Unless they just didn't like the message. Hmmmm... Anyhow, here's the original recording of "What a Wonderful World" by Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong.

And now to my favorite version. If you've been reading this blog for a while now, you've seen mr write about Eva Cassidy before. She had the voice of an angel, great chops on both guitar and piano, and an exquisite, finely tuned sense of musical taste. And she was taken from us far too soon: melanoma killed her in November of 1996. You can read more about her in my post about "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", of which Eva did the most haunting arrangement, and which became her signature tune.

Today I uploaded a slideshow video I'd been working on for a while to YouTube. It's called "Wonderful World", and it consists of nature shots taken in and around Newport, RI, and backed by Eva Cassidy's studio version of "What a Wonderful World" (you can check it out here, if you like). It got me to thinking about the song itself, and inspired me to write this post. It also got me to looking for my favorite video of Eva performing this song live at Blues Alley in January of 1996. Found it!


  1. Just goes to show what record company execs know! I've never heard Eva's version before -- it's lovely.

  2. I have to tell you that Eva singing What a Wonderful World is my all time favourite piece of music to listen to. She truly sang like I imagine angels would/do. Instant peace. Instant tranquility. The hair on my neck stands up and I am swaddled in her soothing melodic voice. I am so happy to see you promoting and introducing her to new audiences.

  3. What about Eva Cassidy's interpretation of "Autumn leaves"?