Saturday, December 31, 2011

December 31: Louis Armstrong, "What A Wonderful World"

Artist: Louis Armstrong
Song: "What A Wonderful World"
Album: What A Wonderful World (single)
Year: 1968

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Across the long history of recorded music, there are a select few songs and musicians without whom it is almost impossible to picture a world.  These singular moments and individuals have so massively shaped the entire history of music and culture as a whole that they transcend any boundaries, and have truly become part of humanity onto themselves.  Across all nations, languages, generations and any other sort of convention of classification, these unique songs and people cannot be mistaken, and it is the moments when the latter creates the former that the most unforgettable and outright life-changing songs in history exist.  Strangely enough, when one considers this exceptionally short list, one of, if not the most prominent example is a rather odd one, as it does not very accurately represent the talents of the main performer, Louis Armstrong.  Making his name as one of the earliest and most successful jazz soloists from as early as the 1920's one can easily make the case that there would have been no jazz, no blues, and none of the genres that formed after, had it not been for the talents of Louis Armstrong.  As perhaps the greatest trumpet player in history, Armstrong also possessed what may be the most instantly recognizable voice of all time; and it is this element, combined with his almost saint-like presence, and has turned his 1968 recording of "What A Wonderful World" into one of the true masterpieces in the entire history of recorded music.

There is no question that the opening progression of "What A Wonderful World" has become one of the most well-known of all time, as the beautiful string ensemble gently sways the song back and forth.  The fact that this arrangement was able to garner so many fans from across the musical spectrum is nothing short of inexplicable, as the popular music of the late 1960's was about anything that was far from a standard or "older" sound.  However, the reality remains that this orchestration has a presence that cannot be denied or ignored, and in many ways, it is this performance which shows the true power of classical instrumentation, as to this day, it still sounds fresh and is just as captivating.  It is also the way that the lone guitar plays in the left channel of the mix throughout the entire song that gives "What A Wonderful World" its distinctive tone, and due to the way that this sounds, one can make a bit of a link to the folk sound of the era.  Furthermore, the slow cadence from the drums almost has a country-western tone to it, and this may explain why "What A Wonderful World" was able to so easily cross over into so many different categories of music fans.  Yet the fact remains that the power of the music lives within the string section, and the way that the players build and release the tension throughout the song is truly as good as music has ever been performed.

While one cannot deny the moving nature of the music throughout "What A Wonderful World," the reality is that it is the unmistakable voice of Louis Armstrong that vaults this recording far beyond any other song in music history.  When one considers his back catalog, it is strange to think that he found such success with his raspy vocal sound, and yet one can argue that almost every slower song or ballad that he recorded has an allure that is unlike anything else.  On "What A Wonderful World," Armstrong truly set a standard, as he is able to give a sense of hope and happiness that stays strong even after hearing the song countless times.  Furthermore, the fact that the song was released during a time of such world-wide unrest is perhaps part of why it became such a massive success.  In many ways, one can see "What A Wonderful World" as a bit of a relief or escape from the often dark realities of the "real world," as the moment that the song begins, one cannot help but be lifted away to a more simple, more peaceful and pure time.  It is the way that Armstrong's voice carries the listener, lifting the spirits and somehow "making everything ok" that has enabled "What A Wonderful World" to easily endure the decades, and there may be no better example of the true power that a song can have than the feeling that one gets throughout this legendary vocal performance.

As the years have passed, few songs have been covered as widely or more often than "What A Wonderful World," and one can find versions recorded by everyone from Joey Ramone to B.B. King to Willie Nelson to The Flaming Lips, and countless other groups have recorded their own take on this song.  However, there is no question that amid all of these takes on "What A Wonderful World," Armstrong's original still stands miles beyond the rest, as the purity, simplicity, and outright beauty in his sound are impossible to match, let alone top.  This is further supported by the fact that while the song has been used in a massive number of films and television shows over the years, it is rare that any version other than the Armstrong take is the one that is chosen.  Yet strangely enough, upon its initial release, "What A Wonderful World" barely charted in the United States, largely due to the fact that the then-head of ABC Records did not like the song, and it was not properly promoted.  However, it became a massive hit in the U.K., and would becoming the biggest selling song of 1968 in that country.  In fact, "What A Wonderful World" did not chart in the United States until twenty years later, when it was used in the film, Good Morning, Vietnam, though by that point, the song was already a "standard."  Truth be told, it is impossible to consider a world in which this song did not exist, and it is the reason that there is not another recording from any point in music history that is worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Louis Armstrong's legendary 1968 single, "What A Wonderful World."

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