"What A Wonderful World"

09.22.11 | Cecil Van Houten | Comments[14]

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

It doesn’t matter how young or old you are or what style of music you enjoy, the odds are you recognize those lyrics and can probably hum the melody too.  And even though it’s been cut by dozens of artists through the years, the iconic version remains Louis Armstrong’s.  In fact it’s hard to separate the two.  Yet unlike many tunes that swirl around in our heads and lyrics that evoke memories from decades ago, it was almost never recorded and released.   

The song, uncharacteristic of most of Armstrong’s jazz work, was written by Bob Thiele and George Weiss in 1967. Thiele was a well-known songwriter and producer for ABC Records and Weiss was a songwriter who co-wrote the hit version of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight” among many others.  It was written to bring a sense of hope and inspiration to a world filled with increasing social and political unrest.  Thiele and Weiss originally pitched the song to Tony Bennett, who turned it down.  (His career survived.) 

That summer another producer, Artie Butler, suggested pitching the song to Louis Armstrong for a pop vocal record he was working on.  Armstrong agreed to record the song and Thiele and Weiss traveled to Las Vegas where Louis was appearing at the Tropicana Hotel.  It was August 16th.  After his midnight show the ensemble drove across town to Bill Porter’s United Studios and gathered with the engineers and musicians.  It was around 2 a.m.  Things quickly began to unravel.    

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

First, ABC Records President Larry Newton had come to Las Vegas to meet with Armstrong and have some publicity photos taken for the trades.  Armstrong had just been signed to the label which Newton considered a major coup.  But…he hated Thiele and Weiss’s tune.  He expected Armstrong to be recording another upbeat pop song like “Hello Dolly!” not a slow-tempo ballad.  Newton went ballistic and had to be physically restrained and locked outside the studio doors.

The second thing that happened was, about 45 minutes into the session, a Union Pacific freight train rumbled into town on tracks near the studio building.  It blew its horn several times and the session had to be stopped for 30 minutes while the train maneuvered in the yard.  This was in the days when recordings were done ‘live’; the vocalist, in a corner of the studio or sometimes an isolation booth, the band or orchestra and any background vocals were recorded at the same time.  It might require 10, 15 or 20 takes before everything was right - the playing, the vocals, the mix.  A record essentially captured a live performance; overdubbing was extremely rare. 

The session eventually resumed but was interrupted again less than an hour later by the same train leaving the train yard.  Between the rumbling of the freight cars and the repeated blowing of the diesel’s horn, the session shut down for another half hour.  Add to that the occasional outburst from Larry Newton, still locked outside the studio, and the situation could have quickly deteriorated into an expensive waste of time.  But Louis shook his head and began to laugh.  That broke the tension and soon everyone was laughing over the situation.  The things working against them actually lightened the mood and increased their determination.  Finally at about 6 a.m. they got the take they wanted.  Because the session had run long, Armstrong only accepted the basic scale of $250, to make sure the orchestra got paid.  But “What A Wonderful World” was ‘in the can’.

The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces, of people going by
I see friends shaking hands, sayin', "How do you do?"
They're really sayin', "I love you"

But that’s only half the story.  The tapes sat in a vault at ABC Records in New York for months, only being released in the United Kingdom early in 1968.  In his anger, Larry Newton refused to promote the song in the U.S. and it only sold 1,000 singles.  But, it became a huge hit in the UK, going to #1 on the British charts and staying there for four unprecedented weeks.  For EMI, ABC Records’ UK partner, it became the top selling single of the year.

1968 was a difficult year in America.  With the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy that spring and summer, growing civil unrest and increasing U.S. involvement in the Viet Nam War, Armstrong felt the song needed to be heard in this country to promote a sense of hope and optimism.  Armstrong loved the song and performed it everywhere, including numerous television appearances, and its popularity began to grow.  EMI forced ABC to release a U.S. version of the record that October but, like the original single, it was never promoted to radio or retail and was considered a flop.  Following Armstrong’s death in 1971, the record was re-released and enjoyed modest success.

But it wasn’t until 1988 that the song found its audience.  Director Barry Levinson was working on the film, “Good Morning, Vietnam”, and needed a song to use as a musical backdrop under a montage of images of the war.  He considered dozens of songs but when he heard Armstrong’s version of “What A Wonderful World”, he knew it was the perfect choice.  The poignant lyrics and Armstrong’s gravelly voice stood in stark contrast to the images onscreen, a paradox of sight and sound.  The ironic sequence became a focal point of the film, and the song?  Twenty years after its initial release it finally became a certified hit. 

The imagery in the lyrics evokes warmth; the music is slow and easy; and Louis’ vocals capture the mood and heart of the song with a uniqueness that makes his the signature version, even though it has been recorded dozens of times since.  You can feel the perspective and believability he brings to the lyric.  After all, he was sixty-six years old on that hot August night when he labored in a smoky, brightly-lit studio until dawn, through interruptions and arguments, to get it “just right”. 

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

So is this just an interesting story?  A look behind the scenes at the creation of a musical classic?  No, I think there are a few lessons we can draw from the story.

It is first an example of perseverance.  Bob Thiele and George Weiss knew they had a hit on their hands.  But they had to get it in the hands of the right artist.  Once they accomplished that, they still had to get it recorded and deal with record company politics.  Even after the initial record was completed it took decades to become a hit.  But it ultimately achieved success because people believed in it and fought for it.  Sometimes it takes a long time for an audience to recognize an object’s value.  We can be that way too – in our relationships, our careers, our walk with God.  Do we persevere or do we give up too easily?

Second, it is often the case that it can be a long time before you see the fruits of your labor.  In fact, you may never see them.  That was the case with Armstrong; the record didn’t really take off until seventeen years after his death.  We don’t like that; we don’t have the patience for it.  We live in an era of instant gratification; we want our payoff and we want it now.  But hope deferred is not hope denied. 

Third, if you’re true to your vision and faithfully execute it, people will be blessed.  If your art speaks truth with beauty and integrity, it will connect with people on a deeper level, beyond being recognized as just a touching lyric or a pretty melody.  Songs like that – and lives that are lived in that way – have staying power.  They become timeless reminders of what truth looks like, what the scripture calls "trophies of grace", that reach beyond the familiar into the mystery of grace.  Do we have confidence in our vision, that people will ‘get it’, or do we fall back into the same clichés and predictable patterns?   Do we put ourselves at risk in seeking the unknown or settle for the known, the comfortable, the ‘safe’?   

Lastly, if God wants it to happen, it’s going to happen.  It may be something as simple as a song or as important and complex as your life, but God will always, always, always make a way.  He is undeterred by the obstacles we wrestle with.  His purposes are deeper and broader than we can understand.  And his ultimate intention is to reconcile man to himself.  There is a quiet kind of assurance we can draw from knowing those things; that in our life, our work, our art, we are co-creators with God. 

As Armstrong once said, “What we play, is life.” 

There are many circumstances that could have prevented this song from becoming the classic that it has.  But people persevered.  They learned patience.  They had passion for what they believed in.  And they were committed to a purpose that was beyond self-interest or personal gain.  

Yes, I think to myself
What a wonderful world
Oh yeah.

Thanks, Louis.

 

Comments

Your Comments(please keep them on topic and polite)

on 09.22.11 Joe Lewis commented

This is an amazing story. I had no idea, but it shows how The Lord can make things happen for His good.

on 09.22.11 Cathy commented

I never knew the story behind the song, but it makes perfect sense to me as to how God does make things happen for His good. This song has meant a lot to me. Twenty-three years ago my oldest son was born very ill, they didn't expect him to live. I heard this song the next morning and I just cried and cried. To this day, I can't hear it, even reading the words brings me to tears. Just like this song, God made a way for my son. It's been a long road for him but he is a miracle of God.

on 09.22.11 Trent commented

I heard the song the first time when I was watching Good Morning Vietnam in college. Now every time I hear it on tv I remember those scenes and Louis Armstrong singing it. The story is really interesting. Good spiritual points too. Thank you.

on 09.24.11 Cindy commented

I have always loved this song. But it has such a wonderful story behind it that I never knew. Your blogs are always interesting, they make me think and laugh out loud. The Lord is always working behind the scenes to accomplish His will. Praise the Lord!

on 09.25.11 Tammy commented

I never knew anything about what it took to make this song successful. I suppose a lot of songs have interesting stories behind them. You're right, there are so many lessons we can learn from life if we pay attention. Thank you.

on 09.26.11 Brad commented

You used to tell stories like this on the radio, not this long, but good background with a way to apply it. I miss that. But thanks for blogging, really interesting. Great song.

on 09.27.11 Bill Kamberg commented

Great story, Cecil and great conclusions. Were you there when the recording was done? ;-)

Thanks for telling the world about the Wonderful World

Best regards,

Bill K

on 09.27.11 Callie commented

Cecil, this is a cool story. My favorite line is 'After all, he was sixty-six years old on that hot August night when he labored in a smoky, brightly-lit studio until dawn, through interruptions and arguments, to get it “just right”.' That paints such a cool picture. I think its sad that the song wasn't a big hit while he was alive but it has touched so many people's lives I'm sure he'd be proud.

on 10.08.11 wende commented

What a wonderful story, what joy there is in what we see if our eyes and heart are opened to them

on 10.08.11 wende commented

What a wonderful story, what joy there is in what we see if our eyes and heart are opened to them

on 10.10.11 Vikki commented

Cecil. My all-time favorite song and I FINALLY get to understand the dedication and patience that it took to make it possible for the WORLD to really hear and remember that we do, amid our conflicts and differences, live in a WONDERFUL WORLD made by our GREAT AND MIGHTY GOD!!!!
(p.s. Have you ever listened to the version with Louis Armstrong and Kenny G - it is amazing also)

on 10.10.11 Vikki commented

Cecil. My all-time favorite song and I FINALLY get to understand the dedication and patience that it took to make it possible for the WORLD to really hear and remember that we do, amid our conflicts and differences, live in a WONDERFUL WORLD made by our GREAT AND MIGHTY GOD!!!!
(p.s. Have you ever listened to the version with Louis Armstrong and Kenny G - it is amazing also)

on 10.10.11 Vikki commented

Cecil. My all-time favorite song and I FINALLY get to understand the dedication and patience that it took to make it possible for the WORLD to really hear and remember that we do, amid our conflicts and differences, live in a WONDERFUL WORLD made by our GREAT AND MIGHTY GOD!!!!
(p.s. Have you ever listened to the version with Louis Armstrong and Kenny G - it is amazing also)

on 07.21.13 MISS ANAMIKA commented

WOW! WHAT A INTERESTING SONG.I LOVED IT.I GAVE THIS SONG TO MY FRIEND RISHIKA AND SHE WAS PLEASED.

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