Jazz legend Louis Armstrong, 66, became the oldest man to have a number 1 single with the slushy, swinging double A-side What a Wonderful World/Cabaret. ‘Satchmo’ held the record until 2009, when Tom Jones took part in the Comic Relief single Islands in the Stream.
Born 4 August 1901 in New Orleans (this date was only discovered in the 80s), Armstrong was raised by his grandmother until he was five, when he was then returned to his mother, his father having left the family. He had a rough childhood, raised in an area known as The Battlefield. At the age of seven he was doing odd jobs for a Lithuanian Jewish family called the Karnoffskys. Seeing how they were subject to persecution like his fellow blacks, he began wearing a Star of David in solidarity, which he wore for the rest of his life.
He would hear jazz music playing in the local brothels and dance halls, and began playing a tin horn until Morris Karnoffsky gave him an advance for a cornet. Armstrong dropped out of school aged 11, and would begin performing with a group of boys who sang in the street for money. He was arrested for firing a blank from his stepfather’s gun and sent to detention at the Coloured Waif’s home. It was a tough way of life at the home, but Armstrong found time to develop his musical skills and began playing in a band. He was released in 1914, and would find work performing on riverboats around New Orleans.
By the time he was 20, Armstrong had taken giant leaps musically, having learnt to read music. He was performing extended trumpet solos, and had begun to sing too. Satchmo moved to Chicago in 1922 to perform with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Although race relations were poor in the city, he found plenty of work, and was finally living in an apartment with his own bath. A year later the band made their first recordings, but in 1924, Armstrong was persuaded by his future wife Lil Hardin to broaden his horizons and smarten up.
By 1925 he was working for his new wife in the Lil Hardin Armstong Band, before forming his own group. Soon, Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five were releasing music, and his easygoing, charming style was developing. Heebie Jeebies, released in 1926, was one of the first recordings to feature scat singing, and Potato Head Blues was a hit in 1927. That same year, his band expanded and became The Hot Seven.
By 1929 he was seperated from his wife and living in New York, where he recorded his biggest hit to date, a cover of Ain’t Misbehavin’. In the 30s he would record his vocals with an RCA ribbon microphone, which added extra warmth to his voice and made him one of the first crooners, his version of Lazy River becoming one of Bing Crosby’s favourite songs.
The Great Depression had a sizeable impact on jazz, but Satchmo could afford to continue. He moved to Los Angeles and drew the Hollywood crowd to his performances. In 1931 he starred in his first film, Ex-Flame, and was also convicted of marijuana posession, but he recieved a suspended sentence. His woes grew, with the Mob on his back, eventually causing him to flee to Europe, Upon his return he hired a tougher manager to sort out his varied money problems, but he began struggling to play the trumpet, and so increased his vocals instead and starred in further movies, including Bing Crosby’s Pennies from Heaven in 1936.
By 1943, the trumpeter and singer was settled permanently in Queens, New York with his fourth wife, Lucille. Taking advantage of a revival in 20s-style jazz, he formed Louis Armstrong and His All Stars. He became the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time in 1949.
In the 50s, Armstrong was a globetrotting, iconic figure, but he was no longer cutting-edge, and he bristled at the new generation of jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. Health issues began, and exacerbated by a gruelling touring schedule, he suffered a heart attack in Italy in 1959.
Armstrong took the hint and slowed down. He didn’t set foot in a recording studio between 1962 and 1964, when he recorded one of his biggest sellers, Hello, Dolly!. Aged 62, he usurped The Beatles and became number 1 in the US. However, his health problems were worsening by the time he recorded What a Wonderful World in 1967.
Allegedly written with Tony Bennett in mind, who turned it down, this ballad was by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss. Thiele was a writer and producer, whose previous credits included working with Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins. He had also produced Don Cornell’s 1954 number 1, Hold My Hand. Weiss was an arranger and songwriter who had co-written hits including Lullaby of Birdland, The Lion Sleeps Tonight and Can’t Help Falling in Love.
Armstrong and the orchestra began recording at 2am following a gig in Las Vegas. He had recently signed with ABC Records, and their president, Larry Newton showed up to record Satchmo in action. Hoping for a repeat of the success of Hello, Dolly!, Newton was dismayed to hear the slow, saccharine song they were working on. So much so, in fact, he tried to stop the session, and found himself locked out of the studio as a result. The production overran until 6am, due to Newton and interference from nearby freight train whistles, but Armstrong merely laughed it all off, and in order to ensure the orchestra were paid for the overtime, he inisisted he was only paid $250. What a guy.
I love What a Wonderful World. Yes, it’s sentimental, and the dewey-eyed optimism should grate on me, and to be honest it does if I hear anyone else perform it. It’s all down to Louis Armstrong, really. Nearing the end of his life, he gives the track real gravitas. How can you not love that warm, rasping voice of his, set amongst such lush orchestration? Released during Vietnam and student protests, it served as a beacon of hope and a warning that humans needed to stop and think about what they were doing to the world. It’s a shame they didn’t stop for long enough to do anything about it. Its formidable chart success may lie in the fact Satchmo was able to unite the generations – the old guard would love a nice ballad from one of the biggest stars of their past, and the hippies could warm to the song’s message. However, upon its original release, it got nowhere in the US, due to the idiotic Newton refusing to promote it.
What a Wonderful World has nonetheless endured over the years, featuring in countless films, TV series and adverts over the years, often used as a stark reminder of what was happening to the planet, or in an ironic sense to highlight the horrors humans are capable of. Whenever it’s used, be it at the end of the radio and TV series’ of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, or during the comedy drama Good Morning, Vietnam (1988), it always resonates. It would return to number 1 in December 2007, in a ‘beyond the grave’ duet between Eva Cassidy and Katie Melua.
Louis Armstrong’s version of Cabaret has been largely forgotten due to the legacy of What a Wonderful World. Written by John Cander and Fred Ebb, it comes from the 1966 musical of the same name. It’s performed by the character Sally Bowles (later played by Liza Minnelli in the 1972 big-screen adaptation), and is meant as a bittersweet comment on the fact Bowleswants to stay in Nazi Germany but her lover is insisting she return to America to raise their daughter. Unlike the more famous track on this single, Armstrong eschews the song’s central message and instead performs it as a standard swinging jazz rendition. It’s nice enough, but you can see why it’s not as famous as the flip side.
By the time Louis Armstrong was at number 1 in the UK charts, he likely knew he wasn’t long for this world. He was forced to stop touring due to heart and kidney problems and spent most of 1969 at home, with no public appearances. He did however record the classic and sadly ironic We Have All the Time in the World for the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which also charted upon its rerelease in 1994. By 1970 his doctors said he was fit enough to perform live, but he had another heart attack while on a world tour, and took two months out. Against medical advice, he took part in a two-week residency in Manhattan. At the end he suffered another heart attack. And yet, he still couldn’t imagine not performing, and continued to practise in the hope he could get back on the road.
He died of another heart attack while asleep on 6 July 1971, a month before turning 70. His list of honorary pallbearers reads like a who’s who of 20th-century jazz and entertanment stars – Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, David Frost, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson and Peggy Lee, among others.
The popular image of Louis Armstrong as a cuddly teddy bear figure, beaming away on stage while he wipes away the sweat, has helped him be remembered long after many of his contemporaries. Jazz purists may scoff at this, and argue it takes away from his music, or even means he overshadows other important figures. And they may see What a Wonderful World as an aberration. But you don’t have to be an expert on jazz to love Satchmo. I showed my seven-year-old daughter a clip of a frail Armstrong performing his number 1 on a TV show in the 70s, and while she laughed at his eccentricities at first, she loved the song’s message, just like I had all those years ago. And its only a small part of an awesome legacy.
Written by: What a Wonderful World: Bob Thiele (credited as George Douglas) & George David Weiss/Cabaret: John Cander & Fred Ebb
Producer: Bob Thiele
Weeks at number 1: 4 (24 April-21 May)
Take That singer Howard Donald – 28 April
Comedian Julian Barratt – 4 May
Artist Rachel Jordan – 8 May
Labour MP Ruth Kelly – 9 May
Wrestler William Regal – 10 May
Comedian Catherine Tate – 12 May
Welsh Labour MP Ness Edwards – 3 May
Race car driver Mike Spence – 7 May
27 April: The Abortion Act 1967 came into effect, legalising abortion on a number of grounds, with free provision through the National Health Service.
3 May: Mr Frederick West, aged 45 and definitely not serial killer Fred West, became Britain’s first heart transplant patient.
8 May: The Kray Twins, Ronnie and Reggie, 34, were among 18 men arrested in dawn raids throughout London. The Krays stood accused of several crimes, including fraud, blackmail, assault and murder.
11 May: Manchester City won the Football League First Division title.
18 May: West Bromwich Albion defeated Everton at Wembley Stadium to win the FA Cup for the fifth time.