Pros: Louis Armstrong reminding us what a wonderful world it could be.
Cons: A few bonus tracks on the CD release would have been nice.
Troubled by the war in Vietnam and with local affairs characterized by discontent and violence, the mid to late sixties were a most difficult time in US history. The all-time low finally hit in 1968 when Nobel Prize winner Reverend Martin Luthar King was assassinated for telling others of his dream of racial equality. Shortly thereafter, the same fate befell Presidential hopeful Robert F Kennedy during the midst of an election campaign based on bridging the divides in American society and finding a resolution to the Vietnam conflict.
The call for peace and understanding was not surprisingly a common theme in the music scene at the time and there was a plethora of contemporary rock and folk artists advocating the need for a world free of violence, hatred and discrimination. A number of pre-Beatles rock pioneers also joined the cause with rock veterans of the calibre of Dion, Bobby Darin and Elvis Presley all making social commentary and protest style recordings. Sadly, very few artists from the pre-rock era were accounted for. A notable exception, however, was jazz legend Louis Armstrong.
What a Wonderful World The Album
Louis recording contributions to the peace scene were distinguished by powerful messages wrapped in the subtlest of lyrics. He chose material that emphasised the aspirations and feelings common to people regardless of their race or political persuasion love of family, a place to call home and a life free of fear. His best work in this vein , What a Wonderful World, Hello Brother and The Home Fire, can fortunately all be found on the one album What a Wonderful World.
The What a Wonderful World album was originally released in 1968. The CD re-release contains the same 11 tracks as the original album. In addition to social commentaries, the content list includes a number of rollicking 30s style jazz tunes and some easy listening fifties style ballads. The tracks and my observations follow:
What a Wonderful World
When Louis released his well-known protest single What a Wonderful World in 1968 it was strangely not a major hit in either the US or Australia (arguably where it was most relevant), but was huge in the European market (1968 UK #1). Twenty tears later, here in Australia it finally made #1 following its inclusion in the Good Morning Vietnam soundtrack.
What a Wonderful World found Louis in the uncharacteristic position of being backed by a 16-piece string orchestra. His gravely voice contrasts magnificently against such a lush backing and the performance has become one of his most loved recordings.
The subtle lyrics were intended to convey the message of how wonderful the world could be if it was free of violence, but for many this got lost in the translation. Ultimately, Louis rerecorded the song a few years later with a talking preamble to make sure listeners understood what he was about. For those that may not have heard this later version, key parts of his talking introduction are reproduced below:
Some of you young folks been saying to me Hey Pops what you mean what a wonderful world, how about all them wars all over the place. You call them wonderful? And how about hunger and pollution? ... How about listening to old Pops for a minute. Seems to me it aint the world thats so bad, but what we are doing to it. All Im saying is see what a wonderful world it would be if we would give it a chance.
The Home Fire
If you have ever wondered how our troops feel about being way from home for extended periods of time, then one listen to this moving ballad will put you in the picture. The insightful first person lyrics portray the ramblings of (I assume) a soldier using the goal of making it home to keep him going and his spirit strong. Despite the uplifting lyrics, there is a pervading sadness in the whole performance. The contrast is further emphasised by the by use a prominent 30s style simple jazz accompaniment, augmented by strings.
The following extract from the chorus line illustrates the sentiment of the lyrics:
You dont know how much I miss the home fire;
The noises, the TV, the rusty old pipes;
The cat always teasing my dog;
The neighbours, the quarrels, the screaming of kids;
For the first time in years Ill sleep like a log;
Heaven is waiting for me my friend;
Just seven or eight dreams around the bend
Backed again by a suitably understated string section, Hello Brother is certainly the equal of What a Wonderful World in terms of its warmth, lyrics and easy listening appeal. A beautifully produced and melodic ballad, the theme is that most people regardless of their race and nationality want pretty much the same thing a loving partner, a chance to give their kids a better life, a decent job and a place in the sun. The recording would have made an excellent single follow-up to What a Wonderful World and it is a shame that the opportunity was missed.
The ragtime jazz numbers
Fans of Louis Armstrong the jazz master are not forgotten on the subject release. The tracks Cabaret (1968: UK: #1), Hellzapoppin and Give Me Your Kisses feature Louis at his finger snapping ragtime rollicking best. Backed by a 30s sounding jazz band, Louis growls through these energetic classics with the energy of a man half his age. They also feature his unconquerable trumpet playing abilities.
The remaining material on the collection finds Louis exploring ballads that one would ordinarily expect to be performed by crooners of the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin or the early Tony Bennett. The relevant titles are Fantastic, Thats You, Dream a Little Dream of Me, I Guess Ill Take the Papers and Go Home and The Sunshine of Love (1968: UK #41). They are all well produced affairs and Louis deep buzz saw vocalizing works surprisingly well. They also have the advantage of Louis on trumpet.
Sound Quality and Liner Notes
The stereo sound quality is excellent and there is no evidence of the tape hiss that is typical of some CD repeats of other albums of the same vintage. The liner notes feature those on the original album plus a short essay from Bob Thiele, the co-writer of What a Wonderful World, about the genesis and recording of his most famous song. Also featured are two black and white photographs of Louis at his most animated.
This CD introduced me to the incredible talent of Louis Armstrong. I have since bought other CDs, yet none have quite met the sparkle of this collection. In just 11 songs the album demonstrates so many of the outstanding aspects of Louis artistic character, including Louis the protest singer, the jazz legend, the free wheeling trumpeter and ballad interpreter par excellence. The only downside to the CD is its short duration and even this is compensated by its mid-range price tag. My rating 4.5 stars.
The Final Word Courtesy Louis Armstrong
Ill leave it to Louis to sign off on this review with this inimitable intro to What a Wonderful World (circa 1971):
If lots more of us loved each other we would solve a lot more problems. And man this world would be better. Thats why old Pops keeps saying (insert momentary pause)
I see trees of green, red roses too;
I see them bloom for me and for you;
And I think to myself what a wonderful world ...
Thanks for dropping by.