Transcript 98–What a Wonderful World

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.

Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.

My name is Claude Call, and there’s a weekend going on in here somewhere, I just can’t find it.

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This episode is overstuffed like a holiday turkey, so this week’s trivia question for ye is going to be quick.

If you include digital reissues that have charted, the Rolling Stones have released, by my count, 141 singles. Now, a couple of them are reissues for specific markets like the UK or Australia, but that number is negligible for our purposes here. Here’s the question: how many of them made it to Number One in the United States? By a weird coincidence, it’s the same number of singles that made it to the top in the UK, but not necessarily the same songs. So I’m not going to ask for titles, though I’m happy to provide that later. Just give me the number. 141 singles, how many Number Ones?

I’ll have the answer to that, and a little more detail, at the end of the show.


This week we’re looking at “What a Wonderful World,” and I get the feeling that some of you are expecting me to talk about the song first popularized by Sam Cooke, and others are expecting me to talk about the song made popular by Louis Armstrong. Well, you’re both right, because why not spread the wealth around?

So let’s take this chronologically and start with the Sam Cooke song. “What a Wonderful World,” which a lot of people seem to think is titled “Don’t Know Much About History,” was written in 1959, originally by Lou Adler and Herb Alpert. According to Cook biographer Peter Guaralnik, the overall theme was that neither knowledge nor education are going to have any effect on the way people feel about each other, but love can make the world a wonderful place. Lou Adler wasn’t too thrilled with the song, but Sam Cooke kind of liked it and kept returning to it. Finally, Cooke revised the song by steering it more toward the education side of things, and took a pass at recording it in early March of 1959, only a few days after he finished his Billie Holiday tribute album. Now, if you look at the label of that record, you’ll see that the writing credit goes to neither Adler, nor Alpert, nor Cooke. Instead we see the name Barbara Campbell, or just B. Campbell. Barbara Campbell doesn’t exist, of course. She’s just a pen name, and she appears as the writer for Cooke’s other hits “Only Sixteen” and “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha”, although those two were written solely by Cooke.


At any rate, and this is also according to Guaralnik, the session was a rather sparse affair, involving Cooke, a guitar player named Cliff White, Adolphus Alsbrook was on bass, Ronnie Sellco played drums and there were four backup singers who may have been the Pilgrim Travelers, but nobody’s positive about that.

Now, Sam Cooke had been on the Keen label to that point, but in 1960 he got into a royalty dispute with Keen, and he signed on with RCA Victor Records. Unfortunately for him, his first single on that label, called “Teenage Sonata,” didn’t do anything from a sales or charting standpoint. It was around that time that John Siamas, the co-founder of Keen, found “What a Wonderful World” among some other unreleased recordings, and released it as a single in direct competition with Cooke’s second single for RCA, called “You Understand Me.” “Wonderful World” wound up being a big hit, and “You Understand Me” also went straight to the ash heap. The song wound up being Cooke’s biggest hit to that point since his debut single, reaching Number Twelve on the Billboard Hot 100 and Number Two on the R&B Sides chart. It also made it to Number 27 in the UK.

But that’s not all for this version. The song has been used in a few films, including Animal House and Hitch, but perhaps most notable is that a cover of the song by Greg Chapman was used in the 1985 film Witness. If you remember the movie, it’s a scene wherein Harrison Ford’s character dances with Kelly McGillis.


This renewed some interest in the song, especially in Europe, where it was used in a commercial for Levi’s 501 jeans. Now, the version used in the commercial was a cover sung by Tony Jackson, who sang backups for Paul Young, but it was a very faithful cover…

…that’s a little bit of the Levi’s commercial. See what I mean? Anyway, Cook’s version became a hit all over again, and made it to Number Two in the UK, Number Four in Ireland, and it landed all the way at the top in the Netherlands.


As far as other covers go, there’s this slightly more uptempo one by Herman’s Hermits…

…this version, which Peter Noone says was recorded as a tribute to Cooke after his death, one cuts out one of the verses, which keeps the song to almost exactly two minutes. And while it made it to Number Four in the US and Number Seven in the UK, I gotta admit…I don’t like it much. Herman’s Hermits had this habit of speeding up their covers for some reason, and it kind of grates on me. For what it’s worth, I think this habit did even more damage to the song “Silhouettes,” where the punch line is completely lost because of the song’s tempo.


…Now, this one I DO like, probably because it was my entry to the song. In 1978, Art Garfukel recorded this version, along with James Taylor and Paul Simon. I should note that it was never marketed as a Simon and Garfunkel song, but rather as Art Garfunkel with James Taylor and Paul Simon, just like that and in that order. I remember James Taylor getting a lot of credit on the radio, but not much about Paul Simon, but that could just be some faulty memory on my part.

Now, here are a couple of interesting things about this version: first, the label doesn’t list Barbara Campbell as the writer; in fact it gives full credit to Adler, Alpert and Cooke. But there’s also a final verse on the song that was added in, that begins “Don’t know much about the middle ages, looked at the pictures then I turned the pages…” That’s an addition to the song, but nobody is credited for the addition.

And this is kind of interesting:

“Wonderful World” was released as a single in January 1978, just a few months after Garfunkel’s album Watermark was released. The lead single from Watermark was a song called “Crying in My Sleep,” which failed to chart. This, I presume, made the folks at Columbia Records nervous, so they re-issued the album with “Wonderful World” on it, which wasn’t there previously. They replaced the opening track on Side Two, called “Fingerpaint,” with “Wonderful World,” and I guess that made everyone happier, because “Wonderful World” was a Number 17 hit and Watermark got to Number 19 on the Billboard Albums chart. What I’m not 100% clear on is whether the version of Watermark where “Fingerpaint” appears was ever released in the US. I know it’s on the Netherlands edition, but that’s the best I could do. And, so far as I know it hasn’t been released since then, which makes it a lost track to Art Garfunkel fans. I’m told that once in awhile you can find it on the Netherlands’ version of eBay, but I haven’t had a lot of luck in that respect. But you can hear the song on YouTube if you’re so inclined.


Finally, I should mention a cover by Johnny Nash that made it to Number 25 on the UK charts and, so far as I know, nowhere else.


Let’s move on to the other song by the same name.

Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” was written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss. You may see the name “George Douglas” in the writing credits, but that’s just a pen name for Thiele.

There are stories that the song was originally written for Tony Bennett who turned it down, but according to Graham Nash’s book about songwriting, Weiss is quoted as saying that he wrote the song for Armstrong, because he was inspired by Armstrong’s ability to bring people of different races together. Remember, in the 1960s race was a much bigger thing than it is now, not that it isn’t still an issue. But Louis Armstrong was one of the first African-American performers to cross over, making him a musician that everyone could agree on.

Now, in 1967 Armstrong had just jumped over to ABC Records from Decca, and the recording session was set to take place at the United Recording Studio in Las Vegas, because Armstrong was doing a run at the Tropicana Hotel. The recording session was scheduled to follow his midnight show. So it was around 2AM that they were in the studio and ready to record. One of the people at the session was ABC president Larry Newton, who had come in for the accompanying photo session. Now, Newton wanted Armstrong to record something kind of jazzy and kind of poppy like his previous hit, “Hello Dolly,” so he was a little bit freaked out when he heard the slow tempo of “What a Wonderful World.” And by “a little bit freaked out,” I mean he was so freaked out that he had to be locked out of the studio for being so disruptive.

Now, it’s important to remember that at that time, most artists weren’t recording multitrack yet, which meant that everything had to get captured at once. Band, orchestra, vocals, backup singers, they all had to be caught live. And if any one of them screwed up, that meant that everything had to stop and start over. So you’ve got Larry Newton raising a stink, and then, because it was the middle of the night, the band also had to put up with a couple of interruptions when a freight train passed by near the studio, blowing its horn. If you’ve never been near a freight train, let me tell you, those things are extra loud, and the horn penetrated the studio, so they had to just wait it out until the train passed. But by all accounts, Armstrong took everything with good humor, which lightened the mood in the studio. They managed to finish recording the song by 6AM. However, finishing that late meant that the musicians were due extra pay, so Armstrong agreed to be paid the union scale fee of $250 to ensure that the others got the money that was due to them.

But Larry Newton wasn’t done with being all Jerk Store about it. He refused to promote the record in the United States, but it still managed to become a huge hit in the UK, making it clear to the top of the charts there and becoming the biggest-selling single of the year there. That also made Armstrong the oldest person, at 66 years old, to make the top of the UK Singles chart, a record that held until 2009, when Tom Jones released a cover of “Islands in the Stream” at the age of 68. In the United States, meanwhile, the song only made it to Number 116 because of the lack of promotion.

The song did manage to grow in popularity, however slowly. In the late 1970s it was used in the closing scenes of the BBC radio series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and again for the TV version in 1981. But what finally blew the song up in the United States was its use in the film Good Morning, Vietnam. Now, we’re going to overlook the fact that the movie was set in 1965 and the song was released in 1967, because nobody really cares anyway. It was finally re-released as a single and made it to Number 32 on the Hot 100, 21 years after its initial release. The 1988 re-release also made it to the Top 10 in Belgium, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, and New Zealand, and was top 30 in Poland and Ireland. Not too shabby.

Oddly enough, this is probably the song most associated with Louis Armstrong, even though it’s a huge deviation from his usual jazzy style, and while he doesn’t play his signature trumpet on it, he did play it once in awhile during his live performances.

Other notable covers would include Cliff Richard, who included it in a medley with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and then there’s this:


This is a 2007 version which was created as a fundraiser for the Red Cross. Katie Meluia spliced her vocals in with those of the late Eva Cassidy, and given the fact that it was only available in a single chain of stores, it still managed to reach the top of the UK charts. And that makes Eva Cassidy the artist to have the biggest gap between their death and having a Number One record, just over 11 years after she died.

And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question.


Back on Page Two I asked you to tell me how many of the Rolling Stones’ 141 singles—give or take—made it to the Number One slot in the United States AND, coincidentally, in the UK. This number might surprise and possibly horrify you, because it was only eight. In the US it was “Satisfaction,” “Get Off My Cloud,” “Paint it Black,” “Ruby Tuesday”—which, if you remember from a few episodes ago was a B side practically everywhere but the US—“Honky Tonk Women,” “Brown Sugar,” “Angie,” and finally “Miss You.”

In the UK, it was “It’s All Over Now,” “Little Red Rooster,” “The Last Time,” “Satisfaction,” “Get Off My Cloud,” “Paint It Black,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonk Women.” That’s it! There were a bunch more that went Top Ten, but as far as the coveted top spot, only eight got as good as it could get. And yeah, I’m playing “Shattered” which means now I’m just jerking you around.


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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when you get caught in the Purple Rain.    Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you next time.