*Insert now standard comment about 1968 being an eclectic year* The eclecticism continues with the oldest chart-topper yet, a jazz trumpeter who was a veteran even before the charts, before rock ‘n’ roll, before popular music as we know it. Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Louis Armstrong.
What a Wonderful World / Cabaret, by Louis Armstrong (his 1st and only #1)
4 weeks, from 24th April – 22nd May 1968
‘What a Wonderful World’ is the sort of song for which the word ‘timeless’ was invented. It hit #1 in 1968, but it could have similarly done so in 1948, or ’88, or in 2168. It will hit the top spot again, in a different version, in 2007. It’s a song that you all know, one that doesn’t need me to dissect and examine it…
But still, that’s kind of why I’m doing this. It drifts in on a lullaby’s melody, before Louis begins to sing, listing all the things that he sees – trees of green, red roses too – which remind him of just how wonderful the world is. The colours of the rainbow, So pretty in the sky… There’s a tremble in his voice at the end of every line, either from age or from emotion, that is beautiful.
You could be cynical, and remind yourself of all the things he must not be seeing – the litter on the street, the homeless person sleeping on the bench – but no. What would that achieve? Despite its simplicity and childlike optimism, this is a song whose opening chords cannot fail to make you go all warm inside. It is pop music as hymn, the closest comparison in terms of previous number ones would be Frankie Laine’s ‘I Believe’. It’s an old man looking back on life with the weight of experience… I especially love the I hear babies crying, I watch them grow, They’ll learn much more, Than I’ll ever know… line. The fact that Armstrong died just three years after recording this record, and was already in declining health, makes it even more touching.
He ends with an Oh yes…, which lingers as you consider that the babies of 1968 are now well into middle age, while the babies of 2020 are being born into a world that may not exist for much longer… But hey-ho. Before we depress ourselves completely, let’s flip the disc and enjoy the other side of this double-‘A’.
For all the loveliness of ‘What a Wonderful World’, it is nothing like the music that Satchmo had spent the previous forty years recording. His cover of ‘Cabaret’, though, is a lot more jazzy. His voice, the exact same voice which was a second ago trembling with emotion, now flirts and tempts: Come taste the wine, Come hear that band, Yes it’s time for celebratin’, Right this way your table’s waitin’…
It is, of course, the theme from the musical of the same name, the one made much more famous by Liza Minelli. Life is a cabaret, Old chum… So come to the cabaret… (Though it omits the verses about Elsie the whore/corpse…) It makes for the perfect double-‘A’ disc, the yin to ‘Wonderful World’s yang. And Armstrong’s famous trumpet gets an outing here, as it simply had to at some point on his sole chart-topper.
It’s always good to have some jazz at #1, and I make this the 3rd jazz-based chart-topper of the year, after ‘The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘Cinderella Rockefella’. Though, honestly, it feels a bit wrong to mention those discs in the same breath as this. Not that it’s Louis Armstrong’s most influential moment or anything, but still… Perhaps I’m biased. The first CD I ever bought, aged seven or so, was a discount box-set of Satchmo’s Greatest Hits, from the thirties through to the fifties. Completely true – I’m not making that up to sound precocious (while The Spice Girls would soon come along to ruin my taste in music). I even went through a wanting-to-be-a-saxophonist phase, though my parents – probably quite sensibly – never shelled out and bought me one.
Neither ‘What a Wonderful World’ or ‘Cabaret’ featured on those CDs, because come the sixties Armstrong had changed record labels and become a pop star, scoring #1s on either side of the Atlantic. His bio is too long and storied to go into in any sort of detail. A jazz icon, he was one of the first black artists to enter the white public’s consciousness. He released his first single in 1923 (!), was born in 1901 – as close as we’ll come to a chart-topper being born in the nineteenth century – and was the oldest ever chart-topper, at sixty-seven, until Tom Jones popped up again and spoiled it a few years ago. The term ‘legend’ is overused, but we’ll make an exception here, for the one and only Louis Armstrong. Take it away, Satch…
All the #1 singles so far in one place: