Musicians don’t get much more influential than Louis Armstrong. Over a five-decade career, his talents as a singer, a performer, and a musician shaped the development of jazz, eventually influencing popular music as a whole. His uniquely gravelly voice, peerless trumpet playing, and ability to bend lyrics and shape melodies to his will made him one of the first black entertainers to become popular with white audiences. Even today, over 50 years after his death, his music still holds a special place in the hearts of millions of fans the world over. Here’s our pick of the 10 best Louis Armstrong songs of all time.
10. Hello Dolly
Hello Dolly was written by Jerry Herman for the 1964 musical of the same name. Carol Channing, who played the titular role of Dolly Gallaher Levi in the musical, sang it first, but it took Armstrong to turn it into a sensation. He initially recorded the song as a demo for the publishers to use to promote the show, but in the same month that the show opened, his record label decided to release it as a single. It soared to No. 1 on the Hot 100 to become the most successful single of Armstrong’s career. In 1965, it won the Grammy for Best Vocal Performance.
9. When the Saints Go Marching In
Described by The Top Tens as the greatest jazz song ever, When the Saints Go Marching In began life as a Christain hymn, but thanks in large part to Armstong’s sublime 1938 recording, has since transformed into a jazz standard. In 2021, his version was added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress.
8. Hotter Than That
Heebie Jeebies may have put scat on the map, but it was Hotter Than That that turned it into an art form. Listening to Armstrong break out one of his most perfect displays of scat singing in the middle of the song would be reason enough to take it for a spin, but his superb solos are something else. The only slight problem is that in comparison to him, the rest of the band sound outclassed. Shortly after the song was released, Armstrong bid farewell to the original Hot Five. Considering how well he was able to carry a record on his own at that point, it was an understandable decision.
As Smooth Radio notes, this George Gershwin standard has been performed by pretty much every jazz star over the years, but Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s cut from their 1959 double-disc duet album, Porgy and Bess, remains the definitive version. Over a moody, string-heavy arrangement, Ella and Louis switch effortlessly between verses, with Fitzgerald’s beautiful soprano contrasting wonderfully with Armstrong’s raspy baritone.
6. Mack The Knife
Mack the Knife was composed by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht for the 1928 musical, The Threepenny Opera. It quickly became a popular standard, with everyone from Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra to Nick Cave and Marianne Faithful taking it for a walk. Bobby Darin’s version became one of the most successful, hitting No. 1 in both the UK and US in 1959. But Louis got there first, releasing his own hugely influential version a full three years before Darin broke into the charts with his.
5. Georgia on My Mind
Ray Charles’ version of Georgia on My Mind may be the most famous, but Armstrong gives him a run for his money with his own beautiful cut. Written by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell in 1930, Armstrong released his wonderfully tender version with his orchestra the following year. In 1979, the tune was adopted as the official song for the state of Georgia.
4. We Have All The Time In The World
There are good James Bond theme songs, and then there’s We Have All the Time In The World, the theme to the 1969 Bond film, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” John Barry, its composer, requested the song be sung by Armstrong as he felt he could deliver the title line with irony. Whether you pick up on that irony or not, it’s still an astoundingly beautiful song. 25 years after its release, it became a top ten hit in the UK when it featured in a Guinness commercial.
3. West End Blues
If you want to get a good understanding of exactly who Louis Armstrong was as both a man and a musician, just listen to West End Blues. What began as a simple blues number written by Joe “King” Oliver is transformed in Louis’ hands into a minor masterpiece. From the melancholy melody to the touching scat duet with clarinetist Jimmy Strong, the searing arpeggios to Fred Robinson’s poignant trombone, the entire thing is faultless. In 1967’s Early Jazz, Gunther Schuller wrote “The clarion call of “West End Blues’ served notice that jazz had the potential capacity to compete with the highest order of previously known musical expression.” He wasn’t wrong.
2. Potato Head Blues
As mosaicrecords.com explains, in November 1925, Armstrong began making records under his own name for the first time. From the very beginning, his improvised solos were light years ahead of anything his contemporaries were doing. His command of the instrument, his musical knowledge, his gift for rhythm, and his talent for telling a tale were without equal. 1927’s Potato Head Blues would be joyous enough anyway, but Armstrong’s stop-time solo elevates it from good to extraordinary.
1. What a Wonderful World
Obviously, it’s a predictable choice for the number one spot on our list, but sometimes, the predictable choice is the only choice. Few songs in history have resonated with quite so many people for quite so many years as What a Wonderful World. There’s no trumpet playing and none of Armstrong’s trademark scatting, and yet it endures as his most quintessential recording. It may have become ubiquitous, but no matter how many times you hear it, it remains as uplifting and touching as ever.
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