If you haven’t noticed lately, horns are currently in vogue. Especially in pop music. There was this. And then, of course, this. Sad to say, chances are these purveyors of pop have nary a clue as to who are some of the best horn-blowers to ever play the game. Topping that list? Naturally, the one and only Louis Armstrong.
From “What a Wonderful World” to the countless songs he made his own, Satchmo was not only one of the most iconic horn players and jazz artists to ever live, but was straight-up one of the best musicians to ever walk the earth. It’s only fitting, then, that there’s a festival to honor the man. On June 20, the Louis Armstrong Wonderful World Festival, hosted by Queens College’s Kupferberg Center for the Arts, takes place in the borough’s Flushing Meadows–Corona Park (just a few blocks from Armstrong’s longtime home on 107th Street), and a wide array of artists influenced by Armstrong, from Ms. Lauryn Hill to Ozomatli and Antibalas, will be on hand to pay tribute to the music legend. To that end, we’ve dug deep and uncovered some of the best Louis Armstrong covers recorded over the years, from a diverse collection of artists including Willie Nelson, Nick Cave, Eric Clapton, and more.
Willie Nelson, “What a Wonderful World”
Typically inspiring artists to go extra cheeseball and embrace their inner schmaltziness, “What a Wonderful World,” inarguably Louis Armstrong’s most famous song, has seen a wide array of artists cover it. But it’s the no-frills, same-as-always manner in which Willie Nelson takes it that stands out here. That reedy voice, that distinguished twang, the man’s undeniable emotion — it’s all here.
Ella Fitzgerald, “Hello, Dolly!”
Like so many of Pops’s iconic songs, “Hello, Dolly!” was not actually written by Armstrong himself. No, originally penned by Jerry Herman, the swinging standard was covered by everyone from Sammy Davis Jr. to Zooey Deschanel. But for our money, it’s near impossible to top the First Lady of Song’s version. Yes, Ella Fitzgerald, all pure tone and jazzy inflection, utterly nails it in this sweet 1965 live rendition of the musical-theater classic.
Wynton Marsalis Orchestra, “Potato Head Blues”
He may have only been ten years old when Armstrong died, but if anyone has done his damnedest to carry on the horn god’s torch, it is surely Wynton Marsalis. (Ah, yes, and wouldn’t you know it: He’s been honored with the Louis Armstrong Memorial Medal in his day.) Marsalis and his orchestra’s rendition of Armstrong’s legendary “Potato Head Blues” — recorded in 1929 with his Hot Seven — is simply superb: just the right touch of flair and a near perfect execution of Armstrong’s monumental, searing solo in the song’s second half.
Boswell Sisters, “Heebie Jeebies”
Notable for one of Armstrong’s most remarkable scatting performances, “Heebie Jeebies,” originally written by Boyd Atkins, is that rare classic Satchmo song that succeeds while also toeing the line between catchy and campy. As for the Boswell Sisters’ rendition? Performed on the radio, on record, and in the film The Big Broadcast, it’s a straight shot of 1930s sweetness. Dated? Definitely. Sticky-sweet harmonies? For the ages.
Cyndi Lauper, “La Vie en Rose”
No, not even Louis Armstrong was able to pry this song from its famous originator, Édith Piaf. But Armstrong breathed new life into “La Vie en Rose,” spreading it to a jazz-loving audience. The list of artists having covered it is simply incredible: Grace Jones, Andrea Bocelli, and Iggy Pop, to name a few. We love Cyndi Lauper’s version best, though: Take away all her kitschy shenanigans, and as this 2003 rendition proves, the Eighties superstar just has some damn divine pipes.
Nick Cave, “Mack the Knife”
Bobby Darin brought it to No. 1 and, yes, it was originally written for a German stage play, but it was Louis Armstrong’s version of “Mack the Knife” — that jiving, swinging good time punctuated by the dude’s raspy roar — that first gave America its taste of this tune. Take your pick of supreme covers: From the Doors and Roger Daltrey to Lyle Lovett and Jimmy Buffett, there’s a lot of them. We’ll take Nick Cave’s devilish turn, almost criminal-sounding, backed by skronky horns and a martial stomp.
Merle Haggard and Asleep at the Wheel, “St. Louis Blues”
Originally penned by W.C. Handy and often referred to as the “Jazzman’s Hamlet,” “St. Louis Blues” is a staple of any jazz musician’s repertoire. For his part, Louis Armstrong recorded two versions of the tune — both of which were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Like so many of Armstrong’s classics, this one has a plethora of covers to choose from. Our favorite is Merle Haggard and Asleep at the Wheel’s swanky take, performed on the Bob Willis tribute album Ride With Bob.
Eric Clapton featuring Paul McCartney, “All of Me”
Another jazz standard, the Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons–penned “All of Me” (no, not the John Legend song!) went on to become one of the most recorded songs of its era. Natch, Louis took a swipe at it and kicked its ass, and his 1932 version is arguably the most famous of all. Of course, the covers again come in droves. Want a punk version? Check out NOFX’s. In the meantime we’ll offer up Eric Clapton’s more traditional take on the swinging blues number, recorded just a few years back with the help of none other than Sir Paul.
Bruce Springsteen featuring the Seeger Sessions Band, “When the Saints Go Marching In”
If you’ve ever set foot in the city of New Orleans, chances are you could barely leave the airport before being aurally assaulted by “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Its overuse in popular culture has admittedly deprived it of some of its original flair, but leave it to the Boss to breathe new life into a tired classic. Yup, Springsteen busted out the tune — stripped down to its acoustic essentials — on his 2006 tour in support of his Seeger Sessions album. So soothing and sweet.
Ray Charles, “Ain’t Misbehavin’?”
Armstrong didn’t waste much time before putting his own stamp on the Fats Waller–penned “Ain’t Misbehavin,’?” recording his version of the New Orleans jazz tune the same year the original was written. It seems all the greats, in fact, took a swipe at this one, including Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Sam Cooke, and Billie Holiday. Of course, we can’t forget our personal favorite version: Ray “The Genius” Charles recorded a stellar rendition on this sleek and sexy instrumental take. Just listening to this one makes you feel more classy.
The second annual Louis Armstrong Wonderful World Festival, hosted by Queens College’s Kupferberg Center for the Arts, takes place in the borough’s Flushing Meadows–Corona Park on June 20.