Love it or not, “What a Wonderful World” is fated to be Louis Armstrong’s best-known recording, and there’s bound to be a handful of versions performed at Satchmo SummerFest this year. The recent Dr. John version is only the latest in a long line of recorded covers. Here (in reverse chronological order) are a handful worth seeking out, plus a couple to run away from:
Kenny Burrell, 2011
From a solo-acoustic live album (Tenderly), the jazz-guitar great does what may be the simplest and loveliest rendition on record.
Rod Stewart & Stevie Wonder, 2004
You know how some people hate this song because they think it’s all about cheap sentiment, and that it brings sappiness out of singers who should know better? This is what they‘re talking about.
B.B. King, 2003
Just the elegance you’d expect, save for one thing: Whoever played drums on this track really lays on the bass kicks and rim-shots, almost making this the perfect strip-club version.
Marianne Faithfull, 2003
Turned it into a typically haunting cabaret number, probably as dark as this song’s going to get until Tom Waits decides to record it.
Joey Ramone, 2002
Recorded during his illness and released on his posthumous solo album, Don’t Worry About Me, Joey turns it into a perfect Ramones song, simultaneously the most rocking and most poignant version.
Lou Reed, 2002
You could probably fill a mixtape with punk versions alone. Reed’s is surprisingly traditional and warm, though he does personalize it with a few asides (“I say to myself—mm, hmm—what a wonderful world”). “Sister Ray” it definitely ain’t.
Kenny G, 1999
The notorious “duet” that caused Pat Metheny to rake Kenny G over the coals for daring to overdub himself on Louis Armstrong, and Richard Thompson to write a song called “I Agree With Pat Metheny” (“Overdubbed himself on Louis, what a musical chop suey”). In his defense, Kenny G’s version would’ve been equally terrible if he’d performed it solo.
Nick Cave & Shane MacGowan, 1992
The most surprising thing about this left-field collaboration—a Christmas single, no less—is that it doesn’t turn into total drunken shambles (just a partial one). Even with Cave sounding as spectral and MacGowan as debauched as ever, they don’t disown the sentiment: The handshake in the video during the “friends shaking hands” line is especially cute.
Willie Nelson, 1988
Nelson beat the crowd by covering the song within a year of its revival in Good Morning Vietnam. Sounds exactly like you’d expect, though even he couldn’t resist getting too sweet with the orchestration.
Louis Armstrong, 1970
Three years after cutting the version everybody knows, Armstrong covered his own hit for his next-to-last album, Louis Armstrong & Friends. Notable on this one is a spoken intro, asking how the world can be wonderful when we have pollution, hunger and “all them wars.” Then he advises you to “listen to old Pops for a minute,” and says it’s all up to us: “Love, baby, love—That’s the secret.” Not only is it truly endearing, it proves that Satchmo was paying attention to the hippie era.