Back in August, OffBeat reported on a special exhibition at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, New York. There, a vast collection of artifacts called “50 Years of ‘What A Wonderful World'” is on display, providing fans of Satchmo an opportunity to both learn about the past and the jazz genius’ continued influence on popular culture.
Ricky Riccardi, the museum’s Director of Research Collections, is an ebullient man whose love for Louis is surpassed only by his desire to share his depth of knowledge about his icon with others. The admiration began when he watched the 1954 film The Glenn Miller Story as a teenager. “I don’t know how many 15-year-olds were renting that movie but I was excited to watch it,” he says. After seeing Armstrong’s on-screen performance of “Basin Street Blues,” it was a wrap. “Between the vocals, the persona, the trumpet playing, I was like ‘oh this guy’s great! I need to hear more, read more and learn more about this guy,'” Ricky recounts. What followed was a fateful trip to the local public library, where he happened upon a compilation CD including a nine-minute rendition of “Saint Louis Blues.” As he puts it, “that was the moment that I realized I’m never gonna be the same.”
Flash forward, and he’s got a master’s degree from Rutgers University in jazz history and research. On the first day of the program, he remembers, “my mentor says everyone needs a thesis topic and I say, ‘Louis Armstrong’s later years!’ And he says ‘that’s great, no one has ever done that before.’ I spent two years, I wrote a 350-page thesis, I graduated…and I immediately went back to my day job.” He worked as a full-time house painter for four years before embracing his first love again, but rejections from book agents left him questioning his direction. “By 2007, I started a blog and by that point I had been going through the Louis Armstrong archives,” Ricky explains. “And now my blog had a reputation.”
A 2008 invitation to Satchmo Summer Fest was followed by a publishing deal with Pantheon Books. “Then, in 2009, I was able to put down the paint brush and begin my lifework as an archivist for the Louis Armstrong House,” he says before adding “today, I’m part of the Louis Armstrong graduate course, I do the exhibits here for the Louis Armstrong House, and lectures and podcasts, you name it! I am officially all Armstrong, all the time.”
As such, Ricky’s fingerprints are all over the “50 Years of ‘What a Wonderful World,'” which runs through mid-October and includes photos from the original 1967 recording date, albums, sheet music, and news clippings. Says Ricky, “we’re just rolling up our sleeves and trying to tell the story through the artifacts, and I don’t think anyone would argue that this is Louis Armstrong’s most popular song.” But, of course, there’s much more to the story. “The song was co-written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss, but it was really Thiele’s idea,” he begins to explain.
“In 1967, America was in the middle of the Vietnam War, Civil Rights struggle, the assassinations, and race riots. Bob Thiele looked around and said, ‘We need Louis Armstrong.’ He just had a feeling that Louis Armstrong with his ambassadors and good-will stature could be seen as universally beloved. We need a song that Louis Armstrong could sing to kind of get everybody to snap to attention and realize, ‘ya know, what are we doing here? This is a wonderful world and we’re in this together.'”
By the time Armstrong laid down the track, he’d been living in Corona, Queens, for 24 years, says Ricky. “He had seen three generations of kids grow up on his block…he loved the people, he loved the kids.” At that moment in the interview, Ricky pulled out a passage of Armstrong’s own words about the song’s lyrics:
“Lucille and I, ever since we’re married, we’ve been right there in that block and everybody keeps their homes up like we do, it’s just like one big family. I saw three generations come up on that block and they’re all with their children and grandchildren and they come back to see Uncle Satchmo and Aunt Lucille. That’s why I can say I hear babies cry, I watch them grow.”
Included in the exhibit are photos from the recording session, the original arrangement that Armstrong had when he sang his vocal part, photos of Louis in Corona with the neighborhood kids, and photos never put on exhibit before. “We even have the lyrics in Louis’s handwriting,” Ricky says.
Find out more about the Louis Armstrong House Museum and “50 Years of ‘What a Wonderful World'” here.