Arguably jazz’s first superstar, Louis Armstrong not only had an enormous impact on the evolution of the music, but ensured that it reached millions of people around the world. Perhaps testament to this ability to connect is that many of his greatest hits were written by others… as we’ll see in this guide to 10 of the most famous Louis Armstrong songs!
Loved and admired by audiences of all ages, regardless of their declared interest in jazz, stay tuned to find out which song inspired mass-protests in the 1950s, what Woody Allen declared “one of the reasons that life is worth living” and which performance, in our opinion, beats all 25,000 other versions out there!
Born on the 4th July, 1901 in New Orleans, Louis Armstrong didn’t have the easiest upbringing.
Brought up in poverty (first with his grandmother, then back with his family) an incident with his stepfather’s gun and a round of blanks saw him sent to the ‘Coloured Waif’s Home’.
What might have signalled the start of a downward spiral, though, had the opposite effect. He was able to further his skills on the cornet under the tutelage of Peter Davis and, on his release in 1914, the young Louis set to work as a musician.
The youngsters natural abilities developed rapidly and, whilst he is praised as much today for his vocals as his trumpet playing, it was his skills as a virtuoso trumpeter that saw him make his most important contribution to the development of early jazz.
But whilst his impressive technique and concept of small group jazz can account for this early success, it’s perhaps his skill as a showman which allowed him to be as influential as he was.
With a distinctive gravelly voice that caught the attention of fans outside of the jazz mainstream, and a willingness to appear on television and in the movies, he seemed to have a knack for connecting with the masses.
With this level of fame, everything he touched – including songs – seem to turn to gold. It’s perhaps why, then, that only one of the most famous Louis Armstrong songs listed here were actually written by him.
Many others were not even recorded first by Armstrong, yet time and time again his version becomes the best selling and most popular, both with jazz fans and the wider world.
With that in mind, let’s dive deeper into the magic of Louis Armstrong….
Potato Head Blues – Louis Armstrong & His Hot 7 (Okeh, 1927)
Having started recording under his own name for Okeh in 1925, Louis Armstrong expanded his Hot Five with two additional instruments for a series of remarkable recordings in 1927, which gave us (amongst others) Potato Head Blues.
Along with Lil Armstrong on piano, clarinettist Johnny Dodds and younger brother Baby Dodds on drums, Armstrong’s solo showcases an artist who, whilst still only in his mid-twenties, is at the top of his game.
Unlike many songs which Louis Armstrong made famous, this one was actually composed by him, with its ‘stop-time’ chorus hinting at the savvy way he mixed high art with audience-friendly effects.
Despite being recorded almost 100 years ago, it still sounds as fresh as ever and was hailed by Woody Allen in his movie Manhattan as “one of the reasons that life is worth living” – it’s hard to disagree!
West End Blues – Louis Armstrong & His Hot 5 (Okeh, 1928)
Things moved fast in the world of jazz in the early 20s; just seventeen days after King Oliver recorded his composition West End Blues, Louis Armstrong took his Hot Five into the studio to do the same.
As with many of the most famous Louis Armstrong songs, his version of this slow blues became regarded as the definitive one, despite not being the original.
Whilst the whole performance showcases is the epitome of small group playing in the 1920s era, it’s the astonishing unaccompanied opening cadenza from Armstrong which never ceases to amaze.
His scat vocals which accompany the clarinet solo of Jimmy Strong are just perfect, with Billie Holiday later commenting that it was her first introduction to scat singing.
Simply one of the essential jazz performances.
Stardust – Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra (Okeh, 1931)
The history of jazz is full of songs ‘borrowed’ from other styles and Louis Armstrong is no difference; the popular songs of the day would provide him with much of his material, as this recording of the Hoagy Carmichael classic Stardust shows.
Composed in 1927 with lyrics added a year later, Stardust was one of Armstrong’s most influential early vocal recordings.
It’s been recorded hundreds of times – including by famous jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole – but no other version (in our opinion) has ever captured the magic that Louis brings to it.
Gotta Right to Sing the Blues – Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra (Victor, 1933)
Written in 1932 by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler for the Broadway show Earl Carroll’s Vanities, ‘Gotta Right To Sing The Blues’ was first popularised by Cab Calloway and his Orchestra in late 1932.
Once again, Louis Armstrong was quick off the mark and committed his own version to record a few months later. The vocals are on-point, but it’s Armstrong’s trumpet that dominates here.
A model of economy and melody with an amazing two bar break leading into his solo. His tone and range are enhanced greatly and bring a depth to anything that he cares to play.
When It’s Sleepy Time Down South – Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra (Decca, 1941)
The 1931 song When It’s Sleepy Time Down South became something of a signature tune for Louis Armstrong, who recorded it several times. Whilst first relased by the trumpeter in the 1930s, this version from a decade later gets our pick as the definitive reading of the tune.
The fact that it’s an instrumental version is notable; the song itself contained many racial stereotypes and, whilst the hit raised Armstrong’s popularity in general, many in the African American community distanced themselves from it.
A 1942 short film of the song features Armstrong (amongst others) playing slaves and farm-workers and, in the 1950s, copies of the record were burnt in protest.
Dream a Little Dream of Me – Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald (Decca, 1950)
Written in 1931, Dream a Little Dream of Me is a Louis Armstrong song well-known by today’s audiences, thanks to its recordings by artists such as The Mamas & the Papas, Michael Buble and The Beautiful South.
Two decades after its first release, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong hit the studio for what has become one of the definitive and most popular versions of the song.
The pair made some wonderful music together, and this sweet tune – recorded with Sy Oliver’s Orchestra – is up there with some of the best.
St. Louis Blues – Louis Armstrong & His All Stars (Columbia, 1954)
With the name “St Louis Blues” you could be forgiven for thinking this was one of the Louis Armstrong songs he penned himself.
In fact, it was first published way back in 1914 (when Armstrong was barely a teenager) by W. C. Handy, telling the tale of a broken-hearted woman in the city of St. Louis.
Whilst a 1925 version by Bessie Smith and featuring Louis Armstrong is worth checking out (as its place in the Grammy Hall of Fame confirms), our recommended version comes from 3 decades later on an album called ‘Louis Armstrong Plays W .C. Handy’.
Produced by George Avakian, the iconic trumpeter is at the top of his game and his playing is sublime. Vocal duties here are shared with Velma Middleton who is a fine companion. There is also an excellent solo from former Ellingtonian Barney Bigard.
Mack The Knife – Louis Armstrong & His All Stars (Columbia, 1955)
Perhaps one of the most famous jazz songs of all time, Mack The Knife was indelibly associated with Louis Armstrong throughout his career.
There are various must-hear versions from the musician’s career, not least a duet with Lotte Lenya and an instrumental featuring his glorious trumpet lines.
Perhaps the definitive, though, comes from 1955 – three years after Bobby Darin scored a big hit with the tune.
As with many of the most famous Louis Armstrong songs, someone else wrote it, another person popularised it, then Armstrong came along and totally owned it!
Summertime – Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong (Verve, 1957)
You don’t have to be a jazz fan to be familiar with the song Summertime.
Louis Armstrong’s vocal duet version quite simply one of the finest recordings of the tune ever – no mean feat given its position as one of the most covered songs of all time, with more than 25,000 versions out there..!
Aside from the singles for Decca Records, Ella and Louis recorded three full albums together. Porgy & Bess, from which this version of Summertime came, was the last in the trilogy.
Recorded in 1957, but not released until two years later, this recording captures the two stars at the peak of their powers.
Gershwin’s powerful music is given over to an orchestra arranged and conducted by Russ Garcia, and the lush sounds of the strings suit Ella and Louis perfectly.
What a Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong’s Orchestra & Chorus (ABC-Paramount, 1967)
No selection of Louis Armstrong songs would dare omit a version of him performing the song What A Wonderful World.
Unlike the others on this list, it was not written until well into the second half of the 20th Century, when record labels were arguably more powerful than before.
Case in point: the song was a massive hit in the UK in 1968, but less so in the US where the label execs didn’t promote it as heavily.
Whatever the route, it has ended up internationally as Louis Armstrong’s most famous song, especially amongst the general public who connected less with his earlier outings.
There’s no trumpet feature – possibly another sign of the times – just Louis’s gravelly voice navigating a beautiful melody with a universally appreciated set of lyrics.
Whilst there are various (uncorroborated) stories of how the recording came to be – including one that Tony Bennett was offered it first – the idea that the songwriters were inspired by Armstrong’s ability to unite people of all races seems apt.
Most Essential Louis Armstrong Songs
In a recording career that spanned more than fifty years, Armstrong died on 6th July, 1971.
Of course, it’s impossible to compile a definitive list of the best Louis Armstrong songs.
What is undeniable, though, is that the singer, trumpeter and entertainer’s extensive discography showcases his innate good taste and ability to squeeze every bit of passion, style and swing out of the songs he chose to deliver.
Looking for more? Check out our pick of 10 essential Louis Armstrong albums, many of which feature these classic songs.