Ranking the best Louis Armstrong songs is challenging. He was a trumpet adept and a remarkable singer. Rarely do you find both of those combined in one musician.
Unhelpfully, all of Armstrong’s songs are first-rate. And while some are too essential to leave off a list of favorites, it’s impossible to list them all.
Here’s what we consider the best Louis Armstrong songs and essential listening for the unfamiliar.
1. What A Wonderful World
Song Year: 1967
For many people, Louis Armstrong’s gravelly rendition of “It’s A Wonderful World” is the defining version of the song.
But although today it’s one of the best Louis Armstrong songs, it wasn’t an immediate hit. At least, not in America. When Armstrong released the song, it sold under 1000 copies.
It didn’t make an impression until it got to the UK. The British public loved it, and at age 66, Armstrong became the oldest singer to achieve a hit single.
While they may not be right about everything, critics now agree the British were right to love Armstrong’s “Wonderful World.” Armstrong’s distinctive voice is immediately recognizable and infuses the song with warmth.
2. West End Blues
Song Year: 1928
Louis Armstrong was more than a singer. He was a trumpet adept. His playing is full of technical brilliance that dazzled his fellow jazz players.
“West End Blues” is the perfect example. Its first 12 bars are some of jazz’s most famous because of Armstrong’s skillful playing and the operatic touch his artistry brings to his mentor’s composition.
Throughout, the fast-paced trumpet contrasts strikingly with the more sedate orchestra. They’re having a conversation, but the last word goes to the bold, brassy trumpet.
3. Ain’t Misbehavin’
Song Year: 1929
“Ain’t Misbehavin” was a jazz standard by legendary pianist Fats Waller. It’s one of the best Louis Armstrong songs from his early career because when he recorded it, Armstrong was perfecting all aspects of his musicianship, from scat singing to trumpet playing.
“Ain’t Misbehavin” demonstrates how quickly he developed. Waller was famous for his harmonically complex and technically demanding improvisations. Almost no one could play them but him. In this rendition of his famous piece, Armstrong runs the composer a close second for brilliance.
4. St James Infirmary Blues
Song Year: 1928
No one is sure where this bluesy jazz standard originated. Back in 1928, When Louis Armstrong and his Ballroom Five recorded it, it was an unknown quantity.
Later releases gave credit to Irving Mills. There are several other theories about where Mills got his inspiration. Most of these cite folk songs, especially ‘The Unfortunate Rake.”
So where does the song get its name? From a Southwark-based hospital circa the 1800s mentioned in the song’s first line.
One thing music critics agree on is that it’s one of the best Louis Armstrong recordings there is. Armstrong infuses his playing with rich, mellow tonality and blue notes. The result combines Armstrong’s idiosyncratic voice with complex harmonies and a tenderly sung melody.
5. Mack the Knife
Song Year: 1955
Despite being a jazz musician, Armstrong famously loved opera. Its unapologetically showy sensibility appealed to him.
So it’s unsurprising that one of Armstrong’s best songs comes from an opera. “Mack the Knife” is a piece from Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera. But courtesy of Armstrong and other jazz artists, most people associate it with jazz.
Armstrong’s jaunty reworking of the Aria is almost unrecognizable from Weill’s composition. It’s a show-stopping composition. His trumpet playing is accomplished, and his vocals are typically gravelly.
It’s a quality that perfectly compliments the lyrics, so much so that you have to wonder how Weill ever intended it to be a classical composition.
6. Hello Dolly!
Song Year: 1963
“Hello Dolly” is another one of the best Louis Armstrong songs. But when Armstrong recorded it, he had no idea how successful it would be for him.
He recorded a musical demo to appease his manager, giving the lyrics his distinctive vocal treatment. The audience loved it. It ranked number three on the Billboard 100, only outperformed by two popular Beatles songs.
There have been many popular recordings of “Hello Dolly” since Armstrong sang it. But in 2001, Armstrong’s version became part of the Grammy Hall of Fame.
7. Georgia On My Mind
Song Year: 1931
Another of the best Louis Armstrong songs is “Georgia On My Mind.”
This jazz standard was written by Hoagy Carmichael, and Ray Charles gave its most famous performance. However, Charles wasn’t the only musician to perform the piece.
Armstrong infuses the vocals with a blues sensibility and tenderness. His deep voice and relaxed diction add a Southern flavor, which suits the song perfectly.
Also noteworthy is Armstrong’s trumpet playing in the solo section. It’s bright, brassy, and confident. The result is a striking counterpoint with the lyrics, and the combination showcases Armstrong’s wide range of talents.
8. Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off
Song Year: 1956
“Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” is a song about opposites. If the lyrics didn’t make that obvious, the choice to pair Armstrong’s deep, gravelly voice with Fitzgerald’s velvety smooth one does.
It’s a rich study in contrast. It’s also wildly apparent both singers are having lots of fun playing off of one another. And while Armstrong and Fitzgerald collaborated repeatedly, rarely are they as playful as they are in this 1956 recording.
9. When The Saints
Song Year: 1938
“When The Saints” is another excellent Louis Armstrong that showcases his range of talents.
Throughout the piece, he predominantly plays a dexterous trumpet solo. It zips along at an infectious clip. It also features Armstrong’s signature scratchy vocals, and he uses them to get his audience to sing with him.
10. St Louis Blues
Song Year: 1929
Armstrong was the kind of musician who was happy as long as he was singing. It didn’t matter if it was show tunes or jazz. But his manager preferred no-nonsense jazz. To make him happy, Armstrong spent several years in the 1950s playing variations on popular jazz standards. That included re-recording his popular song “St Louis Blues.”
By that point in Armstrong’s career, he was famous for his ambitious trumpet playing. “St Louis Blues” is an excellent way to showcase that talent, because of its atypical format. The twelve-bar blues pattern the verses use is now standard procedure.
At the time, it was a musical oddity. So was the habanera rhythm that crops up in the middle of the 16-bar bridge.
But the real proof of Armstrong’s talent isn’t in his technical prowess. It’s in the way he holds back enough to ensure the spotlight is on the vocalist when appropriate.
Song Year: 1931
Last but not least “Stardust” is one of the best Louis Armstrong songs. His reimagining of the popular song to include his distinctive singing and accomplished trumpet-playing was inspired.
His mumbled half-swallowed words and slow harmonic lines boil the music down to its essentials. It’s simultaneously recognizable as Hoagy Carmichael’s composition and as something purely Armstrong.
Top Louis Armstrong Songs, Final Thoughts
So, what is the best Louis Armstrong song? It’s impossible to choose. Armstrong was a talented trumpet player and a charismatic singer.
Everyone has their favorite Armstrong recording. Ours is “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” Its infectious fun is charming. But there’s no wrong answer. So, have a listen and decide for yourself.