"Wonderful World" (occasionally referred to as "(What A) Wonderful World") is a song by American singer-songwriterSam Cooke, released on April 14, 1960 by Keen Records. Recorded during an impromptu session the previous year, it was cut during Cooke's last recording session at former label Keen Records. He signed with RCA Victor in 1960, and "Wonderful World," then unreleased, was issued as a single in competition. "Wonderful World" was mainly composed by songwriting team Lou Adler and Herb Alpert, but Cooke revised it before recording to reference the subject of education more.
"Wonderful World" ended up doing substantially better on the charts than several of his early RCA singles, becoming his biggest hit single breakthrough since "You Send Me" (1957). The song peaked at number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, and hit number two on Billboard's Hot R&B Sides chart. Herman's Hermits charted better with a cover of the song in 1965, reaching number four in the United States and number seven in the United Kingdom, respectively. Another cover by Art Garfunkel in the late 1970s impacted the charts as well.
The song was famously featured in a scene from the 1978 film Animal House, and gained greater recognition in the UK upon a 1986 re-release, when it peaked at number two on the UK Singles Chart, going silver. Its success was attributed to soundalike versions featured in the film Witness (1985) and a memorable Levi's 501 television commercial.
Lou Adler and Herb Alpert composed the song, which mainly consists of the theme that neither knowledge nor education can dictate feelings, but that love "could make the world a wonderful place." Adler did not take the song very seriously, but Cooke appeared to be taken with it. "He’d say, ‘What about that song, you know?’ And then he'd start on it again," recalled Adler. Cooke was particularly interested the lyrics referencing education, and desired to steer the song toward the subject of schooling. Cooke revised the song and decided to cut it at a recording session set for March 2, 1959, five days following the completion of his Billie Holiday tribute album, Tribute to the Lady.
The meeting's main goal was to record three songs Cooke recently had composed, and unlike many sessions, there was no arranger or orchestra, and the session solely consisted of Cooke, guitarist Cliff White, bassist Adolphus Alsbrook, teenage drummer Ronnie Selico, and a quartet of unknown singers that Cooke biographer Peter Guralnick believes may have been the Pilgrim Travelers — J.W. Alexander, Lou Rawls, and George McCurn (nicknamed Oopie).
No footage of Cooke performing the song in his lifetime is known to exist. ABKCO president Allen Klein in 1986 offered a $10,000 reward for anyone obtaining such footage.
Cooke signed to RCA Victor in 1960, but his first two singles on the major label — "Teenage Sonata" and "You Understand Me" — failed to register on the charts. Meanwhile, John Siamas, co-founder of Keen Records, discovered the "demo" recording of "Wonderful World" among unreleased Cooke recordings. Keen released "Wonderful World" in competition with RCA's issue of "You Understand Me" in the same week. "Wonderful World" quickly became Cooke's best-performing single since his breakout hit "You Send Me," reaching number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number two on the magazine's Hot R&B Sides chart.Billboard reviewed the single upon its release, giving it four stars and writing, "Moderate rocker gets a smooth belt from Sam Cooke in his usual, salable style."
Herman's Hermits had a major hit with an uptempo version of the song (omitting one verse) in the mid-1960s, which reached #4 in the U.S. and #7 in the UK. The Hermits' version was, according to singer Peter Noone and guitarist Keith Hopwood, done as a tribute to Cooke upon his death.
The song is used in the classic 1978 film Animal House in the well-known lunchroom scene where Bluto (John Belushi) gathers food in preparation for a food fight. The song was also included in the 1983 film Breathless. The original Sam Cooke version of the song comprised the title soundtrack of the 2005 film Hitch.
After a Greg Chapman cover of the song was featured prominently in the 1985 film Witness in a scene where Harrison Ford dances with Kelly McGillis, "Wonderful World" gained further exposure, particularly in the United Kingdom, where a soundalike version of the song, produced by Karl Jenkins and Mike Ratledge and with vocals sung by Barbadian Tony Jackson, a backing singer for Paul Young, appeared in "Bath", a well-remembered, Roger Lyons-directed 1985 advertisement for Levi's 501 jeans. As a result, the Sam Cooke version of the song became a hit in the UK, reaching #2 in re-release. In a 2005 poll by the UK's Channel Four, the song was voted the 19th greatest song ever to feature in a commercial.
The author Kenneth C. Davis writes a series of books titled Don't Know Much About, referencing this song.