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The Disappointing Career of George Weiss

Published: 8/28/2010

What a Wonderful WorldEarlier this week, George David Weiss died at the age of 89 in his home in Oldwick, N.J. Weiss spent nearly two decades as the president of the Songwriters Guild of America. He penned songs for greats like Perry Como, Tom Jones, Mel Torme, Dinah Washington, Nat "King" Cole, Sammy Davis Jr. and Elvis Presley. He wrote Broadway musicals and scored film soundtracks. His songs – spanning genres from blues to jazz to rock 'n' roll – have been covered by acts as diverse as B.B. King, Celine Dion, LeAnn Rhimes, Joey Ramone, Coldplay and the Flaming Lips.

Yet at least one prominent person in his life considered his career choice a disappointment.

Weiss's best-known tune, "What A Wonderful World," is co-credited to Bob Thiele and was first recorded in 1967 by Louis Armstrong. It's a song whose sentiments ran counter to what many were feeling at the time – America was mired in the Vietnam War, race riots were erupting in urban areas all over the country, the horrifying crimes of serial killers Albert DeSalvo and Richard Speck were once again in the news as the two faced sentencing. The Doors had just released their debut album, which climaxed with an Eastern flavored 12-minute Oepidal psychodrama called "The End." In Cold Blood, a film based on the Truman Capote book about two other murderers, was a big hit, as was the violent Bonnie and Clyde.

After Tony Bennett passed on "What a Wonderful World," it eventually was given to Armstrong. But the head of ABC Records at the time didn't see any commercial potential in the tune and refused to put marketing dollars behind it. The record sold fewer than 1,000 copies in its initial U.S. release.

But it was a different story in Europe, where the song rocketed to the top of the U.K. charts, and became 1968's top selling record. After Armstrong's death in 1971, ABC records re-issued the single and it finally got the attention it deserved in America, reaching the top 10. "What a Wonderful World" would chart again more than 20 years after it was recorded, when the 1987 Robin Williams film Good Morning Vietnam exposed it to a whole new generation.

"The Lion Sleeps Tonight" is another song associated with Weiss that has become a pop culture staple. Though the music was written by South African Solomon Linda, a version with new lyrics by Weiss became a big hit for the Tokens and earned some $15 million from its use in Disney's The Lion King. Linda's heirs sued Disney in 2004 and reached an out of court settlement.

Which sort of brings our story full circle.

With Weiss enjoying so many songwriting successes, who would consider his career path a disappointment?

Well, his mother, for one. She'd wanted him to become a lawyer.

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