One of his few recorded songs not penned completely by Sam Cooke himself, "Wonderful World" found the singer teaming up with the legendary production/writing/publishing team of Lou Adler and Herb Alpert, the duo that also wrote -- under the catch-all pseudonym Barbara Campbell -- "Only Sixteen" for Cooke.
As with other early pop crossover songs from Cooke (who became a star first in the gospel genre), "Wonderful World" is firmly in the tradition of Tin Pan Alley and Brill Building songwriting, with a clever lyric that sticks closely to a metaphorical theme: "Don't know much about geography/Don't know much trigonometry/Don't know much about algebra/Don't know what a slide rule is for/But I do know one and one is two/And if this one could be with you/What a wonderful, wonderful world this would be." It also resembles the above songwriting traditions with an embrace of classic American pop, jazz, Latin rhythms, and the blues. But unlike "You Send Me" and "Cupid," which downplayed Cooke's gospel tendencies, "Wonderful World" has at least as much of an R&B quotient as other elements -- due in no small part to Cooke's tastefully soulful delivery. His performance is still as smooth as on those other tracks, but there is little doubt that Cooke is a church-trained soul singer on "Wonderful World."
Recorded in 1959 -- one of his last for the Keen label -- the production is typical, for Cooke's recordings of the era: The Latin beat, played with a jaunty tempo, is strummed out on an acoustic guitar, drummed with brushes, and supported by an upright bass. The drums, though, are more insistent than on many of Cooke's early recordings. The sound -- the beat and arrangement, in particular -- presaged many of the Brill Building-era songs of the early '60s, like Bert Berns' songs for the Drifters and the Isley Brothers. "Wonderful World" was a million-selling Top 20 hit for Cooke.
Much as they did with other covers, Art Garfunkel and James Taylor discovered and accented the song's underlying self-deprecating melancholy, drastically slowing down the tempo and adding new harmonies, via a weaving vocal arrangement with Paul Simon for Garfunkel's 1977 album Watermark. The album did not include the song initially; it was added after the first single off of the album tanked. It was a success, a Top 20 song for Garfunkel. Herman's Hermits scored a huge Top Ten hit with an overly bouncy "Wonderful World." Their's sounds like it is already a wonderful world, with no sense of the longing desire of the narrator.