The great American songbook: What's in it, why did it fade? | St. Louis Public Radio

The great American songbook: What's in it, why did it fade?

Nov 9, 2015

Composer Frank Loesser once explained that a great song is like a train: A locomotive starts it off, a caboose completes it, and different colors fill in the cars in the middle.

But for a lot of music lovers, after the middle of the 20th century, the train had jumped the track, and the era of the great American songbook was over. In his new book, “The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song,” Ben Yagoda explores why and how popular music changed after World War II.

Hint: It wasn’t all Elvis Presley’s fault.

Here are excerpts from a recent interview in advance of Yagoda’s appearance Thursday night at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Was there something about the postwar period that made the music change?

Like many things in life, there wasn't just one thing. One thing was a change in people's tastes. That earlier period was very heavily connected to the big band era, these wonderful bands, wonderful jazz instrumentalists, and also people going out to dance to these bands. The songs in the great American songbook, it's hard to define what qualities they had and shared other than greatness, but one thing that most of them had was that you could dance to them in the right hands of one of these great bands, whether it's Tommy Dorsey or Glenn Miller or Benny Goodman or Count Basie.

Credit Detail from book cover

After the war, there was a palpable change in people's tastes. The soldiers coming back from the war, they were starting families. They didn't want to go out dancing. They wanted to stay home, and it seemed like there was a want for less challenging music, novelty songs like “How Much is that Doggie in the Window,” sentimental ballads, and not so much for the jazz-oriented songs that a Gershwin or Cole Porter or Richard Rodgers had written in that prewar period. 

What makes a song a standard?

That’s not an easy one. I talked to a jazz pianist named Bill Charlap, who could really speak to this music. A family friend of his was the great composer Jule Styne, composer of “Just in Time” and many, many other standards. He asked Jule Styne that same question, and he said a standard should be melodically simple and harmonically attractive. 

That sounds kind of mysterious, and it's certainly not a formula, but it kind of works for me. The melody is something that hits with people, it stays with them, and the harmony, not too simple, not simplistic, not too complicated. To me a mark of a standard, it is capable of being interpreted and re-interpreted over and over again, so the song has to have a certain amount of meat on it or heft to it to be able to stand up that way. I like Jule Styne's formulation.

And of course the one thing he didn't mention was the lyrics. And most of these songs, if not all of them, had wonderful lyrics as well, very sophisticated, internal rhymes, sometimes risque, sometimes very touching and moving. The best of them wedded the music and the lyrics. For example, to take one of many, George and Ira Gershwin's “Someone to Watch Over Me.” You listen to it, you know it's a great song, It's hard to say exactly why. It kind of has everything going for it -- that melody, the harmony, the rhythm, the lyrics, the feel of it. In that and many other songs, they all come together.

Some people have kept the tradition alive, like Tony Bennett.

Tony Bennett is such an inspiring example. He's been doing this material since the early or at least the mid 1950s. He was a belter out of Queens who was signed to Columbia records by the label's impresario, Mitch Miller, who was the head of popular music there long before his Sing Along with Mitch days. Miller had Tony Bennett do commercial material like “Cold, Cold Heart,” the Hank Williams tune that Bennett did, but he also made an arrangement where for every single he put out, he would also be able to record a jazz-oriented standard that he would put on albums. He appreciated great musicians, and great material. He started that in the mid-50s, and he's still doing that with the album he did with Lady Gaga, which was pretty darn good. He's really an inspiration.

Not every artist who tries to sing these songs succeeds. I’m thinking of Rod Stewart, for example.

I somehow suspected you were going to say that, and I agree. Unfortunately, it wasn't just one. I don't know how many of these albums Rod Stewart does, and it sounds to me like he's just phoning it in. He doesn't bring anything new to it. It's good material, but to me it just comes across like easy listening, which is hardly what it is. 

Mitch Miller, who is remembered primarily as the leader of television sing-a-longs, comes across as a bit of a villain in the book.

He certainly has been painted that way by Frank Sinatra and others as well. I think what they would say, and Miller would probably agree, was that he was interested in records that would sell. So whether it was “Come On-A My House” or “Cold, Cold Heart” or his own chorus of “Yellow Rose of Texas” or “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” or Johnnie Ray's “Cry,” it was a record that he made and was interested in rather than the song.

He was not a great lover of pop songs. He started out as a classical oboist, and people said that classical music was the only music he thought of as really artful music, and that pop music was a commodity. I think there's probably some truth to that. He tried to put out a good product that was interesting, often with sound effects and unexpected material, sometimes novelty numbers, but it wasn't about the quality of the music. It was about making a record that would sell.

The Brill Building on Broadway in New York was the scene of a lot of musical creativity, kind of an early incubator of talent.

The Brill Building
Credit Americasroof | Wikipedia

It was certainly the place where the majority of the song publishing companies were located for the period of the ‘30s on through the late ‘50s into the ‘60s, and certainly artistry was taking place. The publishers were an important entity in music, even in this period when not much sheet music was sold. That grew out of the earlier part of the century, the 1900s, ‘10s and ‘20s, when sheet music was the main way that people made money off of music. The composers and lyricists would be signed to a publisher who would put out sheet music of the songs they deemed good enough to be hits would sell. Every middle-class family had a piano, and people could play it, and that was the way money was made. Even after that changed, and sheet music wasn't sold as much and became more of a record and radio industry, the publishers still retained a lot of financial stake. So they were important, and they were located in the Brill Building. They would have staff songwriters churning out songs, that they would try to sell to singers, to record companies.

Carole King and Gerry Goffin and Cynthia Weill and most of the other younger songwriting teams were in a different building, a couple of blocks up Broadway. But it became known as the Brill Building, just as the way Tin Pan Alley became known as the whole music business, and Madison Avenue for the whole advertising business, even if it's not on Madison Avenue. But King and people like Burt Bacharach and Neil Diamond and Neil Sedaka were part of this late ‘50s-early ‘60s so called Brill Building group. It was almost a reversion to the earlier days of Tin Pan Alley in the 19 teens and 20s, when they were really just churning out the material. At first most of the material was pretty bad. It was just kind of fluff that all the new rock 'n' roll groups and singers who had an insatiable appetite for material could use.

What are your favorite songs, ones you never get tired of hearing?

My favorite one kind of changes day to day. One that combines all the elements is Cole Porter's “I Get a Kick Out of You.” It has the references to champagne, to cocaine, very risque in its time. That lyric had to be changed later in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Sinatra instead of singing "I get no kick from cocaine," sang "I love the perfume in Spain." But even so the song has a wonderful lyric. It's capable of being interpreted from anywhere from a medium tempo to a real swing jazz tune. I never get tired of that one.

Or a more simple song like “I Thought About You” by Johnny Mercer, who was perhaps the best lyricists of the period. He was capable of writing great wordplay, like “Accentuate the Positive” or “Too Marvelous for Words.” Then he had this beautifully simple song that he wrote with Hoagy Carmichael -- "I took a trip on a train, and I thought about you." Just so simple, and so resonant. All the words are one syllable except for about, but it's simple but not simplistic. That's another one I never get tired of. 

What songwriters, what composers of a more recent vintage do you think people are going to be listening to 50 years from now? 

Burt Bacharach in 1972
Credit Wikipedia

The Beatles, Lennon-McCartney have shown that to be the case. I think their work will endure. Burt Bacharach, who's still around, really did a lot to really re-invent popular songs. He started out in the Brill Building in the ‘50s as a rehearsal pianist for the Ames brothers and tried to write hit songs, but he found he couldn't write a song that was bad enough to be a hit. He didn't have that knack. Back in the ‘60s when he teamed with Hal David, he really had something, and those songs seem to last.

A few by Jimmy Webb. Singer-songwriters, people like Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon, are brilliant, and some of their songs will really last. One of the issues with the newer generation versus the older one is that in that great American songbook period, the understanding was that the writers would write the song and the performers would perform it, and there was a division of labor. 

Do you think a Broadway show like “Hamilton,” which features rap, will usher in a new wave of music?

I haven’t seen the show. I’ve heard about it. The Broadway stage back in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s was a major source of these songs. Equal numbers out of these standards came out of Broadway, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley one-off songwriting. Great songs continued to come out of Broadway, of course, with “West Side Story,” and “My Fair Lady” and the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. But Broadway changed. In an earlier time, a Cole Porter would write a “You're the Top,” just a throwaway, or it was thrown into a show that really was boy meets girl, boy loses girl, with some wacky hijinks in between. 

Starting with “Oklahoma” in the ‘40s, and continuing onto the ‘50s, and Sondheim's work, and from what I know of “Hamilton” that's the case as well, the music is successful on Broadway and in musical theater, but the songs are tied to the character, to the theme. They can't really be wrenched out the way “You're the Top” or “I Get a Kick Out of You” could be. Then on the other end of the scale, there's the sort of crowd pleasers, the semi-operatic ones like “Les Miz” and “Phantom of the Opera,” things like that, which are kind of something in and of themselves. Occasionally there will be a melodramatic, sentimental song that will come out of it. But my sense of “Hamilton” is that it sounds really interesting and cool and I'm sure it will be influential. I would tend to doubt that songs will come out of it that will be played and interpreted and re-interpreted by musicians and singers in the years to come.

I was glad to see in the book that you mentioned the Marcels’ version of Blue Moon. I loved that record, and I had no idea that it was an old song, a standard being reinterpreted, and I think that really happened to a lot of people for a lot of songs.

In the early rock and roll period, with those doo-wop groups and other groups, there was just such a need for material that fortuitously, they looked to Rodgers and Hart's “Blue Moon” and many others. Dion and the Belmonts did a lot of the old standards. I kind of wonder whether the teenagers listening had any idea where these songs came from. It's heartening to hear that you did or you eventually found out. It apparently did some good.

Follow Dale Singer on Twitter: @dalesinger