Wednesday, December 5, 2007
BING CROSBY: A Pocketful of Dreams - The Early Years, 1903-1940
By Gary Giddins
Back Bay Books, 736 pp., $17.95 paperback
Strange to say, Bing Crosby needs this biography. Other major white male jazz/pop singers who were eclipsed in the rock revolution of the '60s managed to re-emerge. Frank Sinatra's bad-boy behavior kept him hot. Tony Bennett hung with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and got certified as hip by the MTV generation. Even Mel Tormé benefited from Harry Anderson's worship of him on ''Night Court.'' Of course, they were around to help revive their reputations, while Crosby, who created the style of singing that made them famous, died in 1977. So Crosby got dismissed as a nostalgia throwback, like the Andrews Sisters, or a bland middle-of-the-roader, like Perry Como. At worst, he was regarded as a cultural imperialist who made his fortune by ripping off black musical idiom and making it palatable for white audiences. Or he was just that old guy who played golf -- before Tiger Woods made golf cool.
Gary Giddins' task, then, is to persuade us not only that Crosby was ''the most influential and successful popular performer in the first half of the twentieth century'' but also that the work he left behind him deserves our continued respect, admiration and emulation. This exhaustive -- and occasionally exhausting -- biography takes us up to 1940; Giddins plans to tell the rest of the story in another volume. But the Crosby of the '30s is the essential Bing Crosby, the one whose achievement was summarized by bandleader/clarinetist Artie Shaw: ''He really is the first American jazz singer in the white world.''
It was a very white world in which Crosby grew up. He was born in Tacoma, Wash., and raised in Spokane, and on his father's side, he could trace his lineage back to passengers on the Mayflower. His mother's Irish-Catholic heritage and religion prevailed over his father's, however: Bing was raised a Catholic and attended the Jesuit-run Gonzaga High School and Gonzaga University. But he dropped out of law school at Gonzaga and headed for Los Angeles with a friend, Al Rinker, whose sister, the singer Mildred Bailey, was breaking into show business.
The vaudeville duo of Crosby and Rinker became a trio, the Rhythm Boys, with the addition of Harry Barris, and soon they were featured performers with Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. In 1930, the Rhythm Boys appeared in the movie ''King of Jazz,'' a showcase for Whiteman that flopped but launched Crosby's film career.
The association with Whiteman, the self-styled King of Jazz, does nothing to help Crosby with either those who regard him as a cultural imperialist or those who fail to think of him as a jazz innovator. Whiteman's ''jazz'' was slickly orchestrated stuff, not the ebullient, improvisatory music we think of as echt jazz. But Giddins is content to face the simple fact: ''African-American innovations metamorphose into American popular culture when white performers learn to mimic black ones.'' Crosby, under Whiteman's aegis, became ''the first in a long line of white musicians who popularized real black music . . . for a white public. This was ten years before Benny Goodman launched the Swing Era, thirty years before Elvis rocked.''
It's good to remember that Crosby was raised in an era when the minstrel show and blackface performers like Al Jolson were tolerated. Today we cringe at production numbers such as ''Abraham'' in the 1942 movie ''Holiday Inn.'' In it, a blacked-up Crosby and company sing the praises of the Great Emancipator for an all-white audience, while his African-American cook sits on the back porch and sings to her children about how Lincoln freed the ''darkies.'' But as Giddins points out, Crosby also made an effort to integrate black performers such as Louis Armstrong into his films, and was frustrated: Armstrong's performance in the 1938 film ''Doctor Rhythm'' was cut in deference to Southern audiences. Crosby repeatedly acknowledged his debt to Armstrong, calling him ''the greatest pop singer in the world that ever was and ever will be forever and ever.'' The easy camaraderie in the duets Armstrong and Crosby recorded is evidence that the tribute was genuine -- and genuinely appreciated.
Of course, sounding genuine was Crosby's forte. There has been no surer master of the media -- from recordings to radio to film and TV -- in which he appeared. ''More than any other performer,'' Giddins observes, ''Crosby would ride the tide of technology. He dominated records, radio, and movies throughout a career that would parallel the development of those media in ways ever more suitable to his talents.''
He had the good luck to be starting his career just as recording shifted from acoustical to electrical reproduction of music. Before the development of the microphone, recording artists had to bellow into great horns -- a technology unsuited for the subtlety and intimacy characteristic of a performer like Crosby. Then came radio, on which the bright, high sound of the tenor was less welcome than a mellow baritone like Crosby's: ''Higher voices are better for reaching theater balconies, but lower ones are more appealing in living rooms,'' Giddins notes.
Crosby took each medium and shaped an agreeable persona for it. Like no singer before him, he made singing seem as natural as speaking. The voice that people heard on records and the radio had established his sex appeal, so when he moved into film it didn't matter that he was balding, paunchy and jug-eared. Moreover, he resisted Hollywood's efforts to make him conform to conventional ideas of good looks -- once he established himself at the box office, he rejected the practice of gluing back his ears, and chose to wear hats rather than toupees to cover his bald spots.
Giddins is one of the country's foremost jazz critics, so it's no surprise that his detailed accounts of Crosby's recordings are sensitive and illuminating. He succeeds brilliantly in his chief task of persuading us of Crosby's worth as a performer. But he's also a masterly biographer -- he has written about Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker as well -- who compiles an astonishing amount of information and turns it into a readable narrative. Admittedly, there are some boggy spots -- I learned more about the making of movies like ''Waikiki Wedding'' than I really needed to know. Giddins also tends to lose sight of the off-mike Crosby -- the husband and father -- in his focus on Crosby at work. We learn that Crosby got his drinking problem under control, but that his first wife, Dixie, didn't, and we begin to sense that there are problems at home -- but then we're off on the road with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour again.
And sometimes Giddins' attempts to summarize Crosby's importance bring him perilously close to cheerleading: ''No other pop icon has ever been so thoroughly, lovingly liked -- liked and trusted. Bing's naturalness made him credible to all, regardless of region, religion, race, or gender. He was our most authentic chameleon, mirroring successive eras -- through Prohibition, depression, war, anxiety, and affluence -- without ever being dramatic about it. He was discreet and steady. He was family.''
That was the image, at least. After Crosby's death in 1977, the iconoclasts, including his son Gary, went to work on biographies whose allegations of abuse and infidelity tarnished his reputation as husband and father. But Giddins' biography is focused on how Crosby created a persona, and only to a lesser extent on what lay behind the mask. Rehabilitating Crosby's artistic reputation is higher on Giddins' agenda than sorting through the dirty laundry, but if he takes the story beyond 1940, things will doubtless have to come out in the wash.
If you ever need a definition of sprezzatura, just take a look at these two pros performing Cole Porter’s “Well, Did You Evah?” in “High Society”:
THE COMPLETE LYRICS OF IRVING BERLIN
Edited by Robert Kimball and Linda Emmet
Knopf, 530 pp., $65
When he was asked to name the greatest French poet, Andre Gide gave a Gallic shrug and said, ''Victor Hugo, alas!'' And if you wanted me to name the greatest American songwriter, I'd have to say, reluctantly, ''Irving Berlin, alas!''
Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers were more gifted composers. Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart and Johnny Mercer were probably better lyricists. But nobody was better at doing both, at putting both words and music together, than Berlin. In the golden era of American popular song, 1920-1950, the only other similarly gifted composer-lyricist was Cole Porter. (Frank Loesser, also a brilliant composer-lyricist, belongs to a slightly later era, the '40s and '50s.)
Berlin beats Porter partly because of longevity (and hence volume of output): He was born in 1888 and died 101 years later; Porter's dates are 1891-1964. But Berlin was also a more versatile songwriter. There's no denying that Porter's melodies are abundant and his lyrics have sophistication and wit. But too often Porter fell back on his forte: the catalog song -- ''You're the Top,'' ''Let's Do It'' and virtually the entire song score of ''Kiss Me Kate'' -- brilliant strings of one-liners set to simple, catchy melodies.
Berlin could write catalog songs, too: ''Doin' What Comes Naturally'' from ''Annie Get Your Gun,'' for example. But just dip into the new anthology, ''The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin,'' to see what else he could do. There's the most popular song in history, of course: ''White Christmas.'' And the anthem given new currency after the events of Sept. 11, ''God Bless America.'' But there are also tender ballads (''Always''), sexy show-stoppers (''Heat Wave'') and songs of social comment (the anti-lynching ''Supper Time''). He wrote the most sublime of all the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers dance numbers, ''Let's Face the Music and Dance,'' as well as Astaire's jaunty signature song, ''Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.''
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
In his greatest Broadway score, ''Annie Get Your Gun,'' Berlin went from parodies of hillbilly music, ''Doin' What Comes Naturally'' and ''You Can't Get a Man With a Gun,'' to the sweetly lyrical ''The Girl That I Marry,'' ''They Say It's Wonderful'' and ''I Got Lost in His Arms,'' and of course the indelible show-must-go-on anthem, ''There's No Business Like Show Business.''
And Berlin did it all without the benefit of Porter's Yale education or George Gershwin's studies with classical musicians: Berlin left school in his early teens, and he never learned to read music. Famously, he could play the piano only in F-sharp, so he had a special piano built that allowed him to compose in other keys.
When a composer collaborates with a lyricist, sometimes the words are written first, and sometimes the tune. When he was working with Larry Hart, Richard Rodgers would write the melody and Hart would fit the words to it; but Rodgers' next collaborator, Oscar Hammerstein, preferred to write the lyrics and let Rodgers supply the music. Berlin's imagination seems to have fully integrated both words and music, so that no one can guess which came first. The effect in his best work is that of speech blossoming into song.
How many lyricists could have fitted words to the quirkily sprung rhythms of Berlin's ''Puttin' on the Ritz,'' for example? (Try tapping out the rhythms of the song yourself to see what I mean.) Yet Berlin did it twice, first with the ''Harlem'' version of 1927 -- ''That's where each and ev'ry Lulu Belle goes/Ev'ry Thursday ev'ning with her swell beaus/Rubbing elbows.'' Later he revised it with the more politically correct lyrics usually heard today: ''Dressed up like a million-dollar trouper/Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper,/Super duper.'' Each version is a tour de force of word fitting; doing it twice is miraculous.
And then there are songs that are so originally yet organically structured that only a mind producing both the words and music could have conceived of them. Consider the astonishing dramatic shifts in mood and melody found in ''Cheek to Cheek'': The song starts with the dreamy ''Heaven/I'm in heaven'' theme, which it repeats, then breaks into the buoyant ''Oh! I love to climb a mountain'' theme, repeating it (''Oh! I love to go out fishing''). And then, suddenly, there's the ecstatic command to ''Dance with me'' -- before the singer settles back into the dreamy first theme: ''The charm about you/Will carry me through/To heaven/I'm in heaven. . . .'' The song was written, of course, for Astaire and Rogers to dance to, but it stands, or rather dances, on its own.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
So why be reluctant to acknowledge Berlin's genius? For perhaps much the same reason that Gide sighed when he had to endorse Hugo: a feeling that so prodigious an output is a sign that quality was sacrificed in favor of quantity. Rodgers and Hart, Porter and Harold Arlen were more consistently sophisticated in their songwriting, and at their best, touched on emotional complexities that seem absent from Berlin's ballads. Gershwin and Ellington and Billy Strayhorn forged a link between dance hall and concert hall; Berlin thought for a time of writing an opera, but nothing came of it. Kern's ''Show Boat'' and Rodgers and Hammerstein's ''Oklahoma!,'' ''Carousel'' and ''South Pacific'' set benchmarks for the musical theater that Berlin never quite reached.
And there's also a sense that enormous public adulation -- Berlin was honored with everything from an Oscar to a Medal of Freedom -- has to be built on crowd-pleasing schmaltz and sentimentality. But there's great artistry even in Berlin's crowd-pleasing.
Many of us may be uncomfortable with the politics of ''God Bless America'' -- Woody Guthrie, you may recall, wrote ''This Land Is Your Land'' in reaction against Berlin's anthem -- but it's a prime example of Berlin's skill at writing for the human voice. (It must, however, be sung simply and sincerely -- not with the faux-soul note-bending that Celine Dion inflicts on it.) When Kate Smith's creamy contralto sails into those big open vowels of ''oceans,'' ''foam'' and ''home sweet home,'' who can resist?
This huge volume includes the words to every one of the more than 1,200 songs Berlin wrote -- from ''Marie From Sunny Italy,'' copyrighted in 1907, to a lyric called ''Growing Gray'' that's dated Sept. 2, 1987, seven months before his 100th birthday. Editors Robert Kimball and Linda Emmet, Berlin's daughter, supply commentary on many of the songs and on the shows and films he wrote them for, and the book is full of pictures of Berlin and the productions on which he worked.
It's also a wonderful document of changing American musical and theatrical tastes, from the now-disgraced ''coon songs'' -- as well as other Tin Pan Alley songs stereotyping the Irish, the Italians and the Jews -- to the giddy revues of the '20s, the movie musicals of the '30s, the book musicals of '40s Broadway, and the increasingly marginal role played by Berlin's kind of music in the '50s and afterward. ''The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin'' is an essential volume for anyone who loves American popular song.
KURT WEILL ON STAGE: From Berlin to Broadway
By Foster Hirsch
Limelight, 416 pp., $20 paperback
Kurt Weill led two lives, and Foster Hirsch looks at both of them in ''Kurt Weill on Stage: From Berlin to Broadway.'' There was Weill the classically trained composer, who teamed up with Bertolt Brecht in the avant-garde of the Weimar Republic and gave the world ''The Threepenny Opera'' and ''Mahagonny.'' And there was Weill the Broadway composer, whose musical collaborations with the likes of Maxwell Anderson, Moss Hart, Ira Gershwin, Ogden Nash and Alan Jay Lerner paved the way for the achievements of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.
For once, Fitzgerald's much-quoted line about there being no second acts in American lives doesn't seem to apply. Weill's second act was his life in America, which he embraced with the enthusiasm of someone who had found the promised land: At his death in 1950 he was planning a series of musical works drawn from American literature and had started work on songs for a musical version of ''Huckleberry Finn.'' (I think maybe I'm glad we were spared Weill's proposed musical based on ''Moby-Dick.'')
In 1946, Weill had written a letter in protest when Life magazine referred to him as a ''German composer.'' But there were those who thought the move to America in 1935, and the subsequent involvement with Broadway, deprived music of a serious composer. (On the other hand, remaining in Europe would likely have deprived music entirely of Weill, who was Jewish.)
Virgil Thomson was among those who thought Weill was slumming. In an article for the New York Herald-Tribune in 1941 about Weill's biggest American hit, ''Lady in the Dark,'' Thomson lamented that Weill was no longer working with writers of the quality of Brecht, and even suggested that the strengths of ''The Threepenny Opera'' and ''Mahagonny'' had been Brecht's words, not Weill's music. In those works, Thomson noted, Weill was ''parodying cheap sentiment,'' but Thomson found his music for ''Lady in the Dark'' ''just as banal as before, but its banality expresses nothing.'' (It may be worth noting that Thomson had also panned ''Porgy and Bess'' -- he was not particularly tolerant of composers straying from what he saw as their proper spheres.)
In the new book, Hirsch aims to rehabilitate Weill's post-Berlin reputation -- not without some difficulty. For none of Weill's works for the American theater has been as enduring as the mordant ''Threepenny Opera,'' which, in Hirsch's words, ''is one of the great theatre works of the twentieth century.'' In contrast, Weill's most successful Broadway show, ''Lady in the Dark,'' Hirsch admits, ''has slipped into a historical limbo from which it is likely never to emerge.'' Still, the fault is not Weill's: The book for the show, by Moss Hart, has dated badly -- it's filled with Hart's naive enthusiasm for the wonders of psychoanalysis and a sexist condescension toward career women.
Most of us will never see a Weill show -- ''Johnny Johnson,'' ''Knickerbocker Holiday,'' ''One Touch of Venus'' and ''Love Life'' have fallen into that limbo of theatrical non-performance with ''Lady in the Dark.'' Only ''Street Scene'' and ''Lost in the Stars'' are occasionally revived, usually in the opera house. (Weill, who was bowled over by seeing ''Porgy and Bess'' shortly after arriving in America, wanted to create American operas that existed, as Gershwin's does, on the boundaries between the operatic and musical stages.)
Still, Hirsch argues that Weill's artistry remained high and his influence was profound: ''No other Broadway composer except Stephen Sondheim has been to so deep and true a degree a collaborative dramatist, and no other Broadway composer except Leonard Bernstein (with a leaner catalogue) has so successfully closed the distance between the concert hall and the musical theatre.'' (Um, well, what about George Gershwin?)
Today, Weill's reputation rests not on the shows but on the songs he wrote for them. We may have forgotten ''Knickerbocker Holiday,'' but almost everyone knows at least one number from it: ''September Song,'' probably in one of the three near-definitive renditions of it by Frank Sinatra.
The most famous interpreter of Weill's songs was his wife, Lotte Lenya. Hirsch reports that Lenya was once asked how her husband's music should be sung. '' 'The way I sing it,' she snapped.'' But wonderful as Lenya's performances are -- her vibrato sets up a buzz in the brain -- Weill's songs have been persuasively performed by an impressive variety of artists, from opera singers such as Teresa Stratas and Dawn Upshaw to non-singers like Walter Huston and Gertrude Lawrence, the star of ''Lady in the Dark,'' whom Hirsch describes as ''the poorest singer who ever became a major musical-theatre star.''
Lotte Lenya in Die Dreigroschenoper
If you have doubts about Weill's gift as a composer of songs, listen to performances like the young Tony Bennett's ecstatic 1956 recording of ''Lost in the Stars.'' Or Lena Horne singing with a voice made of velvet about sails made of silk in ''My Ship.'' Or the wonderful melding of Carmen McRae's slight astringency of tone with the seductive vocal line of ''Speak Low.'' And Judy Garland, whose forte was heartbreak, never found a better vehicle for showing it off than ''It Never Was You.''
As the title suggests, the book is very much about Weill's life in the theater; Hirsch is particularly good about putting Weill's theatrical career in context -- he tells us what else was playing on Broadway alongside Weill's shows. But the composer's life apart from his work doesn't command much of Hirsch's attention. In part, this may be because Weill didn't have a particularly colorful private life. But he was surrounded with people -- Brecht, Anderson, Hart, Lawrence, Lerner, Elia Kazan and others -- who were colorful enough that the book never entirely bogs down into ''and then he wrote'' cataloging.
Weill's relationship with Lenya, his one and only wife, could be fractious -- each had extramarital affairs. But they were devoted to each other in their fashion, so much so that Hirsch's book goes on well beyond Weill's death to document Lenya's efforts to keep his music alive until her own death in 1981.
Hirsch has picked up the torch from her, and I think he's succeeded. If you're like me, his book will send you in search of forgotten and previously unheard performances.
STARDUST MELODY: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael
By Richard M. Sudhalter
Oxford, 432 pp., $19.95 paperback
STARDUST MELODIES: A Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs
By Will Friedwald
Chicago Review Press, 397 pp., $16.95 paperback
Two books, good ones, with almost the same title: ''Stardust Melody,'' a biography of Hoagy Carmichael, and ''Stardust Melodies,'' a look at a dozen classic American popular songs. Don't publishers read each other's catalogs?
Both titles allude to Mitchell Parish's lyrics to Carmichael's ''Star Dust'' -- a song about the way music takes hold of memory. And both books put Carmichael squarely at the center of the great flowering of American popular song that took place from 1920 to 1950. There were composers of the period who were more skilled (George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Duke Ellington), more prolific (Irving Berlin), more sophisticated (Cole Porter). But Carmichael songs like ''Star Dust,'' ''Georgia on My Mind,'' ''Skylark'' and ''The Nearness of You'' stand up to their best.
At an age when other composers were doing apprenticeships on Broadway or Tin Pan Alley, Carmichael was a jazz-mad Kappa Sig at Indiana University, a piano-pounder seeking out any gig he and his cronies could get at Prohibition-era parties -- the Jazz Age in full Midwestern flower. It's the Midwestern character of his music that sets him apart from other major American songwriters of the period: He wasn't Jewish or black or a New Yorker. Even Porter, who like Carmichael was from Indiana, made his reputation by turning himself into the quintessential sophisticated New Yorker and by consciously attempting to write what he called ''Jewish music.''
Carmichael chose a different course: The laid-back quality of much of his music suggests small-town America, not Manhattan. In Richard Sudhalter's view, ''Hoagy Carmichael's songs can evoke place and time as vividly as the work of Edward Hopper or Sinclair Lewis, the essays of H.L. Mencken, or the humor of Will Rogers. But they're not period pieces. They deal with eternal things: youth and age, life and death, a longing for home.''
Carmichael occasionally got sidetracked into Norman Rockwelliana -- saccharine, nostalgic songs like ''Little Old Lady'' and ''Can't Get Indiana off My Mind'' -- and even some of his good songs, like ''Rockin' Chair'' and ''Lazybones,'' now offend many people with their racial stereotypes -- a reminder that Carmichael was of an age when minstrelsy still informed white Americans' images of black people. But his great strength as a songwriter was in his ability to write songs that told stories.
He wasn't restricted by the need to pigeonhole his songs into the plot of a Broadway show -- his one Broadway song score was for a 1940 flop, ''Walk With Music'' -- so he could regularly follow his storytelling instincts. He didn't write simple love songs, Sudhalter observes: ''excepting 'The Nearness of You,' the only love songs for which Hoagy Carmichael is known include a song about a song about love ('Star Dust'), about love as symbolized by a bird ('Skylark'), about the memory of love ('I Get Along Without You Very Well'), and about the effects of a wayward eye on an avian love relationship ('Baltimore Oriole').''
Sudhalter asserts that ''Except for Duke Ellington, whose primary activity was not songwriting, Carmichael is arguably the only major tunesmith whose musical roots are discernibly in jazz.'' ''Arguably'' indeed: Fats Waller, George Gershwin and Harold Arlen also come to mind. But as a jazz musician himself, Sudhalter is well qualified to analyze Carmichael's music, and he fills ''Stardust Melody'' with authoritative technical discussions of it.
Sudhalter is a solid biographer, too. Though he's working under the watchful eye of Carmichael's two sons, he doesn't let them turn his book into either a heart-tugger or a Daddy Dearest tell-all. You learn about Carmichael's feckless father and doting mother, and about his sometimes hand-to-mouth childhood -- he once referred to his family as ''poor white trash.'' And that he could be a crabby and difficult parent and wasn't the easiest person to be married to. But Sudhalter isn't interested in draining the swamp of Carmichael's psyche. His main interest is how, when, where and with whom Carmichael wrote music.
Of ''Star Dust,'' the song that links these two books, Sudhalter says, ''No other song even begins to challenge its unique primacy as a kind of informal national anthem.'' Will Friedwald says ''its construction, its history, and its unique place in the celestial firmament of essential American music stamp it as a song like no other.''
The construction, history and place in what he calls the ''celestial firmament'' (is there any other kind of firmament?) of 12 great popular songs is the subject of Friedwald's informative and witty book. In addition to ''Star Dust,'' he discusses ''St. Louis Blues,'' ''Mack the Knife,'' ''Ol' Man River,'' ''Body and Soul,'' ''I Got Rhythm,'' ''As Time Goes By,'' ''Night and Day,'' ''Stormy Weather,'' ''Summertime'' and ''Lush Life.''
Friedwald's other books include ''Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer's Art'' and ''Jazz Singing: America's Great Voices From Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond,'' and he was co-author on Tony Bennett's memoir, ''The Good Life.'' So naturally this book contains critiques of recordings by the greats -- Bennett and Sinatra, as well as Louis Armstrong, Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and others.
He also pays attention to such undervalued performers as Bobby Darin (whose ''Mack the Knife'' Friedwald calls ''one of the great pop records of all time''), Martha Raye (yes, she of the denture cream commercials -- he cites her recording of ''Ol' Man River,'' though he surprisingly overlooks her intense ''Body and Soul''), Kate Smith (for her ''especially frisky'' 1930 version of ''I Got Rhythm'') and Vic Damone (a ''master'' who unfortunately leaves songs ''bereft of irony or the deeper meaning that Sinatra always finds,'' but whose ''My Funny Valentine'' is ''the best pop version after Sinatra'').
And he likes to raise a few hackles. Barbra Streisand lovers will wince at his faint praise for her recording of ''As Time Goes By'' made in 1964 -- ''back in the days when she still knew what a good song was (and was able to convince us that she also knew what things like sighs and kisses were).'' And he has no taste for rock singers reworking the classics: U2's ''overlong and overbaked treatment'' of ''Night and Day,'' he says, ''seems deliberately designed to camouflage the inescapable fact that nobody involved in the production can sing or play an instrument.'' And of Janis Joplin's ''infamous'' version of ''Summertime'' he comments, ''Joplin's sound is raw and powerful -- but, then, the same thing could be said about a sledgehammer.''
The criticisms are just, but while neither version is one I'd want to have on a desert island -- that would be Astaire's or Fitzgerald's ''Night and Day'' and Vaughan's or Leontyne Price's ''Summertime'' -- I have to admit that I enjoy the obsessive-propulsiveness of U2's rendition and the sheer intensity of Joplin's. But then arguing with the criticisms is most of the fun of books like this one.
I wish ''Stardust Melodies'' had musical notation and the full text of the lyrics, and an index would be nice -- it's not just that it's frustrating to comb back through the book in search of comments on a performer, but Friedwald's book is so full of good stuff that I kept being distracted and forgetting what I was looking for.
And in the end, it occurs to me that the look-alike titles of these books are so appropriate as to be almost inevitable. For the best popular music is both elemental and ephemeral -- like stardust.
THE HOUSE THAT GEORGE BUILT: With a Little Help From Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty
By Wilfrid Sheed
Random House, 335 pp., $29.95
What could be nicer than a book with its own soundtrack? Even if you have to play it in your head.
Wilfrid Sheed’s “The House That George Built” is a celebration of what Sheed calls “far and away our greatest contribution to the world’s art supply in the so-called American Century.” And by the time you’ve read through his book and listened to – if only in memory – the hundreds of songs he alludes to, you’ll have to admit that the American popular song, the “standards, which were almost all written from 1925 to 1950,” constitutes a formidable cultural legacy.
Sheed devotes chapters to the “big five” – Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers – as well as to the man many of us think of as the big sixth, Harold Arlen. And to Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, Harry Warren, Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Mercer, Frank Loesser, Burton Lane and Cy Coleman, taking in many other music masters along the way. Sheed’s approach to them is loosely biographical, which keeps the book from being an unabashed celebration, especially since so many of these lives were often contradictory to the spirit of the music they wrote. Rodgers, for example, was a dour, gloomy, sometimes malicious man, not at all the kind to grow mushy about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. (In fact, the Rodgers dealt with in the book is mostly the one who composed for the sharply witty Lorenz Hart, not the one who added sweet sounds to Oscar Hammerstein’s often saccharine lyrics.)
But this is also an informal cultural history of the golden age of the American popular song, a splendid edifice whose framework was raised by Gershwin, using the tools of his training in classical music, atop the foundation laid by Berlin in Tin Pan Alley. There were, in fact, twin towers of popular song: One rose on Broadway, the other in Hollywood, and Sheed is shrewd and eloquent in discussing how the two environments shaped the music.
Sheed is always eloquent, of course. He has been so through nine books of fiction and 12 volumes of history, biography and criticism. And he needs to be particularly eloquent in writing about these musicians and their songs. No one can really top the eloquence of the lyrics of Berlin, Porter, Mercer, Hart, Ira Gershwin, Yip Harburg, Dorothy Fields and so on. Yet Sheed has a special gift for putting into words exactly what distinguishes a given songwriter. For example, he asserts that “Hoagy Carmichael was, like many Americans, a divided soul, part nomad and part homebody, who seemed a little bit at home everywhere, but was probably more so someplace else, if he could just find it.” It’s easy to find the division in Carmichael’s soul in a song like “Georgia on My Mind,” which elicits so many different emotions from so many different singers: Billie Holiday makes it seductive, “a song of you”; Ray Charles emphasizes the anguish, “no peace I find”; Willie Nelson turns it obsessive, repeating “on my mind” again and again.
Sheed is an enthusiast of the genre, and that sometimes causes him to turn cheerleader, to make bold pronouncements. Some of them are hard to argue with: Berlin is “perhaps our most gifted original musician.” Others are shrewd: On Gershwin’s reception in Europe, he says, “If the Old World wanted anything from us at all it was modernity, and Gershwin was as modern as a skyscraper.” Some are merely interestingly impressionistic: “Whatever the essence of this music is, Harold Arlen had the most of it.” And sometimes Sheed wanders into contradiction. In the chapter on Kern, he says that “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is “perhaps his greatest song ever.” Yet only seven pages later, he calls “All the Things You Are” “this greatest of American songs.” But like another enthusiast, Walt Whitman, Sheed is entitled to contradict himself.
Any lover of the genre is likely to find flaws and quibble with any book by another lover of the genre. So it’s possible to say that Sheed doesn’t do enough to credit the singers who established these songs in our heads and hearts. He does single out the two most obvious ones: Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra. Berlin, Gershwin, Porter and Kern would have found greatness without Astaire, but he made it easier for them, just as he made everything look easy. And Sinatra carried on the tradition, giving Van Heusen a boost in the process. (Van Heusen returned the favor: As Sheed puts it, Sinatra’s “singing seemed to get wiser as his life got sillier and more childish.”) But one could wish that Sheed had turned more of his eloquence to the contributions made by others, such as Ethel Merman for Gershwin, Porter and Berlin, or Judy Garland for Arlen, who provided the anthems that bracketed her career: “Over the Rainbow” at the beginning, “The Man That Got Away” near the end.
And there’s one signal omission from the book: Kurt Weill. Perhaps it’s because Weill began his career as a “serious” musician in Germany, then moved into cabaret theater in his collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, and didn’t make it to America and Broadway until after the rise of Hitler. But surely Weill’s American songs – including “September Song,” “Speak Low,” “Lost in the Stars,” “It Never Was You” and “My Ship” – are as sturdy as any of the other standards in the book. Plus Weill worked with such echt American lyricists as Ira Gershwin, Alan Jay Lerner and Ogden Nash. And if anything validates Sheed’s assertion of the powerful international cultural contribution of American popular music, it’s Weill’s “Morit’at,” which infused American jazz into “Die Dreigroschenoper,” composed in 1928 Berlin, then came back across the Atlantic to be transformed into “Mack the Knife,” a 1950s hit for the all-American likes of Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin.
But the main point to be made about Sheed’s book is that there’s richness in it, and it will have you humming, whistling or downloading tunes while you read.