The American Songbook: The Singers,
The Songwriters & The Songs
Book Review by Rob Lester
Handsomely designed and packed with information, behind-the-scenes tales, and many photos not previously seen, the oversized 300+-page The American Songbook is a valuable guide through popular music. Music historian Ken Bloom, co-author (with Frank Vlastnik) of the recent Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time, brings a wealth of knowledge and genuine affection - and opinions - to his newest book. He takes on the huge task of profiling the "golden age" of American popular songs (avoiding rock), its creators and interpreters.
The book's three major sections include bios for singers, big bands and songwriters (listed alphabetically), and there is a 14-page decade-by-decade summary of trends and hits. The major sections are augmented by several perspective-enriching looks at topics such as "The Start of the Big Band Era," "Foreign Influences," and certain genres of songs. In looking at popular music as a whole, Bloom concerns himself mostly with songs written up to 1969 (ironically, the last song in the "decades" section is "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?"). For singers who recorded beyond that time (Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra), he does talk about their post-1970 work; this later work, however, often gets short shrift (for example, although he praises Ella Fitzgerald, her list of "The Great Songs" includes none after 1964, though she recorded for many years after that). When profiling songwriters, he does include their work (or lack thereof) after the 1960s. He states up front that his intent is to be subjective, focusing on the songs that the author says "continue in the Tin Pan Alley tradition."
Profile of Jule Styne
The book's layout is a major asset, with many color photos, formal and informal, of music people plus sheet music covers from the sublime ("Night and Day") to the ridiculous ("The Chicken Dance"). Vintage record covers are used here and there, and black and white photographs sit comfortably side by side with splashy color ones, as care is taken to show an artist in different decades or settings. The evocative shots of beloved figures in action or repose bring out the atmosphere and bring back memories.
Both a coffee table book and a resource, American Songbook is an entertaining read. Year-by-year lists of major songs serve as a handy timeline of when songs were recorded or written. The alphabetical index, however, is by necessity limited as a source for cross-reference.
Although Bloom is ready, willing and more than able to offer opinion and insight, he does not hog the show. A goodly portion of the space consists of opinions of those who were part of the history. It's rewarding to get verbatim reflections from people like a star's pianist or someone (like Jule Styne) who wrote their hits. Many "who knew?" - type footnotes about individual songs are intriguing or amusing and are set apart with space and bold type, making the snippets easy to browse.
At times, Bloom keeps his historian's hat firmly in place and surveys the times and tunes. I have to question some statements, such as referring to the 1912 song "Row, Row, Row" as "the very definition of a standard," saying it is "still sung today." And I can think of dozens of examples to refute the statement that, "Tony Bennett attacks every song at full volume." The author tends not to highlight situations when there's an exception to the rule of an artist or writer's usual and most famed style. You may find some of your favorites battered, belittled or banished. It cannot be emphasized enough that this is a big undertaking and not meant to be an encyclopedia.
The tone of the book shifts frequently, sometimes being very straightforward with facts and at other times more chatty, with bits of humor and some irreverence. It never gets stuffy-scholarly. The first section of the book, on singers, is the most blatantly opinionated, reflecting the writer's feelings on the importance of each singer. Some singers get several photos, long lists headed "Career Highlights" and "The Great Songs," naming dozens of hits and album tracks. Others get a page or less, the basic facts, the mention of several unavoidable hits in the text, and some begrudging comments about their commercial success (Dick Haymes, Billy Eckstine). He's pretty hard on Bobby Darin, whose analysis starts, "Energy, personality, a terrific sense of swing - and absolutely no depth - mark Bobby Darin's brief rise to the top of the middle of pop singers." Bloom is not shy about describing Darin's hit "Splish Splash" as "supremely stupid," and he only names two other songs Darin ever recorded. He doesn't attack Blossom Dearie quite as harshly, though it's clear that when he says, "she certainly has her fans," he doesn't include himself. As for Julie London, he says: "If you heard one Julie London record, you had heard them all, which is exactly what her fans wanted," again, appearing to not be a member of the club. Perry Como gets a page, but Bloom names only one song he ever sang.
Bloom saves his highest praise of all for Peggy Lee ("the most intelligent, most all-around talented of all the singers in this book," he calls her, "the greatest"). She gets four full pages, with a paragraph on her version of "Lover" that's longer than essays on some of the singers in the book. Since Peggy Lee was also a songwriter, there is a (very) long list of songs she wrote as well as a separate list of "The Great Songs" she recorded. Bloom does mention that he co-produced her last album of all Harold Arlen tunes, but doesn't dwell on that recording experience (I wish he had dwelled!). However, he does include quotes from an interview about her career he did with her at the time.
I was especially interested to see what artists among the many out there plying their trade today he would choose to put in one-page reports on "The Younger Generation" and "Keepers of the Flame." Rating a photo and a paragraph each are Ann Hampton Callaway, Daryl Sherman, Eric Comstock, Mary Cleere Haran, Heather MacRae, Arthur Siegel, Max Morath and Michael Feinstein, who wrote the book's forward and also shared some interviews he's done. A few others are noted briefly, and Vince Giordano gets the sole honor as the only instrumentalist "Keeper of the Flame." Later pop stars who recorded standards are taken care of in a couple of sentences. Janis Siegel, k.d. lang and Harry Connick, Jr. are called "the best examples." Carly Simon and Linda Ronstadt, who've each done a few such albums, aren't mentioned, and Rod Stewart's efforts are described in a single word: "ugh."
Ten major bandleaders from the Big Band Era get solid reports (the Dorsey Brothers combined in one piece, as they sometimes worked together). This part of the volume would serve as a helpful introduction to anyone wanting to understand the differences among their styles. The Ellington section has a nice, concise comparison summary of the various vocalists he employed. The personal styles and personalities of the men as leaders also come through. As also happens in other parts of he book, there are interesting tidbits about individual landmark songs, often in the words of the people involved in making them famous. Again, Bloom has a first prize honoree, calling Benny Goodman's band "the most thrilling of them all." His one-page essay on Artie Shaw is more about his decision to give up the band, and a reader learns very little about the band itself. Fortunately, he gives us another full page of quotes from Shaw, who was not shy about speaking his mind. Bloom also goes to bat for bandleaders like Paul Whiteman who have been too broadly characterized as one-trick ponies.
One of the great joys of this book is that the quotes from singers, musicians and writers are well chosen. They often provide real insight into their art and how they viewed themselves or their colleagues. Bloom manages to find informative or characterful quotes, probably after sifting through many less worthy, bland bits of puffery. A couple of examples: Quincy Jones on Dinah Washington: "She could take the melody in her hand, hold it like an egg, crack it open, fry it, let it sizzle, reconstruct it, put the egg back in the box and back in the refrigerator and you would've still understood every single syllable." Yip Harburg on a writer reacting to the world around him: "The writer is not ever living in a void. He's living in a live, vibrant, vigorous world and he tries to reflect that world around him."
The songwriter section is generous, giving portraits of many people, some in teams, with the unavoidable cross-referencing comments when writers would change partners (to quote an Irving Berlin title). Some real analysis of musical construction is present, but it's written in a way that is accessible to non-musicians, avoiding too much technical jargon. Those who have read more than a little on the major writers will not find a wealth of new information here. The Cole Porter section is much more about his lifestyle and image than his work. But there are bits and pieces in many biographies that may be new or stated in a new light; Bloom's appreciation of craft is palpable.
The repetition of anecdotes is regrettable. Several are told once on the singer's page, then again in another section. Other stories that must have been considered would be a better use of space than these retellings.
Any book covering so much information is bound to have some slip-ups. The overwhelming majority seem to be editing problems (a very long sidebar of Bing Crosby hits covering more than 20 years accidentally appears on the Gershwin page, Sammy Cahn's name is misplaced on page 192, accidentally indicating that he wrote the lyrics for dozens of songs he didn't write) and dropped letters. Sadly, for a book that is obviously such a true labor of love, the author was let down by a publishing nightmare. Attempts are being made to fix all for the second printing.
There are more than a handful of factual errors. A mention of "What a Wonderful World" should say it was used in a movie called Good Morning, Vietnam rather than Good Morning, America, and a credit for Richard Rodgers' orchestrations should be for Robert Russell Bennett, not the musician Richard Rodney Bennett, are but two examples. Broadway songs result in other errors: Bye Bye Birdie's title song is not from the Broadway version, but the film. As a follow-up to her hit record of "If He Walked Into My Life," from Mame, Eydie Gorme did not record its title song as a solo, but in duet with her husband, Steve Lawrence.
Occasionally song titles are not quite exact. For instance, on more than one occasion, the big song from Cats is referred to as "Memories" rather than "Memory," although it's correct at times, too. (Ordering the sheet music for something called "Memories" will get you a different song from decades earlier.)
Other typos appear here and there. When a name is spelled wrong, it is most unfortunate (Mitchell Parish is called "Mitchell Paris" twice, for example). The attention this year to Dorothy Fields' centennial makes this book's listing her birth as 1901 more noticeable.
All this just makes a beautiful volume seem like a shiny limousine with a few scratches. Certainly not enough to moan about, but regrettable.
In his opening comments, Bloom stresses that, "this book is supposed to be fun - not homework," and indeed it is fun. Michael Feinstein reiterates the intent (quite eloquently) in his foreword, and waxes romantic and philosophical about the need and value of the material. No argument here. This is a love letter, an overflowing treasure chest of facts and observations, and music to my ears. Ken Bloom is one of our most informed and "readable" writers, never condescending to a reader who has a limited knowledge. He turns you on to the music with his appreciation and fondness, rather than turn you off with cold erudition or pontificating. He'll inspire you to read, research and hear music, which I suspect would make him all the happier. He leaves you wanting more, in that great show business tradition.
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