SINGERS AND THE SONG by Gene Lees

SINGERS AND THE SONG

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A collection of essays (most previously published in Lees' influential Jazzletter) linked by an appreciation for the great lyricists of American song and their mouthpieces --interpreters such as Sinatra and Jo Stafford (with the French songbird, Edith Piaf, thrown in). Rarely does a participant (Lees himself is a fine lyricist: ""Quiet Nights on Quiet Stars,"" ""Yesterday I Heard the Rain"") manage to write with such perception about his craft. But the same skill that inspires Lees' own lyrics renders his book a minor masterpiece. The dominant theme of the essays is the split between the popular music of the pre-1960's era from all that followed. ""American songs of the first half of the twentieth century gave us a vision of sexless love, rock-and-roll a vision of lovless sex."" Among the curiosities, we learn that Johnny Mercer wrote ""Days of Wine and Roses"" in a mere five minutes, while he wrote the classic ""Autumn Leaves"" in a taxi on the way to Los Angeles Airport. The author relates a touching anecdote telling of a monsignor who confronted him after Peggy Lee sang his own ""Yesterday I Heard the Rain"" (generally considered a conventional torch song) with the thought that the song was really about the loss of God. ""I think my mouth fell open. I confirmed that this was indeed its intent and meaning."" Lees, a deeply religious man, ends his collection with the story of how he made an extraordinary album of the adapted poetry of Pope John Paul II, sung by Sarah Vaughn. The undertaking was Lees' first venture in lyrics in many years (""There seemed to be no point in writing literate songs in the age of rock 'n' roll""). One quibble: Lees continually extols the imaginative lyrics of the French--the sort of ""gritty realistic ballads about the Paris streets and the outcasts who prowled them""--and states that only country and western music compares in our country, despite its destruction by mawkishness. He thus seems to totally overlook the intelligent folk lyrics of such as Dylan or Tom Paxton. A book to be cherished by anyone who yearns for the ""good old days of song.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1987
ISBN: 0195060873
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press