A cultural history of the elusive hit single, focused on artists’ recollections and studio alchemy.
In 2011, Myers (Why Jazz Happened, 2012) began the Wall Street Journal’s “Anatomy of a Song,” which focused on “dramatic stories” of creativity. “I realized the column would be better served as an oral history,” he writes, “with the stories told through songwriters’ and artists’ own words.” The resulting book is “a five-decade oral history of rhythm & blues, rock and pop.” Choosing 45 representational songs that topped the charts or were otherwise prominent, the author chronicles American pop from about 1952 to 1991, the era when radio could effectively “break” a song. Developing this overall narrative, Myers provides several paragraphs of context for the moment in which a song arrived, then switches to recollections of artists and producers. It’s a clever concept that becomes repetitive. Still, his interview subjects are well-chosen, and the excerpts provide insight on the constantly changing technology and industry behind the hits. Initially, pop music was segregated and viewed as marginally profitable, allowing regional scenes to become suddenly prominent, as with the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman.” As vocalist Kat Schaffner recalls, “Motown wanted a No. 1 pop hit, but [nobody] expected that five girls from Inkster [Michigan] were going to give it to them.” While musicians like Keith Richards took advantage of new recording technologies (“Street Fighting Man”), the record industry was gradually losing control, as a reliance on “tightly controlled singles, with albums functioning merely as collections of these short records,” gave way to the creative demands of groups like Led Zeppelin. Myers ably discusses such fluctuations within the cultural landscape during the 1960s and ’70s, though he still tends toward generalizations—e.g., “Punk rock in New York had run its course by the 1970s.” The book’s strength lies in thoughtful, wry reflections from artists including Elvis Costello, Jimmy Cliff, Stevie Wonder, Booker T. Jones, Dr. John, and Debbie Harry.
An entertaining record of the soundtrack of the baby boomer era.