The masters of American popular song sit for a series of often-flawed profiles.
National Book Award nominee Sheed (In Love with Daylight, 1995, etc.) brings felicitous wit to essays on Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern, among others. In Hollywood, he writes, “even Siamese twins are likely to wind up just good friends…” Sheed says his approach to songwriting is “circumstantial.” So, at his best, he illuminates the work of Johnny Mercer and Jimmy van Heusen, for example, with keen insight. He explains how Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Paramount Pictures, booze, broads, World Wars I and II and their aftermaths led to songs such as “Here’s That Rainy Day” and “It Had to Be You.” Other profiles falter, as Sheed veers off into one topic or another. Cole Porter’s secret gay life draws more attention than his classic music and lyrics. (Sheed consistently downplays the effect of lyrics, saying they’re “simply verbal clichés about emotional clichés.”) He begins Richard Rodgers’ profile claiming the composer “generated practically no gossip.” But after detailing Rodgers’ infidelities, depression and alcoholism, Sheed concludes that Rodgers acquired “the equivalent of a police dossier in gossip.” Sheed’s contentions will provoke strong disagreement. Although many think Show Boat’s theme of miscegenation brought maturity to American musicals, Sheed states that without Jerome Kern’s glorious score, the musical would “be laughed off the stage, not to mention jeered off.” And although Sheed’s passion for his subject is evident, errors in fact and chronology mar his work. Bloomer Girl appeared on Broadway not at the start of World War II but at the end of it. Roger Edens, not Arthur Freed, produced the film Funny Face. And transistor radios went on the market in 1954, not 1945.
More flat than sharp.