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The Biography of Twelve of America’s Most Popular Songs

by Will Friedwald

Pub Date: April 29th, 2002
ISBN: 0-375-42089-4
Publisher: Pantheon

Music historian Friedwald (Sinatra! The Song Is You, 1995, etc.) takes a detailed look at a dozen of America’s best-loved pop standards.

Displaying an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of jazz and popular music, Friedwald profiles longtime favorites “Star Dust,” “St. Louis Blues,” “My Funny Valentine,” “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.” These “biographies” brim with life and welcome information. Mixing backstage arcana with broader strokes of cultural history, they reveal both the intricacies of creation—authorship, arrangement, performance, recording—as well as each title’s larger cultural significance. Along the way, Friedwald provides insights into the lives of a veritable Who’s Who of American composers and musicians: Hoagy Carmichael, Oscar Hammerstein, Ethel Waters, Nat King Cole, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong; virtually every singer, lyricist, producer, and bandleader active in American music during the first half of the 20th century makes an appearance here. The author has tracked down most recorded examples of these songs, which were written between 1914 and 1938 but have been performed ever since, and in a short addendum to each chapter entitled “Bonus Tracks” offers knowledgeable evaluations. He also delineates how many of them found their way to Broadway and Hollywood as featured tunes in popular musicals and movies, offering convincing support for his premise that popular songs are almost living characters in American culture. To the author’s credit, his text eschews the kind of gossip that characterizes much other writing about pop music, although some of the more businesslike passages about key changes, chording, and arranging are so technical they may actually make readers wish for “a glimpse of stocking.” He describes the songs and performances with such infectious enthusiasm, however, that this is bound to inspire some trips to the record store.

A knowledgeable treasure trove for popular-music buffs.