The Rise and Fall of Popular Music
[A polemical history]
The Early 1950s: Frustration and Confusion
After the Second World War the twentieth century seemed to be the American century. The only nation to come out of the war healthier than when it went in was the USA; the Marshall Plan helped rebuild Europe, while at home the Depression was over, and a great many ex-soldiers were taking advantage of the GI Bill to acquire further education, an opportunity that had mostly been denied their parents. During the war the income of the average white family had doubled, but the income of the average black family had tripled; industry was working flat out to supply consumers (a new buzz-word) with everything they wanted, and the perfect society seemed to be just around the corner. Could we not invent anything we needed?
There were unseen difficulties ahead, but the biggest problem facing the record business as the decade turned appeared to be technological confusion. The invention of microgroove records started the battle of the speeds, which meant dislocation in the industry and headaches for retailers. Mainstream popular music itself in the post-war years became anodyne, as though the hole at the centre of it previously occupied by the big bands could be filled only with marshmallow.
The phenomenon that is still called light music in Britain, and soon came to be called mood music in the USA, was an interesting one; it briefly had a new life thanks largely to the long-playing record. A good number of recordings of 'light classical' music and orchestral arrangements of popular material had always been used for what was later called easy listening. Victor's director of light music, Nathaniel Shilkret, had hit records from 1924 to 1932, and during the 1930s and 1940s Al Goodman and André Kostelanetz were tremendously popular on radio and on records that stayed in print for years, accumulating comfortable sales. Violinist and bandleader Leo Reisman not only accompanied Fred Astaire (and composer Harold Arlen singing his own 'Stormy Weather'), but had hits of his between 1925 and 1940. Arthur Fiedler became conductor of the Boston Pops in 1930, and stayed until he died in 1979. In 1943 studio conductor David Rose had a hit with 'Holiday for Strings'; in 1949 ace studio conductor Lennie Hayton was successful with Richard Rodgers's ballet 'Slaughter on Tenth Avenue'.
In the early 1950s the studio bandleaders and A&R men, some of them veterans of the Swing Era, were arrangers, composers and conductors: for example, Gordon Jenkins at Decca, Hugo Winterhalter and German-born Henri Rene at RCA, Percy Faith, Paul Weston and Mitch Miller at Columbia, Les Baxter and Nelson Riddle at Capitol and Richard Hayman and David Carroll at Mercury. Trumpet player turned conductor Monty Kelly had a hit in 1953 with 'Tropicana'. The composers of such instrumental pieces were journeymen who turned their hands to many things; 'Tropicana' and 'Life in New York' were written by Bernie Wayne, who also wrote 'Vanessa' (an instrumental hit for Winterhalter), 'Laughing on the Outside (Crying on the Inside)', which had popular recordings in 1946 and 1953, and 'Blue Velvet', a hit for Tony Bennett in 1951 and a much bigger success for Bobby Vinton a dozen years later. Leroy Anderson was a choir director and organist who also played bass in symphony orchestras, and began arranging for the Boston Pops in 1935; his own record of 'Syncopated Clock' was a hit in 1951, and his 'Blue Tango' was in the charts for thirty-eight weeks that year. Most of these people backed vocalists on countless hit recordings, for example, Kostelanetz on Perry Como's number one 'Prisoner of Love' (1946).
Some of the arranger-conductor hits had vocals, sung by studio soloists or a chorus, but the 'popular instrumental' briefly became a genre of its own. Les Baxter was an all-rounder who later wrote scores for some of Roger Corman's horror films; his 'April in Portugal' was a hit in 1953. Richard Hayman's 'Ruby', on which he played harmonica, reached number three that year; the tune was the theme from the film Ruby Gentry. Mitch Miller turned out jolly novelties like 'Oriental Polka', which usually did not reach the charts. The soundtrack title theme from the Italian film Anna was a hit in 1953, sung by Silvana Mangano, while Weston made an attractive dance band arrangement of it. Percy Faith was among the most successful in this class, recording over eighty profitable albums and two big hit singles: 'Delicado' (1952), a Brazilian pop song, was played by Stan Freeman on an amplified harpsichord; 'Song from "Moulin Rouge" (Where is Your Heart)' (1953), a film theme, was sung by Felicia Sanders in a brilliant arrangement. (Faith's jolly version of Hugo Alfven's 'Swedish Rhapsody', on the other side of 'Moulin Rouge', also charted.)
The hits of the few dance bands that were still around, mostly playing at college proms, fell into the popular instrumental category. Pianist and arranger Ralph Flanagan was encouraged by booking agents to form a band on the Glenn Miller model; he was successful in 1952 with 'Hot Toddy' on RCA. Trumpeter Ray Anthony on Capitol had an attractive recording of 'Dancing in the Dark' and trumpeter Ralph Marterie reached high in the chart with Ellington's 'Caravan' on Mercury in 1953. 'Skokiaan' was a South African novelty named after a Zulu drink; the Bulawayo Sweet Rhythm Boys had their own hit (on London), while Anthony, Marterie and Johnny Hodges all made recordings of it. Trombonist Buddy Morrow (whose real name was Moe Zudekoff) had played with such bands as Artie Shaw's and Tommy Dorsey's; in 1952 he had a big-band hit with a cover of Jimmy Forrest's 'Night Train', but it did not appear in the Billboard chart (possibly because by everybody was embarrassed, knowing by then that the riff properly belonged to Ellington). While there was not enough work to keep a large number of dance bands in business, the remarkable thing about all these records was the playing of the rhythm sections, which was infinitely better than that of the average white rhythm section of earlier decades. Marterie's 'Caravan', though it was inferior to Ellington's recordings of his own tune, was a jumping disc: it introduced a new generation to the name of Ellington, and (like Marterie's pop hit 'Pretend' of the same year) it had an electric guitar playing the melody lead, still unusual at the time.
A lot of this music, however, does not hold up very well. The wordless chorus (a common gimmick) on Baxter's 'April in Portugal' has been known to induce nausea. In any case, the 'popular instrumental', and light music in general, was soon subsumed in Muzak, the name of the largest purveyor of wired music which became a generic term for the slush that came at you out of the walls and ceilings of airports, supermarkets and waiting rooms. Most of this superfluous and gratuitous music was third-rate; it helped to kill off, or at least drive underground, the American market for light music, because it devalued music in general (yet if you asked for it to be turned off, you heard, 'Whatsamatter? Don't you like music?'). There was less wallpaper music in Britain, which is partly why light music still has a considerable audience there. English essayist and novelist J. B. Priestley wrote:
Austere musicians dismiss this flimsy tinkling too easily; so-called light music has its own values, not really belonging to music at all ... it acts as a series of vials, often charmingly shaped and coloured, for the distillations of memory. The first few bars of it remove the stopper; we find ourselves reliving, not remembering but magically reliving, some exact moments of our past.
That it came to be called mood music was largely due to the Englishman George Melachrino, whose series of such albums as Music for Dining, Music for Reading and Music for Daydreaming led to ribald suggestions for the next title. (In fact, one of them was called Music for Two People Alone.) Melachrino's handling of a chamber-sized string orchestra was adventurous compared with the sound cranked out by the Italian-born violinist Annunzio Paolo Mantovani. In the late 1930s Mantovani led the potted-palm sort of hotel combo, and parleyed it into what sounded like thousands of fiddles; he had over fifty hit albums from 1953, helped by UK Decca's excellent sound.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with an arrangement of a good tune for a full-sized orchestra; the Canadian-born Percy Faith, the former Tommy Dorsey arranger Paul Weston and another Canadian, Robert Farnon, who had played trumpet in Faith's Canadian radio orchestra, were very good at it, and were at their best on albums.
Farnon has worked in England since the Second World War. His albums were used by teachers of arranging as examples of how this sort of thing should be done, and he has probably carried out more film and studio work than anyone else in the business. Weston's album Caribbean Cruise was wonderfully tasteful, for listening or dancing to, and his albums Mood for Twelve and Solo Mood featured solos by jazzmen such as guitarist George Van Eps. (Bobby Hackett played lovely solos on mood music albums conducted by comedian Jackie Gleason.) Weston's earlier albums on Capitol, some of them remade later in stereo, included such elegant innovations that you did not notice them: if he wanted to use violins along with brass and reeds, instead of amplifying the violins he would have everyone else playing softly, or with mutes. This sounded better than most people's efforts in that mode.
Faith had played piano in silent cinemas and might have been a concert pianist, but his hands were injured in a fire. In the USA after 1940 he continued in radio work, apparently recording for USA Decca and for Majestic in the mid-1940s and for RCA in 1949, before moving to Columbia in 1950. His best work dates from the early 1950s. The voicings in his arrangements were unique and immediately recognizable; his use of woodwind was particularly distinctive. He had a predilection for Latin rhythms, perhaps, he once said, because he came from a cold climate; albums such as Carnival Rhythms must have used most of the best Latin percussionists in New York. American Waltzes, Continental Music and Romantic Music belong to an era when what was thought to be sophistication could still carry an aura of innocence. And as for the rhythm sections, I would still like to know the name of Faith's studio bass player, who was always nicely behind the beat on the ballads.
Faith started the fad for instrumental albums of music from Broadway shows with Kismet in 1954. The tunes had been taken from the works of the Russian composer Alexander Borodin, and lent themselves to Faith's concert treatment. That the trend later became hackneyed (with umpteen versions of My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music) was not Faith's fault. He also wrote film scores that were invariably better than the films, notably The Oscar (1966), which yielded a good pop song, 'Maybe September'. In 1960 he had a third number one single, and received a Grammy for the syrupy 'Theme from a Summer Place', slop which limped along with a slow kling-kling-kling piano. Ironically, this was a cliche from rock'n'roll, which by then had helped Muzak relegate light music in America to the status of a bad joke. (That piano style was called claw music by studio musicians, who hated it; it was sent up unmercifully by Stan Freberg on one of his comedy records.)
Somewhere along the way Faith had moved to the West Coast, and the sound of his albums was coarsened; they were overproduced to make them more 'hi-fi'. (R. D. Darrell complained about this in a review of Faith's album of songs from Subways are for Sleeping, a Jule Stein show that opened in late 1961 and lost money.) Faith later recorded an album of Beatles songs, and another called Black Magic Woman; even these reached the chart, the remaining customers for string orchestras being grateful for small favours. Faith's series of 78s for RCA had included 'Deep Purple', Charles Trenet's 'Beyond the Sea' and the title track of one of the first RCA 12-inch pop LPs, Soft Lights and Sweet Music. The cover photograph was a close-up of a woman in elegant dress, wearing a veil and with her eyes closed, and a man -- dancing? embracing? dreaming? In 1977 when the RCA tracks were reissued by Pickwick, the garish and instantly dated cover photograph pictured a fireplace, wine glasses, and a bimbo with a skimpy dress and come-hither lipstick. Too much had changed in less than thirty years; that aura of innocent sophistication could not be recaptured.
Easy listening on long-playing records, however appealing some of them were, could not represent the best of a nation's popular culture anyway, and the music business would have been in a state of disarray even without the 'battle of the speeds'. For a generation the centre of popular music had been the big jazz-oriented dance band, and suddenly it was gone.
Country music was seemingly always about to make a breakthrough. The prudish dominance of the Grand Ole Opry was worn away, and adult themes were approached. Floyd Tillman's 'Slippin' Around' was a number one pop hit in 1949, in a duet by-Jimmy Wakely and Margaret Whiting, showing that the pop chart could handle adultery without the world coming to an end; but Tillman's own version was confined to the country chart. Webb Pierce's 'There Stands the Glass' and Kitty Wells's 'It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels', which treated alcoholism and sexism as something more than jokes, were just around the corner.
The honky-tonk style was considered disreputable, especially on the Grand Ole Opry, but it could not long be avoided; its greatest practitioner and one of the all-time great artists in American popular music was Hank Williams. He was born in utter poverty and suffered pain all his life from an undiagnosed case of spina bifida, and was killed by the effects of alcohol and pills at the age of twenty-nine. Country music has often ignored fashion and the delicate feelings of the bourgeoisie in order to portray the real world; the fact is that a great many Americans lived from paycheck to paycheck, and spent much time drowning their sorrows or trying to enjoy themselves in the sort of taverns ('blood buckets') where Williams had served his apprenticeship. He knew these people's hopes, dreams and fears, and wrote their songs for them; he was among the greatest of folk poets.
In 1946 Williams took his religious songs to Fred Rose in Nashville, who recorded them and leased them to a Sterling label. Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM film studios, had intended to start a record company around 1940, but the musicians' strike and the war intervened; a Lion label was briefly formed to exploit new songs, but after the war MGM's parent company, Leow's, hired Frank Walker to run a new MGM label. Walker had helped keep Columbia Records afloat in the mid-1920s by signing Bessie Smith; now Rose brought him Hank Williams. He had a few hits in the country chart in 1947-8, but his recording of 'Lovesick Blues' (ironically a song older than he was) was a number one country hit for sixteen weeks in 1949. Although he was already an alcoholic, known to be unreliable and represented a style the country establishment did not like, he nevertheless had to be invited to the Opry, where he was a sensation. He had less than four years to live.
Fred Rose was a pop music veteran who had briefly played piano with Paul Whiteman and written or co-written such tunes as 'Deep Henderson' (recorded by both King Oliver and the Coon-Sanders Night Hawks) and others for Sophie Tucker, then Gene Autry ('Be Honest With Me', which was nominated for an Oscar in 1941) and Roy Acuff. Thus he got into country music by accident, and co-formed Acuff-Rose in 1942. Williams was never known to read anything but comic books and the country charts in the trade papers; he sometimes bought lyrics from others, and always had a pocketful of scraps of paper on which he jotted down ideas. Rose helped him to polish his songs, and could probably have grabbed credit for them, yet his name appears on only a few.
Williams's songs reached the pop chart in cover versions by Frankie Laine, Tony Bennett, Guy Mitchell, Jo Stafford and Rosemary Clooney, among others; they were big hits, mostly on Columbia, where Mitch Miller knew a money-making song when he heard one. But Williams himself never made the pop charts, despite thirty-six top tens in the country chart in nine years, several of them after his death. One of his early teachers had been a black street singer called Tee-Tot (Rufe Payne); he was also influenced by Roy Acuff, and mainstream America was not ready for a deep southern accent.
He may have been too dangerous in the era of The Man In the Gray Flannel Suit, a novel and a film of the period. His recordings and, more especially, his legendary live performances had an insouciant swagger, almost an improvisatory quality, and a natural sexuality which presaged that of Elvis Presley. He insisted on using his excellent stage band, the Drifting Cowboys, on his recordings, and always gave them plenty of solo space; there were no drums, and none was needed. His own recording of 'Hey, Good Lookin'' for example, is much better than the pop duet by Laine and Stafford, which is too frenetically jolly. Williams sets a tempo which is just right, jaunty but not expecting too much: there may be grief tomorrow, but we can have a good time tonight if we want to. 'I Won't Be Home No More' shows how a lover's complaint became a swinging piece of bravado:
You're just in time to be too late.
There are more verses, in which none of the perfectly simple phrases is repeated: 'You're just in time to change your tune / Go tell your troubles to the moon' is a new way to rhyme those time-honoured Tin Pan Alley words. Fiddler Jerry Rivers and steel guitarist Don Helms seem to float over the beat, while Williams sings each group of four syllables as though they were triplets, his carelessness matching that of the spurned lover: 'Be on your way / That's all she wrote' may have more than one meaning. There is a 'Well, I'll be damned' feeling about the whole thing.
Williams also recorded quasi-religious or philosophical monologues under the name of Luke the Drifter, and recorded a few duets with his troublesome first wife, Audrey, who thought she could sing. Compilations of Williams's tracks have often selected poor songs, among them the maudlin 'My Son Calls Another Man Daddy', and not enough of the country blues:
I went to the doctor, he took one look,
The compilation of the complete singles issued in 1991 still did not include 'Low Down Blues' (which was a demo tape with backing later dubbed), but it is an astonishing set and a cornerstone of post-war popular music. The average level of quality of both songs and performances puts Williams on a plateau where only a handful belong; his ability to communicate directly to his listener places his work beyond any consolation of genre, and has influenced generations of songwriters and vocalists. But we were not supposed to have the low-down blues in America in the early 1950s; most Americans who had enjoyed some of his songs as recorded by mainstream pop artists never heard his hillbilly accent (neither the first nor the last example of classism in the business). Nevertheless, country music provided a great many hit records and songs in the post-war years that are still selling and still being covered. As we have seen, Jimmie Rodgers and Roy Acuff had made the male vocalist the biggest star in country music, and Hank Williams was the greatest of all, but there were many more.
Ernest Tubb was nicknamed the Texas Troubadour; he was inspired by Rodgers and encouraged by his widow, who gave him one of Jimmie's guitars. His first hit was with his own 'Walking the Floor Over You' in 1942, and when the Billboard country chart began in 1944, he filled it with mostly top ten hits all the way through the 1950s, and continued to appear in the chart several times a year in the next decade. He was also famous for Ernest Tubb's Record Shop in Nashville, and for a late-night radio show on WSM, where a talented newcomer might get a boost. Webb Pierce, from Louisiana, brought the honky-tonk style to Nashville for good when he joined the Opry in 1955. His three successive number one country hits in 1952 began with 'Back Street Affair', another classic song about adultery (called 'cheatin' songs' in the trade). Pierce had a strong voice, piercing yet rough-edged, and used the steel guitar so effectively that he did more to establish it than almost anybody else.
After attending Princeton and other universities, Hank Thompson, another Texan, formed the Brazos Valley Boys, which had hits from 1948. His somewhat larger band helped keep the feeling of western swing alive with country hits throughout the 1950s, including 'The Wild Side of Life' (1952). Lefty Frizzell (from 1950), Carl Smith (from 1951) and Ray Price (from 1952) were among those with great songs that entered the national consciousness; not even people who hated country music could avoid hearing the biggest hits accidentally, on a jukebox or while cruising the dial on the radio.
Brother acts were also important. The male duet tradition was probably established by the Blue Sky Boys as much as anyone. Bill and Carl Bolick, from South Carolina, used the 'high lonesome' harmony of bluegrass music and traditional instruments; they left music in 1951 partly because they would not add an electric guitar to their act. The Delmore Brothers, Alton and Rabon, from Alabama, recorded for twenty years from 1931, and had a direct effect on the rockabillies of the 1950s with their black-influenced ragtime-like style; Alton is said to have written over a thousand songs, many still in the repertory of country artists today. The Louvin Brothers, actually Charlie and Ira Loudermilk, from North Carolina, began recording in 1949; their 'I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby' (1956) is an example of the portrayal of emotional pain that country music dealt with honestly and, contrary to the belief of those who do not understand country music, with pathos but without sentimentality. Johnnie and Jack were from Tennessee, but were not brothers: Johnny Wright married Kitty Wells in 1938, and Jack Anglin was killed in a car crash in 1963 (on his way to a memorial service for Patsy Cline). Their hits began in 1951 with one of their most successful, 'Poison Love'.
Women were not big stars in country music, despite the influence of Molly O'Day and Rose Maddox (of the Maddox Brothers and Sister Rose from 1947 to 1959, later a soloist). Then Kitty Wells came along. Born Muriel Ellen Deason in Nashville, her stage name was chosen by her husband. She recorded for RCA from 1949, and in 1952, almost apologetically, with a deep country vibrato and a southern accent you could cut with a knife, she established the role of women in country music, talking back to Hank Thompson:
As I sit here tonight, the juke box playing
And that is the whole song, written by one J. D. Miller. The record is less than two and a half minutes long. With a simple, memorable tune and three very plain verses (albeit with internal rhymes in the last), and years before the advent of fashionable feminism, Wells did not find it necessary to feel sorry for all those heartbroken men crying in their beer. And the next year she gently sassed Webb Pierce, with 'Paying For That Back Street Affair'. She became and remained the Queen of Country Music, having paved the way for such no-nonsense stars as Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. And she did not rely on answer songs by any means: 'Makin' Believe' in 1955 was one of her own heartachers.
The decade was a golden age for country. While the hits of the white pop singers in the early 1950s were slick and studio-bound, it is significant that many of the country stars recorded with their own backing groups, just as the vocalists of the Swing Era had done; like them, they knew who their audience was, because they saw the faces around the bandstand night after night. Decca and Columbia reported that nearly half their sales of singles were rooted in country music, yet still restricted to a ghetto. Eddy Arnold had nearly seventy top ten hits in the Billboard country chart in ten years after 1945, but only two of them were allowed in the pop chart. Pee Wee King's 'Slow Poke' (1952) was one of the few country records (as opposed to covers) to be allowed to cross over. The songs and their attitudes proved far more influential than they were thought to be at the time.
In 1947 the Liberian government commissioned Liberian Suite from Duke Ellington; including Al Hibbler's vocal on 'I Like the Sunrise' and five instrumental dances, it was one of the first pieces recorded under Ellington's new contract with Columbia Records. The Tattooed Bride (1948), thought by some to be among the best of his longer works, and Harlem (1950), commissioned by the NBC Symphony Orchestra, were both later recorded, along with such singles as 'Brown Penny', 'Stomp, Look and Listen', 'Boogie Bop Blues' and many other Ducal delights.
Also in 1947, Woody Herman re-formed his band. The Second Herd, as it came to be called, played arrangements by Ralph Burns, Neal Hefti, Al Cohn, Jimmy Giuffre, Shorty Rogers and John LaPorta, and was as musically exciting as the first. In its first year it recorded a fourth part of Burns's 'Summer Sequence', more than a year after the first three parts; 'Keen and Peachy' was a collaboration by Rogers and Burns. The band's most famous recording was 'Four Brothers', written by Giuffre. Its spirited pastel harmony was played by a reed section of Herbie Steward on alto, Stan Getz and Zoot Sims on tenors and Serge Chaloff on baritone. It was the sound of modern jazz, played by young white musicians thoroughly familiar with the harmonic freedom of bop, and that reed section was the only one as famous among jazz fans as Ellington's.
Count Basie disbanded in 1950, led a small group with Wardell Gray and clarinettist Buddy DeFranco, but started all over again in 1952: having been invited to record for Norman Granz, he led a big band for the rest of his life. But neither Ellington, Herman nor Basie had any hits in the national pop chart in 1950. So what were the number one hits of that year?
The record business was booming in the late 1940s; all Petrillo achieved with his second strike was the establishment of a trustee to oversee the payment of record royalties. In 1947 the US industry finally sold more records than it did at its previous peak of twenty-five years earlier. But the industry, then as now, was dominated by conservative people; the frenetic recording that took place before the 1948 strike resulted in a backlog of material that the public did not particularly want.
The National Association of Disk Jockeys had been created in 1947 by a press agent, partly in order to plug a film, Something in the Wind, about a radio station. The disc jockey, however, was now an important figure. Capitol was the first label to send free records to DJs; the others soon fell into line, and it was understood that the DJs of the period had better judgement than the record labels about what the public wanted. Hence the black jump band of Louis Jordan began doing better on the radio and in the charts, and independent labels got a fairer share of the action. Frankie Laine, already a cabaret veteran of some years, finally struck it big on Chicago's new and energetic Mercury label with 'That's My Desire'. The DJs were credited with putting an end to weekly radio shows by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore: why should fans tune in to a weekly show when they could hear their favourites just by leaving the radio on? To get a picture of the trend, here first are the number one Billboard hits of 1940:Artie Shaw / 'Frenesi' / RCA Victor
Bing Crosby / 'Only Forever' / Decca
Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra & the Pied Pipers / 'I'll Never Smile Again' / RCA Victor
Glenn Miller / 'The Woodpecker Song' / Bluebird (RCA)
Glenn Miller / 'Tuxedo Junction' / Bluebird (RCA)
Glenn Miller / 'In the Mood' / Bluebird (RCA)
Frankie Masters / 'Scatter-brain' / Vocalion (Decca)
Shep Fields / 'South of the Border' / Bluebird (RCA)
There are no black artists, no country songs, and only two labels are represented. Shep Fields and Frankie Masters were leaders of sweet bands, now forgotten. 'The Woodpecker Song' was an Italian song with new English words, sung by Marion Hutton (not the same as 'The Woody Woodpecker Song', from the cartoon character, later a huge novelty hit). 'Only Forever' was a romantic pop song with a weak middle eight, and was revived by Count Basie and Joe Williams in the mid-1950s. Of these eight titles, four are pop classics (all on RCA) and have been continuously available ever since.
Compare the Billboard 1940 list with that of 1947:Vaughan Monroe / 'Ballerina' / RCA Victor
Francis Craig / 'Near You' / Bullet
Tex Williams / 'Smoke! Smoke! Smoke That Cigarette' / Capitol
The Harmonicats / 'Peg o' My Heart' / Vitacoustic
Perry Como / 'Chi-baba, Chi-baba (My Bambino Go to Sleep)' / RCA Victor
Art Lund / 'Mam'selle' / MGM
Ted Weems / 'Heartaches' / RCA Victor
Freddy Martin / 'Managua, Nicaragua' / RCA Victor
Count Basie / 'Open the Door, Richard!' / RCA Victor
Nat Cole Trio / '(I Love You) for Sentimental Reasons' / Capitol
Sammy Kaye / 'The Old Lamp-lighter' / RCA Victor
When the figures were in, 1947 was overall a landmark year, but not so hot for the major labels. There are more number one hits, reflecting more releases, a shorter average time at the top and the DJs' ability to tickle the public's fancy with something new. 'Near You', co-written and recorded in Nashville by hotel bandleader Francis Craig, was the biggest hit of the year; another big one was 'Peg o' My Heart', a 1913 song and the first release on Vitacoustic (the harmonica group soon moved to Mercury). Another number one was on the new independent, MGM. Neither Columbia nor Decca had any number ones. Capitol had two, one of which was a country novelty and the other by Nat Cole, the first black artist to achieve wide fame; only his title on this list might be granted 'pop classic' status. Notice that the low-priced labels, Bluebird and Vocalion, are gone: there was no margin in cheaper records. RCA again had six number ones, but two were flukes: Basie's novelty made it for one week only, and 'Heartaches', by Ted Weems, with Elmo Tanner whistling, was a reissue from 1931. Altogether there are seven male vocals, not counting the jive on the Basie record, including Billy Williams (with Kaye) and Stuart Wade (with Martin), but the other five vocalists are stars, not band singers.
The major labels were troubled by these changes, and they reacted by spending too much money on too many releases, chasing hits without knowing what they were doing. Eli Oberstein had been fired from RCA in 1938, but reinstated in 1945; now he was made a scapegoat and bounced again. In the mid-1930s, when he was doing a good job at Victor, Oberstein had been paid about $6,000 a year; in 1947 Mannie Sachs was poached from Columbia to take over pop recording at RCA at a salary somewhere between $50,000 and $75,000 a year. Sachs said that he consulted his ten-year-old niece when deciding which songs to record; this was thought to be a joke at the time, but in retrospect it's not so funny.
Here are the Billboard number one hits from 1950:Patti Page / 'Tennessee Waltz' / Mercury
Phil Harris / 'The Thing' / RCA Victor
Sammy Kaye / 'Harbor Lights' / RCA Victor
Gordon Jenkins and the Weavers / 'Goodnight Irene' / Decca
Nat Cole / 'Mona Lisa' / Capitol
Anton Karas / 'Third Man Theme' / London
Eileen Barton / 'If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd've Baked a Cake' / National
Teresa Brewer / 'Music! Music! Music!' / London
Red Foley / 'Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy' / Decca
Ames Brothers / 'Rag Mop' / Coral (Decca)
Andrews Sisters / 'I Can Dream, Can't I' / Decca
The 1950 list is even more various, a complete jumble. Nat Cole is now no longer leading the trio. There are two titles that were perceived as country or 'folk' and another that should have been. Seven labels are represented. There is only one dance band, and few of the other hits could be danced to. The Phil Harris record illustrates a remarkable (and ominous) trend: many of the hits of the new decade would fall into the Billboard 'novelty' category.
Harris was a good entertainer who deserved his success; among his hits in the 1940s had been 'The Preacher and the Bear' and 'Woodman, Spare That Tree', both revived from the acoustic era. Anton Karas wrote the music and played the zither in the soundtrack of the famous Carol Reed film. 'Rag Mop', also regarded as a novelty, had a strong beat and nonsense words; later it was speculated that 'Rag Mop' had been the first rock'n'roll record, which was not far wrong: hit versions of it included one by its co-author, Johnnie Lee Wills, on Bullet. 'Rag Mop' was a country stomp, no different from 'Osage Stomp', recorded by Bob Wills in 1935, with Johnnie Lee on banjo. The big hit version of 'Rag Mop' was less appropriate: the Ames Brothers were a smooth vocal group.
'Tennessee Waltz' is a good country song, written by Redd Stewart and Pee Wee King in 1948 and a hit in the country chart that year. Page's record was at number one for thirteen weeks and sold six million copies. It provides an early example of multi-tracking, and that gimmick, associated in the public mind with new technology, may have helped establish the 45 rpm format, though the 78 sounded exactly the same. (Mercury had been one of the first to market 45s.) Red Foley began on the WLS National Barn Dance in 1930; from the first Billboard country chart in 1944 until 1956 he had over fifty top ten hits, 'Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy' being another country stomp, and Foley's biggest crossover hit. But the most interesting hit of 1950, and also the biggest, was a sleeper. An urban folk scene had created itself, apparently, with no commercial possibilities at all; then along came 'Goodnight Irene', by the Weavers.
This scene had been nurtured by the American liberal left for many years. Josh White was a black folk and blues singer and guitarist; as a child he was the eyes for street singers such as Blind Blake and Blind Lemon Jefferson, but his literacy and ambition took him to the smart Cafe Society Downtown in New York, whereupon he was dismissed by purists. He was also well known for his left-wing politics. Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, was less lucky. He was jailed twice for murder, but was discovered by John and Alan Lomax and sang his way out of jail for the second time in 1934. He worked for the Lomaxes and made his way to New York, where he was taken up by café society in an early example of radical chic, but he was less able to take advantage of it than Josh White. The modern era of folk music in the USA began with the meeting in New York of Leadbelly's country folk-blues, the itinerant dust-bowl troubadour Woody Guthrie and the incipient urban folk of Pete Seeger.
Guthrie was born in Oklahoma and became a legend in his own time. Entirely self-taught, he roamed the country, having seen his father go bankrupt, his sister killed in a coal-oil stove explosion and his mother committed to a mental institution. He worked briefly with his cousin Jack Guthrie, who had country hits on Capitol ('Oklahoma Hills' was number one while Jack was serving in the South Pacific in 1945). Woody's songs include 'This Land Is Your Land' (written as a riposte to Irving Berlin's 'God Bless America'), 'Pastures of Plenty', 'This Train Is Bound for Glory', 'Roll On, Columbia', 'So Long, It's Been Good to Know Ya' and nearly a thousand more. A true folk artist, he would put new words to an old tune as necessary, and was opposed to copyright restrictions on any songs, including his own.
Guthrie's guitar bore the legend 'This machine kills fascists.' His politics were unreservedly left and he wrote for communist newspapers, yet in the far-off days of 1940 he was hired to write songs for the Bonneville Power Administration, a little populism being allowed in the Roosevelt years. He joined the U.S. Merchant Marine and survived torpedo attacks with another folk singer, Cisco Houston; from the mid-1950s Guthrie was seriously ill with Huntington's chorea, an inherited disease of the nervous system.
Pete Seeger's father was musicologist Charles Louis Seeger, who told him that a folksong in a book is like a photograph of a bird in flight. His stepmother was composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, whose string quartet (1931) is an American masterpiece, and who was later an editor of songbooks. His half-sister and half-brother are Peggy and Mike Seeger, also prominent folk musicians; Peggy married the British singer and songwriter Ewan MacColl. Pete tried journalism and painting before he realized he could not really do anything but play the banjo; he designed his own five-string instrument, wrote a manual on how to play it and became a sort of Johnny Appleseed of music. He was described as America's tuning fork.
Seeger had admired a mimeographed collection of Guthrie's songs, and when they met, they formed the Almanac Singers in 1940, with playwright Lee Hays, actor Millard Lampell and others. The group was managed for a while by the William Morris Agency; during the time of the Popular Front it was not a sin to sing union songs, but the FBI took an interest anyway. The Almanacs sang at radical meetings, sometimes narrowly escaping violence. Seeger came from a privileged background, but saw injustice all around him and had only one way to fight it. He was a member of the Communist Party, and sang for the rank-and-file because they were idealists, the hardest-working and most honest people in sight at a time when the world seemed to be going crazy. His politics were naive, but his admiration was not for the party bosses, who suddenly did not want anti-fascist songs during the Hitler-Stalin pact.
Seeger's ancestors had fought for American freedom in the eighteenth century, and he was not the only premature anti-fascist in 1940. (The phrase 'premature anti-fascist', by the way, was actually invented by the anti-communist brigade.) The FBI went to RCA and asked them what the Almanac label was (actually Keynote recordings): RCA told the FBI to read Variety and Billboard. The Almanac era ended when Seeger went into the U.S. Army and Guthrie went to sea.
In 1948 Seeger formed the Weavers, a quartet with voice student Ronnie Gilbert, reedy tenor Fred Hellerman and Hays, who could sing a sepulchral bass and had a nice line of gentle comedy. When they began an engagement at the Village Vanguard, poet Carl Sandburg saw them and was quoted in the papers: 'When I hear America singing, the Weavers are there.' Gordon Jenkins decided to record them at Decca, against the wishes of Dave Kapp. Their first recording was 'Tzena Tzena Tzena', a 1941 Palestinian (then Israeli) song sung in Hebrew; this attracted some interest, so they did it again in English, this time with Jenkins's orchestral arrangement. 'Tzena' reached number two in the pop chart; DJs turned it over to find Leadbelly's 'Goodnight Irene' on the other side, which quickly became number one. The two-sided hit sold two million copies and inspired an answer song: 'Say Goodnight to the Guy, Irene'.
'Tzena' was great fun, while Jenkins's arrangement for 'Irene' began with a solo violin, like front-porch music. The Weavers were a welcome new sound in 1950, and had no competition. Was it folk? Country music? It didn't matter; it was American, straight off the prairie. Their close harmony was redolent of the Sons of the Pioneers, for kids who liked cowboy movies. 'Goodnight Irene' was a song that deserved its success, though it came too late for Leadbelly to enjoy it. They had a few more hits, but then somebody remembered they were lefties. They vanished from the airwaves, and the Decca contract ran out. Hays later said, 'First we took a sabbatical. Then we took a mondical and a tuesdical.'
A New Year's Eve concert at Carnegie Hall was recorded by Vanguard at the end of 1955, and the group sold albums on that label. Also in 1955, Seeger refused to answer questions from Congress that should have been unconstitutional to begin with; he was indicted for contempt and when the case was finally thrown out in 1962, the court went out of its way to insult him. The informer Harvey Matusow had testified that three of the Weavers were party members (one had 'quit'), but later admitted that he had made it all up, and was sentenced to five years' imprisonment for perjury. Meanwhile the drunks and crooks on the House Un-American Activities Committee (one of whom was misappropriating taxpayers' money while chasing communists) had stored up trouble for their own country: a generation of kids that had loved the Weavers was not best pleased when it discovered, many years later, why they had suddenly disappeared.
What else was popular in 1950? 'Music! Music! Music!' was the first of Teresa Brewer's many successes. You either hate her squeaky but accurate voice or love it, but she was an irrepressible entertainer; some of her later hits were produced by Bob Thiele, who became her husband. The song is nothing but a jingle (written by Stephan Weiss and Bernie Baum), the middle eight of which is borrowed from a Hungarian dance; the lyrics reminded us that a nickelodeon was also a jukebox ('Put another nickel in / In the nickelodeon . . .')
'If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd've Baked a Cake', written by Bob Merrill, is another jingle, like 'Rinso White! Rinso White!', which was a soap advertisement meant to sound like a bird-call; there were also 'Be Happy, Go Lucky!' and 'Brush Your Teeth with Colgate!' Radio had been abandoned to jingles, and the pop records of the early 1950s were made to fit between them. Wage and price controls had been abolished in 1946 in the USA; this was certainly preferable to the maintenance of rationing which went on for years in Britain, but it resulted in post-war inflation. Record prices went up; if you didn't have much money to buy records, and a new record player for the plastic discs, you had to get most of your music from the radio. And if you listened to the radio, the centre of popular music in the USA seemed to be slick studio productions that were indistinguishable from the jingles, and were themselves increasingly strident.
The orthodox view is that sales of albums finally became more important than singles in the late 1960s; in fact, much spurious orthodoxy was later dictated by demographics, or by who was buying the greatest number of records. It is evident in retrospect that the new technology of the long-playing record had an effect on the pop chart and on radio broadcasting right from the beginning. The most interesting music was being made for albums, but album tracks were as rare on post-war radio as live music. Things were better for those who lived in big cities with numerous radio stations, but only the most powerful AM stations could be clearly received 70 miles from, say, Chicago, which made them the most profitable stations: that is, the ones with the most jingles. In 1950 the few FM stations were all in big cities, and FM was difficult to receive at any distance. For a large number of listeners America was a musical wasteland: radio had succeeded in creating the illusion that popular music was boring.
It was the era of the white pop singer, who no longer travelled with a band playing one-nighters around the country, but worked mostly in studios of one kind or another, or in high-priced big-city clubs, so that most people never saw the stars in person. It must be said that many of them were fine musicians, whose roots lay in the Swing Era; without doubt the greatest of them was Frank Sinatra.
Sinatra was hired in 1939 by Harry James, who had just formed his own band; his very first notice (in Metronome) commended his 'easy phrasing'. After only a few months Sinatra was hired away by Tommy Dorsey, and became a bobby-sox idol well before his solo career began. When he appeared at the Paramount theatre with Benny Goodman, the band played after the film, and Goodman said simply, 'And now, Frank Sinatra.' Goodman had experienced his own stardom, but was so astonished by a wall of screaming that he blurted out, 'What the fuck is that?' Some of the girls were paid to scream (as perhaps their grandmothers had been paid to swoon for Paderewski in the 1880s), but even more screamed for nothing, and modern pop hysteria was born.
Sinatra had improved on Bing Crosby. His baritone was even more personable and certainly more vulnerable, and, like a jazz singer, he made each song his own by phrasing it as he felt the words, often across the bar lines. Crosby had been a boyfriend; Sinatra clearly wanted to be a lover. Musicians and critics knew that he was a very good singer, yet by 1952 his career was in decline. The pop music business had fallen on hard times; the golden age of songwriting seemed to be over, and anyway the radio wanted only jingles; the boss was now the studio A&R man rather than a bandleader who confronted a live audience nearly every day. What in the world was 'The Dum-dot Song', which Sinatra recorded in 1947? Should Sinatra have been covering 'Goodnight Irene' and 'Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy' in 1950? The idea was not to present the vocalist at his best, but to share in the success of somebody else's hit. Sinatra was also singing the top spot on radio's Your Hit Parade, which required him to imitate Woody Woodpecker for weeks on end in 1948.
Often a compulsively generous man, Sinatra has helped a great many people anonymously over the years, and has been willing to give praise where it is due. In Ebony magazine he described Billie Holiday as a profound influence; he said he learned about phrasing and breath control from Dorsey, and later he commended his rivals, including Tony Bennett, and said that Vic Damone had 'the best pipes in the business'. In 1945 he had recorded with the Charioteers, a black gospel group, and conducted an instrumental album of music by Alec Wilder: he admired the music, and hoped that his name would help to sell it. The same year he made a short film and a record called 'The House I Live In', pleas for racial tolerance. But he had a quick temper, a thin skin and a tempestuous private life, invariably conducted in public. He divorced his Nancy in 1950 and married Ava Gardner in 1951. 'I'm a Fool to Want You', made that year, was honest and heartfelt pop singing at its best (but it was backed with 'Mama Will Bark', a novelty duet with Dagmar, an 'actress' famous for her mammary measurement).
Sinatra had been one of the biggest stars in show business for a decade, and the knives were sharpening. His television and radio appearances were flops, and he was not being offered good film parts. On top of everything else, his publicity agent and close friend George Evans died suddenly in 1950, at the age of forty-eight, and Mannie Sachs, another close friend, left Columbia to go to RCA, and Sinatra's booking agency dropped him. It did not occur to the tabloid mentality of the newspaper columnists and fanzines that the pain in Sinatra's private life might in the end make him an even better interpreter of good songs.
In 1953 he landed the part of Maggio in From Here to Eternity, for which he won an Oscar; he also signed a new contract with Capitol Records, which required Sinatra to pay for all his own arrangements. His first Capitol recording session was with his long-time arranger Axel Stordahl, but the next was with Nelson Riddle. 'I've Got the World on a String' from that session was a good song from 1932, by Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen, and in the summer of 1953 Sinatra's recording of it seemed to inaugurate a new era in pop: as the record came over the air on the radio, the singer was clearly a man who really did have the world on a string, in spite of everything.
The lush, string-laden sound of Stordahl and the rustle of spring provided by large numbers of woodwinds had lent themselves to many fine Sinatra records; when he left Columbia, Sinatra owed the label money, but before long his hits of the 1940s, still selling, were paying him royalties. In any case, the sound had been traded for the architecture of Riddle, who knew that a song tells a story, and that the arrangement has to lead up to it, with a beginning, a middle and an end. His unique touches, such as using a bass clarinet or a bass trombone as a springboard for a rhythmic phrase, made Riddle the most sought-after arranger of this kind of music, and his work in this area has dated less than almost anyone else's. Sinatra worked with Riddle on In the Wee Small Hours, one of the first concept albums, but also recorded with Gordon Jenkins and Billy May, and later Sy Oliver and Quincy Jones. He made recordings for grownups, who bought albums, and his status as the best male interpreter of America's best songs was never again in doubt. Of nineteen Capitol albums from 1954 to 1962, most reached the top five on the Billboard album chart; he then started his own Reprise label, and had several hit albums a year throughout the 1960s.
Nat Cole formed his King Cole Trio in 1937. He later became one of the most popular vocalists of the century, and easily the most successful black entertainer of the post-war decades. Much as the public loved his voice, and still loves it, his singing has been underrated by critics; he swings without anybody noticing. But he was even more influential as a pianist, and at first was reluctant to sing. In mid-1944 his own composition, 'Straighten Up and Fly Right', was a top ten hit, and his third number one (without the trio) was 'Mona Lisa', an Oscar-winning film song and also one of the most typical of a new era, in that it was very romantic but not very easy to dance to. Cole's phrasing and the unique beauty of his voice kept him in the charts until he died of lung cancer in 1965, and his albums are still selling.
Tony Bennett had landed a Columbia contract; 'Boulevard of Broken Dreams' revived a good song from 1933, by Al Dubin and Harry Warren, and the record was highly rated by critics, but no hit. At what would have been his last recording session he was backed by Percy Faith on 'Because of You' (from 1940, by Arthur Hammerstein and Dudley Wilkinson), which was number one for ten weeks in 1951; then he did it again the same year with Hank Williams's 'Cold, Cold Heart'. Bennett too was a singer's singer, highly rated by songwriters, musicians and critics alike, and soon sold albums.
Perry Como sang with Ted Weems from 1936 to 1942, then signed with RCA as a soloist, and his total number of hits up to 1955 was second only to Bing Crosby's. His hits included some junk, such as 'N'yot N'yow (the Pussycat Song)' and 'Hoop-de-doo' (between 1947 and that vintage year of 1950), but his transparent sincerity and his respect for a song lent him a winning way with a ballad. He was probably underrated by critics: being laid back is a sneaky way of swinging. One of his hits was 'Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes' (1954), a country song that crossed over; the arrangement worked hard while Como made it sound easy. He was immensely popular on television for decades; Val Doonican copied his style in the UK.
Eddie Fisher, a strong boyish tenor, was the teenagers' heart-throb in the early 1950s. His romance and marriage to Debbie Reynolds did his career no harm, but leaving her later for Elizabeth Taylor did. His RCA recordings, backed by Hugo Winterhalter, were good studio productions and were better than some of the jingles on the radio, but Fisher was nothing like the musician Sinatra or Bennett was. Frankie Laine was regarded as an emotional 'belter' in the context of the early 1950s rather than a crooner; his first hit, 'That's My Desire' (1947), was well deserved, reviving a good song from 1931, but his belting was often deployed on novelties that quickly dated, such as 'Mule Train', 'Cry of the Wild Goose' and 'Jezebel'. Johnnie Ray had a huge hit with 'Cry' backed with his own 'The Little White Cloud That Cried'; he too was an emotional performer and a heart-throb. Guy Mitchell's first hit was 'My Heart Cries for You' (1950), which had been turned down by Sinatra; it was adapted from an eighteenth-century French song by Percy Faith. Mitch Miller, however, backed Mitchell on his hits, including 'The Roving Kind', 'Sparrow in the Tree Top', 'My Truly, Truly Fair' and 'Pittsburgh Pennsylvania', all of which show Miller's distinctive instrumental jolliness (whooping French horns). Nobody was better than Miller at competing with radio jingles.
Who do we regard today as the best male pop singers of the era? The way the singles compare with the albums in the Billboard charts provides a clue. Between 1950 and 1955 inclusive, Sinatra had seven hit singles (coming out of a bad period), Nat Cole 21, Tony Bennett 11, Perry Como 25, Eddie Fisher 30, Frankie Laine 20, Johnnie Ray ten and Guy Mitchell nine. Now let us look at best-selling albums: by 1985 Sinatra had 69 hit albums and Nat Cole 30 (not counting albums by the trio, and bearing in mind that he died in the mid-1960s). Tony Bennett had 24 hit albums, Perry Como 30 (not counting his perennial Christmas entries), Eddie Fisher nine, Frankie Laine six, Johnnie Ray two and Guy Mitchell none. Sinatra and Bennett were still making albums in the 1980s, and a point to note about albums is that they stayed in print longer, like 78s in the old days.
As a measure of artistry, even in the heyday of the pop singer, the singles chart had ceased to matter as an indicator of quality as soon as grown-ups could buy albums.
If anything, there were even more girl singers making hits in the early 1950s, but a direct comparison with the males is difficult. To begin with, the list of hits for each female artist is shorter on average, suggesting that they received less promotion from their record companies and/or less attention from the disc jockeys; or perhaps they simply made fewer records. On the whole, the women were more diffident about success, or less able to chase it for personal reasons: Jo Stafford, Rosemary Clooney and Joni James each retired from the music scene, for various reasons, while Peggy Lee seems to have left it and come back as she pleased. As in the case of the males, however, most had made their start during the Big Band Era.
One of the best, and best loved, was Jo Stafford, a founder member of the Pied Pipers, a vocal octet which became a quartet when it joined Tommy Dorsey in 1940. The group left Dorsey in 1942 and Stafford began a solo career in 1944, having sung lead and solo with Dorsey often enough to become known as 'G.I. Jo', a favourite of the soldiers fighting overseas. She had a faultless ear (almost perfect pitch), and in many ways was a quintessentially American singer: apart from her warm, distinctive tonal colour (incredibly, some critics called her 'cold'), she had a folksinger's vibrato.
Taking into account jukebox plays, radio plays and other listings, she had about seventy-five hits. Most of these were on Capitol in the 1940s; in 1950 she went with Paul Weston to Columbia, where she had several of the biggest hits of the era: 'You Belong to Me' was written by Redd Stewart, Pee Wee King and Chilton Price; 'Make Love to Me!' was based on 'Tin Roof Blues', an old jazz standard. With a good beat but without stylistic flourishes, Stafford invariably suggested swing in her music. Her last hit singles were in 1956-7. Tired of the grind, she had stopped appearing in public, and then entered a long and happy California retirement.
Stafford and Paul Weston, by then her husband, created Jonathan and Darlene Edwards, a comedy duo in which she sang slightly off pitch (harder than it sounds). As a team, Jonathan and Darlene achieved a separate identity of their own. Jonathan claimed that he played stride piano better than Fats Waller, to which Darlene replied 'Actually, 5/4 gives you an extra stride.' The jokes convulsed musicians: drummer Jack Sperling had to be replaced on a session because he could not stop laughing.
Peggy Lee joined Benny Goodman when she was twenty-one. The first hit typical of her style was 'Why Don't You Do Right?' (1943). She left Goodman, married guitarist Dave Barbour and retired, but she could not stay away. She and Barbour wrote 'Manana (Is Soon Enough for Me)', a huge hit on Capitol in 1948. (The song has been accused in retrospect of belittling Hispanics, but white America in those years could have used the advice to slow down and enjoy life: people who make such charges are themselves patronising.) Lee went to Decca, and her material improved: her first big success there, in 1952, was something that Capitol had not wanted to record, Gordon Jenkins's arrangement of Rodgers and Hart's 'Lover'; the surrealistically, almost frenetically, swirling orchestra was a perfect setting for Lee's deceptively laconic interpretation. In the mid-1950s she went back to Capitol as an album-seller: her first hit album on that label, The Man I Love in 1957, was conducted by Sinatra. Her top ten cover of Little Willie John's 'Fever' (1958) was disappointing only for those who loved the R&B original. 'Is That All There Is' (1969) was more suitable: written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, by then famous for rock'n'roll songs, it was an example of the less well-known side of their talent, and a vehicle for her combination of resignation and sly humour.
Rosemary Clooney had begun in a duo with her sister Betty and the Tony Pastor band in the 1940s, then signed with Columbia, where her first smash hit was 'Come on-a My House' in 1951. A greater contrast to Peggy Lee could not be imagined: in lines like 'I'm gonna give-a you a pomegranate!' the sexuality was joyously raucous. The recording was perhaps the first to feature Stan Freeman's amplified harpsichord (used the next year on Percy Faith's instrumental 'Delicado' and on two more Clooney records, 'Botch-ame', from an Italian film, and 'Too Old to Cut the Mustard', a duet with Marlene Dietrich). 'Come on-a My House' had been written by playwright William Saroyan and his cousin Ross Bagdasarian in 1939 and used in an off-Broadway play in 1950; its Armenian flavour was probably taken for an Italian one by most Americans at the time. (Bagdasarian later became David Seville, creator of the Chipmunks in the late 1950s.)
Joni James started out as Joan Babbo, a dancer from Chicago; she had more than a dozen hits on MGM (1952-4) with orchestral backing by Lew Douglas. 'Why Don't You Believe Me?, 'Have You Heard?' and 'Is It Any Wonder?' were all questions suited to her wistful little-girl style. The most ambitious was 'Almost Always', which had a sort of soft rhumba beat. All four of these titles had co-writers in common; it looks, in retrospect, like a clever put-up job, and the hits still reek of nostalgia for anyone who went to junior high school sock-hops in those years.
Ella Mae Morse sang with Jimmy Dorsey in 1939, and had a big hit on Capitol with pianist Freddie Slack's band in 1942, 'Cow Cow Boogie'; under her own name her hits in the following decade included 'The Blacksmith Blues' (1952), which required somebody in Nelson Riddle's band to play an anvil. Georgia Gibbs had a number one on Mercury in 1952 with 'Kiss of Fire', another tango adaptation ('El choclo'); she had a second chart career a few years later. Kay Starr had been a superior yet unclassifiable singer, sounding like a cross between country and jazz, but her hit singles were multi-tracked material such as 'Bonaparte's Retreat' (1950) and 'Wheel of Fortune' (1952); she came back on RCA in 1955 with 'Rock and Roll Waltz', an unlovely combination of 3/4 time and kling-kling-kling piano which was number one for six weeks.
Stan Kenton's female singers, Anita O'Day, June Christy and Chris Connor, were much too good for the singles charts. Jeri Southern was a pianist and singer in an intimate cabaret style, which is to say too good an interpreter for the hit parade. (She was more popular in Britain, which did not even have charts then.) On the whole the female singers were badly mishandled by the music business of the period. Kay Starr did some attractive album work, and her 1953 duet with herself on 'Side By Side' was a treat, but 'Wheel of Fortune' was not much of a song, and was over so fast it could hardly be called an arrangement (another excellent example of something designed to fit between the jingles). Ella Mae Morse probably had more talent than we knew at the time: Capitol's A & R man Voyle Gilmore had her singing junk like 'Seventeen' and 'Razzle Dazzle', while Dave Cavanaugh was braver, with 'Greyhound' and 'Jump Back Honey'. Her version of 'Smack Dab in the Middle', however, a song which became something of a jazz standard in other hands, had a lame white-bread vocal-group backing. The white R&B of which she may have been capable never really got out of the studio.
The nadir of the whole business was plumbed in 1953. Displaying attractive vocal colour, a professional attitude and not much in the way of style, Patti Page (Clara Ann Fowler, from Oklahoma) had over eighty chart hits in the twenty years following 1948, with everything from country songs to show tunes: 'Tennessee Waltz' was a record breaker, 'I Went to Your Wedding' was another big hit and in 1953 'The Doggie in the Window' was number one in the USA for eight weeks. It would be unfair to call this a nursery rhyme; it was childish rather than childlike. Nobody knows how many music fans stopped listening to the radio after hearing 'Doggie in the Window' too many times. And who wrote 'Doggie in the Window'? Bob Merrill, the same guy who wrote 'If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd've Baked a Cake' .
The chart album history for the women singers is similar to that of the men. The best stylists, O'Day, Christy, Connor and Lee, have been selling albums to the cognoscenti for decades; Stafford and Weston leased or purchased their material from CBS so they could reissue it on their own Corinthian label, since the fans are still out there; Southern's work has been mostly out of print for years. Clooney made admirable albums, including duets with Bing Crosby; after resolving problems in her personal life, she came back to record for Concord Jazz in the 1980s, her tasteful singing of standards backed by good jazzmen. In a touring Christmas show in December 1990, with her vocalist daughter-in-law, many children and the Minnesota Orchestra (formerly the Minneapolis Symphony), Clooney had as much warmth and stage presence as everyone else in the room put together. Doris Day, one of the biggest cinema box office successes of the century, had talent that shone through the dross, but her advice was poor; some of the records and most of the films have dated badly. Georgia Gibbs, Patti Page, Joni James and others, for all their successful singles, never did anything much in the grown-up market.
There were occasional pearls among the muck. The experienced Kitty Kallen had a lovely number one (for nine weeks) in 1954 with 'Little Things Mean a Lot', and Dean Martin, who had the virtue of not taking himself too seriously, did some charming work: 'Money Burns a Hole in My Pocket' was an unpretentious film song, on the other side of which was 'Sway' (a Mexican song called 'Quien Sera'); both did well in 1954. And his 'Memories are Made of This' the next year, with gentle, appropriate vocal backing by Terry Gilkyson's Easy Riders, was a more appealing than usual number one (for six weeks). None of these recordings was overproduced. Martin had more hit singles during the following decade, but eventually seemed to parody himself.
In the early 1950s the major labels sometimes shipped 100,000 copies of a new record by an unknown artist on a 100 per cent return basis, hoping for lightning to strike. This was later described by a Capitol executive as 'throwing a lot of shit at the wall to see if anything sticks'. They put their big stars on television, but these were just radio shows with pictures, and did not necessarily help to sell records. Sachs at RCA offered his big stars very expensive contracts, luring Dinah Shore back from Columbia in 1950; she was a success with a television variety show, but no longer a big pop star.
Before leaving one of the most dismal periods in the history of popular music, one more phenomenon deserves mention. Lester Polfus, the 'Wizard of Waukesha', was born in that suburb of Milwaukee in 1916 and changed his name to Les Paul. Inspired by Gene Autry, he taught himself to be one of the best guitar players that ever lived, having begun as a teenager on the radio. He could and did play everything from country music to jazz, and probably did not see much difference, concentrating as he did on musicianship. He made himself an electric guitar as early as 1929, by fixing a ceramic record-player cartridge under the strings in order to play through the amplifier and speaker. Later it took him a dozen years to convince Gibson to market his solid-body guitar, whereupon in the dozen years after 1954 the 'Les Paul model' became one of the most famous instruments ever made.
He recorded with Art Tatum around 1944, and was the best guitarist Tatum ever played with. On Decca he accompanied Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters with his own trio. In 1949 he married country singer Colleen Summer, who changed her name to Mary Ford; meanwhile, he had been one of the first to experiment with tape recording and multi-tracking: his solo hits on Capitol included 'Brazil' (1948), on which he played six parts. His hits in a duo with Ford began in 1950, and they had an average of four or five a year for most of the decade. After hearing Anita O'Day singing 'Vaya Con Dios' on the radio, they recorded it as a B side and persuaded jockeys to turn the record over: 'Vaya Con Dios' was number one for eleven weeks. A song by Larry Russell, Inez James and Buddy Pepper, the title literally means 'Go with God' (more idiomatically, 'May God be with you'). Les Paul and Mary Ford's Mexican-flavoured waltz treatment at just the right tempo was a hit for so long that you grew tired of it, but it holds up better today than almost anything else of the period.
In any case, the applecart was about to be kicked over. In the same year as 'Doggie in the Window' and 'Vaya Con Dios', a truck driver made a custom recording in Memphis for his mother. But before discussing Elvis Presley, we will examine the other things that were going on in the early 1950s. For it was as true then as it is now that there was good music being made.