The Rise and Fall of Popular Music
[A polemical history]
Broadway and the Golden Age of Songwriting
If the great songs of the first Tin Pan Alley period (c.1900-10) represent the peak of the popular songwriting that began in the English pleasure gardens of the eighteenth century, they also represent the end of it. These were parlour songs, to be played and sung at home as well as in public music halls. They consisted of any number of verses that told a story, and a chorus that summed up the story, or commented on it, and with which everybody was supposed to sing along.
Typical of these songs was 'Waltz Me Around Again, Willie' (1906), by Will Cobb and Ren Shields:
Willie Fitzgibbons who used to sell ribbons,
'Waltz me around again, Willie,
In another verse we learn that Willie De Vere is a dry-goods cashier who sits all day; his doctor tells him to get more exercise, so Willie Fitzgibbons hands him over to Madeline. This story-song construction survives in children's songs, campfire songs and folksongs; but the coon song, inspired by minstrelsy and ragtime, began to demonstrate its rhythmic freedom in its construction, adopting the rhythms as well as the words of the idiomatic slang of the street.
Shelton Brooks's 'Some of These Days', like 'Waltz Me Around Again, Willie', is from 1906, but it is deeply influenced by the earlier coon songs. It has rather ordinary verses, about two sweethearts in a country town who, 'the neighbors say, lived happily the whole day long, until one day he told her he must go away'; later it has a happy ending. But the verse has been ignored (as in Jimmy Rushing's driving recording from the mid-1950s, backed by a Buck Clayton big band), because in the meantime the chorus became an anthem of the new century:
Some of these days, you'll miss me honey,
This is a new kind of combination of words and melody. Although it is still about disappointed love, it is a warning, not a lament, conveying the sort of bravery that people have to find in their everyday lives, and a pride that is dented but not daunted.
Another, later pop song (from 1918) is 'After You've Gone', by the black songwriters Turner Layton and Henry Creamer:
Now listen honey while I say
After you've gone and left me cryin',
Creamer and Layton also wrote songs for musical shows. Layton teamed up with Clarence Johnstone when they both worked for W. C. Handy in 1923, and the following year worked in London. As Layton and Johnstone, with just a piano and a repertory of over a thousand songs, they were one of the most successful acts in British variety until 1935, when Johnstone was named co-respondent in a scandalous divorce suit. Creamer, from Virginia, also co-wrote 'Dear Old Southland', 'Way Down Yonder in New Orleans' and 'If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight', more songs which move further away from the barroom atmosphere of the coon song, but are filled with American demotic speech, and certainly have nothing of the parlour sweetness of the 'Sweet Sixteen' genre.
Creamer and Layton's 'After You've Gone' is an advance on 'Some of These Days', and an even better example of the new age of songwriting. The verse is more powerful and sophisticated, and less sentimental, but again it was the chorus that became famous. In 1937 Lionel Hampton skipped the verse and sang an affecting straight version of the chorus (backed by Art Rollini's tenor saxophone) before jazzing up the tune at double time, as if to say, 'Take that, baby!' But it is Bessie Smith's 1927 recording that is truly outstanding. In the chorus it seems that 'Some day when you grow lonely' is not going to fit, but she phrases it across the bar lines, and by contrast makes the single syllables in the next phrase, 'Your heart will break like mine', land like hammer blows. She also sings the verse, and her treatment of words like 'heart' and 'tears' is one of the keys to the interpretation of twentieth-century songs. Paradoxically, it was the ordinariness of powerfully rhyming phrases, married to a memorable tune, that lent the song to imaginative interpretation.
Although there may be several verses or stanzas in a modern song, it is all of a piece. An individual song may be technically divisible into sections such as introduction, verse, chorus, release or bridge and so forth, but modern songs are more integrated. Perhaps partly because of the explosion of a national entertainment business, a nationwide audience now had songs that referred more directly to the emotions, rather than telling a story. A new phenomenon was the frequency with which a song came to be identified with a certain artist (as 'Some of These Days' with Sophie Tucker), so that the interpretation could be almost as important as the song itself.
An increasingly sophisticated audience for these new songs was not foreseen, but as happens again and again in popular music, that part of the audience that delights in something new can drag along the rest. On the other hand, the new popular song was partly a triumph of the masses over the 'Sunday-school circuit', as Keith and Albee's national variety network was called. The success of variety in the late 1880s depended upon keeping it respectable, but the stars of the early twentieth century were such big attractions that they could give the audience a slice of real life. Instead of complaining that she was 'Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage', Eva Tanguay assured fans that 'It's All Been Done Before, But Not the Way I Do It'. When Tucker sang 'You're gonna miss me, honey', what the errant male was 'gonna miss' was not the sight of her looking sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.
Songs tended to have short introductions which would certainly be sung on stage, but were often dropped as gramophone records (with their limited playing time) took over from sheet music. From the ordinary listener's point of view, the introduction was a vestigial verse, setting the scene for the chorus, which now had several stanzas and tells the story, but the introduction was often musically important. Everybody knows the tune of 'Love Me or Leave Me' (1928), by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson; the hit recording by Ruth Etting includes the introduction, making the subsequent drop of nearly an octave between the words 'or' and 'leave' far more dramatic, as well as lending it musical sense. Billie Holiday in her 1941 recording also sings the introduction, but then ignores the drop in the first line of the chorus, improvises across it and restores it in the next line, 'You won't believe me': it is even more dramatic because we've had to wait for it.
Rodgers and Hammerstein's 'Hello Young Lovers' (from The King and I, 1951) needs its lovely introduction to justify its syrupy quality (and is a good example of a true show song, which doesn't work so well outside its intended context). Hoagy Carmichael's 'Stardust' has a beautiful introduction, which was omitted on all those smoochy dance band versions that were hits around 1940 (especially those of Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw). When Nat 'King' Cole restored it on an album track in 1957, the delightful shock took a 45 EP high in the Billboard singles chart, while Frank Sinatra recorded a version using just the introduction, in 1961.
In American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950 Alec Wilder states that the introduction to 'Stardust' was added only when the words were written by Mitchell Parish, but I don't know if that is true. The song was published in 1929; the first big hit recording, by Isham Jones with no words, was in 1930, but the uptempo instrumental recording made by the Chocolate Dandies, led by Don Redman, already used the introduction in 1928. But of course many songs have been written with no introduction at all: 'I Concentrate on You', 'Begin the Beguine', 'In the Still of the Night' and 'I've Got You Under My Skin', all by Cole Porter, are such consummate syntheses of words and music that they need no preface.
The terminology of songwriting is sometimes used confusingly by the authorities themselves. Although thousands of the new songs were in a thirty-two-bar AABA format, they were freely constructed in many ways, according to the genius of the songwriter, who, after all, was combining words and music in a new way. A song may or may not be divisible into these parts. For dramatic purposes a song often requires a bridge or release, separating the statement of the drama (corresponding to the old verse) from its resolution or commentary (the chorus). The bridge sometimes presents the composer or the arranger, and sometimes the singer, with an interesting problem; and a classic treatment of a bridge may become part of the song as we know it.
The verse came to be called the introduction to the chorus; and to make things thoroughly complicated, the labels on old 78s often carried the legend 'With Vocal Chorus' or 'Vocal Refrain'. (In poetry and in medieval and Renaissance music a refrain was a short chorus of one or two lines at the end of a verse or a stanza, so familiar that the audience was presumed to know it.) Jazz musicians use the word 'chorus' to mean a complete statement of the tune (without the introduction, typically thirty-two bars), as in 'Take another chorus.'
Songwriting in its golden age (c.1914-50) provided an astonishing variety of masterpieces that are popular around the world. They are often sorted into categories of theatre, film and pop. The work of some of the composers for the musical stage is consistently ranked among the greatest songwriting of all, and inspired the best of the rest, setting a standard to aim at. It is sometimes said that the reason for this is the greater pressure involved in writing a song that fits into a plot, but the plots of Broadway musicals were often little more than fluff, and too many fine songs have long outlasted their original settings. A more likely reason is that composers for the stage were literate and thoughtful artists, working in a genre with a long and honourable history, and were willing to have their tunes compared with those of Puccini or Verdi. Jerome Kern, perhaps the most important innovator of all, was influenced by operetta (born as he was in 1885), yet invented something new.
As with the invention of the popular song in the eighteenth century, however, modern writing for the musical stage happened the way it did and where it did, among the English-speaking peoples, because it had to fill a gap. Opera was big business in New York and Chicago in the nineteenth century, and a great many provincial towns had their local 'opera' houses (actually the local vaudeville palace). Once again foreign music became the preserve of the upper classes, while the hoi polloi was left to amuse itself. However tuneful (and indeed popular) the works of the great opera composers might be, America needed its own genre of musical drama.
The first performance on the American musical stage may have been in 1732, in Charleston, South Carolina. A masque by Francis Hopkinson called The Temple of Minerva was performed as part of a concert in Philadelphia in 1781, presented by the French minister in honour of George Washington. There may have been an opera called The Blockheads, or The Fortunate Contractor, published in 1782, said to be a burlesque of The Blockade of Boston, which had been written and mounted by the British General Burgoyne himself while he occupied that city. But little survives of these early productions. By the 1820s and 1830s comedies and operettas (usually with foreign settings) were contributing to a slowly simmering stew, but they were pastiches, and the music often had nothing to do with the action. The American musical show did not discover any native composers or a style of its own until the next century, but it did discover how to make money.
Laura Keene was a British-born actress and the first successful woman theatrical manager in the USA; she operated the Laura Keene Theatre, and commissioned the comedy Our American Cousin from an Englishman, Tom Taylor: it opened in 1858 and broke all the box office records of the time. (Another theatre manager, William Wheatley, hired people to attend the show and write down the entire script; he opened his production in Philadelphia, Keene sued, and the case was in the courts for years.) Then the new box-office records were broken by another Keene production, a spectacular with music called Seven Sisters in 1860, which was thought to have been the first 'leg show'. To the various strands of ballad opera and light opéra bouffe (such as Lingard presented) was now added the concept of the saucy evening, a pastiche with pretty girls whose costumes were such that the audience thought it was getting a lot of titillation. The music for Seven Sisters was probably written by Keene's music director, Thomas Baker; unfortunately, none of it survives.
[A digression: in 1865, Abraham Lincoln, who, one imagines, had seen the play in New York, asked Keene to come out of retirement to stage and act in Our American Cousin in Washington DC. Lincoln wanted to take a party to the theatre, including General U.S. Grant and his wife, but most of them begged off. It was this play Lincoln was watching when he was shot. John Wilkes Booth was familiar with the play and knew which line always drew the biggest laugh, waiting until that moment to pull the trigger.]
In 1866 came The Black Crook, for decades the most famous 'leg show' of all, and a step forward principally because it made so much money (though not for Baker, who wrote original music for it -- the Copyright Act of 1856 had secured performing rights in copyrighted drama for the owners, but not for authors). The phenomenon of The Black Crook was an accident: several theatres had burned down in New York, with the result that an imported French ballet company had no stage, so they joined a heavily written melodrama based on Carl Maria von Weber's romantic opera Der Freischütz (1821), creating a musical show full of grand spectacle. The theatre chosen was Niblo's Garden, managed by Wheatley, where the second-rate melodrama was already booked, a huge place seating 4000 people (Keene's had held only 1600). Notwithstanding the shortage of theatres, Niblo's was closed for several months before The Black Crook opened for excavation beneath its stage, so that it could move scenery downward as well as fly it upward.
The Black Crook was just another pastiche; the songs were changed regularly throughout the show's run, and none was a big hit. But the girls were good dancers. They were tall, and their costumes were padded in appropriate places to cater for the tastes of the time; they wore pink tights, but word spread (not discouraged by the management) that they were showing a great deal more flesh than was usual, and The Black Crook was supposed to be daring. The one song that remained as long as the show lasted was 'You Naughty, Naughty Men', which was not Baker's, but imported from England. It listed many of the faults of the male sex, only to conclude: 'But with all your faults we clearly / Love you wicked fellows dearly...' The show's combination of girls, costumes, dancing and expensive sets led to a run of 475 performances, outstanding for the time. David Costa was the choreographer, and one of the dancers, Marie Bonfanti, later worked as a choreographer herself until the end of the century. The most spectacular dances comprised a well-drilled chorus line of the 'Amazon march' variety, which dominated until the waltzes of Franz Lehár blew it away in the early 20th century.
One of the succeeding 'burlettas' was Lydia Thompson's British Blondes, starring Pauline Markham (mentioned in chapter 3); but for many years nothing much happened on the American musical stage of other than historical interest. Blondes and 'leg shows' became a staple, and the idea was to throw some songs and dances together and have a good time. The Black Crook was such a legend that it was revived a dozen times, until it was well and truly out of date.
The songs of Arthur Sullivan had some popularity in the USA, and the English operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan soon followed. Composer Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan and journalist Sir William Schwenck Gilbert collaborated on thirteen brilliant comic operettas which are still performed today, and both became very rich. Sullivan felt guilty about not pursuing more 'serious' composition; no one set English lyrics better than he did, but no less an authority than Queen Victoria told him he was wasting his time.
The first American performance of HMS Pinafore took place in Boston in November 1878, and in January it swept New York; by May it had played in twelve houses (up to three at once), sometimes with all-black and all-children casts. The absurd story sent up the Admiralty, as in Sir Joseph's patter song 'When I Was a Boy', as well as the romantic fiction that a well-born lady could fall in love with a simple sailor (who in the end turns out to be a runaway aristocrat). So loose were the copyright laws of the time, so successful the show and so terrible some of the American productions that in one edition Buttercup was played by a seven-foot tall female impersonator. Gilbert and Sullivan went across the Atlantic to produce Pirates of Penzance themselves at the end of the same year. 'With Cat-like Tread', the song of its delightful stage pirates, was a success all over America, with new lyrics, as 'Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here'. Major-General Stanley's patter song was 'I am the very model / Of a modern Major General.' Perhaps their best-known work is The Mikado (1885), which has a pseudo-Japanese setting and sends up bureaucracy; Poo-Bah resembles a certain type of British civil servant as much as a Japanese one (the portrait still rang true a century later), while 'A Wandering Minstrel', 'The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring' and 'Willow, Tit-willow' are still familiar, even to people who don't know where they came from.
These shows had plots, set-pieces, comedy and exotic settings in foreign places and earlier times, with sets and costumes to match; Sullivan's orchestrations were as good as his tunes, and all these parts added up to a whole that was like an opera rather than a pastiche, yet they were written in English, intended to be amusing and not too demanding for a middle-class audience. They helped establish an appetite for operetta in the USA. Franz Lehár was born in what was then Hungary; The Merry Widow was first produced in Vienna in 1905. Some of his shows were not produced in the USA at all, and he remained an operetta composer, famous for his waltzes. Others such as Victor Herbert, Rudolf Friml and Sigmund Romberg composed songs that transcended the genre to become American standards. The operetta form was stilted by later standards, but it was a model that could be modernized.
Born in Dublin, Herbert was an accomplished cellist and composer. He wrote about forty musical shows, of which the best known are Babes in Toyland (1903; filmed in 1934 with Laurel and Hardy); Mlle Modiste (1906; filmed in 1930), including 'Kiss Me Again'; Naughty Marietta (1910; the 1935 film made stars of the romantic duo Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald), with 'Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life'; and Orange Blossoms (1922), with 'A Kiss in the Dark'.
Friml was born in Prague. Among his biggest hits were Rose Marie (1924), whose book and lyrics were written by Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II; its enduring tunes are the title song and 'Indian Love Call'. It was filmed in 1936 with Allan Jones and also starred Eddy and MacDonald, as did the film of The Firefly in 1937. The Vagabond King was filmed as late as 1956, with Kathryn Grayson.
Romberg was born in Hungary. His Maytime was a hit in 1917, but the Shubert brothers apparently refused to take him seriously for a long time. (Sam, Lee and J.J., or Jake, Shubert were all born in the 1870s, sons of a pedlar who had fled tsarist pogroms; from 1900 they were the most influential theatre-owners in New York. Sam was killed in a train crash in 1905; Lee remained the best-known Shubert, but Jake's love for operetta was important.) Romberg's songs were dropped into various shows over the years, and Blossom Time did well in 1921, but it was The Student Prince (1924; filmed in 1954 with Mario Lanza) and The Desert Song (1926; filmed three times, in 1929, 1943 and 1953) which established Romberg. He wrote about fifty shows, and songs that became standards include 'Lover, Come Back to Me', 'Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise', 'When I Grow Too Old to Dream' and 'Close as Pages in a Book'.
No survey would be complete without George M. Cohan, a huge figure on Broadway but a unique one, who does not fit into any category. An all-round talent who came from a vaudeville family to be a singer, dancer, actor, composer, lyricist, director and producer, he had written 150 sketches by the time he was twenty-one. He wrote the most successful of all American First World War songs, 'Over There', for which he received the Congressional Medal of Honor, and was associated with about 35 plays, musicals and straight dramas, as writer or producer. His shows always had strong story lines and his dialogue contained plenty of demotic speech, making his characters credible; some of the same critics who complained that most Broadway productions were stilted and unbelievable also did not like Cohan's use of slang. Little Johnny Jones (1904) included 'Yankee Doodle Boy' ('I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy . . .') and 'Give My Regards to Broadway'. Several of his songs were big hits, among them 'Mary's a Grand Old Name', 'You're a Grand Old Flag' and 'Harrigan'. (Cohan had attended a funeral at which a folded flag was stroked sentimentally by a Civil War veteran, saying, 'You're a grand old rag.' Cohan changed the title of the song at the request of veterans' groups.) He was seen as the first to break away from the operetta style, but his dynamic, tub-thumping Americanism had no sequel. Cohan's Little Nellie Kelly (1922) was revived in 1940 as a film for Judy Garland. James Cagney won an Oscar portraying Cohan in the film biography Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942, and Joel Grey played him in the 1968 Broadway musical George M! (Little Johnny Jones was revived in 1984 starring Donny Osmond; it closed after one performance.)
While Cohan was in his prime, black Americans were already making a contribution to the stage that was to be far more influential in the end. By 1900 Harlem was already becoming the biggest black city on earth. It had been a middle-class self-contained community, in which tenement blocks were built to attract commuters from downtown; when the speculating builders were in danger of going out of business, racial prejudice did not keep them from renting to blacks. Before long the concentration of talent was so great that it exploded into the Harlem Renaissance of poetry and literature, an African-American influence in all the arts.
James Reese Europe (1881-1919) was a bandleader and organizer of concerts and musical clubs. Born in Alabama, he went to New York in 1905 and formed an association with the dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle, who were all the rage on the Broadway stage just before the First World War. During the war he led a US Army band and in 1918 took Paris by storm. His music was called jazz, which it was not; but he encouraged techniques of brass playing, for example, which he thought were racial characteristics, and then found that he had to rehearse his men to keep them from adding more to the music than he wanted. Widely admired in the black community, he would have had an even greater influence had he not been stabbed to death by a crazy musician in Boston.
Will Marion Cook (1869-1944) was a formally trained composer, conductor and violinist who had studied with Antonín Dvorák. His musical shows included Clorindy, or The Origin of The Cakewalk. (1898), In Dahomey (1903), starring Bert Williams and George Walker, and In Darkeydom (1914), which used Europe's band and the lyrics of the black poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar. In Dahomey, about the 'back to Africa' movement, was the first black show to open on Broadway itself; its long run in London was followed by a national American tour. It was the first part of a trilogy in which blacks commented on their own condition as Americans; the other two shows were Abyssinia (1907) and Bandana Land (1909), which also starred Williams and Walker. Cook's best-known composition is 'I'm Coming Virginia'. Will Vodery (1885-1951) led a band at a theatre roof garden in 1915, worked as an arranger for the Ziegfeld Follies for twenty years and was the first black to work as a music director for a film company (Fox, in the early 1930s). Cook and Vodery gave informal advice on harmony and composition to Duke Ellington.
The first black musical to be a big hit was Shuffle Along, in 1921. Two black vaudeville teams met in Philadelphia and created a libretto; they hired Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle to write the music, which was arranged by Vodery. The show featured Hall Johnson, who played violin in Europe's band and formed the Hall Johnson Choir in 1925; dancer Josephine Baker, who later went to Paris and became a European superstar; and Florence Mills, Harlem's biggest star. Mills's early sudden death was marked by a huge funeral, and she was immortalized in Duke Ellington's composition 'Black Beauty', as well as in the English composer Constant Lambert's 'Elegiac Blues'. It was Mills who sang the show's biggest hit, 'I'm Just Wild About Harry'; other songs included 'Love Will Find a Way' and 'Bandana Days'. Launched on a shoestring, tried out in one-night stands in Philadelphia and New Jersey and using costumes left over from a flop of 1919, Shuffle Along ran for more than five hundred performances, and visited a theatre in Chicago's Loop. Blake and Sissle's later shows, among them Chocolate Dandies (1924), were less well received, but both had long careers. Blake also wrote 'Memories of You' and 'You Were Meant for Me'. Sissle, who had worked for Europe, became a successful bandleader.
James P. Johnson's music for Runnin' Wild (1923) included 'Charleston', which launched one of the most famous dance fads of the century. Blackbirds of 1928 had an all-white score by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, and starred Adelaide Hall and Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson. Among its songs were 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love' and the hot rhythmic numbers 'Diga Diga Doo', 'Bandana Babies' and 'Doin' the New Low-down', all recorded by Duke Ellington on Victor; Don Redman made two recordings of 'Doin' the New Low-down', on one of which Robinson's tap-dancing may be heard. Harlem's greatest dancer, Robinson later taught Shirley Temple and danced with her on screen, and was commemorated in another Duke Ellington composition, 'Bojangles (A Portrait of Bill Robinson)'.
Hot Chocolates (1929) had begun as a floor show at Connie's Inn, by Andy Razaf and Fats Waller, who had contributed to the less popular Keep Shufflin' the year before. On Broadway Louis Armstrong played in the pit band and came on stage for a solo. 'Ain't Misbehavin' ' became one of Armstrong's and Waller's biggest hits, and the show ran for six months.
We will come back to some of these names. There were a score of other black shows in the 1920s, for example, Plantation Review, which included Mills, Vodery and Shelton Brooks. Elements of racism were evident in two kinds of reviews: white critics often compared black shows not with white shows, but with their own patronizing view of what a black show should be like; blacks sometimes criticized the shows for being too white. But the music and the dancing in all of them brought the flavour of jazz to Broadway: the tap-dancing, soft shoe, buck-and-wing and other routines put paid to the cakewalk once and for all, and were immediately influential on the part of Broadway that was further downtown. Florenz Ziegfeld knew a good thing when he saw it, and bought 'Ballin' the Jack' from a Harlem show to use in his own Follies in 1913; the next year there was a hit recording of it, and the tune was revived many times.
By then, the second generation of Tin Pan Alley songwriters was creating an American musical theatre. It was a phenomenon equal in importance to jazz itself in establishing the commercial dominance of American popular music in the twentieth century. Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Vincent Youmans, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and others broke the mould of operetta and turned the 'musical comedy' into something as American as baseball. Hundreds of the songs have been so popular for so long that the concept of the 'standard' had to be invented for them. Those named above are the most important creators of the American musical stage; of these, Berlin and Porter were the only ones who wrote both words and music, and Porter was the only one who was not born poor, and almost the only one who was not Jewish.
The nineteenth-century persecution of the Jews in eastern Europe was a turning point in world history in more ways than one. The plight of the Jews in the Russian Empire was so severe that the era saw the beginning of much modern history, including Zionism; but for our purposes the important thing was the emigration. The natural increase of the Jewish population was lost to Europe when large numbers of Jews settled in America: in the period of 1881-92 19,000 Jews a year went to the USA; in 1892-1903 the average number rose to 37,000 a year, and in 1903-14 to 76,000. The newcomers were huddled and crowded into poor neighbourhoods and sweatshops, but not for long. They organized themselves within a couple of generations, and New York became the largest Jewish city on earth. Apart from all their other accomplishments, succeeding generations of these new Americans yielded a considerable number of great entertainers (we have already met Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker and the Shuberts), and perhaps most of the best songwriters in the history of American songs.
Oscar Hammerstein II and others have recalled the occasion when Jerome Kern was thinking of writing a musical version of a popular novel by Donn Byrne, Messer Marco Polo. It was a book by an Irishman set in China about an Italian. 'What kind of music are you going to write?' someone asked. 'Don't worry,' said Kern. 'It'll be good Jewish music.'
Jerome David Kern was born and died in New York City. Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cakewalk (1898) had been 'the first Negro operetta in the new syncopated style'; six years later its white producer, Edward Everett Rice, gave Kern his first theatrical assignment: writing additional songs for a show called Mr Wix of Wickham. The teenage Kern was a song plugger in Wanamaker's department store and wanted to move; Ernest Ball advised him to go not to Witmark, Ball's publisher at the time, but to T.B. Harms, on the grounds that Witmark was a large house, where a young composer would get lost in the shuffle, whereas Harms was not doing as well.
Perhaps Ball had spotted the great Max Dreyfus, at Harms, as the giant he would become. It was Dreyfus who sent Kern to work in London in 1905. In early 1906, at the age of twenty-one, Kern had twelve songs performed in five theatres, his patrons including some of the most powerful producers in the business, such as Charles Frohman. Kern's first hit, 'How'd You Like To Spoon With Me?', was turned down by Frohman's New York manager in 1905, but was accepted by the Shuberts, and later by Frohman himself in London. Frohman was an American whose interest in British hit shows was entirely practical; it was in London at this time that some of the most innovative work was being done in turning the operetta into the modern musical show.
In November 1899 Florodora, with music mostly by Leslie Stuart and lyrics by Stuart and three other writers, had opened in London, where it had 455 performances; it opened in November 1900 in New York and, unusually for the time, ran even longer in the USA, for over 500 performances, thanks to its hit song 'Tell Me Pretty Maiden', which was performed by pairs of parasol-twirling girls and straw-hatted boys. It was the first musical show to be recorded by its original cast, on 7-inch Berliner 78s in England in 1900; an American recording of 'Maiden' by the 'Florodora Girls' was a huge hit in 1901. Clearly inspired by minstrelsy in its rhythms and its near-jazz tunes, it was itself profoundly influential on American composers. It is no coincidence that In Dahomey was a hit in London in 1903; without the complicated feelings of the Americans towards blacks, British showgoers may have been able to embrace it the more wholeheartedly. In the exciting English musical atmosphere, Kern's collaborating lyricists included George Grossmith (performer, author and later a renowned producer, whose father had been a famous leading man in Gilbert and Sullivan shows) and P.G. Wodehouse (one of the great humorists, and prose stylists, of the century).
Kern married an English girl and returned to New York in 1910. Dreyfus continued to find him writing assignments: about a hundred Kern songs were interpolated into various Broadway shows, while Wodehouse continued to be one of his collaborators; Kern's own first show was The Red Petticoat in 1912. He wrote several songs for a show imported from England, The Girl from Utah (1914), among them 'They Didn't Believe Me' (lyrics by Herbert Reynolds), generally considered to be his first masterpiece. However successful the songs of Victor Herbert or George M. Cohan, they soon became period pieces, but 'They Didn't Believe Me' was different: having no cliché-ed elements, but a key change and other innovations in construction, it was naturally shapely and made most Tin Pan Alley hits sound like jingles. It was like an art song, yet singable and memorable, the aim of the popular songwriter since the time of Thomas Arne.
Kern was a craftsman, trying to write something of which he could be proud, as well as making money. He was also the first great genius of the genre, and popular music could never be the same again. He wrote or substantially contributed to thirty-seven Broadway shows, for example Sally (1920), whose lyrics by Buddy DeSylva included 'Look for the Silver Lining', a distinctive song with a hymn-like quality, and Sonny (1925), with Harbach and Hammerstein. One of its songs, 'Who?', is unusual in that the first note is held for two and a quarter bars ('Who . . . stole my heart away?'); it was used in several films, and recorded by Tommy Dorsey (1937), among others.
In 1927, though, Kern made yet another advance on the Broadway musical. The songs had been the main element, closely followed by the dancing and the sets, while the plots were usually insignificant. Show Boat, however, was based on a novel by Edna Ferber, with a believable plot and characters. It contained such songs (with lyrics by Hammerstein) as 'Make Believe', 'Why Do I Love You?', 'Ol' Man River' and 'Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man'. It was the first great American musical show; it was filmed in 1929 and 1936, and a new full-length recording of it in 1988 restored the original orchestration by Robert Russell Bennett. (Bennett deserves to be better known. A composer hired by Dreyfus and put in charge of arranging the firm's theatre music, he worked on so many hit shows that he helped shape the very sound of Broadway, from Show Boat and the biggest hits of Rodgers and Hammerstein to Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady.)
What Kern wrote in Show Boat was perhaps the best of all operettas; his finest songs were still to come. Roberta (1933), with lyrics by Harbach, did not get good reviews; one critic wrote: 'There's no tune you can whistle when you leave the theatre.' This was the show that contained 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes', 'The Touch of Your Hand' and 'Yesterdays'. Kern's writing had moved well beyond the simplicity required in the English pleasure gardens, but the public is often underestimated. Like many composers for the stage, Kern tried to insist on the restriction of his music from broadcasting for six months, but he changed his mind when the plugging of 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes' made a hit out of the show. The film version in 1935 added 'Lovely to Look At' and 'I Won't Dance'; it was filmed again in 1952 as Lovely to Look At.
Kern wrote songs for several original films, among them Swing Time (1936), with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, which included 'The Way You Look Tonight', 'Pick Yourself Up' and 'A Fine Romance' (lyrics by Dorothy Fields), as well as the instrumental 'Waltz in Swingtime'. Other Kern film songs are 'The Last Time I Saw Paris' (lyrics by Hammerstein) for Lady Be Good (1941, adapted from the 1924 Gershwin show) and 'Long Ago and Far Away' for Cover Girl (1944, lyrics by Ira Gershwin).
New harmonic devices and suggestions of additional harmonic resources led to the adoption of the modern Broadway show song as a vehicle for the interpretation of jazz musicians. Kern's 'The Way You Look Tonight' and 'A Fine Romance' were among Billie Holiday's most beautiful recordings, and Charles Mingus interpolated 'All the Things You Are' with a Rachmaninov prelude to make the dramatic 'All the Things You C Sharp' in 1955. Indeed, such outstanding songwriters as Johnny Green ('Body and Soul'), Arthur Schwartz ('Dancing in the Dark', 'You and the Night and the Music') and Harry Warren (film hits without number) considered 'All the Things You Are', from the show Very Warm for May (1939), to be one of the greatest songs ever written. Not only does it change key, but its unexpected notes suggest more key changes all the way through. Even Kern was afraid that its construction would be too much for the public, but it was one of his biggest hits.
Kern's work appeared to reflect the times he lived in, yet turned out to be timeless: 'All in Fun' (also from Very Warm for May) seemed to hark back to the more happy-go-lucky songs Kern was writing around the time of the First World War, but the bitter-sweet harmony made it sound more modern. And this was years after George Gershwin claimed to be imitating Kern, and the schoolboy Richard Rodgers had spent all his pocket money at matinees, seeing Kern shows over and over again. Kern died suddenly, in the street in 1945, without any identification in his pockets; it was some hours before the world knew what it had lost. He left no autobiography and no revealing interviews, deepening the mystery of where such mastery of craft came from.
George Gershwin, still one of the world's most popular composers more than fifty years after his death, was an excellent pianist. Influenced by jazz, he was one of the few great songwriters who sought out black entertainers and musicians to listen to for pleasure. He was taking American music into unexplored areas when he died of a brain tumour in 1937.
The family acquired a piano when George was twelve; having shown little interest in music, he surprised everyone by quickly becoming proficient. His first hit song was an untypical potboiler: 'Swanee', as we have seen, was picked up by Al Jolson in 1919; it sold a million copies of sheet music and two million records by various artists. Gershwin wrote for George White's Scandals for several years, collaborating with DeSylva and others, but more and more with his brother Ira (who, until he proved himself, worked under the name Arthur Francis). Ira became one of the finest American lyricists. Their first show together was Lady Be Good (1924), with Fred and Adele Astaire, which offered 'Fascinatin' Rhythm', the title song 'Oh, Lady Be Good!' and, originally, 'The Man I Love' (which, dropped from three shows, still became a standard).
Songs for other shows included 'That Certain Feeling', 'Someone to Watch Over Me', 'How Long Has This Been Going On?', ''S Wonderful', and 'Liza'. Girl Crazy (1930) was very rich: 'Bidin' My Time', 'But Not For Me', 'Embraceable You' and 'I Got Rhythm', from the chords of which more jazz tunes have been derived than perhaps any other. Strike Up the Band in 1927 failed in its Philadelphia tryout, despite the title song and 'I've Got a Crush On You'. It had an excellent book by George S. Kaufman, one of Broadway's most acerbic wits, but its anti-war, anti-government message was too strong. It was watered down in 1930 on Broadway and had a six month run. Gershwin's film work included two Fred Astaire pictures: A Damsel in Distress and Shall We Dance (both 1937), which yielded 'A Foggy Day', 'Nice Work If You Can Get It', 'Shall We Dance?', 'They Can't Take That Away From Me' and 'Let's Call the Whole Thing Off'. The film Goldwyn Follies in 1938 contained 'Love Walked In' and 'Love is Here to Stay'.
His more ambitious compositions had begun in 1924. Already famous, he was commissioned by Paul Whiteman to write Rhapsody in Blue for piano and jazz band, for a concert at the Aeolian Hall to celebrate American music. The concert began with 'Livery Stable Blues', introduced apologetically by Whiteman 'as an example of the depraved past from which modern jazz has risen', according to Olin Downes in The New York Times, who added, 'The apology is herewith indignantly rejected, for this is a gorgeous piece of impudence, much better . . . than other and more polite compositions that came later.' Downes was not a jazz critic, but he was sensibly unimpressed by what he had heard of its co-option.
The concert continued with piano novelties by Zez Confrey, taken for jazz by the audience, and a large helping of Whiteman's dance band music. The second half opened with Herbert's specially commissioned Suite of Serenades, hastily put together from the scraps that any composer has in his trunk. It was followed by Edward MacDowell's 'To a Wild Rose' (1896), Friml's 'Chansonette' (later popular as 'Donkey Serenade') and more; members of the audience were looking at their watches as the penultimate piece on the programme began.
Herbert had helped Gershwin with the piece, advising a longer piano introduction to the main themes to add to its drama. Rhapsody in Blue caused a sensation. It was apparently Ross Gorman's idea to play the clarinet introduction as a glissando, instead of seventeen separately tongued notes, and this was enough to stop the audience leaving. At the end they must have left feeling as though they had heard an entire evening of the best in modern American music (despite the concert's closing piece, one of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance marches). The Rhapsody is still one of the most popular of American compositions; it seemed to have come from nowhere, but it had been preceded by Gershwin's own 'Blue Monday' / '135th Street' (1922) to say nothing of Milhaud's ballet Le boeuf sur le toit (1919). Yet Rhapsody in Blue was and is problematical. There is such a thing as a jazz composer, but a jazz composer is a jazz musician first, and Gershwin was not. The piece is diffuse and structurally weak, and too much of a piano showcase. Nevertheless, it has some unforgettable melodies, and one would like to have heard that first performance, with Gershwin's improvisation (the piano part was not fully written out) and Gorman's free, mocking interpretation of the clarinet part. Various arrangements were made, all by Whiteman's arranger, Ferde Grofé; the one that is usually heard is the grandest, but Grofé's original, played in 1924, is among the best.
Gershwin's piano roll recordings include an arrangement for solo piano of the Rhapsody. Whiteman's band at the Aeolian Hall (in Grofé's first arrangement) had twenty-two players, but Rhapsody in Blue is usually played by a symphony orchestra. One of the more interesting recordings of the Rhapsody was made by RCA's artists and repertoire (A&R) executive Hugo Winterhalter in the early 1950s, with the excellent Byron Janis at the piano, a performance which tried to get away from the symphonic feeling and to make the piece swing. Critics such as Max Harrison in England campaigned for years for a more sensible treatment; finally Michael Tilson Thomas recorded the original version, using Gershwin's suitably edited piano roll, and was followed by Simon Rattle and others.
Gershwin continued to compose piano preludes and pieces for orchestra, as well as the great songs. He orchestrated the Concerto in F for piano and orchestra himself in 1925; it is better realized in its structure than the Rhapsody, and it too contains good tunes, especially in the bluesy slow movement. The delightful An American in Paris was recorded in 1928 by Nat Shilkret, with the original French taxi horns and Gershwin playing celesta, and was used in a film of the same title in 1951. (The film spoiled the music: Gershwin may not have pandered to the public, but Hollywood almost always did.)
It was Gershwin's masterpiece, Porgy and Bess, which suffered most from tampering, so that it did not emerge as the first successful American opera until the 1970s. DuBose Heyward's novel, inspired by a crippled beggar called Samuel Smalls, or 'Goat Sammy', had been successfully dramatized by his wife, Dorothy, who changed the completely downbeat ending to one offering an open-ended sort of hope, as Porgy sets off for New York in his goat-cart to look for Bess; the new ending was used in Gershwin's version. Gershwin spent some time with Heyward in Charleston's Cabbage Row slum and on Folly Beach off the Carolina coast, resting and relaxing as well as soaking up the Gullah dialect of the local black population. Heyward and Gershwin worked together by post, and brought Ira in to help with the lyrics. It was an unusually harmonious collaboration for a musical show, but the first run of the piece lost money in 1935-6, partly because of the public's confusion over what it expected from Gershwin. In 1918 Otto Kahn, then chairman of the Metropolitan Opera, had proposed the idea of an American opera to Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and Gershwin; Berlin knew he was not qualified, while Kern hinted that Gershwin was a likely candidate. But by the time Gershwin got around to it, the Metropolitan Opera was not interested, while the USA had no equivalent of European comic opera or folk opera venues and Broadway was not ready to have its horizon expanded.
John W. 'Bubbles' Sublett (of the black vaudeville team Buck and Bubbles) played Sportin' Life, a flashy drug pedlar, in the first production; he was troublesome in rehearsal, but brilliant on stage. A revised version in 1942 ran longer than any revival had up to then. Sportin' Life had allegedly been written with Cab Calloway in mind, who played it in performances in the 1950s; a film was made in 1959 with Sammy Davis, Jr, as Sportin' Life. The songs, including 'Summertime', 'I Loves You, Porgy', 'I Got Plenty o' Nuttin' ' and 'Bess, You is My Woman Now', had long since become standards by the time the original score was restored, as orchestrated by Gershwin and with recitatives instead of spoken dialogue. A concert version conducted by Lorin Maazel in 1975 and a production conducted by John DeMain in Houston, Texas, in 1976 were recorded; Edward Greenfield, writing in Gramophone magazine, compared Porgy to Alban Berg's Wozzeck and Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes as a great modern portrait of human nature. The Glyndebourne Festival's production in England in 1986 was a triumph; it was recorded in 1989, conducted by Simon Rattle, with Willard White and Cynthia Haymon in the title roles and Damon Evans as Sportin' Life.
'The rest of us were songwriters,' said Irving Berlin. 'George was a composer.' If the greatest twentieth-century songs have not only been memorable and singable, but have also lent themselves to interpretation by the greatest of jazzmen, then Gershwin's songs alone would have earned him immortality; but Porgy and Bess has revealed him as a great 'serious' composer as well. This late recognition is better than none: he was not yet thirty-nine when he died, and his is among the greatest unfinished careers in music.
Vincent Youmans was another composer who had a relatively short career. He was a poor businessman and hopeless as his own producer; he changed lyricists for each of his twelve shows, some of which were failures; he published only ninety-three songs, yet a handful of them are standards. No, No, Nannette (1925) was a smash hit, perhaps the quintessential 1920s show; Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach wrote the lyrics of 'Tea for Two' and 'I Want to be Happy'. Oh, Please (1926) was a flop though it included 'I Know That You Know', with Harbach. Hit the Deck (1927), another success, contained 'Sometimes I'm Happy' and 'Hallelujah' (written as a march while Youmans was in the U.S. Navy), with lyrics by Caesar. Great Day! (1929) was again a disaster, but yielded 'Without a Song' and 'More Than You Know', with lyrics by Billy Rose. Smiles (1930) offered 'Time on My Hands', with Harold Adamson and Mack Gordon, but lost money in spite of being produced by Ziegfeld. Youmans went to Hollywood, where his only successful picture was Flying Down To Rio in 1933, the first film to team Astaire with Ginger Rogers; it included the title song, 'The Carioca' and 'Orchids in the Moonlight'. He went bankrupt and fell ill with tuberculosis. 'Tea for Two' is one of Variety's top hundred Tin Pan Alley songs, and it rivals Gershwin's 'I Got Rhythm' as the tune that most inspired the era's jazz musicians; Fats Waller may have found 'Honeysuckle Rose' in it.
Another mysterious talent, an enigma in every way, is the songwriter whom every other composer in the business has admired: Irving Berlin. He was born Israel Baline in Russia, and his family settled in New York in the 1890s. He worked as a singing waiter and then a song plugger. His name was changed by a printer's error on his first published song, 'Marie from Sunny Italy'.
Many of the great songwriters of the golden age of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley had studied music formally and were familiar with classical music. They were influenced by ragtime, then jazz; they influenced jazzmen in turn, writing songs which were worthwhile vehicles for new interpretations and improvisation. Most of them could read music and play the piano well. (Kern and Friml, also a good pianist, were sometimes mildly annoyed when not asked to play at a party, because Gershwin, the best pianist, was willing to play all evening.) Irving Berlin did not have any of these qualifications; he is unique. He had no formal studies and never learned to read or write music well, but hired an arranger to write down his songs and to harmonize them. He did not like jazz or 'swing bands', and he had a piano built with a lever to shift the keyboard so that he could play in more than one key. A devoted family man who valued his privacy, he did not go to many parties. Berlin should have been a hack; his only object was to have a hit, and his measure of a song's quality was whether it made money.
Another unusual thing about Berlin's songs is that they leave no fingerprints. It is possible -- we think -- to tell a Kern song or a Gershwin song, but each Berlin song seems to have come out of nowhere. Yet Berlin not only wrote good songs, he did so in every category. There could be said to be broadly three types of songs from this era -- show songs, film songs and pop hits -- but Berlin was actually a master of four types, for he began with a knack for writing unusually catchy, cheerful Tin Pan Alley ditties which were hits well before the First World War, and when Tin Pan Alley became more sophisticated, his skill became more than a knack. Berlin favoured sentimentality, and his lyrics are not as witty as Lorenz Hart's or Cole Porter's, and never cynical at all; he wrote some that are almost corny, and a few tub-thumpers. Yet he usually held it all in check, rarely going over the top, creating a great many unpretentious songs which are still uniquely memorable, generations later.
Furthermore, the arranging and harmonizing of his songs for publication, under his close supervision, never failed to impress other composers. Although he could not do it himself, he seemed to know more about harmony instinctively than others did after years of study. If the harmony that he hired displeased him, he would pester his assistant until he got what he wanted, and his taste was invariably impeccable. His work had such variety in it and was of such consistently high quality that he was regarded by his peers as representing American popular music all by himself.
Berlin sang his own songs on Broadway in 1910, and was already world-famous before the First World War for 'Alexander's Ragtime Band'. In 1909 he had gone to work as a song plugger and lyric writer for Ted Snyder. When 'Alexander' had sold two million copies of sheet music by the end of 1911, Snyder's manager, Henry Waterson, formed the firm of Waterson, Berlin and Snyder, which provided Berlin with his transposing piano. His first helper was Max Winslow, who offered tips as Berlin picked out his tunes. Winslow was also a superb vocal coach, and helped many female variety artists develop their musical personalities, as well as make hits of Berlin's songs; he became known as the man who discovered Irving Berlin, and his girl singers were known as 'Winslow's singles'. When Berlin complained about the royalties Waterson paid, Winslow suggested they start their own firm, whereupon Berlin's royalties tripled.
When he was drafted, the newspaper headline was 'Army Takes Berlin'. He organized a soldier revue in 1918, Yip Yip Yaphank, which included the hit 'Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning' and another song that even he thought was over the top: he put it aside, but gave it to Kate Smith in 1938, and 'God Bless America' became a second national anthem. Smith was a popular soprano on radio, and later on television; her recording of 'God Bless America' was a hit in 1939, and again in 1940 and 1942. 'God Bless America' was written by an immigrant who came from utter poverty and who had much reason to love America; he gave away all the royalties.
Among Berlin's other early hits were 'Everybody's Doing It (Now)' (1911), sung by Eddie Cantor (another singing waiter who became one of America's most popular entertainers), 'When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam', 'I Want to Go Back to Michigan', 'Play a Simple Melody' (which contains its own countermelody) and many other charmers which ought to be revived more often. In 1912 Berlin had married Dorothy Goetz (sister of songwriter-producer Ray Goetz, who wrote 'For Me and My Gal'). After she died of typhus a few months later, he wrote 'When I Lost You', his first tender, sentimental ballad.
Berlin had initially used collaborators, but soon wrote his own words. 'A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody' came in 1919, 'All Alone' in 1924. He began buying back the rights to his earlier work and eventually owned virtually all his own songs. He built his own theatre, the Music Box, and presented revues there in the 1920s. Berlin married Ellin MacKay, against the wishes of her wealthy Catholic father, and during the difficult courtship he wrote 'What'll I Do?' He gave her the royalties to 'Always' (1925) as a wedding present. The press chased the couple across the Atlantic and back. MacKay later lost money in the stock market, and found that his son-in-law was richer than he was.
Berlin's songs were not usually natural material for jazzmen, but some were so good they could not be left out: 'Blue Skies' (1927) was later recorded by Benny Goodman in a Fletcher Henderson arrangement; 'Marie' (1929) became one of the biggest hits of the Swing Era for Tommy Dorsey; in 1949 Count Basie made a delightful recording of 'Cheek to Cheek' (1935) (probably arranged by Don Redman). 'How Deep Is the Ocean?', a ballad, was later recorded by Coleman Hawkins, Erroll Garner, Charlie Parker and many other jazzmen, and 'Say It Isn't So' was almost as successful.
On the other hand, Berlin's 'Easter Parade' was instantly old-fashioned, yet an unforgettable hit, a perfect example of how he could celebrate the American appetite for nostalgia and sentimentality. The tune sounds as though it has always existed, and its marriage of words and melody keeps it on the safe side of pure corn. It was first heard in As Thousands Cheer in 1933 (Marilyn Miller and Clifton Webb sang it stepping out of a sepia photograph, as from a rotogravure newspaper section); then in 1948 was the title song of a film with Berlin's music, starring Fred Astaire and Judy Garland.
Berlin's other film work included two other Astaire pictures, Top Hat (1935), with 'Cheek to Cheek' and 'Top Hat, White Tie and Tails' and Follow the Fleet (1936), with 'Let's Face the Music and Dance'. On the Avenue, starring Dick Powell (1937), included 'You're Laughing at Me' and 'I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm'; Fats Waller had a hilarious hit with the former, and the latter immediately became a standard (an instrumental recording by Les Brown in 1948 was regarded as the last number one hit of the Swing Era). Holiday Inn (1942) contained 'Happy Holiday', 'Be Careful, It's My Heart' and 'White Christmas', which was voted best film song at the Academy Awards that year; Berlin presented his Oscar to himself, saying, 'This goes to a nice guy; I've known him all my life.' (Bing Crosby's record of 'White Christmas' sold millions every year for decades, and the various recordings of it were said to have sold more than 225 million by 1976.)
Jerome Kern had been hired to write a show to be put on in 1946; when he died, producers Rodgers and Hammerstein hired Berlin instead. The show, Annie Get Your Gun, had more hits than any other in history, and presents almost a cross-section of Berlin's work: 'They Say It's Wonderful' and 'I Got the Sun in the Morning' would have been quite suitable for the pop charts of the time; 'Doin' What Comes Natur'ly' is an attempt at a hillbilly feeling; 'The Girl That I Marry' is a sentimental song in 3/4 time, harking back to the turn of the century; and 'There's No Business Like Show Business', which has belonged ever since to Ethel Merman, the show's star, is a tub-thumper like Cohan's 'Give My Regards to Broadway'.
All these represent only the highlights of Berlin's accomplishment. He controlled his own material, to the extent that he would not allow Alec Wilder to quote from it in his American Popular Song, and he always refused permission for a dramatized biography on stage or screen. He died, over one hundred years old, as this book was being written, our last link with Tin Pan Alley before the First World War.
Cole Porter was a late starter, and his well-to-do family did not approve of his chosen vocation even after he reached the top of it. He studied law, but dabbled in music; he went to France and served in the French army during the First World War. In 1919 he married a wealthy woman and settled in Paris, where he was at the centre of one of the richest club scenes the world has ever seen. He became a close friend of the legendary hostess Bricktop, a red-haired American black woman whose real name was Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith. She went to France in 1924, and her club, Chez Bricktop in Rue Pigalle, was frequented by the Prince of Wales, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, among others. Porter wrote 'Miss Otis Regrets' for Bricktop and for his friend Monty Woolley, who sang it in a film.
Porter's first hit came in 1929 with 'I'm in Love Again', written in 1924. His shows began with Paris in 1928, with 'Let's Do It' (saucy lyrics were later added by Noel Coward). Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929) included 'You Do Something to Me' and Wake Up and Dream (1929) yielded 'What is This Thing Called Love?' He returned to the USA in the early 1930s. A horse fell on him in 1937, shattering both his legs; the sophisticated world-traveller was a semi-invalid for the rest of his life, and underwent surgery many times in attempts to save his legs. His right leg was amputated in 1958, after which he became even more reclusive, but his work was complete by then.
Some of his songs were suggested by events or by others' remarks, such as 'It's De-lovely' (a sunrise in Rio), or written for vocalists of limited range, such as 'Miss Otis Regrets', and 'Night and Day' (for Fred Astaire). 'Don't Fence Me In' was written as a send-up, but became the best Hollywood cowboy song of all, thanks to his lyrics.
Kern was the godfather of the modern musical show; Berlin wrote both tunes and lyrics; Gershwin was a great composer whose life was tragically short. Porter's tunes alone would have put him in this company, but the literary sophistication of his lyrics, worn lightly, made him a Rodgers and Hart all by himself. There are differences: Hart was unlucky in love, and his lyrics are often bitter-sweet, while Porter's words can fairly be said to represent the essence of the 1930s. Yet no one has surpassed Porter in making great songs of popular speech. A great many songs today are based on cliché, but Porter could write 'Don't Fence Me In', 'Night and Day', 'I Get a Kick Out of You', 'Just One of Those Things', 'I've Got You Under My Skin', 'In the Still of the Night' and many more, and over fifty years later the clichés may as well have been invented by the songwriter himself, so completely do they belong to him. Here is one of the best examples in all music of a tune and the vernacular combining, complete with an introduction and internal rhymes in the stanzas:
My story is much too sad to be told,
I get no kick from champagne;
Some get a kick from cocaine;
I get a kick every time I see you
I get no kick in a plane.
Among Porter's shows and songs are The New Yorkers (1930), including 'Love for Sale', whose sympathetically adult lyrics were often banned from the airwaves, and The Gay Divorce (1932), including 'Night and Day'; it was filmed as The Gay Divorcée in 1934. Anything Goes (1934) contained the title song, 'I Get a Kick Out of You', 'All Through the Night' and 'You're the Top', and is one of the richest scores of the decade and the most typical 1930s musical. The show was being rehearsed with a libretto by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse, but the plot, about a shipwreck, had to be abandoned when a cruise liner caught fire off the New Jersey coast, killing 125 people. Bolton and Wodehouse were not available, so the producer introduced director Howard Lindsay and press agent Russel Crouse, whose new book for the show was the first from one of Broadway's most successful writing partnerships. Porter's recording of 'You're the Top', accompanying himself on the piano, was something of a hit record; two lines in the song had to be changed ('I shouldn't care for those nights in the air / That the fair Mrs Lindbergh goes through') when the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped and murdered.
Jubilee (1935) offered 'Just One of Those Things' and 'Begin the Beguine', and the film Born to Dance (1936) 'Easy to Love' and 'I Get a Kick Out of You'; 'In the Still of the Night' came from Rosalie (1937). Leave It to Me (1938) was the show in which Sophie Tucker played the wife of the ambassador to the Soviet Union, and sang 'Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love (They just like to kick it around)'. The score also included the dramatic 'Get Out of Town', but the show was stolen by Mary Martin, making her Broadway debut. She sang 'My Heart Belongs to Daddy' while sitting on a trunk at a Siberian railway station, slowly doffing her garments while rhyming 'Daddy' with 'caddie' and 'finnan haddie'. Alec Wilder thinks that the quality of Porter's work declined because of his agonizing physical condition, and certainly the later songs are not on the whole so fine, but perhaps only compared with the best of Porter. His last show was Silk Stockings in 1955.
Other Porter film projects were Broadway Melody of 1940, which contained 'I Concentrate On You' and reintroduced 'Begin the Beguine' after Artie Shaw's legendary hit record. Something to Shout About in 1943 had 'You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To'. High Society (1956) had a cast of such glittering stars as Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, but the quality of the songs had definitely deteriorated: 'Well, Did You Evah!' was resuscitated from the 1939 show Du Barry Was a Lady (which also offered 'Do I Love You?' and was filmed in 1943); 'Now You Has Jazz' was simply silly, and the syrupy Crosby and Kelly duet 'True Love' made a Porter song a pop hit just as Elvis Presley was turning the world upside down. The film Les Girls (1957) was a disappointment. Night and Day (1946), a film biography of Porter starring Cary Grant, was so bad that Porter roared with laughter at it.
Anyone who has recognized the names of these songs will recognize them as being among the greatest of the century. Any younger readers whose musical experience has been too anaemic should get to know them. They have never been far away, but today's songs are so thin, and popular music has developed into such a rich repertory, that most of them are revived again and again. Mick Hucknall of the British pop group Simply Red sang Porter's 'Every Time We Say Goodbye', while the Irish cabaret artist Mary Coughlan revived 'The Laziest Girl in Town'. The songs of that era will keep coming back: the great lyricists grew up before television and even before radio, so their speech had not been debased by advertising jingles and third-rate entertainment.
The songwriters who as a team were the equal of Cole Porter were composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart. Rodgers wrote his first song at the age of eleven, and saw Kern's Very Good Eddie at fourteen; he later said, 'Life began for me at 2.30', curtain time for Saturday matinees. In 1918 the punctual, well-groomed Rodgers met the bohemian Hart, who was adapting and translating German and Viennese operettas for the Shubert brothers; his adaptation of Ferenc Molnar's novel and play Liliom was a success, but Hart, on salary, received little credit. Rodgers and Hart's first hit came when 'Manhattan' was put into The Garrick Gaieties in 1925, along with 'Mountain Greenery'. They were signed up by a publisher and with five shows running in 1926 were suddenly each making $1,000 a week. Rodgers used unusual chords, and would write a thirty-two-bar verse with a sixteen-bar chorus instead of the other way round; it was hard to get Hart to work, but then he quickly wrote love songs with wit.
Some of the songs from the shows of 1926 to 1930 were 'The Blue Room', 'My Heart Stood Still', 'You Took Advantage of Me', 'With a Song in My Heart', 'Ten Cents a Dance' and 'Dancing on the Ceiling'. Jumbo (1935) was produced by showman Billy Rose in the Hippodrome, a big old venue that was near the end of its life and had begun by sheltering circuses; the show had so many animals in it that Actor's Equity classed it as a circus. It also had Paul Whiteman's band, Jimmy Durante and three classic songs: 'Little Girl Blue', 'The Most Beautiful Girl in the World' and 'My Romance'. Jumbo cost so much to put on that it lost half its investment; the 1962 film (Doris Day's last musical) was also a disaster.
On Your Toes (1936) gave us 'There's a Small Hotel'; Babes in Arms (1937) had 'Where or When', 'The Lady Is a Tramp', 'My Funny Valentine' and 'I Wish I Were In Love Again', one of the best-known Hart lyrics:
When love congeals,
A lesser songwriter might not have bothered with the fourth line, which adds to the wit and suspends the whole verse in mid-air, allowing the last line a bit more punch when it comes.
Pal Joey (1940) included 'I Could Write a Book' and 'Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered'; the film version in 1957, with Frank Sinatra, added 'The Lady Is a Tramp'. Rodgers and Hart's film work in the early 1930s was less successful, except for Love Me Tonight (1932), with Maurice Chevalier, which contained 'Mimi' and 'Isn't It Romantic?' This was one of the first truly innovative musical films, directed by Rouben Mamoulian; in the opening sequence 'Isn't It Romantic?' was so tied to the action on screen that Hart had to rewrite the lyrics for the song's publication. (The song also became the title song of another film in 1948.) 'Blue Moon' never made it into a play or a film, but still became a classic.
Hart was small of stature, an alcoholic and unlucky in love; he died of pneumonia a few weeks after attending the premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! in 1943. Like Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II had attended Columbia University before turning to the theatre; he wrote and acted in Columbia varsity shows and began as a stage manager for his impresario grandfather (hence 'II'; his father William managed one of Oscar I's theatres). He had written with Friml, Romberg, Youmans, Gershwin, Harbach, Herbert Stothart, Arthur Schwartz and Harold Arlen. Unlike Hart, he was always asleep by midnight, but had to work hard on his lyrics; like Hart, he achieved apparent spontaneity in his words, and was floundering in the early 1940s.
Rodgers and Hart's are the greater songs; Hart was one of the finest of all lyricists writing in English in the twentieth century, while Hammerstein was basically an operetta lover with a sentimental streak. But Rodgers and Hammerstein's shows marked an advance on Kern in musical theatre. For Oklahoma! the book as well as the lyrics were written by Hammerstein (based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs), and the songs propelled the action rather than distracting the audience from a soon-to-be-forgotten plot: with 'Oh, What a Beautiful Morning', 'People Will Say We're In Love' and 'Surrey With the Fringe On Top', it was one of the biggest Broadway hits of all time. Carousel (1945, ironically based on Liliom) included 'If I Loved You' and 'You'll Never Walk Alone'. South Pacific (1949) was, in my opinion, easily Rodgers and Hammerstein's best show, and another smash to match Oklahoma! Based on stories by James A. Michener, it offered 'Some Enchanted Evening', 'Bali Ha'i', 'Younger Than Springtime' and 'I'm In Love With a Wonderful Guy'. The King and I (1951, based on Anna and the King of Siam, by Margaret Landon) contained 'Hello Young Lovers', which has a particularly fine introduction, and 'I Have Dreamed'. In total there were over 6,300 performances of these four shows in their original productions, and all were filmed. (Yul Brynner was successful for the rest of his life as the King of Siam.)
Leslie Stuart's Florodora was the first show to be recorded by its original cast (1900), but Oklahoma! was the first to be a modern hit; it was in the top five on the first Billboard album chart in March 1945. South Pacific had one of Robert Russell Bennett's most incisive orchestrations; its original cast album, which was available on all three speeds, entered the Billboard album chart in May 1949 and stayed there for over 400 weeks, making it one of the biggest hits of all time. Neither the 1958 film soundtrack nor a 1986 London recording, with the opera singers Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras, can begin to compete with it.
Rodgers and Hammerstein also wrote for the film State Fair in 1945 (including 'It Might As Well Be Spring'), formed a production company that mounted Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun, and also wrote the shows Allegro in 1947 ('The Gentleman Is a Dope'), Me and Juliet in 1953, Pipe Dream in 1955 and Flower Drum Song in 1958 ('I Enjoy Being a Girl'). Rodgers used a tune from his television music Victory at Sea for 'No Other Love' (in Me and Juliet); the song was a hit for Perry Como. (Hammerstein had adapted Bizet's Carmen as Carmen Jones in 1943, and it was filmed in 1954.)
Some of their later shows were not as well received as the early ones, though Me and Juliet, for example, ran for a year and turned a profit. Critics usually blamed their disappointment on Hammerstein's plots. The sentimentality of their work together, as well as Hammerstein's affinity for operetta, reached an apotheosis with The Sound of Music in 1959, which became one of the most successful musical films of all time in 1965. Hammerstein died of cancer, and Rodgers began to lose his touch in a modern era. He wrote his own lyrics for No Strings in 1962, a hit because of a good story about interracial love, but thereafter his career declined. He had outlived his greatest partners and the golden age of Broadway.
Alec Wilder's book American Popular Song is recommended to readers interested in pursuing this subject. He wrote some fine songs himself, such as 'While We're Young', 'I'll Be Around', 'It's So Peaceful in the Country', 'Who Can I Turn To'. He makes a superb case for his favourite, Harold Arlen, as an example of 'this "don't worry-about-the-mud-on-your-shoes" attitude'. Arlen wrote 'I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues', 'I've Got the World on a String', 'It's Only a Paper Moon', 'Blues in the Night', 'That Old Black Magic', 'One for My Baby' and many more, some of the best with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, a master of demotic speech.
While Broadway was providing some of the century's greatest songs, there were exciting things happening in the rest of the country. We must now examine the rest of the immensely rich popular music scene of the 1920s and 1930s, of which the American musical show was only the most glittering ingredient.