The ‘Adele’ Interview, Part III

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Interviewer:  So give me your views on five of Adele’s songs on her latest album.

Kurt Poterack:  How about two?

Interviewer: Five.

Kurt Poterack: Two.

Interviewer: Five.

Kurt Poterack: Two.

Interviewer: Five.

Kurt Poterack: Five.

Interviewer: Two . . . Hey, wait a minute.  You tricked me!

Kurt Poterack: OK, but let’s make it four.  The cafe closes early today.

Interviewer:  Fine, four it is.

Kurt Poterack:  I suppose that I have to start with the first track which is “Hello.”

Interviewer:  And you have to say something nice first!

Kurt Poterack: Who are you, my mother?  Well, anyhow, I suppose I should say that in general what Adele is good at – or her collaborators are good at – is creating a sense of flow and build in her songs. “Hello” is a good example of this.  She takes this basic new type of song which is an amalgamation (often) of the 32 bar song and a four-measure chaconne.

Interviewer:  Could we call Adele the “chaconne chick”?

Kurt Poterack:  Hey, I tell the jokes around here!  Yeah I suppose so.

Interviewer:  So what is a chaconne?

Kurt Poterack:  It was originally a dance, but the music that accompanied it was based upon a very short repeated pattern of 4-8 measures.  Bach wrote a famous chaconne for solo violin based upon eight chords within four measures, however the variety he pulled out of those eight chords is really beyond compare.  Listen to the Jascha Heifetz recording.

Now Bach’s is for solo violin and is very long, but there is a similar effect – a kind of a hypnotic, mantra-like repetition – in Adele’s music.  She (or her collaborators) create interest through dynamic change and change of instrumentation, although there are some changes of melody as well.

OK, there.  I said something nice.

Interviewer:  So what is the negative thing you are going to say about this song?

Kurt Poterack:  Nothing other than my criticism of the “four-chord genre” in general:  there is no strong melody that one can extract and sing a cappella which would make much sense.  The melody consists of a bunch of catchy ‘hooks’ and what might be described as simplified psalm tones: a little formula made up of the notes Ab, Bb and C which get repeated and can be stretched to fit the different number of syllables in each phrase.

Interviewer:  What are ‘hooks’?

Kurt Poterack: Hard to define, but I will try.  They are basically 2-4 measure melodic motives and/or accompanimental figurations which are catchy.  They give the listener some sort of emotional jag or feeling of exaltation often.

Interviewer:  Anything else to criticize?

Kurt Poterack: I suppose that this song is supposed to be her attempt to apologize to the guy she dissed in “Set Fire to the Rain,” but, my goodness – “I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet to go over everything . . . I must have called a thousand times . . . but when I call you never seem to be home.”

I wonder why?  Stalker!

I wonder if I am the only one who sees (indeed, hears) the irony.  Adele is trying to sing like a black girl, but absolutely cannot escape being a certain sort of obsessive, melancholic, whiny, white girl.  Not the free-wheeling “baby, you make me feel so fiiiiiiiine!” of Etta James, but “we need to sit down and have an extensive post-mortem until we understand why, where and exactly when our relationship (which has been over for years) went wrong and I am going to keep calling you until you agree to this.”

Interviewer:  Next.

Kurt Poterack:  Track Four: “When We Were Young.”  This is a theme running throughout the album – not just in this song. “We,” (I suppose Adele and her contemporaries) in their mid-20’s (!), “are no longer young.”  Boo-hoo.  I have no sympathy for this.  Absolutely none.  In fact to me the funniest moment in the song was when the backup singers continuously sing that phrase “When We Were Young” in the background.  Because of the way rock singers emphasize certain odd vowels of diphthongs, I misunderstood what they were singing the first two times.  They sang the phrase as “Win Wee Weer Yehhhhhng,” which sounded to me like, “Inebriate!”  So it sounded, for a moment, like the backup singers had become a Greek Chorus calling out Adele and the whole enterprise for its pretentious silliness:  “Inebriate!  Inebriate! Inebriate!”  “You’re drunk on your own sense of self-importance and melodrama!”

Really, get over your navel gazing!

Interviewer:  You enjoy being a cranky old geezer, don’t you?

Kurt Poterack:  Absolutely!

Interviewer:  Next.

Kurt Poterack:  Track Eight: “Love in the Dark.”  Another break up song.  Interestingly she tells the man, “I don’t think you can save me.”  There’s that theme again.  Our gal, Adele, is rather traditional after all.  She’s looking for a knight in shining armor – but is she too high-maintenance for any knight?

The use of strings is nice.

Interviewer:  OK, last song.

Kurt Poterack:  And I really am saving the best for last.  Truly the best track on the entire album – musically (and I stress this) musically – is Track Ten: “All I Ask.”

Lyrically, I don’t care for it very much.  It’s one of those complicated (and confused) relationship songs – “I don’t know if we are more than just friends, but let’s pretend like we are, for this one night, so we will have pleasant memories even if it doesn’t work out.”  Yuck!  Yuck!  Yuck!  Dumb!  Dumb!  Dumb!  No more relationship songs, please.  I’m worn out.  Here is where I sympathize with Joe Flaherty’s parody of Norman Maine giving advice to Esther Blodgett in A Star Is Born:  “Honey, people don’t want to hear songs about people loving people.  They want to hear songs about critters.  You know, cows, pigs, goats, ducks . . . . “

A think Adele should write songs about critters from now on.

Anyway, what is good about the song is that it sounds the least like an Adele song.  I heard a diminished chord (!), a modulation (even if it was only a ‘Barry Manilow’ half-step modulation), a suspended chord and, I think (once I recover with the use of smelling salts) a few eight-measure phrases (!!!!)

Thank God for the answers to prayers!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ‘Adele’ Interview, Part II

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Interviewer:  So, would you tie this into the phenomenon of “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual“?

Kurt Poterack:  Most certainly – and I don’t think that this is something that Adele or her listeners are doing in any sort of a conscious way.  However, I think that it just comes out in the music.

Interviewer:  Why?

Kurt Poterack:  Well, let’s just make a distinction, first.  We are sitting right now in a “hipster cafe,” drinking coffee and hearing all sorts of music in the background – mostly of the four-chord genre.  A lot of it is quite superficial.  Adele’s music is much more serious – she’s certainly better than Taylor Swift or Katie Perry.  Adele’s music is, for the most part, in a minor key.  Some of the chord progressions are interesting, for example the dm-F/C-Bb-gm in “Set Fire to the Rain” has a kind of ‘gothic’ starkness to it.  It’s just that it doesn’t go anywhere.  Now, I’m not sure if she could even write a chord progression that lasts more than four measures, but she seems to make a virtue of her limitations.

Interviewer:  In what way?

Kurt Poterack: I think that the whole point of the repetitions is to give it some sort of a solemn, mystical sort of a feel – almost like a religious litany.

Interviewer: What’s a litany?

Kurt Poterack:  It’s a long prayer in which there are many petitions to which the answer is always the same – something like “Lord have mercy” or “Christ have mercy,” etc.

Interviewer: Do you think that she is consciously doing this?

Kurt Poterack:  I doubt it.  If there is any conscious influence, it would be that of Eastern religion and its repetitions.  At any rate, think of her first song on the new album, the song “Hello.”  It is an apology (a confession?) to someone from her past that she broke up with – “I’m sorry for breaking your heart.”  That combined with the solemn chord repetitions and that combined with the soul, ‘gospel’ style of singing make it somewhat religious or, excuse me, ‘spiritual’ – at least as ‘spiritual’ as a millenial agnostic, looking for some sort of meaning or purpose in life, is willing to get currently.

Interviewer:  Is this a good thing?

Kurt Poterack:  God only knows.

Interviewer:  Hmm?

Kurt Poterack:  I mean it quite literally.  Only God knows for sure what is in a person’s heart, but as a musician and a cultural critic I am less than optimistic.

Interviewer:  How so?

Kurt Poterack:  Just listen to Etta James – or virtually any other black singer coming out of the gospel music tradition.  I mean, Adele is not bad, in fact she is rather good but, when put side-by-side with someone who actually grew out of that cultural tradition like Etta James, there is no comparison.  Etta James sings her into the ground.  (Or listen to Aretha Franklin – at the age of 73 – out sing Adele on her own song, “Rolling in the Deep.”)

I fear that Adele may, at least in some ways, be just another example of a common occurrence of the past 50-60 years:  angsty, young white people raiding other people’s traditions as a way of making sense of a world in which they are adrift – somewhat like the way youngsters got involved in communes and pseudo-Eastern religions back in the 1960’s.  They go about the “junk yard” of life mixing and matching the various ideas and artistic expressions upon which they come – sometimes more artfully, often less so – in an effort to make sense of their lives.  And, in the case of Adele, it is obsessively about relationships, usually failed ones.

Interviewer:  In other words, they cobble things together.  They don’t actually want to live within a tradition . . .

Kurt Poterack: Nor are they really capable of creating any sort of a lasting synthesis, either.

I am also toying with the idea that Adele, though she speaks to her generation and seemingly represents it well, will be a very passing phenomenon.  Although she went to a performing arts high school in England, she only got signed to a contract after someone else, a friend, posted a demo of hers online.  She wasn’t originally looking to be a performing artist, but to work in A&R.  And now it seems that, since she has a more steady relationship with a man and they have a three-year-old child together, her singing career is less important to her.  According to reports, she wanted to end this recording project much earlier to “get back to her son.”  So, perhaps, the whole reason for giving artistic expression to the millennial discontents will no longer exist – and, with it, the artistic impulse.

Who knows?  Perhaps someone else will emerge as chief cantor of the “Millennial Mystagogy.”

Interviewer:  “Millennial discontents”?  “Millennial Mystagogy”?

Kurt Poterack:  Again, the brokenness when it comes to forming relationships, marrying, having children, forming families – and yet, “we are hip, cool, up-to-date.”  In some of them, a self-obsessed attitude, a singing about themselves.

The ‘mystery’ of their generation – its story.

Older popular singers sang, for the most part, other people’s music. They may have put their own life’s experience and even pain into it, but they were singing in a general way. Ella Fitzgerald had a terrible life, arguably far worse than Adele and the millennials, yet she had a joy in her singing.  There was no need to “speak to her generation” and its unique problems. The whole notion that a singer had to write his or her own music and sing in a confessional way, or represent a group, is a bit new.

Interviewer:  So, what is your overall estimate of Adele?

Kurt Poterack:  She is a good singer.  She has a true knack for writing this sort of repetitive, four-chord music that embodies the whole “millennial mystagogy.”  Her lyrics are the weakest part, in my opinion – very girly at times: “It was dark and I was over, until you kissed my lips and saved me.” The sort of mushy stuff that teenage girls used to write in their diaries, you know, the kind with a lock and key so that mom wouldn’t find out – or so that her bratty younger brother wouldn’t find out and squeal to mom.

It’s not all like that, but I think that, in general, her music saves the lyrics.

Interviewer:  Any advice for Adele?

Kurt Poterack:  Same advice I would have for any other young singer – sing other people’s music.  Good music.  Especially songs from the Great American Songbook.

Stop composing your damn songs for awhile.  You have a lot to learn.  I’m not interested in your generation or its story – only in good music.  You should be, too, because this is what lasts.

Interviewer:  OK, OK!

Kurt Poterack: So what did you think of Adele’s latest album, “25”?

Interviewer:  Hey, wait a minute!  Where does it say interviewee takes over interview?  I’m supposed to ask the questions around here!  Now, just calm down, be charitable and I want you to give your opinions on her latest album in Part III.

(to be continued)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ‘Adele’ Interview, Part I

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Interviewer:  So, I wanted to interview you about Adele, given that her latest album, “25,” came out recently.  What do you think of it?  I get the distinct impression that you don’t like her.  True?

Kurt Poterack:  Well, that’s not true.  I don’t know her, except as a media phenomenon.  If I dislike anything, it is the “Adele phenomenon.”  I probably would have disliked Beatlemania, as I have a strong contrarian streak in me.  If a whole bunch of people like something, I tend to dislike it – for that very reason.  I just don’t like “crazes.”  This puts me into a difficult position as I then have to struggle really hard to see if there is actually something of inherent worth in the thing itself.  Honestly, I don’t know what is behind this ‘Adelemania’ as I don’t feel it and don’t particularly like her music.

Interviewer:  Well, humor me.  What do you think is behind the Adele phenomenon?

Kurt Poterack: Hmmm.  Well, off the top of my head, I would say that there are three things which account for her popularity: 1) in her vocal style, she represents the on-going white appropriation of aspects of black culture – particularly music; 2) she actually is, at times, quite competent in her chosen musical approach, in fact, the best at what I call “the four-chord genre,” and; 3) in her lyrics, and life, she represents the brokenness of the millennial generation.

Interviewer:  Let’s unpack this.  Could you tell me a little about this “appropriation of aspects of black culture”?

Kurt Poterack:  Well, this is something that has been going on for the last 100 years, if not 150 years.  Everything from ragtime and jazz to rock ‘n’ roll, soul, and rap.  Perhaps even some of the language of Stephen Foster’s songs represent aspects of black dialogue . . .

Interviewer:  Such as?

Kurt Poterack:  “Camp town races sing dat song, doo-dah, doo-dah.”

Interviewer:  Really?

Kurt Poterack:  I think so.  I could be wrong on that specific example, but certainly the minstrel show and black face date back to that time.  Also, there are some very interesting cultural exchanges.  According to some, tap dance and soft shoe emerge when blacks try to imitate (and then adapt) Irish step dancing, and then whites assimilate tap dance and soft shoe.  So the exchange was white to black to white.

Interviewer:  And this is all very interesting, but what does this have to do with Adele?

Kurt Poterack:  Well, she, by her own admission, was very influenced by recordings of the black soul singer Etta James.  However, she (Adele) doesn’t really sing soul music.  She has adapted this to her type of music.  Personally, I am not a big fan of soul music and that style of singing, although I respect it.  It is something that very much comes out of black Baptist and Pentecostalist churches – this very emotive style of worship, which is not my thing.  Another good example would be Aretha Franklin, whose father was a minister.

Anyway, there are other ways in which blacks contributed to American popular music, soul music is only one particular stream.  However it is the only one which most millenials know.  It is on the fringes of their memory and, perhaps, seems ‘traditional’ to them amidst a sea of rap, heavy metal, techno, etc.  Again, perhaps, it makes them feel hip, soulful, and yet . . . rooted?  I don’t know for sure.

Personally, give me Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan any day – and I didn’t grow up with them, but I appreciate their subtlety and sophistication.

Interviewer:  Let’s get to your second point.  You say that Adele has adapted this black style of soul singing to her type of music, which you call the “four-chord genre.”

Kurt Poterack:  For the past 30+ years there has been a tendency in popular music to compose songs which consist entirely, or almost entirely, of the repetition of four chords, over and over.  The classic popular song, at least since the mid-1920’s, consisted of 32 measures which are divided up into four 8-measure phrases, the third one being a contrasting phrase.  Anyway, this 32-measure unit would consist of any number of chords, certainly more than four.

What Adele does is to put things into a minor key and that, plus the four-chord repetition, gives it a ‘mystical’ feel – almost like solemn, religious repetitions, (and this is not from “black” or pentecostalist religion).  At least, this is the case at times.  Her approach I call the “four-chord mysticism,” or even the “four-chord hypnotism.”

Interviewer:  Interesting, now . . .

Kurt Poterack:  If I were asked to provide a tempo or mood indication at the beginning of her songs, I would suggest “hipster mysterioso.”

Interviewer:  Ha ha.  Shut up, man, you’re too much!

Kurt Poterack:  Well, I try.

Interviewer:  So, are you saying that her music is religious?

Kurt Poterack:  I think that she functions, in a sense, like a high priestess of a cultus.  Or, at least, she writes the liturgical music for the lives of millenials and this may be why she is so popular.  It’s a guess off the top of my head.  The emergence of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950’s could be seen as simply teenagers wanting to cut loose – most of them had some sort of formal religion.  They weren’t looking for religious ritual or seriousness in their music, certainly.  In fact, Elvis could be seen as a more up-dated version of the 1940’s dance bands that played for jitter buggers.

The 1960’s are a different case, and I don’t have the time to get into that, but by the early 21st century we have all of these “nones” – people who don’t have even a formal religious affiliation, and perhaps whose parents didn’t either.  But what did Chesterton say?  “When you take away belief in God, most people won’t become atheists, they will believe in just about anything.”  I think that it is possible that elements of religious seriousness emerge in the oddest places – such as in popular music, and even over such topics as “why aren’t my relationships working out?”  I think Adele speaks to this.  Of course not in the most coherent or systematic ways.  In fact her lyrics, in my opinion, range from passable to bathetic.  Nor does she always address these issues in the most positive ways, to be sure. However, through her music, she puts these issues into a kind of a ritualized form and that, I contend, is what resonates with many people.  At least, this is a thesis which I think should be explored.

(to be continued)

Windmills of Your Mind, addendum

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I discovered this version of the song by the opera singer Jessye Norman done with the composer, Michel LeGrand, at the piano and sung in French.  Notice how it is different from the version he did with Natalie Dessay.  It is more impressionistic and dreamy – reminiscent of Debussy or Faure.  Notice also the subtle, very tasteful, changes to the chord progression in a few places, first at 3:05 and then ever so slightly at 3:28.  I also absolutely love the flatted 2nd scale step in the bass at 4:33.

This is one of the beauties of the traditional popular song:  when the melody, lyrics and chord progression are well-written, it can be interpreted in many different ways – even by the composer himself.

The Windmills of Your Mind

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What put me in mind of this old classic by Michel LeGrand was a track on Adele’s latest album, “25.”  Now, when I have some time, I will try to write a fair and comprehensive review of her album.  For now, while I thought it had some good moments, her new songs are pretty much what I had expected from her – and I found the concept of a 25-year old writing songs of nostalgia such as “When We Were Young,” a bit odd.  (I would have found it just as odd and unconvincing when I myself was 25 years old.)

Be that as it may, it was track #11, her song “Million Years Ago,” that most caught my attention.  In that song she used a chord progression known as a falling 5th progression that seemingly has not been used in a ‘million years’ – or, more accurately, since the 1960’s.  Basically this progression, which is most associated with the Baroque era, involves chords the roots of which descend by the interval of a fifth (e.g. E7-Am-D7-Gmaj7-Cmaj7).  Now, this progression can descend into a kind of slushy romanticism when put into the song form, but I think that the best example of the use of this progression in a song is in LeGrand’s “Windmills of Your Mind.”

I will present what I consider to be the three best versions of this song on the internet.

  • First, say what you like about her as a person or her leftist politics, but when it comes to music Barbra Streisand has solid interpretive skills and real taste.

Now, “Windmills of Your Mind” was written for the 1968 movie “The Thomas Crown Affair” which I can only describe as a cat and mouse game between an amoral man and woman in which the one who is slightly less amoral, the woman, loses.  It’s a pretty depressing film in the end, but the song’s lyrics, originally written in French, have only a loose connection to the theme of the movie.  English lyrics were written by the husband and wife lyricist team of Alan and Marilyn Bergman, who won an Oscar for best original song of 1969 for these lyrics.  The English lyrics are not a translation but use some of the same imagery from the French lyrics which were written by LeGrand himself.  As you can see, the French title was “Les Moulins de mon Coeur” (The Windmills of My Heart) and interestingly (and, perhaps, oddly) the original lyrics make reference to Norway, Saturn, and The Almighty (!) that did not make it into the English version.

  • My second version is one recently recorded with the French lyrics, sung as a duet by the composer and operatic soprano Natalie Dessay:

While I enjoy this version very much, I feel that the way the two of them divide up the melodic line into increasingly smaller fragments (though, in one sense, musically very effective) slightly obscures one of the most important things about this song: the long-breathed nature of its melody.  Basically, the A section consists of a seamless 14-measure phrase, while the bridge is a similarly seamless 16-measure phrase.  However, the A and B sections are motivically connected, creating a ‘super-phrase’ as the melody spins its way out and actually reaches its melodic climax (on the word “footprints” in the English version) in the normally contrasting B section, after which the melody gradually descends, creating overall an arch-form.  (This ‘super-phrase’ is also obscured by the space placed between the A and B sections in this version.  It is much more evident in the Sinne Eeg version below.)

This process of “spinning out” (Fortspinnung) was a practice common in the Baroque and later eras whereby “musical material in symphonies and other works (is developed) as opposed to symmetrical repetition of that material.”  But then again, what would you expect from a former student at the Paris Conservatoire?

What we are sorely lacking these days in popular music are such song writers with a connection to the classical music tradition.  At best what we have now are earnest performers, guitars slung over their shoulders, whose best concept of ‘tradition’ is 1960’s soul music, writing songs.  It’s all so insular.

  • Finally, here is one last internet version which I can highly recommend.  This by Sinne Eeg, an up-and-coming Danish lady jazz singer:

For some reason, this song seems to be very popular with foreign female singers.  You can find it sung by women from Australia, Greece, and Scotland, as well as in Arabic, Greek, and German.  The last is, to me, the most intriguing.  I don’t know if it is the arrangement, her voice, or my psychological associations with the German language, but Bibi Johns’ version just sounds a touch . . . ummm . . . ‘disciplinary.’

There are versions by men as well, of course.  The original version for the movie was sung by Noel Harrison, son of Rex Harrison, and Sting has done a version.  Whatever you think of these versions my point is that, even in the case of less than convincing interpretations, there is a reason that so many people want to record this song which is nearing the 50-year mark.

It is very well written.

Epilogue: Do You Believe in Magic? 1957-1965.

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In the final chapter, actually the “epilogue,” Ben Yagoda covers what he seems to see as the “rebirth” of the Great American Songbook.  He talks about the movement away from New York to places such as Nashville (Country Music), Memphis (Early Rock and Roll) and Detroit (Motown).  He also discusses the pairing up of composer Burt Bacharach with lyricist Hal David.  This team’s songs were made famous by the singer Dionne Warwick.

He also discusses the work of the future Carol King (originally Carol Klein) who worked in New York for Aldon Music on Broadway, near, but not in the Brill Building.  She went on to have a solo career and a number of hits in the 70’s.  Some of her colleagues also went on to be famous – Neil Sedaka, Don Kirshner, Phil Spector.

Others mentioned are Randy Newman, Lenon and McCartney, whom I have discussed before, and Jimmy Webb who, among other things, composed “Up, Up and Away” (1967).

Mr. Yagoda takes a very positive view of this time.  Citing Jimmy Webb, he says that “[r]ock and roll had morphed into something much more interesting musically. . . . It’s hard to imagine a more fecund atmosphere . . . .”  Yagoda goes on to say that “[t]he final page had been turned on one songbook.  Another was just starting to be written.”

Well, it is a point of view, as they say.  I certainly agree with him up to a point, however, this “new songbook” seems to me to peter out by about 1980.  In my opinion, these newer songwriters were living off of the capital of the past.  They were raised in the great heritage of melody and harmony (as well as lyrics) of the original American Songbook and were able to write newer sounding songs which, however, drew upon the riches of the past.  At a certain point, as they were replaced by a new generation who didn’t know the tradition, the newer songbook collapsed.

And, one of these days, I will write about this.

Chapter VIII: Fly Me to the Moon, 1939-1965.

In this final chapter, which is followed by an epilogue, Ben Yagoda deals with the “final chapter” of the Great American Songbook.  He shows how it was not completely dead even in the 1950’s during the emergence of Rock and Roll.  In fact, the early rockers knew this canon and even performed pieces from it in more updated fashion (e.g. “Blueberry Hill,” which Fats Domino recorded in the ’50’s was originally written in 1940).  Interestingly on their first appearance on American television in 1964, the Beatles performed Meredith Wilson’s “Till There was You” from “The Music Man” (1957).

However, according to Ben Yagoda, these rockers generally leapfrogged “the more melodically complex works of the American Songbook’s later period, landing on simpler fare, chestnuts . . . . The fact that the Marcels had a hit with “Blue Moon” didn’t lead any of their listeners to explore Rodgers and Hart’s other works.”

There were others in the 1950’s keeping the Great American Songbook alive, among whom were the singer Mabel Mercer who received the highest compliment from Frank Sinatra, “Everything I learned, I owed to Mabel Mercer.”  However, it really was Frank Sinatra who re-enlivened this canon of songs, beginning with his collaboration with the arranger Nelson Riddle on “Songs for Young Lovers,” which was released by Capitol Records in 1954.   Later on, he even introduces new songs, such as “Come Fly with Me” by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen.

Together, Sinatra and Riddle created “one of the defining sounds of the 1950’s, a sound of swing, wit, artistry, authority, honest feeling, and relaxed precision.”  It was a pop music “counter-narrative” to what many assume was going on in the 1950’s – as opposed to those who actually lived then.  The 1950’s were not exclusively the decade of the “triumph” of rock and roll, things were more complicated.

Another singer who kept this canon alive was Ella Fitzgerald.  In 1956 she released “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book” which was the first time the concept of a “songbook” was employed.  She went on to record the songbooks of Rodgers and Hart, Ellington, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, and the Gershwins.  According to New York Times critic Frank Rich, “Ella’s Songbook series performed a cultural transaction as extraordinary as Elvis’ contemporaneous integration of white and African American soul: Here was a black woman popularizing urban songs often written by immigrant Jews to a national audiences of predominantly white Christians.”

Finally, in the late 1950’s there is the emergence of Bossa Nova, a blend of samba and jazz from Brazil.  One of the chief proponents is Antonio Carlos Jobim who’s “Girl from Ipanema” will reach #5 on the American pop charts in 1964 and received a Grammy for record of the year.

According to Dick Hyman, “Jobim took over where Cole Porter left off . . . All of [his songs] have harmonies that are of interest to jazz guys.  And almost all of them have some kind of catchy melody.”  In short, the Bossa Nova ‘craze’ was part of the “counter-narrative” of “adult pop” which, along with the re-juvenation of the old standards by Sinatra and others, continued well into the 1960’s.

Chapter VII: The Big Beat, 1951-1968.

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Alan Freed – The ‘Father’ of Rock and Roll

As radio programming became more local after World War II and, thus, more particular and regional in its aim, ironically, it became more influential and began to break down boundaries.  We already noticed the effect of the ASCAP radio boycott and that it forced a greater openness to the regional “hillbilly” music of the South in national network radio shows of the early 1940’s.  Beginning in the early 1950’s, however, local radio stations emerged which catered to the local black community with what was termed “rhythm and blues.”  This term was invented in 1948 by Jerry Wexler of Billboard Magazine to replace the term “race music.”  (Most major record companies in those days had a division devoted to popular music for black people – which was called “race music.”)

At any rate, radio waves cannot be segregated.  As it turned out, white teenagers began to be attracted to rhythm and blues music, particularly as promoted by such local white disk jockeys as Cleveland’s Alan Freed in his “Moondog House” radio show on station WJW.  He promoted what he termed “Rock and Roll” – and sometimes “Big Beat” – music.  This music was soon to break into the Billboard Top Ten: “Sh-Boom” by the Crew Cuts came in at number 4 in 1954, and Bill Haley’s “Rock around the Clock” came in at number 2 in 1955.

That this was a definite trend received strong confirmation with the arrival of Elvis Presley in 1956 securing spots numbers one, two and eight with “Heartbreak Hotel, “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Hound Dog” on the Billboard Top Ten.

Elvis’ 1956 hit was a cover of a 1952 recording by the black rhythm and blues singer, Big Mama Thornton.

To get an idea of how mixed-up things were becoming, the song “Hound Dog” was written for Big Mama Thornton by two young Jewish men, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. When they first brought the song to her, she started “crooning ‘Hound Dog’ like Frank Sinatra would sing ‘In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.'”  Stoller then told this 300-pound, salty black woman that she wasn’t singing it right.  After a rather testy exchange, he demonstrated to her how to sing it in a more ‘black’ way, which she proceeded to do.

As Ben Yagoda says, “[t[he arrival of rock and roll coincided with and was connected to some profound long-term changes in popular music, including a new primacy of record labels over publishers and performers over writers, and a centrifugal decentralization of the industry, away from New York.  But the music itself wasn’t monolithic, and the dominance that rock (broadly defined) would eventually have over pop wasn’t anything close to immediate.  The same kinds of songs that had done so well in the early fifties – sentimental, soothing, homespun, novel, or possessing some combination of those qualities – continued to be written, recorded and purchased.”

In fact, the same year that Elvis was introduced to the general public (1956), Doris Day reached the top ten with “Que Sera, Sera,” as did Dean Martin with “Memories are Made of This.”  This, indeed, was the beginning of a “generation gap” in popular music which was to last, arguably, into the 1970’s in which there was “adult pop” and “kiddie pop,” with the “adult pop” putting up a valiant, but ultimately, losing battle.

Finally, Rock comes of age by coming to Broadway in 1967 with the hit musical “Hair.”

Chapter VI: Brill Building Boys and Girl, 1950-1955.

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Entrance to the Brill Building.

The Brill Building, located at 1619 Broadway Avenue in New York City, had become the new Tin Pan Alley by the early 1950’s.  It was a building full of music publishers.  Young song writers and lyricists at that time, some of whom were associated with the Brill Building, were Carolyn Leigh, Norman Gimbel, Burt Bacharach, Cy Coleman, and Stephen Sondheim.  What they all had in common was that they were born or raised in New York City, Jewish, born between 1926-1930, and all found their way to the Broadway stage at some point.

In the case of Stephen Sondheim, it was fairly immediate.  Unlike the others, he seems to have never been associated with the Brill Building group, and sought immediately to make his way writing Broadway musicals.  In fact, as a young man he had been a protege of Oscar Hammerstein.  Having studied music theory with Milton Babbitt, his desire was to write both words and music, but his first real premiere was as lyricist for the songs of West Side Story for which Leonard Bernstein wrote the music.  He had earlier written the music for a musical entitled Saturday Night, but it didn’t premiere on Broadway until 1957, the same year as West Side Story.

Unlike the others, Sondheim, for the most part, didn’t seek to create old-fashioned pop songs.  There are some exceptions, like “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music (1973), but the integrated approach typical of his musicals, perhaps exemplified by Sweeney Todd (1979), makes this much less likely to happen – kind of like the way in which Wagnerian operas lack easily extractable arias.

Burt Bacharach, on the other hand, started out in the early 1950’s trying to write and sell popular songs without much success.  It wasn’t until into the 1960’s that, in association with lyricist Hal David, he began to have major success with songs like “Alfie,” “Walk On By,” and “The Look of Love.”  He was a skilled jazz pianist and had studied with such classical composers as Darius Milhaud, Henry Cowell, and Bohuslav Martinu.

Finally, lyricist Carol Leigh started out as Carolyn Rosenthal, a Bronx girl who attended Queens College and New York University.  Soon after college she joined BMI and changed her last name.  Her first big success was writing the lyrics for “Young at Heart” which Frank Sinatra picked up and added to his first major Capitol Records album which was released in 1954.  She went on to write the lyrics for other Sinatra hits such as “Witchcraft” and “The Best Is Yet to Come,” and some of the songs for the musicals such as Peter Pan (1954).

Chapter V: What Happened to the Music? 1946-1954.

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This chapter begins with the end of the big band era.  In 1945 the networks dropped 12 bands from their regular radio shows.  By December of 1946 Benny Goodman, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, Jack Teagarden, Woody Herman, and Les Brown dissolved their big bands – although the last two were to reform their bands later.  Clearly something was going on.  According to trombonist Johnny Mandel:

“We were playing to empty ballrooms, because the jitterbugs never came back from the war.  The kids who used to dance to the bands before the war, they had no thought for tomorrow.  When they went to war, they went through all kinds of hell.  The ones that made it back, they wanted to go on with their lives, and jitterbugging wasn’t part of it.  They married those girls they used to jitterbug with, they were spending all their money on babysitters, on building houses, and nobody was dancing.”

There is a continuing fragmentation of style in popular music in the late forties.  While on the one hand, according to the author, jazz is “extracted” from popular music as the remaining big bands and vocal groups focus on “sweet” music, nonetheless, forms of progressive jazz such as bebop emerge.  On the other hand, this is countered with what is called “trad jazz” – a revival of Dixieland.

The influence of country music on mainstream popular music, which began due to the 1941 radio boycott of ASCAP songs, continues with such songs as “Buttons and Bows” (1948) “Riders in the Sky” (1949), and “The Tennessee Waltz” (1950).  Also, folk groups like the Weavers start to emerge charting with their version of the traditional song “Good Night Irene” (1950).

A major change after World War II is the coming into prominence of the disk jockey.  From the 1920’s on, music broadcast via radio was live.  Records were initially meant for home use.  One of the first major disk jockeys was Martin Block who, on WNEW, played records in between news reports about the Lindberg kidnapping in 1935.  He later developed a radio program called “Make Believe Ballroom.”  Record companies originally printed “Not Licensed for Radio Broadcast” on records.  However, a 1940 Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision found this to have no legal standing.  As radio programming shifted from networks to local radio stations after World War II, the final hurdle was cleared, and the phenomenon of a disk jockey playing records became much more prominent.

Finally, the last change to emerge at this time is the pre-rock music, immensely popular with teenagers, of the white singer Johnny Ray.   Even though rather tame-sounding to us today, Ray’s emotive, high-pitched singing introduced some elements of black rhythm and blues music to white audiences in 1951, several years before Bill Haley and Elvis.