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.