Will Friedwald is one opinionated fellow. His 811-page Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, ten years in the making, celebrates both thefamous and obscure pop singers of the past century, and every last one of itsessays is filled with passion, high praise, and occasionally, vitriol. The endresult is a highly personal guide likely to entertain, educate, andoccasionally infuriate—exactly the attributes one wants in a pop cultureencyclopedia.
Covering everyone from theobscure (Nellie Lutcher, anyone?) to the revered (Tony Bennett), Friedwaldincludes assessments ranging from Al Jolson to Michael Bublé, but his focus remainssquarely fixed on the post-World War II, pre-rock era, with his highest praisejustifiably reserved for the brilliant work of Frank Sinatra and EllaFitzgerald.
He is particularlyeloquent on Ella, nailing exactly why her recordings never date: “Fitzgeraldwas always emotionally true towhatever she was singing. She could make you walk on air with a happy song andwant to walk on razor blades on a downer.”
Hisresearch is prodigious and the breadth of his knowledge is matched only by thedepth of his passion. For all the doorstopper heft of the book, he is capableof the pithy phrase that sums up an entire career: Jo Stafford’s style, forexample, is pegged as “reserved optimism with a touch of melancholy,”an assessment that precisely captures the sensibility behind such epic hits as “YouBelong to Me.”
It’s an idiosyncraticguide, to be sure. Friedwald devotes just as much space to Audra McDonald’smeager four-CD discography as he does to the fifty-year legacy of JohnnyMathis. Fortunately, the passion of his beliefs only occasionally gets thebetter of him, as when an eight-page screed against Barbra Streisand runs soover the top that one can only wonder what the heck La Streisand ever did tohim.
Friedwald refers to jazzhistorian Dan Morgenstern as “that encyclopedia who walks like a man.”In paying tribute to the unquestioned giants of twentieth-century pop music,walking encyclopedia Friedwald has done his idols proud.