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The sounds, styles, and lives of outstanding singers from the 1920s to the present, are "written about with loving expertise by two writers who can make singers and their songs live on paper," says Clive Barnes. Features revealing biographies, critical assessments, and selective discographies and videographies.
|Exactly What Is Classic Pop?||2|
|The Classic-Pop Singing Style||2|
|Choices, Limits, and Qualifications||3|
|Pt. 1||Setting the Scene--the First Wave: A Concise Historical Overview of Classic Pop and How It Developed in the 1920s and 1930s||5|
|Crooners and Canaries of the 1920s and 1930s|
|Plus: A Not-to-Be-Forgotten Section, Including Dick Powell, Buddy Clark, Alice Faye, and Frances Langford||103|
|Pt. 2||The Changing Scene--the Second Wave: How Classic Pop Changed During and After World War II||111|
|Song Stylists of the 1940s and Beyond|
|Plus: A Not-to-Be-Forgotten Section, Including Helen Forrest, Helen O'Connell, Bobby Short, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Andy Williams, Julius Larosa, Teddi King, Nancy Wilson, and Jack Jones||217|
|Pt. 3||Selected Discographies and Videographies||235|
Setting the Scene
The First Wave
So many great singers of classic American pop have been part of our musical life for so long that we forget that there was a time when neither a Top 40 nor a Hit Parade existed, and when the idea of making a career singing popular songs was taken seriously by very, very few.
That certainly doesn't mean that popular music itself didn't exist before our century turned it into a megaforce whose influence now extends far beyond our national borders. For generations long before us, however, an era's popular music was primarily folk music handed down orally. Eventually some of these songs managed to get written down and then printed. In this country, the American Revolution spurred the printing of patriotic tunes such as "Yankee Doodle" (which were sold in the streets for a penny a copy). By the end of the nineteenth century the publishing of songs had become a major industry whose sales reached into cities and towns of virtually every size throughout the country. Most of the songs that got published were sentimental ballads or novelty tunes to be sung by families around the parlor piano, or by entertainers in local vaudeville theaters and saloons.
In the early decades of this century, sweeping technological developments--most particularly the phonograph and radio--played decisive roles in turning pop music into a major industry. So did a number of interconnected social and economic factors, chief among them the eagerness of more and more men and women to dedicate themselves to being a part of popular music as songwriters, instrumental players, and singers.
For the first third of the twentieth century, those men and women were generally said to be linked to Tin Pan Alley. No such street ever existed literally, of course. The name arose around the turn of the century to describe the din that usually surrounded the offices of the major New York music publishers (first located in the Union Square area around Fourteenth Street, then on Twenty-eighth Street, and still later farther uptown, in the Broadway theater district). Row upon row of these offices would be filled with people trying to peddle or buy songs, with the sounds from one office frequently overlapping with those of another or even flowing into the street in those days of open windows, no air conditioning, and nonsoundproof walls. "It always reminded me of kitchen clatter, just like tin pans," composer Harry von Tilzer ("Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie," "I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad") is reputed to have said, and the name Tin Pan Alley stuck.
By the decade preceding World War I, the publishers of Tin Pan Alley had pretty much set the patterns that would endure in American popular music for the first half of this century. The singers, pianists, and others who bought their tunes, whether for professional stage use or for amateur use, favored romantic or sentimental ballads with easy-to-play, hummable melodies and easy-to-remember rhymes in the lyrics (the "moon, June, spoon" syndrome). Most songs consisted of a brief verse that set up the premise of the song, followed by a thirty-two-bar melodic refrain.
With the 1920s, however, came several developments that brought the flowering of the Tin Pan Alley-style tune into what we can now call classic pop--and the rise of singing stars who specialized in it. The first was an extraordinary upgrading of the standards of Broadway musicals, spearheaded by Jerome Kern; Irving Berlin; Cole Porter; the Gershwin brothers, George and Ira; and the team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Rejecting both the operetta-style songs that Broadway had inherited from European musical models and the prevailing simplicities of vaudeville pop songs, these young American songwriters wrote scores that grew increasingly sophisticated in introducing more personal concepts of melody, rhythm, and harmony into the song form, even breaking away from the thirty-two-bar refrain on occasion. The music publishers of Tin Pan Alley, for whom many of these songwriters had worked while waiting for their Broadway breaks, were quick to publish and publicize the best songs from the latest Broadway shows--and to help the country's growing number of professional singers and instrumentalists turn them into hits performed in all parts of the country.
In doing that, they interacted with several other major developments of the 1920s. Chief among them: the rise of popular dance orchestras and their need for a continual supply of fresh songs. The leading hotels and clubs in virtually every city vied with each other for good dance bands as dance craze after dance craze swept the country. Social dancing, which prior to World War I (in polite white society, at least) had been relegated primarily to chaperoned balls or parties, and to such formal dance forms as the waltz, grew increasingly looser and more popular. "Jass" syncopations, including ragtime, spread quickly from small black bands to white ones. So, too, did the so-called animal dances that had developed out of old plantation dances (such as the Cakewalk) and had turned the Turkey Trot, the Monkey Glide, the Kangaroo Dip, the Buzzard Lope, the Grizzly Bear, and the Bunny Hug into prewar vaudeville staples for both blacks and whites (scandalizing proper society along the way). At any rate, "going out dancing" became millions of Americans' most passionate pastime in the 1920s, especially among young people, who delighted in dance fads as a form of rebellion against the straitlaced norms and tastes of their elders.
Especially popular were the sweet bands, which emphasized sentimental or romantic ballads for dancing cheek to cheek. In most of these bands, at first, instrumental players doubled as vocalists for certain songs, sometimes solo but more often in vocal trios or quartets. Among the best-known leaders of such bands were Art Hickman, Isham Jones, Leo Reisman, Abe Lyman, George Olsen, Roger Wolfe Kahn, Guy Lombardo, and, the most famous of them all, Paul Whiteman. Coinage of the term "sweet band," incidentally, is generally attributed to Broadway showman Florenz Ziegfeld, who used it to promote his Ziegfeld Roof nightclub in the early 1920s distinguishing his orchestras' musical style from that identified with more "lowdown" jazz groups. And so another link was forged between the music of Broadway and the music that mainstream America was dancing to.
Even those couples who couldn't always get out to where the dance bands were playing could hear their music almost any night of the week, thanks to two other developments: the rapid growth of radio as an entertainment medium and improvements in electrical recordings for home phonographs. Among the most listened-to early radio shows were dance-band remotes, on which the announcer's voice would proclaim: "And now, direct from the Astor Roof in the heart of Times Square, it's the music of Freddy Rich and his orchestra..." or "From the Cocoanut Grove in the Hotel Ambassador in Los Angeles, it's the music of Gus Arnheim and his orchestra...." Radios and phonographs were quickly replacing parlor pianos as the home entertainment center of the time. Sales of sheet music for amateur performing also declined as the popularity of a growing number of professional singers flourished through radio and records.
Both radio and records also brought stardom to a new type of singer--the kind of stardom that had previously been possible only with a successful Broadway show or vaudeville act. Significantly, these new singers didn't need the kind of vocal chords that could reach the last row of a theater's balcony without leaving them hoarse by the end of a number. With radio and recording microphones, a new type of more intimate popular singer sprang up. Among the earliest and most popular of this type were Gene Austin, Blossom Seeley, Vaughn DeLeath, Marion Harris, Johnny Marvin, Nick Lucas, Annette Hanshaw, and Smith Ballew. But for all the individual qualities of their voices and their conversational stylings, each of these singers was to be quickly outshone by others who came up in the years right after them. They should not be forgotten, however, for the pivotal roles they played in paving the way for the bigger impact of Ruth Etting, Helen Morgan, Ethel Waters, Rudy Vallee, and, most especially, Bing Crosby in the late 1920s.
Because these singers relied on a more evenly modulated style of singing for the microphones than the more bravura style required of their predecessors on operetta or vaudeville stages, the men came to be called "crooners" and the women "canaries" in the slang of the day. At first the terms were not always meant complimentarily. But after Bing Crosby began calling himself a crooner unashamedly, that one became a more neutral and acceptable designation. Canary, meanwhile, was most commonly used for female band singers, with "thrush" or "songbird" the terms for nonband alternates. Virginia-born Kate Smith even billed herself in the 1930s as "The Songbird of the South."
All of these singers usually concentrated on the best songs from Broadway or on similar songs written especially for them to introduce on radio or in nightclubs. And in the competition among songwriters to get the top singers to introduce their latest tunes and, hopefully, start them on the road to becoming hits, the singers could be choosy and hold out for only the best material--thereby helping to raise the general standards of what was (unknown to them, of course) becoming the Golden Era of classic pop.
By the late 1920s, talking pictures had also revolutionized the movie industry. Hollywood suddenly needed singers and dancers--and songs for them to sing and dance to. Quite naturally, the studios turned to Broadway and radio, and raided its musical talent for screen adaptations. Not only performers headed West but so, too, did the top songwriters. As a result, from the start, Hollywood's musicals took on the basic song style of what is now classic pop. The relationship was cemented when, after the 1929 stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression, the relatively well-to-do major studios bought out most of the economically hard-pressed New York music publishers, getting ongoing access to their extensive and valuable music libraries. In addition, by controlling the music-publishing firms and all their licenses, the studios could pressure the growing number of dance-band leaders as well as the producers of records and radio programs into promoting the songs from their latest movies, in some cases turning them into hits even before a movie opened in theaters across the country.
That situation continued essentially throughout the 1930s and into the early 1940s--as American popular music dominated by Broadway, Hollywood, Tin Pan Alley, and the dance bands swept the land. Out of it came the first wave of great singers whose work survives to this day on records and film--the first, and in many cases still influential, singers of classic American pop.
Jolson is the greatest singer of all time. He said so himself.
In a loopy, accidental way, Al Jolson helped start the sophisticated, intimate style of singing that's so integral to classic pop. He didn't sing that way himself, of course. Quite the contrary, the Jolson style was pure pizzazz--as big and brash and unabashedly sentimental as America felt in the era of the First World War. But Jolson sang the way he sang so successfully and so definitively that subsequent singers had no choice but to invent another way to sing. In this sense, crooning was a reaction against the Jolson style, just as Jolson's razzmatazz was a rejection of the prim formality of the operetta-influenced romantic singers who dominated Broadway and vaudeville before him.
This is not to say that Al Jolson is just an outdated artifact of a bygone time, as he has often been depicted in recent years. In truth, Jolson is such a seminal figure in popular entertainment that his influence continues to permeate the pop scene today. After all, he virtually invented the role of pop music superstar, as well as the superstar ego. Jolson was also the first pop singer to become a national symbol of youthful rebellion against parental tastes and tradition, and the first star to delve into national political issues--all in addition to his groundbreaking role as the star of the movie widely regarded as the first talkie, The Jazz Singer.
To this day, there's a little Jolson in every singer who pulls out all the show-biz stops and delivers a number like it's the only thing in the world that matters. He showed the crooners what to do when it's not the right time to croon. Sinatra, crowing' That's Life"; Streisand, barking "Don't Rain on My Parade"; Minnelli, belting out "New York, New York"--they're all doing Jolson.
"He sang every song as if he was going to drop dead at the end of it," said Larry Parks, who mimicked the technique well enough to earn an Oscar nomination for his starring role in the 1946 movie The Jolson Story. That's the essence of Jolson: death by schmaltz. He put so much life into a song that he always seemed on the verge of using up his own supply.
At one point, performing actually made Jolson ill, according to backstage legend. As a result of dancing too strenuously in stage shoes, he developed an ingrown toenail, which hurt so much during one show that he had to take the weight off his foot to relieve the pain. Bending on one knee, grimacing in pain, Jolson decided he might as well work the whole effect into his act, and it went over so well he did it at every show for the next thirty-five years. At least that's how the legend goes.
Ingrown toenail or not, the one-knee shtick and the mugging fit the highly emotive singing style Jolson developed over the years. The Russian-born son of a cantor, Asa Yoelson was reared on an emotionally charged mix of the heartfelt music of the Judaic liturgy, the colorful folk tunes of his parents' homeland, and the bouncy, Southern-style popular songs he picked up while growing up in Washington, D.C. Breaking an age-old line of Yoelson cantors, against vehement parental objections, Asa drew from these rich and diverse musical traditions to become the unique popular singer Al Jolson. As he explained late in his career, with characteristic humility, "When I sing, I want to give the people a feeling in their hearts they never had before."
He was gifted with a strong tenor (which dropped to a baritone late in his career), good range, and a distinctive, brassy vocal timbre. More important, as a singer Jolson was a great actor. Like many popular performers at the time, he frequently sang in "blackface"--a stylized black makeup used by many white entertainers (including Eddie Cantor and Jack Benny) as well as blacks (such as Bert Williams), dating back to the days of "minstrel" shows. "Joke was a cantor's son, and everybody thought his mother was a mammy," George Burns told us. "That's how good an actor Jolson was." Rolling his eyes mischievously, clasping his hands together hopefully, stretching out his arms pleadingly, Jolson made every song a playlet in thirty-two bars.
There has rarely been a better match of singer and songs. Jolson's repertoire included many of the liveliest, catchiest songs of the vaudeville era and very early Tin Pan Alley, including "Toot, Toot Tootsie (Goo'bye)," "California, Here I Come," "My Mammy," and "Swanee." Not quite Cole Porter selections, this stuff doesn't even bother with the brain and goes straight to the autonomic nervous system. Your feet are tapping and your heart pounding as soon as the notes hit you, even if you think you don't like this sort of music. Jolson knew what people really liked, and he had most of his hits written or adapted to his specifications--or he wrote them himself. (He is credited as the writer or cowriter of dozens of songs, including "Me and My Shadow," "There's a Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder," and "Don't Mind the Darkness, Morning Will Come.")
To Jolson, every number had to be a showstopper. In fact, the very term has been attributed to him, because he was known literally to stop a Broadway show in the midst of a scene if he thought it could be impoved by being cut. Stepping out of character, he'd turn to the audience and stage-whisper something like, "You know what happens in this play, don't you, folks? Well, would you rather see more of it ... or would you rather hear Jolson sing?" A rhetorical question, given the hackneyed quality of some of the Jolson-featured Broadway "plays," such as La Belle Paree, Big Boy, Bombo, Robinson Crusoe, Jr., and Sinbad. Most were essentially disposable vehicles for Jolson to be Jolson, and he wouldn't hesitate to dispose of them--at which point the entire cast would come out from behind the curtain, sit on the stage floor, and watch the real show, Jolson, for an hour or so.
As he once revealed, Jolson's "secret" was "taking the audience in confidence" by using little conspiratory devices like throwing away the third act. Jolson had a few other extraordinary techniques, including a couple of real secrets, to help him come as close to his audience as he could. Sometimes he would go to the box office half an hour before show time and chat with ticket-buyers, venturing out to the sidewalk to drum up business if necessary. At other times he'd lounge around the theater lobby anonymously as the audience milled in, to develop a firsthand feel for that night's crowd. Or he'd sit in with the orchestra and play the clarinet until his cue was coming, to be able to watch the audience in their seats and catch their mood.
If Jolson couldn't get enough of his audiences, they certainly returned the sentiment. His fans packed the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway, Jolson show after Jolson show, eight shows a week most weeks, from 1911 to 1925. The singer was far and away the greatest phenomenon ever to hit the stage at a time when popular music was the stage. Though recording wasn't yet very big, Jolson had the first million-selling hit anyway, with George Gershwin's and Irving Caesar's "Swanee." (The song peaked with sales of 2.5 million, including both records and sheet music.) In short, Jolson was to pop music what Charlie Chaplin was to film and Babe Ruth was to sports: the first superstar.
The term hadn't been coined yet, though it's amazing Jolson never thought of it. Despite his gushily ingratiating manner onstage, Jolson was known for having something of an attitude problem outside of the public eye. Or, as a Variety critic once said, 'He's arrogant, ruthless, rude, impatient, impetuous, cruel, shrewd, thoughtless, and ignorant." Naturally, some members of his family disagreed; a few of his four wives, including movie-musical star Ruby Keeler (wife number three, 1929-39), said Jolson wasn't really quite that nice.
Whatever Jolson's private problems may have been, they never interfered significantly with his professional success. The public eventually rejected him for purely artistic reasons. Jolson was a stage artist--he didn't need a thirty-foot movie-house screen to be larger than life, nor the imaginary world of radio to transport audiences to another time and place. He did it all alone, in person, and using only one knee. When radio and sound movies came and changed popular entertainment, however, Jolson didn't change with them. He stuck with the same big, broad, theatrical style and much of the same simplistic material, and he was stuck with them, indeed.
It's ironic that Jolson's best-known achievement was in motion pictures, as the star of the first successful feature-length film with sound, The Jazz Singer, in 1927. With a plot somewhat similar to Jolson's own life story, the movie proved that as an actor Jolson could really deliver a song. His acting style proved to be too big and broad for the subtle demands of the screen, though he starred or costarred in ten features and made cameo appearances in another six. After his first bad reviews and critical counsel from his studio, Warner Bros., Jolson learned to adapt to film, to some extent, and made a few decent movies, notably The Singing Fool in 1928, Mammy in 1930, and Go into Your Dance in 1935. But Jolson's career as a film star was over less than a decade after it began.
The singer had similar problems on radio, which he pioneered with a show of his own in 1927, the same year The Jazz Singer premiered. In interviews, Jolson admitted that he was never comfortable on radio. "When I have to stick to a script, my hands are tied, my mouth is tied, my keister is tied," he complained. Still, Jolson tried his hand at four different radio shows over the course of the 1930s, and one (The Lifebuoy Show costarring Jolson, Martha Raye, and the radio comedian Parkyakarkus, father of filmmaker Albert Brooks) reached the number-five spot in the ratings at one point.
In his last years, he did get to play to the largest audiences of his career--the millions of soldiers he entertained as a volunteer during both the Second World War and the Korean War. And a few years before his death, he enjoyed a resurgence in public interest in his work, thanks to both the highly acclaimed hit movie The Jolson Story and its sequel Jolson Sings Again. Still, when he died of a heart attack at age sixty-four in 1950, shortly after returning from a Korean War tour, Jolson had become little more than a memory to most of the ticket-buying public. Indeed, it's been said that Jolson performed so much during the war years in part to hear the applause he could no longer get from paying audiences.
To this day, Jolson is vastly underappreciated. The fact is that Jolson's greatest legacy is lost. The stage performances that made him an almost mythic figure in the first third of this century were never preserved on film--not that they could convey the impact of his live appearances. He never appeared on television, his radio broadcasts exist only in archival copies of air checks, and his relatively few notable movies are practically unknown to modern-day audiences. As a matter of fact, the generations of music fans born in the second half of the century, after his death, know Al Jolson primarily from TV impressionists and cartoon caricatures; their conceptions of the man are founded on jokes, and they can't help but think of Jolson himself as a joke.
Jolson's image as a blackface performer has also damaged his reputation, perhaps beyond repair. As the best-known singer to have worked in "minstrel" style, Jolson is sometimes disparaged as a symbol of racism. Indeed, Jesse Jackson has depicted government insensitivity to the African-American underclass as "the Al Jolson syndrome," despite the fact that blackface was popular long before Jolson--and Jolson steered clear of it for the last twenty years of his career.
Fortunately, as the first major pop recording artist, Jolson left a rich legacy of recordings made over the course of some thirty years. As this legacy emerges in restored form on CD, listeners have a new opportunity to rediscover and reassess Jolson, the first superstar of classic pop.