Thursday, June 16, 2011

Book Review: "Stardust Melodies" by Will Friedwald

How potent cheap music is.
–Noel Coward

I believe that Will Friedwald included the Noel Coward line about the potency of cheap music in the introduction to his "Stardust Melodies" simply to see those two words – potent and music – in the same sentence. There is nothing “cheap” about the popular songs featured in his book, but they are all undeniably “potent.” The power of popular music, according to Friedwald, is its ability to “move us on a deep level, and in a way that few other artistic mediums can.” Friedwald has obviously been moved – profoundly so --and his book is a phenomenally entertaining biography which encompasses the creation, debut, musical intricacies and recording history of a dozen American pre-rock popular songs.

I had to keep reminding myself that Friedwald wasn’t actually alive when these songs first launched (he is a tail-end “boomer” and most of the songs in his book were written in the 1930's) because he relates the details at his disposal in such an electrifyingly cinematic way, you’d think he had been inside each composer’s head (or at the very least, sitting in the composer’s living room with a video camera) when the songs came to birth. When George Gershwin said to his friend Kay Halle “sit down, I think I have the lullaby” (for Porgy and Bess), she was immediately moved to tears at the raw beauty of "Summertime." Cole Porter raced over to the piano to finish the introduction to his latest (and ultimately, greatest) composition, "Night and Day," after he heard his hostess, Mrs. Astor, complain about the “drip, drip, drip” of her broken drain pipe.

Arguably the most dramatic “you were there” incident portrayed in "Stardust Melodies" not only illustrates the birth of a song (and a star) but stunningly represents an entire musical epoch as well: the golden musical era when pop music and jazz were inexorably linked. When Friedwald describes Ethel Merman first belting out "I Got Rhythm" “with all the subtlety of a tornado descending on a trailer,” he also narrates what was rumbling beneath her feet – a genuine jazz orchestra. Gershwin had insisted on having one and it was a stunner: future luminaries Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey and Gene Krupa, were all accompanying Ms. Merman on the night "I Got Rhythm" made her a star. That’s some orchestra.

Each chapter includes a section on the musical intricacies of the particular song featured and here Friedwald gets out from behind the camera, so to speak, and beckons the reader into the classroom – an intermediate-to-advanced music theory classroom. Some readers might get lost in the minutia of these details; if you don’t know your tonic from your dominant, you won’t have a clue. The lessons aren’t longer than a few paragraphs, however, and for those fairly well versed in music fundamentals, it’s fascinating stuff. Friedwald explains why every note, chord and corresponding lyric works. Did you know, for instance, that Star Dust contains a 32-bar chorus and that its melody is basically composed of thirds, some major and some minor? I’ve played and sung the song (never actually thought to count the bars), but now that he’s mentioned it, the thirds do switch back and forth from major to minor, probably why the melody possesses such a wistful, bittersweet feel – a good fit for lyrics about a lost love.

One of the criteria by which Friedwald judged a song worthy of inclusion in his book is the sum and variety of its recorded manifestations and he lists these recordings in assiduous detail (and he is a writer of such wit and lucidity that a grocery list would sparkle in his hands). The recording history of one song in particular – "As Time Goes By" – illustrates how truly insightful and entertaining his approach to the material is.

Long before "As Time Goes By" provided the backdrop to Rick and Ilse’s ill-fated love affair in Casablanca and even shortly before Frances Williams introduced it in the 1931 Broadway show "Everybody’s Welcome," Rudy Vallee made a recording of it that was broadcast over the radio. Because of conflicting recording contracts, the very talented Williams was unable to record the song herself, but Dooley Wilson (Sam in Casablanca) – who couldn’t play the piano as his cinematic character could – did make a recording following the success of the film.

Actually, when the film was nothing more than a newly purchased play, Sam and the song were the only two irrefutables in the project, which greatly irked hired composer Max Steiner. He had nothing against Sam, of course, but initially thought "As Time Goes By" was too “square.” When he finally saw the light, he made it the musical focal point of Casablanca. This would have probably won composer Herman Hupfeld an Oscar if it hadn’t been for a strange, just-laid-down rule about Oscars being granted only to songs specifically written for a film. Hupfeld wasn’t too upset; his song was a becoming a phenomenally popular recording vehicle that would ultimately be immortalized by artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Tiny Tim. Not bad for a little song protesting the march of progress.

Although "Stardust Melodies" is bursting with passion for the musical era that produced its songs and is replete with a sense of time and place, because Friedwald is able to infuse his book with a sense of immediacy, it never falls prey to nostalgia. Rather, it is a celebration of songs that have managed to outlive their composers, their performers, many of their recording stars and have embedded themselves deeply into the American consciousness.

“Though I dream in vain, in my heart it will remain
My stardust melody, the memory of love’s refrain.”
("Stardust" lyrics by Mitchell Parish)

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