In Stardust Melodies, Will Friedwald takes each of these legendary songs apart and puts it together again, with a staggering wealth of detail and unprecedented understanding.
Each chapter gives us an extended history of one song--the circumstances under which it was written and first performed--and then explores its musical and lyric content. Drawing on his vast knowledge of records and the careers of performing artists, Friedwald tells us who was responsible for making these songs famous and discusses in depth the performers who have left their unique marks on them. He writes about variations in performance style, about both classic and obscure versions of the songs, about brilliantly original interpretations and ghastly travesties. And then there's the completely unexpected, like Stan Freberg's politically correct "Elderly Man River."
This is a book for all lovers of American song to explore, argue with, and savor.
"The American Popular Song is like a car full of clowns at the circus: from the outside it looks small and unassuming, yet you can't believe how much is contained inside," notes Friedwald in his introduction and, indeed, Tin Pan Alley and its environs have produced masterpieces that survive well beyond their time and context. While every reader will have their own list what better dinner conversation game? this dozen (chosen in conjunction with Friedwald's editor, Bob Gottlieb) should contain at least half of everyone's choices. But this is not a trivia book, and the joy of these short essays ruminative, but also filled with fascinating historical and social details - is in their intelligence and their always evident love of the music itself. Friedwald (Sinatra!; The Good Life, with Tony Bennett) can surprise, as when he lists similarities between Kurt Weill and No?l Coward (in his discussion of "Mack the Knife") or unearths the connections between Show Boat (which features "Old Man River") and British humorist P.G. Wodehouse. But he is at his best elucidating how a particular song works its magic. His history of Johnny Green's 1930 classic "Body and Soul" introduced by Gertrude Lawrence, made famous by the notorious Libby Holman and become a jazz standard when performed by Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker and Oscar Peterson is incisive, with illuminating details (he describes Tony Bennett's hand motions while singing). Friedwald performs similar feats with the other songs, including "As Time Goes By" (in which he praises Tiny Tim's late 1960s rendition), "The Saint Louis Blues," "I Got Rhythm" and "My Funny Valentine." In the end, the book is an important contribution not only to American musicology but also to the literature on popular culture.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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April 21, 2002
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Excerpt from Stardust Melodies by Will Friedwald
Chapter 1 STAR DUST (1927) music by Hoagy Carmichael words by Mitchell Parish Lucy is holding a saxophone. It turns out, as she informs friend Ethel Mertz, she's an amateur musician. Who knew? Lucy then blows into the mouthpiece and produces a few dyspeptic squawks. "It kind of sounds like 'Star Dust,' " says Ethel, diplomatically. "Yeah," Lucy responds, "everything I play sounds like 'Star Dust.' " Somehow this least expected of testimonials to "Star Dust" resonates particularly loudly. By the mid-1950s, when I Love Lucy was the most popular show in America (and therefore, one assumes, a credible barometer of national taste), "Star Dust" had already been around for twenty-five years and was long established as the most popular of popular songs. Ten years later, it was estimated that Hoagy Carmichael's classic had been recorded at least five hundred different times and its lyric translated into forty languages. (Although over the years, on record labels and in various other places, it has sometimes been spelled as a single word, the correct title is given as two words, "Star Dust.") Long before Lucy, "Star Dust" had also become archetypal Tin Pan Alley: its dreamy, somewhat meandering melody had inspired thousands of other tunes, its metaphor lyric had launched God knows how many other reveries of love and loss. Small wonder that everything Lucy played should remind her of the song. Yet long after its canonization, "Star Dust" remains a maverick: its construction, its history, and its unique place in the celestial firmament of essential American music stamp it as a song like no other. The song's melody and lyric are both uncommonly introspective for a popular song. The tune, especially intricate, but without being fussy, is almost delicate in the way it unfolds, yet at the same time, it's masculine enough to withstand extremely tough treatment at the hands of such macho, hell-for-leather improvisers as Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge. Mitchell Parish's words are, if not as urbane as some by Cole Porter or Lorenz Hart, sensitive in a way that few pop songs are. Yet what makes all this sensitivity unique is the long association of "Star Dust" with male performers, especially boy singers and jazz musicians. Although a number of women have sung it, the major recordings are predominantly by men (with the unlikely exception of Ella Fitzgerald). "Star Dust," it would seem, is a love song made for men to express the way they feel about women. That's how Ben Webster played it, as a solo feature with Duke Ellington's orchestra. Up until 1940, Webster had been known primarily as one of the hardest-hitting tenormen in jazz, famous for his rough-and-tumble up-tempo playing and his gritty blues technique. (Off the bandstand, as well, Webster had a reputation for settling disagreements with his fists, and did not restrict himself to exercising them only on members of his own sex.) It was at the Ellington orchestra's famous 1940 dance in Fargo, North Dakota (famous primarily for being an early example of a remote concert recording) that Webster's rhapsodically romantic treatment of "Star Dust" was first documented. The song became a staple of his repertoire for years after he had departed the Ellington ranks, and Webster would periodically prevail upon Jack Towers, the engineer who had recorded the Fargo concert, to cut him a few 45-rpm acetate pressings to hand out to friends. According to legend, composer Carmichael (1899-1981) was thinking about a girl when the melody of "Star Dust" first hit him, around 1926. Until then, he had regarded the making of music, whether as performer or composer, strictly as a sideline. His piano playing had supported him through law school (Indiana University), but on graduating he gave up practicing the piano to practi