It’s often considered the low point in Frank Sinatra’s career: the moment the singer growled, “Hot dog, woof!” during a lecherous novelty song he cut in 1951 with the statuesque TV personality Dagmar. “Mama Will Bark,” a tin-eared, Latin-flavored duet, was the dubious brainchild of Mitch Miller, the head of A&R at Columbia Records during pop music’s notorious fallow period around the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll.
Miller is portrayed, not for the first time, as a leader of the death squad for the elegant popular music of the early 20th century in Ben Yagoda’s new book, The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song. Yagoda sets out to learn just why the well-crafted songs of Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, Richard Rodgers, and their contemporaries found themselves, by the 1950s, in the doghouse. But although he seems to be looking to lay some blame, the real reasons—changing tastes, greater inclusion, the dismantling of the notion that songwriters had to be “professionals”—might, in fact, be more complicated.
In what sometimes feels like three-fourths time, the author glides through an elegant anecdotal history of the Great American Songbook, and the stage and screen musicals that produced the songs we now consider to be “standards,” from “Stardust” and “Skylark” to “My Favorite Things.” The rise of Tin Pan Alley, the music publishers’ row on New York’s West 28th Street, gets at least as much air time as its demise. Yagoda, a veteran journalist and the author of books exploring language, the history of The New Yorker and vaudeville star Will Rogers, digs deep into the archives of the music industry trade papers for his detective work. Much of it is amusing—the composer of The Music Man, for instance, is quoted complaining that rock ‘n’ roll “is a plague as far reaching as any plague we have ever had.” Elsewhere, though, the narrative occasionally gets bogged down in song titles, show credits, and twice-told tales.
As Yagoda describes, some leading factors in the decline of the Great American Songbook could certainly be pinned on murky dealings behind the scenes, including the ongoing skirmish between the two leading music publishers (the old-guard American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers and the upstart Broadcast Music, Inc.), the rising influence of radio disc jockeys (a show business phenomenon comparable to “an atomic bomb,” howled Variety), and the “payola” scandal that would eventually scandalize the industry. Dwindling sales of sheet music, once a staple of the industry, ended the careers of many composers, as did television’s displacement of the theater as the American family’s favorite pastime.
But the author takes some dramatic license when he posits a 1954 meeting between Miller, the perpetrator of “Come on-a My House” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and the veteran songwriter Arthur Schwartz, who wrote the music for “That’s Entertainment!,” as the point of no return. On that day, Schwartz stooped to the level of the rank-and-file song pluggers, pitching the executive with songs from a new musical called “By the Beautiful Sea.” When he was finished, Miller said there was only one song he’d consider presenting to the label’s artists, and even that needed some work. Schwartz declined, suspecting the A&R man would be looking for a kickback in the form of a writing credit.
The show, though it ran for seven months on Broadway, has been all but lost to the ages. The song Miller singled out, “More Love Than Your Love,” has rarely been recorded; it never stood a chance at finding a page in the Great American Songbook. But as Yagoda himself notes, the problem wasn’t simply Miller’s omnipotence. The song was a dud. “Lyrically and musically, it was an undistinguished song, sentimental and plodding,” he writes. No amount of massaging or palm-greasing was going to sell this number to the homeowners who were busy stocking the hi-fi with Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches,” or the kids snapping up copies of “Sh-Boom” by the Crew Cuts.
That doo-wop classic was originally recorded by the Chords, a quintet of black singers from the Bronx who made the pop Top Ten with their own version. One development in the country’s changing pop music history that might have merited a bit more of Yagoda’s attention is the rise in mainstream popularity of African American artists, who until as late as 1949 were still relegated to Billboard’s “Race Records” chart. With the notable exception of Duke Ellington, almost all of the core composers of the Great American Songbook were white (though Irving Berlin, as the author notes, was so prolific he was often rumored to have “colored boys” in the back room secretly writing his songs).
The cultural desegregation that accompanied the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll helped bend the tastes of American record buyers toward what Yagoda boils down as “an emotional release expressed in three chords, a pounding beat, and shout-out-loud vocals.” Though the raw sounds of rockabilly and garage bands would draw the ire of the dying breed of songwriters-for-hire, they led directly to the amateur guitar pluckers who would soon storm the fortress of music publishing.
(Many, if not most, of the Tin Pan Alley “cleffers” had been unabashed hacks, anyway. “I had to recognize for myself that I was not Irving Berlin,” recalled Sheldon Harnick, one theatrical songwriter who nevertheless balked at the pressure to conform to the “crap” that was topping the Hit Parade in the early 1950s.)
Yagoda, to his credit, does his best to make clear that The B-Side isn’t just his “they don’t write ‘em like that anymore” view of pop music, five decades late. “I love rock and roll,” he writes. “I understand that the standards are not the last word in great songs.” He notes such rock-era songwriters as Burt Bacharach, Smokey Robinson and Jimmy Webb as worthy successors to the authors of the Songbook. “It’s hard to imagine a more fecund atmosphere” for musical creativity than the mid-1960s, as Yagoda quotes Webb saying. “Record companies were willing to let us do anything we wanted to. It wasn’t like Mitch Miller was in the booth.”
Many of the musical heavyweights who came of age then have, at one point or another, reached back in time to explore the Songbook. Yagoda mentions Willie Nelson, whose 1978 Stardust remains the high-water mark of a great career, and Linda Ronstadt, whose series of albums in the 1980s with arranger Nelson Riddle helped kick off a trend.
But so did Harry Nilsson’s lovely 1973 song cycle “A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night.” The time-tested popular music of the Roaring Twenties, the Depression era and World War II does live on: just as the first proper solo Beatles album was Ringo Starr’s standards collection, Sentimental Journey, one of the most recent solo Beatles albums was Paul McCartney’s Kisses on the Bottom, which featured Harold Arlen's “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and Irving Berlin’s “Always.” Dr. John has done it; Cyndi Lauper’s done it; Zooey Deschanel, as one-half of the adorable duo She and Him, has just released an album of Classics that begins and ends with songs written in the 1930s.
Even Bob Dylan, whose revolution of one was probably a much bigger killer than Miller of the lush life of the Great American Song, is set to release an album of standards associated with Sinatra. (The new album will reportedly kick off with “I’m a Fool to Want You,” which was first released as the B-side of, yes, “Mama Will Bark.”)
“Nobody wants melody,” groused Arlen back in the early 1970s. But old Harold didn’t live long enough to see how many times they’ve sung “Over the Rainbow” on American Idol.