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.