A Sentimental Journey into the Golden Age of Song From the 1920s to the 1950s, great songwriters like Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington wrote standards that any cocktail lounge player today knows by heart. In his new book, novelist and critic Wilfrid Sheed celebrates the music of the great American songbook.
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A Sentimental Journey into the Golden Age of Song

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A Sentimental Journey into the Golden Age of Song

A Sentimental Journey into the Golden Age of Song

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As W. H. Auden once suggested, sometimes all the instruments agree. There's a period in American music that runs roughly from the invention of radio to when it was superseded(ph) by television. Let's say from the First World War to the mid-1950s. From the first time, music could be recorded and transmitted to millions.

The invention of the microphone meant that voices speaking and singing in more conversational tones could be heard. Words could be understood. The U.S. surged with arrivals from all over the world bringing a cacophony of languages, ambition, and exuberance, all of them determined to be American.

It's been called the great period of American popular song - Berlin, Gershwin, Ellington, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen and a few score of others whose names are sometimes overlooked until you hear their signature tune.

(Soundbite of song, "Time After Time")

Mr. JULE STYNE (Singer): (Singing) Time after time, I tell myself that I'm so lucky to be loving you.

SIMON: That's "Time After Time," a random favorite, one of mine, from the late Julie Styne. Wilfrid Sheed, the loquacious novelist and critic, has written a quirky appreciation of this period of music, which many critics believe is the most imperishable.

His new book is called "The House That George Built." George as in Gershwin. Now, unfortunately, Wilfrid Sheed is too sick to join us but some of his friends have been pleased to make themselves available.

So we're pleased to be joined by Eric Comstock, the distinguished pianist, singer and writer. He joins us from the studios of WXEL in Boynton Beach, Florida.

Thanks so much for being with us, Eric.

Mr. ERIC COMSTOCK (Pianist; Singer; Writer): It's my great pleasure, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: This period that we're talking about, what do you think are some of the elements that came together?

Mr. COMSTOCK: Well, as you said, it was certainly the onslaught of radio, and I just think of it as a very literate time.

SIMON: Also there was a need for a lot of material, wasn't there, between new movies, a lot of which were musicals, and for that matter, hundreds of Broadway theaters and reviews across the country?

Mr. COMSTOCK: There were hundreds of Broadway openings every season and so, yes, you had them all to feed as well as all those studios competing to put out the best musical talent.

SIMON: I want to begin talking, as Wilfrid Sheed does in this book, perhaps the best place to begin in any circumstances, Irving Berlin, born Israel Baline, arbitrarily, a favorite Berlin tune - "Always."

(Soundbite of song, "Always")

Mr. IRVING BERLIN (Singer): (Singing) I'll be loving you always with a love that's true always.

Mr. COMSTOCK: It's actually one of the songs with which she courted his wife, Ellen - his second wife actually. He was a bachelor-about-town in Manhattan and a widower, and he was a last-minute extra man at, I think, one of the Mrs. Vanderbilts of that time, at one of her dinner parties. And he wound up sitting next to this very well brought up Irish-American lass called Ellin Mackay. She barged right in with her first conversational gambit - oh, Mr. Berlin, I'm just mad about your new song. What shall I do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COMSTOCK: And Berlin fixed her with an owlish look and said the title of the song is "What'll I Do," and I accept your correction. And they were off and running for 65 years of marriage.

SIMON: Yeah. Wilfrid Sheed, of course, is a critic and a writer by trade but he definitely thinks that it's actually the tune that makes an enduring song.

Mr. COMSTOCK: The hummable tune is the thing, first, and great lyrics follow. But I think it's a miracle - again, the erudition of the lyrics to these songs when - because of the great tunes that are attached to them, maybe the writers didn't have to be so brilliant. But Larry Hart, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Dorothy Fields - all these folks really outdid themselves in writing sensational poetry.

SIMON: Let's (unintelligible) into George Gershwin. How old was George Gershwin when he died?

Mr. COMSTOCK: He was 38.

(Soundbite of song "They Can't Take That Away From Me")

Mr. GEORGE GERSHWIN (Singer): (Singing) The way you wear your hat. The way you sip your tea. The memory of all that, oh no, they can't take that away from me. The way your smile just beams, the way you sing off-key, the way you haunt my dreams, no, no, they can't take that away from me.

SIMON: What did he bring to the American popular songs?

Mr. COMSTOCK: I think there is something about the Gershwin songs in particular, and I am a piano player and singer by trade and I get plenty of Gershwin requests, and I have to say I don't tire of songs like "They Can't Take That Away" and "Love Is Here to Stay."

SIMON: Wilfrid Sheed says that people conjecture what George Gershwin would have done if he had lived in quite the same way they do about John Kennedy.

Mr. COMSTOCK: Yes, we often speculate what new worlds would he have conquered and would "Porgy and Bess" have become a success in his lifetime, obviously, one of the great American masterworks. And did he always had ears open for the next thing and the modern thing, and absorbing all that and doing wonders?

SIMON: Let's talk about Duke Ellington. Wilfrid Sheed suggests in this book that his name on music was often what amounted to a corporate name. That was also kind of a stand in for Billy Strayhorn and a lot of other talents.

Mr. COMSTOCK: Oh yes, and his own band. I happen to think that the Ellington songs are great all-around songs. You can't beat "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" or "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me." And the more Ellington you hear, the more you need to hear.

SIMON: Let me ask about - can I just arbitrary my favorite "Sophisticated Lady." Wilfrid Sheed points out that depending in how it's sung, "Sophisticated Lady" can either be kind of an enigmatic song about city folks at night or it can be a cautionary tale…

Mr. COMSTOCK: Oh yes.

SIMON: …about what happens, you know, when nice girls run away from home.

Mr. COMSTOCK: The lyric is by Mitchell Parish. And I think Ellington's explanation for it was that the "Sophisticated Lady" in the song reminded him of some of his schoolteachers back home in Washington who would go to the continent every summer.

(Soundbite of song "Sophisticated Lady")

Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY (Singer): (Singing) Smoking, drinking, never thinking of tomorrow, nonchalant. Diamonds shining, dancing, dining with some man in a restaurant. Is that all you really want? No, sophisticated lady, I know…

Mr. COMSTOCK: I don't know how he found that bridge. I think it starts in A-flat. And when you have a song in A-flat, you may transpose up to D-flat or down to E-flat - these are all very related to the key of A-flat. He goes to G, he somehow finds a way to get a halfstep lower than A-flat, and then brilliantly come back for the last eight bars of the song. It boggles.

(Soundbite of song, "Sophisticated Lady")

SIMON: I'm going to ask you about Cole Porter now, and let's just hear a little bit of "Anything Goes."

(Soundbite of song, "Anything Goes")

Mr. COLE PORTER (Singer): (Singing) In olden days, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. Now, heaven knows, anything goes.

SIMON: All other songwriters we're talking about are either Jewish from an immigrant background, or certainly in Duke Ellington's case - African-American. Cole Porter was from Peru, Indiana…

Mr. COMSTOCK: An Episcopalian, yet(ph)…

SIMON: A closeted gay. How did he both fit in and in a sense elevate when he became a Porter?

Mr. COMSTOCK: I think he was a typical dilettante writer of his class and had very little ambition. But it was his wife - whom he adore just - it was a modern sort of marriage, but it was she who felt if you're going to do this, I want you to apply yourself and be a professional and, of course, it was the greatest favor of humanity that she kept him going. He spent his life pretending not to be working very hard, and for a man who was born rich and married richer, he worked harder than just about anybody.

SIMON: His lyrics just capture so much attention because of the cleverness, the internal rhyme and reference. Are his melodies sometimes underrated?

Mr. COMSTOCK: I think they'd have to be because, as you say, the lyrics get such deserved kudos.

(Soundbite of song, "Anything Goes")

Mr. PORTER: (Singing) The world has gone mad today and good's bad today, and black's white today, and day's night today. When most guys today that women prize today are just silly gigolos.

Mr. COMSTOCK: He had such an open mind about musical forms, and his harmonies are extremely hip for his time.

SIMON: Wilfrid Sheed makes the point in his book that a lot of the great songwriters we're talking about were prone to depression.

Mr. COMSTOCK: Yes. And the more successful they got, the worse they felt.

SIMON: It's funny, he - Wilfrid Sheed quotes James Stafford as saying, "Happy people don't need to have fun." The expression of the songs was the way that some of the people we're talking about dealt with their emotions.

Mr. COMSTOCK: Oh, I'm sure that's true. And I think Berlin was the one who said, I feel like a merchant who no one wants anything in my store. And as the decades came and went, this kind of very craftsman-like material went way out of fashion.

SIMON: I wanted to end with talking about one of my personal favorites, Frank Lester.

Mr. COMSTOCK: A brilliant man and of those few, like Julie Styne, who had an incredibly fortunate second life back in New York. They both took great risks by leaving Hollywood and its strappings and its very steady salary and great weather, and came to New York to become writers for the theater.

I think that Lester is one of the most - there is another man who died fairly young - he wasn't quite 60 - and as with Gershwin and Kurt Weill and some other writers who died comparatively young - Larry Hart. The sky looked to be the limit because of the modernness with which he wrote, and the variety between "Most Happy Fella" and "Guys and Dolls" and "How to Succeed" it's staggering.

(Soundbite of "Luck Be A Lady")

Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer): (Singing) Luck, be a lady tonight. Luck, be a lady tonight. Luck, if you've ever been a lady to begin with. Luck, be a lady tonight. Luck, let a gentleman see how nice a dame you can be. I know the way you treated other guys you've been with. Luck, be a lady with me.

SIMON: I wondered, you, obviously, you've devoted a great part of your career to performing a lot of the music that we're talking about. What connects with people over the years about so much of this material?

Mr. COMSTOCK: I think most people are romantics, and these are songs that one can fall in love to or fall out of love to. And the craft is such that it's so emotionally rewarding to have a song to sing, and these guys were professionals who were churning stuff out for profit.

You might think of them as snobbish because they wrote in such a - what now looks to be an elevated sort of style, but I think they were actually the ultimate populists. They had a high opinion of the public, and their attitude was if the public loved it, they must be right.

SIMON: Eric, it's so nice to talk to you.

Mr. COMSTOCK: Thank you very much, Scott. It's a joy.

SIMON: Eric Comstock speaking with us from Boynton Beach, Florida, in behalf of his friend Wilfrid Sheed whose new book is "The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty."

(Soundbite of song "It's Been a Long, Long Time")

Mr. COMSTOCK: (Singing) Just kiss me once and kiss me twice, then kiss me once again. It's been a long, long time.

SIMON: That's Eric Comstock performing Julie Styne's "It's Been A Long, Long Time." And you can read more about the great years of the American popular song in an excerpt from Wilfrid Sheed's book at npr.org/books.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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