Sunday, December 28, 2008

Pop Tones

I came across the following article, Music of a Generation: 19 Songs That Transformed America, at, the on-line version of American Profile, a magazine that is bundled once a week with our local newspaper. For those interested, I have reproduced the list of 19 songs below, and despite the fact that there are some very good songs on the list, the article accompanying the list, as well as the list itself, warrants some remarks. For one thing, as Donald Clarke observes in The Rise and Fall of Popular Music (Penguin, 1995), post-World War II popular music “was the era of the white pop singer,” and while this is undeniably true, many of the most successful white pop singers of the era are not represented in the American Profile list, conspicuous in their absence. As Clarke observes:

Between 1950-1955 inclusive, Sinatra had seven hit singles . . . Nat Cole twenty-one, Tony Bennett eleven, Perry Como twenty-five, Eddie Fisher thirty, Frankie Laine twenty, Johnnie Ray ten and Guy Mitchell nine. (306-07)

Remarkably, only one (Johnnie Ray) of these pop singers is represented on the list of “19 Songs That Transformed America.” About the post-war, early 1950s era, Clarke observes, “It is evident in retrospect that the new technology of the long-playing record had an effect on the pop chart and on radio broadcasting right from the beginning,” and of course he’s right (302). His point is that it is deceptive to look to the pop charts as a true index of post-war American musical tastes. While most of the 19 songs that putatively “transformed America” reached #1 on the charts, in the post-war era such charts hardly reflected the vast diversity of music in America, the data itself gathered from sources located for the most part only in the major cities, those radio stations with the largest demographic. What about jazz music (largely album-oriented)? Bebop? As Clarke claims,

As a measure of artistry, even in the heyday of the pop singer, the singles chart had ceased to matter as an indicator of quality as soon as grown-ups could buy albums. . . . If anything, there were even more girl singers making hits in the early 1950s, but a direct comparison with the males is difficult. To begin with, the list of hits for each female artist is shorter on average, suggesting that they received less promotion from their record companies and/or less attention from the DJs; or perhaps they simply made fewer records. On the whole, the women were more diffident about success, or less able to chase it for personal reasons: Jo Stafford, Rosemary Clooney and Joni James each retired from the music scene, for various reasons, while Peggy Lee seems to have left it and come back as she pleased. As in the case of the males, however, most had made their start during the Big Band Era. One of the best, and best loved, was Jo Stafford.... (307)

Jo Stafford (pictured), most certainly one of the most popular, if not most popular, female vocalists of the 1940s and early 50s, later excelled in the genre of musical parody, which I remarked upon briefly in my last blog. Sometime in the 1950s she, along with her husband Paul Weston, formed a comedy duo known as Jonathan and Darlene Edwards, releasing an album in 1960 titled JONATHAN & DARLENE EDWARDS IN PARIS, in which they parody a bad lounge act—many years before Bill Murray, in the late 1970s, did the same sort of thing on Saturday Night Live. Incidentally, JONATHAN & DARLENE EDWARDS IN PARIS won a Grammy Award in 1961 for Best Comedy Album. And speaking of the late 70s, Jo Stafford came out of retirement to record a parody, in the Darlene Edwards style, of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” which is available on her page. Incidentally, she died about five months ago at the venerable age of 90.

In any case, here’s the list of the “19 Songs That Transformed America” as published in the American Profile article. It is, of course, provocative, but that is essentially the purpose of any list in the first place.

1946 “The Gypsy” – The Ink Spots
1947 “Near You” – Francis Craig and His Orchestra
1948 “Buttons and Bows” – Dinah Shore and Her Happy Valley Boys
1949 “Ghost Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend)” – Vaughn Monroe and His Orchestra
1950 “The Tennessee Waltz” – Patti Page
1951 “Cry” – Johnnie Ray and the Four Lads
1952 “You Belong to Me” – Jo Stafford
1953 “Vaya Con Dios (May God Be With You)” – Les Paul and Mary Ford
1954 “Little Things Mean a Lot” – Kitty Kallen
1955 “Cherry Pink (and Apple Blossom White)” – Perez “Prez” Prado
1956 “Don’t Be Cruel” – Elvis Presley
1957 “All Shook Up” – Elvis Presley
1958 “At the Hop” – Danny & The Juniors
1959 “Mack the Knife” – Bobby Darin
1960 “The Theme From A Summer Place” – Percy Faith and His Orchestra
1961 “Tossin’ and Turnin’” – Bobby Lewis
1962 “I Can’t Stop Loving You” – Ray Charles
1963 “Sugar Shack” – Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs
1964 “I Want to Hold Your Hand” – The Beatles

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