Remembering America's Golden Age of music

SUN JOURNAL

Standards: The era produced such hits as "Star Dust," "Summertime" and "The Way You Look Tonight," but lack of radio play narrows the opening for these classics.

July 12, 1999|By David Hinckley | David Hinckley,NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

NEW YORK -- Call it America's greatest popular music -- America's greatest music, period. But as the Golden Age of songs from writers like the Gershwin brothers, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Hoagy Carmichael move toward their second century, all is not blue skies.

In highbrow meccas like Lincoln Center, its artistry has never been more revered. It thrives in cabarets and on the soundtracks of great and beloved old movies. Down on the lower brow of television commercials, its familiar melodies sell products, from bottled water to watches. The centennial of Duke Ellington's birth April 29 was greeted with appropriate fanfare about how wonderful his music was.

But with occasional exceptions, this music is rarely heard on radio. This is not because it has lost its appeal, but because advertisers prefer young targets and perceive popular standards fans, often erroneously, as too old.

"Americans undervalue everything in their popular culture," says Michael Brooks, an Englishman who oversees and produces historical reissues for Sony Music. "Literature, music. Of course, there's a lot of junk, but even the best is simply tossed aside, as if people want to get away from it. Johnny Mercer was a great lyricist. To Americans, he was just another songwriter."

Jonathan Schwartz played the standards for years on New York radio stations. "These men -- and most of them were men, just as most of them were Jewish -- traveled through these years creating the most exquisite music," he says. "Beautiful melodies. Distinguished, well-crafted lyrics. No one will ever approach what went on from 1925 to 1960. This is America's classical music."

Much of it blossomed during the hardest years of the century: the Depression and World War II. But if it came from the worst of times, it was the best of music, thanks to an extraordinary confluence of people and events.

That included a wave of European immigrant songwriters with a rich musical tradition, an exceptional work ethic and a burning passion to have their music heard. Electrical recording made it possible to capture musical subtlety. The exploding popularity of radio and the growing affordability of phonograph records spread popular music in ways never before possible, and talking movies made song and dance accessible and glamorous.

Audience. Technology. Marketing vehicles. "You couldn't imagine a happier set of circumstances," says Rich Conaty, who has been playing Golden Age music on the radio for 25 years.

Small wonder that during the Depression, musicians saw pennies from heaven. But whatever the serendipity, the driving force was the songwriters.

"They were writing for a form that previously had not existed," says Schwartz, who is the son of songwriter Arthur Schwartz. "They were writing about feelings previously unaddressed in popular song, in many cases often written to the full complexity of a character.

"The idea of romantic pain being pleasurable, in `Glad to Be Unhappy.' The feelings of two people who could not show those feelings, in `People Will Say We're in Love.' The writers came out of a musical tradition, of course -- largely operetta, Victor Herbert or Gilbert and Sullivan -- but what they did was unprecedented."

The era lasted from 1925 into the late 1940s, by most reckoning. Counting show tunes, it ran through the 1950s.

It's the age that produced "Star Dust" and "Always," "Summertime" and "The Way You Look Tonight" and "Old Man River." It produced rhymes as right as "You knew just what I was there for/You heard me saying a prayer for /Someone I really could care for."

It put into song pain as exquisite as "When a lovely flame dies/Smoke gets in your eyes," defiance as raw as "Once I built a railroad/I made it run" and compliments as singular as "You're the National Gall'ry/You're Garbo's sal'ry."

It was a field so fertile that after Carmichael wrote "Star Dust," Mitchell Parish added lyrics as haunting as the melody.

It was a time when George Gershwin could write music as marvelous as "How Long Has This Been Going On" or "Embraceable You" and his brother Ira could match him with words. "How do you explain the Gershwins?" asks Schwartz. "That either one would have a brother with this kind of complementary palate?"

Collectively, says Tony Bennett, these writers created "the best of our music."

That's why, the lush and melodic opening line "At last ... " is hard at work selling Jaguars, by conjuring elegance and class.

"Most people are much more familiar with this music than they think," says Mark Lamos, co-creator and director of the Broadway show "The Gershwins' Fascinatin' Rhythm" that opened in the spring. "It's a part of the culture. It's in everyone's mind."

Neither familiarity nor quality can guarantee viability in a world driven by free-market commerce, as Vincent van Gogh could attest, and thus Golden Age popular music finds itself at a crossroads.

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