- - Thursday, May 7, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE B-SIDE: THE DEATH OF TIN PAN ALLEY AND THE REBIRTH OF THE GREAT AMERICAN SONG

By Ben Yagoda

Riverhead Books, $27.95, 310 pages

If you love music, especially if you’ve been following its twists and turns and ever-changing styles all through your life, you will want to read “The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song.”

As you delve into its pages, author Ben Yagoda will take you through the highlights of the often unmercifully tough music business, with its disappointments, a few familiar rags-to-riches experiences, overnight and short-lived wonders, along with more numerous failures.

Indeed, “The B-Side” has lots of human drama, but in the end, it’s the music that moves the reader; whether or not you literally “hear” it, of course, it’s just there, flowing through the reader’s head; pop tunes, big-band, Dorsey brothers, Glenn Miller, or Bing (born “Harry”) Crosby, riding high at mid-career as King of the Crooner Hill until, in the 1940s, a 20-something from across the river in Hoboken came to Manhattan and (in Pied-Piperesque fashion) lured live audiences of utterly screaming teenage bobby-soxers. They, in turn, sent the name of Frank Sinatra into the stratosphere of perpetual fame apparently destined to last way past his demise, which came in May 1998. There were those who declared on that day, the 20th century itself had just ended, the real calendar to the contrary notwithstanding. That was it. For them there was no more.

In this book, lyrics to the tune “The Song is Ended, but the Memory Lingers on” come to mind, just from reading, haunted by whatever “can’t stop humming” ditty or “masterpiece melody” goes through the head. Maybe it recalls memories of a long-ago high school prom, a long lost love, the first time you dated the person who later became your partner in life; joyous or sad times in family life; there is no end to the memories conjured up.

Many others were “honorable mentions” in the pre-rock era. Buddy Clark (“You’re Breaking my Heart”) was on track to match Bing and Frank until he was tragically killed in a plane crash in ‘49.

For some, the “song” almost was ended literally. Two mid-century events changed America’s tastes for good, bad or neither depending on one’s preferences.

The intervention of World War II, for one: Uncle Sam depleted the big bands that had ruled supreme since the early 1930s and the onset of the Great Depression. Among the most celebrated cases was that of big band leader Glenn Miller who — traveling to entertain the troops — disappeared in bad weather. His music had contributed to such wartime morale-boosters as “There’ll be Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover, Tomorrow Just You Wait and See.”

The second lead-up to what became of America’s Great Music Revolution concerned the big national musicians strike, led by James Cesar Petrillo, president of the American Federation of Musicians. His gripe was that because music programs in radio’s early years had always featured live music, that should always be the case, unless individual musicians were paid each time their instruments were played on the newly arrived recordings.

That blow added an extra burden to an industry already reeling from a “big band era” that had come to a screeching halt almost concurrent with the explosion of the second (and last) war-ending bomb to drop on the Japanese.

During the “lost decade,” 1945-1955, sometimes so named because it was squeezed between the “big-band” and “rock” eras, America — contrary to a questionable “conventional wisdom” — underwent a burst of musical enthusiasm that included hit songs from Broadway and Hollywood lineups that were gathering their “second winds” following the previous disruptions referred to above (especially in‘49 on Broadway with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific”).

Mr. Yagoda omits mentions of such flashes-in-the-pan of that decade as Chicago’s Al Trace (“You Call Everybody Darlin’ “) and organist Ken Griffin (“You Can’t Be True, Dear”), which in the large scheme of things, were less memorable than many others, but nonetheless attracted coins in the juke boxes, to say nothing of bustling record sales.

However, as the saying goes, if a stream is blocked from one path, it will surely find another. There were some remnants of the big bands then. Stan Kenton’s orchestra was still grinding out great material, most notably with June Christy as vocalist. They had a great following. The book grants rock icons their due; Elvis Presley, The Beatles, the Beach Boys, but those in the second tier get short shrift.

Mitch Miller, the great songwriter-arranger for Columbia and others, got a rousing ovation from a convention of disk jockeys when he said there’s nothing wrong with pleasing tastes of the “pre-shave” crowd, but that something should be left on the music tables for “the rest of us.”

Wes Vernon has been a disk jockey, deejay and a broadcast journalist with CBS Radio in Washington.

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