Clockwise from top left: Anita O'Day, Nelson Riddle, Everyone Says I Love You, Hoagy Carmichael
I had the wonderful opportunity to interview the brilliant mastermind behind one of my very favorite music blogs ever: Brian Solomon blogs at Standard of the Day and highlights a different song from the Great American Songbook almost every day. I've loved reading the history and lyrics behind some of my favorite songs and learned about songs I'd never heard. It was tons of fun to pick his brain about his (and my!) favorite period of music.
1. What do you think sets the songs in the Great American Songbook apart from other songs? Tunes? Lyrics?
I think it's the combination of both, really. Since the days of the Songbook ended, the emphasis seems to have shifted heavily to the importance of lyrics. The concept of melody has unfortunately taken a backseat. What made those songs so memorable was the gorgeous melodies, first. Then the lyrics, which were so often rather simple, yet so expressive without being pretentious.
There has been such a stress on the concept of autobiographical songwriting since the dawn of the era of the singer/songwriter in the 1960s, that we've lost the concept of beauty in music. It's all about telling people about yourself instead--rather narcissistic, if you ask me.
2. Okay, I know that the second you answer this question, you'll think of another answer but, as of this very moment, what is your favorite song and why? Who performed this song best?
I have always been partial to If I Had You by Irving King & Ted Shapiro. Although it hearkens back to the 1920s, I actually fell in love with it from when it was used in the 1996 Woody Allen film Everyone Says I Love You. I remember singing it to my newborn daughter as I held her in my arms for the very first time in the hospital on the day she was born. Sinatra does a fine version of it on Great Songs from Great Britain, but I think my favorite version may actually be Sarah Vaughan's rendition from The Benny Carter Sessions.
3. Which standards do you think get neglected? Which songwriters? Which interpreters?
Well, the one I just mentioned is definitely one that does. There are so many songs off the beaten path of the recognized greats like Berlin, Porter, Kern, Rodger & Hart, etc. that get neglected. Arthur Schwartz & Howard Deitz are a great example of an often overlooked songwriting team--these guys wrote Dancing in the Dark, I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plans, and so many others. I also think Hoagy Carmichael doesn't always get the credit he deserves anymore, because he was someone who wrote strictly in the Tin Pan Alley tradition, which was considered less presitigious than writing for the stage. He's remembered for Stardust of course, but there are so many others, like I Get Along Without You Very Well, for example.
As for neglected interpreters of popular song, I've always thought that Joe Williams was one of the very best. And Dinah Washington really deserves to be right up there with Billy, Ella and Sarah. On today's scene, there's a magnificent singer named Maude Maggart--who happens to be Fiona Apple's sister--who is absolutely amazing.
4. Describe your ideal morning, afternoon or evening (I know it doesn't have anything to do with standards, but I always want to know what people's ideal days are like).
My ideal evening would be watching a great old Universal monster movie with my kids, then reading to them before bed--I'm in the middle of reading The Iliad to my five-year-old son, believe it or not, and he loves it! After that, my wife and I curl up together on the couch with our books (God Is not Great by Christoper Hitchens at the moment), with some fine old LP recordings playing in the background, perhaps a glass of merlot. And there we stay, until we can no longer keep our eyes open.
5. What are some singers/musicians you can recommend to those who want to broaden their standard-listening beyond Frank Sinatra?
I'd definitely recommend Mel Torme, who may have been the second greatest male pop vocalist of the postwar pop era. You can never go wrong with Ella Fitzgerald, of course, but beyond her I would recommend Anita O'Day and Nancy Wilson. Chet Baker is another amazing vocalist and instrumentalist who is a joy to discover. Outside of vocalists, I happen to be a big fan of Fats Waller's instrumental recordings, as well as the collaborations of Django Reinhardt & Stephane Grappelli.
6. What lyrically, melodically, arrangement-wise makes you love a song: what grabs you and makes you stay beyond the first several seconds?
I am such a huge proponent of the importance of a great arranger. As great as he was, Sinatra was in part MADE great by the efforts of men like Axel Stordahl, Gordon Jenkins, Billy May and most of all, Nelson Riddle. I enjoy an arrangement that is strong enough to play with the melody without obscuring it, and which frames the singer while also allowing the band to have its fun.
I wish I could articulate better what melodically draws me to a song, but I think I lack the technical knowledge of music. There are just those enthralling chord progressions that draw you in--Berlin was a master of this, for example, in songs like Always.
Lyrically, what I love about the great standards is that they had such an unassuming charm to them. Some of it may have become cliché over the years, but we forget it became so because it rings so very true. I also love a lyric that deals in specifics rather than generalities, which is why I adore Porter stuff like You're the Top and Ira Gershwin's They Can't Take that Away from Me.
7. What song immediately makes you happy when it starts to play?
The first one that comes to mind is Harold Arlen & Ted Koehler's I've Got the World on a String. What a pure expression of joy and enthusiasm that song is! And I mean song, and not recording, as just about any recording of it can bring a smile to my face--obviously Sinatra's and Crosby's stand out in particular.