A commenter to this blog, Dismuke, introduced me to his web site, which has an internet radio station that plays music from 1925-1935. The recordings of the early ‘30s are my favorite of all time because they have that ‘20s bounce but also have a string section. Some of the ‘20s jazz combo recordings can sound too rinky-dink, and then the recordings in the late ‘30s and ‘40s get too sleepy. The big bands lost the string section in the late ‘30s – a string section is expensive – giving rise to the Glenn Miller/Tommy Dorsey sound that most people associate with swing. This sound is okay, but it doesn’t send me like that early ‘30s sound. ‘40s swing has neither the snappy hot beat nor the beauty of strings. Nothing can top a string section bouncing along an upbeat, syncopated melody.
(Along with arrangements, songwriting deteriorated greatly in the ‘40s. The rise of boogie woogie made the melodies less interesting. The stage was set for Rock’n’Roll and the backbeat juggernaut.)
Another great thing about ‘30s recordings is that the singers perform the songs at the upbeat tempo they were written to be sung at. Modern cabaret singers drive me crazy because they slow down the songs in order to show off their voices. This often destroys the songs. Take George and Ira Gershwin’s “I’ve Got A Crush On You,” for example. It was done on Broadway as an upbeat song. I would bet that if you listened to 100 modern cabaret singers do this song, not one would do it at the right tempo. They slow it down and make it a torch song. You lose so much when that happens, especially with Gershwin, who was the most kinetic and danceable of composers. (Harry Warren, in my opinion, has the second best dancing drive in his melodies. He is not as famous as the Broadway songwriters because he worked in Hollywood and the East Coast intellectuals used to turn their nose up at the movies.)
Also, the ‘30s singers sing the melody right, with the exception of Billie Holliday, who was constitutionally incapable of singing a song straight. When singers do a Sarah Vaughan and change the melody, I think, “Well, this singer considers himself a better songwriter than Jerome Kern (or whoever).” I prefer melodies sung the way they were written.
There was a long period in the 1980’s when I listened to nothing but ‘30s music. I found myself writing ‘30s songs in my head. I remember when I was around the age of 30 walking up Lexington Avenue in New York City with this Gershwin-like bouncy tune in my head. I decided I had to learn how to write music so I could get it down and not forget it. I bought books and learned (just barely) to write a lead sheet. I had long talks with a conservatory-trained composer at my day job and picked up some great tips for harmonizing. I then wrote the book, lyrics and music to an unproduced musical comedy in the ‘30s style.
Nowadays I’m writing songs in an early ‘60s style that I want to record in a studio in a fellow’s garage in Riverside, California. (It’s the Army of Davids scenario. I can do things in a garage that pros could not do 30 years ago.) I fear that listening to Radio Dismuke will screw up my songwriting, because when I listen to too much ‘30s music, I start writing it. After hearing just a few songs I have that sound running in my head right now. Lou Reed says it’s fun living with a radio in your head. I know what he means.
But it might not be so bad getting reacquainted with ‘30s songs. I have noticed that if you take ‘30s melody and harmony and put a backbeat to it, the result sounds like something from the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. Those Brill Building songwriters had roots in the pre-rock tradition. And some pre-rock songs have been quite successful in the rock era: “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” “Dream A Little Dream of Me,” “I Only Have Eyes For You,” “Summertime.” And who can forget Paco’s rendition of “Puttin’ On the Ritz”? I wish I could.
UPDATE: Dismuke’s myspace page has three fabulous recordings that play when you click on the page. The recording of “As Time Goes By” is a perfect example of what I mean about songs sung at the right tempo. For the last 60 years I don’t think anyone has recorded that song at the pace of the Columbians here. When you slow the song down, I tell you, it becomes dreary and dull. Why, oh why can’t singers get it right?
In the original production of Show Boat in 1928, believe it or not, both "Old Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man of Mine" were uptempo happy songs. Those repetitive, syncopated melodies are infectious toe-tappers when done moderately fast. Imagine trying to get a singer to do one of those songs with some pace today! I don't know if Paul Robeson was the first singer to slow "Old Man River" down, but it would be nice if he was -- then I could call slow tempos a commie plot.
I wish I could listen to this music while I work, but unfortunately my day job involves listening FM radio stations. Instead of Radio Dismuke, I have to listen to Hip-Hop, which is rather like saying instead of visiting John Galt I have to spend time with Charles Manson.