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The Great American Songbook is a term used to denote the canon of the most important and most influential American popular songs of the 20th century – principally from Broadway theatre, musical theatre, and Hollywood musical film. Written from the 1920s through the 1950s, they include hundreds of songs of enduring popularity.
In one 1972 study of the canon, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950, songwriter and critic Alec Wilder provided a list of the artists he believes belong to the Great American Songbook canon, as well as his ranking of their relative worth. A composer himself, Wilder's primary emphasis is analysis of composers and their creative efforts.
Wilder devotes whole chapters to only six artists: Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, and Harold Arlen. Vincent Youmans and Arthur Schwartz share another chapter; Burton Lane, Hugh Martin and Vernon Duke share one more. Wilder provides one chapter covering songwriters he deemed "The Great Craftsmen": Hoagy Carmichael, Walter Donaldson, Harry Warren, Isham Jones, Jimmy McHugh, Duke Ellington, Fred Ahlert, Richard A. Whiting, Ray Noble, John Green, Rube Bloom and Jimmy Van Heusen. Wilder concludes with a catch-all 67-page chapter entitled "Outstanding Individual Songs: 1920 to 1950" that includes other individual songs that he considers memorable.
It is possible to determine songwriters from the latter half of the 20th century who fit into the Great American Songbook canon. For many, the Songbook era ended with rock and roll; Wilder ends with 1950. However, many songwriters have persevered in continuing this style of writing, in cabaret, in theater, in film and in television. Near the end of Johnny Carson's run hosting the Tonight Show, Joe Williams introduced a new standard, Here's to Life by Artie Butler. In retrospect, radio personality and Songbook devotee Jonathan Schwartz has described it as "America's classical music". What makes these songs classic is their lasting value for one, but in structure, musical content, phrasing, and details of composition, they remain close to classical music, the difference being context and a greater emphasis on rhythm and closeness to speech rather than pure singing. The biggest threat to this music has been the long period in which there were no variety shows on which new songs could be introduced to the public, and the declining use of songs in movies, as well as the filtering in of commercial rock and pop influence on Broadway shows. Nevertheless, in the 1970s-90s, one could still encounter wonderful songs by Henry Mancini, Michel Legrand, the lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Johnny Mandel, and many other composers still active, especially in Hollywood.
There is no definitive list of musicians and lyricists whose work constitutes the Great American Songbook, but the following writers and songs are often included:
Despite the relatively narrow range of topics and moods dealt with in many of the songs, the best Great American Songbook lyricists specialized in witty, urbane lyrics with teasingly unexpected rhymes. The songwriters combined memorable melodies – which could be anything from pentatonic, as in a Gershwin tune like "I Got Rhythm", to sinuously chromatic, as in many of Cole Porter's tunes – and great harmonic subtlety, a good example being Kern's "All the Things You Are", with its winding modulations.
Many of the songs in the Great American Songbook are in thirty-two-bar form. Many were composed for musicals, and some originally included an introductory sectional verse.
The sectional verse is a musical introduction that typically has a free musical structure, speech-like rhythms, and rubato delivery. The sectional verse served as a way of leading from the surrounding realistic context of the play into the more artificial world of the song, and often has lyrics that are in character and make reference to the plot of the musical for which the song was originally written.
The song itself is usually a 32-bar AABA or ABAC form, and the lyrics usually refer to more universal and timeless situations and themes – typically, for instance, the vicissitudes of love. This greater universality made it easier for songs to be added to or subtracted from a show, or revived in a different show.
A few of the songs which were written with an introductory sectional verse are nearly always performed in full with the introduction. However, the sectional verse, if it exists, is often dropped in performances of Great American Songbook songs outside their original stage or movie context. Whether or not the sectional verse is sung often depends on what the song is and who is singing it. For example, Frank Sinatra never recorded "Fly Me to the Moon" with the introductory sectional verse, but Nat King Cole did.
Since the 1930s, many singers have explicitly recorded or performed large parts of the Great American Songbook. Lee Wiley was among the first to record collections of one specific songwriter or songwriting team, beginning with George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin (1939), followed by Cole Porter (1940), Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (1940), Harold Arlen (1943), Irving Berlin (1951) and Vincent Youmans (1951).
Ella Fitzgerald's popular and influential Songbook series on Verve in the 1950s and 1960s collated 252 songs from the Songbook. These eight collections paid tribute to Cole Porter (1956), Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (1956), Duke Ellington (1957), Irving Berlin (1958), George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin (1959), Harold Arlen (1961), Jerome Kern (1963) and Johnny Mercer (1964).
Other influential early interpreters of the Great American Songbook include Fred Astaire, Mildred Bailey, Chet Baker, Tony Bennett, June Christy, Rosemary Clooney, Nat "King" Cole, Perry Como, Barbara Cook, Jane Froman, Chris Connor, Bing Crosby, Vic Damone, Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Doris Day, Blossom Dearie, Billy Eckstine, Alice Faye, Helen Forrest, The Four Freshmen, Connie Francis, Judy Garland, Eydie Gorme, Johnny Hartman, Dick Haymes, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Joni James, Jack Jones, Al Jolson, Cleo Laine, Frankie Laine, Steve Lawrence, Peggy Lee, Julie London, Dean Martin, Tony Martin, Johnny Mathis, Carmen McRae, Mabel Mercer, Helen Merrill, Anita O'Day, Patti Page, Dinah Shore, Bobby Short, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Keely Smith, Kay Starr, Jo Stafford, Barbra Streisand (particularly in her earlier work), Maxine Sullivan, Mel Tormé, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Ethel Waters, Margaret Whiting, Andy Williams, Joe Williams and Nancy Wilson.
Over the last several decades, there has been a revival of the Songbook by contemporary singers.
In 1970, Ringo Starr released Sentimental Journey, an album of 12 standards arranged by various musicians. In 1973, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson released a critically well-received album of 12 classic standards, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, arranged by Gordon Jenkins. The album was re-issued on CD in 1988 with a total of 18 standards sung by Nilsson. Also in 1973, Bryan Ferry, of Roxy Music fame, released These Foolish Things, and he has subsequently recorded several such albums. In 1978, country singer Willie Nelson released a collection of popular standards titled Stardust. This was considered risky at the time but the album has become the best-selling and perhaps the most enduring of Nelson's career.
In 1983, popular rock vocalist Linda Ronstadt released What's New, her first in a trilogy of standards albums recorded with arranger/conductor Nelson Riddle. Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote:
|“||What's New isn't the first album by a rock singer to pay tribute to the golden age of the pop, but is ... the best and most serious attempt to rehabilitate an idea of pop that Beatlemania and the mass marketing of rock LP's for teen-agers undid in the mid-60s. During the decade prior to Beatlemania, most of the great band singers and crooners of the 40s and 50s codified a half-century of American pop standards on dozens of albums, many of them now long out-of-print.||”|
In 1991, Natalie Cole released a highly successful album Unforgettable... with Love, which spawned a Top 40 hit "Unforgettable", a virtual "duet" with her father, Nat "King" Cole. Follow-up albums such as Take a Look were also successful.
Since the mid-1980s, vocalists such as Michael Feinstein, Harry Connick, Jr., Michael Bublé, Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, Karrin Allyson, Susannah McCorkle, John Pizzarelli, Stacey Kent and Ann Hampton Callaway have been notable interpreters of the Songbook throughout their careers. Michael Feinstein in particular has been a dedicated proponent, archivist, revivalist, and preservationist of the material since the late 1970s.
Since 1980, various established singers in unrelated genres have also had success in treating the Songbook. Beginning in 2002, Rod Stewart has devoted a series of studio albums to Songbook covers, indeed using the "Great American Songbook" name explicitly. Other rock and pop artists who have utilised the work include Keith Richards, Carly Simon, Bette Midler, Gloria Estefan, Barry Manilow, Caetano Veloso, Pia Zadora, Queen Latifah, Joni Mitchell, Boz Scaggs, Robbie Williams, Sting, Ray Reach, Pat Benatar, Morrissey, Norah Jones and Rufus Wainwright, with a great variation of musical success. In 2012, Sir Paul McCartney joined this list with the album Kisses on the Bottom. John Stevens, a 2004 American Idol contestant, also gave exposure to this trend. Steve Tyrell has forged a successful solo career with his interpretations of songs from the Great American Songbook. His version of "The Way You Look Tonight" for Father of the Bride (1991) was noticed and kept in the film at the insistence of its star, Steve Martin. This led to several albums, including A New Standard, Standard Time, and Bach to Bacharach.