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‘The B-Side’ by Ben Yagoda

Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald performing on a TV special circa 1955.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald performing on a TV special circa 1955.

Rock ’n’ roll did not kill the Great American Songbook, Ben Yagoda demonstrates in his lively study tracing the cultural, legal, and financial evolution of the nation’s popular music industry through the 20th century. What we think of as a standard — an accessible yet sophisticated tune by Jerome Kern or George Gershwin with witty yet heartfelt lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein or Cole Porter (to name just a couple) — had already been overtaken in the marketplace in the early 1950s by soupy ballads and novelty numbers.

The songwriters thought they knew who was to blame; 33 of them filed a 1953 antitrust lawsuit against Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), and the networks and record companies that founded BMI in 1939, claiming that they conspired against artists associated with the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). The defendants were “placing American music in a strait jacket manipulated through BMI,” they claimed.

But it was much more complicated than that, and to explain why, Yagoda begins his chronicle in the early days of commercial music business, when songs had to be simple enough for amateurs to play at home from sheet music, the industry’s principal source of revenue. Then 78-rpm records brought songs performed by professional musicians into American living rooms, while the Copyright Act of 1909, which established royalties for songwriters, and the founding of ASCAP in 1913 to collect those royalties, gave the music’s creators a solid financial footing.

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These factors didn’t cause the explosion of creativity by mostly Jewish, mostly New York-based composers and lyricists, but Yagoda’s deft summary of their interconnected impact shows how they helped the Great American Songbook thrive through the 1930s, nourished by exposure in Broadway musicals, Hollywood movies, and radio programs.

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The rules of the game changed in the 1940s. War-separated lovers favored yearning ballads sung by crooning vocalists over dance-friendly standards played by big bands, whose importance declined further as recorded music supplanted live performances on the radio. A 10-month radio ban on ASCAP material, prompted by the organization’s demand for a steep royalty increase, led rival BMI hastily to sign up unaffiliated artists, among them African-American and country songwriters haughtily excluded by ASCAP.

The stage was set for disc jockeys and the record companies’ A&R (artists and repertoire) men to become the gatekeepers who decided which songs the public heard in the 1950s. Yagoda’s balanced but sharp portrait of Columbia Records’ Mitch Miller, who crafted such gimmicky hits as “Mule Train” (complete with echo chamber and cracking whip), is one of many mini-bios he skillfully employs to illustrate larger trends.

The narrative loses some focus as Yagoda moves into the late 1950s but that’s because he remains true to his inclusive ethos and covers a wide array of developments, including the division of the record market between 45s for the kids’ rock ’n’ roll singles and LPs for the Broadway cast albums and instrumental music their parents favored; the nurturing of standards as a historic legacy by Mabel Mercer, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra; and the arrival of a new generation of songwriters such as Gerry Goffin and Carole King, who rebooted Tin Pan Alley with a backbeat.

By the mid-1960s, that beat could be heard in records by the Beatles and an array of American singer-songwriters that were as sophisticated and complex in their own way as anything by Kern or Gershwin. “The final page had been turned on one songbook,” Yagoda concludes. “Another was just starting to be written.”

GAB Archive/Redferns
Songwriting collaborators Carole King and Gerry Goffin circa 1970.
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“The B-Side” is refreshing in several senses of the word. It’s refreshing to read a critic who loves the Great American Songbook and rock ’n’ roll, understanding that each expresses a vibrant facet of our polyglot, multiethnic national culture. And Yagoda refreshes his source material, much of which will be familiar to readers with an interest in the music industry or individual artists, by weaving it into a narrative that stresses continuity as well as change. Sheet-music publishers may lose their clout to record companies, live performances give way to recorded music as the primary way people hear new songs, but the complex interaction among commerce, art, and public taste is a constant. Yagoda follows its iterations through two world wars and into the 1960s knowledgeably and with infectious appreciation.

Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at the American Scholar, reviews books frequently for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and the Daily Beast.