That Old Feeling: Your Father's Favorite Songs

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Last week, we asked the musical question: What do these songs have in common?



"Are You Lonesome Tonight" (Elvis Presley) written by Roy Turk and Lou Handman, 1926
"Blue Moon" (The Marcels) by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, 1934
"Dream a Little Dream of Me" (The Mamas & the Papas) by Gus Kahn, Wilbur Schwandt and Fabian André, 1931
"I Only Have Eyes for You" (The Flamingoes) by Al Dubin and Harry Warren, 1934
"The More I See You" (Chris Montez) by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren, 1945
"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" (The Platters) by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach, 1933
"Try a Little Tenderness" (Otis Redding) by Harry Woods, Jimmy Campbell and Reg Connelly, 1932
"Way Down Yonder in New Orleans" (Freddy Cannon) by Henry Creamer and Turner Layton, 1922
"When I Fall in Love" (The Lettermen) by Edward Hayman and Victor Young, 1951
"Who's Sorry Now" (Connie Francis) by Burt Kalmar, Harry Ruby and Ted Snyder, 1923

And the answer is: They were all pop standards successfully revived in the first dozen years of the Age of Rock. If we'd wanted to expand the category, we might have added revivals from a later era, such as Taco's 1982 techno-pop version of Irving Berlin's "Puttin' On the Ritz" or the Four Lads' 1953 "Istanbul, Not Constantinople" as remade by They Might Be Giants in 1990. But by then, the trend of updating venerable favorites had disappeared. I have the suspicion that the definition of "old songs" had become blurred, and irrelevant for the very generation that needed to be inspired by them.

My father sang old songs, in a handsome tenor delicately cured by years of Pall Mall cigarettes. He had courted my mother with the DeSylva-Brown-Henderson song "It All Depends on You," and convinced her, for a while, that he'd written it for her. His facility with an old tune encouraged me to a brief public singing career, which peaked when I was five and performed "Cruising Down the River" before a Cape May, N.J., audience that included John Carradine — an actor so gaunt and sere that the sassy wits of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" once noted, "John makes Keith Richards look dewy." At the end of my rendition, Carradine graciously gave me a half-dollar, which was real money in those days.

I soon retired, perhaps intuiting that my professional destiny would be that of a voyeur, not an exhibitionist. But I continued to amass an informal catalog of pop songs, old and new — and as a child, how would I know the difference? The TV stars of the early '50s, Hope and Crosby and Durante, each had a signature tune from way back when. The films of the day were awash with nostalgia, musical as well as social. "Singin' in the Rain" was set in the '20s, "The Band Wagon" in the '50s, but both used tunes from the '30s. Doris Day fronted a mini-genre of old-song movies: "Tea for Two," "On Moonlight Bay," "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," "Love Me or Leave Me." Some of her pictures, like "Young at Heart," mixed old and new songs. But even when she sang a modern ballad, like "Secret Love" in "Calamity Jane," it inhabited the idiom that Jerome Kern had created and a generation of blithe geniuses had perfected. Something smooth and romantic. The kind of song my father cherished, and that I easily learned to love. Tin Pan Elegance.

If he were still around, he'd have feasted on the new collection "Reading Lyrics" (Pantheon, $39.50), in which Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimble have assembled the words to more than a thousand songs from 1900 to 1975. Though it starts a few arguments with its selections and, even more, its omissions, this is an invaluable book of musical memories; I dare anyone over 40 not to start singing out loud. "Reading Lyrics" is not just a nostalgia wallow, it offers irrefutable evidence that the best songs of the century's first half were three- minute artworks, heartbreakers, charts to America's energetic, essentially optimistic interior life.

And then along came rock. Changed everything, right? In the official histories, rock 'n' roll was a revolutionary force, a primal bleat obliterating the more genteel music that had preceded it. Once the kids heard Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" in the summer of 1955, their memories were magically erased of pop pap. No more Four Lads, Four Aces, Four Jacks and a Jill. Anyway, that's the story. But I'm not sticking to it — because rock in its first flush coexisted with, and borrowed from, the music it supposedly R.I.P.'d. As surely as rock scavenged the blues and hillbilly idioms, it also fed on the whole American song tradition. The begetters of the new sound foraged through dusty sheet music and scratchy 78s for material they could make their own.

It wasn't just the doo-woppers (Platters, Marcels) and Italian-American bleaters (Freddy Cannon, Connie Francis) who padded or enriched their repertoire with pop oldies. It was rock's prime begetters. Elvis scored a huge hit with the Civil War ballad "Love Me Tender" and a memorably smooth dirge with the Ink Spots' "That's When Your Heartaches Begin" (the B side of "All Shook Up"). Fats Domino had an early breakout with the 1924 "My Blue Heaven"; he ruled the charts with "Blueberry Hill," which has been introduced in 1940 by Gene Autry and went to No. 1 in a Glenn Miller version. Jerry Lee Lewis covered Hank Williams' "Jambalaya" and God's "When the Saints Go Marchin' In." These performers — we didn't dare call them artists; they gave us too much pleasure — respected the tradition they were rebelling against, or expanding.

Or competing against. The ballad tradition had surprising gasps of vigor left in its venerable frame. The songs Frank Sinatra introduced in the late '50s ("All the Way," "Witchcraft," etc.) may not have lodged in the soul the way his earlier songs did, but they sold big. And they were featured on Top 40 radio, along with Kingston Trio–style pop folk Johnny Mathis love songs and lush movie instrumentals; the top-selling single of 1960 was the theme from "Exodus," with the theme from "The Apartment" close behind. Even Percy Faith, the prince of symphonic pabulum, made hit records, for Pete's sake! Did any readers or their parents, I wonder, make out to "Theme from 'A Summer Place'"? For an impressionable blind date, those soaring strings were as reliable a mood-setter as a gift copy of "The Prophet."

As rock aged, matured and evolved, it naturally built up its own huge repertoire. In the '60s, the Mamas & the Papas — steeped in older traditions of folk music and tight harmonizing — could revive the Rodgers-and-Hart chestnut "Sing for Your Supper." But when the Beatles recorded "standards," they were by naïve '50s composers like Larry Williams and Carl Perkins. Today, for several generations of Americans, the history of music is the history of rock. The Dawn of Creation isn't the songs of George M. Cohan or the Gershwins; it is "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "In the Still of the Nite" (by the Five Satins, not Cole Porter). Decades of indoctrination by oldies radio stations has taught kids the words to records released long before they were born. Somehow my nieces, born in the '60s, know every song from 1957, rock's annus mirabilis: "Rockin' Robin" and "Bye Bye, Love" and "I'm Walkin'" and "Jailhouse Rock." That would be the equivalent of my knowing every riff in every hit of the Big Band era — and I don't, though I could pass a test on the lyrics of Fred Astaire's '30s musicals.

I think that my nieces (who, in the great aural tradition, learned the songs from their parents) weren't responding so much to the lyrics, which were as primitive, in their night-tight, love-above rhyming, as an infant's mantra. I think they went for the music's incorrigible vitality — the can't-sit-down, gotta-feel-good clapping backbeat in the "I'm Walkin'" intro, to the "tweedly- deedly-dee" of "Rockin' Robin." Performers didn't waste 16 bars getting started; they established a beat and got into the song in seconds (and were often out in two minutes).

But there was also something like a melody. It might come from the Ozarks or a backwoods Alabama bawdy house instead of from the Brill Building on Broadway; but you could sing or shout it in the shower, in the car or to your first love. Which to me remains the simplest and deepest requirement for a good song. And which prods me to ask a melancholy question: Do today's kids, poor things, sing in the shower — and, if they sing today's hits, what melodies are left for them to carry?

I'm not arguing for the supremacy of all old music, just for a place, a continuing place, for the best of it in any astute listener's cerebral jukebox. Let a thousand singles bloom, including those perennials included in "Reading Lyrics." Organized by lyricist, the book spotlights the acknowledged masters as well as some lesser-known lights: Woods ("Side by Side" and "When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin' Along" as well as "Try a Little Tenderness"), Leo Robin ("Beyond the Blue Horizon," "Thanks for the Memory"), Ted Koehler (who wrote that Janus-faced pair of standards, "I've Got the World on a String" and "I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues").

It's salutary to find that, from the beginning, black songwriters worked successfully in pop. Creamer wrote "If I Could Be With You" and "After You've Gone." Cecil Mack created "Charleston." And the great Andy Razaf collaborated famously with Fats Waller on bubbly mischief-makers like "Ain't Misbehavin'" and the most poignant song in the book, the dark-skin lament "Black and Blue."

But you will be disappointed if you hoped to find here a history of the century's pop music. Gottlieb and Kimble will make a bland observation (like "There are historical moments that trigger new ideas — the Depression..."), then undercut it with an incorrect date ("I Can't Give You Anything But Love" came out in 1928, the year before the stock market crash). Nor do they offer instruction on the craft of reading lyrics (especially to forgotten or unknown tunes). "Reading song lyrics is very different from reading poems," the compilers say, and pretty much leave it at that. The lyricists are organized by date of birth, but the songs are printed alphabetically; you must turn to the back of the book to discover when each song was introduced. Readers will be putting a bookmark at page 645 to get to the Index, or they will go nuts flipping pages.

Gottlieb and Kimble confess their "painful decision to limit the field to the song as we know it from shows, movies and pre-rock pop." Here they are declaring the prejudice of their age; these distinguished gents were kids in the '30s. To them, rock is not only post-classic, it's pre-literate. It's as if the summer of 1955 was the season the music died. So the volume includes some Broadway behemoths, Stephen Sondheim and Fred Ebb (somehow neglecting Ebb's most unavoidable lyric, "New York, New York"), and cabaret composers like Bart Howard and Fran Landesman, but nothing from Nashville or Motown, or the Brill Building in its early-'60s flowering.

At the risk of declaring the prejudice of my age, I'd say that any book of 20th-century lyrics has a hole in it if it doesn't include Smokey Robinson's "The Tracks of My Tears," Phil Spector and Jerry Leiber's "Spanish Harlem," Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil's "You’ve Lost That Lovin' Feeling" or anything by Roy Orbison. Where's the Jerry Leiber–Mike Stoller "I'm a Woman," which Peggy Lee made the definitive cabaret song of the '60s? It's not here because Leiber and Stoller made their reps as the first great songwriting team of rock 'n' roll. Presumably they couldn't write pop.

But enough picking of nits. "Reading Lyrics" is a warm wallow in one enormous part of the American pop-music legacy. Bathing in it, I learned something strange. The songs most familiar to me were not the Sinatra standards of my youth. The ones whose tunes sang themselves to me were numbers from long before I was born: those chirpy anthems and plaintive ballads from the '20s, '30s and '40s. Like my nieces after me, I had unaccountably assimilated terrific songs from previous generations. Perhaps a half-century after I first heard them, I still knew and loved the songs my father taught me.

Thanks, Dad.