By Robert Walton
I don’t know when the expression “The Great American Songbook” was coined and by whom, but a more suitable name for that magical era from about 1920 to 1960 was long overdue. Will Friedwald and Michael Feinstein both use the phrase freely. Before it entered the language, those evergreens, mainly from Broadway shows and Hollywood musicals, were usually described as “standards”. This is the term for tried and tested songs of outstanding quality and originality that have earned their place over the years for their sheer staying power and have become established in the repertoire. But the word “standard” isn’t exactly the most descriptive of names.
On the other hand, “The Great American Songbook” somehow perfectly sums up the entire period. Certainly there’s no denying the best and the bulk of the songs were written by Americans, especially the Big 5 (Berlin, Gershwin, Kern, Porter, and Rodgers), so the term is spot on. Although these songs were first associated with singers, a large part of their continued fame is due to non-vocal versions. So without the bonus of instrumentals “The Great American Songbook” wouldn’t have reached such a wide audience. The word “songbook” suggests a massive imaginary tome of vocal compositions each one containing two main ingredients (words and music). But tunes by themselves can be just as potent. Even in an instrumental, the lyrics can be “sung” subconsciously, especially by older listeners without being aware they’re doing it. Younger people will hopefully enjoy the melodies for their own sake.
Andre Kostelanetz may have been one of the first conductor/arrangers to elevate these songs to a new level of symphonic treatment, but it was Paul Weston who invented the mood album concept in 1944 with “Music for Dreaming”, consisting of four 78s. Using the framework of a big band and a string section (a forerunner of the Farnon format), Weston’s arrangements appealed more to those who had enjoyed the swing era. In the process he, and others, gave “The Great American Songbook” more publicity than it could have dreamed of. In fact this constant exposure of standards also acted like a permanent reference point for anyone on the lookout for material.
On the other side of the Atlantic in the early part of WW2, another kind of mood music was stirring, that of the Chappell Recorded Music Library. But this was “pure” mood music designed specifically as background music for films, newsreels, documentaries, television and radio that also generated many memorable signature tunes. Because of public demand, a number of these were released commercially. This particular Golden Era of works by the finest composers, conductors and arrangers has never been equaled. A world away from the light music of the 1930s, these compositions were totally fresh and modern unlike anything heard before.
And the main men responsible for this event were two of Russian descent and a Canadian. The latter, the prodigious Robert Farnon, created a whole new genre of music with his unique melodic and harmonic style. The two other light orchestral composers were Sidney Torch who wrote many original cameos of extraordinary quality, and Charles Williams, another prolific writer who conducted the first recordings in 1942. And proving to be the perfect interpreters of these gems was the legendary Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra. Other talented writers from the same stable included Jack Beaver, Robert Busby, Bruce Campbell, Eric Coates, Frederic Curzon, Trevor Duncan, Vivian Ellis, Philip Green, Geoffrey Henman, Byron Lloyd, Angela Morley, Clive Richardson, Colin Smith, Len Stevens, Jack Strachey, Edward White, Haydn Wood and Peter Yorke.
Many other publishers, composers and orchestras contributed to this vast library of subjects, situations and emotions that lasted well into the 1960s. This twenty-five year phenomenon is unlikely ever to be repeated. Inspired by the title “The Great American Songbook”, this most exclusive and original back catalogue of highly specialized music has more than earned its place as “The Great British Mood Music Album!”
On a very cursory glance, I will not question anything in Bob's article, although I may have more to say later. I would only note an omission (for me) of one of the top purveyors of mood music that was featured by the Queen's Hall Light Orchestra; namely, Felton Rapley, on whom I wrote a few lines in an issue of the JIM magazine.
As for the great song writers of America, the so-called Big 5, as catchy and immediately attractive as many of their creations were, I would still maintain that most of them would not have gotten as far as they did in the absence of suitable and viable settings for these songs. I brought this out in a comment in response to another I made concerning an article of mine that appeared some time ago. My feelings are that the arrangers that produced these settings fully deserve as much if not more credit than the song writers being referred to.
I am fully open to debate on this issue.