-- April 4, 2018
What ever happened to popular music?
No, this isn't about my taste in music, nor yours. It is a much broader
question, about what the world considers music and musicianship. That
changed radically around 1960, give or take a few years. Before the
change, a song was a song and could have lots of perfectly valid and
very different performances. After the change, the
defining performance became the song -- was
the song -- pretty much to the exclusion of every other performance.
Let me begin by illustrating my point with an exchange I had with my friend Stuart
Klipper on Facebook in 2017. Stuart and I are friends from childhood;
we go back to Junior High School. So we are both certifiable old
is a transcript of our conversation, only slightly edited so you
can make sense of it even if you weren't there at the time.
I just heard a piano version of the melody on the radio. I thought I'd
find someone singing it. Ella!
Ella Fitzgerald - But Not For Me
One of my favorite songs, written by one of my favorite
songwriters (George Gershwin, right behind Richard Rodgers), sung very
well by one of my favorite female vocalists. Thanks for posting that,
A big favorite of mine:
They Didn't Believe Me ♛ Dinah Shore
Great song, and I love Jerome Kern stuff. The Dinah
rendition was OK, but didn't grab me, so I started browsing YouTube for
one that did. I think Ella could have done really well with it, but
couldn't not find one that she sang. Did run across a remarkably
Ella-like recording by Ernestine Anderson (whom I've never heard of)
that I enjoyed. (DaveT
note: when I went back in April 2018, that recording had been deleted;
here's another that may or may not be the same rendition.)
Ernestine Anderson - They Didn't Believe Me
I just grabbed the [Dinah] Shore cuz it was the first one that
came up. Had I more time I would have sought out a really early period
recording. It does go way back, and was inventively way
ahead of its time.
, "really early period". The song was
written in 1914. Holy s**t!!! That's over 100 years ago now. I am
REALLY a geezer.
Please ignore the record hiss on this one. It's one of
the first recordings of the song: 1915, less than a year after it was
Walter Van Brunt and Gladys Rice - They
Didn't Believe Me (1915)
The recording that made it a really big hit was a long time later:
1949. That's the one I grew up with and remember. If you were into
musicals from that era, you know that Mario Lanza and Kathryn Grayson
are among the best. Goosebumps time.
"They didn't believe me", duet from MGM
movie "That Midnight Kiss" 1949. The golden voices of M. Lanza and K.
Between Stuart Klipper and me, we posted 4 completely different
treatments of the same song. And we could have posted 10 or 15, and
they would still be quite different one to the next. The 1915 is
probably very close to what Jerome Kern expected. But, from exactly the same
song, we have a myriad of totally different performances, many of them
well worth listening to. I can't imagine having that same exchange
about songs from recent decades. Here's what I see today.
The song isn't the performance, but it has become soWhere the previous paragraph reads "from exactly the
same song", I originally wrote it as "from exactly the same lead sheet".
A "lead sheet" is the sheet music professional musicians take to gigs
-- or at least used to take to gigs. It is sheet music containing only the melody
line, the names of the chords, and maybe the lyrics. It isn't a
complete instrumentation, nor even the familiar piano arrangement. Just
melody, chords, and lyrics. It is the purest embodiment of
a song. Here's a [not so random] example of a lead
This very typical lead sheet was photographed from one of my "fake books", a
term for a bound or looseleaf collection of lead sheets. Musicians
playing actual live gigs have to be economical of how much paper they
carry to their performances. The song from the lead sheet, if
it were printed as a
full piano arrangement, would probably have taken three pages. You can
see that the lead
sheet itself is only half a page in the fake book. A typical fake
book has two or three songs per page, and often hundreds of
pages. (My first fake book must have had close to a thousand songs.)
For many decades, a lead sheet was all a real musician would need in
create a performance. A trained and experienced musician could weave a
good-sounding arrangement around this information, and the better ones
could even transpose the key on the fly. Naturally, with the
information being just
sheet, every musician's performance would sound different; that's how
done. There are lots of ways to play it if all that constrained you was
the melody and the chords. (An anecdote illustrating this point is in the footnotes.)
As a result, when an artist would "cover" a song, it could sound
completely different from any other artist's rendition except for the
melody, chords, and lyrics. Could -- and usually would.
All that changed in the early 1960s. All of a sudden, an individual
the song, it defined the song. If a band were going to play the song in
a club, at a party, even in a recording, it had to sound like THE defining
performance. That was the only arrangement that would be acceptable,
and you had to stick as close as you could to that one in order to
avoid disappointing your audience. You can't work from a
lead sheet today as a musician, you must work from the
arrangement. I may not like it, but that's the way it is.
Rather than generalities, let's take a specific case and see how it
At Last: a case study
If you mention the song "At Last" to someone today, at least nine out
of ten would say, "Of course, Etta James." Her performance is the
defining performance of the song since the 1970s.
"AT LAST" + Lyrics ETTA JAMES - Original
I am amused by the conceit in the "subject" line assigned by whoever
uploaded it to YouTube: "Original Version" indeed! It may have been
James' first recording of the song, but hardly the original version.
The song itself was written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren in 1941 for
a movie, and released as a single and copyrighted in 1942. (The writers
and the copyright date are clearly visible in the lead sheet we looked at
earlier. You can click on the lead sheet for a higher resolution
version if you
Etta James made her recording in 1960, when the song
was well known for almost 20 years. Well known? Definitely! After its
debut in the movie, there were lots of recordings and live performances
before Etta James got hold of it. Here are just a few of the more
those were before Etta James, and each renewed the public's awareness
and love for the song. And every one of those recordings was closer to
the lead sheet than Etta's. Is that good or bad? I'll discuss that
next, or at least give my opinion. The point is that they were all
distinctly different performances from one another, many became popular,
I don't think any one displaced its predecessors in the
public's mind, and all preceded
Etta James' recording.
- Glenn Miller
recorded it in 1942; that was probably the original recording. With a
band of that stature, you better believe it was well known; it reached
#9 on the charts that year.
- Ray Anthony recorded it in 1952.
- Nat King Cole recorded it in 1957.
So what do I think of Etta James' version of "At Last"? And make no
mistake; it is a version, not the
"At Last". Etta James is making jazz here. She's improvising on the
song as written, and wandering much further further from Warren's music
than any of the well-known recordings to that time. And she's doing a
good job. It's good music and, in the spirit of jazz, a good blend of
what was written and what she wanted to say. I consider it an
impressive performance, and worthy of the acclaim it has received.
My beef is not with Etta James, nor the song, nor her recording of it.
I'm upset about everybody who came after her. All of a sudden, Etta
James' performance is
the song! There have been plenty of covers of "At Last" since 1960.
Almost every one has taken Etta James' improvisation and copied it as
if it were the original melody.
What are the differences between Etta James' version and what is on the
lead sheet? Let's find just the first significant difference. Listen to
the beginning of the Nat King Cole recording; pay
attention to the line "and life is like a song" at the end of the first
verse. You will hear the melody exactly as written. Now listen to the
same line in Etta's version. She does it
completely differently; her departure -- her imrovisation -- is effective jazz musicianship. Everybody
since Etta has used the Etta melody line exactly. That's not
musicianship; it's just copying, almost to the point of plagiarism. And it's
like that throughout the song for almost every recording of "At
Last" since Etta did hers. That is certainly true for the best-known of
the covers, Beyonce and Celine Dion.
In fact, those
recordings even used the same instrumental introduction Etta did; bear
in mind, that intro was never part of the original song nor any
cover prior to Etta. (In
fairness to Beyonce, she first performed the song while acting the role
of Etta James in a movie. But then she allowed, even encouraged, the
typecast to stick.)
There is a real irony here! The essence of jazz -- the essence of
musical styling in general -- is to depart from the song as written in
some original, effective way. Etta James made the song her own with
improvisations that were rather marked departures from the written
melody. But almost every cover since Etta has followed her departures slavishly.
They are not singing "At Last", they are singing Etta James' rendition
of "At Last" -- explicitly. That's not just a cover, it's a copy. It
doesn't add anything original to the music -- not like Etta did. In
fact, it is more like Etta James' version than any of the earlier
were like each other, and those earlier versions stayed closer to the original lead sheet than Etta did.
I dare say that most people born after 1960 would simply not recognize
the original Glenn Miller recording as even being the song "At Last".
Today we have no current collection of improvisations around the original
melody that would provide a hint. Instead, there are only dead copies
of Etta James' version, which have actually redefined the melody for all practical purposes.
My assertion, to repeat, is that since around 1960 music fans have
insisted that the song be identical to some defining performance of it.
Once that performance is defined, any deviation is taken to be an error
by the modern listener. (I occasionally even catch myself reflecting
To find other examples to prove my thesis, I have to resort to
now-popular covers of much earlier songs, like Etta James' cover of
Gordon and Warren's "At Last". I can't point to songs since 1960,
because covers that deviate from the defining performance don't usually
survive; any survivors would be the exception rather than the rule. So
let's look at covers of earlier songs.
I know there are plenty more examples, but those come to mind at the
moment. I'll add to the list as they occur to me (or as my readers
bring them to my attention).
Gets In Your Eyes -- written by Jerome Kern (like They
Believe Me) in 1933, and recorded by everybody for the
next two decades. But the only version
anybody remembers today -- the one everybody tries to imitate down to
the note -- is The Platters from 1958.
- In fact, The Platters were masters of that genre. Their
recordings are the ones remembered of "My Prayer"
(written 1939, Platters cover 1956), "Twilight Time"
(original 1944, Platters 1958), and several others.
Those songs were far from obscure in their day, but The Platters' covers
have wiped away all memory of older recordings.
Sixteen -- Everybody today associates this song with Ringo
Starr. But Ringo's 1973 recording was a cover
of a 1960 song popularized by Johnny Burnette. It is even likely
that Ringo was inspired to do the cover when Burnette's by-then-ancient
recording was prominent on the soundtrack of "American Graffiti" in
Only Have Eyes for You -- The kitschy recording by the Flamingos (1959) is the only one
my generation is likely to recognize. That's a shame, because the
original from the movie with Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler (1935)
is a gem, and there have been stellar covers before and since the
Flamingos. In fact, the song was a jazz standard for years, with everybody riffing on it. As an
example of how many different ways a lead sheet can be treated, they
range from the jazzy rendition of Ella Fitzgerald (long before the
Flamingos) to the close harmonies of the Lettermen (a few years after the
Flamingos). And there are more, by top-notch, well-known artists. But
nobody remembers those.
As significant as the fact that only
the cover is remembered is the implied admonition to today's musicians.
Anybody who wants to perform the songs today for an audience of
other than septuagenarians better copy the popular cover, not try to
put their own mark on the song by starting with the lead sheet.
When it comes to the reasons, I have several guesses. But they are only
informed guesses; I have not made a study of it, and probably never
will. Here are my guesses.
The easy answer is nostalgia. But that has been there long before 1960.
Our parents were nostalgic about the songs of their youth, too. But
they didn't insist that was the only way the songs could be performed.
What changed around 1960? Nope, nostalgia as a reason is too easy, and probably not the
Television caught on in the 1950s, so the timing is right for it to
have been a cause. But I'm hard-pressed to find a strong connection.
Could it be that seeing the music performed, rather than just hearing
it on the radio, locks us into the performance we've seen. I guess it's
possible, but I'm not convinced.
I don't know whether this is a cause or an effect. It certainly didn't
become a big factor around 1960 -- more like 1990. Whether cause or
effect, I'm sure it has added to the perception that the performance is
Before 1960, live music was the norm at parties. Today, you can still
catch live musicians at concerts and in some clubs. But the meat and
potatoes of working musicians, the weddings and bar mitzvahs and sweet
sixteens, have been largely taken over by DJs. What does that do? The
DJ's job is to have a recording of every song that might be requested.
The easiest thing, if you don't have infinite disk space and infinite
time to do your homework, is to carry with you only the most popular version
of each of those songs. So the DJ is reinforcing the impression that
there is only one worthwhile version of the song.
Litigiousness and copyrights
We are far more litigious today than when I was a kid in the 1940s and
'50s. We have seen some nasty intellectual property battles in the
music business, and elsewhere. And it's getting worse, not better.
All that litigation might have something to do with my premise.
One thing our lawsuit-happiness has caused is more of an artist writing
his or her own music, or having a partnership with a songwriter. There
are far fewer career songwriters today than before 1950. In
fact, I have been caught up in this trend personally.
Of course, if the songwriter is also the artist, that is a very strong head start on defining their
performance as being
the song. Having it happen otherwise -- where other artists' versions
are as popular (or even exist) -- is unusual. That reinforces the
notion that the performance is the song.
The rise of rock'n'roll
I'm a little hesitant to bring this up, but I think it
fits. One of my hesitations is I'm talking about the nostalgia
music of my
generation. I was in high school and college making my personal
nostalgia from 1955 to 1963.
There have always been musicians in jazz and blues with a
less-than-traditional musical education (and I'm euphemizing here). But
the advent of rock'n'roll brought them into the mainstream. The vast
majority of them played guitar, and their popularity led to garage
bands that were heavy in electric guitar (including electric bass guitar) with likely a drummer and possibly a
keyboard. We're talking about garage-band musicians with a lot less
training and practice invested than the popular artists. The vast
majority of garage band guitarists worked hard at copying their
favorite artist's riffs and whole arrangements, but did not have the
musical background nor the "chops" to create their own. So the most
popular artists' versions of any song were the ones that got learned
and played by the garage bands. Thus those arrangements were probably the ones you
heard locally at a live-music sock hop or open mike night. And that
copycat performance, of course, further reinforced a particular
arrangement in the mind of the listener.
added some insight here. The instrumental simplification of R‘n'R, the
garage band instrumentation of lead guitar, bass, keys, and drums, led
to the rise of record producers. In fact, it required
imaginative producers who worked to create a distinctive sound for each
band and/or a “hook” for each recording. For an idea of how successful
they were, check out the soundtrack to “That Thing You Do.”
For that movie (highly recommended, by the way) they composed and
arranged about a dozen credible examples of early R‘n’R sub-genres:
surf music, rock ‘n’ roll ballad, early almost-rock, detective-series
theme, Motown/Supremes, etc.
Along with simpler instrumentation
came simpler chord patterns and simple-minded lyrics. The “rock and
roll progression” (1, 6m, 2m, dominant) is even simpler than a 12-bar
blues, and it was ubiquitous. (If you're not a musician but you know
how to do the standard "Heart and Soul" duet on the piano, that's the
chord progression Bob is talking about.) Lyrics had little or no
complexity in sentiments, images, or rhymes. If you wanted your
recording to stand out – and sell – you needed your arrangement to be
unique. And there you have it: an inherently definitive version,
because who wants to listen to a simple song that isn’t unique?
Information overloadLenore Raphael
suggested another reason. Assuming the basic premise is
correct, it may well be an issue of lack of time and attention to
music in general.
Lenore writes, "It is so much easier (and we
have become a world where everything has to be spoon fed) to accept one
version of a song than to listen to all the available versions. There
is so much information and things calling for our attention, we just need one defining version of a song; it may be wrong, but it is.
"And I hope it is true because then when I write my own song, by definition, I will have the version and everything else will be a copy!!!!"
Maybe the effect isn't real at all; I'm just imagining itOf course, I don't think so. But perhaps a demarcation at 1960 isn't as sharp as I'm making it out to be.
There are examples of songs originating well after the 1960s that have
been successfully covered in styles different from the original. But
they tend to be the exception. I think most of them are probably show
tunes that get their popularity from Broadway or Hollywood rather than
On the other side of the ledger, one can
certainly cite examples of pre-1950s "defining arrangements". Not a
large percentage of the songs, but certainly some. For instance, big
bands like Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey went out of their way to come
up with unique sounds, as Bob Tutelman
pointed out to me. Nobody can cover "String of Pearls" or "Pennsylvania
6-5000" without drawing comparison to Glenn Miller. Bob reminds us
that, as the musical director of a big band, his challenge is to
duplicate those arrangements as closely as he can for his musicians.
But let's still remember that most songs from that era were just songs;
the defining arrangements that brooked no alternative were a small
Let me repeat; these are informed guesses, not authoritative reasons.
The effect on musicianship
I have talked about the effect on the music the public gets to hear,
but I haven't said too much about the musicianship it takes to make
that music. But when you think about it, that must have been affected,
Think about the lead sheet, the information that encapsulates the
essence of any song. Just melody, chords, and lyrics. Before 1960, any
musician had to be able to work from a lead sheet. You had to look at a
lead sheet and, together with your band-mates, touch your instruments
in such a way that the song would come out. You might not come up with
the same touches that another musician would. Your band
might sound quite different from another band working from the
same lead sheet. But it
would be your
interpretation of the song on the lead sheet.
The musicial knowledge and ability implied by that is considerable. A
musician from that era could typically get together with 2 or 3 other
musicians (say, a piano, sax, and drum, and maybe add a trumpet or bass
-- and of course a singer). In less than a half hour, they would
understand each other well enough to play a gig and sound like a real
band. Unlikely as it may sound today, I'm serious here; even have some personal
experience doing that.
Such musicians still exist. but they are mostly an aging group, at least in mainstream popular music. Bob Tutelman,
who works with such musicians, says, "There are still bands playing
gigs from fakebooks. I’ve been doing it for 40 years here in San Diego,
and I don’t have a lot of trouble finding capable sidemen. But most of
the musicians who do this are starting to get up there in age – or,
like me, have long since achieved 'up there.' Younger musicians who
would be capable of playing from leadsheets are not much interested in
The Great American Songbook. I find that they’d rather show off their
improvisational/technical chops on be-bop era themes." I think that
supports my notion of defining performances taking over around 1960.
Most musicians who play from lead sheets were doing it before 1960, and
are gradually aging out of the business. Bob also reminds me, "Let’s be
clear: you can’t play that kind of gig with more than five or
six musicians, or it starts to sound like Dixieland. Any group larger
than that requires arrangements."
I assert that somewhere around 1960 the public's perception of popular
music changed from a song orientation to a performance orientation.
True, the listener always cared who the artist was. But after 1960,
only one artist and only one performance was the legitimate embodiment
of any popular song, in the mind of the public.
AcknowledgementsMy thanks to some of my professionally musical friends for comments and suggestions:
Lenore Raphael is a world-acclaimed jazz pianist, and a friend back to college days. If you want to know more about her, she has a web page and also plenty of samples of her work on YouTube, both channel and search.
Bob Tutelman is the director of a Big Band, the Moonlight Serenade Orchestra, and fronts the band on clarinet and saxophone. Check out this sample of their work. Bob also happens to be my brother.
In 1958, I was in high school and playing an occasional piano gig to
earn some spending money. I was not in a band; my jobs were typically
pickup bands (which worked because we could all play from lead sheets)
or solo. I had an opportunity to audition for a band that always played
together, and had jobs every week or two. I went to the audition, but I
didn't make the cut.
The reason for auditions was that Joel,
their piano player, would be out for a few months. (Can you say
"mononucleosis"? I knew you could.) Every song we played at the
audition, I would play with my "style", whatever that actually was.
Then they would tell me how Joel would have played it. Usually it was
descriptive or "da-da-da" with their voices; they knew their own
instruments, but not enough about piano to be very specific. We would
try a few bars a few times, but I never was able to play it the way
Joel did -- just not in the training my fingers had. And they were not
about to settle for a different sound than Joel. So we parted on good
terms, but we parted.
Fast forward to 1960. I was a sophomore at
City College of NY, and attending a friend's fraternity party. The
house had a piano, and one of the fraternity brothers was playing it.
After about an hour, a few things struck me about his playing. I went
over to him between songs and asked, "Is your name Joel?" It was. I had
recognized things in his playing that his former band-mates were asking
me to do but I couldn't.
Why do I bring this up here? Because it
reinforces my point that lead-sheet musicians would wind up playing the
same song in different ways. Sometimes the differences weren't even
deliberate; they were just personal style, what you had practiced and
were comfortable with. And it was OK; differences between performances
of a song were very acceptable. Well, maybe not to Joel's ex-band.
(2) From the
mid-1980s to the mid-'90s, I participated in a group of internet-savvy
musicians called MMML
(Mostly MIDI Music List). The group made a tape of
performances by its members every couple of years. But they insisted
that the songs be self-written. It wasn't that they wanted to show off
the writing talent of the members; that was never the point of MMML.
The reason was to avoid any sniff of a lawsuit about copyright. For a defendant, even
winning such a lawsuit is expensive, stressful, and there is always the risk of not winning. So MMML
refused to deal with the possibility.
I was never much of a songwriter,
so I seldom participated in the tapes.
I cobbled together something for the 1995 tape, but I had much better
recordings of older jazz standards that were not allowed on the tape.
changed -- April 13, 2018