Music Rant

Dave Tutelman  --  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 fuddy-duddies. Here 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.

June 14, 2017
Stuart Klipper
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

Dave Tutelman
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, Stuart Klipper.

Stuart Klipper
A big favorite of mine:

  They Didn't Believe Me ♛ Dinah Shore

Dave Tutelman
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

Stuart Klipper
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.

Dave Tutelman
Stuart Klipper, "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 written.

   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. Grayson.


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 so

Where 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 sheet.


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 order to 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 a lead sheet, every musician's performance would sound different; that's how music was 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 performance became 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 applies.

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 Version

I am amused by the conceit in the "subject" line assigned by whoever uploaded it to YouTube: "Original Version" indeed! It may have been Etta 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 need it.)

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 notable ones:
  • 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.
All 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.

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' version 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 versions 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.

Other examples

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 this attitude.)

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.
  • Smoke Gets In Your Eyes -- written by Jerome Kern (like They Didn't 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.
  • You're 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 1973.
  • I 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.
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).

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.

Why?

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.

Nostalgia

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 answer.

Television

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.

DJs

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 the song.

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.

Bob Tutelman 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 overload

Lenore 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 it

Of 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 popular recordings.

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 minority.


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, too.

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."

Conclusion

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.


Acknowledgements

My 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.


Notes:

(1) 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.

Last changed --  April 13, 2018