From an acclaimed cultural critic, a narrative and social history of the Great American Songwriting era.
Everybody knows and loves the American Songbook. But it’s a bit less widely understood that in about 1950, this stream of great songs more or less dried up. All of a sudden, what came over the radio wasn’t Gershwin, Porter, and Berlin, but “Come on-a My House” and “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” Elvis and rock and roll arrived a few years later, and at that point the game was truly up. What happened, and why? In The B Side, acclaimed cultural historian Ben Yagoda answers those questions in a fascinating piece of detective work. Drawing on previously untapped archival sources and on scores of interviews—the voices include Randy Newman, Jimmy Webb, Linda Ronstadt, and Herb Alpert—the book illuminates broad musical trends through a series of intertwined stories. Among them are the battle between ASCAP and Broadcast Music, Inc.; the revolution in jazz after World War II; the impact of radio and then television; and the bitter, decades-long feud between Mitch Miller and Frank Sinatra.
The B Side is about taste, and the particular economics and culture of songwriting, and the potential of popular art for greatness and beauty. It’s destined to become a classic of American musical history.
Drawing on previously unavailable archival materials, as well as interviews with Linda Ronstadt, Randy Newman, and Jimmy Webb, among others, essayist Yagoda (Memoir: A History) energetically conducts a journey through the development of popular music in this vibrant piece of cultural history. In the first two decades of the 20th century, when sheet music was the primary way of selling music, writers and publishers searched relentlessly for any angle that would sell. Various cultural, institutional, and technological forces converged to advance the careers of individual talents, such as Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter. By the 1950s and 1960s, however, the business of marketing and hit making altered the landscape of popular music so that the emphasis was on selling products rather than on making good, memorable songs. Yagoda points out in this wonderful history that even during the decline of the older songbook of standards, younger songwriters including Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and others were emerging to write new standards, so that "if you close your eyes while listening to McCartney's Yesterday,' you'd swear you were listening to a lost classic from the great American songbook."