Remembering 50s Pop
With the death last Saturday of the ultimate crooner, Perry Como, we have another chance to evaluate this legacy. Did the microphone hasten music's decline, allowing any fool to amplify his voice? If you've been to a karaoke bar recently, you might say yes. But first, consider the musical artistry that came of age along with the microphone.
Pleasants ultimately changed his mind about popular song, and reassessed the microphone as "an electronically activated ear," both "merciless in its exposure of blemishes" and able to "detect and amplify virtues, delicate refinements of melodic line and vocal inflection, minute shadings and subtleties of enunciation and phrase that would be inaudible without electronic assistance." That was why, in his judgment, the finest "pop" singers-Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald-could "sing so well, and talk so well when they sing. With so candid an ally, they must."
Pleasants got it right. Far from destroying singing, the microphone gave rise to what many now call the golden age of American song. A quick tour through the "Songbook" series recorded by Fitzgerald between 1956 and 1964 reveals the riches accumulated over the previous three decades: the “standards” of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer.
Today, those standards are part of a nostalgic revival among college students who have adopted the tan khakis, slick haircuts, hefty martinis, smelly cigars and swing dances of what Tom Brokaw calls "The Greatest Generation." Of course, nature smiles when grandchild and grandparent join forces against their common enemy. And one could argue, along with critic Mark Gauvreau Judge, that the long countercultural revolt that began in the '60s is exhausted. Young people are returning to pop, by which I mean no particular style but the quaint idea that it is OK for musicians (and other artists) to pursue entertainment and profit rather than punk-dada-anarchist shock.
Where does this leave Perry Como? Is he poised for a comeback, to become a symbol of everything good about pre-Boomer America? It would be nice to think so, because Como is an endearing figure. Down-to-earth, unpretentious, he grew up singing with his Abruzzi-born father and never lost the gift of touching ordinary listeners. That's not an easy thing to do, no matter what the mass marketers (and the intellectuals) say.
It is also appealing, post-Clinton, to note that Como's reputation lacks any whiff of scandal. He stayed married to Roselle Beline for 65 years. He didn't belong to any rat packs. He became the consummate television personality, cool in the MvLuhanesque sense, but also warm and cosy in his trademark cardigan.
Never mind that his program, which ran from 1948 to 1963, was one of the first to welcome Negro performers (Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, the Ravens). The image that lingers is of Perry the Square, unspooling a medley of viewer requests and closing every show with an uplifting number that often as not mentioned God.
Nonetheless, it seems unlikely to expect that Como will experience the same sort of revival as Sinatra or Tony Bennett-the massive reissuance of archived materials, the academic conferences and the doorstop biographies. That's because despite being a great crooner, Como was almost too decent a guy. The current craze for martinis and cigars probably doesn't correlate with, say, a craze for lengthy and stable marriages.
Image, of course, isn't everything. To judge by the chatter of the media, not to mention the academy, you'd think the pop singers of the 1930s and 1940s spent as much time burnishing their image as do Brittany Spears and 'N Sync. They didn't. Some were considered naughty, others nice. Some switched from one to the other, as captured in Oscar Levant's famous remark about Doris Day: "I knew her before she was a virgin."
Mostly, however, these people worked on their music. Recalling his youthful rivalry with Como and Dean Martin, Sinatra once told an interviewer: "I decided to experiment a little and come up with something different. What I finally hit on was more the bel canto Italian school of singing, without making a point of it. That meant I had to stay in better shape because I had to sing more." Drawing also on the riches of jazz singing and instrumentalism, Sinatra pushed both himself and his audience up the steep gradient from "popular" to "art."
Como failed to do this, despite his flair for pleasing people and his fine vocal endowment. He was not very discriminating about material, and while that allowed him to record some unusual pieces, notably older songs like "When You Were Sweet Sixteen" and "Anema e Core," it also wasted his talent on a lot of things that don't stand the test of time. To be an ardent fan of Como today, one must be either musically naive or prone to the half-ironic enthusiasm known as camp.
In the end, however, the lesson of the crooners is simple. Music is still music, despite new technology or current obsessions with image. New inventions pose new challenges but do not by themselves destroy or create. That's the business of musicians, working as they always have, within a tradition. Those who become immortal are those who connect what they are doing with the best of the past, while also striving to delight and instruct their listeners. The rest, however noisy, is still silence.
(originally published in the Wall Street Journal)