Thursday, November 29, 2007
The Great American Songbook
My mother was a music major in college, and could also play piano by ear—without sheet music. But that didn’t stop her from amassing a huge collection of printed music, especially popular songs from the 1940s. In particular, I remember standing by the piano, fascinated, while she played “Three Little Fishes” (“Boop boop dittum dattum wattum—choo!”) and “Honey Bun” (“A hundred and one pounds of fun”) . . . those were the days . . .
So when the Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn song “I’ve Heard That Song Before” featured prominently in Mary Higgins Clark’s latest novel, I had to look for more information in my mother’s honor. To my amazement, I discovered that the Harry James/Helen Forrest version was released on July 31, 1942, the very day before the American Federation of Musicians, a powerful union, prohibited their members from recording any more music in studios. The union felt that so-called “canned” music was putting their members out of business. Live musicians were being replaced in cafes and bars by jukeboxes; live radio performances were being replaced by prerecorded tracks. For more than a year, no music was recorded by unionized musicians in America. But singers were exempt from the ban . . . because they weren’t considered musicians!
Two major record labels gave in to the union in 1943, and agreed to pay royalties to musicians for jukebox play and radio broadcasts. Two other major labels relented in 1944, and the ban effectively ended.
Since 1942, “I’ve Heard That Song Before” has been recorded by a number of artists. In addition to Frank Sinatra’s original version from the movie Youth on Parade, there’s Vera Lynn, Al Martino, the great Mel Tormé, and contemporary crooner Andrea Marcovicci.
Now here’s a question for all you devotees of the Great American Songbook: which three George Gershwin songs contain the lyrics “Who could ask for anything more?” We editors here are all stumped!