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Vol. 16, No. 5, 2017
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return of the music standards



Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham and A New Yorker at Sea. His latest book, Tales of a Hamptons Sailor, is now available. For Nick's reviews, visit his website:

Awhile back rock star Cyndi Lauper recorded “At Last” a 1941 song written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren for the film Sun Valley Serenade starring Sonja Henie – a name few under the age of 40 will remember. A few months before this classic rocker Rod Stewart recorded a CD performing George Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” composed in 1937. The album was dubbed It Had To Be You: The Great American Songbook and contained a host of ancient songs from the pens of Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields, and similar legends. In the same year soft rock star Boz Scaggs recorded Rogers & Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” from their 1940 show Pal Joey.

These rockers together with rapper Queen Latifah, Roxy Music rocker Bryan Ferry, country/folk rocker Bob Dylan, latin pop rocker Gloria Estefan, synth-pop rocker Annie Lennox, Linda Ronstadt, Sting, Paul McCartney and many others from the rock dominated musical history of the last 60 odd years have all dragged out of the closet popular standards that were written long before they were born.

Much speculation has surrounded this phenomenon. A&R executives at recording companies have rarely ventured away from repertoires of the big money-making rockers who have provided windfall profits over the decades since the genre exploded in the 50s. When Alan Freed coined the term Rock n’Roll around 1954, record producers summarily abandoned the aforementioned pop standards, their eminent composers, and the illustrious artists who made them famous.

Thus Elvis Presley supplanted Frank Sinatra, The Beatles obliterated The Mills Brothers, and Bill Haley & the Comets demolished Duke Ellington. The standards (much of it from musicals), and big-band jazz which had been America’s popular music for the previous 30 years fell off the mountain and Billboard chart-toppers would now feature names like The Rolling Stones.

As a young jazz musician used to constant audience appreciation when performing Ellington’s “Take the A Train,” I was astounded when teenagers mobbed the bandstand after I had soloed on “Rock Around the Clock” -- repeatedly playing only one note on my tenor sax. I couldn’t believe that audiences went so wild over such elementary sound. Oh well, I thought, this stuff can’t possibly last . . . How wrong I was . . . a half century later it still dominated the world music market.

But now, in what finally may be the onset of a post-rock era, the American Songbook has returned albeit in the recordings of the rockers. Why?

Last March Bob Dylan released a 3-disc CD dubbed Triplicate, a collection of 30 pop standards. Together with 2 previous such albums- Fallen Angels (2016) and Shadows in the Night (2015) it brings the total of Dylan’s recordings of pop standards to just over 50. These recordings were the basis for Dylan’s attainment of a 2016 Nobel prize for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” according to the Swedish Academy which awarded the prize.

Listeners of these recordings who can recall their original issuances and their countless covers by subsequent master vocalists and arrangers have described Dylan’s efforts as something of a lark. Just one example: “These Foolish Things” -- composed in 1936 by Jack Strachey and seminally recorded by Billie Holiday – has been covered by Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and other immortals. Dylan’s effort, as in his other aforementioned covers of standards, adds nothing to the musical, lyrical, and emotional meanings of this song.

Boz Scaggs’ 2003 album, But Beautiful, reached number one on the list of Billboard’s top jazz albums for the year. The accolades motivated another effort in 2008 dubbed Speak Low which Scaggs described as “a sort of progressive, experimental effort along the lines of some of the ideas that Gil Evans explored.” One critical reaction to Scaggs’ vocalizing labeled it as “hollow” and other commentary had similar reactions.

It is clear from these and other similar examples that rockers and their present recording producers are stretching.

An argument supporting the trend has been made: rockers performing standards introduces this historic art music to the younger generation. However, if producers were truly dedicated to introducing the Standards to younger audiences they would promote obscure but conspicuously talented vocalists rather than celebrity figures under contract. Even perfunctory knowledge of contemporary talent reveals gals like Rene Marie, Nnenna Freelon, Malene Mortensen, Sophie Milman, Carla Cook, Mary Stallings, and guys like Aaron Caruso, Matt Welch, Sachal Vasandani, Ori Dagan, and many others all of whom can render the Standards noted above with exceptional performances.

When phonograph records arrived on the scene over a century ago, very quickly entrepreneurs descended on the scene, realizing that fortunes could be made by issuing outrageously manipulative contracts to performers. They soon controlled the music business and wound up exerting enormous influence on the musical tastes of the population. Geoffrey Stokes’ 1977 book Star Making Machinery: Inside the Business of Rock and Roll painfully relates the story of this insidious development.

Although present-day music fans can escape this big brother manipulation because of the choices available through YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, and a host of streaming sites, the vestige of this ancient power still exists and a major expression of it can be found in the CD sales of the retreading rockers.



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Born in '41 and an amateur eavesdropper on popular music, I found myself humming the tunes and recalling the artists you cited in your opening paragraphs. You brought me "back to the future." A sharp contrast to the few artists and pieces I know today, thanks to decades of immersion in the "dismal science" and its broader applications. "My bad."  Thanks, Nick, for always keeping me thoughtfully connected to your range of interests -- from music to sports to literature to navigating the world. Keep writing' and playin' , friend . . . J 
Wish somebody would record "This Nearly Was Mine," As a child I was taken to see it, and I cried  Stay well, Nick; you're what they call a resource.' JimMcC. Lasting city -- Norton. 
You're bitter. Check out Linda Ronstad for a decent job; she's always liked Nelson Riddle and finally got him; and Annie Lennox will not be besmirched by your smirking remarks - R.
My guess is that rockers and pop singers are recording The Standards because they want to associate themselves, (career and reputation) with music that is eternal, has passed the test of time, rightfully suspecting their own work (mostly 3-chord ditties and less), is destined for the oblivionsphere.

By Nick Catalano:
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Aristotle: Film Critic
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Demagogues: The Rhetoric of Barbarism
The Guns of August
Miles Ahead and Born to Be Blue
Manon Lescaut @The Met
An American in Paris
What We Don't Know about Eastern Culture
Black Earth (book review)
Cuban Jazz
HD Opera - Game Changer
Film Treatment of Stolen Art
Stains and Blemishes in Democracy
Intersteller (film review)
Shakespeare, Shelley & Woody Allen
Mystery and Human Sacrifice at the Parthenon
Carol Fredette (Jazz)
Amsterdam (book review)
Vermeer Nation
The Case for Da Vinci's Demons


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