❉ Ace Records’ resident pop historian lovingly chronicles the entire pre-rock’n’roll era of modern music, writes James Collingwood.
Following from his last great tome about pop music, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop, Bob Stanley’s new book Let’s Do It: The Birth of Pop is a stunningly successful attempt to write about the whole of popular music from the turn of the last century up to the advent of rock’n’roll and the Beatles. It doesn’t exclusively just deal with the first half of the 20th century though and interestingly goes further covering the artists that came later like Lionel Bart and Anthony Newley. Reading the 600 pages of this fantastic book you do feel that Bob Stanley has heard every record that has ever been recorded in this period and has a well-thought-out opinion on it all.
Bob says in his epilogue, “I wrote this book to make sense of the different times, eras and genres that gave us Frank Sinatra and Sophie Tucker, Sweet Charity and Showboat, Billy May and Count Basie, Moon River and What’ll I Do?, to sort out the chronology for myself and for anyone else who was interested.” The book covers among other genres ragtime, swing, jazz, musicals, the ‘Great American Songbook’, swing and big band, rhythm & blues, and country (known as “hillbilly”). It captures the whole pre-rock’n’roll era.
When reading about post- rock’n’roll music, most of us can make connections as we will have heard and grown up with a lot of the music that might be written about. This, however, is an education. It deals with areas I only had some sketchy awareness of, mostly from seeing early episodes of Tony Palmer’s 1977 sledgehammer documentary series All You Need Is Love, hearing Louis Armstrong and Sinatra or watching Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals. Stanley dives deep into the music surrounding this era and making connections as he goes. Naturally, he deals in depth with the great artists and composers of the period such as Basie, Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, Billie Holliday, Irving Berlin, George & Ira Gershwin. Take Sinatra for example – as well as covering Sinatra’s bobby-soxer period and his great Capital Records era he goes into Sinatra’s later recordings including the later album Watertown which he loves.
The book doesn’t really have one main theme running through it – it’s more about enthusiastically conveying a truly encyclopaedic love and knowledge of this music. However, a few strands do run through the book. The first is the obvious influence of black music. This goes from early ragtime, through ‘Storyville’ New Orleans, the Harlem Hit Parade, jazz and blues and the difficulties the performers and writers experienced in the face of racism and segregation, particularly in the USA. Many of these artists, black and white, had short careers and short and tragic lives, with the notable exceptions of Irving Berlin and Duke Ellington who both lived to a ripe old age.
The other theme in the book is the role the technology played in developing the music. From the shellac 78s where the term ‘album’ comes from, through radio (600 stations in America compared to one, the BBC, in Britain), to television, vinyl and more intimate and better-quality recording techniques. The book isn’t a stale static description of these developments though – at any stage the music was developing in relation to a lot of things going on and Stanley describes this beautifully.
Bob writes well about the Great American Songbook (a term which he says was only really used from about 1972) and states, “when push comes to shove collectively they are America’s greatest cultural achievement” but also speaks about prolific and talented but lesser known songwriters such as Harry Warren, Stephen Foster and eden ahbez, the hippie who wrote Nature Boy for Nat King Cole.
There’s too many to go into here but it’s the lesser-known artists and songwriters that are fascinating. Read the excellent chapters on the Boswell Sisters or Anita O’Day, or the description of the Original Dixieland Jazz band, and it will take you down a YouTube rabbit hole.
Bob is also distinctively cool or even scathing on the artists he doesn’t like. He doesn’t seem to warm to Al Jolson, be-bop, Oscar Hammerstein or Stephen Sondheim and calls Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber “gargoyles” behind the curtain “who went on to write some of the worst popular music of the twentieth century”.
The book doesn’t simplistically end with rock’n’roll and the Beatles wiping everything else out and instead continues into the late twentieth century with the growth of “easy listening” or “beautiful music”. It’s fascinating to learn, for example, that Paul McCartney wrote a song for Peggy Lee, that Val Doonican knocked Sgt Pepper off the top of the album charts and that Love’s Arthur Lee based his singing style on Johnny Mathis.
It really is a great book that probably needs to be read a number of times to take in the vast amount of information and potential listening pleasure chronicled within.
❉ ‘Let’s Do It: The Birth of Pop by Bob Stanley is available in hardback from Faber & Faber, 5 May 2022, RRP £23.00. ISBN: 9780571320257
❉ James Collingwood is based in West Yorkshire and has been writing for a number of years. He currently also writes for the Bradford Review magazine for which he has conducted more than 30 interviews and has covered music, film and theatre. His Twitter is @JamesCollingwo1