By the 1950s, the golden age of popular music was just about over. America “wasn’t a listening nation anymore,” writes Wilfrid Sheed, but a televisual “shaking, rattling and rolling one.”
Tunes were not nearly as hummable. The lyrics were less sophisticated, because no one was paying all that much attention. Fans of Tin Pan Alley got grayer. But 50 years later, in the new millennium, “like Maltese dog owners,” aficionados of Berlin, Gershwin, Kern and Porter, Arlen, Mercer, Van Heusen and Warren, are still able to find one another—and wax nostalgic with converts from the younger generations.
They’ll find “The House That George Built” a delightful, de-lovely homage to the composers and lyricists who “tripled the world’s supply of singable tunes.” With songs lodged “in every hole and corner” of his memory, Sheed, a fine critic and novelist, has found a topic in tune with his tastes.
As befits a trip down memory lane, The House That George Built doesn’t refrain from reprising familiar themes, albeit with new orchestration. He endorses the “loaded compliment” that the great standards in the jazz mode were, essentially, Jewish riffs on black music, incorporating city sounds and bluesy feelings in ways that got under the skin of Indiana-born WASPs Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael.
Sheed’s sketches traverse well-traveled roads as well. Along with everyone else, he finds Richard Rodgers compulsive, cold and calculating, a closet alcoholic, better with Larry Hart as his lyricist than with Oscar Hammerstein, but able, always, to “pee melody.” And Sheed’s ex cathedra judgments—he blames the paparazzi for turning Charles Lindbergh from a bright young man into a Nazi sympathizer—aren’t exactly infallible.
Except to professors of biographical exactitude, it doesn’t matter. Like the subjects of his book, Sheed produces many more hits than misses. And with a writing style that’s, well, hummable, The House That George Built is worth reading even when it’s full of Sheed.
The essays on the less well-known artists are little gems. Sheed’s Harold Arlen is the one songwriter “you have to hear if you want to know exactly what the vague but necessary phrase `jazz song’ meant.” The son of a cantor, Arlen picked up “dents and scratches” banging around bus stations and black neighborhoods as a minor-league baseball player and vaudevillian. A manic-depressive, he produced “Get Happy,” “Stormy Weather,” and “Over the Rainbow.” His songs “bend to the wind, but they don’t break.” But Arlen “could never quite get out of the wind either.” Even when he swung into “a snappy number,” the composer still sounded “like a melancholic trying to look on the bright side.”
Harry Warren, to whom Sheed dedicates The House That George Built, became “King Anonymous,” despite “I Only Have Eyes for You,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “You’ll Never Know,” and “At Last.” Born Salvatore Guaragno, the Brooklynite departed Tin Pan Alley for Hollywood in the depths of the Depression. His luck “got both better and worse.” With the blockbuster 42nd Street, Warren discovered that Warner Bros. “could immortalize a song like nobody’s business, while deep-sixing its creators beyond recall.” His fame came and went during the credits, “somewhere between `Coming soon to this theater’ and `That’s all, folks.’” Years later, David Merrick brought 42nd Street to Broadway—and “yanked Harry’s name off his creation.” Warren died affluent, angry and anonymous.
Claiming, grandiloquently, that the music produced between 1925 and 1950 “constitutes far and away” our nation’s greatest artistic contribution, Sheed reminds himself that they’re just songs. Since they’re over so quickly, “you’re going to be hungry again in half an hour.” Yeah. Hungry for more. Because you’ll be singing, with Wilfrid, “I’ll be loving you, always.”