To endure the last few interminable months of lockdown, we will all have found comfort in unique sources. My (unhealthy, many would surely say) obsession with all things related to the United States being overtly apparent in my writings for this publication, it should come as no surprise that I have submerged myself in various facets of Americana to tolerate what my fellow authors here have rightly bemoaned.
America is a cultural factory of colossal proportion; its contributions to literature, art, and film cannot be understated. Yet I value the gifts that the nation has provided to the musical canon above all else, and it is through savouring these that I am able to rise with alacrity each day. Indeed, music has been a particular passion of mine for many years. More broadly, I am sure that, through its nonpareil capacity to uplift and evoke, it will have afforded all of us a necessary degree of respite in recent times.
If asked to discern what variety of distinctly American music continually grants me such pleasure, many would likely submit the rural, patriotic strums of country and folk, the innumerably diverse brands of pop and rock that have emerged from across the Atlantic since the 1960s, or perhaps even the honeyed yearnings of soul and frenetic hooks of funk. Such guesses would all be wholly incorrect.
Rather, I believe that there is no greater fount of absolute musical bliss in existence than the Great American Songbook, that sublime catalogue of popular songs and jazz standards from the early twentieth century which will perennially endure.
The power of the Songbook remains tremendous. It emerged with virtually no precedent aside from the whimsical minstrel songs of Stephen Foster, and proceeded to dominate the lives of young and old in America alike until the advent of Elvis Presley and his contemporaries.
Somehow, in a manner that encourages one to believe unreservedly in the existence of fate, a collective of ingenious composers and lyricists surfaced concomitantly to create a dazzlingly prodigious array of songs, all of which were unfailingly characterised by urbane, epigrammatic wordplay and indelible, swirling melodies. Every tune, whether ebullient or mournful, was immaculate in its construction and ultimately life-affirming.
Some may call it fatuous to assert that America can rival European nations in musical terms. They would be arrantly mistaken, as the Songbook exhibits America’s irreplaceable answer to classical music. Beethoven and Shostakovich? Wonderful, of course, but I’ll take Irving Berlin and Frank Loesser instead. Brahms and Bach? Magnificent, but they can meet their match at the adroit hands of George and Ira Gershwin, Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen, or Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.
Mozart’s Don Giovanni is a work of indisputable genius that offers insights into humanity comparable to those found in Hamlet and The Brothers Karamazov. But, then again, could the same not be said of Cole Porter’s manifold love songs? Are I Concentrate on You, I Get a Kick Out of You, and Begin the Beguine, to name only a few, not as beautifully observed and richly human as any other obvious masterpieces?
I can, for that matter, think of no purer expression of the potent feeling, raw desire, and overpowering obsession that universally accompany falling under the spell of love than the lyrics to his finest composition, Night and Day:
‘Night and day, you are the one
Only you beneath the moon or under the sun
Whether near to me or far
It’s no matter, darling, where you are
I think of you
Night and day, day and night, why is it so
That this longing for you follows wherever I go?
In the roaring traffic’s boom
In the silence of my lonely room
I think of you
Night and day, night and day
Under the hide of me
There’s an, oh, such a hungry yearning burning inside of me
And its torment won’t be through
Till you let me spend my life making love to you
Day and night, night and day.’
Only the soulless could deny the ineffable power of those words. They are representative of the Songbook as a whole, an entity as profound in its beauty and insight as any transcendent work of art.
Nonetheless, one cannot forget that the songbook required vocalists to animate its contents. And who could have imagined greater talents to perform that task than the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., Bobby Darin, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Fred Astaire? Being invariably charming and elegant, their talents ensured that America could maintain a sense of optimism, even when it was faced with war and depression.
Despite becoming enthralled by all of those figures at a young age, however, the two who remain my unrivalled favourites are perhaps the most obvious. It is Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin who continually provide me with unmitigated delight, and who have kept me from succumbing totally to our pervasive ennui. (All without the aid of copious cigarettes and shots of whisky, it bears mentioning.)
Dino and Frankie stand as the ultimate, eternal personification of coolness; languid, suave, and impossibly stylish. So much has been written and claimed about them – for better or worse, primarily in Sinatra’s case – that their true personalities have been lost almost entirely to myth. Yet this is immaterial to the fact that, particularly during their respective tenures on Capitol Records, they gave glorious life to the words and rhythms of America’s musical craftsmen.
Expressing songs without true feeling was anathema to both men. Rather than simply reciting lyrics, they internalised and manipulated them, comprehending their emotional significance utterly. Their peerless phrasing accentuated the beauty of every word they crooned, while enabling them to either melt or crush one’s heart as required.
When they swung breezily with great conductors, Billy May and Nelson Riddle among them, their grins and winks were almost tangible. Likewise, when they submerged themselves in orchestral sorrow, their delivery never appeared false or performative, instead demonstrating fierce, sometimes devastating conviction.
Sinatra’s 1956 rendition of I’ve Got You Under My Skin, another Cole Porter masterwork, is arguably the most notable example of his inimitable artistry.
A product of such audibly profound fervour was the recording on behalf of all involved that, according to famous legend, the orchestra erupted into rapturous applause after its completion, while others had tears in their eyes. Building from an opening of quiet longing to a crescendo of dizzying passion, it realised the emotional core and sheer humanity of Porter’s piece in a way that none have matched.
Although I am unaware of a recording by Dino with quite the same mythical background, those that demonstrate his zeal nevertheless abound. Take, for instance, 1960’s Ain’t that a Kick in the Head, which made no impact whatever upon the charts when released, but has since become instantly recognisable following its resurrection on a 1989 compilation album by the esteemed producer Ron Furmanek.
A more perfect combination of language, phrasing, and orchestration is difficult to imagine; so, too, is a more palpable evocation of pure bliss.
Frank and Dean have provided the soundtrack to countless moments in my life, both formative and inconsequential. In this regard, I am far from alone, a fact made all the more staggering when one considers that many of their patented songs were written almost a century ago. Who could ask for warmer companions during this period of inescapable uncertainty?
At the conclusion of his final concert, Sinatra’s parting words to his audience were, ‘May you live to be 100, and the last voice you hear be mine.’ Undoubtedly, he hoped that his voice would be animating a fitting composition from the Songbook in that moment; One for My Baby (and One More for the Road) or Let’s Face the Music and Dance, perhaps. I certainly hope to honour his request.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
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