cover image STARDUST MELODIES: The Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs

STARDUST MELODIES: The Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs

Will Friedwald, . . Pantheon, $27.50 (416pp) ISBN 978-0-375-42089-4

"The American Popular Song is like a car full of clowns at the circus: from the outside it looks small and unassuming, yet you can't believe how much is contained inside," notes Friedwald in his introduction and, indeed, Tin Pan Alley and its environs have produced masterpieces that survive well beyond their time and context. While every reader will have their own list—what better dinner conversation game?—this dozen (chosen in conjunction with Friedwald's editor, Bob Gottlieb) should contain at least half of everyone's choices. But this is not a trivia book, and the joy of these short essays—ruminative, but also filled with fascinating historical and social details – is in their intelligence and their always evident love of the music itself. Friedwald (Sinatra!; The Good Life, with Tony Bennett) can surprise, as when he lists similarities between Kurt Weill and Noël Coward (in his discussion of "Mack the Knife") or unearths the connections between Show Boat (which features "Old Man River") and British humorist P.G. Wodehouse. But he is at his best elucidating how a particular song works its magic. His history of Johnny Green's 1930 classic "Body and Soul"—introduced by Gertrude Lawrence, made famous by the notorious Libby Holman and become a jazz standard when performed by Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker and Oscar Peterson—is incisive, with illuminating details (he describes Tony Bennett's hand motions while singing). Friedwald performs similar feats with the other songs, including "As Time Goes By" (in which he praises Tiny Tim's late 1960s rendition), "The Saint Louis Blues," "I Got Rhythm" and "My Funny Valentine." In the end, the book is an important contribution not only to American musicology but also to the literature on popular culture. (Apr.)