Author: Will Friedwald
The following review was contributed by: Kathryn Atwood: Click Here To View More Of Kathryn's Reviews
"How potent cheap music is." -Noel Coward
I believe that Will Friedwald included the Noel Coward line about the potency of
cheap music in the introduction to his "Stardust Melodies" simply to see those
two words - potent and music - in the same sentence. There is nothing "cheap"
about the popular songs featured in his book, but they are all undeniably
"potent." The power of popular music, according to Friedwald, is its ability to
"move us on a deep level, and in a way that few other artistic mediums can."
Friedwald has obviously been moved - profoundly so --and his book is a
phenomenally entertaining biography which encompasses the creation, debut,
musical intricacies and recording history of a dozen American pre-rock popular
I had to keep reminding myself that Friedwald wasn't actually alive when these
songs first launched (he is a tail-end "boomer" and most of the songs in his
book were written in the 1930's) because he relates the details at his disposal
in such an electrifyingly cinematic way, you'd think he had been inside each
composer's head (or at the very least, sitting in the composer's living room
with a video camera) when the songs came to birth. When George Gershwin said to
his friend Kay Halle "sit down, I think I have the lullaby" (for "Porgy and
Bess"), she was immediately moved to tears at the raw beauty of "Summertime."
Cole Porter raced over to the piano to finish the introduction to his latest
(and ultimately, greatest) composition, "Night and Day," after he heard his
hostess, Mrs. Astor, complain about the "drip, drip, drip" of her broken drain
Arguably the most dramatic "you were there" incident portrayed in "Stardust
Melodies" not only illustrates the birth of a song (and a star) but stunningly
represents an entire musical epoch as well: the golden musical era when pop
music and jazz were inexorably linked. When Friedwald describes Ethel Merman
first belting out "I Got Rhythm" "with all the subtlety of a tornado descending
on a trailer," he also narrates what was rumbling beneath her feet - a genuine
jazz orchestra. Gershwin had insisted on having one and it was a stunner:
future luminaries Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey and Gene Krupa, were
all accompanying Ms. Merman on the night "I Got Rhythm" made her a star. That's
Each chapter includes a section on the musical intricacies of the particular
song featured and here Friedwald gets out from behind the camera, so to speak,
and beckons the reader into the classroom - an intermediate-to-advanced music
theory classroom. Some readers might get lost in the minutia of these details;
if you don't know your tonic from your dominant, you won't have a clue. The
lessons aren't longer than a few paragraphs, however, and for those fairly well
versed in music fundamentals, it's fascinating stuff. Friedwald explains why
every note, chord and corresponding lyric works. Did you know, for instance,
that "Star Dust" contains a 32-bar chorus and that its melody is basically
composed of thirds, some major and some minor? I've played and sung "Star Dust"
(never thought to count the bars), but now that he's mentioned it, the thirds do
switch back and forth from major to minor, probably why the melody possesses
such a wistful, bittersweet feel - a good fit for lyrics about a lost love.
One of the criteria by which Friedwald judged a song worthy of inclusion in his
book is the sum and variety of its recorded manifestations and he lists these
recordings in assiduous detail (he is a writer of such wit and lucidity that a
grocery list would sparkle in his hands). The recording history of one song in
particular - "As Time Goes By" - illustrates how truly insightful and
entertaining his approach to the material is.
Long before "As Time Goes By" provided the backdrop to Rick and Ilse's ill-fated
love affair in "Casablanca," and even shortly before Frances Williams introduced
it in the Broadway show "Everybody's Welcome," (1931), it was initially a
recorded by Rudy Vallee and broadcast over the radio before the show opened.
Because of conflicting recording contracts, the very talented Williams was
unfortunately unable to record the song herself, but Dooley Wilson (Sam in
"Casablanca'), who couldn't actually play the piano, did make a recording
following the success of the film.
Actually, when the film was nothing more than a newly purchased play, Sam and
the song were the only two irrefutables in the project, which greatly irked
hired composer Max Steiner. He had nothing against Sam, of course, but
initially thought "As Time Goes By" was too "square." When he finally saw the
light, he made it the musical focal point of "Casablanca." This would have
probably won composer Herman Hupfeld an Oscar if it hadn't been for a strange,
just-laid-down rule about Oscars being granted only to songs specifically
written for a film. Hupfeld wasn't too upset; his song was a becoming a
phenomenally popular recording vehicle that would ultimately be immortalized by
artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Tiny Tim. Not bad for a
little song protesting the march of progress.
Although"Stardust Melodies" is bursting with passion for the musical era that
produced its songs and is replete with a sense of time and place, because
Friedwald is able to infuse his book with a sense of immediacy, it never falls
prey to nostalgia. Rather, it is a celebration of songs that have managed to
outlive their composers, their performers, many of their recording stars and
have embedded themselves deeply into the American consciousness.
Though I dream in vain, in my heart it will remain My stardust melody, the
memory of love's refrain. ("Stardust" lyrics by Mitchell Parish)