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Stardust Melodies: The Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs

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In Stardust Melodies, Will Friedwald takes each of these legendary songs apart and puts it together again, with a staggering wealth of detail and unprecedented understanding. Each chapter gives us an extended history of one song—the circumstances under which it was written and first performed—and then explores its musical and lyric content. Drawing on his vast knowledge of In Stardust Melodies, Will Friedwald takes each of these legendary songs apart and puts it together again, with a staggering wealth of detail and unprecedented understanding. Each chapter gives us an extended history of one song—the circumstances under which it was written and first performed—and then explores its musical and lyric content. Drawing on his vast knowledge of records and the careers of performing artists, Friedwald tells us who was responsible for making these songs famous and discusses in depth the performers who have left their unique marks on them. He writes about variations in performance style, about both classic and obscure versions of the songs, about brilliantly original interpretations and ghastly travesties. And then there’s the completely unexpected, like Stan Freberg’s politically correct “Elderly Man River.” This is a book for all lovers of American song to explore, argue with, and savor.


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In Stardust Melodies, Will Friedwald takes each of these legendary songs apart and puts it together again, with a staggering wealth of detail and unprecedented understanding. Each chapter gives us an extended history of one song—the circumstances under which it was written and first performed—and then explores its musical and lyric content. Drawing on his vast knowledge of In Stardust Melodies, Will Friedwald takes each of these legendary songs apart and puts it together again, with a staggering wealth of detail and unprecedented understanding. Each chapter gives us an extended history of one song—the circumstances under which it was written and first performed—and then explores its musical and lyric content. Drawing on his vast knowledge of records and the careers of performing artists, Friedwald tells us who was responsible for making these songs famous and discusses in depth the performers who have left their unique marks on them. He writes about variations in performance style, about both classic and obscure versions of the songs, about brilliantly original interpretations and ghastly travesties. And then there’s the completely unexpected, like Stan Freberg’s politically correct “Elderly Man River.” This is a book for all lovers of American song to explore, argue with, and savor.

30 review for Stardust Melodies: The Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs

  1. 4 out of 5

    Kathryn

    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 c 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 songs. 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 pipe. 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 some orchestra. 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 the song (never actually 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 (and 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 1931 Broadway show Everybody’s Welcome, Rudy Vallee made a recording of it that was broadcast over the radio. Because of conflicting recording contracts, the very talented Williams was unable to record the song herself, but Dooley Wilson (Sam in Casablanca) – who couldn’t play the piano as his cinematic character could – 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 which have managed to outlive their composers, their performers, many of their recording stars and which 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)

  2. 5 out of 5

    Ellen Hunter

    I listened to an interview on the Paul Leslie Hour with Will Friedwald and found him interesting and knowledgeable about pop music, past and present. So I went looking for his books. "Stardust Melodies" is a compilation of songs such as "Stardust," "As Time Goes By," "Night and Day," and nine others, with discussions of their histories: Who wrote them. Who sang them. Who recorded them and which were the best interpretations and improvisations. This book celebrates the magical talent of many com I listened to an interview on the Paul Leslie Hour with Will Friedwald and found him interesting and knowledgeable about pop music, past and present. So I went looking for his books. "Stardust Melodies" is a compilation of songs such as "Stardust," "As Time Goes By," "Night and Day," and nine others, with discussions of their histories: Who wrote them. Who sang them. Who recorded them and which were the best interpretations and improvisations. This book celebrates the magical talent of many composers and lyricists of the Twentieth Century, and some of their most enduring songs. A fine work.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Arthur

    Stardust Melodies is well described by previous reviewers. It is true that much of the detailed musical analysis will be of interest only to musicians. But, there is much more in this book for anyone interested in music of the 20th Century, which is the period of the 12 songs Will Friedwald describes. He calls it providing a biography of the songs and that is an apt description but somewhat understated because the biographies are very wide ranging, beyond the song itself concerning the composer, Stardust Melodies is well described by previous reviewers. It is true that much of the detailed musical analysis will be of interest only to musicians. But, there is much more in this book for anyone interested in music of the 20th Century, which is the period of the 12 songs Will Friedwald describes. He calls it providing a biography of the songs and that is an apt description but somewhat understated because the biographies are very wide ranging, beyond the song itself concerning the composer, the period and everything happening to and around the song. In particular, Friedwald is an amazingly knowledgeable jazz buff covering records made of the songs by jazz musicians and pop musicians, too. I concur in previous reviews which praise Friedwald's immense knowledge and grasp of musical history. It is amazing that he is able to describe things that happened before he came on the scene, the kind of things one would think only someone living at the time would have known about. In all, it is fabulous read, packed with interesting stories and facts about music. My one quibble: there is no index to the book which would have been useful.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Stuart Elliott

    A fascinating read, giving the history or biography of twelve of America's most popular songs from the jazz era,roughly,song that were written the twenties through the forties. Friewald tells the story of how each song was written, how it came to be popular, and how jazz musicians treated, as well as the popular singers of the era. This is not a book on the 12 greatest American popular songs Each chapter starts with a picture of the sheet music of the chosen song. It would have been nice if the mu A fascinating read, giving the history or biography of twelve of America's most popular songs from the jazz era,roughly,song that were written the twenties through the forties. Friewald tells the story of how each song was written, how it came to be popular, and how jazz musicians treated, as well as the popular singers of the era. This is not a book on the 12 greatest American popular songs Each chapter starts with a picture of the sheet music of the chosen song. It would have been nice if the music, at least in lead sheet form (melody plus named, but not voiced, chords)could have been included. Also missing is an index. Friewald is extremely knowledgeable about jazz and popular music, but perhaps not as well informed about Western swing and blues. He doesn't discuss the several versions of St. Louis Blues recorded by Bob WIlls (or Lonnie Johnson's blues revival), not Ray Price's recording of Body and Soul. Still, not everything could be fit in about eeach of these 12 songs.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

    Friedwald writes the biographies of 12 popular songs (popular from the 1910s-30s). If you like Tin Pan Alley and musicals, you will probably like this. Each chapter is devoted to a single song, explains how it came to be written and discusses significant as well as unusual recordings and performances of the song. Each chapter also includes images of the original sheet music cover art. Freidwald has a real talent for writing about music, and you might recognize him since he's written a ton of lin Friedwald writes the biographies of 12 popular songs (popular from the 1910s-30s). If you like Tin Pan Alley and musicals, you will probably like this. Each chapter is devoted to a single song, explains how it came to be written and discusses significant as well as unusual recordings and performances of the song. Each chapter also includes images of the original sheet music cover art. Freidwald has a real talent for writing about music, and you might recognize him since he's written a ton of liner notes for albums. The best chapters are Stardust, Ol' Man River, I Got Rhythm, Stormy Weather, Summertime, and My Funny Valentine.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Mary Timbes

    A very entertaining way to read about popular songs--Will Friedwald takes ten all-time favorites from the American "songbook" and dissects them by composer, lyricist, and the singers who made hits out of them in the first place and over time. His capsule biographies of each song are amusing, touching, and compelling, rounding out our knowledge of what we might have thought about them. It's the kind of book that's easy to read incrementally--choosing a favorite to savor, one song at a time. A very entertaining way to read about popular songs--Will Friedwald takes ten all-time favorites from the American "songbook" and dissects them by composer, lyricist, and the singers who made hits out of them in the first place and over time. His capsule biographies of each song are amusing, touching, and compelling, rounding out our knowledge of what we might have thought about them. It's the kind of book that's easy to read incrementally--choosing a favorite to savor, one song at a time.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Wendy

    This is not a bad book but it is very technical and probably suitable for musicians and not the average layman. It would have been much more interesting had it been accompanied by music CDs, with samples of some of the versions the author was excited about.

  8. 4 out of 5

    cheeseblab

    "biographies"--stories of the composition and recording histories--of 12 American pop songs, from "St. Louis Blues" to "Night and Day" to "Lush Life." At its best, a 5-star performance, but unfortunately uneven from song to song. "biographies"--stories of the composition and recording histories--of 12 American pop songs, from "St. Louis Blues" to "Night and Day" to "Lush Life." At its best, a 5-star performance, but unfortunately uneven from song to song.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Dick Tumpes

    Now I have an even greater respect for the abilities & musical knowledge of these great musicians, musicians whose talents I sometimes took for granted. This author knows, he really knows, and he shares a terrific insight. I have a list now of at least 50 recordings that I want to hear!

  10. 5 out of 5

    Matt Carton

    A wonderful book. I was excited to see that I had 43 versions of 11 of the songs on my iPod....the only one I don't have a copy of is "Ol' Man River." A wonderful book. I was excited to see that I had 43 versions of 11 of the songs on my iPod....the only one I don't have a copy of is "Ol' Man River."

  11. 4 out of 5

    Melissa

    The stories behind the composition and most memorable performances of American song, especially those originating in Broadway shows.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Steve

  13. 4 out of 5

    C B

  14. 4 out of 5

    Joy

  15. 5 out of 5

    Mary Ronan Drew

  16. 4 out of 5

    Amy Quigley

  17. 5 out of 5

    Dane Vannatter

  18. 5 out of 5

    C. Patrick

  19. 4 out of 5

    Mark Mason

  20. 4 out of 5

    Pierke Bosschieter

  21. 4 out of 5

    Paul

  22. 5 out of 5

    Steve Leach

  23. 5 out of 5

    Michael

  24. 5 out of 5

    Patti

  25. 4 out of 5

    Peter Blaiwas

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jane

  27. 5 out of 5

    Chester

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ted

  29. 4 out of 5

    David Gong

  30. 5 out of 5

    Le Wobrut

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