When Sinatra bad-mouthed Elvis
May 12, 2015 11:40AM
● By Steven Hoffman
His kind of music is deplorable, a rancid smelling aphrodisiac.
These were the words Frank Sinatra used in 1956 when describing Elvis Presley. The criticism was harsh, but consider the circumstances: after a near three-year disappearance that saw him not only lose his wife but also his voice, Sinatra was now back on his game, and all of a sudden here emerged this shimmy-shaking punk out of Tennessee who was climbing up the charts and stealing the teenage girl hullabaloo that Sinatra had all to himself ten years before. One year later, in an article he wrote for a small French magazine that found its way to newspapers in the United States, Sinatra -- a former club boxer -- went absolutely pugilistic against an even larger foe. Rock and roll.
"It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people," he wrote. "It smells phony and false. It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiterations and sly, lewd -- in plain fact, dirty -- lyrics, and as I said before, it manages to be the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the earth..."
Such vitriolic diatribe between music makers was not new. Although the war of words between the generations of musicians may have reached its zenith in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when rock and pop music took over the airwaves, the tit-for-tat grumblings of one musical camp yielding to another go back much further.
In his latest book, "The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song," (Riverhead Books), University of Delaware English Professor Ben Yagoda brings readers into both the creativity and the mud, tracing the evolution of the popular music industry from the sophistication of George Gershwin and Oscar Hammerstein to the melodic goop that perpetuated the American culture in the 1950s.
Yagoda goes wide, providing a panoramic perspective of the popular music scene, set against the transformative backdrop of a changing America -- one that survived the Great Depression, World War II, and was embarking on journeys that would take them from large cities to small towns and simpler ways of life. Tethered in story lines from decade to decade, Yagoda's book reads like a novel of plots and subplots, heroes and villains -- all told in the context of an historical narrative.
The style is Yagoda's proven formula. Similar to two of his earlier books, "About Town: The New Yorkerand the World it Made" (2000) and "Memoir: A History" (2009), "The B-Side" is a page-turning weave of biography, history and analysis.
"That's a sweet spot for me," Yagoda said. "I felt book was about answering the question, 'Why did this Great American Songbook moment stop?' It's also about the human story, in understanding how people dealt with those changes."
They're all here, pounding pavements, gracing stages, recording in smoke-filled studios, and yelling back and forth: Gershwin, Cole Porter, Billie Holliday, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Sinatra and Mitch Miller.
"We know now what happened when Elvis and the Beatles arrived, but at the time, no one knew what was going to happen," Yagoda said. "Up to that point, [the general landscape of popular music] was centered on Broadway and the movies, with nothing in between. There was a limited view of music, but slowly, people like Hank Williams and Patti Page were seeping in. In some ways, this period was exciting."
In other ways, as Yagoda tells in the book, it was downright ugly. After World War II, there became a sea change in the listening tastes of Americans, who were tiring of hearing music that for them, represented the two time warp bubbles of New York City and Hollywood. The country was expanding, and yet the songwriters who ushered in The Great American Songbook were criticized for what many felt was an ignorance of music that was happening elsewhere.
Membership in ASCAP -- the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers -- virtually became an Old Boys Network that excluded any other type of musical genre that was creeping onto the scene. Meanwhile, America got a whole lot wider; the suburbs grew, and radio stations by the hundreds began to pop up in the "fly-over" states.
"People began to favor 'easy listening' music, comfort food in musical terms," Yagoda said. "They began to accept 'How Much is that Doggie in the Window?' while generally rejecting songs by Jerome Kern and Cole Porter."
Although Yagoda shies away from pointing to any one particular culprit in explaining this shift, the cream that rises to the top is in the influence of Mitch Miller, who served as the head of popular music for Columbia Records during the formative transition in music in the 1950s. Miller was a self-professed "hit maker," responsible for such works as "Mule Train," which featured a cracking whip. He delighted in convincing singers beholden to the Great American Songbook to sneak on over to the other side of the table; to, in essence, slum.
At the time, Sinatra's career was in the tanker. The bobby-soxer girls who worshipped him ten years before at The Paramount had all grown up; his marriage to the actress Eva Gardner was ending; and perhap most frightening of all, one night on stage he opened his mouth to sing and to his horror, nothing came out.
Sensing that the down-on-his-luck star was in need of a hit, Miller paired Sinatra with "Good Night, Irene" and then followed up by getting Sinatra to record "Mama Will Bark," which actually featured barking imitations. Although in celebrity terms, Sinatra's fall from grace was short-lived -- his Oscar-winning performance as Maggio in "From Here to Eternity" was quickly followed by his contract at Capitol Records -- his disdain for Miller was palpable.
It seemed that everyone, Yagoda writes, wanted a piece of the American ear. There were antitrust lawsuits as well, none more prominent than the one filed in 1953 by over 30 songwriters from ASCAP against BMI -- Broadcast Music, Inc. -- which claimed that they were being conspired against, and that BMI was placing American music in a straightjacket.
As a child of the Fifties, Yagoda formed that small slice of the Baby Boom Generation who, while being introduced to Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook, were also witnessing a firestorm of singers, songwriters and groups who shook the music world to its knees and ushered in the Sound of the Sixties. At the conclusion to "B-Sides," Yagoda illustrates that by the end of the 1950s, the accusatory word slinging and lawsuits were slowly giving way to an entire new generation of songwriters, like Carole King, Gerry Goffin, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and Bob Dylan.
"The final page had been turned on one songbook. Another was just starting to be written," Yagoda wrote.
"It's too bad that people tend to fall into camps based on their age, who hate this and love that," he said. "There are people like me who like a lot of things, who are a little more liberal in their tastes. My prejudice is that I'm very xenophobic, musically. I love American music, and that includes not only rock music but Broadway musicals as well."
When it comes to writing a book about popular American music of the last century, Yagoda is the perfect person for the job. He was born in 1954 in New Rochelle, N.Y., into a household where songs like "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Some Enchanted Evening" were played on the family victrola. His hometown was a short, 30-minute train ride from Grand Central Station, and as a child, he delighted in being taken by his parents to the big Broadway musicals of the day. "Funny Girl." "Hello, Dolly." "Fiddler on the Roof," and revivals of "Music Man" and "South Pacific." In 1966, Yagoda saw a production of "Guys and Dolls" at New York's City Center that starred Alan King and Jerry Orbach.
"I still think that was the greatest dramatic creation I've ever witnessed," he said. "It was so clever, witty in every way. It nailed these incredibly clever lyrics. The street scenes, the costumes, the ballads. It was perfect."
While Broadway music played in the Yagoda home, the New Yorker was mailed to the house every week. So was Esquire, so when he wasn't reading the novels of P.G. Wodehouse and other fiction of the day, Yagoda dove into the writing that was being seen on a regular basis in the magazines his family was receiving. Movie reviews by Pauline Kael. Long-form reporting by John McPhee. The New Journalism of Tom Wolf, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Richard Ben Cramer, who were dismantling the Old Guard of reporting and giving journalism a bold, new voice.
At Yale, he developed his own writing style while working on a campus magazine, which led to a near 30-year career as a freelance journalist, where his byline was seen in Rolling Stone, American Stage, In Health, Connoisseurand countless other publications.
"I began to experiment with a new voice, which melded with analytical viewpoints and narrative," he said. "When I started working for magazines, I thought, 'Wow. This voice thing is kind of cool."
Freelancing became and remained a very steady gig for Yagoda, even after he began teaching at the University in 1992. His assignments allowed him to hang out with the likes of Susan Sarandon, director Barry Levinson, and actress Uma Thurman, with whom he ate blinis and caviar at the Russian Tea Room. Eventually, some of the magazines he wrote for folded; they didn't have the budgets anymore that once allowed writers the freedom, expense and time to carve long-form beauty out of facts and narrative in 5,000 words.
In a 2005 Slate.com entitled, "My Life as a Hack," Yagoda announced that he was tossing in the towel on a career as a contributing writer. "Freelancing, with all its scrambling and uncertainty, is like rock climbing or white-water kayaking: one of those things that comes fairly easily in your 20s and 30s but requires some mulling over as your enter your 50s," he wrote.
Not only does he see the economic market for writing changing the way journalism is being defined, but the way its being perceived, procured, read and subsequently, taught.
"Writing on Twitter is great, but if you're only reading Twitter, that's the problem," Yagoda said. "Reading prose, essays, books, magazines, is the absolute criteria for being a good writer, and I just don't see that happening as often as I did years ago. A lot of students study journalism fully knowing that they will not ultimately go into journalism as a career. They wisely have the idea that some of these skills they'll develop -- researching and figuring out what is important -- will help in what they will do in law, teaching, business, and public relations."
Every writer, if he or she beats the odds and enters the autumn age of their career, is allowed the freedom to reflect on the impact of the words he or she has published -- where its been read and the degree to which the words have elicited thought, adequate commentary, and if its really good, the degree to which it has nudged. Yagoda's career in writing -- several books, and countless essays, reviews and articles -- certainly gives him that right to rest on his laurels, but he's not ready to put the pen down, however. He still contributes book reviews to The New York Times Book Review, as well as opinion and editorial to the Wall Street Journal and other publications.
"I feel and believe that being promiscuously curious is something that's in my DNA," he said. "I never hope to not have that. I wonder about it and then say I'm going to write about it. It's one of the great pleasures of writing.
"It helps you figure out things."