The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song

Washington Post, January 30, 2015

In case you've never heard it, the Patti Page tune "(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?" is indeed about a doggie in a window. It is about little else, unless you count the doggie's tail and its price on the open market. It is punctuated by slightly-off-the-beat doggie yips; it is sung in the glazed cadences of a psych-ward nurse; it is graced by chord progressions that would insult a kindergartener. It's the kind of bizarre simulacrum of humanity that might have been crafted by an alien civilization.

And for a two-month period in 1953, it was the No. 1 song in America.

Along comes cultural critic Ben Yagoda to argue that "Doggie," far from being a one-off excrescence, was an all-too-typical product of its time—that benighted era of "novelty numbers, lachrymose ballads, simplistic jingles, hillbilly hokum." The age of Frankie Laine and Johnnie Ray, of Ray Conniff and Percy Faith. Of "Que Sera Sera" and "Mambo Italiano" and "Yakety Yak" and "Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb)" and "Ooh Bang Jiggilly Jang." A "perpetual blanket of banality" that leaves Yagoda asking, in his engaging but thin book "The B-Side," "How and why, precisely, did pop music get so bad in the 1950s?"

Such a question, of course, presupposes that the previous era's music was good, and by Yagoda's uncontroversial reckoning, it was very good indeed. For a period of roughly 30 years, giants such as Kern and Gershwin, Berlin and Porter, Rodgers and Ellington and Arlen bestrode the land, distilling European operetta, Jewish minor-key melodies and African American blues and jazz into the richest of tonal brews.

The basic structure of their songs rarely varied from four sections of eight bars each, but the rhythmic and harmonic possibilities were nearly infinite, and the result, contends Yagoda, was "a rare flowering of genius" comparable to Renaissance Florence. "For the only time in American music history, the most popular music in the country was high-quality jazz, and a staple of that music was good and great songs."

"The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song" by Ben Yagoda (Riverhead)

Yet by the end of World War II, these songs were dropping off the airwaves with shocking speed. "We were playing to empty ballrooms," recalls then-trombonist and later songwriter Johnny Mandel, "because the jitterbugs never came back from the war. . . . The [kids] who made it back, they wanted to go on with their lives, and jitterbugging wasn't part of it." The change in mass taste was so dizzying that composer Arthur Schwartz ("That's Entertainment," "Dancing in the Dark") was moved to remark, "It must be somebody's doing."

Yagoda has just the somebody in mind. In his salad days, Mitch Miller was one of the world's finest oboists; by the time he became head of artists and repertoire for Columbia Records, he was in a race to the bottom. No gimmick was beneath him: the lashing whip sounds of "Mule Train," the barrelhouse harpsichord of "Come on-a My House" (a career-making hit that Rosemary Clooney rued to the end of her days) or the bagpipe accompaniment to "The Scottish Samba," a Dinah Shore recording so heinous one DJ actually smashed it on the air.

Most grievously for his reputation, Miller talked a down-on-his-luck Frank Sinatra into recording "Mama Will Bark," a novelty tune featuring "Doggie"-style howls and a buxom blonde named Dagmar. Sinatra never forgave Miller, and neither, it seems, has Yagoda. "The B-Side" starts to resemble one of those robotic "Sing Along with Mitch" TV specials where the same theme gets pounded home: "goateed vulgarian . . . turning pop music into jingles . . . set the music business back thirty or forty years."

But this snake-in-paradise mythos won't quite hold. Consider paradise. In 1930, during what Yagoda describes as "the very shank of the golden age," the No. 1 hit record was not "Body and Soul" but "Stein Song," the official tune of the University of Maine. Other chart-topping ditties: "Chant of the Jungle" and "The Man from the South (with a Big Cigar in His Mouth)." As Yagoda acknowledges, "Even golden ages are not uniformly golden."

Nor are dark ages uniformly dark. The most casual canvassing of 1950s musical literature unearths "Satin Doll," "Misty," "Here's That Rainy Day" (a ballad to stand with the best of Berlin), "Fly Me to the Moon," "Lullaby of Birdland," "Tennessee Waltz" (a quality hit from Patti Page and an actual B-side), "Take Five," "Cold, Cold Heart" and "Cry Me a River," as well as enduring Broadway soundtracks from Frank Loesser, Meredith Willson, Jule Styne, Leonard Bernstein, and Lerner and Loewe. Not to mention the cream years of Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, Muddy Waters, Ruth Brown and "Big Mama" Thornton.

But Yagoda remains lashed to his theoretical mast, and so by the early 1960s, Mitch Miller must be sent (metaphorically) packing so that the Beatles and the Beach Boys can save pop music. I simplify—but not by much, and Yagoda grossly oversimplifies when he writes, "The final page had been turned on one songbook. Another was just starting to be written." Music doesn't evolve that neatly—it's not a succession of doors slamming on sealed rooms—and Yagoda conspicuously leaves open the question of whether the "new music" is equal to the old. If the Great American Song has been "reborn," as his subtitle suggests, where does it now live? What's been gained, and what's been lost? Who, to put it in stark terms, is our Jerome Kern? Our George Gershwin?