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In today’s single-drive music marketplace, the success of a song is often attributed to its producer “ superstars like Pharrell Williams or Kanye West “ whose touch of studio polish turns it into an instant hit, regardless of whether it’s any good. The name is the game.
The practice is so de rigueur these days, it’s hard to recall a time when the art of the song began and ended with “ brace yourself for a novel concept “ the songwriter. In fact, chances are most of us even weren’t alive then: the Twenties. That’s when multitalented musicians like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and George Gershwin “tripled the world’s supply of singable tunes,” crafting one smash after another. Before the days of Billboard, many left an indelible mark on American popular culture.
Today, we still hum numbers like “God Bless America,” “Night and Day” and “I Got Rhythm.” And in “The House That George Built,” noted critic Wilfrid Sheed documents the days of their creation, giving readers a perspective to their writers’ process and the era, and how the former was influenced by the latter, and then vice versa.
It’s interesting to read how compositions now regarded as masterpieces had harsh critics in their day. For example, Gershwin’s jazz-inspired classical work “Rhapsody in Blue” was once derided by one naysayer as “lifeless (and) derivative.”
Sheed doesn’t stick solely to that time, however. Subsequent chapters move into the jazz age, the Broadway revolution and the onset of the cinema, allowing for profiles of such luminaries as Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer, among others.
The author clearly knows (and loves) his stuff. One wishes he’d extended the scope to include the Brill Building sound of the Fifties and Sixties, when the New York City site served as the breeding ground for such songwriting teams as Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and Gerry Goffin and Carole King.