Roll Over, Cole Porter

Something strange and wild happened in American popular music during the middle of the 1950s. You can almost identify the precise date when the change took place. Rock ’n’ roll certainly existed before Elvis Presley reached the top of the charts with “Heartbreak Hotel” in the spring of 1956, but it didn’t yet dominate the airwaves. Dean Martin, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Nelson Riddle had each enjoyed No. 1 singles in the preceding months. But Elvis’s success changed the rules of the music business; during the remainder of the decade (and for years to come), most of the rising stars were rock ’n’ rollers. Anything else—big-band numbers, pop crooners, vocal groups, Broadway tunes—soon sounded old-fashioned and out of style.

Many have told the story of this shift before Ben Yagoda, but rarely from the perspective of the displaced old guard. A revolution looks very different when you are the kings and kingmakers who just got evicted from the palace. In his smart new book, The B-Side, Yagoda, an established arts journalist, shares some stories about the rise of rock that you probably haven’t heard before. He tells of the time Richard Rodgers, one of the greatest songwriters in American history, first heard a Janis Joplin album. (A distraught Rodgers grumbled to Clive Davis: “If this means I have to change my writing . . . then my career is over.”) He gives us painful glimpses of master tunesmiths Ira Gershwin and Harold Arlen grappling with rock ’n’ roll’s ascendancy. He details Frank Sinatra’s battles with label execs who urged him to abandon the classic songs and update his sound.

The book opens with a detailed account of a 1954 meeting in Columbia Records’ New York headquarters, and here Yagoda reveals his knack for illustrating a host of thorny issues via one revealing incident. Arthur Schwartz, a craftsman composer with more than two decades under his belt as a star Broadway and Hollywood songwriter, is huddling with Columbia A&R kingpin Mitch Miller. Schwartz is confident of his skills and pitches his best new songs, but he fails to make a single sale—although Miller hints that if he were given a cut of the action as co-composer, he might change his mind. Yagoda skillfully plumbs the full symbolic resonance and business implications of this seemingly inconsequential face-to-face meeting and vividly distills many of the key issues at play in the mid-’50s music industry, from payola to publisher infighting. Most amusing of all, the reader gets to see and enjoy the obliviousness of two titans of the industry, who feint and parry with practiced aplomb—never suspecting that the looming rock revolution will soon make them both irrelevant.

As such examples suggest, Yagoda constructs his music history on the basis of character-driven vignettes. Fortunately, the prerock world of American popular music doesn’t lack for characters; The B-Side features a steady parade of the odd and eccentric. Miller is a case in point, a paradoxical man who was one of the finest oboists of his generation and performed with everyone from Leopold Stokowski to Charlie Parker. But as a power broker at Columbia, Miller used his influence to promote harebrained novelty records and mood-music albums, all while missing the boat on rock ’n’ roll. He could have signed Elvis but balked at the cost. He turned down Buddy Holly. Years later, he still griped that the Beatles were a “rip-off.”

Miller is only a footnote in most music histories, but Yagoda realizes that tumultuous changes in popular culture are sometimes best documented by looking at the travails of the lesser known. You’ve probably never heard of publisher Max Dreyfus, songwriter Ray Evans, producer George Abbott, or most of the other music-industry personalities who inhabit The B-Side. Yet in Yagoda’s telling, their stories are just as illuminating as the triumphs of Elvis and the Beatles—and supply grim testimony to the many careers derailed on the tortuous journey from the swing era to Woodstock.

Most of the music industry was in a state of shock and denial during the closing years of the 1950s. Yagoda tells us about Paul Whiteman, lauded as the “King of Jazz” back in the ’20s, who now griped that rock was all right “in a pretty simple way” but only had around “two words to a lyric.” Bandleader Bob Crosby complained that the “so-called ‘tunes’ are monotonous with a similarity that is almost ridiculous.” Meredith Willson, composer of The Music Man, compared rock music to the plague. “It’s utter garbage,” he lamented, “and shouldn’t be confused in any way with anything related to music or verse.” But those who paid attention to the cash register told a different story. After Elvis’s “All Shook Up” sold more than two million copies, Billboard magazine called out the naysayers in a memorable headline: DEMISE OF R&R JUST SO MUCH WISHFUL THINKING.

The B-Side would have been an exemplary history even if it were merely an insider’s guide to the collapse of what many nowadays call the golden age of American song. But Yagoda does something much bolder: He shows that this moment of reckoning in the ’50s was not as final or all-encompassing as we have come to believe. He points out the many hidden continuities between the old and new styles, especially when we arrive at the mid-’60s. The star songwriters of this era, from the Beatles to Burt Bacharach, may have posed as upstarts and rebels, but their best work relied on many of the same finely honed techniques we find in the songs of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. Yagoda shares a telling quote from Jimmy Webb, one of the finest ’60s songwriters, recalling the glorious reascension of the pop song in the aftermath of Rubber Soul and Revolver: “Everything shifted. Rock ’n’ roll had morphed into something much more interesting musically. It was a gift from God to be alive and working in the music business from 1966 to the early 1970s.”

Frank Sinatra performing with Jan Savitt, 1943.
Frank Sinatra performing with Jan Savitt, 1943. William Popsie Randolph

From this new perspective, the real break with the past occurred not in the mid-’50s but the late ’70s, when punk rock and disco emerged as powerful forces in the music world and hip-hop first stirred to life on the airwaves. But Yagoda doesn’t mention any of those styles in his book, perhaps preferring to end his story on the celebratory note of the mid-’60s pop renaissance. I’m convinced by the main thrust of his narrative—the values of Gershwin certainly survived into the ’60s and early ’70s. But in the wider sweep of musical history, this was less a rebirth than a reprieve. By the ’80s and ’90s, a cruder aesthetic vision dominated the music business, and had a new Cole Porter arrived on the scene then, he would have needed to hire a video producer and insert some booty-shaking into his numbers if he hoped to make his way to the top.

I can’t help wishing Yagoda had addressed this later period. Even his treatment of the ’60s feels rushed compared with his more expansive account of the ’40s and ’50s. I would have thought that the singer-songwriter movement of the early ’70s would demand inclusion as a crucial part of this story—especially since the stylistic imperatives of that era clearly support his revisionist interpretation of American popular music. But the ’70s troubadours rate only a few paragraphs.

Yet Yagoda’s chronicle of the earlier decades is so compelling and richly detailed that the reader will gladly overlook these omissions. His chapters on the emergence of the golden age of Gershwin, Porter, Kern, and Berlin are outstanding, and he offers an intriguing explanation for the remarkable level of skill and creativity in the tunes of that era. The growing importance of recordings, he argues, persuaded composers to write music for professional performers rather than the amateurs who tinkled the parlor pianos of America. The rise of an elite class of full-time recording stars put an end to the dumbing down of the music business and encouraged an unprecedented level of sophistication and craftsmanship. I don’t know if Yagoda realizes it, but his thesis also refutes Walter Benjamin’s famous claim that the mechanical reproduction of art destroys elitism and spurs art’s democratization. Yagoda makes clear that technology occasionally has the opposite effect.

His discussion of the ’50s is even better. The B-Side is a must-read for anyone interested in the rise of rock and the shock waves it sent through the American music business. Readers of The B-Side will have a keener appreciation of the heroic guitarists and renegade rockers who ruled as megastars in the aftermath of the ’50s revolution. Yagoda also poignantly conveys the pain of the generation pushed aside in the process—indeed, he seems to be at his best when recounting the failures and setbacks of his various protagonists. It’s a truism that history is written by the victors, but after reading The B-Side I’m increasingly convinced that the best-selling artists on the A-list are only half the story—perhaps the less interesting half.

Ted Gioia’s latest book is Love Songs: The Hidden History (Oxford University Press, 2015).