Let's Do It: The Birth of Pop Music: A History
“It’s all that ripe information on the dim early days that really makes Let’s Do It an essential part of any music library.”
So you think you know about pop music? Does your chronology start with the Beatles? Frank Sinatra maybe? Well, let’s set the wayback machine for a dimly remembered time, say, 1900. Was there pop music then?
Author Bob Stanley, who wrote Let’s Do It and the earlier Yeah, Yeah, Yeah (about modern pop) would tell you that the first real recording stars might have been barbershop harmony groups, dialect comedians, and John Phillip Souza of march fame, though the latter thought recordings were the death of music. No matter, because he played loudly, and that was essential for the first primitive cylinder-based phonographs. Frankly, Thomas Edison (Mr. Cylinder) never thought his invention would be used for music—it was more a tool for business dictation. It took ages for him to change that view.
You will learn something new on virtually every page of this book, which was written by the keyboard player in the popular British band St. Etienne. Stanley knows something about pop because he lived it, far more than those creations in the current Daisy Jones and the Six (thinly veiled Fleetwood Mac). Since jazz was popular music in the ’30s and ’40s, Stanley had to “go there” to great length, and it’s great that he can compare those sounds knowledgably to today’s pop—most jazz scholars can’t do that.
An alternative subtitle for this book would be: “A History of Pop Music in America and Great Britain.” Stanley alternates chapters about what was happening on both sides of the pond. There were periods when only British songwriters were appreciated in theaters Stateside, and other epochs where they couldn’t get arrested.
Did you know that the fabulously productive Irving Berlin got clinically depressed? That the 1914 “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Rai” inspired the 1982 Dexy’s Midnight Runners hit “Come on Eileen”? That Hawaiian music was huge in 1916, and that one of its popular practitioners, the team of Helen Louise and Frank Ferera (they sold 300,000 copies of “Drowsy Waters”) was forced to break up in 1919 when Louise fell off a ship traveling from Los Angeles to Seattle?
The book is very good on the tangled roots of jazz, principally in New Orleans. Why was the great cornet player Buddy Bolden, who preceded Louis Armstrong, never recorded? His being committed to an asylum in 1907 has something to do with it. A rumored cylinder recorded by a saloon operator in New Orleans named Oscar Zahn probably melted. Bolden appears to have contributed the word “funky” to the vocabulary with his song “Funky Butt.” The tune refers to, according to Danny Barker, “the olfactory effect of an auditorium packed full of sweaty people dancing close together and belly rubbing.”
There are some great books about the Great American Songbook out there—Ben Yagoda’s The B Sides is one of them. Stanley is very assured on how this music by mostly Jewish music/lyrics teams in New York got created. Yagoda is better on how Mitch Miller (A&R man at Columbia) ruined it all with novelty songs (“How Much is That Doggie in the Window?”) in the early 1950s, but you’ll get the gist in Let’s Do It. “Get lost, creep,” that’s what Sinatra said to Miller when they encountered each other in Vegas years after the fact.
Fans of P. G. Wodehouse’s many, many books about Bertie and Jeeves will be intrigued to learn he had a successful earlier career as a Broadway lyric writer, paired with the great Jerome Kern. There’s more here than you may want to know about Al Jolson, but he was an important transitional figure—as soon as the microphone was invented his loud, loud singing style was toast. It was time for Bing Crosby (and then Sinatra).
The industry didn’t think Black people would buy records, but then Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” sold 75,000 copies during its first two months on the market in 1920. The execs were equal-opportunity bigots—they didn’t think country music would sell to “hillbillies” either. But then “Little Log Cabin in the Lane” by Fiddlin’ John Carson, one of the first recordings of a rural white musician, sold like, well, “Crazy Blues.”
So many once-huge popular singers get space in this book: Annette Hanshaw, Vaughn De Leath (who sang “Bridgeport by the Sea” but lived out of town in Westport), Toni Harper (a 1950s jazz singer who left the scene at just 32), Ranny Sinclair (whose remarkable career with Dave Brubeck is just a footnote), and many more. But Stanley also gives us useful portraits of more popular female jazz singers: Ella Fitzgerald, Chris Connor, June Christy ,and Anita O’Day. Doris Day gets her due (especially for her early recordings), and giants like Duke Ellington and Count Basie are properly appreciated.
A comprehensive review of this book would be longer than the 591-page book itself, so it’s best to stop here. The author makes it into the ’60s—Petula Clark gets her due, and Tom Jones/Engelbert Humperdinck are investigated. But you can read about them elsewhere. It’s all that ripe information on the dim early days that really makes Let’s Do It an essential part of any music library.