The 2-inch by 2-inch head-and-shoulders photo of a suave-looking Cole Porter grabbed my attention immediately.
The photo is inside a round frame at the top of the “Attractions” page in the June 30 edition of The Herald-Times of Bloomington. A large headline reads, “Singing our Songs,” and below that — covering three-quarters of the page — is a graphic of an American flag and photos of nine other great American songwriters.
The story delves into the music of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s that continues to permeate popular culture, even among people in their 20s.
The music is etched in America’s soul and is known as The Great American Songbook — a distinctive description of the songs that help define us as a nation.
Steve Zegree, a close friend of Peru’s internationally acclaimed opera star Tim Noble, is among those quoted in the Herald-Times article.
Zegree, like Noble, a professor at the IU Jacobs School of Music, says, “They [the Songbook tunes] will be around forever. From a harmonic, melodic, lyrical and structural standpoint, these songs are as beautiful, valid, original, creative and artistic as any song by composers such as Schubert, Schumann or Brahms.”
The other composers featured in the article are Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Bloomington’s Hoagy Carmichael, and Duke Ellington.
The article got me thinking about these musical geniuses, starting with the fact that Porter and Berlin wrote both the melody and the lyrics. To me, that puts them in a separate class.
At a Porter concert he gave in Peru several years ago, Noble recalled meeting Berlin during a musical celebration of Berlin’s 80th birthday. When Noble told Berlin he was from Peru, Berlin’s eyes widened. “Cole was the best of us, the very best,” Berlin said.
That’s saying something; Berlin’s output rivals anyone’s. He may be best known for “White Christmas,” but he reportedly considered “God Bless America” his most important song. Check out its inspiring history on the Internet. Then go to YouTube to hear Kate Smith, the catalyst for the song, sing it. Other Berlin classics include “Always,” “Blue Skies," “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” and his first hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
Carmichael merely gave us “Stardust,” “The Nearness of You,” “Up a Lazy River,” “In the Cool, Cool of the Evening,” “Old Buttermilk Sky,” and “Georgia on My Mind.” Carmichael wouldn’t say whether “Georgia” was written for his sister or the state.
The Gershwins — George the composer, Ira the lyricist — contributed “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “S’Wonderful,” “But Not For Me,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” and “Lady, Be Good” — before George died at the age of 38.
Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein produced “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “My Favorite Things,” “There’s Nothing Like a Dame,” and “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top.”
Mercer provided the words for “Laura,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Too Marvelous for Words,” “Moon River,” and “Accentuate the Positive.” Reportedly, Mercer, a white Southerner, was in a black church when the preacher exclaimed, “You got to accentuate the positive!” The rest is history.
Ellington, the great jazz composer, penned “Satin Doll” and “Take the A Train” with Billy Strayhorn, plus “Mood Indigo,” “In My Solitude,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and the grammatically incorrect “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”
Zegree says Arlen is “my favorite American composer that most people never heard of.” But most people have surely heard of Arlen’s best known song, “Over the Rainbow.” He also wrote “That Old Black Magic,” “Stormy Weather,” “Blues in the Night,” “Get Happy,” and “I’ve Got the World on a String.”
Miami Countians know all about Porter — “Night and Day,” “Begin the Beguine,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Anything Goes,” “Just One of Those Things,” “In the Still of the Night.” Porter afficianadoes probably have a dozen or two favorites. One of mine is “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” I just adore Joanie Sommers’ early ’60s version. It’s on YouTube.
So which of the 49 songs I’ve mentioned will start rattling around in your head?
Ray Moscowitz of Bloomington is a retired newspaper executive and former publisher of the Peru Tribune. Contact him at email@example.com.