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A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers

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Friedwald tells stories of more than 300 performers, stories full of historical nuance and musical artfulness.
By Suzanne Cloud

Let there be no doubt that Will Friedwald loves singers and the context from within which they sing—the songs of the great American songbook. In A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, Friedwald, a respected jazz writer with seven previous books on music and popular culture, has written an encyclopedically structured book of some of the best singers America has produced—but with an exciting twist.

He's rearranged all of the clinical (read boring) stuff that a typical who's-who contains and added his own keen ear, editorial observations, deep feelings, musical knowledge, and quirky historical context, which makes reading this book a pure joy.

As someone who repeatedly plunked down the needle arm of a record player, popped and re-popped tapes into a cassette deck, then proceeded to stack discs in a CD changer, and now downloads iTunes to listen to the many interpreters of our many great songs, I can say A Biographical Guide is a gem of a book that I highly recommend.

In a recent interview with JazzTimes magazine, Friedwald said it took him 10 years to research and write A Biographical Guide, and it shows. Like a vigilant and devoted archaeologist, Friedwald carefully studied (and most important, listened to) all the profiled singers and dusted off fascinating tidbits that every lover of American songs and their musical interpreters will delightfully devour.

For example, in his essay about the Andrews Sisters, Friedwald offers a story of sexism, telling of how bandleader Fred Waring was going to hire the group for his variety show until he met them and “decided that they were too homely even for radio."

Friedwald tells stories of more than 300 performers, stories full of historical nuance and musical artfulness. As a longtime Philadelphia jazz singer, I recognized and relished, again and again, the sensibilities he deftly expresses in this book. (Full disclosure, although I do not know the author: Friedwald named me as a talent deserving of wider recognition in his 1996 book Jazz Singing: America's Great Voices From Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond, and no, I am not in this book.) For instance, Friedwald relates an early first meeting between (then unknown) Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney. After hearing Bennett sing, Clooney immediately heard the influence of the now, almost-forgotten singer Mildred Bailey in Bennett's phrasing, which the singer freely admitted.

This brief anecdote not only shows how closely singers listen to each other (which we certainly do) but also leads Friedwald into an engrossing essay on Bailey, her impact on up-and-coming singers, and her slow fade into the shadows, horrifically ignored by major record labels after World War II.

Friedwald isn't shy with his own opinions—a guilty pleasure, for sure. I giggled approvingly when he dubs Michael Buble “the world's greatest wedding singer," with “everything except originality." When Friedwald skewers the set lists of the greats, some of his pugnacious remarks made me laugh out loud. In his essay on Judy Garland, he concludes that she “shared with Frank Sinatra a capacity for making every song sound like a chapter in an autobiography. Her “Born in a Trunk," a dreadful song that she transforms into a classic . . . [was] equivalent to Sinatra's “My Way" (come to think of it another dreadful song)." I found myself cheering him on. Finally, somebody just saying, flat out, that Paul Anka's soliloquy to overblown manliness is a turkey!

Friedwald's entry on Shirley Horn (a personal favorite of mine, and someone I had the pleasure of meeting backstage when she opened for Miles Davis' last concert in Philly at the Academy of Music) was right on the money in describing her spare and understated, yet solidly meaningful style of vocal delivery. He recounts a concert she gave in 2003 with pianist George Mesterhazy (another brilliant local pianist) at Carnegie Hall, when the crowd “was hanging on to every word and every note, breathing along with her and feeling along with her. If anyone in the hall had so much as coughed, the crowd would have stoned him."

Friedwald's text bounces elegantly among insights that are comical as well as anguished while describing the lives and careers of the giants we have grown to idolize, and it even resurrects some vocalists buried in the mists of memory, such as Al Bowlly, a 1930s star kicked to the historical curb, or Alice Faye, a smoky-voiced actress never appreciated as a singer. He expertly integrates their successes, failures, performances, and historical significance without ever sounding stuffy or pontifical.

Some of Friedwald's attempts at categorization are a tad awkward. I realize sorting out vocal styles can be difficult, but I found some of his too-cute taxonomic boxes a bit disconcerting: “Fats' Femme Followers" left me cold, as did “Female Band Singers I—Benny's Babes," meaning singers the author has shelved under the influence of Fats Waller and Benny Goodman, respectively.

Will Friedwald is the ultimate storyteller when it comes to understanding how a vocalist personalizes music. He knows what it means to shape a lyric, bend a note, adjust tonal quality on a dime, and incorporate double and triple meanings into a phrase for anyone willing to shut up a minute and listen. He doesn't participate in debates about what defines a jazz singer; he just loves the human voice and respects the intelligence behind it.

Originally published by the Philadelphia Inquirer on 2/6/2011

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