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The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty [Hardcover]

Wilfrid Sheed
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

July 3 2007
From Irving Berlin to Cy Coleman, from “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to “Big Spender,” from Tin Pan Alley to the MGM soundstages, the Golden Age of the American song embodied all that was cool, sexy, and sophisticated in popular culture. For four glittering decades, geniuses like Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Harold Arlen ran their fingers over piano keys, enticing unforgettable melodies out of thin air. Critically acclaimed writer Wilfrid Sheed uncovered the legends, mingled with the greats, and gossiped with the insiders. Now he’s crafted a dazzling, authoritative history of the era that “tripled the world’s total supply of singable tunes.”

It began when immigrants in New York’s Lower East Side heard black jazz and blues–and it surged into an artistic torrent nothing short of miraculous. Broke but eager, Izzy Baline transformed himself into Irving Berlin, married an heiress, and embarked on a string of hits from “Always” to “Cheek to Cheek.” Berlin’s spiritual godson George Gershwin, in his brief but incandescent career, straddled Tin Pan Alley and Carnegie Hall, charming everyone in his orbit. Possessed of a world-class ego, Gershwin was also generous, exciting, and utterly original. Half a century later, Gershwin love songs like “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “The Man I Love,” and “Love Is Here to Stay” are as tender and moving as ever.
Sheed also illuminates the unique gifts of the great jazz songsters Hoagy Carmichael and Duke Ellington, conjuring up the circumstances of their creativity and bringing back the thrill of what it was like to hear “Georgia on My Mind” or “Mood Indigo” for the first time. The Golden Age of song sparked creative breakthroughs in both Broadway musicals and splashy Hollywood extravaganzas. Sheed vividly recounts how Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, and Johnny Mercer spread the melodic wealth to stage and screen.

Popular music was, writes Sheed, “far and away our greatest contribution to the world’s art supply in the so-called American Century.” Sheed hung out with some of the great artists while they were still writing–and better than anyone, he knows great music, its shimmer, bite, and exuberance. Sparkling with wit, insight, and the grace notes of wonderful songs, The House That George Built is a heartfelt, intensely personal portrait of an unforgettable era.

A delightfully charming, funny, and most illuminating portrait of songwriters and the Golden Age of American Popular Song. Mr. Sheed’s carefully chosen depictions and anecdotes recapture that amazingly creative period, a moment in time in which I was so fortunate to be surrounded by all that magic.”
–Margaret Whiting

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From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Sheed (Office Politics), who won a 1987 Grammy Award for Best Album Notes (for Sinatra's The Voice), spoke over the decades with many of these Great American Songbook creators and their families. In this book, he employs an informal, anecdotal approach as he looks back at the top tunesmiths of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood. Composer Arthur Schwartz recalled that he dashed off the tune in 20 minutes after lyricist Howard Dietz casually remarked, What is life but dancing in the dark? Beginning with Gershwin and Irving Berlin, Sheed quotes numerous lyrics throughout his lilting, witty profiles (of Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, Frank Loesser, Johnny Mercer, Richard Rodgers and others), plus brief comments on 57 more. Since Hurricane Katrina, Louis Alter's Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? has served as a national anthem, so the curt dismissal of Alter (more a swinging musician than a songwriter proper) is curious amid the many choruses of praise. Sheed soars on the wings of song with scintillating, lyrical writing. (July 3)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Wilfred Sheed is the author of six novels, two of which, Office Politics and People Will Always Be Kind, were nominated for National Book Awards. He has written three collections of criticism, one of which was nominated by the National Book Critics Circle. Among his other books is a notable memoir of Clare Boothe Luce, who told him that Irving Berlin was the vainest man she ever met and George Gershwin one of the most basically modest. He lives with his wife, Miriam Ungerer, in North Haven, New York

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By Donald Mitchell #1 HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
The House That George Built works fine if you can hear in your head every fabulous popular song that Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Harry Warren, Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Mercer, Frank Loesser, Burton Lane, Cy Coleman, Walter Donaldson, Arthur Schwartz, and Vincent Youmans. But I can't, even though I'm not exactly a youngster. In an age when even books about insects contain CDs of their songs, it's very peculiar to have a history of popular music without containing the music itself.

The book works well, however, for those who know the songs and music but don't know very much about how the music was created and the quirks of those who did the creating. It's hard to imagine that there are very many people in that category, but if you are . . . this book's a five-star effort just for you.

Mr. Sheed covers a lot of ground, lightly, in appropriately syncopated style. His writing style, in fact, was for me the most interesting aspect of the book. Like P.G. Wodehouse, Mr. Sheed is capable to turning up an interesting, novel phrase every so often that keeps you riveted to the material as you look for the next gem. Even better, Mr. Sheed reserves most of those fascinating phrases for summing up a given composer or lyricist. Jerome Kern, for example, while older seemed "slightly overwhelmed by his own magnificence."

The book's tone is deliberately conversational: Mr. Sheed calls the book a bull session. To me, it felt like sitting in a comfy piano bar in Manhattan and listening to an entertaining companion over a perfect dry martini (Beefeater gin up with olives) while the old standards tinkle on in the background.
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Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  47 reviews
89 of 93 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A song in his heart July 5 2007
By Shalom Freedman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a book about the composers of America's most popular popular music, the music that came into being from roughly 1920 to 1950. It is not a formal treatise or scholarly study but rather a kind of fan's notes ramble, an enthusiastic exuberant high- spirited riff. English- born novelist, essayist Sheed shows great love for , and tremendous knowledge of American popular song. He writes with worshipful insight of the two greatest of the founding fathers of this particular American genre, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. Both of these children of Russian Jewish parents found in black Blues and American jazz a fundamental inspiration. Both inspired many others and Gershwin particularly was a magnanimous helpful friend to other composers. Sheed cares for the Music above all and gives preeminence to those who create it - the lyrics are significant but secondary. Sheed writes not only about the major figures, Kern, Berlin, Gershwin, Cole Porter but also about fifty others. One special one for him is someone he knew personally , Harry Warren. Warren the composer of "I only have eyes for you' was a modest figure in the background but for Sheed a friend and great composer to whom he dedicates the book.
All the readers of this book I know of have spoken of what great pleasure they had in reading it. The songs of these great composers entered Sheed's heart and his writing is his song of appreciation back to them.
28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars He knows the score (but that's not quite enough any more). Aug. 18 2007
By Samuel Chell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Sheed is a witty, but not self-indulgently or distractingly so, prose "stylist," not a musician. In that capacity he's "like" a jazz musician riffing on a familiar theme (it's tough to come up with new material about the Great American Songbook and its composers) and of particular use to those readers who love the music and wish to express what it means to them as much as it expresses its meanings to them. Sheed is such a reader's "voice," and probably a more welcome one than that of the historians, musicologists, composers and lyricists.

I don't think he's disparaging the musicians by showing us their flaws and vices. A Charlie Parker or Miles Davis is certainly no less an artist to me because of his drug habit or even, as in the case of Bird, his selfish, childish, and exploitive ways. If anything, the unpleasant behaviorisms of artists ranging from Buddy Rich to William Faulkner make it easier to relate to them as well as to sustain interest. If they were any better as human beings, their overwhelming talent and, even genius, would simply be too much to bear. Sheed also knows that while it's misguided to judge a book by its cover, in the case of the creative artist the book would no doubt be entirely different, most likely inferior, were the cover not what it is.

As for the melody vs. lyric flap, he's right. The most recorded popular song in American music history--"Body and Soul"--has an embarassingly bad lyric ("My love a wreck you're making, My heart is yours for the taking"--"ouch!" many times over). What counts most in the language of music is the notes, not the words. A song has to be able to stand on its own, apart from the lyrics (and John Coltrane certainly felt that Rodgers' music for Hammerstein did just that). Since the '60s we've been inundated by little more than bad recitative (ask any bar pianist or Saturday night saxophone player). On the other hand, great lyrics can 1. make a great melody an even richer experience; 2. help "shape" an infectious melody (for example, Porter's repetition of melodic motifs to fit the theme of "obsession" in countless numbers of his tunes); 3. bring to the melody the attention that it deserves if not requires to become a "standard." "Body and Soul" got lucky--a great melody and set of chord changes performed by an artist (Coleman Hawkins) whom every great player wanted to emulate.

All of the composers Sheed chooses to discuss are deserving, though it would be nice to have fuller consideration of Van Heusen, Styne, McHugh, Victor Young ("When I Fall in Love," "My Foolish Heart," "Stella by Starlight), and greater focus on isolated sublime melodies that have become jazz standards (e.g. Bronislaw Kaper's "On Green Dolphin Street"). If I had to limit myself to a single comprehensive yet surprisingly detailed book on great American popular music and its composers (their styles between the bars of the staff paper as well as in assorted bars about town), it would have to be Gerald Mast's "Can't Help Singing," which can be read for pleasure or used as a definitive reference work. What the music could use at this stage is a Ken Burns or another director's 20-part PBS series about these leading composers of "American music" and their songs. Just as Burns' jazz series showed us as much about race, ethnicity, and adversity as the music, the history of American song, with all of the Jewish immigrants who either worked their way up to Tin Pan Alley or were forced by economic necessity to temper their aspirations as "serious" composers, is equally fascinating and of no less significance. The Great American Songbook us an essential complement to the African-American "classical" music (jazz) that is America's "gift" to the arts; it's the indigenous real deal--an art form, not a "folk" expression--and for far too long it's either been taken for granted or simply dismissed as inconsequential elitist tripe.

In fact, reading books like Sheed's and going back to the songs themselves can't help but lead to an inescapable sense of the enormous influence of African-American cultural traditions (i.e. black music) on virtually all of the major American composers of the first half of the century (examples are too numerous to begin listing, but Berlin never tired of giving a new shape to what were once referred to as "coon songs," and Mercer, Crosby, Astaire loved to recreate minstrel routines (check out the song "Mr. Crosby and Mr. Mercer"); Arlen "escaped" from cantoring at the synagogue to writing shows at the Cotton Club; Gershwin thought he was writing jazz; and even the elitist and very "European" Kern is best remembered for, what else, "Ole Man River" (though seeing Irene Dunne perform Kern's "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" is to discover the indebtedness of the composer not just to spirituals but to the coon song tradition). So deep was the attraction to and love of indigenous African-American music that it's not much of a stretch to think of the most seminal songs of the "Great American Songbook" as primarily "black music." Ironically, the primary exception is Cole Porter who, according to Richard Rodgers, thought he had to learn how to write more Jewish before he'd master the idiom (perhaps contributing to the relative lateness of his first hit, "Let's Do It," in 1928). He'd have done better to put his ear to the ground and go directly to the source (though the effect of Robert Browning's poetry on his original syntax is undeniable).

Whatever, it's a fascinating, fruitful subject and adventure, and it's time to take more people along on it. Only a tiny percentage of us read books like Sheed's and are familiar with and care about the songs and their composers. Most college students I meet in the latter days of civilization as we once knew it have never heard of Crosby (unless it's his association with David Bowie) or Berlin or Gershwin or even "Body and Soul." At best, they just "might" know a single standard--"Somewhere Over the Rainbow." But those bluebirds certainly aren't singing on this side. They don't know any tunes.
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars And one more for the road Aug. 29 2007
By Jon Hunt - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
By tackling an almost impossible task...that of categorizing, rating and recounting the lives of songwriters in the first half of the twentieth century, Wilfrid Sheed has given us a book that is literally all over the map. While offering some fine insights, the author has delivered a hodgepodge of information. It's more than a little bewildering.

Written in a kind of gossip column style, Sheed gets off to a good start with chapters on Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. Without these two men leading the way, it's hard to imagine that the songwriting of the 1920s and 1930s....the heyday of American musical culture... could ever have happened. Add in Cole Porter and you have the great triumvirate of composers. It's always a hard choice to know whom else to include in such a broad sweep of biography and Sheed makes some solid but some strange choices as well. Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen certainly, but Cy Coleman? It seems plausible that Coleman was added because Sheed knew him.

"The House That George Built" doesn't exactly drive a straight line from beginning to end. The book has a circular feel to it. There are very few dates listed and it more or less rolls around as if the author stayed too long at a Hollywood party. But it's Sheed's narrative style that can irritate. Just when you expect him to end a sentence he carries on....and on. Where crisp writing is due, he delivers oatmeal.

Sheed does do a service in comparing New York to Hollywood and why certain composers stayed in one place or the other...or tried one place and returned to the other. He points out that collaboration between composers and lyricists often didn't last long, which must make Rodgers and Hammerstein's time together seem like an eon. There are some good quotes....Richard Rodgers said, "I can pee melody". That's as succinct a delivery as one can get and it's right on target. And Cy Coleman, for all the questions about including him in the book, said something that is remarkably true... "It never occurred to me that the songs were written by different people", Coleman states, "they were all just The Radio".

Side appearances are made by Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra (to name just three) and Sheed is good at connecting the dots between their careers and the careers of the men who wrote songs for them. Yet I'm not sure any song would ever have been written without the ever presence of booze. It seemed to fuel every songwriter and broke many a man along the way.

"The House That George Built" has its moments, but Wilfrid Sheed's delivery is too clever and cute by half. By sticking to a more objective stance he would have toned down the narrative and made a more concise read. It's a shame because he knows his stuff.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best Gershwin Book Ever Aug. 5 2007
By John A. Akouris - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Really well written! Great overview not only of Gershwin, yet giving credit to contempories that have not gotten the same press/recognition on their contributions to the great standards that we all enjoy today.
Kudos to the author! Keep this book within arms reach so as to be able to refer to it again and again.

Respectfully

John Akouris
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not quite the popular song primer it could have been Aug. 2 2008
By Mark C. Gionfriddo - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
"The House That George Built" by Wilfred Sheed seems at first glance to be the perfect primer to the story of our greatest American songwriters. Not since composer Alec Wilder's groundbreaking reference guide "American Popular Song" has there been a comparable effort to tie together the compositional timelines of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern & Cole Porter, plus all of the lesser known songwriters they influenced. The main four were somewhat engaged in a friendly competition for top bragging rights as they wrote their greatest hits all about the same time- and for audiences as diverse as Broadway, Hollywood, and the fellow at the parlor piano just looking to learn the latest Tin Pan Alley hit.

From the introductory chapter, Sheed speaks to the reader as if he's across from you at the dinner table with a brandy, ready to regale you with wonderful tales and little known tidbits. And for the most part throughout the book, a compendium of newly written material plus essays that first appeared in Esquire, the New York Times, Time magazine and other print media sources, Sheed delivers: for instance, we learn that the famous "Street Of Dreams" was the focal avenue of the jazz world, Manhattan's 52nd Street; "Laura", the gorgeous movie theme by David Raksin with lyrics by Johnny Mercer was the one song that Cole Porter had wished he had written himself; Burton Lane was discovered playing piano as a lad by Gershwin's mother and soon became a protégé of the master; and so on. But in order for us to understand our famous subjects, Sheed must get inside their private lives, and in most cases, inside their heads. He gets a lot of this interesting information thanks to help from friends and fellow musical aficionados like Wilder, Michael Feinstein, Ann Ronnell (composer of "Willow Weep For Me" and Gershwin's friend), Cy Coleman, Lane and many wives and offspring of his subjects. So we also learn that both Harold Arlen and Larry Hart (Richard Rodgers' first lyricist) were manic depressives; Jerome Kern had a penchant for risky gambling; Irving Berlin had low self-esteem; Rodgers became an uncontrollable alcoholic; and Cole Porter had a surprising religious side in his later years despite his long time penchant for a gay party lifestyle. Admittedly, some of this dishy stuff reads a bit like tabloid fodder, but Sheed offers it as matter-of-factly as possible, presenting to us the human side of these very creative but often tortured geniuses.

Sheed shows us how our four main protagonists (Berlin/Gershwin/Kern/Porter) fit into the transition from classical music into jazz, America's own music, through the intermingling of African, European and Jewish music traditions. The needs and demands of the public also dictated how and what each of these men would write, for Broadway songs would have different expectations next to songs written for Hollywood films. Sheed is right on target, but the slight drawback is that his chapters tend to make for slow reading. Yes, the psychological ramifications are interesting, but we do not really need to hear every detail about Kern's family or Porter's school life, and it often takes a bit of time to get to the stories we really want to hear about- the writing of these popular song masterpieces. After all, we expected this to be a book about music and its history.

The reader happens across an occasional lovely nugget of wisdom, such as Kern's analogy of songwriting being akin to fishing: "...you may feel twenty tugs on your line and only one of them will be a fish worth keeping, and it might sometimes take a while to know which one." But you'll often come across a tedious bit, like this run-on sentence about Rodgers: "From then on, his parents would magically cease to matter until they later showed up in the orchestra seats, warmly applauding their son- nice people, after all, in that context, who, rare among artists' parents, thoroughly approved of his chosen life: a life that he, perhaps in return, proceeded to keep as outwardly square as he possibly could, dressing and comporting himself like a banker, hiding any private sins in the best private manner, and eventually courting a full length a most suitable and ladylike young woman named Dorothy Feiner, to whom he tried vociferously to be faithful, for a while." Eek. This rambling type of prose gets difficult to sift through after a while, and is really more suited towards story `spinning' than delivering facts. Actually, with Garrison Keillor's warm praise for Sheed's book (front and center on the cover), it's easy to see a similarity between Keillor's Wobegon stories and Sheed's type of storytelling.

Sheed also has an annoying habit of overusing a literary device- a composer's own song titles as a reference to his own life situation. "By the end of it, Kern had learned, if nothing else, how to `let himself go'..." "Linda (Porter's wife) was still `nice to come home to' occasionally and `love' in one's fashion." I guess one could chalk this up to the material coming from different sources. The use of such a device wouldn't normally appear so often in a book, and it reads a bit too punny.

The book does have a well researched Appendix that cites numerous little known songs from the `two hit wonder' composers and songwriting teams of the period. Sheed sets a condition of two bonafide hits in order for these lesser known composers to be included in the listing. I found myself humming the tunes as I read the titles, forgotten gems like Isham Jones's "It Had To Be You", "Fools Rush In" by Rube Bloom, and Gene DePaul's "I'll Remember April".

To sum it all up: this book appears to be geared toward the intellectual set (most likely the type who get most of Porter's lyric double-entendres), and not the casual reader. For those who are musicians or interested in this particular genre, I do recommend giving the book a try. At the beginning I thought I would really love this book; by the end I realized I only liked and respected it. Despite the book's shortcomings, Sheed obviously has great love for these songs and the period from which they came. There is a lot of worthwhile material here- just be prepared that you'll have to dig for it.
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