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
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.Read more ›
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89 of 93 people found the following review helpful
A song in his heartJuly 5 2007
- Published on Amazon.com
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.
29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
He knows the score (but that's not quite enough any more).Aug. 18 2007
- Published on Amazon.com
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
And one more for the roadAug. 29 2007
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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
Best Gershwin Book EverAug. 5 2007
John A. Akouris
- Published on Amazon.com
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.
19 of 24 people found the following review helpful
Not as good as it should beJuly 30 2007
- Published on Amazon.com
I ran out and got this book because of its subject - American music. Also, I listen to Jonathan Schwartz and he raved about on his radio show on WNYC.
I was disappointed.
Sheed's book is a kind of a `riff' on the subject of classic American popular music. He writes about those song writers who penned at least two `standards' that is, songs that everybody knows - or at least everybody who likes this kind of music.
Berlin, porter, Gershwin, Rodgers, Kern - all of the usual suspects are here. But Sheed's take on them is - well, odd. He discusses their personal lives - based mostly on gossip - and takes a liking to none of them - they all were real bastards it seems. Or alcoholic depressives. Or closeted gays. Or too egotistical.
Regarding the music, he claims that no standard is one because of its lyric - all really great pop tunes have great melodies, but not all great melodies end up as standards because the lyric gets screwed up. For this reason, he claims that Porter's way with words never really helped him that much.
I find that hard to accept - or believe.
But it is the reason he thinks very little of Hammerstein and even less of Sondheim.
It is difficult to know exactly what he thinks because he writes in what can be called a `New Yorker' style. Page after page of blather is followed by a gem or two - then back to the pages of blather. On one page, he extols the talents of a Gershwin, and then a few pages later explains why all the songs you thought were great really are just junk.
He runs through a lot of personal opinions on people's personalities - like Sinatra. How he grew more and more childish as he got older. Or Sammy Cahn - how terribly egotistical he was. These opinions color the author's view of their work - why he doesn't say. I mean, what do I care that Richard Rodgers was probably the worse person in the world to work with - I didn't know him and don't care. I just love his music.
He fails to mention an important point about Sinatra. Before him, singers sang the songs of the day - take a look at the output of one Bing Crosby in his early years. It was Sinatra who insisted on singing great songs, no matter that they were written years before. He personally revived interest in such standards as `Night and Day' and `The Song is You' because of his recordings of them.
I was disappointed. I know that the author is supposed to be some kind of stylistic genius - maybe he is, but this book doesn't prove it. It doesn't compare with many of the other books out there that discuss the same subject.