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Editor’s Choice: The B-Side – The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song

The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song by Ben Yagoda, Riverhead, 308 pages ($27.95). A classic Capitol-era ’50s picture of Frank Sinatra is emblazoned on the dustflap of this superb book: Sinatra, wearing his customarily insouciant fedora to cover up his rampaging baldness, eyes closed, singing into a Capitol Records mic hanging in front of his face. The story it tells inside is about one of the great, seldom told wars in America’s musical life. It’s about when Sinatra and Mitch Miller were the symbolic combatants in a pre-rock and roll struggle for the soul of American music.

Sinatra epitomized an era when, as Keith Jarrett once said on NPR, what we came to call “standards” were in fact “exceptional … people were … good at writing melodies” and the great jazz performers – like Miles Davis – learned crucially from singers like Sinatra (who always admitted learning from Billie Holiday). But to Jarrett there are no important singers of that ilk anymore.

What Mitch Miller, as A&R (Artists and Repertoire) head at Columbia represented, was the wholesale contemptuous trashing of pop music from its classic era of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Duke Ellington, Harry Warren. Hoagy Carmichael, Arthur Schwartz and Harold Arlen. The era of “Mood Indigo” had, courtesy of Mitch, given way to the era of “Doggie in the Window” and “Mambo Italiano.”

No small matter in all this was the battle between music licensers ASCAP and upstart BMI. Miller had once been a classical oboist of note and, arguably, treated all pop music with contempt (his boss, Goddard Lieberson, famously and brilliantly used pop music’s royalties to finance magnificent classical recordings). When Miller’s own godawful “Sing Along” records came out, it became clear why rock and roll was necessary. Suddenly the world was full of music by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson and Jimmy Webb who said, “It’s hard to imagine a more fecund atmosphere. The air was pregnant. Record companies were willing to let us do anything we wanted to. It wasn’t like Mitch Miller was in the booth.” An important pop music history.– Jeff Simon