Bing Crosby was the King of Crooners and one of the best examples of great singing! His voice is still heard everyday around the world. At the opening of the twentieth century the decisive influence of the ragtime pianists fell on white audiences tiring of the minstrel show and willing to pay to hear black performers. At the same time the American band was being heard everywhere, promoted by John Philip Sousa, the most successful musician of his time, and testifying among other things to pugnacious nationalism. Both phenomena would modulate into dance bands playing vigorous dance music.
Burgeoning displays of sheet music in neighborhood stores, often music calling itself rag, attracted a diverse public, much of which never heard the concerts of the creators of ragtime. Modest as well as prosperous homes had a keyboard, either a piano or the less expensive reed organ: the industry built 107,000 harmoniums a year in 1900, and 177,000 pianos.
By 1909, the figure was 364,000 pianos. Piano music was available beyond the proportion of the population that could play: by 1925, more than half the pianos produced were automatics, using player rolls for current hits Such instruments, giving out more and better sound than the evolving phonograph had yet mastered, tuned the audience more closely than ever before to the latest fad in music.
A boom in social dancing began during the second decade of the twentieth century, along with the first recognition of music called jazz. Nat Shapiro quotes Variety as estimating that in the mid-1920s there were 60,000 dance bands playing on the dance floors of jazz age America. Beginning in 1920, radio broadcasting brought recorded and live music into homes, posing an economic challenge to pianos and combining with the Depression in 1929 to decimate record and phonograph sales.
The music that America absorbed through these media came mostly from New York, from Tin Pan Alley publishing houses and from the flourishing Broadway stage, reproduced also in vaudeville houses across the country. When in the middle of the 1920s recording engineers developed microphones to replace recording horns, a new softer “crooning” performance became possible and stylish on records and over the radio.
The improvement in the quality of broadcast sound that followed the introduction of the electric microphone in the mid- 1920s led to a corresponding rise in the quality of radio receivers. It became possible to discern greater delicacies of instrumental sound and of the singing voice, particularly in the middle range.
Songwriters and bandleaders took account of this. It was no longer necessary to limit the size of a band to instruments that could be picked up by the acoustic recording horn, so there was a steady increase in the size of ensembles. Bigger bands, a greater fondness for subtle shades and a higher quality in the middle range meant just one thing: “sweet” music.
Technical changes also had their effect on popular vocal style. The days of declamatory singers such as Al Jolson were all but gone. A whole range of voices previously ruled out for lack of dynamics could now be heard on the air, while the greater clarity of the sung texts increased the importance of lyricists. The microphone’s ability to show up not only every flaw in phrasing and enunciation but also each potentially displeasing vocal nuance produced a breed of singers with impeccable diction and with bland, featureless voices.
The first singer to respond in full to the microphone’s challenge, and to reap its benefits, was one who usually disclaimed having done either: Bing Crosby. So at ease was Crosby with the new technology that he sounded as if he had been “overheard” by it. Bing Crosby was, without doubt, the most popular and influential media star of the first half of the 20th century. Crosby’s relaxed, intimate style further enhanced the process by which an individual listener could make a private experience out of an ever more widely available musical event.
The key elements in this were the characteristic personal timbre – the “grain” – of his voice, his tendency to “talk” a song (coupled with excellent breath control), and his ability to derive effective drama by under-dramatization. He recorded an estimated 17,000 songs, most for Decca records, who luck it was to hold his recording contract from 1934 -55. Yet many of Bing’s most enjoyable performances were done on radio, and were relatively unavailable to the general public until now.
The creation of a mass audience by the networked programs provided the first major opportunity for the manipulation of public taste. In this scheme of things, sweet music had two functions. The first was to create revenue, both for the music industry through its copyright organization, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), and for the companies who sponsored the programs.
ASCAP had developed an effective system of ensuring that the music of those it represented (Tin Pan Alley) dominated the airwaves. Marketing these songs as standardized products, so they did not attract the critical atlention of high-culture opinion-makers, assured large profits. Radio allowed Bing to be intimate, and give a subtle delivery of a song as if he were singing it “just for you.” It allowed for witty repartee with the cast and guests, too, and Bing’s sly wordplay and perfect timing with an offhand line is usually overlooked as one of his stellar traits.
The second function was less obvious. The peddling of sweet music to anation whose daily life was often bitter was more than a mere encouragement to escapism. It suited commercial interests for people to soothe the rough edges of their lives with music rather than use it to sharpen their complaints. The music’s synchronized control reinfarced a shaken sense of order by echoing and embodying that order in its full but conventional harmonies and regular, mechanical rhythm.
One day, it suggested, if everyone was compliant, life could be as “full” as these sounds. Nevertheless, jazz had brought changes in same of the ways that life was perceived. The rhythmic emancipation of ragtime and jazz was built into almost all of the music which followed them, even music that reached a much wider audience than jazz itself. It was most apparent when a number broke into a jazzy section.
Then the music’s clothing was being shed, and its structural framework revealed. The essential element in the framework was rhythm, in which neither the regular near the offbeat was dominant; what was important was the suggestion of interplay between the two. Black music itself was developing this to a sophisticated level, but even in “sweet” music it was sufficient to suggest that there were all kinds of altematives to regular rhythm.
Road to Singapore brought together Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour in a riotously funny picture, and brought forth a number of even funnier sequels. This Road to was directed by Victor Schertzinger for Paramount in 1940.
When the war ended, the entertainment industry responded to the ready money of a new public, more urbanized, but less in touch with Broadway sophistication, and with expanding young families preparing to be the next generation of popular music consumers — raised with unprecedented pocket money and leisure time and with an unsuspected susceptibility to the energies of rock and roll they would first hear in 1954.
Carl Belz describes the recording industry in the years after the war as dividing its market in the interest of stability and consequently producing for the general market dull, or at least highly controlled and predictable, music. Small independent record companies sold to the country and Western and rhythm and blues markets, while the major companies guided the music of the largest pop market down a narrow channel, with a slow succession of new songs and much repetitive recording by competing stars.
Rock and roll, which the industry learned to ride to a staggering new sales volume, also jarred that industry into new patterns: new companies, new small-group recording economics, new audience definitions, and new relationships to radio broadcasting. Some of the story can be told in terms of technical innovations. Television as the surging home entertainment medium turned radio stations toward the disc jockey format of record programming. New sizes, speeds, and materials for the records themselves may have had wide implications.
Belz makes an interesting analysis of the cultural meaning of the shift from 78 to 45 rpm records, as streamlining the experience of recorded music toward casualness, especially for young audiences, while their parents bought the more substantial 33 longplaying records that emerged at the same time in the early 1950s. The later movement of rock and its audience into long-playing records reflects the triumphing cultural and economic power of the same young generation, along with a growing seriousness and self-confidence of the makers of rock music.
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