Great American Songbook

The Great American Songbook, also known as "American Standards", is the canon of the most important and influential American popular songs and jazz standards from the early 20th century. Although several collections of music have been published under the title, it does not refer to any actual book or specific list of songs, but to a loosely defined set including the most popular and enduring songs from the 1920s to the 1950s that were created for Broadway theatre, musical theatre, and Hollywood musical film. They have been recorded and performed by a large number and wide range of singers, instrumental bands, and jazz musicians. The Great American Songbook comprises standards by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin, and also Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Richard Rodgers, and others.[1][2][3][4][5] Although the songs have never gone out of style among traditional and jazz singers and musicians, a renewed popular interest in the Great American Songbook beginning in the 1970s has led a growing number of rock and pop singers to take an interest and issue recordings of them.


Rodgers and Hart NYWTS
Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart

There is no consensus on which songs are in the "Great American Songbook." Several music publishing companies, including Hal Leonard,[6] J. W. Pepper & Son,[7] and Alfred Music,[8] sell music under the name "Great American Songbook." Alfred Music lists the Songbook as its own genre.

Music critics have attempted to develop a "canon." For example, in Alec Wilder's 1972 study, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950, the songwriter and critic lists and ranks the artists he believes belong to the Great American Songbook canon. A composer, Wilder emphasized analysis of composers and their creative efforts in this work.[9]

Wilder devotes whole chapters to only six composers: Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen. Vincent Youmans and Arthur Schwartz share a chapter; Burton Lane, Hugh Martin and Vernon Duke are covered together in another. Wilder uses a chapter to explore songwriters and composers he deemed "The Great Craftsmen": Hoagy Carmichael, Walter Donaldson, Harry Warren, Isham Jones, Jimmy McHugh, Duke Ellington, Fred Ahlert, Richard A. Whiting, Ray Noble, John Green, Rube Bloom and Jimmy Van Heusen. He concludes with a catch-all 67-page chapter entitled "Outstanding Individual Songs: 1920 to 1950," which includes additional individual songs which he considers memorable.

From some perspectives, the Great American Songbook era ended with the advent of rock and roll; Wilder ends with 1950.

Radio personality and Songbook devotee Jonathan Schwartz has described this genre as "America's classical music".[10]

Style and structure


Despite the relatively narrow range of topics and moods dealt with in many of the songs, the best Great American Songbook lyricists specialized in witty, urbane lyrics with teasingly unexpected rhymes. The songwriters combined memorable melodies – which could be anything from pentatonic, as in a Gershwin tune like "I Got Rhythm", to sinuously chromatic, as in many of Cole Porter's tunes – and great harmonic subtlety, a good example being Kern's "All the Things You Are", with its winding modulations.


Many of the songs in the Great American Songbook were composed for musicals, and some originally included an introductory sectional verse: a musical introduction that typically has a free musical structure, speech-like rhythms, and rubato delivery. The sectional verse served as a way of leading from the surrounding realistic context of the play into the more artificial world of the song, and often has lyrics that are in character and make reference to the plot of the musical for which the song was originally written.

A song's sectional verse, if it exists, is often dropped in performances outside the song's original stage or movie context. Whether or not it is sung often depends on what the song is and who is singing it — for example, Frank Sinatra never recorded "Fly Me to the Moon" with the introductory sectional verse, but Nat King Cole did — and a few of the songs written with such an introduction are nearly always performed in full with the introduction.

The song itself is usually a 32-bar AABA or ABAC form, and the lyrics usually refer to more universal and timeless situations and themes – typically, for instance, the vicissitudes of love. This universality made it easier for songs to be added to or subtracted from a show, or revived in a different show.

Songwriters and songs

The following writers and songs are often included in the Great American Songbook:

Irving Berlin NYWTS
Irving Berlin, one of the most prolific composers and lyricists of the Great American Songbook


The early years

Since the 1930s, many singers have recorded or performed large parts of the Great American Songbook. Lee Wiley was among the first to record collections of one specific songwriter or songwriting team, beginning with George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin (1939), followed by Cole Porter (1940), Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (1940), Harold Arlen (1943), Irving Berlin (1951) and Vincent Youmans (1951).

Ella Fitzgerald's popular and influential Songbook series on Verve in the 1950s and 1960s collated 252 songs from the Songbook. These eight collections paid tribute to Cole Porter (1956), Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (1956), Duke Ellington (1957), Irving Berlin (1958), George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin (1959), Harold Arlen (1961), Jerome Kern (1963) and Johnny Mercer (1964).

Other influential early interpreters of the Great American Songbook include Louis Armstrong, Fred Astaire, Mildred Bailey, Chet Baker, Tony Bennett, June Christy, Rosemary Clooney, Nat "King" Cole, Perry Como, Barbara Cook, Jane Froman, Chris Connor, Bing Crosby, Vic Damone, Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Doris Day, Blossom Dearie, Billy Eckstine, Alice Faye, Helen Forrest, the Four Freshmen, Connie Francis, Judy Garland, Eydie Gorme, Johnny Hartman, Dick Haymes, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Joni James, Jack Jones, Al Jolson, Bill Kenny, Cleo Laine, Frankie Laine, Steve Lawrence, Peggy Lee, Julie London, Dean Martin, Tony Martin, Johnny Mathis, Carmen McRae, Mabel Mercer, Helen Merrill, Anita O'Day, Patti Page, Dinah Shore, Bobby Short, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Keely Smith, Kay Starr, Jo Stafford, Barbra Streisand (particularly in her earlier work), Maxine Sullivan, Mel Tormé, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Ethel Waters, Margaret Whiting, Andy Williams, Joe Williams and Nancy Wilson.

Contemporary singers

Since the late 20th century, there has been a revival of the Great American Songbook by contemporary singers.

In 1970, Ringo Starr, independently of the Beatles, released Sentimental Journey, an album of 12 standards arranged by various musicians. In 1973, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson released a critically well-received album of 12 classic standards, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, arranged by Gordon Jenkins. The album was re-issued on CD in 1988 with a total of 18 standards sung by Nilsson. Also in 1973, Bryan Ferry, of Roxy Music fame, released These Foolish Things, and he has subsequently recorded several such albums. In 1978, country singer Willie Nelson released a collection of popular standards titled Stardust. This was considered risky at the time but the album has become the best-selling and perhaps the most enduring of Nelson's career, leading to several other Great American Songbook albums over the years.

In 1983, popular rock vocalist Linda Ronstadt released What's New, her first in a trilogy of standards albums recorded with arranger/conductor Nelson Riddle. Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote:

What's New isn't the first album by a rock singer to pay tribute to the golden age of the pop, but is ... the best and most serious attempt to rehabilitate an idea of pop that Beatlemania and the mass marketing of rock LPs for teen-agers undid in the mid-'60s. During the decade prior to Beatlemania, most of the great band singers and crooners of the '40s and '50s codified a half-century of American pop standards on dozens of albums, many of them now long out-of-print.[21]

By the mid-1980s, Michael Feinstein was a nationally known cabaret singer-pianist famed for being a dedicated proponent of the Great American Songbook. In 2007 he founded the Great American Songbook Foundation, to preserve and promote the songs and their legacy.

In 1991, Natalie Cole released a highly successful album Unforgettable... with Love, which spawned a Top 40 hit "Unforgettable", a virtual "duet" with her father, Nat "King" Cole. Follow-up albums such as Take a Look were also successful.

Since the mid-1980s, additional vocalists such as Harry Connick, Jr., Michael Bublé, Diana Krall, Karrin Allyson, and Susannah McCorkle have been notable interpreters of the Songbook throughout their careers. Michael Feinstein in particular has been a dedicated proponent, archivist, revivalist and preservationist of the material since the late 1970s.

Other singers

Since 1980, singers in other genres have recorded songs from the Great American Songbook. Beginning in 2002, Rod Stewart has devoted a series of studio albums to Songbook covers: It Had to Be You: The Great American Songbook (2002), As Time Goes By: The Great American Songbook 2 (2003), Stardust: The Great American Songbook 3 (2004), Thanks for the Memory: The Great American Songbook, Volume IV (2005), and Fly Me to the Moon... The Great American Songbook Volume V (2009).

Other rock and pop artists who have used the work include Keith Richards, Carly Simon, Bette Midler, Gloria Estefan, Barry Manilow, Caetano Veloso, Pia Zadora, Queen Latifah, Joni Mitchell, Boz Scaggs, Robbie Williams, Sting, Tom Waits, Ray Reach, Pat Benatar, Morrissey, Norah Jones, Nicole Henry and Rufus Wainwright.

In 2012, Sir Paul McCartney joined this list with the album Kisses on the Bottom. John Stevens, a 2004 American Idol contestant, also recorded these songs. Steve Tyrell has forged a successful solo career with his interpretations of songs from the Great American Songbook. His version of "The Way You Look Tonight" for Father of the Bride (1991) was noticed and kept in the film at the insistence of its star, Steve Martin; this led to Tyrell recording several Songbook albums, including A New Standard, Standard Time and Bach to Bacharach. In 2014, Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett released a collaborative album, Cheek to Cheek, made up of songs from the Great American Songbook. Bob Dylan released the albums Shadows in the Night (2015)[22][23] and Fallen Angels (2016),[24] and has announced the release of a triple album of Great American Songbook selections, Triplicate, scheduled for March 2017.[25]


British broadcaster Michael Parkinson devoted a considerable part of his BBC Radio 2 programme Parkinson's Sunday Supplement, which aired from 1996 to 2007, to this genre of music.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Miller, Michael (2008). The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music History. Penguin. p. 175.
  2. ^ "The Center for the Performing Arts – Home of the Palladium – Carmel, Indiana".
  3. ^ a b c d e f "After An Education In American Jazz, A Musician Tackles The Turkish Songbook".
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Feinstein, Michael (11 February 2015). "'The B Side,' by Ben Yagoda". The New York Times. Retrieved 13 December 2018.
  5. ^ a b c d e Friedwald, Will. "Jazz Vocalists". New York. June 14, 1993. p. 6A.
  6. ^ a b c d "The Great American Songbook – The Composers". Retrieved July 20, 2015.
  7. ^ "The Great American Songbook – Jazz". Retrieved July 20, 2015.
  8. ^ "Great American Songbook". Retrieved July 20, 2015.
  9. ^ Wilder, Alec (1990). American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900–1950. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-501445-6.
  10. ^ Deborah Grace Winer (September 1, 2003). "Girl Singers: From nightclubs and concert halls to recordings, today's best vocalists put a new spin on old favorites". Town & Country. Archived from the original on November 5, 2013. Retrieved September 9, 2012.(subscription required)
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Great Performances. "The Great American Songbook: Introduction". PBS. March 11, 2003.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g "The Great American Songbook". The Johnny Mercer Foundation. Retrieved December 20, 2018.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h Purdy, Stephen. Musical Theatre Song: A Comprehensive Course in Selection, Preparation, and Presentation for the Modern Performer. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016. pt. 115.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Cole, Clay (2009). Sh-Boom!: The Explosion of Rock 'n' Roll, 1953–1968. Morgan James Publishing.
  15. ^ a b c Purdy, Stephen. Musical Theatre Song: A Comprehensive Course in Selection, Preparation, and Presentation for the Modern Performer. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016. pt. 32.
  16. ^ a b c d e f Polit, Katherine. "The Great American Songbook In The Classical Voice Studio". Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. May 2014. p. 73.
  17. ^ Murray, Steve. "Michael Feinstein: Crooners". May 23, 2017.
  18. ^ Dicker, Shira. "Gotta Dance? Swing on Over". New York Times. December 22, 2011.
  19. ^ Venutolo, Anthony. "Boardwalk Empire recap: 'Make a promise to you, break another to myself'". November 4, 2013.
  20. ^ "The Great American Songbook – The Composers". Retrieved December 20, 2018.
  21. ^ Stephen Holden; Dargis, Manohla (September 4, 1983). "Linda Ronstadt Celebrates The Golden Age of Pop". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-05-10.(subscription required)
  22. ^ Turner, Gustavo (January 24, 2015). "The secret Sinatra past of Bob Dylan's new album". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 20, 2017.
  23. ^ Petridis, Alexis (January 29, 2015). "Shadows in the Night review – an unalloyed pleasure". The Guardian. Retrieved February 20, 2017.
  24. ^ Brown, Helen (May 13, 2016). "Bob Dylan, Fallen Angels, review -'inhabiting classics with weathered ease'". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved February 20, 2017.
  25. ^ "Bob Dylan's First Three-Disc Album — Triplicate — Set For March 31 Release". January 31, 2017. Retrieved February 20, 2017.

Further reading

  • Bloom, Ken (2005). The American Songbook: The Singers, the Songwriters, and the Songs. New York: Black Dog & Levental Publishers. ISBN 1-579-12448-8.
  • Furia, Philip (1992). Poets of Tin Pan Alley. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-195-07473-4.
  • Furia, Philip (2006). (with Michael Lasser) America's Songs: The Stories Behind the Songs of Broadway, Hollywood, and Tin Pan Alley. Routledge. ISBN 0415990521.
  • Furia, Philip (2010). (with Laurie Patterson) The Songs of Hollywood. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195337085.
  • Furia, Philip (2015). (with Laurie Patterson) The American Song Book: The Tin Pan Alley Era. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199391882.
  • Wilder, Alec (1990). American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900–1950. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-195-01445-6.
  • Yagoda, Ben (2015). The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song. New York: Riverhead Books. ISBN 1-594-48849-5.
  • Zinsser, William (2001). Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs. Boston: David R. Godine. ISBN 1-567-92147-7.

External links

Aretha Franklin discography

This discography documents the releases of albums and singles by Aretha Franklin, who is ranked first among female vocalists with the most Billboard chart hits during the rock era (1955–2012) with a total of 88 according to Joel Whitburn's Record Research.

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

"Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" is a show tune and popular song from the 1940 Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey. It is part of the Great American Songbook. The song was introduced by Vivienne Segal on December 25, 1940, in the Broadway production during Act I, Scene 6, and again in Act II, Scene 4, as a reprise. Segal also sang the song on both the 1950 hit record and in the 1952 Broadway revival. It was performed by Carol Bruce in the 1954 London production.

Brighten the Corner

Brighten the Corner is a 1967 studio album by the American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, debut album on Capitol Records. The album charted at #172 in the Billboard Hot 200 album charts.The album was reissued by Capitol Records on CD in 1991 and together, on one CD, with the album "Ella Fitzgerald's Christmas" in 2006.

The album was Ella's first since leaving the Verve label, which had seen her produce her most acclaimed body of work. It marked a sharp change of direction for Fitzgerald, as Brighten the Corner saw Ella sing Christian hymns, reflecting her own spirituality, and eschewing the Great American Songbook standards on which she had previously concentrated.


Crooner is an American epithet given primarily to male singers of jazz standards, mostly from the Great American Songbook, backed by either a full orchestra, a big band or a piano. Originally it was an ironic term denoting a sentimental singing style made possible by the use of microphones. Some performers, such as Russ Columbo, did not accept the term: Frank Sinatra once said that he did not consider himself or Bing Crosby "crooners".

Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye

"Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" is a popular jazz song with lyrics and music by Cole Porter. Part of the Great American Songbook, it was published by Chappell & Company and introduced by Nan Wynn in 1944 in Billy Rose's musical revue Seven Lively Arts. The song has since become a jazz standard after gaining popularity in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Many artists have replaced the apostrophe in "ev'ry" with an "e".

The lyrics celebrate how happy the singer is in the company of their beloved, but suffering equally whenever they separate. Describing it by analogy as a musical "change from major to minor", Porter begins with an A♭ major chord and ends with an A♭ minor one, matching the mood of the music to the words.

Fly Me to the Moon... The Great American Songbook Volume V

Fly Me to the Moon... The Great American Songbook Volume V, was released on 19 October 2010, and was the fifth title in Rod Stewart's series of covers of pop standards. It has sold 363,000 copies as of October 2012.

Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album

The Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album is an award presented to recording artists at the Grammy Awards, a ceremony that was established in 1958 and originally called the Gramophone Awards. Honors in several categories are presented at the ceremony annually by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences of the United States to "honor artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position".The award has been presented every year since 1992, though the award has had two name changes throughout its history. In 1992 the award was known as Best Traditional Pop Performance, from 1993 to 2000 the award was known as Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance, and since 2001 it has been awarded as Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. Apart from the first year it was presented, the award has been designated for "albums containing 51% or more playing time of vocal tracks", with "traditional" referring to the "composition, vocal styling, and the instrumental arrangement" of the body of music known as the Great American Songbook.The 1992 award was presented to Natalie Cole for the "spliced-together" duet of her and her father, Nat King Cole, performing his original recording of "Unforgettable". This is the only instance in which the traditional pop award was awarded for a song, as opposed to an album. Prior to 2001, the Grammy was presented to the performing artists only; since then the award has been given to the performing artists, the engineers/mixers, as well as the producers.

As of 2016, Tony Bennett holds the record for the most wins in this category, with thirteen (including one along with k.d. lang, one with Lady Gaga and one with Bill Charlap). Natalie Cole and Michael Bublé are the only other recipients to receive the award more than once.

Great American Songbook Foundation

The Great American Songbook Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the music of the Great American Songbook. Located on the campus of the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, Indiana, the Songbook Foundation's administrative offices are located on the Gallery level of the Palladium, a 1600-seat concert hall that opened in January 2011. The organization was previously known as the Michael Feinstein Foundation for the Education and Preservation of the Great American Songbook and the Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative; in July 2014, the organization's board of directors voted to change its name to the Great American Songbook Foundation.

MTV Unplugged (Tony Bennett album)

MTV Unplugged is a live album by Tony Bennett that was released in 1994. Backed by the Ralph Sharon Trio, Bennett appeared on the TV show MTV Unplugged to showcase the Great American Songbook with guest appearances by Elvis Costello and k.d. lang.The album reached platinum record status in the United States and won Grammy Awards in 1995 for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance and Album of the Year.

Manhattan (song)

"Manhattan" is a popular song and part of the Great American Songbook. It has been performed by the Supremes, Lee Wiley, Oscar Peterson, Blossom Dearie, Tony Martin, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme, among many others. It is often known as "We'll Have Manhattan" based on the opening line. The music was written by Richard Rodgers and the words by Lorenz Hart for the 1925 revue "Garrick Gaieties". It was introduced by Sterling Holloway (later the voice of the animated Winnie the Pooh) and June Cochran.

Michael Feinstein

Michael Jay Feinstein (born September 7, 1956) is an American singer, pianist, and music revivalist. He is an interpreter of, and an anthropologist and archivist for, the repertoire known as the Great American Songbook. In 1988 he won a Drama Desk Special Award for celebrating American musical theatre songs. Feinstein is also a multi-platinum-selling, five-time Grammy-nominated recording artist. He currently serves as Artistic Director for The Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, Indiana.

Rod Stewart discography

The following is the complete discography of British singer/musician Rod Stewart.

The Great American Songbook (Carmen McRae album)

The Great American Songbook is a 1972 live album by Carmen McRae, accompanied by a jazz quartet including Jimmy Rowles and Joe Pass. McRae was a great fan of Rowles and described him in the liner notes to the album as "the guy every girl singer in her right mind would like to work with". Rowles's humorous country and western song, "The Ballad of Thelonious Monk" is featured on the album.

Traditional pop music

Traditional pop (also classic pop or pop standards) music consists of Western popular music that generally pre-dates the advent of rock and roll in the mid-1950s. The most popular and enduring songs from this style of music are known as pop standards or American standards. The works of these songwriters and composers are usually considered part of the canon known as the "Great American Songbook". More generally, the term "standard" can be applied to any popular song that has become very widely known within mainstream culture.

Traditional/classic pop music is generally regarded as having existed between the mid-1940s and mid-1950s. AllMusic defines traditional pop as "post-big band and pre-rock & roll pop music." This definition is disputed by many scholars; however, as many of the most popular works of Cole Porter and those of George and Ira Gershwin pre-date World War II, while the works of Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern date to World War I.

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