Was Richard Rodgers The Greatest American Popular Composer So Far?
April 18, 2002 11:36 AM   Subscribe

Was Richard Rodgers The Greatest American Popular Composer So Far? 2002 is his Centennial. He may be less cool and more bourgeois than the other greats like Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Frank Loesser, Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim. But even the most cursory look at the long list of the wonderful songs he wrote(try the excellent song search feature), with Hart, then Hammerstein(and some other lyricists, including himself)makes it very difficult to deny there never was - and probably never will be - a more talented and versatile tunesmith. Miles Davis was right. He was a genius. And yet...[Flash required for the (interesting) intro]
posted by MiguelCardoso (41 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would never want to take away from the greatness of Rodgers, but I'm more inclined to be wooed by Gershwin's soulful melodies than Rodgers' showiness. Plus, one day, I believe that Stephin Merrit would be that list were he more popular and established. Sweet link, though. I dig the 102 Rodgers Melodies. Gives me something to listen to at work.
posted by eyeballkid at 11:44 AM on April 18, 2002

My favourite songs, for the record, are "My Heart Stood Still", "Where or When", "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and "My Funny Valentine"(with lyrics by Lorenz Hart)and "If I Loved You" and "Hello Young Lovers"(with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein). His best interpreters: Ella Fitzgerald and, albeit reluctantly, Frank Sinatra. Best jazz interpretation: Miles Davis's "My Favorite Things" from the studio album with the same name. Most inspired soundtrack inclusion: "The Sound of Music" in "Moulin Rouge".
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:47 AM on April 18, 2002

Here is one of my favorites.
posted by anathema at 11:47 AM on April 18, 2002

That was John Coltrane doing "My Favorite Things." I'm sorry, Miguel, but that's twenty lashes. I don't think Miles ever recorded it. Grant Green also did a pretty cool version on "Matador," with Coltrane's band, no less.
posted by Ty Webb at 11:52 AM on April 18, 2002

Miles did a superb version of My Funny Valentine, on the album of the same name.
posted by groundhog at 11:54 AM on April 18, 2002

[Oh the acute, stinging embarrassment! Twenty lashes it is, Ty. And make them bloody, willya? That damned Coltrane - he recorded "My Favorite Things" just after he'd played with Miles Davis. Still, broadens the appeal of Richard Rodgers even more.]
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:01 PM on April 18, 2002

Call me a Philistine, but I'll go with Bacharach anyday.
posted by niceness at 12:07 PM on April 18, 2002

I did not have to scroll down to know who posted this--talk about your distinctive voice. I grew up in a family of green monkeys--my brother was Best Dancer of his senior class, listened to Chuck Berry, Elvis, Brenda Lee, Johnny Mathis, Martin Denny and all things Rodgers and Hammerstein. I hated the movie Carousel--it had an unhappy ending! I was six years old! I get the urge to sing the opening number from Oklahoma every exceptionally glorious morning. If I'm far enough away from any buildings or people, I often do.
posted by y2karl at 12:12 PM on April 18, 2002

The question is whether any of these songs live up to Arlen's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"... Sublime, thy name is Harold!
posted by Marquis at 12:17 PM on April 18, 2002

Please don't forget about Charles Ives as being one of the great American composers.
posted by panopticon at 12:18 PM on April 18, 2002

Simpleton that I am, I'd vote for Leiber and Stoller. Two people, I know; if I had to pick one, I'd go for Bob Dylan (and, Miguel, I know you'll recognize that link).
posted by argybarg at 12:22 PM on April 18, 2002

Perhaps my favorite performance of any song is Chet Baker's "My Funny Valentine".

Still, the Greatest? Such a tough call. If you asked me, off the top of my head I'd probably say Porter. But then I'd reconsider and say Gershwin. Then I'd screw up my face, as I'd consider so many others, and admit that I simply couldn't choose.
posted by jpoulos at 12:29 PM on April 18, 2002

Let us not forget Rodger's ever-stirring score for Victory At Sea.

I think you're right, Miguel. I don't see how any American composer can compete with Rodgers for overall versatility. Porter may have written catchier show tunes, Leiber and Stoller the great early rock-and-roll, Gershwin the popular songs, but none were as well-rounded. (though I wonder how Gershwin might have fared if he had lived longer)
posted by briank at 12:31 PM on April 18, 2002

Puh-leeze! Charles Ives? Stephin Merrit? Alec Wilder (himself no mean songwriter of the golden age), in his great book "American Popular Song" favored Harold Arlen over George Gershwin, and gave good musical reasons for it (unlike a lot of us on MeFi, me for instance, who can't always back up our musical opinions), but Wilder came down square on the side of Rodgers as the a-number-one guy of all time. Anyone who disagrees just has listened very closely. If he had died in the gutter alongside of Lorenz Hart, he still might have been number one. The work with Hammerstein was just the frosting on the cake (and some of it IS pretty sugary). The depth of his catalogue was incredible. Be sure to check out the Ben Bagley "Painted Smiles" first album of unknown Rodgers and Hart songs -- you'll be bowled over by how many great Rodgers and Hart songs you've never heard.
Here's something that astonishes me, though: That anyone can mention the name Stephin Merrit in the same breath as Rodgers, or Cole Porter or any great song writer of the Golden Age. Give me a break! I love Merrit, and he writes a good song in the avant-garde pop vernacular, but these men (and women, I include Dorothy Fields), were supreme musical professionals (I once again refer you to the Wilder book), and craftspeople in both lyrics and music. They are the peers of Schubert and Mahler and Wolfe, in their ways. We love our generation's Merrits and Dylans and McCartneys, but let's not kid ourselves: The greatest songwriters of the rock generation are not fit to lick the piano pedals of these great creators like Rodgers, Gershwin and (my personal choice for number two after Rodgers) Jerome Kern.
posted by Faze at 12:37 PM on April 18, 2002

I tend to agree with jpoulos on this. How can you really choose. After all, their music has endured and they were so prolific. I wonder which contemporary composers will with stand the test of time they way they have.
posted by amphigory at 12:44 PM on April 18, 2002

I figured someone would react that way to a mention of Merrit. People tend to put musicians on different levels because of technical standards and forget that the whole point to a song is not in the intricacies of construction, but the effect on the listener. Personally, Jawbreaker and X mean more to me than any of the above and they're three chord punk. I mentioned Merrit because his music reminds me of the Gershwins and Rodgers and Hammerstien, not in its complexity, but the abiltiy to evoke the same type of emotion. You can argue all you want about the merits of your "Golden Age" of music, that still won't make it my golden age.
posted by eyeballkid at 12:52 PM on April 18, 2002

I love Charles Ives but his music can't be considered "popular."
posted by perorate at 12:53 PM on April 18, 2002

Faze, you "Pul-leeze!" Charles Ives, then neglect to explain why. No, he was not a "songwriter," he was an insurance man who happened to compose some incredible and very American pieces. Aaron Copland, too, deserves note, though I generally don't think of him or Ives in the same light as Rodgers. Nor do I think of Coltrane in the same light as Dylan. This, of course is the problem with naming "greatest" anythings....
posted by girlbowler at 12:58 PM on April 18, 2002

Sir Richard Rodgers is a British architect. He is one of a few knighted British architects, him, James Stirling, Stuart Lipton, Norman Foster etc.

Just thought it needed a mention.
posted by Settle at 1:03 PM on April 18, 2002

I agree completely with Faze. Even with Kern as number two. If you're talking melody; which you have to be - well, it's no contest. I've reread Alec Wilder's book so many times it's dog-eared. And I have the red hardback edition. It's all down to circumstance.

For years I pretended I only liked the Rodgers who wrote with Hart(melody first)and looked down on the songs he wrote with Hammerstein(lyrics first). But, as I grew out of my juvenile dogmas, I was forced to consider the artistry and hidden daring(e.g. the supposedly simple lyrics of "Oh What A Beautiful Morning" that y2karl sings have been universally praised, no less by Sondheim, another Rodgers collaborator) of Oklahoma and the subsequent shows, specially "State Fair", "The King And I" and, yes, even the "The Sound of Music".

I guess I was particularly hurt by the way Hart was expelled, just before he died, from the premiere of the last show he wrote with Rodgers, for being drunk and disorderly and the steel-cold way he'd already been replaced by Hammerstein.

Rodgers was, by all accounts(including his daughter Mary's), a drunken, depressive workaholic; an adulterous sourpuss and hypocrite. But he was a genius. He wrote the melody to "Edelweiss" just before he died, in a few hours, and to this day people think it's a popular Austrian song. He wrote the "Carousel Waltz" without ever listening to circus music and the famous Siamese children's march without even knowing where Siam was.

Biographers say Lorenz Hart, who was gay and allegedly died a virgin, was in love with Rodgers and that all his love lyrics("I Could Write A Book"; "There's A Small Hotel"; "I Didn't Know What Time It Was", etc.)were all about his friend and co-worker...

It's as if - as Faze sort of implies - the way you die and live is more important to the way you're appreciated than your sheer talent and artistry. On the other hand I have to say that, for once, the adjective "American" is redundant as there simply aren't any other popular composers, from any other country, who can even be mentioned in the same breath.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 1:08 PM on April 18, 2002

Aaron Copland?
posted by clavdivs at 1:16 PM on April 18, 2002

not really 'popular' though....Gershwin for my likes.
posted by clavdivs at 1:18 PM on April 18, 2002

Well, Miguel, you can't discount the 'Some people people hold a contrary opinion simply because they see the best seats already taken and do not wish to sit in back,' factor, if I misquote la Rochefoucauld--and then, too, there is the eternal MetaFilter urge to be the last dog to pee on the porch. Hydrant. Your leg.
posted by y2karl at 1:30 PM on April 18, 2002

Clavdivs: I love Gershwin and I wonder, with briank, what would have happened if he'd had lived more than thirty-odd years. But he's more jazz and classical than popular - in his objectives. His truly popular songs - the showtunes - are masterpieces. Thank God he was poor and his brother Ira egged him on.

But I get the feeling his ambition was more towards "Porgy and Bess" and "Rhapsody in Blue". Although all the great popular composers(except Berlin and Harry Warren) flirted with symphonies, operas and ballet(even Rodgers with "Slaughter On Tenth Avenue"), Gershwin seemed particularly driven towards being studied in conservatoires - which, of course, he is.

The point is that "Slaughter On Tenth Avenue" can still be enjoyed today as a pop piece; whereas his colleagues' efforts are just embarrassing. Gershwin's best work *ducks* is to be found in his showtunes: "But Not For Me"; "Our Love Is Here To Stay"; "Someone To Watch Over Me".

Jerome Kern, of course, is an exception, because he was opera and classical-driven to begin with. He was a sophisticated Viennese Jew. He hated popular music, but wrote "All The Things You Are", "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes", "The Way You Look Tonight", "The Folks Who Live On The Hill", "Ol' Man River", etc...

And I just realized I forgot, in my great American composers pantheon, Duke Ellington, whose melodies are up there with Rodgers's...
posted by MiguelCardoso at 1:35 PM on April 18, 2002

Where is the Rap?
posted by Postroad at 1:52 PM on April 18, 2002

Agggh, MiguelCardoso... I was runing right with you up until Duke Ellington. Someone explain to me, what are the great Duke Ellington songs? I know "Satin Doll" -- a pretty good tune (although I don't for one second believe that gal speaks Latin -- just that the lyricist needed a rhyme for Satin), but give me some more. What are the Duke Ellington tunes that are equal or even close to Gershwin or Rodgers? I promise you, I will run right out and get the CDs.
posted by Faze at 1:57 PM on April 18, 2002

Ellington's genius was as a melodist, bandleader and arranger, less as someone who leaves wonderful sheet music behind.
posted by argybarg at 2:06 PM on April 18, 2002

faze: get your wallet out, you might find a few keepers in this little list.
posted by groundhog at 2:07 PM on April 18, 2002

my money's on barber or copland. poor barber, adagio for strings is misused by like, every bad hollywood movie ever.
posted by dorian at 2:12 PM on April 18, 2002

Agggh, Faze - embarrassingly it was the Ella songbooks that taught me how good his tunes were. Even if they were written by that other guy who was in love with him, Johnny something. Off the top of my head, these tunes are unassailable, even from our difficultly pleased perspective: "Sophisticated Lady", "In A Sentimental Mood", "Prelude To A Kiss", "Caravan", "It Don't Mean A Thing(If It Ain't Got That Swing"), "Mood Indigo", "I'm Beginning To See The Light", "Satin Doll", "I Got It Bad(And That Ain't Good"), "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me", "Just Squeeze Me"...
posted by MiguelCardoso at 2:13 PM on April 18, 2002

Addenda from groundhog's link: "Azure", "KoKo", "Take The A Train" and "Blue Reverie".
posted by MiguelCardoso at 2:18 PM on April 18, 2002

good take miguel. I love the Ella. My Fav is the 'Mack The Knife" she sung in Germany...and forgot the words. Most likely the best improv ever in the jazz world.

"you won't recognize it/ it's a surprise hit...."

posted by clavdivs at 2:27 PM on April 18, 2002

Not wooing, clvdiuvs, but still: "Ella in Berlin" is my fave. The way, unlike obedient Darin and Sinatra, she refuses to trot out the Brecht lyrics, foregoing the Marxist stuff for the sake of fun: "Something something...I can't remember...something about sharks..." Ella turns the "Threepenny Opera" into a Cy Coleman show.

It's a wonder the wall didn't come down right then. It would have saved so much trouble. What pleasure she gives. By the way, Faze, I was very intrigued that in the original vinyl(and first CD)pressing only Gershwin and Ellington had three discs. The greats(Arlen, Rodgers, Porter)had two. One great(Kern)only one. And Mercer had one too. Loesser, Warren, Loewe, Youmans, Carmichael...none!

Jobim had a late one - but what a sorry record that was...
posted by MiguelCardoso at 2:58 PM on April 18, 2002

clavdivs, I mean.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 2:59 PM on April 18, 2002

....yeah, I wondered about that line..."Ella turns the "Threepenny Opera" into a Cy Coleman show." Thats about the funniest thing i heard in a while miguel...Cy Coleman...thats good. But i like Brecht, his poems have some meat.
posted by clavdivs at 4:21 PM on April 18, 2002

Elvis Costello recorded a beautifully stark, if less musical, version of My Funny Valentine - "D-don't change a hair for me..." - as a b-side (to What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?).

I still believe in the juvenile dogma about Rodgers and Hart, because their songs sounds so much less juvenile than the Hammerstein stuff. Somehow the young are the best at sounding jaded.
posted by liam at 5:06 PM on April 18, 2002

I have agree with MichaelCardoso--Ellington and Strayhorn must be recognized among the greatest of American popular composers. They created beautiful melodies, innovative harmonies, unorthodox forms, and pretty much rewrote the book on arranging for big band. But most importantly--and unlike all the other composers mentioned above--their music swings!
posted by boltman at 9:31 PM on April 18, 2002

Charles Ives did write songs. In fact, one of his songs was considered (for like two seconds) to replace the USA national anthem. There are recordings of the songs with him singing and playing the piano, and he is so off-key and dissonant that it makes sense. The CDs are out of print now (as far as I can tell), but they're out there.
posted by panopticon at 10:29 PM on April 18, 2002

If we're talking about popular and prolific American composers, one name has been left out: John Phillip Sousa. In his heyday, about 100 years ago, marches were hugely popular. Heres a list of his compositions, marches and otherwise.
posted by groundhog at 5:50 AM on April 19, 2002

Thanks groundhog and MiequeCardoso for all the Ellingtonia. I will go out and buy, as promised. I can't listen to any of the Ella songbooks, ever since I was in the middle of listening to Ella singing Gershwin about 15 years ago, the phone rang, and I got some terrible news... Now I associate them with misfortune, and superstitiously refrain from re-listening. But here my challenge to all anad any Charles Ives fans: Hum me an Ives tune. Right now. Off the top of your head. Can't do it can ya? But I'll bet you can whistle every last note of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" -- even if you've never done it before.
posted by Faze at 7:34 AM on April 19, 2002

And what about Stephen Foster? Greatest, perhaps not; but certainly among the most influential.
posted by argybarg at 12:26 PM on April 19, 2002

« Older A bizarre chapter in the Columbia, SC flag...   |   The Periodic Table Of Funk. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments