Typically when thinking of the musical term “standard,” most associated with those brilliant songs from the canon of The Great American Songbook and the classic singers that performed them, what comes to mind are images of nattily dressed men in suits, ties loosely fitting allowing a Sinatra or Sammy Davis, Jr. access to their full vocal range, displaying the depth of their rich baritone or tenor. Frank Sinatra suit

Or, beautiful yet simple dresses adorned and worn perfectly by Ella or Dinah (Shore or Washington – your choice) behind a Telefunken microphone, leaning upon a stool, smiling brightly while conferring with the band leader or producer before cooing a melody from Cole Porter or Sammy Cahn. Dinah Shore in dress

Most consider Irving Berlin the founding father of what we widely refer to as The Great American Songbook and I find myself firmly entrenched within this camp. The fine songwriter and critic Alec Wilder authored a must-read book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950 in which he devotes many pages and goes into great detail about the authors synonymous with the standard: the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart among others. Out of the myriad of reference books on this subject – along with Leonard Feather’s History of Jazz – it remains an integral part of my continued education on this important part of musical history.

Many years ago while in a lunchtime discussion with my dear mother-in-law Dorothy – an admitted bobby soxer who loved Tommy Dorsey and that “dreamy” singer of the band Frank Sinatra – said in an almost reverential tone of voice, filled with longing for that musical era, “Oh, they just don’t write music the way they used to.” I’m certain your parents or grandparents have bemoaned or uttered in semi-melancholy tones the very same. But, does the standard begin and end with “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, “Come Rain or Come Shine”, “Love Is Here to Stay”, “It Had to Be You”, “Night And Day” and countless others?

I’d say no, it does not. Now, what I will hold as truth is that the sensibilities and mastery of the songwriting craft from the previously mentioned and others of their generation is a beauty to behold. Take for instance these lyrics penned by Rodgers & Hart from the song “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”:

I didn’t know what time it was

‘Til I met you

Oh, what a lovely time it was,
How sublime it was too!
I didn’t know what day it was
You hold my hand.
Warm like the month of May it was,
and I’ll say it was grand.
Grand to be alive, to be young,
to be mad, to be yours alone!
Grand to see your face, feel your touch,
hear your voice say I’m yours alone.

I didn’t know what time it was
then I met you.
Oh, what a lovely time it was,
How sublime it was too!
I didn’t know what day it was
then you hold my hand.
Warm like the month of May it was,
and I’ll say it was grand.
Grand to be alive, to be young,
to be mad, to be yours alone!
Grand to see your face, feel your touch,
hear your voice say I’m all your own.

I didn’t know what year it was
love was no prize.
I wanted love and here it was
shining out of your eyes.
I’m wise,
and I know what time it is now.
I’m wise,
and I know what time it is now.
I’m so wise,
and I know what time it is now.

When sung by one of your favorites like (your choice), you hear the story, but more importantly you feel the story. You’re immediately connected to the beauty of when he/she first met the one and you clearly get it, and are even likely able to weave that moment within your life of love(s) as well. That’s a thing of beauty.

But, wait just a darn minute. Frank Sinatra once said of the song “Reminiscing,” a huge hit for the Australian group Little River Band, was in his opinion “the best 1970s song in the world.” And we all know Frank didn’t pull punches. The Beatles’ “Yesterday,” one of the most recorded songs of all time, was a hit by Matt Monro on the Brit charts … before the original version by The Beatles (which was actually released as a single first in the US before Great Britain). So, what of Billy Joel’s loving ode to the Empire State “New York State of Mind” which has seen everyone from Barbra Streisand, Carmen McCrae, and Tony Bennett perform it, and record jim-dandy versions? This means we’d have to toss preconceived and narrowly-defined visions of what the standard is out the window … unless we’re willing to broaden our minds, and I think we’d be the wiser for doing so.

The argument can be made that the inclusion of a number of songs from the latter half of the 20th century such as “Fire and Rain”(James Taylor), “Every Breath You Take” (Sting of the Police), “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (Paul Simon) and “Both Sides Now” (Joni Mitchell) among dozens of others isn’t a far-fetched notion, but one that seems only logical given their prominence not only on radio and records, but in our hearts. These are the songs of my generation which tell their stories coherently and compellingly, reminding us that great songwriting doesn’t die, but rather transitions.

As the years march on – as they are wont to do – many other popular songs from the latter half of the 20th century from pop, country and r&b genres will be sung by today’s singers faithful to the Great American Songbook, who also seek and yearn for relevance. While boy singers may well recount for guys an enviable night with their best gal, putting on their “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” (Irving Berlin), and some girl singers may ensure that today’s gen of women remember that “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” (Julie Styne & Leo Robin), we’re just as likely to hear someone croon with that irresistible swagger from yesteryear, “Bye Bye Love” as sung by Melody Gardot, “Spinning Wheel” as performed by Peter Cincoctti, or feel what it’s like to be a member of “The ‘In’ Crowd” as sung by Gregory Porter. Gregory Porter Nattily Dressed

What is a standard? It very well may be as ‘simple’ as a song that’s stood the clearly vague test of time, the one that singers keep on singing year after year, or those that we’ve played so often on our turntables that we’ve found it necessary to buy a second or third LP because the grooves in the vinyl have worn so deep, rendering the vinyl unplayable. Or it could be the collection of songs on a compact disc you continue lending to friends or begging a co-worker or family member to listen to because of its sheer beauty. Or, maybe it’s the songs that are played over, and over, and over again on radio (terrestrial, satellite, Internet, etc.). Confused? So am I. But I know a standard when I hear one and I think you do as well.

 

– Bill Quinn