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The Golden Age

David Berger



I’ve told this story so many times that you’ve probably heard it. When I was a kid in the late 1950s, I was ill one day and stayed home from school. I remember lying down on the couch watching TV in our front bedroom, which used to be my room, but now was our den. My mom was standing beside me ironing. A quiz show came on where the orchestra would play three notes, and the contestant would have to guess the title of the song. If he or she got it wrong, the orchestra would then play the first four notes, and so on. To my amazement, whenever they played the first three notes, my mom would immediately name the tune. This went on song after song. I couldn’t believe it. At that age, it seemed to me that anyone who knew the answers on quiz shows was a genius and could make a ton of money. So, I asked her, “You know all the songs. Why don’t you go on the show?” To which she answered, “Everyone my age knows all the songs.” I had no idea, but she was right.


My dad knew them, my aunt knew them, my friends’ parents all knew them. My mom would play a bunch of them on the piano. My aunt would tell me about how she used to play hooky from high school and go to the Paramount Theater in Times Square to see the big bands. This all seems like ancient history now, but it wasn’t ancient then. It was just a few years before I was born. Everybody knew all the songs. How many? At least 1000, or maybe even 2000. Isn’t that amazing! The generation that lived through the Great Depression and fought World War II all sang the same songs.


There’s a scene in Steven Spielberg’s epic World War II movie Saving Private Ryan where Tom Hanks is leading his squad, walking through dangerous enemy territory. One of the guys is softly singing Duke Ellington’s Solitude to himself. That’s right—a regular army GI is singing Duke Ellington. Even some of the Maestro’s songs were known by everyone in America. This was some Golden Era. By that I mean that fine art was being consumed en masse by the general public. That’s a rare occurrence in the history of human beings. It happened 500 years ago with Shakespeare, but even the majority of the greatest European composers went unnoticed by the commoners of their day. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven? They were commissioned by the nobility to perform their music for the rich and powerful. The people on the street had their folk songs.


After 500 years, Shakespeare’s work stands as the greatest body of plays in the English language. My knowledge of other languages and cultures is limited, so I can’t measure him against their best, but do they have a playwright who crosses all segments of society and is still essentially pertinent after 500 years? That’s quite an accomplishment. In the world of music, between 1920 and 1965, America produced a body of a couple thousand popular songs that rival the greatest songs ever written, that were known and loved by all segments of society, that were performed by a wide variety of artists, and that 50 years later continue to inspire new arrangements and renditions. We have come to call this body of songs the American Songbook.


There are a few composers and lyricists of this music that are responsible for many of the songs that became standards. Names like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, and Rodgers and Hart. They wrote stand-alone songs, songs for Broadway shows and then songs for movies. The publishers had song pluggers who would pitch the new material to popular singers and bands to perform and record. Sheet music of these songs was published for millions of Americans to sing and play in their homes on the piano, guitar and even the ukulele. When my mom was young, her friends would gather around her at the piano in the living room to sing along with her. These weren’t professional musicians or music students, but just average American high school kids.


What was it about these songs that captured America’s imagination? The great majority of them are about love, but not teenage infatuation—adult love—the joy of being in love and the bittersweet pain of lost or unrequited love. They weren’t about sex. They were about romance. They took us to Art Deco nightclubs in evening gowns and tuxedos, and they took us to that lonely Cottage For Sale, where we used to live when we were in love.


The king of all the songs was Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish’s Stardust. Written in 1928, it became the most celebrated and loved song all the way into the 1960’s. Richard Benjamin’s movie about a fictionalized TV variety show set in 1954 begins with Nat Cole’s iconic recording of Stardust.

The strings play a short introduction, and then Nat sings the greatest verse ever written, and that’s it. The movie starts, and we don’t even hear the chorus, but all of us old-timers know what’s coming.


After all these years, I’m still amazed that a song as sophisticated lyrically and musically could ever be popular, let alone be the most popular song for decades. Hoagy was a jazz pianist. He said that he wrote this melody to sound like his cornet playing buddy and tragic jazz icon Bix Beiderbecke. I’d say that Hoagy captured it, and then some.


There have been many classic and well-known recordings of Stardust. Most notably Artie Shaw’s best selling record, but all the bands back then played and recorded this song—

Benny Goodman

Glenn Miller

and before them,

Louis Armstrong


Where Cole is dreamy, Armstrong is irreverent and rough. There is room for all kinds of interpretations. Yesterday was my buddy Jon Hendricks’ 96th birthday. Almost 30 years ago he wrote lyrics (which allude to the similarity between Hoagy’s melody and a Luckey Roberts song) to Armstrong’s recording and we recorded my arrangement on his Freddie Freeloader CD.


But my history with Stardust didn’t start or end there. I first played the song in my junior high dance band. Back then my parents had Artie Shaw’s recording, which I listened to over and over. I loved how Billy Butterfield played the melody on trumpet. I had no idea that I would get to work with Billy and Hoagy at Carnegie Hall 15 years later. And there was Artie’s iconic clarinet solo, which rivaled his previous Begin The Beguine recording of a few years earlier.


My father used to tell the story about how in love my mother was with him when they first started dating. He said that they were out somewhere and the band was playing Stardust, and my mom thought it was Begin The Beguine.

And she knew all the songs! That love stuff is pretty powerful.


When my old pal Bennie Wallace’s sister-in-law got married, he hired our band to go up to Connecticut and play the wedding. I drove up to Candlewood Lake with our bassist, Dennis Irwin. Dennis played a Rodney Dangerfield cassette tape while I drove. The two of us were laughing so hard, that I missed the exit and began seeing signs telling us that we were in Massachusetts. I turned the car around, and we got to the gig in the nick of time.


Bennie asked me to arrange Stardust for the father/daughter dance. I was happy to comply. Mike Rodriguez was playing trumpet with us at that time, and Stardust thereafter became his feature number for the next 5 years. Every gig, I would invite him to come down in front of the band and play the verse with just Isaac accompanying him on piano. Mike would then play the pickups to the chorus and the band would join him for the rest of the arrangement. Whenever and wherever we performed, he held the audience, the band, and me in the palm of his hand.


After Mike left us for fame and fortune, we retired that arrangement, except for one performance on March 10, 2008. That was the day that our beloved bassist, Dennis Irwin, died. We played what was supposed to be a fundraiser at Jazz at Lincoln Center to help pay Dennis’ medical bills, but Dennis passed away just an hour prior to the concert.   It was a star-studded memorial featuring many of the performers that Dennis had worked with in his 35-year career—Tony Bennett, Joe Lovano, John Scofield, Mose Allison, et al. We went on last, played a number or two and then Wynton Marsalis joined us to play Stardust. In a roomful of 600 people who all loved Dennis, what better send-off could we give him? It was the king of all songs honoring a prince among men. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.



And now the purple dusk of twilight time
Steals across the meadows of my heart.
High up in the sky the little stars climb
Always reminding me that we're apart.

You wander down the lane and far away,
Leaving me a song that will not die.
Love is now the stardust of yesterday;
The music of the years gone by.

Sometimes I wonder why I spend
The lonely night dreaming of a song.
The melody haunts my reverie,
And I am once again with you,
When our love was new,
And each kiss an inspiration.
But that was long ago.
Now my consolation
Is in the stardust of a song.

Beside a garden wall,
When stars are bright,
You are in my arms.
The nightingale tells his fairy tale,
A paradise where roses bloom.
Though I dream in vain,
In my heart it will remain:
My stardust melody,
The memory of love's refrain.

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  • Tad RIchards on

    Lovely. Shared on Facebook.

  • Nancy Valentine on

    This was the most lovely entry. Thanks so much for the links.

  • Emil Viklicky on

    David, it had happened to Mozart as well. Premiere of Figaro was in Vienna on May 1786, but performances in Prague / fall 1786/ was tremendous success. Every street vendor, couch driver was whistling his melodies /Non piú andrai and others as well/. It was “pop music” of those times in Prague. This success was also the reason why his next opera Don Giovanni was premiered in Prague Oct 29, 1787.
    Best regards,
    Emil Viklicky

  • Bob Schwartz on

    Even on the somber occasion Wynton started laughing part way through — digging your chord changes.

  • Chuck Israels on

    Impossible not to agree. Early in the 2000s, there was some published discussion about what was the best song of the 20th Century. The popular choice turned out to be Yesterday. The idea of one best is useless, but to put Yesterday in the company of Stardust, or Come Rain or Come Shine, or… indicates what had become of musical sophistication and even general knowledge at the turn of the century. Things have not improved. Peter Schickele had to abandon his funny and insightful P.D.Q Bach satire. There were too few left to get the jokes.

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