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Why They Don't Write Great Songs Anymore

David Berger

I've been reading Robert Rawlins' book, Tunes of the Twenties and All that Jazz.  He talks about popular songs being written to sell sheet music for amateur singers and pianists.  The phonograph and radio changed all that and more difficult music could be written for professionals.  Broadway shows became the source of most popular songs. With the invention of talking pictures, movie composers like Harry Warren were contributing greatly to the repertoire.  


Jazz composers (who moonlighted as instrumentalists and bandleaders) wrote and recorded lots of original tunes and some songs with lyrics, but the amount of coverage they got was small compared to show and movie songs.  Outside of the Cotton Club, revues rarely created hit songs.  The Cotton Club had a 3-pronged attack: nightclub, radio and records.  Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway were able to parlay their songs into hits that were then copied by singers and bands all over the country.  


Movies and Broadway shows were still creating hit songs into the 1960s, long after jazz bands lost their grip on the public.  Adults were still keeping up with the new songs they produced.  Kids were listening to rock and roll, whose weaker songs had less success after the initial recording faded from view.  For a while White singers like Elvis Presley and Pat Boone had success bringing R&B songs to White kids, but then even the kids got wise that the Black artists were more authentic.  


There were professional songwriters like Lieber and Stoller and Carole King, but after a few years, popular music moved into the Age of the Singer-Songwriter.  Most of these songs are lyric driven and belonged to the composer.  For the most part, the melodies were weak and couldn't support an instrumental version.  


Movies continued to contribute themes, but by 1970, even those pretty much stopped being songs.    Pop music completely took over the airwaves and major record companies.  Around this time, the old guard of composers and lyricists decided that they were out of touch with the public.  Hollywood stopped making musicals and Broadway songs became more and more plot driven.  It has been extremely rare for a show after this point to initiate a hit song.  Rare exceptions like Send In The Clowns, Tomorrow, and Memory somehow broke through, but it became harder and harder to remove a song from its show and make it stand alone.  And for sure, movies, Broadway, and pop groups weren't providing jazz musicians with anything usable.  The genres had grown too far apart.


There still are some songwriters of the old school writing new songs, but the outlets for them have vanished.  Most of my songs have been written for theatrical shows, which limits their usage beyond the show, since the lyrics and music are so specific.  I perform some of my songs live with my band and have recorded many, but I've yet to get a Gap commercial or a movie spot like in Swingers.  Even jazz musicians don't buy other jazz musicians' records.  Jazz groups prefer to record their own songs.  


Perhaps Broadway and movies will once again become hospitable to songs about adult love.  I'm not so optimistic about pop music.  In the meantime I'll keep writing songs.  I like doing it, and my audience seems to like them.  


About 10 years ago Paul Mendenhall and I put lyrics to a dozen Harry Warren melodies that never made their way into the movies.  We recorded them on a CD, Sing Me A Love Song on Such Sweet Thunder Records.  I'm sure that had that record come out 50 or 60 years ago, every one of those songs would be a standard today, but it didn't and they're not.  It's not because of the quality of the songs.  Maybe songs about adult love and romance are out of date.  If this is the case, that is sad.  That is sad for adults and sad for the kids who grow up in a cold world devoid of romance.  Like I said, I'm gonna keep writing love songs.  The world needs them.  Especially now.

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  • Christiana Drapkin on

    They might not be hits, they’re not on mainstream radio, but I’m sure there are good composers out there, writing today. My favorite Jazz song writer (sometimes on the familiar changes, sometimes not), is Andy Fite. He writes about love, today’s love mishaps and mixups, life, politics, ideas, Bach, you name it. And he’s posted his works and his many CDs on youtube. Discover him.

  • Bevan Manson on

    I would love to get a copy of ‘Sing Me A Love Song’. Although the circumstances are somewhat different, there is a similar retreat from general warmth and romance in classical music as well. It depends on the individual composer of course (there are certain works of John Adams, Daniel Strong Godfrey, Melissa Wagner, and Zachary Wadsworth that buck the curve, for example), but I think in general the rise of technology in music has allowed much to stake a claim on ‘innovation’ or short term trendiness. I.e., sound or texture as the primary element, as opposed to melody, harmony, rhythm, counterpoint. The latter four have tended to supply much warmth in the past! David, I was sorry I wasn’t around when you were in L.A. Might you be in NYC next week? I will be there Jan. 24th through the 27th. It would be great to have a coffee.

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