Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Jazz and Pop Singing

A review of Will Friedwald's extraordinary new book

Will Friedwald’s knowledge of jazz and popular singers and songs is remarkable. Indeed, he is a veritable walking encyclopedia on these topics, so it is all together fitting and proper that he write an encyclopedia about what clearly are his passions
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“A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers” is an 811-page behemoth of a book that covers more than 300 artists. While the focus is obviously on jazz and pop vocalists—past and present--Friedwald has wisely included sections, termed “extras,” on blues, folk, rock and country singers.

The book, said to be ten years in the making, is simply extraordinary.

What Friedwald has--which he demonstrated ably via previous works on Frank Sinatra, jazz singing and several others—is style. The author would likely tell you himself that, with no apologies to Sinatra and Crosby, “You’ve either got or you haven’t got style.” Friedwald has it.

He is not a jazz “critic” ala legendary scribes like Leonard Feather or Martin Williams, nor is he image-bound ala the late Whitney Balliett. And this is not a “just the facts” encyclopedia or guide. What Friedwald brings to the table is learned opinion, rendered in often hilarious but always personal and conversational manner.

Like a good Woody Allen movie, there is so much “inside showbiz” stuff herein, that it would take dozens of readings to “get” everything. For example, he opens his entry on singer/trumpeter Louis Prima—probably the most incisive essay ever written on Prima and long, long overdue—by saying, “It’s long been a dream of mine to write a doctoral thesis entitled ‘Louis Prima: The Life, the Legend, the Linguini.” He then writes of Prima’s “zooma-zooma” zaniness, a reference to one of Luigi’s most popular songs.

Certainly, there’s plenty of serious commentary, and wonderful documentation of each’s singers’ recorded works, but no matter what the artist, the style or what the author’s personal likes and dislikes are, he is unfailingly kind most of the time.

He admits he doesn’t “get” the duo of Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, or Cleo Laine and The Four Freshman. However, when speaking of Jackie Cain, he comments that she was “potentially one of the best singers of the modern jazz era,” and that Roy Kral was “a fine singer and a better pianist.” Call this “tempered criticism,” in that no one goes away unhappy.

It would impossible to detail all the highlights that abound in this project. Every entry is, in fact, a highlight, but if I’d had to pick a few, I’d say the chapters on Sinatra, Buddy Greco, Prima, Arthur Prysock, Johnny Hartman, Dee Dee Bridgewater, the tragic Susannah McCorkle, the under-appreciated Gloria Lynne, Mel Torme’, and even Elvis Presley stand out in my mind, if only because they are personal favorites.

Readers just will not believe who shows up in this book, especially on the non-jazz side. Friedwald, humor aside, offers the first, intelligent, unbiased, in-print musical analysis of Sophie Tucker, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Julie Andrews, Rudy Vallee, Kate Smith, Barbara Streisand, Julie Wilson, and Steve and Eydie, to name a few.

Recalling criticisms of other jazz encyclopedias through the years—to say nothing of the reviews on Ken Burns’ television documentary about jazz—writers carped about who was and who was not included. This book will keep critics going for years about who didn’t make the cut, and “why was so-and-so included?” To be sure, I have my own list, which I’ll keep to myself.

The issue, as everyone in the publishing business knows, especially today, is space.

In his introduction, the author states, “I’m sure that I’ve left out some significant artists; as it was, the book kept growing and growing…there simply wasn’t room to write everything that needed to be said about every performer worth talking about.”

It seems to me that at least another 800 pages would be needed to cover everyone. “I hope that the book in your hands is only the first of many editions,” Friedwald says.

As it stands, “A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers” represents essential reading for those interested in music of any kind, and is 811 pages of sheer dynamite.

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Bruce Klauber