A brief history of Pop Music

by Piero Scaruffi
A chapter of my History of Popular Music

TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.


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(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Popular Music")

Post-war Pop Music in the USA


USA: After Tin Pan Alley

TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

From the moment that it became big business, pop music came largely from Tin Pan Alley's publishing houses. Tin Pan Alley thrived on the opera, ragtime, cakewalk, foxtrot and show tunes. As the latter came to represent more and more of the songwriter's business, in the 1930s Tin Pan Alley moved north, near the Broadway theaters, between 42nd and 49th street. Unfortunately for them, before World War II the market came to be dominated by the "Big Bands", that accounted for almost 85% of the best-sellers between 1937 and 1941. Big bands tended to perform the music written by the bandleader, thus the publishing house were the real losers.

Surprisingly, World War II fostered an economic boom and, indirectly, helped the music industry develop in different directions. It was during the war that Bing Crosby's White Christmas (1942) became the best-selling song of all times (and would remain so for 50 years) It was during the war that the first "disc jockeys" followed the American troops abroad. It was during the war that Capitol was founded in Hollywood, the first major music company not to be based in New York (1942), and Mercury was founded in Chicago (1945). It was during the war that the "barber-shop quartets" evolved from the slow, melancholy style of the Ink Spots to the casual, innovative style of Ravens, Orioles, Clovers. At the end of the war, the American nation was electrified. War was over, the USA had won, peace reigned, and wealth was spreading. The new mood helped popular music too.

By the end of World War II, the American landscape had been dramatically altered by the radio, the jukeboxes, a broader availability of records and turntables, and a proliferation of dance halls. The singer, not the bandleader, returned to be the charismatic focus of attention. This launched a second golden age for the publishing houses.

The biggest star of the war years, though, was still Bing Crosby, thanks to his multi-million seller: Irving Berlin's White Christmas (1942).

During World War II, the three Andrews Sisters were the second main sensation after Bing Crosby: Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen (1938), originally composed by Sholom Secunda for a 1932 Yiddish musical, Don Raye's Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (1941), Sam Stept's Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (1942), Pistol Packin' Mama (1943), Jeri Sullavan's and Paul Baron's Rum and Coca-Cola (1944).


Among white female singers, only Peggy Lee (Norma Egstrom), the former vocalist of Benny Goodman's orchestra, could compete with the great black vocalists of blues and jazz music. She not only sang, but almost acted, the songs she sang, particularly her own compositions, such as Why Don't You Do Right (1942) and Manana (1948).

Frances "Dinah" Shore was the most successful female singer of the war years, first with the Xavier Cugat orchestra (Quiereme Mucho, 1939) and then on her own with Yes My Darling Daughter (1940), Blues In The Night (1942), I'll Walk Alone (1944), The Gypsy (1946), Anniversary Song (1947). Her success was crucial in emancipating the female voice from the band after a decade in which female singers had become, de facto, instruments in the hands of the bandleader.


The epitome of the transition from the bandleader to the singer was singer Frank Sinatra, one of the creative forces of jazz phrasing ("the voice") and the quintessential Italian baritone. He took Bing Crosby's romantic crooning to new evocative (and swooning) heights. He sang with the big bands of Harry James (1939), Tommy Dorsey (1940-42), of whom Sinatra basically emulated vocally the expansive trombone style, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. His hits were mere vehicles for his phrasing: Johnny Mercer's Dream (1945), Victor Young's Stella by Starlight (1947), Ken Lane's Everybody Loves Somebody (1948), Frank Loesser's Luck Be A Lady Tonight (1950), Johnny Richards' Young At Heart (1954), Vernon Duke's April In Paris (1959), Bert Kaempfert's Strangers In The Night (1966), etc. His albums, starting with the chamber-jazz arrangements of Swing Easy (1954), were among the most refined of the 1950s. In The Wee Small Hours (1955), arranged by Nelson Riddle, is a contender for the title of first concept album. Songs For Swinging Lovers (1956), again arranged by Riddle, fused swing's big band and string orchestra.


Perry Como was the quintessential entertainer to make the transition from the radio to the television. In 1942 he had started his own radio show, that he transferred successfully to the new medium in 1948. Perry Como established his romantic aura with Ted Mossman's Till the End of Time (1945), a pop adaptation of Chopin's Polonaise in A-flat Major, Bennie Benjamin's Surrender (1946), Leo Robin's Prisoner of Love (1947), Al Hoffman's Chi-Baba Chi-Baba (1947), Slim Willet's Don't Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes (1952), Al Hofman's Hot Diggity (1956), Lou Stallman's Round And Round (1957), Burt Bacharach's Magic Moments (1958), and Lee Pockriss' Catch A Falling Star (1958), but he began to sound terribly antiquated in the age of rock'n'roll.

New Orleans' jazz trumpter Louis Prima became a Las Vegas entertainer famous for his Bell-Bottom Trousers (1945) and I've Got You Under My Skin (1959).

The hits of operatic balladeer Frankie Lane (LoVecchio), mostly arranged by Mitch Miller and arranged by Carl Fischer, not only marked the decline of the old crooning style but also inaugurated the studio as a place where a "sound" was created (not just a performance recorded): Helmy Kresa's That's My Desire (1947), the country hit Mule Train (1949), Beasley Smith's That Lucky Old Sun (1949), Terry Gilkyson's The Cry Of the Wild Geese (1950). Lane sold over 100 million records.

Mario Lanza (real name Alfredo Cocozza) was an operatic tenor who continued the process of displacing of the crooning style with Nicholas Brodsky's Be My Love (1950), The Loveliest Night of the Year (1951), a cover of Juventino Rosa's Over The Waves (1888), and assorted arias from operas.

Tony "Bennett" Benedetto sang similar material to Sinatra's but in a register that was more operatic. He also sang generic melodies from all sorts of sources: Arthur Hammerstein's Because of You (1950), Richard Adler's Rags to Riches (1953), Stranger in Paradise (1953), based on a Borodin aria, George Cory's I Left My Heart in San Francisco (1962).

Laine and Bennett were merely the vanguard of the "Italian" connection, that peaked with Dean Martin (Dino Crocetti), the crooner of Harry Warren's That's Amore (1953), Sway (1954), i.e. the English version of Quien Sera, Terry Gilkyson's Memories Are Made of This (1956).


Billy Eckstine, who had been running one of the last big bands of the swing era (featuring Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and many others), was the first black vocalist able to compete with the heavy-weights of the white pop ballad, thanks to Willard Robison's Cottage For Sale (1945), Leo Robin's Prisoner Of Love (1946), Burton Lane's Everything I Have Is Us (1947), Rodger's Blue Moon (1948), that he interpreted a` la Sinatra, Victor Young's My Foolish Heart (1949), Al Hoffman's I Apologize (1951).


Jazz pianist Nat "King" Cole (Nathaniel Coles), who reached Los Angeles in 1937, was the second. Cole led an influential piano-guitar-contrabass trio for his mellow tunes Straighten Up And Fly Right (1943), For Sentimental Reasons (1946), Harmony (1947), Nature Boy (1948), the first hit with the backing of a traditional pop orchestra instead of the trio, Mona Lisa (1950), backed by Les Baxter's orchestra, When I Fall In Love (1957), his zenith of pathos (lushly arranged by Gordon Jenkins). The arrangements of these hits pioneered chamber jazz. More importantly, Cole bridged pop and jazz, as well as white and black psyche: he introduced black sex appeal into white popular culture and romanticism into black popular culture.

Another black singer, Sammy Davis Jr, also a comedian and a dancer, combined Bob Hope, Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra in one persona.

Eddie Fisher bridged the generation of these pop singers and the generation of rock'n'roll with lively interpretations of Guy Mitchell's Thinking Of You (1950), Tolchard Evans's Lady of Spain (1952) and Oh Mein Papa/ I'm Walking Behind You (1953), the English version of a German song.

Few female singers managed to stand up to the male stars. Doris Day, America's eternal virgin, the vocalist in the most popular white dance band of the 1940s, Les Brown And His Band of Renowns, popularized Sentimental Journey (1945), which would remain her signature song (composed by Les Brown's arranger, Ben Homer), Jule Styne's It's Magic (1948), Oscar Brand's A Guy Is A Guy (1952), Sammy Fain's Secret Love (1953), Jay Livingston's Que Sera Sera (1956). Teresa Brewer, one of the first teenage idols, had two world-wide hits: Bernie Baum's Music Music Music (1950) and Sidney Prosen's Till I Waltz Again With You (1952). Jo Stafford, former singer in Tommy Dorsey's band, had the most acrobatic phrasing, running the gamut from the tender Candy (1945) to the mocking Timtayshun (1947) to Pee Wee King's You Belong To Me (1951).

The most successful white harmony quartets before the age of doo-wop were the Four Aces, from Pennsylvania, with Sin (1951), Tell Me Why (1952), Jule Styne's Three Coins In A Fountain (1953) and Sammy Fain's Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing (1955), followed by the Four Lads, from Toronto (Canada), with the exotic The Mocking Bird (1952) and Robert Allen's sentimental Moments To Remember (1955).


The Four Freshmen, from Indianapolis, pioneered an intricate style of close-harmony vocals (already practiced by Herb Ellis' trio Soft Winds in 1947), debuted it in George Forrest's It's a Blue World (1952), refined it on Voices In Modern (1954) and adapted it to jazz on Four Freshmen and Five Trombones (1956). It revolutionized the polyphony of the harmony quartet, leading to Gene Puerling's Hi-Lo's in Los Angeles, so named because of their broad vocal range, first documented on Listen to the Hi-Lo's (1954), which in turn led to the Beach Boys.

Influenced by gospel rather than by opera, Johnny Ray's shamelessly emotional style and spare arrangements, first demonstrated in Churchill Kohlman's Cry (1951), marked the end of the big-band era.

More than any other arranger, Miller was responsible for shaping the concept of "soundscape", the sonic landscape in which the singer's melody floats and soars. He augmented the conventional orchestra with instruments by the intriguing register (cello, French horn, harpsichord) and even with sound effects. Mitch Miller continued to pursue the strategy of ethereal orchestrations, originally developed for Frankie Lane, with another romantic idol, Johnny Mathis, whose hits included Wonderful Wonderful (1956), Chances Are (1957) and Twelfth Of Never (1957). Miller was, in many ways, the predecessor of the Brian Wilsons and the George Martins who would use the studio as an instrument.

After the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) film company opened a recording business to sell their movie soundtracks (1946), the mainstream popular music was controlled by six "majors: Columbia, RCA Victor, Decca, Capitol, MGM, Mercury. A gap was being created between these six majors, that sold white music for white people, and the small independent labels that were sprouting up around the country. The first confrontation had taken place in 1941, when radio stations refused to accept the higher royalties requested by the ASCAP, that controlled most of the New York artists, and started BMI (Broadcast Music Inc), which mainly represented independent country and blues artists from the rest of the nation. Tin Pan Alley and the ASCAP were marketing adult white families, not black families and not young people. But the independent radio stations had more success among young white people, a market that was virtually unexplored.

In 1948, Moe Asch founded Folkways, a label devoted to resurrecting folk music, and Pete Seeger formed the Weavers, the first major group of folk revival.

Jazz and folk musicians shared the same clubs and lofts, and inevitably came to influence each other. The intellectuals of the Greenwich Village were listening to both. In 1948 Billboard introduced charts for "folk" and "race" records, the latter being a euphemism for "black people's records" (and renamed in 1949 "rhythm'n'blues"). In 1950 Elektra was founded in New York to promote both scenes, and Dutch electronics giant Philips entered the recording business.

Another strain in popular music, "exotica", was created piecemeal starting from the late 1940s. First (1947) Korla Pandit (John Red), pretending to be an Indian guru and playing a Hammond organ, started a Hollywood-based tv program that, indirectly, publicized exotic sounds. Then (1948) Rodgers & Hammerstein's Tale Of The South Pacific became a Broadway hit. Finally (1950) Les Baxter's Music Out of the Moon incorporated exotic themes in instrumental easy-listening music.


New York pianist Raymond Scott (real name Harry Warnow) never actually composed anything for cartoons, although he became famous for cartoon music. Scott composed quirky tunes with odd time signatures set to a frantic pace, all recorded with his jazz quintet, from The Toy Trumpet (1936) to Bumpy Weather (1939). Starting in 1941, Carl Stalling used snippets of Scott's tunes for countless episodes of "Bugs Bunny", "Daffy Duck" and "Porky Pig". Raymond Scott moved on, founding (1946) "Manhattan Research", the world's first electronic music studio, for which he invented several electro-mechanical devices that predated synthesizers, sequencers and samplers. His most intriguing projects were perhaps the Rock and Roll Symphony (1958) and the three-LP electronic album Soothing Sounds for Baby (1962), a predecessor of both ambient and minimalist music.

New York: Easy Listening

TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.


Burt Bacharach was the master of the mellow jazz-infected orchestral melody. If Cole Porter's songs had been the quintessence of calculated aristocratic elegance, the songs of Bacharach were the quintessence of spontaneous middle-class elegance: casual, unassuming, almost involuntary. His golden years were the ones with lyricist Hal David, a collaboration that yielded and endless series of classics of easy listening: Magic Moments (1958), sung by Perry Como, Only Love Can Break a Heart (1962) for Gene Pitney, Wishin' And Hopin' (1964) for Dusty Springfield, Always Something There to Remind me (1964) for Lou Johnson, Walk On By (1964), Valley of the Dolls (1968) and I'll Never Fall in Love Again (1969) for Dionne Warwick, Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head (1969) for B.J. Thomas, Arthur's Theme (1981) for Christopher Cross, That's What Friends are For (1986) for Warwick, etc.

The most Bacharach-esque of the songs of the following decade was perhaps Charles Fox's Killing Me Softly (1971), that Roberta Flack turned into a smash hit two years later. Fox also penned I Got A Name (1973) for Jim Croce, theme songs for tv series such as Happy Days and The Love Boat, and songs for Roger Vadim's Barbarella (1968).

Roberta Flack also recorded another Bacharach-esque hit: Ewan MacColl's The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (1971).

Paul Williams' Evergreen (1976) for Barbra Streisand and That What Friends Are For (1985) for Dionne Warwick were also in the Bacharach style.


  • History of Pop Music
  • European beginnings
  • The USA up to World War II
  • TM, ®, Copyright © 2002 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.

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