A few weeks ago, Lady Gaga released Cheek to Cheek, an album where she swings through selections from the Great American Songbook with one of its greatest living practitioners, Tony Bennett. The approach was a smart one: the album debuted at the top of the Billboard 200. Later this month, Annie Lennox will release Nostalgia, yet another addition to a genre of recorded music that’s nearly too voluminous to document: pop stars who’ve decided to revive their career by dipping into the vast catalog of classic American songs from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
A decade ago, when Rod Stewart issued his third of what turned out to be five volumes dedicated to The Great American Songbook, it seemed as if the trend had grown moss. It had been 15 years since Harry Connick Jr’s soundtrack to When Harry Met Sally inaugurated the modern era of standards album, a seeming one-hit wonder turned into a tradition. Artist after artist produced their own iteration on this theme, in part because they’re a bankable quantity: they’re collections of songs we all know and love, performed by artists we know and love. If anything could be called a sure thing, this is it.
Why do we all know these songs? Because they’ve existed so long nobody alive remembers a time before they were written; these are the tunes that Baby Boomers called the music of their grandparents’ generation — because it was. The Great American Songbook is largely comprised of songs written in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s by titans of American music, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, chief among them. If the names aren’t recognizable, the melodies are: “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “They Can’t Take that Away from Me,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” “The Way You Look Tonight” and “My Funny Valentine,” songs so familiar they seem to have always existed. They share some characteristics — impeccably constructed melodies tempered by sly wit, all hallmarks that evoked the very idea of sophistication — but they were written and popularized in different eras. They may have arrived during the swinging 20s, the Great Depression of the 30s and right up until the advent of World War II, but they’ve been performed ever since. As their origins began to fade into the past, historians began to codify these songs, the first notable effort being composer Alec Wilder’s 1972 book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950. But the phrase earned an even greater awareness in the new millennium, when Stewart popularized it with his triple-platinum 2002 LP, It Had To Be You: The Great American Songbook, a record that unabashedly romanticized the past.
But which era, precisely, did It Had To Be You — and every other album like it — romanticize? Jody Rosen, critic-at-large for T: The New York Times Style Magazine, notes that the songs of the Great American Songbook, “were just pop music in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s. They were often show tunes or in some cases movie music, recorded by pop singers of the day fronting big bands.” Some of these bands and singers did turn into recording stars — Bing Crosby, for one, as well as his disciple Frank Sinatra — but often this was music performed live by big bands, all relying on the same repertoire. Modern-day standards albums may utilize this same set of songs, but very rarely do they revive the full-bore big band sound or the florid crooning that distinguishes that era.
When Gaga, Gloria Estefan, Glenn Frey or Carly Simon sing these songs, they’re saluting the composers, but they’re also playing off the idea that these particular tunes convey sophistication, a sensibility that crystallized in the ’50s. “There are two towering figures that made the American Songbook into ‘the canon,’” says Rosen. “Frank Sinatra, with his Capitol albums of the ’50s and ’60s, and Ella Fitzgerald with her songbook albums. They codified the stuff. First of all, they identified the actual songs; they plucked out old pop hits and turned them into the classics. They also set a musical template. Sinatra was working with various arrangers, especially Nelson Riddle, and he made that kind of ‘big band’ sound — not like a swing dance band of the ’40s — the sound of the song standards.” Sinatra and Fitzgerald weren’t the only singers of the ’50s to mine this songbook — another major musician who helped to create the canon was Nat “King” Cole, who played the songs on a more intimate scale, and brought them into U.S. households via his televised variety show — but they were the ones who crafted thoughtful, coherent records that provided an enduring template for the Great American Songbook.
Not only did these ’50s LPs by Sinatra and Fitzgerald canonize the pop songs of the ’30s and ’40s, they were pivotal in the creation of an adult-pop marketplace during the rise of rock ‘n’ roll in the mid ’50s. If the kids dug the new beats cranking out on a stack of 45 RPM singles, these singers dedicated themselves the 33 1/3 long-playing records — a more expensive item designed to show off a hi-fi system, a luxury item that suggested luxury. “Sinatra’s albums and Ella’s were big on the charts, but this was the first stirring of a generational split and culture war within pop music,” explains Rosen. “Especially as the ’50s wore on into the 60s, those records became ‘adult music’ against rock ‘n’ roll and R&B, and I think that’s crucial. Right at the period of the formation of the canon, it was explicit that this was music for older folk: it was quote-unquote ‘sophisticated pop music,’ and it definitely retained that aura for better and often for worse. Which is why I think a lot of older pop artists gravitate to this at a certain stage in their career: it’s a way of signaling your maturity.”
For Sinatra, maturity was the subtext of his Capitol records. Frank found different meanings within these old tunes and he was similarly inventive in constructing his albums, letting the songs play off of each other to create something grander. In the process, he invented the idea of a concept album — the idea that a full-length record could be a portal to a specific place. Crucially, these places existed psychologically, not temporally – Songs for Swinging Lovers; In the Wee Small Hours. Although he relied on old songs, Sinatra didn’t craft his concept albums as nostalgia. He defined his present through his memories of the past, discovering new meanings in old texts, developing the Sinatra persona that endures to this day: the sly, wise and weary saloon singer, sporting a fedora and sipping Jack Daniels. As he created his mythical self, he created the idea of what the Great American Songbook should sound like with casual elegance.
The years immediately following Fitzgerald and Sinatra’s canonization of the Great American Songbook were largely devoid of standards albums. Apart from recording duet albums with Count Basie and Duke Ellington, along with the odd thematic LP like 1966′s Moonlight Sinatra, Frank spent much of his 1960s recording material written during that decade, as did peers like Bennett and Dean Martin. When the Great American Songbook surfaced on the pop charts, it was either through the exuberant doo-wop sacrilege of the Marcels’ “Blue Moon” — a rollicking street corner 1961 reading far removed from either the 1935 original or Elvis Presley‘s forlorn bluegrass version from ’56 — or when soul singers crossed over into supper club cabaret. Sam Cooke At The Copa (1964) found the singer in an anodyne setting, mixing up standards with folk tunes, but Marvin Gaye made it a mission to formalize his love of Nat “King” Cole on wax, cutting a full-scale tribute in 1965, not long after he made the similarly-minded 1964 LP Hello Broadway. The Supremes also saluted Rodgers and Hart in 1967 but these, like Gaye’s records, were neither hits nor are they remembered; they were caught between the sound of young and old America.
The first sign that things were changing came, as it so often did in the ’60s, from a Beatle. Once the group splintered in 1969, Ringo Starr didn’t know what to do next, so he decided to record a record for his mum — Sentimental Journey, a collection of all those old songs she loved. Unlike Sinatra’s records, Starr’s LP was explicitly a stroll down memory lane, and its charm lay in how producer George Martin emphasized personality over skill — a perhaps inevitable compromise given Ringo’s limited range. Starr was pining for a particular past, namely the old days with his family, so Sentimental Journey benefits from his idiosyncratic point of view: Ringo favors a personal connection over sophistication, so this odd record has a certain shaggy charm.
A distinct personality also drives Willie Nelson’s 1978 Stardust, who used the album to showcase his skills as a stylist, taking liberties with phrasing and nimble, dexterous arrangements. Linda Ronstadt, on the other hand worked alongside Nelson Riddle — the arranger behind Songs For Swinging Lovers! the most popular of Sinatra’s Capitol records — and draped herself in satin for 1983′s What’s New, an unexpected smash so successful it spawned two sequels. Ronstadt and Riddle only cared about making a record rooted in ’50s nostalgia, an idea that became half of the template for the next 30 years of Great American Songbook albums.
The other half came from Harry Connick Jr, who replicated the sound of Frank’s Capitol records but not the feel for his 1989 soundtrack to When Harry Met Sally, replacing Old Blue Eyes’ world-weariness with something jaunty and slick. When Harry Met Sally was designed as pastiche: it swapped precise details for soft focus, preferring the way things might have been to how things actually were. The soundtrack soon dwarfed the popularity of Ronstadt’s three records, and then it was surpassed by the success of Natalie Cole, who revived her career with 1991′s Unforgettable…With Love, an album that found its way to number one on Billboard, going platinum seven times and winning the Grammy for Album Of The Year in 1992.
Those two albums proved the presence of a large contemporary audience that craved new versions of these old songs. The modern-day standards albums functioned as a comforting adult alternative to what then were grunge- and hip-hop-laden pop charts. The constantly changing demographic of listeners added an ironic dimension within this thickening nostalgia: often, these records were a reflection of a reflection, with baby boomers singing the songs of their grandfathers in the style of their fathers. With a few exceptions, these albums were entirely cut from singers raised on rock: Robert Palmer, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell and, most successfully, Rod Stewart.
Stewart’s approach — cozy, knowing, done on the cheap — proved as influential as Connick’s. His wasn’t a move exclusive to Boomers, either: Robbie Williams played to his fans’ parents on the 2001 Swing When You’re Winning and when Family Guy impresario Seth MacFarlane wanted to prove he was more than juvenile jokes, he recorded 2001′s Music Is Better Than Words in the same Capitol studio as the Chairman of the Board.
Cheek to Cheek winds up falling into this tradition while also defying it. Bennett’s legacy is assured, but he’s always been happy to act as an ambassador for the music he loved most, recording an MTV Unplugged in 1994 and cutting a duet album called A Wonderful World with kd lang in 2002. Gaga’s role is more complicated. After the muddled reception for 2013′s Artpop, her star is somewhat tarnished, but she’s not in desperate rush toward stuffy maturation. The existence of Cheek to Cheek suggests she can’t resist donning these retro threads, particularly if she can do it within the presence of a titan. She never radically reinterprets her batch of familiar tunes, grounding them in a mix of splashy big band arrangements and cabaret swing, so they end up with a record that revives the tradition rather than extending it. Ultimately, that’s what these albums do: they keep these songs in the contemporary pop fabric. Many listeners may not choose to dig much further than Cheek to Cheek but inevitably, somebody somewhere will be converted to the wonders of the Great American Songbook by these records. That’s reason enough for them to exist.