A Look at Ben Yagoda’s “The B-Side”
There are fans, maybe even lots of fans, of the 1950s hit by Patti Page “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” but Ben Yagoda is clearly not one of them.
The cutesy-poo song spent most of the spring of 1954 atop Billboard’s best-seller chart, eventually seeing fans buy two million copies of the Page recording, not to mention those its cover versions sold. The lament of a woman smitten by a dog in the window of a pet store, the original recording had dogs barking and a lot of sappy strings.
For Yagoda, “Doggie” was the epitome of the decline of music after the era of what has been called “The Great American Songbook,” when premier songwriters teamed with excellent bands and singers to create the standards that even rock performers record today.
Yagoda’s inspection of that mid-20th Century decline in popular music until its resurrection in the rock and roll era is the basis for his new book, “The B-Side” (Riverhead Books, $27.95).
“If you asked even people knowledgeable about music, ‘What happened to the Great American Songbook?’ they would say rock and roll came around and ended it,” said Yagoda, a professor of journalism at the University of Delaware and a freelance writer. He is also a former film critic for the Philadelphia Daily News and the author or editor of a dozen other books.
“As I started reading, I realized that that was not really true,” said Yagoda. “There was a fairly long period from the late 1940s through the 1950s where people were already saying, ‘What happened?’ And there was no rock and roll. It had not been invented yet. No Elvis. No Buddy Holly. No Little Richard.
“So I said, ‘Hmmm, that is interesting,’ and I thought I could write the detective story about what happened. And incidentally, it gave me a chance to look at issues and personalities and happenings in terms of popular music.”
Yagoda grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in the suburbs north of New York City, and while he would come in with his parents to see Broadway musicals and heard voices like Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald or Tony Bennett on the radio at times, he was not in his youth particularly a fan of those Great American Songbook tunes written by the likes of the Ira and George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and their contemporaries.
His tastes while young, like others who grew up then, tended toward the Beatles and Bob Dylan and singer-songwriters and the like, but when he moved into Manhattan itself for his first jobs, he got caught up in that relatively recent past.
“In the 1970s living in New York, I started listening to Jonathan Schwartz [on WNEW radio],” he said. Schwartz was the son of Arthur Schwartz, a prominent writer in the Great American Songbook era who had composed, among other songs, “That’s Entertainment” and “Dancing in the Dark.” “I was going to see jazz and reading Whitney Ballard in ‘The New Yorker.’ It was my education in this type of music and it came slowly.”
During the valley between the Great American Songbook songs and the real emergence of rock and roll, writes Yagoda in “The B-Side,” most of the earlier songwriters either died or could only get their songs produced through Broadway musicals. Not that those musicals produced bad songs—after all, the likes of “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music” and “Gypsy” came out then—but they were far fewer and often competed for radio and TV air time with the lame, but popular “Doggie”-esque roster.
Yagoda cites the writer of “Doggie in the Window,” Bob Merrill, as a prime perpetrator of what he feels was the dross of the time period. Merrill, Yagoda writes, was an Atlantic City native born Henry Lavin, who specialized in novelty songs like “Doggie.”
“Most of them [were]… vaguely regional or ‘ethnic’,” writes Yagoda. They include “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d Have Baked a Cake” in 1950; “Ooh Bang Jiggily Jang” in 1952; and the 1954 hit by Rosemary Clooney, “Mambo Italiano.”
“But ‘Doggie,’ with its insistent waltz beat, simplistic melody, and nursery school lyrics—which, once heard, positively could not be extracted from a listener’s head—was somehow emblematic, not only of Merrill’s output, but of this particular moment in American popular song,” writes Yagoda.
Further, most of the Great American Songbook tunesmiths were either classically trained, went to college in music programs or were at least popular performers themselves. Using Merrill again as a prototype, Yagoda said the purveyors of those post-War tunes were, well, a little less sophisticated. He quotes Merrill in a “Cue” magazine interview in 1953:
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Tchaikovsky. I can’t read or write a note. I compose all my songs on this toy xylophone I bought at the five and ten for $1.98.”
Yagoda sighs at the thought, but he thinks he has found a number of reasons for the move away from the sophisticated rhythms, tunes and lyrics of the former age, which roughly begins with the popularization of radio in the 1920s and extends to about when men came home from World War II in the late 1940s. A good part of it has to do with the culture itself changing over all.
“Obviously many American men went overseas and when they came back there was a sea change in their own tastes having been abroad,” said Yagoda from his Swarthmore, Delaware County, home. “The earlier model was really closely connected with jazz and big bands that you went out and danced to, connected in a cool way. But when they came back, they were starting families and did not want to go out. They had been through a lot—Depression, war—and there was a sense of wanting less challenging stuff.”
So “Doggie” and “Mambo Italiano” it became, and, not so incidentally, they came with the rise of Mitch Miller. Miller, who wore a famous goatee and later had a popular TV program, “Sing Along with Mitch,” was a classical oboe player, but eventually migrated to the business side of recording, becoming the leading producer for Columbia Records, one of the biggest members of the recording industry. Miller believed he had a formula for what recordings would sell, and novelty and simplicity trumped sophistication and complexity. He alienated the likes of Frank Sinatra, who resurrected his career by moving to Capitol Records and starting a revival of the Songbook type tunes.
“From the mid-1920s to 1950, there is no question there was some junky stuff, but loosely speaking, it was more commonly the case that what was popular was actually sophisticated,” said Yagoda. “I can’t imagine a jazz improviser doing ‘How Much Is that Doggie in the Window,’ as opposed to say, Gershwin’s ‘Someone to Watch Over Me,” which was hugely popular in the 1930s when it was written.
“The songs of that earlier era were endlessly interesting, and these are the songs that are being played today and reinterpreted even by people like Lady Gaga,” he said. “It is like taking the good stuff out of the liquor cabinet.”
Yagoda’s two daughters are now grown, writing and teaching themselves, and he lives with his wife, a college administrator at Swarthmore, only a few blocks from that campus. He is a rabid tennis player but has sworn off basketball. He has, though, taken up the ukulele in its stead.
Yagoda is also the go-to guy about grammar, writing in both popular and semi-academic journals about gerunds and the like. Among his books are “When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse” and “How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them.” He also writes about writers, having done a biography of the humorist Will Rogers, a history of The New Yorker and “Memoir: A History.”
Yagoda is firmly in his own era’s nostalgia group in music, being a regular at Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen concerts. He said that thankfully rock and roll—an outgrowth of country and blues and other African-American and rural sounds that had been marginalized earlier—came around to kill the “Doggie” era. While he acknowledges that things started turning around with the Elvis/Berry/Little Richard energy of the late 1950s, in “The B-Side,” he says the real moment when nothing could turn back came a little later.
“The moments that appear in retrospect as obvious and profound turning points don’t usually seem that way at the time,” he writes. “The Beatles’ arrival in America in January 1964, in the form of their single ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ and their subsequent performances on The Ed Sullivan Show, would appear to be an exception.”
The Beatles, Yagoda said, paid long homage to the Great American Songbook era in both cover choices (“Till There Was You”) and more complex phrasing in tune, rhythm and lyrics.
“Those like Elvis and Little Richard started a whole new thing, drawn not necessarily from jazz, but creative roots,” he said. “And the explosion they started created a great place for young people like Carol King and Motown and the like to get rid of that ersatz schlocky stuff and move popular music back into a better direction.”