This week’s Snapshot in Prose doesn’t capture a particular performer at certain time in his or her career, as is usual. Instead, it captures a perennial keystone of popular culture—the hit song—and examines, via the insights and opinions of performers and other entertainment professionals of the day, what set one song apart from another—in short, what makes a song popular. We thought it’d be interesting to see what the likes of Ethel Merman and Bing Crosby had to say on the topic back in 1935, and how salient their insights might be today. Read on, and see what you think.
HAVE you ever tried to write a song? Are you one of the millions of amateur tunesmiths who haven’t been able to get anywhere in Tin Pan Alley? If you are (and who isn’t?) here are some hot tips from the boys and girls who write ’em, sing ’em, play ’em publish ’em.
I think the answer to ‘What Makes a Popular Song Popular?’ can be found in my own astonishment and pleasure over the success of one of my first tunes, Body and Soul,” said Johnny Green, youthful pianist-composer-maestro of the Columbia Broadcasting System.
Johnny told us: “Nobody was ever as surprised as myself when it caught on fire in Tin-Pan Alley. Now, I had written that tune because I wanted to write it. It had been haunting me, it was as near an inspiration as any tune could be, but I had secretly thought the melody was much too complicated and involved to find favor with the general public.
“After that song was put over in a big way I fought for my style of composing tooth and nail, insisting that not even a measure should be changed but it took the enthusiasm of the public to convince me that I was on the right track. The moral, boys and girls, is this: The real hit tunes are probably the ones that the composers couldn’t help writing.”
On the other hand, Kate Smith, who has popularized many ditties (including When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain, remember?) believes that trying to figure out the exact ingredients of a successful song is like trying to answer the question, “how high is up?”
“The moods and tendencies of the public changes like a chameleon,” Kate believes. “Sometimes they feel ironic about romance; sometimes sentimental; sometimes wistful. Incidentally, the tune which catches the prevalent sentiment is likely to start a new trend in popular songs. There will be lots of others like it, once it has caught fire but probably none of them will find favor with the public like the first one. Remember how The Last Round-Up started an avalanche of hill-billy tunes?”
Conrad Thibault, baritone singing star of the Showboat and many other big air programs feels that the thing that makes a song popular is a good message, both in lyrics and music, played and delivered in such a manner that even a person who has no musical training at all can understand it.
As master of ceremonies of one of the biggest Amateur Night broadcasts in all radio, we were sure that Ray Perkins would have reached some interesting conclusions. Ray, you know, is one of those old gong ringers who goes into action whenever the amateur talent and their renditions get too painful.
“A hit tune,” Ray informs us, “is a song that no one can murder . . . not even an amateur! It has nine lives . . . like a cat!” And with this astute observation Ray went off in search of bigger and louder gongs.
Jack Mills, head of Mills Music, has published hundreds of big song hits during the past fifteen years. Among the songs which he rightly predicted would become popular, are Dinah, Star Dust, Moonglow, Haunting Me and I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby.
From the publisher’s point of view there are four requisites for songs hoping to find a welcome at Mills Music. Jack enumerates them, as follows: