Wondering if anyone’s familiar with any history or “group biography” books about the most prominent Tin Pan Alley songwriters.
Ideally, it would be something like Standing in the Shadows of Motown or The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best-Kept Secret- something that presents each individual’s story alongside one another for context. Instead of reading one biography of Cole Porter, another biography of George Gershwin, and another biography of Jerome Kern, I’d like to be able to read a book that lays out each songwriter’s career in a way that presents a broader picture.
I’ve read Wilfred Sheed’s The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty. That’s almost exactly what you’re describing. It’s a good history, but the writing isn’t the greatest.
I’ve had my eye on Philip Furia’s The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists but haven’t picked it up yet.
Or you could just listen to Jonathan Schwartz for ten years.
I was thinking of these exact same books, though IIRC neither are precisely biographies of the various songwriters, but more focused on their careers and output. The Sheed book isn’t badly written, though it is kind of rambling. The Poets of Tin Pan Alley of course only gives you one half of the equation - lyrics, no music.
Another is A Fine Romance by David Lehman. This is particularly focused on Jewish songwriters, but then most of the big names in this genre were Jewish. (Cole Porter is a big exception.)
That’s all good. “Career Biography” was more what I was looking for anyway, or a “History of the Great American Songbook”- that kind of thing.
My county library system doesn’t have The House That George Built, but it does have one copy of The Poets of Tin Pan Alley and another one by Philip Furia titled The Songs of Hollywood as well as Furia’s biographies of Mercer, Gershwin, and Berlin.
It’s not exactly what you’re looking for, but Easy to Remember by William Zinsser is a good book for anyone interested in Tin Pan Alley. It’s not a set of biographies - it focuses on the music. Zinsser has some really good insights about what makes an Arlen song (or a Youmans song, or a Fields - McHugh song, or a Carmichael song) sound the way it does.
I read Burt Bacarach’s autobiography last year. * Anyone Who Had a Heart: My Life and Music*
He goes into a lot of detail about his years writing with Hal David at the Brill Building. He spent years writing hits for artists like Perry Como, Marty Robbins, Dionne Warwick etc. There were also a lot of songs he just cranked out almost like an assembly line. Some good and others best never heard. This was several years before the general public knew who he was.
There’s some good information in the book. I read most of it last year. There were a few dry sections on his life that I just quickly scanned through. The material on his later writing collaborators like Carole Bayer Sager and Elvis Costello was very interesting.