A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers

Will Friedwald is one opinionated fellow. His 811-page Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, ten years in the making, celebrates both the famous and obscure pop singers of the past century, and every last one of its essays is filled with passion, high praise, and occasionally, vitriol. The end result is a highly personal guide likely to entertain, educate, and occasionally infuriate—exactly the attributes one wants in a pop culture encyclopedia.

 

Covering everyone from the obscure (Nellie Lutcher, anyone?) to the revered (Tony Bennett), Friedwald includes assessments ranging from Al Jolson to Michael Bublé, but his focus remains squarely fixed on the post-World War II, pre-rock era, with his highest praise justifiably reserved for the brilliant work of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.

 

He is particularly eloquent on Ella, nailing exactly why her recordings never date: "Fitzgerald was always emotionally true to whatever she was singing. She could make you walk on air with a happy song and want to walk on razor blades on a downer."

 

His research is prodigious and the breadth of his knowledge is matched only by the depth of his passion. For all the doorstopper heft of the book, he is capable of the pithy phrase that sums up an entire career: Jo Stafford's style, for example, is pegged as "reserved optimism with a touch of melancholy," an assessment that precisely captures the sensibility behind such epic hits as "You Belong to Me."

 

It's an idiosyncratic guide, to be sure. Friedwald devotes just as much space to Audra McDonald's meager four-CD discography as he does to the fifty-year legacy of Johnny Mathis. Fortunately, the passion of his beliefs only occasionally gets the better of him, as when an eight-page screed against Barbra Streisand runs so over the top that one can only wonder what the heck La Streisand ever did to him.

 

Friedwald refers to jazz historian Dan Morgenstern as "that encyclopedia who walks like a man." In paying tribute to the unquestioned giants of twentieth-century pop music, walking encyclopedia Friedwald has done his idols proud.

July 25: On this day in 1834 Samuel Taylor Coleridge died of heart disease at the age of sixty-one.

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