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Our post-war music story

MUSIC | Hit compilation stays mostly faithful to its era

Illustration by Barbara Gibson

Our post-war music story
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Due in large part to expiring copyrights and the ease with which computerized files can be collated, digital oldies collections proliferate nowadays like never before. Alas, too many bear the marks of mindless, algorithmic assemblage and end up inadvertently revising the very history they purport to preserve.

An exception is the unimaginatively but accurately titled 200 Radio Hits 1946-1960 (G.O.P.). Divided into 10 20-song volumes ($5.99 apiece, or 30 cents per song), the series tells a uniquely American story similar in tone if not in scale to the one told by Hollywood during that same post-­Depression, post–World War II decade and a half: Happy times were here again.

OK, not entirely happy. The temptress addressed by Frankie Laine in “Jezebel” (Vol. 3) has no redeeming qualities. And not entirely American either, not with such Europe-only hits as Cliff Richard’s “Travellin’ Light” (Vol. 9) and Edith Piaf’s “Milord” (Vol. 10).

Most of the selections, however, whether ridiculous (Kay Kyser’s “The Woody Woodpecker Song”) or sublime (the Platters’ “Only You”), could only have gone over big with an audience optimistic enough to believe that the answer to the Shirelles’ musical question “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (Vol. 10) could, despite the red flags, be “Yes.”

Some historical revisionism does take place. Why, for instance, do Bing Crosby, who reached the Top 10 28 times during the era in question (32 if you count the four times that “White Christmas” charted), and Frank Sinatra, whose contemporaneous Top 10 count was 27, appear only once apiece? (Possible reason: licensing fees.)

One might also bemoan the vocal homogenization. Telling Dinah Shore or Margaret Whiting from Doris Day, the Four Preps from the Brothers Four, or Tab Hunter from Pat Boone takes at least as much concentration as it took to tell Bonnie Tyler from Rod Stewart in 1977.

But there’s vocal distinction too. Nobody else ever sang like Louie Prima, Connie Francis, Mario Lanza (though Al Martino tried), Rosemary Clooney, Johnnie Ray, Bobby Darin, Marilyn Monroe, Ray Charles, or Elvis Presley.

Yes, Elvis. Along with the Everly Brothers, Fats Domino, Roy Orbison, and Ricky Nelson, the King (represented by seven of his more subdued numbers) eases the collection into a somewhat grudging acknowledgment of rock ’n’ roll.

But most striking of all is the insouciance regarding topics known to inspire 21st-century meltdowns. In an age of anti-antebellumism, “inclusive” pronouns, and “body positivity,” songs as anodyne as Al Jolson’s “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody,” the Ink Spots’ “To Each His Own,” and “Too Fat Polka” by Arthur Godfrey now feel as threatening as punk.

Arsenio Orteza

Arsenio is a music reviewer for WORLD Magazine and one of its original contributors from 1986. Arsenio resides in China.



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