“But Beautiful”, a Great Standard

MONDAY, August 24, 2020 – 2:52 AM

Just Beautiful, popular for 72 years…

It’s a standard, meaning a song that gets passed on from generation to generation. It was published in 1947, before I was born, but one famous singer after another has recorded it, and no one seems to get tired of this song. This is what a great standard is, something that usually starts out popular and then is rediscovered by generation after generation.

Jimmy Van Heusen

Like so many great song-writers, Jimmy Van Heusen’s music lives on decade after decade. He won a ton of awards, but not all his best songs won awards.

Here are three famous singers, all singing the same standard…

First Nat King Cole…

Never has anyone had a better voice or used it better, and this recording, as well as others such as by Frank Sinatra, is iconic. Nat needs a page all to himself, but I’ll start here.

Now Natalie Cole…

This may be the best arrangement I’ve ever heard of this tune. I would also say that the writing is “just beautiful”. I prefer the voice of Nat, but Natalie is also very good, and the writing is sensational.

It is rather interesting to think about how styles go in and out of favor, because by the end of Nat’s too short life ballads were going out of style as younger musicians were moving more and more to rock. So many years later we hear a return to this older style of music, and young artists like Jacob Collier are studying all this music and are coming up with their own visions, while Tony Bennett in his 90s has been rediscovered by new generations of artists and fans.

Finally Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett…

Tony Bennett is now 93 years old, and I believe he has won something like 20  Grammys. Most interesting to me is he is yet another “old” star who was replaced by younger and more current singers. His career was all but dead. He struggled with drug addiction – cocaine – and was stone broke. The world passed him by. He was considered old and no longer relevant, and he was pushed to record more “modern” music.

Then a whole new generation of young people discovered him and his music, and his collaboration with Lady Gaga was another feather in his cap. As for Lady Gaga, there is not much to be said, and her decision to team up with Bennett was a surprise to many people, but also a big success. By the way, nothing important changes. We can talk about Bennett, or Bach, but it’s all the same. What is great is rediscovered, reinvented and in the end remains timeless, while everything else is over-hyped,  and then forgotten.

What is a standard?

It turns out that there are all kinds of standards, but for pop music the Wiki definition is pretty good:

“Popular standards in the Western tradition often have one of four basic song structures: strophic form (AAA), twelve-bar blues progression (AAB), thirty-two-bar form (AABA) or a verse–chorus form (ABAB).”

That’s simple.

But what is that saying?

AAA simply implies that some songs are very simple. You have a tune, the tune may or may not have  words, then you repeat the tune over and over again with different words. All the other forms with more than one letter also have more than one section, and those sections are repeated in various ways.

Nothing is really new…

Whenever musicians talk about form, with names or letters, those forms have generally been around a long time, so one genre absorbs these forms from another. The idea of music primary revolving around 8 bar groups has been around for centuries.

It’s all an extension of Tin Pan Alley…

Essentially it goes back to the late 1800s, but the way pop music is produced and marketed has never really changed, and a huge part of the music business is still centered in NYC. In a larger sense the same basic process is still going on right now, with of course a lot of modern adjustments.



2 thoughts on ““But Beautiful”, a Great Standard”

  1. Too many various interesting things to comment on any one. This spoke to me:
    “What is great is rediscovered, reinvented and in the end remains timeless, while everything else is over-hyped, and then forgotten.”

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