7 Greatest American Songbook composers

As she prepares for an evening of American Songbook classics at the Wigmore Hall, British soprano Susan Bullock takes us through some of her favourite composers and their songs

I’ve called this programme “Songs My Father Taught Me” because a lot of them are the sort of classic Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers, Hammerstein songs my Dad used to just sing around the house because they were the hit songs of his youth. How do you define the Great American Songbook? I think it’s just great words and great music that have an enduring quality, as opposed to a random pop song that comes and goes and then in five years’ time you can’t remember it. The Great American Songbook is called “great” because the songs in are long-lasting and enduring.

There’s so many brilliant songs, some composers alone wrote hundreds and hundreds so it’s been quite a task to actually sift it down to get a real cross-section of people whose work I love to sing and to give the audience a real mixed bag.

 

1. George Gershwin


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Between him and his brother Ira, they turned out to be two of the greatest songwriters ever. Their songs are still played regularly in all sorts of disguises; you can go into a restaurant and hear “Summertime” anytime you want or you can go to see a show like Crazy for You which is a compilation of all their greatest hits.

What’s most impressive is that their songs don’t just stand alone but that people feel it’s necessary to put them into a show as they’re so impressive. “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess is one of my favourites and of course it’s still very popular. It’s being performed right now in Britain and will go to the Metropolitan Opera in September so it’s a very current piece. I think their songs really cross a generation.

 

2. Harold Arlen


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People tend to recognise his music but don’t really know who he is. For example, he wrote The Wizard of Oz but I think very few people would know that if you just asked them in the street. He wrote “Stormy Weather”, “Get Happy”—all these hits.

He worked at the Cotton Club in the 1930s and a lot of the shows he wrote were great hits during that time when Harlem was really jumping, it was really the place to be. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is probably one of his most famous songs but I’m starting my programme with a song called “I’ve got the World on a String”, which I think a lot of people would know if they heard it but probably wouldn’t realise it was the same guy who wrote The Wizard of Oz. He’s a wonderful but rather unsung hero.

 

3. Jerome Kern


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Another classic American songbook composer. Everybody knows his music, he worked with Oscar Hammerstein II on Show Boat. He really turned around the whole concept of a musical. Before this, musical theatre was sort of operetta-ish and usually with very light subject matter but with Show Boat they broke the mould and used themes of racial prejudice and tragic love and all sorts of things that hadn’t ever appeared so it became like a musical play rather than a musical comedy.

There are so many songs of his that people love, I’m going to use “Bill” is usually instantly recognised, even if the audience hasn’t seen Show Boat!  

 

4. Richard Rodgers


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Richard Rodgers was amazing. He died in 1979 so, again, he came a little later. He worked with Oscar Hammerstein, Lorenz Hart and he composed over 900 songs! How do you choose out of that, let alone 43 Broadway musicals? He won every prize going, Emmys, Grammys, Oscars, Tonys, Pulitzers, he was absolutely the top guy around so I’ve chosen a couple of songs from both his collaborations.

I went for the song from The King and I, which was a really famous musical; there’s “Hello Young Lovers” which he wrote with Oscar Hammerstein, and also “My Funny Valentine” which he wrote with Lorenz Hart which is of course a classic.

A lot of his songs, like “The Lady Is a Tramp” were covered by so many artists of different musical genres and made their own. And I think that’s a testament to this kind of repertoire, there’s no one way of singing it, anybody can turn it into something very individual. I think that’s what makes this repertoire so unique. You can have Diana Krall singing something that Bing Crosby recorded, it spans generations.

 

5. Stephen Sondheim


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He is still going strong at 89. His contributions to musical theatre have been fantastic: Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Follies, Into the Woods. Not only is he a great writer of music but a great lyricist, a wonderful wordsmith. Sondheim is our current genius for writing fantastic lyrics—ones that will stay on and live with us like the old songs have done.

I’m going to do “The Boy From…” which is a parody of “The Girl From Ipanema”, which was an off-Broadway revue called the The Mad Show and he wrote the lyrics under a fake Brazilian sounding pseudonym called Esteban Rio Nido which means Stephen River Nest.

His work is just so fantastic to perform, it’s exciting, it’s fun, it’s challenging, it’s energetic, it’s got everything you need as a performer.

 

6. Burt Bacharach


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He is 91 now and is one of the most successful teams along with Howell David. He worked with, and discovered so many amazing artists, including Dione Warwick. And there are so many great songs, “Alfie”, “Anyone Who Had a Heart”—everyone I know wants to sing Burt Bacharach numbers.

I’m going to do “A House Is Not a Home” which he wrote in 1964. It’s incredible to think that he was performing live at Glastonbury only four years ago and he’s still touring! I know the promoter who puts him on and apparently, he’s still writing, still searching, still looking for ideas and not just resting on his laurels. So his contribution is stunning—his songs are classics now but will also be classics of the future.

 

7. David Shire

He’s a slightly lesser known chap and he was Barbara Streisand’s accomplice for many years. He wrote lot of material for film and television as well as shows and revues. A song that I’m going to sing of his is from a Broadway show called Starting Here Starting Now from 1977, called “What About Today” and it’s a really big number.

Shirley Bassey recorded it, it’s one of those songs that, when you hear it, it kind of stays in your head like an earworm, you can’t get it out of your brain. So I thought it was important to tip my hat to living composers as well as the classics from this genre.

 

Read more: 7 Greatest American Songbook standards

 

Susan Bullock will be performing Songs My Father Taught Me at Wigmore Hall on July 19