Reading Lyrics by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball

First, thanks, Google. Aren’t you all sweethearts. 10100 != F1 + F4 + F6 + F9.

Reading Lyrics: More than a thousand of the finest lyrics from 1900 to 1975. A Celebration of our greatest songwriters, a rediscovery of forgotten masters, and an appreciation of an extraordinary, popular art form. Reading Lyrics


Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball

This is the book of American Standards, starting from 1900 and running to 1975, but mostly containing entries before 1950. Why stop at 1975? Since then, “the era of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sung-through pastiches—haven’t produced many talented lyric writers…In Hollywood, the musical was more or less gone…and pop music had increasingly become more about arrangement and performance than about words and music.” To which I say Amen, especially if by “arrangement” they mean celebrity, personality, and genre.

Lyricists are included in date-of-birth order, which has some advantages over alphabetical. A rough idea of the change in song can be had from reading front to back. Better would to have been to list songs when they were published, but that would have broken up each authors’ works. The method chosen is a good compromise.

Songs are complete, too, and beat references found on the internet, where you too often find only the most popular refrain from a song; or you only see a refrain and no verse. The index is alphabetical by song, and includes a key saying whether the song came out in a play, movie, and so on.

I defy you to read through this book without singing along. Think you’re made of stronger stuff? Then try this refrain on:

What a day this has been!
What a rare mood I’m in!
Why, it’s…almost like being in love!
There’s a smile on my face,
For the whole human race!
Why it’s, almost like being in love…

Alan Jay Lerner, music by Fritz Loewe, written for Brigadoon. If you managed to read that without at least humming or blowing through your front teeth, try this (a little goofiness never hurts):

Yes, Sir, that’s my baby,
No, Sir, don’t mean “maybe,”
Yes, Sir, that’s my baby now.

Gus Kahn, music by Walter Donaldson, made popular by the bug-eyed Eddie Cantor. The book finally had to be pried from my hands after I came across an all-time favorite from Mort Dixon (Harry Warren music). Here’s a snippet from the first refrain:

Hot ginger and dynamite,
There’s nothing but that at night
Back in Nagasaki
Where the fellers chew tobaccy
And the women wicky wacky woo.

Some lyrics cry out for the music, without which they’re meager and non-memorable. This state of affairs is, of course, now ubiquitous. The difference is that with standards, the music doesn’t flourish without the lyrics either; but with modern pop music both the lyrics and music are interchangeable from one song to the next.

There’s probably no better example of the necessary marriage of lyric and music than Ten Cents A Dance by Lorenz Hart, Richard Rogers music. The refrain begins:

Ten cents a dance—
That’s what they pay me;
Gosh, how they weigh me down!
Ten cents a dance—
Pansies and rough guys,
Tough guys who tear my gown!

Doris Day sang this in Love Me Or Leave Me, a (wonderful) movie about the life of singer Ruth Etting. Recordings of Etting singing the song exist, but she pales utterly next to Day. YouTube has a copy, but the sound quality is poor (starts at about the two-minute mark). Even so, her performance is riveting.

I learned an unexpected lesson from this book: if you want to live a long life, become a song writer. Irving Berlin lived to be 101. By all reports, he was a cussed individual, yet his heart lifted when wrote his music, thus giving him (and us) health. P.G. Wodehouse—he was lyricist before novelist—made it to ninety-four before handing in his dinner pail. Harry Ruby (Three Little Words, Give Me The Simple Life), was born and died in the same years as Wodehouse.

Edgar Leslie (For Me And My Gal) started the same year as Ruby and Wodehouse, but made it through one more anniversary. Leo Robbin reached eighty-nine, and always had love on his mind. Among other standards, Robbin wrote what would be Bob Hope’s theme song, Thanks For The Memories. For final proof, I offer Haven Gillespie, who wrote a song so happy that I’m surprised he didn’t break the century mark: Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, with music by J. Fred Coots.

What’s remarkable is that every one of these men, and there are many more such examples, started life in the nineteenth century, a time which life expectancy was not high. It’s not clear whether what caused these long lives also led to the creation of great song, but I prefer to believe that beauty adds years.

This book was given to me as a gift, one of the best I’ve ever received. You should lavish upon your own selves, too. I leave you with the lyrics of Yip Harburg, and music by Harold Arlen. Just you see if Groucho Marx isn’t dancing before your eyes when you read this:

Lydia, oh Lydia,
Say, Have you met Lydia?
Oh, Lydia, the tattooed lady.
She has eyes that folks adore so,
And a torso even more so,
Lydia, oh Lydia,
That “encyclopidia.”
Oh, Lydia, the queen of tattoo.
On her back is the battle of Waterloo,
Beside it the wreck of the Hesperus, too,
And proudly above waves the red, white, and blue,
You can learn a lot from Lydia.


  1. Ray

    Dr. Briggs,
    Cheer up. Many of the great mathematicians lived long lives, for instance Gauss and Euler. We will ignore Riemann, who died at forty if I recall correctly.

  2. Briggs


    But some of them (those that dealt with logic, epistemology, and so forth) died nuttier than Euell Gibbons’s breakfast.

  3. Noblesse Oblige

    And what a talent Doris Day is (she is 86, not bad either). Her songs are immortal, and when you get tired of listening to one great one after another, rent Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

  4. Briggs


    Especially when she was younger, and of course for many, many years afterward, she was stunning (she’s nearly twice as old as I am!). I never miss her early movies when they are on TCM.

  5. Alex Segal

    I’m not convinced that the music of standards requires the lyrics in order to flourish. Purely instrumental versions can I think be very enjoyable. By the way another long- lived lyricist of standards was Jack Yellen, who was born in the nineteenth century. He was 98 when he died.

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