Songs of the Century

Part one of a pre-millennial salute to the music that made America sing.

"Rose of Washington Square"
Written by Ballard MacDonald and James F. Hanley
Fanny Brice was one of the biggest musical-comedy stars of her age, and thanks to the Barbra Streisand flicks Funny Girl and Funny Lady, she's remembered by untold millions far too young to have seen her on stage. "Rose of Washington Square," her signature song, has exhibited just as much staying power.

"I'm Just Wild About Harry"
Written by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake
Eubie Blake is a one-man diary of American music in the twentieth century; the son of slaves, he died in 1983 at the age of 100. "I'm Just Wild About Harry" is probably his most timeless number, a blast of romantic excitement that became an early jazz staple via musicians like Sidney Bechet and Red Nichols prior to a second life as a showstopper for Peggy Lee, Judy Garland and many others.

"Chicago (That Toddling Town)"
Written by Fred Fisher
The language of this civic toast is antiquated: Most listeners south of sixty associate toddling with one-year-olds just learning how to walk, not sophisticates sauntering along State Street. But the jaunty rhythms and brassy passions glorified by Fisher (who also wrote "Peg O' My Heart") still catches the spirit of what's most enjoyable about urban living.

"Down Hearted Blues"
Written by Alberta Hunter and Lovie Austin
Like Eubie Blake, Alberta Hunter, who was just shy of ninety when she died in 1984, finally received her due late in life. She won great notices for the songs she contributed to the 1978 Alan Rudolph flick Remember My Name and became a sought-after live act. "Down Hearted Blues" was one of her biggest accomplishments. Bessie Smith's cover of the song was the first ever to sell more than two million copies.

Written by Cecil Mack, Lew Brown and Ford Dabney
Racism wasn't simply tolerated during the first quarter of the century; it was embraced. "S-H-I-N-E" is typical of the casual depiction of "darkies" by the showmen who entertained their fellow Caucasians by covering their faces in black. To hear an especially poignant modern version of the song, check out the 1978 Ry Cooder long-player Jazz.

"Sweet Georgia Brown"
Written by Ben Bernie, Maceo Pinkard and Ken Casey
"Sweet Georgia Brown" has served as the musical trademark of the Harlem Globetrotters since the team started, and the pairing makes sense: There's a definite corollation between the silky and sinuous character of this song's rhythms and the squad's behind-the-back passes and courtside wizardry. But the number also sums up much of what makes New Orleans jazz and Dixieland so contagious.

"Baby Face"
Written by Benny Davis and Harry Akst
"You've got the cutest little baby face" is a line that's as simple as simple can be--which is probably why it rings so true. This chipper declaration of affection projects happiness yet is so malleable that artists ranging from Lawrence Welk and Bobby Darin to Little Richard and the Kinks have made it work for them. And that's not to mention the myriad TV commercials the song has made a little more tolerable.

"T For Texas"
Written by Jimmie Rodgers
Rodgers, who died of a tuberculosis-related illness when he was in his mid-thirties, synthesized blues and folk to come up with a little something that we know today as country music. "T For Texas," a million-seller that was called "Blue Yodel" on its original Victor Records label, was his first smash, and its spare instrumentation and ardent yodeling became the foundation on which C&W is built.

"Love Me or Leave Me"
Written by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson
Written for a musical with the memorable moniker Whoopee, "Love Me or Leave Me" was introduced by singer Ruth Etting, whose life served as the basis for the film Love Me or Leave Me, a 1955 opus headlined by Doris Day. But the song, a fearless declaration of romantic independence, easily eclipses this connection. Lena Horne may have cut the ultimate version, but it's the rare composition that brings out the best in whoever sings it.

"Ain't Misbehavin'"
Written by Andy Razaf, Harry Brooks
and Thomas "Fats" Waller

For too long, Waller's wide eyes and huge smile attracted more attention than his songs. But the recent stage success of a revue named for this song serves as a reminder of his considerable gifts. His creations are a pure joy, and the irony at the heart of this one delivers an important message: Misbehavin' can make for an awfully good time--especially when you're teetering on the edge of an economic depression.

"What Is This Thing Called Love?"
Written by Cole Porter
Porter wrote so many great songs, including "Anything Goes," "At Long Last Love" and "You're the Top," that singling one out seems downright unfair. But "What Is This Thing Called Love?" is one of his finest, a lovely and sophisticated offering that captures all that was sparkling about the lifestyle of Manhattan upper-crusters.

"Minnie the Moocher"
Written by Cab Calloway, Irving Mills
and Clarence Gaskill

Of course, even the tuxedoed and evening-gowned elite with enough money to ride out hard financial times liked to get down on occasion, and Harlem's Cotton Club was the place to do it. Calloway's boisterous salvo, filled with grabby slang ("She's a low-down hoochie-coocher") and a wonderful nonsense hook ("Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-hi!"), is like a big whiff of reefer madness. Its use in The Blues Brothers prompted a well-deserved Calloway comeback.

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