Songs are the bookmarks in our memory that were either crafted painstakingly over a long period of time or dashed off in inspirational or deadline-imposed frenzy. But the circumstances of their creation, as Will Friedwald demonstrates in Stardust Melodies, is seldom as fascinating as tracing the routes by which they have insinuated themselves into our consciousness.

The songs Friedwald chronicles in his book are Star Dust, The St. Louis Blues, Mack the Knife, Ol' Man River, Body and Soul, I Got Rhythm, As Time Goes By, Night and Day, Stormy Weather, Summertime, My Funny Valentine and Lush Life. Each of these classics was composed between 1914 and 1938. Making no claim that these are the finest, most popular or best-selling tunes of their genre, Friedwald proposes that each has triumphantly survived decades of changing tastes on its own intrinsic power. And yes, he does offer a plausible excuse for not including any Irving Berlin songs.

For each of his choices, Friedwald provides the historical context of the composition, an analysis of its musical structure and an account of how the song gained popular momentum. He ends each biography with Bonus Tracks, a brief discussion of noteworthy recordings of the song. For example, he cites his candidate for the zaniest version of As Time Goes By (Louis Prima's on The Prima Generation album) and speculates as to who could have sung the best versions of Stormy Weather but didn't (Jimmy Rushing, Helen Humes and Joe Williams). Much of the pleasure of reading this book is seeing the fun Friedwald has with his subject. Although he quotes fragments of lyrics from the songs he anatomizes, Friedwald doesn't include the entire lyrics for any of the selections. This failure may stem from the cost of acquiring reprint permission. But aside from this omission, Stardust Melodies provides a penetrating and exhaustive introduction to 12 timeless tunes.

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