20th Century Boy: Chris Stamey Rewrites History

The revered musician who helped break Chris Bell the solo act and pioneered power pop as a member of Sneakers and The dB’s pitches a new Great American Songbook

Chris Stamey, ready for action

With the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, The Great American Songbook–that mass of unforgettable music written for stage and screen from the 1920s to the 1950s–largely fell out of favor.

Seen by teenagers as the province of Sinatra, Bennett and, worst of all, their parents, it sounded fussy and overly mannered next to Elvis Presley or The Beatles. Never quite dead, it thankfully lingered onstage and along the edges of popular music until the 70s, when Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, Brian Ferry and most memorably Willie Nelson in Stardust all returned to this alluring trove of inimitable songcraft by the likes of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin.

In more recent times, Rod Stewart and Paul McCartney have released cheesy, blatantly commercial projects based on the GAMS. However, it’s been fascinating to hear Bob Dylan, the creative force whose personal brand of folk music first made the Great American Songbook seem so out of touch, find his way back to these songs, and create controversial yet very personal statements on a trio of albums Shadows in the Night, Fallen Angels and Triplicate.

 

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What makes the Songbook material so utterly wonderful is its incredible font of unforgettable melodies. “Over the Rainbow, “Embraceable You” and “I Get A Kick Out of You,” are all easy to hum and impossible to forget. Add to that the fact that all of it was meant to be shaped by whoever was singing it. The commonly used phrase, “making a song your own,” was coined for singers like Sinatra and Judy Garland who could use their artistic gifts to inject distinctive phrasing, varying tempos and the sense that they were singing from the heart to make the Songbook tunes come alive in unexpected ways.    

Now, in unique and mystifying fashion, Chris Stamey, once the keyboardist and chanciest songwriter of the North Carolina power pop/guitar band The dBs has released a two-record set, New Songs for the 20th Century, that he claims was inspired by a piano bench filled with sheet music from that earlier era. His 2016 jazz radio play Occasional Shivers, set in 1960s Manhattan, was a hint that Stamey’s creative energies were moving in a retro, more jazz-leaning direction. And yet, even with that sign, this collection is, to say the least, startling, if for no other reason than it’s hard to fathom how an alt rock dude who wrote pop tunes for electric guitars has morphed into trying his hand at the very commendable but daunting task of stepping onto the hallowed turf of Tin Pan Alley. I had many questions that only Stamey could answer.

“Does the 20th Century need more songs, you ask? A good question! And one with an obvious answer: The Great American Songbook has been doing pretty well by itself all along (thank you very much) without any help from me,” he very rightly began a recent email exchange with RNR Globe. “With this collection, I’m not presuming to be doing any more than humbly acknowledging a debt of inspiration to the canon of Mid-Century Modern works by George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers and the rest.”

Chris Stamey New Songs for the 20th Century, Omnivore 2019

“I’m not trying to say, ‘Here world, I give you Great American Songbook Pt. II’? Even if that wasn’t a KICK ME HARD sign to hang on my back . . . I’m just hoping folks can find some pleasure in the work I’ve done, however they categorize it.”

New Songs for the 20th Century is divided into two volumes, one with the 20+ member ModRec Orchestra band and a second disc which features a smaller group. To his credit, for this entire Gotham-centric project Stamey assembled an accomplished band of sight readers that includes talents like saxophonist Branford Marsalis, guitarist Nels Cline and Bill Frisell, each of whom makes a guest appearance on a track or two. Old dB’s mate Peter Holsapple add accordion on “In-tox-i-cho-cli-fi-ca-tion” a jaunty Cole Porter-like salute to cigars and chocolate (rather than champagne and cocaine). Marshall Crenshaw sings on the gospel-inflected, “Beneath the Underdog.” And guitarist Brent Lambert adds chords to one of this collection’s best tunes, “In Spanish Harlem.”

Adding well-known names to a project like this is a good idea, one that did  not quite carry over into the vocalists on these recordings. Though there are a few known quantities in the extensive list of singers who appear here like Caitlin Cary (Whiskeytown) and Django Haskins (The Old Ceremony) they are outnumbered by the likes of Matt McMichaels, Millie McGuire and Kristen Lambert, all of whom are competent singers and make valiant efforts but often deliver performances that lack the interpretative verve or wisdom that comes with experience. The Great American Songbook was great precisely because it gave singers lots of room to exercise their ideas and phrasing. Without a great singer who can sell a tune like “I Get A Kick Out of You,” the often lyrics can come off as corny and lugubrious. Lots of Broadway shows that stiffed still spawned immortal tunes because of a memorable performance.  How were the singers for this project chosen?

“You’re right, I’d love to have some singers who are both great and also famous sing some of these songs down the line–who knows, maybe that will happen? Kurt Elling, Diana Krall, Arianna Neikrug, Bob Dylan, all would be fantastic to hear. But I was happy to forget fame and just “settle” for totally great!–all of them really “brought it,” in my view. It was amazing when Nnenna Freelon wanted to sing “Occasional Shivers,”–she has star power for days and the musicality to back it up. And some of the others may yet become “name singers” in a few years, need I say that Ariel Pocock, Millie McGuire, Kirsten Lambert, Faith Jones, and the rest all could become household names if fate smiles?

“I think it was Tony Bennett I wanted the most, for ‘After a While,’ and I did reach out to his son but didn’t hear back before the time of recording it . . . it seemed like a very, very long shot even seen through rose-colored glasses, though. And in the end, Django was perfect on that one, as well. Also, remember that the Tin Pan Alley songs originally became hits because the sheet music was popular: the songs spoke to a large audience based on what they were saying, not on who was singing them. You’d buy the paper, then sing them at the piano after dinner. It’s myopic to think that, in the early days, it was driven by stars necessarily. Frank Sinatra became nationally known because he had a job singing hits of the day on the radio once a week; people liked his voice, but the songs were already hits before he sang them. This was, for me, about writing the songs on paper. I’m super proud of the recordings, but they are just single realizations of song sheets.” 

New Songs for the 20th Century sheet music

Having taken the very admirable leap into not being overawed by the past and writing songs that pay tribute to one of the most fertile bodies of American musical creativity, Stamey recounted for me what he admires most about the Songbook and hoped to capture in his risky yet ultimately successful new work. 

“I am interested in learning how to use a wider harmonic, melodic (and poetic) vocabulary . . . I’m looking for more freedom, for that box of Crayolas that has 64 different colors. Not that just a few chords (or even one) can’t work really well, too, but for me, personally, I’ve written enough Hemingway songs for the time being. Like Jack Nicholson wanting to “be a better man,” I am trying to become a better musician. To learn a new chord, then write a new song. It’s not about retro: we live in the times we live in. It’s still okay, though to look for inspiration (in the sense of “to breathe in influences”) anywhere you can find it, I think.”

Bravo to Stamey, and hopefully these songs will find their way into live performances and recording sessions by other artists and in some ways become part of a New American Songbook.  

 

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