The Perfect Pop Song: Part 2 (“If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight”)
The term “pop” as applied to “pop music” originated somewhere around 1926. “Pop” as a diminutive of popular, would seem to be the most contemporary up-to-date category, perfect for someone like Brittany Spears (who is already, paradoxically, “old”) or (to bring it right up to the newest now) Olivia Rodrigo. Just by shortening the word “popular”, the inference becomes modern, catchy and decidedly youthful, or “hip” as in what’s happening. Yet the term is practically 100 years old.
To get literal, “pop music” is defined as something that elicits broad popular appeal, but for sure, yesterday’s “pop” is long gone, something you may know absolutely nothing about, while, on the other hand, you might be scratching your head and exclaiming, “Who the hell is Olivia Rodrigo?” Pete Seeger, that stalwart of a music that was posited as opposite to “pop”, provided this curious if apt description of the pop genre: “professional music which draws upon both folk music and fine arts music”.
That sort of sounds like “slick folk music”. Since 1926 (or thereabouts) any given idea for a song has sort of been hanging in the air, a kind of wavelength accessed by all the songs the potential song-writer has already heard, whether sitting at granny’s knee or in a local juke joint, as well as all the tunes and potential melodies that are now coming fast by way of playback technologies and the radio.
“Pop” is probably meant to distinguish a song or recording artist, from, I guess, less lucrative genres or sub-genres, like Pete Seeger’s “folk music” or Johnny Cash’s “country music”. Just tell that to millionaires like Bob Dylan (folk) or Garth Brooks (country). Sure, Bob Dylan is “rock”, which supposedly peeved Pete Seeger. But has anyone ever called Dylan a “pop singer”?
It is easy enough to differentiate the sound of Bob Dylan from Brittany Spears, and most of us would, in that case, probably say that Spears is the “pop” musician, indicating a kind of “slickness”, what might be criticized as “over-produced”, “mainstream”, or “packaged”. But the indeterminate boundaries of “pop music” frequently demonstrate that one of those other “less lucrative” genres has seeped into and influenced the pop singer or songwriter, which leads to conundrum of “authenticity”, just as the hardcore country music fans might bemoan Garth Brooks as watered-down, or claim that his style of country music stands for a dilution of what’s really “real”.
This indeterminate boundary is most palpable in the historic cross-over between “jazz” and “pop”. I could posit that the category “pop” may have come about in order to distinguish whatever-that-might-be from that other highly popular music (in its time): jazz. Hence (for example) we have singers like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennet, who were highly influenced by jazz, who nevertheless land in the “pop” category, while it’s also not unheard of for a jazz musician to successfully cover a “pop” tune, while still remaining true to the strictures of jazz.
All of this to preface “The Perfect Pop Song: Part 2”, as the chosen song, from long, long ago, is a “pop” hit covered by all manner of stylists, but written by James P. Johnson (1894–1955) key innovator of the stride solo-piano style and therefore a personage deep in the jazz canon. “If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)” written in 1926 (when, supposedly the term “pop music” was established) had its first hit-bound outing with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in 1930, but has also been covered (at various times) by Helen Humes, Coleman Hawkins, Dinah Washington, and Jackie Gleason (and many, many others, including Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennet — but I will only link to the four musicians listed outside these brackets). This goes to show the specifics of the “pop” market in another era, in which one song could still be some kind of hit long after its initial outing, as well as jazz musicians (saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, for example) using a “pop” song as improvisational material for a jazz standard.
The version that first struck me, when I didn’t know any better, was by singer Helen Humes (1913–1981). It was on some kind of disparate CD compilation that I probably bought on a discounted whim. I didn’t know anything about Helen Humes or the song, but I fell in love with her voice, kind of like love at first listen. Now I know that Helen Humes was Billie Hoilday’s replacement in the Count Basie band, who started her musical career at 14 years of age, who then dropped out of the music business, taking the most menial of jobs, only to later return on the Diva circuit of the 1960s and 70s. And that’s the short version. In researching this article, and the plethora of versions of “If I Could Be With You” available on YouTube, I realized that Helen Humes herself had recorded at least four versions of the song at various times. But the one I first heard is the one that still rings my bell, starting with the plaintive piano stylings of (I assume) Count Basie and including (I assume) Buck Clayton’s trumpet solo. Check it out:
It only slowly dawned on me that “If I Could Be With You” wasn’t exactly Helen Humes’ sole property, that it was truly a long-lasting iconic American “pop” song for a few if not a lot of decades, exemplified in the 1955 (the year James P. Johnson died) movie, “Mr. Roberts”, in which Jack Lemmon, as Ensign Pulver, goes about the lascivious business of planning his next hot date while humming the tune.
I have no problem calling “If I Could Be With You” a “pop” song, given that it could be bent to the demands of subtlety as well as cheese, to genius as well as rote talent; its lyrics fit the aching, romantic inclinations of your average “pop” ballad. But perhaps James P. Johnson didn’t think of himself as anything but a musician (trying to earn a living), just as Leadbelly, the itinerant musician, was forced to take on the mantle of a “folk musician” when his true repertoire was adapted to all genres, including “pop” and jazz.
Here’s the 1930 McKinney’s Cotton Picker version, which demonstrates the significant changes in jazz and pop stylings in the short jump between this and Helen Humes’ version:
And here’s Coleman Hawkins 1929 version, a saxophonist who started out with Fletcher Henderson, and eventually ended up playing with Thelonious Monk (and believe me, that’s also the short version):
Further contrasted with Dinah Washington’s version, which practically puts the song on an R&B footing:
And finally, here’s the cheese:
While you’re at it, why not try out: The Perfect Pop Song: Part 1 (“Dear Prudence”)