Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: The Word’s the Thing: Betty Comden and Adolph Green

May 3 is a date rich in birthdays for American popular music. Let us acknowledge three of them before moving on to the particular birthday that has inspired this post.

Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

On May 3, 1919 – 102 years ago today – the American folk singer and songwriter Pete Seeger was born in New York City. Seeger was the prototypical American folk-singing, left-wing social activist. A man and musician allied with the working class and workers’ rights, he was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era only to re-emerge as an important singer of protest music in the 1960s in the service of the anti-Vietnam War movement, the civil rights movement, international disarmament, the environment, and whatever might be considered the “counterculture” at any given time. As a prominent voice and songwriter on the radio in the 1940s and founding member of the Weavers (in 1948), Seeger created a body of music that remains the backbone of the folk repertoire, including such songs as Where Have All the Flowers Gone, If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song), Kisses Sweeter Than Wine and Turn! Turn! Turn!

He died an American legend on January 27, 2014 at the age of 94. 

James Brown
James Brown (1933-2006)

On May 3, 1933 – 88 years ago today – the American singer, songwriter, dancer, musician, record producer, and bandleader James Brown was born in Barnwell, South Carolina. In the mid-1960s, Brown created a signature dance music that synthesized soul, Be-bop jazz, and rhythm and blues (R&B), a sort of music that featured heavy, repeated licks in the bass and emphasized the first beat of every measure (which Brown himself called “The One”). Dubbed “funk”, Brown was embraced as the Man, the “Godfather of Soul”, “Mr. Dynamite” and “Soul Brother No. 1.”

(NOBODY danced/moved like James Brown; he was the Fred Astaire of soul, the Mikhail Baryshnikov of funk. One look at Brown on stage explains where Michael Jackson got 95%(+/-) of his moves)

James Brown died on December 25, 2006 in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Frankie Valli
Frankie Valli (born 1934)

On May 3, 1934 – 87 years ago today – the American singer Frankie Valli (born Francesco Stephen Castelluccio) was born in Newark, New Jersey. As someone who grew up in South Jersey in the 1960s, I would tell you that Valli was the “Jersey Boy” and his voice was the “Jersey sound” of the ‘60s, just as Frank Sinatra (1915-1998; born in Hoboken, N.J.) was the “Jersey Boy” and voice twenty years before and Bruce Springsteen (born 1949; in Long Branch, N.J.) twenty years later. Along with fellow Jersey boys Tommy DeVito (1928-2020), Nicholas “Massi” Macioci (1927-2000), and Bob Gaudio (born 1942 in the Bronx but raised in Bergenfield, New Jersey), Valli founded The Four Seasons in 1960. Valli, with his unusually powerful falsetto voice, was the lead singer. To this day, hearing Valli sing such classics as Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, and Rag Doll, brings back the best of my childhood: the Brunswick Bowling Alley in Willingboro, New Jersey; the Steel Pier in Atlantic City; the Jersey shore at Beach Haven, on the southern tip of Long Beach Island. 

Betty Comden and Adolph Green circa 1990
Betty Comden (1917-2006) and Adolph Green (1914-2002) circa 1990

Finally, we note the birth on May 3, 1917 – 104 years ago today – of the American actress, singer, lyricist, playwright, and screen-play author Betty Comden (born Basya Cohen), in Brooklyn New York. We are going to use Ms. Comden’s birthday as all the excuse we need to examine the career of one of the greatest writing teams in the history of Broadway and the movies: Betty Comden and Adolph Green (1914-2002). 

Words and Music

Over the years, I have written about lyricists and librettists here on Patreon. Posts on Mozart’s operas Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro necessitated discussing the librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. We have talked about Richard Strauss’ librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal in discussions about Strauss’ operas Salome and Electra. Posts on George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers have mentioned Gershwin’s principal lyricist Ira Gershwin and Rodger’s principal lyricists Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II. As recently as March 15 and 16 of this year, posts on the musical My Fair Lady delved deeply into the working relationship between the composer Fritz Loewe and the lyricist Alan Jay Lerner. 

But until today I have never dedicated an entire post just to authors and lyricists, to which we all should be saying, it’s about time.

It’s about time. That’s because in almost all operas and for most musical shows and songs, the words come first. And to the best of my recollection, we’ve not yet discussed in detail what this means to the creation of an opera or a song. … continue reading only on Patreon!

Become a Patron!

Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

Robert Greenberg Courses On Sale Now