I thought I’d take a minute to explain my rationale around the VocalStandards.com artist categories. To me, parsing the genre into Classic Artists, The New Guard, Fresh Faces and Crossover Artists is a natural fall out of how the American songbook has traversed the past 50 years or so.

The Classic Artists…

As I see it, Classic Artists are the guys and gals that rose to popularity during the Rat Pack era — plying their best career years from WWII through the ‘50s and ‘60s then tapering off into the mid ’70s.  I know that some  artists like Billie Holiday
actually reach back into the ‘30s, and some like Tony Bennett, Jack Jones and Etta James are still plugging today (which is so cool!), but I still land these folks in the Classic category because their careers and popularity were established in the heady days when Sinatra, Ella, Nat Cole and their contemporaries were blowing up the American Songbook.

Another way to look at it, is that the classic vocal standards artists were the pop music headliners of their day. Pop music moved on starting sometime in the ‘60s and left the American Songbook behind completely (again for the most part) in the early-mid ‘70s.

The Great Dearth…

This begins what I call “the dearth years” … the standards were lost in the surging heyday of Rock and Pop music. The standards songs so popular a few years before were no longer considered cool, and sadly some of the classic artists attempted rock, pop and folk numbers to try and remain relevant.

I found this troubling at the time and today I try hard avoid these abominations. I don’t do open casket funerals because I don’t want to remember the departed stiffly laid out in a coffin; and I don’t listen to Frank Sinatra singing rock numbers late in his career or Bobby Darin’s folk efforts for the same reason — I want to remember those guys for the work they did in their glory years rather than for the thrashing diversions they took late in the game.

BTW, I realize this is very selfish of me, and I’m absolutely OK with that.

With few exceptions, this was not a good time for the American Songbook or the artists. All the way into the mid ’80’s the standards were just an echo of their former prominence during the Rat Pack era. There were practitioners that worked through the painful period — great talents like Nancy LaMott, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Michael Feinstein, James Darren, John Pizzarelli — but it didn’t start to break back in our favor until a country star crossed over and hooked up with one of the great band leader/arrangers of all time.

The New Guard Emerges … slowly but surely!

In my opinion the standards started their way back to the top when Nelson Riddle coached Linda Ronstadt through a fabulous and somewhat surprisingly successful three album series in the mid ‘80s. What’s New, Lush Life and For Sentimental Reasons (along with a superb for it’s day VHS video; Linda Rondstat – What’s New – In Concert With Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra) … this was great stuff that evoked the best of the golden era of the standards and it was delivered by a very popular progressive country vocal star in Ronstadt. The combination was a great success, and I believe it tripped the breaker for the next success wave for the vocal standards.

It wasn’t an immediate gush of good fortune and momentum for the American Songbook; things moved slowly but a success formula was revealed and others started to add their voice and contribution … a New Guard started to form. As we approached the 1990’s nostalgia for the mid-century lifestyle and the Rat Pack was kicking up, and a young Harry Connick Jr started dazzling audiences with a steady diet of standards along side his native New Orleans jazz fare … the rise from the “dearth years” was on. Diana Krall, Steve Tyrell, Michael Bublé, Peter Cincotti and friends made the scene … by the turn of the century the standards were once again red hot!

Fresh Faces of Today…

Today the genre is white hot! I simply can not keep up with the new voices arriving on a daily basis. Great young talents like Tony Desare, Nikki Yanofsky, Jonny Blu, Jaimie Cullen, John Torme… (many, many … MANY more) show up with amazing talent and a zeal for the American Songbook. It’s a crazy cool and fun time for the vocal standards arena.

Crossover Artists Crash the Party…

Actually, as we discussed with Linda Rondstadt, there have been cross over successes in this arena for quite awhile. I define a Crossover Artist as someone that has already established a successful career — or at least a strong beachhead — in another music genre (or other realm like acting) before they arrive at the standards.

The crossover crowd have been stopping by since the very beginning. I would argue that Fred Astaire was a crossover artist, coming over from his dancing and acting success (by the way, as a singer Fred was a fine dancer (yikes) — never really took to his vocal style, but we will dive into the Fred Astaire legacy … the guy had an amazing knack for discovering some of the most successful songs in the genre).

More recently you have the likes of Queen Latifa, George Michael, Barry Manilow, Elton John, Boz Scaggs, Harry Nielson, Bette Midler … even Tom Wopat (Tom Wopat!?) crashing the Standards party. All of them trying to catch up with Rod Stewart who’s leveraged the great American songbook into a huge second career. There are tons of crossover artists belting out the standards and a bunch more arriving every day because this place is hot … really hot … like Africa hot!

No Pigeons Allowed…

OK, I’m way long with this post (double my target 500 words … sorry), but I want to make one last point. I don’t mean to use these categories to pigeon hole artists — there are plenty of folks that fit into two and or even three categories. Like I said at the beginning, these categories just feel natural to me. There’s nothing hard and fast here; I’m just trying to offer a framework for our ongoing discussion.

So start discussing … let me know what you think!