Always Magic in the Air

Ken Emerson

Ken Emerson (an editor for Newsday and the New York Times Magazine) underscores the Brill Building “era,” without mentioning the two addresses farther up Broadway that also housed the seven songwriting teams that became the major influence on contemporary pop music. This troupe of leftist Brooklyn Jews were ensconced with bookies, bootleggers, exotic girlie revues, fight promoters, pawnbrokers and scads of music publishers (many of whom worked out of listed phone booth banks in the restaurant downstairs). They diluted the purist rock ’n’ roll of the ’50s with an eclectic stew of Latin rhythms, black R&B, European classical music, Yiddish folk tunes and narrative parody. They also interjected sociological, political and racial issues into the lyrics, inducing cultural integration and empowering the teenager. Today’s music reflects many of the tenets (including the creation of the teen idol) of the era. The assembly line approach did allow for a percentage of “pap,” but the chart-dominating output of these disparate writers was innovative and ingenious. With the overview of American culture and necessary digressions, this meticulously researched and compellingly written tome is a goulash that takes time to digest.