May-June 2007

Ross Altman's Mailbag

Occasionally a column elicits some interesting differences of opinion that our readers might enjoy-so herewith are a few of the comments on Barry Manilow from three FolkWorks readers with an afterthought by columnist Ross Altman (How Can I Keep From Talking-Jan/Feb 2007 issue).

Hi Ross-I picked up a copy of FolkWorks' Jan-Feb issue at the Coffee Gallery Backstage last week and read your article.

I have no difference of opinion with you on the subject of the King of Pap; however, I do feel inclined to point out that your selection of The Greatest Songs of the Sixties bears some glaring omissions, notably Ohio and Joni Mitchell's Woodstock by CSNY and For What It's Worth by Buffalo Springfield.

I'm sure I could comb my memory to discover dozens more...these are just the first that came to mind. The point I would make is that there's a certain liability in labeling something "the greatest" (unless one floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee), and it would be best to title a collection the likes of which we speak "Great Songs of..." and let the superlatives lie.

Tom Fair

Change of subject: the new Barry Manilow album (which I have not heard)-There were a lot of middle of the road records in the 60s that I really hated. But I found a jazz guitar record called Phase 2 by Johnny Smith that contains instrumental versions of all those tunes, and it's really fabulous.

Blowing in the Wind is a great song because of the ideas contained in the lyrics. But remove those lyrics, and the tune cannot stand by itself as a strictly musical composition.

By contrast, the lyrics to Frankie Valli's Can't Take My Eyes Off You are utterly devoid of any intellectual or social value, but from a strictly musical point of view, the song is far richer, and contains much fodder for jazz improvisation.

I'm not putting down the songs you mentioned, but I think that a lot of the middle of the road pop tunes with lame lyrics are more worthwhile (from a musical point of view) than many people realize.

Mike Perlowin

Emphatically agree!! I think you should send this piece to Mr. Manilow (even if he is Jewish and recovering from hip replacement surgery). Wouldn't hurt for him (and his promoters to learn that their overreaching efforts to increase sales might in fact have the opposite effect (on those with an IQ over 85).

Jill Fenimore


As to the subject of your note to me re last column, I would not send the essay to Manilow, because it would only hurt his feelings, and to what good purpose I can't see. I did not mean it to be a personal attack, but a counter-statement for the kind of music that to me has historical meaning. I stand by the essay, but it was written for my audience, not his. In sum, it was written for you, not him. So I'm glad it found its way to the audience for whom it was intended. Again, thank you for writing.


Thanks for your note, Ross.

For clarity, my statement re Mr. Manilow was mainly an expression of my wholehearted agreement. I didn't think you would actually send it to him nor did I believe you would be encouraged to do so in response to my suggestion. However, I doubt that it would hurt his feelings, as you suggest. Anyone at his level would have had to endure a lot of "boos" along the way; indeed, that's what helped him rise to the top. And he probably has a few feelings of his own about his promoters' overzealous efforts to sell records.

Paul Anka once told a story about how the Las Vegas Hotel/Casino  where he was appearing decided to include the words "Las Vegas Super Star" on the marquee and he made them take it down. He said simply, "Paul Anka is enough." I've always admired him for that. I would like to think that Manilow is that kind of guy.



Afterthought by Ross Altan

Tom Fair will get no argument from me on his choice of songs. However, I did my best to make clear in my original column that I was not making a case for one particular set of 12 songs as The Greatest Songs of the Sixties. I gave my list as a personal selection knowing full well that each reader could make up their own list of favorites. What I was making a case for was the principle of selection-i.e. the kinds of songs being chosen. I am happy to see that Tom's list indicates a complete accord with the larger point I was making-each of his songs reflects the same sense of historical connection to events that inspired them and defined the decade, and are thus a part of the documentary record of the times.

As to Tom's larger point-that it is foolish to compile such lists of "the greatest," and we should settle for "great," I couldn't agree more and it reminds me to recommend a book I forgot to mention at the time-Milt Okun's Great Songs of the Sixties (New York Times Books).

With regard to Mike Perlowin's argument about my tendency to slight the purely musical value of the songs I chose in favor of the lyrical content, again, I couldn't agree more. If Manilow's album had been called The Greatest Music (or Pop Music) of the Sixties I would not have picked up my pen. But it wasn't, and a song is both words and music. I am sympathetic to Mike's point, however, for there are any number of songs whose sentiments and ideas I agree with yet cannot sing because I am not moved by the music or the way the ideas are expressed. Underlying that, I suppose, is the ultimate mystery of what makes a great song-not only must they meet Coleridge's definition of poetry-"the best words in the best order"-they must also meet the standard of the best notes in the best order. So I want to thank Mike for calling that issue to my attention, and our readers' as well.

My exchange of emails with Jill Fenimore speaks for itself. I want to thank her for a memorable anecdote about Paul Anka, and for the deft reminder that even in sin city, we may find moments of grace.

In closing, I wish Barry Manilow all the best. Who knows, maybe one day he'll record a Bob Dylan song, and I'll eat my column.