If not exactly New York, New York, Los Angeles has its share of city songs.
There's Randy Newman's "I Love L.A.," even if its many Dodger Stadium adherents might be missing just a couple of its ironies ("Look at that bum over there, man, he's down on his knees.") I just heard the Sinatra favorite "L.A. is a Lady" the other day: "And you're lookin' at a man who doesn't ever plan to kiss his lady bye- bye," even if we all shuffle off this mortal Angeleno coil eventually. X's "Los Angeles" summed up everything of my generation's punk ambivalence about the big old hot town: "She had to leave Los Angeles. All her toys wore out in black, and her boys had too."
But somehow the entertainment capital of the world didn't seem to have, compared with even a Chicago or a San Francisco, sufficient chansons worth singing.
Until this summer, that is. Because tomorrow "Songs in the Key of L.A." opens at downtown's Los Angeles Public Library, a selection from more than 100,000 pieces of sheet music culled from the stacks of what is becoming what it should be: One of the great cultural resources of contemporary Southern California. In recent years the Aloud series of readings in the Central Library has been bringing me downtown more often than this native Pasadenan has ever been since the heyday of the music at the wild Al's Bar on Traction Avenue in the 1980s. And the show and its beautiful companion volume, curated by USC professor Josh Kun, is by no means limited to the city of L.A. All of SoCal is in the harmonies here. There's "All Ashore" about Catalina, "Home in Pasadena," "Dreamin' of the Desert," "Ramona," "Hooray for Hollywood," "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano," "Long Beach by the Sea" by a Miss Ula Kitchen, "The Bells of San Gabriel's" and "San Fernando Valley (I'm Packin' My Grip.)" But an enlarged photo on the wall of the exhibit, which was still being hung when I walked through Thursday morning, shows that Broadway downtown was the center of musical life in the early 20th century when radio had yet to dominate. Every other storefront was a piano store, a sheet-music store, a musical theater. Families bought for 75 cents or so the words and music to "I'll Pick Myself a California Rose" and took it home to bang out around the living- room keyboard, with perhaps a ukulele accompaniment.
The book and show do not neglect the African-American music of L.A., from Jelly Roll Morton's blues to the Central Avenue Renaissance to Stew of The Negro Problem, whose father came from K.C. "to get his Cali on." Included are not only Olvera Street takes on Mexican and Californio music but nods to the extraordinary recordings of hundreds of native Tongva songs at the Autry.
"This is still a collection constantly in use," mused Kun as we walked through the installation in progress Thursday. "We didn't know what we would find. But here it was, all in alphabetical order. Musicians from the Phil, from the Colburn School, all come in here for the music." He stopped in front of a framed cover of the music for "Angeltown," inspired in the mid-'50s when Times columnist Gene Sherman lamented that this was "a songless town" because no music had ever been written that "truly captured the heart of Los Angeles." It's unclear that the tune then produced by the authors of "Que Sera, Sera," Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, though declared the official song of Los Angeles, did that. In fact Kun in his essay says it's "awash in old values and old aesthetic tendencies." More likely to get at the heart of the matter are the songs the great Angeleno musician Van Dyke Parks will sing July 13 at a "Key of L.A." celebration for Library Foundation members. Join, and you might still get tickets. That night won't be nostalgic: It will rock, L.A. women and men.
Larry Wilson is a member of the Los Angeles News Group editorial board. email@example.com
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