Popular American Music

This is just something I’ve been musing about lately. Who would you say was the most important American composer of popular music of the first half of the 20th century? There are a number of good candidates including Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and Jerome Kern but I think the best candidate is Irving Berlin.

Now, who would you say was the most important American composer of popular music of the second half of the 20th century? Candidates range from Brian Wilson to Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson, Madonna, and Lady Gaga. I would say that Carole King would be a very solid pick.

10 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    Lennon-McCartney. If you say, they aren’t American composers, well, maybe they are, maybe they aren’t.

    James Brown. Partly because he fits in the mold of bandleader / composer like Ellington and Basie, but also because he is the bridge across a number of genres that eventually became Rap/Hip-Hop.

    Miles Davis, though some of his work is in the first-half.

    Bob Dylan, though I’m not sure I completely get it; by virtue of the number of successful covers, a lot of musicians found his work influential.

  • Bob Dylan’s a good pick for the reason you cite.

  • Guarneri Link

    Lennon – McCartney; Keith and Mick, although as PD points out you could say they weren’t American. But make no mistake, they were composing for an American audience. Perhaps too quirky and unknown for some, Harry Nilsson. Lennon thought he walked on water.

    Miles Davis and his crew of course authored what might be the greatest true jazz album of all time. But he lost his way in the Bitches Brew days.

    And who is up for the man who started it all if you are talking blues which morphed later into R&R: Robert Johnson?

  • Andy Link

    I would probably say Dylan even though I never really cared for his style.

  • Ben Wolf Link

    Paul McCartney was of too limited a creative range to be of great consequence, and continued into a solo career by doing exactly what he’d been doing in the Beatles.

    The most influential musician of the latter 20th Century was Johnny Cash.

  • The question was not musician but composer of popular song. That rules both Johnny Cash and Miles Davis out. Paul McCartney is English as are the members of the Rolling Stones. Again, the question was who was the most important composer of American popular music of the second half of the 20th century?

  • Ben Wolf Link

    I am aware what the question was.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I was mainly thinking of Davis’ period of collaboration with Gil Evans. To the extent, Davis was performing pure improv., I wouldn’t consinder him an arranger at all, but I think the line between what has been designed and what is spontaneous is not transparent.

    I think in many ways rock ‘n roll is similarly antithetical to the notion of arrangement.

  • steve Link

    Seems like Carmichael should be in there also. I would put in a plug for Hank Williams Sr and Paul Simon for the second half. Maybe even Bernstein, just not sure his volume was high enough to be a top tier candidate.


  • If we’re dealing solely with the compositions, I’d likely go with Dylan. Chuck Berry was arguably more influential, though, essentially spawning the rock and roll era.

    It’s certainly not Lady Gaga, who was only born in 1986 and whose career didn’t start until the present century.

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