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I Don’t Sound Like Nobody: Remaking Music in 1950s America by Albin J. Zak III (review)
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The 1950s were a turbulent time in the American music industry. Big band jazz and crooning vocals gave way to rock and roll, new recording techniques permitted musicians and recording engineers to fabricate soundscapes unthinkable prior to World War II, and radio and concert performances were supplanted by recordings as the primary medium through which audiences engaged with music. In his most recent monograph, I Don’t Sound Like Nobody, Albin Zak offers a detailed narrative of the rapid transformations in the music industry in the two decades following World War II, suggesting that the musical revolutions of the 1950s were, in part, a consequence of changes in the valuation, production, and distribution of sound recordings in the postwar era. Drawing effortlessly upon rich cultural history, a copious knowledge of the repertories involved, and a thorough understanding of the industry’s business practices, Zak convincingly and provocatively reframes this pivotal moment in American popular music history.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Zak’s narrative is the variety of positions from which it considers this period of transition, bringing into dialogue the concerns of recording artists and consumers, union leaders and performance rights organizations, songwriters and composers, radio station and record-label owners, legislators and judges. In the first chapter, “Records on the Radio,” Zak details how the postwar proliferation of new radio licenses coincided with rapidly changing attitudes toward the aesthetics and ethics of recorded sound, new legal rulings, and technological innovations in sound recording, all fostering an environment in which prerecorded sound could easily supplant live entertainment on radio. Leading readers through a complex mass of legal cases, bitter disputes between the American Federation of Musicians and the nation’s recording industry, and contemporaneous critical commentary, Zak also assesses the aesthetic, ethical, and economic arguments that helped to reshape public opinions about the value of recorded sound and its place in the American cultural landscape.

The book’s middle chapters trace the ways that developments in production practices, arranging, and recording technology were both influenced by the changing radio scene and served as catalysts themselves for further innovations in record production. Here, Zak’s musical sensitivity and deep knowledge of the recording process is especially evident, bringing a recordist’s ear to masterful historical research in a manner that will nonetheless resonate with both neophytes and lay audiences. “Shifting Currents in the Mainstream” recontextualizes the rise of rock and roll within the broader landscape of popular music production in the mid-1950s, concluding that, although rock and roll garnered more headlines, its ascendance might be better understood as the product of both a recording industry that was in constant pursuit of novel sounds and a radio industry that needed provocative material to keep its listeners interested. Using the example of producer-arranger Mitch Miller, Zak traces the evolution of mainstream pop sounds from the big band- and crooner-dominated sounds of the early 1950s to the technologically driven fictional soundscapes heard in such productions as Frankie Laine’s reverb-laden “Mule Train.”

The next chapter, “Hustlers and Amateurs,” examines the role of independent studios and record labels in documenting and promoting to a national audience the music of geographically and culturally marginal artists, ranging from doo-wop groups to rockabillies. Through “relentless hustling” (80), labels such as Cincinnati’s King Records, Memphis’s Sun Records, New York’s Atlantic Records, and Chicago’s Chess Records profoundly reshaped the production, songwriting, and performance practices of popular music in the mid-1950s. Zak convincingly argues, “As music from the margins introduced a curious pop audience to a growing array of sounds and sensibilities, the aural buffet expanded rapidly and unpredictably, increasing the uncertainty of gauging public taste” (83).

In the fourth chapter Zak looks at the contemporaneous “crossover” phenomenon, contending that the rise of the independent record label, the diversification of radio playlists, and the emergence of a youth audience rendered the music industry’s artificial marketing categories useless, allowing country and R&B records to climb the pop charts in unprecedented numbers. His analysis is especially useful in its distinction between the “crossover song” and the “crossover record.” The former designates a new recording of a song, such as Tony...

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