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Robert Christgau

A rock critic since 1967, Robert Christgau runs his “Expert Witness” column weekly at Noisey.com. He is a visiting professor in NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music who has published five books based on his journalism as well as the Oprah-certified 2015 memoir Going Into the City. He keynoted the first EMP and has presented at every subsequent edition.

“The Great American Popular Singing Critic”
My next-to-last column for Newsday in 1974 reviewed a book by a guy I'd just attended a Mets game with—John Rockwell thought we should meet and made it a threesome. Then 64 and based in London, where he was music critic at the International Herald-Tribune and London editor of Stereo Review, Philadelphia native Henry Pleasants combined the proper and the affable with a well-bred and exceptionally pleasant grace. I didn't then know that The Great American Popular Singers had been preceded by a contentious and much-derided 1955 attack on serialism etc. called The Agony of Modern Music, nor that his 1965 The Great Singers: From the Dawn of Opera to Caruso and Callas was warmly regarded nonetheless. I only knew that the new book was unprecedented—no one had ever written such an enthusiastic yet technically knowledgeable account of American singers from Al Jolson to Aretha Franklin, or indeed of any one of the 20 he featured.

Arranged singer-by-singer and chapter-by-chapter and fleshed out with biographical material of somewhat uneven quality, the book shone when Pleasants listened and told us what he heard. Combining an opera expert’s vocabulary with a daily critic’s command of the well-bred vernacular, he found genius and immense physical capacity in singers most writers of his formal orientation dismissed. Elvis: “In ballads and country songs he belts out full-voiced high Gs and As that an opera baritone might envy.” Johnny Cash, really?: “He is a true bass, singing easily... in a subterranean area hostile to even the deepest of opera basses.” Frank Sinatra: “I rate him with the greatest singers of my experience, especially with John McCormack and Richard Tauber.”

Occasionally I would consult Pleasants in the years that followed, but it was only when I started to teach music history at NYU that I came to fully appreciate his matter-of-fact clarity and authority. I've taught his Bessie Smith chapter for over a decade, prefer his Sinatra to Will Friedwald's, was grateful I could include his Presley and Cash when I embarked upon a ’50s course this past spring, and use his Crosby and Holiday in lectures to augment Gary Giddins and Robert O'Meally readings. There are always singers in my program, and I always advise them to buy this book for their personal library.

Unfortunately, although The Great American Popular Singers was reissued in 1985, it has been out of print for at least several years. I'm hoping an EMP presentation can right this wrong. It would concentrate on the insightful and often fascinating specifics of The Great American Popular Singers, but also give an account of his career, which included, it is only fair to mention, a lengthy and sometimes perilous stint as an American spy that culminated in his heading our CIA office in Bonn from 1955 until 1960 at the very least. It is also worth mentioning that he was apparently the inspiration of a James Bond character.

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