The fake book is probably one of the most useful books for musicians with one of the worst designations. Those uninitiated to what a fake book is and what it does sometimes automatically equates the word “fake” with it and subsequently making a bad musician sound good. Well, that might be partially true if you have an audience who can’t tell the difference and a musician who’s an expert on making something simple look more advanced than it really is. The truth is, the fake book was a useful invention for those who may be able to generally pick out a song by ear on their respective musical instrument–but needed a backup source to a type of chord in a certain measure that couldn’t extrapolated from the original recording. Similar information for thousands of other songs in one convenient book made the fake book akin to the English (or maybe French depending on how seductive your playing is) dictionary or how a thesaurus would work for textual writers.
For those who’ve never seen a fake book or even know what it is–it’s a giant (usually with a comb-binding) book that contains stripped-down versions of thousands of songs. These “skeletons” of a song provide only the single melody line, the lyrics and the type of chord or chord changes above each measure. Because each page can fit two songs per page (depending on the length of the song)–it’s a handy alphabetized song dictionary containing tunes under a particular genre that fake books are usually categorized under. Most of the major publishers who sell fake books put out fake books containing 1,000 Pop Hits, Rock Hits, Jazz Tunes, Broadway and just about everything else…including Swiss Yodeling Songs. (No, that one isn’t true because those are in public domain…but it may be on the horizon.) You also have carefully-legalized fake books devoted to a particular band or performer’s song canon.
While so readily available now, fake books have a shady past–that mostly has to do with violation of copyrights as you might expect. Call some musicians calculated businessmen if you want–but that’s just how they were back in an era when playing in jazz or dance bands was a lot more common in bringing home the bacon than it is now. Not everybody was adept at picking the latest ditty out by ear, either, so anything that could help expand their song repertoire was as sought after as narcotics were for some jazz musicians. In the late 20’s, popular song was really at a peak of popularity. That’s when some inside individuals with ties to the music world decided that an easy buck could be made selling bootlegged sheet music underground to professional musicians who needed to learn more material quickly to stay competitive.
When the Great Depression started around the same time–getting a well-paying gig in a dance hall or club was all the more important to a musician. That first attempt at bootlegging popular songs without compensation to the songwriter was all-new territory for the music industry and songwriters who went, understandably, ballistic about this new nefarious idea. No lawsuits were thrown out as it is today with illegal websites that provide downloads of music. Back then, bootlegged sheet music was so diffuse, you couldn’t really track them down easily. Bootlegging music on the internet basically placed these same groups of people in an open range for target practice.
Going from index cards to a book the size of a dictionary…
If only those who wanted to provide a large, legal compendium of pop songs for musicians could have been a little brilliant and put them all into a portable book–illegal fake books probably wouldn’t have been created by the 1940’s. When you’re in a competitive business, people are going to find ways to do things easier, especially if it can be gettable under the table. In the legal and professional music world, something called Tune-Dex cards were created around the time WWII and started to aid musicians who needed to know the latest songs fresh out of a publishing chute or on the Hit Parade to keep current. The Tune-Dex, Inc. company out of NYC actually did very well for years–despite only providing the basic outline of a song in index card form for a fee rather than compiling thousands of songs in one portable volume. Around that same time was when the first real (and illegal) “fake book” was created on the black market.
Even famous musicians likely bought one of those early fake books–while probably never admitting to it in interviews later. The only trouble was that many of those early fake books were crudely put together and frequently had the wrong chords written out, which is still an occasional problem with the legal ones today.
The title of a fake book came from the notion that if a musician had just a few bar lines of a song and the basic chord structure over each measure–he or she could “fake” a good performance. Well, that’s been a stigma attached for decades when it still takes someone who does more than just fake it. That was never truer than when jazz fake books started creeping into the underground world of the music business in the 1970’s…
They just kept it “Real”…
After about two or three decades of fake books being passed around clandestinely to amateur and professional musicians alike (and the FBI always having an eagle eye on them–in addition to litigation against the guys who created the first ones in the 1940’s and 50’s)–jazz musicians were in dire need of catching up with the musical changes in their genre. By the early 60’s, Jazz had become so complex that learning new material within those realms was almost impossible without having to lay out a fortune to buy individual song sheets that were sometimes impossible to find or not even published at all. Relying on your ear to scope out complex chord changes and harmonic patterns wasn’t something the average jazz musician could do either.
The other problem was that many fake books were becoming legalized by the 1970’s, provided many well-known jazz standards–yet with simplified chord patterns nobody was playing then in order to sound contemporary. Also, a lot of jazz musicians had written their own repertoire for decades, but never compiled in a book. Many of those original tunes by jazz musicians were much more complex than any well-known standard chestnut written with a quixotic state of mind.
This is when the “Real Book” started to be cobbled together by various students at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Those students, whoever they were (they’ve never been named to protect their identities), really became one of the few examples you can say did something brilliant while skirting the law. As conflicted as I am to say that, anybody who’s used one of the (now legalized) “Real Books” knows how valuable they are in providing what you need to learn a highly complex jazz piece that was written by great jazz musicians of the past 60 years. The books were intended to showcase more modern-sounding works starting during the Bebop era of the late 40’s on up to today.
In the 70’s, those Berklee students were able to create a book containing (mostly) accurate chord changes for once, too, that made the book become huge already in the underground market. The books expanded the ability for up-and-coming jazz musicians to finally play the works of their masters in a way that could help carve their own style.
Eventually, those “Real Books” became legalized due to the “we can’t beat ’em…so we’ll join ’em” business attitude by the music publishing industry. They’re still some of the best-selling fake books in the world. But it’s a bit of a contradiction when you realize the music industry still frowns upon all fake books being sold in music stores. Many music stores still sell them in non-prominent areas just to remind people of their shady past and how it’s possible some tunes listed in various fake books aren’t providing royalties to the copyright holders. Supposedly, all fake books being published now honor the copyrights. In order to make money off the fake book’s popularity, though, paying attention to who gets compensated may not be a thorough process.
Right now, the best-known fake books on the market for all popular songs from Tin Pan Alley to today are published by Hal Leonard and their “Ultimate Fake Books” series. I’ve used these for a while when doing piano gigs–though make an effort to memorize songs from them so you don’t have a fake book sitting next to you on the piano bench. What people wouldn’t know when seeing the title of that thick book is that you need a true working knowledge of harmony based on reading tiny chord charts in order to make a fake book work the most effectively in an off-the-cuff moment during your musical performance.
In that regard, fake books should be renamed a “Being On Your Toes Book”…