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The Column: Shazam - the superhero music-encyclopedia app


It is too late for the crime-fighting career I would have welcomed as a boy who, heart bursting with hope, sometimes whispered the magical shaz-word and awaited deliverance from plump, pre-adolescence to manhood in the person of the dashing do-gooder, Captain Marvel.

No, this is another Shazam, one of more pragmatic value than the comic book version that, no matter how often summoned, did not transport an eager recruit from his grandmother’s stoop in Brooklyn to a world of curvy damsels in distress and villains soon to suffer righteous comeuppance.

I am talking about the phone app Shazam, a minor miracle that would have astounded even the stoic Captain Marvel had he a moment to spare in a busy schedule of preserving the innocent and saving the world.

With this remarkable accessory, a person might be in his favorite diner enjoying the singular pleasures of a short stack and scrambled eggs when, on the sound system, comes a 1950s rhythm and blues tune, familiar but just out of memory’s reach.

In earlier days, such distress would result in hours of uncertainty, deep research and perhaps a call to friends — Bill Boesenberg of New Jersey, or Fred Palm, once of Brooklyn and now, astoundingly, of South Carolina — with legendary R&B recall.

Way back when, I could compete — knew the artists, and labels and flip sides — but there are times these days when I have to ask my wife, Wink, “What’s our ZIP code, anyway?” Expecting me to remember the complete discography of the Moonglows or Five Satins is like hoping I will deliver Washington’s Farewell Address on demand.

Now when these moments occur — when, occasionally, one of the grand old tunes spun on the radio by Jocko, or Dr. Jive, or Alan Freed returns from the past and I draw a blank — I reach quickly for my phone.

I tap Shazam, aim at the source and presto, or even faster, the answer appears. Free. For nothing. Amazing.

“Ship of Love,” by the Nutmegs.

“Deserie,” by the Charts.

“When You Dance,” by the Turbans.

“Dear Lord,” by the Continentals.

“Why Don’t You Write Me?” by the Jacks.

“Devil or Angel,” by the Clovers.

Shazam says it has archived “millions” of songs — all kinds of stuff, including classical and jazz — and is adding more all the time. People use the app in nearly 200 countries, the company — owned by Apple, of course — declares on its website, and has been downloaded more than 1 billion times.

"Shazam . . . feels like magic," said the online publication

It sure does.

Is that a problem?

Shazam and everything like it — Alexa, the wireless “virtual assistant” that will do everything but scour the tub after you’ve taken a bath; the GPS that finds your destination even if it means driving through someone’s backyard — brings us to a familiar 21st century juncture.

We meet, again, friends, at the intersection of miracle and meaning.

The Information Age is nice, but where do we fit in? If we can’t find Boston without benefit of a dashboard device, what does that say about the future?

I am not, for a moment, joining the counterclockwise coalition of aggrieved souls who pretend everything was better in that glorious epoch when you had to aim the TV antenna at the Empire State Building in hopes of catching Milton Berle on Tuesday nights.

But there is something weird about having so much astonishing convenience — everything from an electronic fork that calculates how much you eat to something called a Quirky Egg Minder that tells supermarket shoppers it’s time to buy another dozen.

Best to keep in mind that proportion matters — that less usually is more and most likely no one really needs a “smart” salt dispenser.

As for me, I think often about teenage years when I could reel off those grand R&B numbers — artist, label, flip side — and we’d pal around Brooklyn on Sunday afternoons or head over to Colony records on Broadway to see if that new release by the Cadillacs or Mello-Kings had arrived.

Some of that recall has slipped away, no surprise, but now I have something up my sleeve when I can’t quite be sure if it was the Valentines who sang, “Lily Maebelle,” or Monotones who belted out, “Book of Love.”

Yo, Bill in New Jersey and Fred in South Carolina — fellas, we’ll be friends forever, but you can take the afternoon off. Shazam’s got me covered.

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