Tin Pan Alley
At the turn of the century, the term "Tin Pan Alley" began to appear in the popular music industry. Dozens of publishers had settled on 28th Street between Fifth Avenue and Broadway in New York. Journalist Monroe Rosenfeld went to 28th Street to gather material for an article on popular music for the New York Herald. Songwriter-turned-publisher Harry von Tilzer was working on a tune, and he had put strips of paper between the piano strings to get a special metallic sound which he liked. Rosenfeld heard this sound, and got the idea for the title of his article, "Tin Pan Alley".
But Eddie Rogers, a British song plugger, denied any American origins of the term, and claimed that "Tin Pan Alley" came from Denmark Street in London where twelve publishers had shops. When a musician or singer would come down the street, a song plugger would pull him into the office to hear a new tune. At that moment, all the other publishers on the street would grab garbage can lids and kettles, and bang them together to kill the plug (Palmer 1976, 103).
However its name first arose, "Tin Pan Alley" came to mean the same to everyone in the music business – aggressive sales techniques for tunes cranked out on call. Pop music had become a commercial product to be moved just like any other commodity in the marketplace.
It wasn't always that way. Back in the middle of the 1800s, several excellent composers provided a wealth of song material without the ruthless drive of the Tin Pan Alley song sharks.
Stephen Foster (1825-1864), the most famous of the composers in the middle of the 1800s, wrote over two hundred songs and instrumental pieces, all in the major mode. Every minstrel show of the day would contain one or more Foster tunes – "Old Folks at Home", "Oh! Susanna", and "My Old Kentucky Home", among the most frequent. Foster's melodies have lovely folk-like contours, and he is often considered America's first genuine pop composer.
Septimus Winner (1827-1902) wrote a great many popular songs under the pseudonym Alice Hawthorne. His big melodic hits were "Listen to the Mocking Bird", "Whispering Hope", "Ten Little Indians", and an adaptation of a German tune titled "Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?"
Henry Clay Work (1832-1884) left Connecticut to settle in Chicago. Among his best works are "Marching through Georgia" and "Grandfather's Clock". Work was a printer by vocation, and he was active in anti-slavery politics. His father was imprisoned in 1841 for being involved in the Underground Railroad (Jablonski 1981, 97).
In the last half of the century, two black composers added rich material to America's growing body of pop songs. James Bland (1854-1911) was certainly the most influential and successful of the black composers of minstrel music, including "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny", "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers", and "Hand Me Down My Walking Cane". Incidentally, during the 1880s, Bland toured Europe with the all-black Haverly's Minstrels and, as a singer and banjo player without blackface, he was invited to give a command performance for Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales (who later became Edward VII).
Gussie Davis (1863-1899) wrote some three hundred songs while working as a custodian at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. "In the Lighthouse by the Sea", "The Hermit", and "The Fatal Wedding" went well, but his best was "The Baggage Coach Ahead" in which a sobbing child reveals that his mother lies in a coffin in the next railroad car ahead. This song was popularized by Imogene Comer, a noted white "female baritone". Observers said that Gussie Davis "did more than his share to open up the tear ducts of America" (Southern 1971, 270).
TIN PAN ALLEY
Foster, Bland, and the others were not really "Tin Pan Alley" composers. They were pioneers in the field of pop music, but the true beginners in what is now a billion dollar industry came along a few years later. Their stories are colorfully different, but remarkably similar in many ways. They were mostly immigrants from Middle and Eastern Europe, a large number of them Jews, passionately driven by the urge to lift themselves up from their humble ghetto surroundings. They were denied access to most mainstream business and professional opportunities, forcing them to go into the "emerging rogue industries of mass entertainment: vaudeville, movies, and popular music" (Palmer 1976, 102).
The whole drama of Tin Pan Alley is wonderfully characterized in the story of M. Witmark and Sons, one of the giant publishing houses in music. In 1886, Isidore (1869-1941) and Jacob "Jay" Witmark (1872-1950), ages 17 and 11, had a small print shop in their home for Christmas cards and advertising leaflets. Their brother, Julius (1870-1929), age 13, was a boy singer in local minstrel shows. Julius was supposed to be paid for introducing into a minstrel show some songs published by Willis Woodward. Woodward reneged, and the boys got angry. They decided to form their own publishing house. Isidore played piano tolerably well, and wrote songs in his spare time.
When President Grover Cleveland married Frances Folsom at the White House, the boys whipped up the first Witmark publication, "President Cleveland's Wedding March", by Isidore Witmark. It was a runaway best seller, and a sure-fire formula had been established: take a current news item, write a tune about it, and plug it with gusto.
Isidore's next tune, "I'll Never Question Tomorrow", was a so-so composition, but he got a French music hall star to sing it on her American tour. It sold well. Isidore became one of America's premier song pluggers, and M. Witmark and Sons was on its way to becoming one of the leading publishing firms in America. Incidentally, the "M." was for their father, Marcus (1834-1910), who had to sign all legal documents since the boys were still underage. He had no financial interest in the concern (Ewen 1977, 104).
The Witmark story, with multiple variations, but in the same general style, was repeated over and over again as the pop music industry entered the 1900s. Ambitious and inventive kids from ethnic ghetto streets in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and especially New York lifted themselves up to stunning fame and wealth by creating and selling tunes that somehow addressed the American dream. Edward B. Marks, Irving Mills, Joseph Stern, Leo Feist, and scores of others followed in the pattern of the Witmarks.
THE MIGHTY FIVE
Of the hundreds of active composers who got started in Tin Pan Alley, five names come up again and again because they wrote so much music and it was of such memorable high quality. These composers established the art form as we know it today.
Israel Baline (1888-1989) was one of the first of the early composers. He dropped out of grade school to work as a "busker" (a strolling street entertainer), singing sentimental ballads in saloons and on street corners. He was especially gifted at writing parodies, that is, clever new lyrics for existing folk and pop tunes. Soon he was sweeping floors and singing those parodies in Pelham's Cafe in Chinatown.
When Pelham's pianist, Nick Michaelson, asked for lyrics for a tune he had written, Israel Baline dashed off several verses within a few minutes. "Marie from Sunny Italy" made thirty-seven cents each for its two creators while the publisher, Joseph W. Stern and Co., made several hundred dollars. That lesson was not lost on the young lyricist, now calling himself "Irving Berlin".
In his late teens, Irving Berlin was making a name for himself in the music business as a staff lyricist for music publisher Ted Snyder. He yearned for growth, however, so he purchased a Calvin Weser piano, and began to plunk out tunes to go with the lyrics that came so freely and quickly to him.
The piano had a special lever to move the hammers so they would strike different strings. He could only play in the key of G-flat, but setting the lever would produce a sound in the key of G or F, or some other key, perhaps. After he worked out a song, he would bring in a trained musician to write it down for him.
Rudimentary as it was, the technique worked so well that by age twenty-two, Irving Berlin had placed songs in four Broadway musicals, including the Ziegfeld Follies (Dorough 1992, 148). The same year he wrote "Alexander's Ragtime Band", a tune that brought him instant fame and wealth. Keenly aware of the financial realities of the music business, Irving Berlin immediately established his own publishing firm. By age twenty-four, he was a millionaire many times over.
The folk-like purity and simplicity of Irving Berlin's songs have become part of America's common musical language. "White Christmas", "Always", "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody", "How Deep Is the Ocean", "Easter Parade" (which failed as "Smile and Show Your Dimple"), and that grand anthem of the theater, "There's No Business Like Show Business" – are tunes that will surely never die.
Equally talented as Irving Berlin, but not driven by memories of ghetto poverty, was Jerome Kern (1885-1945). Born into a middle class Jewish family in New York City, his father was a successful businessman, and his mother, a gifted pianist, gave him his first music lessons. By his teens, he was well known as a promising songwriter.
His parents sent him to Germany to study harmony and music theory. On his way back to the United States, he stopped in London for nearly a year to work as a rehearsal pianist in the vaudeville and operetta productions so abundant at the time. He quickly earned a reputation as a skillful pianist and tune doctor – one who could "cure" a tune by changing a few notes or chords.
When he finally got back to America, he zoomed to the top of the music business, and remained there the rest of his life. Music critic Alan Dale said, "Who is this Jerome Kern? His tunes stand like the Eiffel Tower above the hurdy-gurdy stuff we here so often in the theater."
Kern's masterpiece is Show Boat (1927), with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, which contains such golden tunes as "Make Believe", "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man", and the superb "Ol' Man River". From other shows, he had a string of hits – "All the Things You Are", "The Way You Look Tonight", "The Last Time I Saw Paris", "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes", and "Yesterdays" among them. In total, Jerome Kern wrote more than 700 songs, which were used in over 100 stage works and films. In 1970, he was posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
At age ten, when he heard a boyhood friend play a violin recital, George Gershwin (1898-1937) decided to be a musician. Before long he was passionately plunking out melodies at the piano. His older brother, Ira (1896-1983), was just as passionately writing poems, essays, and newspaper articles. Ira later became George's chief collaborator, and wrote the lyrics to many of George's most famous songs.
George took piano lessons from Charles Hambitzer, who insisted on classical piano studies for the discipline of skilled performance. By age fifteen George Gershwin dropped out of high school to work as a demonstration pianist in the publishing houses of Tin Pan Alley, and by age eighteen some of his original tunes were being sung in New York stage revues.
In 1919, at age twenty-one, Gershwin struck gold with a jazzy tune called "Swanee". When Al Jolson inserted it into Sinbad, his show at the time, the tune became an instant giant hit. From then on, Gershwin's career was a non-stop string of major achievements. He wrote hundreds of great songs for dozens of revues and book musicals – "Embraceable You", "Fascinating Rhythm", "Liza", "The Man I Love", "Of Thee I Sing", "Somebody Loves Me", and many, many more.
Even though he was a huge success, Gershwin kept studying harmony and orchestration, and he was ready when Paul Whiteman asked for an extended instrumental work for piano and orchestra, Rhapsody in Blue. Written when Gershwin was only 25 years old, Rhapsody in Blue is a jazz piano concerto that debuted at Carnegie Hall with Gershwin at the keyboard, with what was essentially the first "Pops" orchestra. (A Pops orchestra plays a mix of classical and popular music that is classical enough to meet the needs of the traditional orchestral crowd, but popular enough to please everyone else. Orchestras today pay their bills with ticket sales from their Pops programs.)
In 1934, Gershwin completed his "American folk opera" written for an all-black cast, Porgy and Bess, a masterpiece with lyrics by DuBose Heyward and George's older brother, Ira Gershwin. At the time, Porgy and Bess was not well received. Revealing the enormous artistic potential of American popular music, it is now considered one of the great works of the 20th century.
Gershwin died in 1937 of a brain tumor. It was a great loss to American music because he was at the peak of his creative powers and surely would have written several more major works of operatic and symphonic proportions. Even with his untimely death, though, he goes down in history as one of the best American composers in any musical field.
Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) led an upper-class life in New York at No. 3 West 120th Street on the corner of Mt. Morris Park in Manhattan. His father was a wealthy physician, and this was a very comfortable neighborhood, quite a social distance from the Jewish ghettos where Irving Berlin and George Gershwin grew up. In fact, the Rodgers family spent their summers out on Long Island in an equally exclusive neighborhood where father William had a summer office location.
At each home there was a grand piano. Mrs. Rodgers was a gifted pianist, and her husband sang as she played all the tunes from the famous European operettas of the day. She taught her second son, Richard, early and well how to play piano. While still in high school, Richard teamed up with Lorenz Hart (1895-1943) to write several songs.
After a few years at Columbia University, Rodgers and Hart moved right out into the professional world. They wrote a wealth of great music together. Seven of their early songs appeared in The Poor Little Ritz Girl in 1920. Then came a string of shows that failed, but which produced a few classic pop tunes – "With a Song In My Heart" (1929), "A Ship Without a Sail" (1929), and "Ten Cents a Dance" (1930) come to mind.
Rodgers and Hart soon hit their stride with On Your Toes (1937), Babes in Arms (1937), The Boys from Syracuse (1938), and Pal Joey (1940). Among the great tunes by the team were "This Can't Be Love", "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered", "My Funny Valentine", "Little Girl Blue", "The Most Beautiful Girl In the World", "Blue Moon", "Where or When", and the jazz ballet masterpiece "Slaughter On Tenth Avenue" (from On Your Toes). In their twenty-five years together, Rodgers and Hart wrote nearly one thousand tunes together.
When Lorenz Hart's health began to fail from alcohol and depression, Richard Rodgers began to search, with Hart's full permission and approval, for another collaborator. Rodgers teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) and began the remarkable second half of his illustrious career.
Rodgers and Hammerstein became an industry unto themselves and set a new high level of lyric theater in America with "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" and "People Will Say We're In Love" from Oklahoma (1943), "If I Loved You" and "You'll Never Walk Along" from Carousel (1945), "Some Enchanted Evening" from South Pacific (1949), "Hello, Young Lovers" from The King and I (1951), and "Do-Re-Mi" and "Climb Every Mountain" from The Sound of Music (1959). There were a half dozen lesser shows between and among the above masterpieces, also.
After Hammerstein's death in 1959, Richard Rodgers wrote a few more shows with other librettist-lyricists and continued to compose. His most ambitious and successful composition during these later years was a background score for a series of television documentaries, Victory at Sea. It is a masterful score that earned Rodgers a special George Foster Peabody Award in 1952.
Very upscale in style and content were the songs of Cole Porter (1893-1964), born into a wealthy family in Peru, Indiana. As with Irving Berlin, Cole Porter wrote both words and music, and he is remembered more for individual songs than for complete shows. But Porter's lyrics contain more intellectual references to poetry, philosophy, history, painting, and such than do the lyrics of any other Broadway songwriter.
He is best known for the 1934 classic Anything Goes with its title tune and "I Get a Kick Out of You" and for the 1938 Kiss Me, Kate with "So In Love Am I" and "Wunderbar". Among his big hits from other shows are "What Is This Thing Called Love?", "Night and Day", "Begin the Beguine", "Just One of Those Things", and dozens of others – each of them elegant, refined, charming, debonair and sophisticated.
He was especially fond of off-color innuendos in songs that were sometimes banned in Boston but enjoyed greatly by his high society friends and co-workers – "Let's Do It" and "Love for Sale", for example. Whatever the topic, however, Cole Porter crafted his songs with great skill and attention to internal rhyme patterns and rhythmic flow.
His instinct and gifts were not for the plot-oriented socially conscious works of Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, or Hammerstein-Kern or Rodgers and Hammerstein, but rather for satire-laced witty and urbane entertainment of the highest order.
SONG PLUGGING TECHNIQUES
The "plugging" (marketing) of a tune was as important as composing and publishing it, perhaps more so, because the most beautiful song will remain forever unknown unless it gets brought to the attention of a potential audience.
Many great names in music publishing and some great names in show business started out as song pluggers – Pat Howley, Edward B. Marks, Joseph Stern, Leo Feist, Irving Berlin, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Harry Cohn (later president of Columbia Pictures), Jack Warner (of the famous movie making brothers) – and hundreds of others.
The pluggers would hit fifty to sixty clubs each week to peddle their tunes. They bribed performers with boxes of fine cigars, bottles of expensive perfume, jewelry, large envelopes of money, telephone numbers of attractive young women, and cases of the best whiskey.
Song pluggers would perform their tunes in music shops and five-and-dime stores. They carried "chorus slips" with the words to the chorus (refrain) of their tunes so that the men in the local taverns could join in to sing along with the entertainers on stage.
They would rent a hay wagon, bolt down a piano to the flat bed, and park the rig near the exit gate of a theater, sports arena, or amusement park to catch an audience on their way home. They paid band leaders to play their tunes at dances, and restaurant waiters to hum and sing their tunes. They hired boys to jump up and sing the songs while reels were being changed at the silent picture houses. They induced singers, comedians, and dancers in vaudeville and burlesque shows to use their tunes, and boys to stand on the street corner to sing and peddle sheet music like newspapers. Any possible way to get their "product" (sheet music) into the hands of the public was the order of the day. No questions, no reservations.
Al Jolson and Gene Austin were made "co-authors" (with royalties, therefore) of many songs they knew absolutely nothing about until they saw the sheet music on the streets. Eddie Cantor, Ruth Etting, and many others openly admitted that they received generous payments for introducing songs into their shows. Rudy Vallee boasted that he built a palatial home in Connecticut with song pluggers' "gifts". Al Jolson once received a fine racehorse for plugging a new tune.
Tin Pan Alley was a colorful chapter in the history of American popular music. As the story progresses, it will become evident that things haven't changed all that much since those flamboyant days way back then.
There have been hundreds of other composers who worked during and after the Mighty Five – Harold Arlen, Burton Lane, Frederick Loewe, Jule Styne, Arthur Schwartz, Frank Loesser, Jerry Bock, Charles Strouse, Harvey Schmidt, Cy Coleman, John Kander, Marvin Hamlisch, and Andrew Lloyd Webber come to mind immediately.
And lyricists, too – E. Y. Harburg, Dorothy Fields, Alan Jay Lerner, Howard Dietz, Johnny Mercer, Sheldon Harnick, Lee Adams, Tom Jones, Fred Ebb, Tim Rice, and others. And even several of the unusually talented who do both words and music, like Jerry Herman, Bob Merrill, Meredith Willson, Frank Loesser, and Stephen Sondheim.
They have all followed in the mode of the Mighty Five, however, and up to the 1990s there were no major innovations to alter the basic mainstream traditions of the stage musical. Some of the topics covered in the musicals may have changed over the years – for instance, Hair (1967) showed illegal drug use and had a nude scene, Rent (1994) includes a character who is HIV-positive, and Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk (1995) covered black history from slavery to the present using tap dancing – but for the most part, the formulas remain the same. That is the subject for a different book, though.