The Sidewalks of New York Tin Pan Alley


There really was a Tin Pan Alley, a stretch of 28th Street in Manhattan between Fifth Avenue and Broadway that became known as the Street of Songs. As a clearing house for the creation and dissemination of popular music, though, Tin Pan Alley extended through the saloons of the Bowery and the theaters of Broadway and ultimately beyond the boundaries of New York City. Tin Pan Alley was as much machinery as geography, an incipient pop music industry that anticipated the phonograph record and the radio while providing a soundtrack of the fin de siecle American synthesis.

There was money - sometimes a great deal of money - to be made from selling sheet music, the only available means to bring new songs across the country and into homes; and the creativity and business acumen of song pluggers with an ear for a tune and an eye to the balance sheet drove Tin Pan Alley. In this sense, the prototypical plugger may have been Milwaukee songwriter Charles K. Harris, who became his own publisher in 1885 and hung a Songs Written to Order sign in his office window soon thereafter. Harris' greatest hit, "After the Ball," gained a wide hearing when the composer paid musical theater star J. Aldrich Libbey $500 and a share of the royalties to place the song in the 1892 production A Trip to Chinatown. When "After the Ball" quickly became a hit, Harris turned down $10,000 for the remaining rights, a shrewd decision in light of the five million copies of sheet music the song ultimately sold.

Success on Tin Pan Alley could also be precarious. Novelist Theodore Dreiser's brother Paul Dresser was a New York staff composer who also realized the advantages of his own publishing house. Dresser made and lost a fortune before writing "My Gal Sal," but did not live to see the song's success. At least "My Gal Sal," which became the title of Dresser's film biography, was his own work. After "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now" served as the title for the biopic of composer Joe E. Howard, Harold Orlob went to court and successfully established that he had written the melody while a staff composer in Howard's publishing house.

Before "My Gal Sal," Dresser was instrumental in the formation of Howley, Haviland & Company, the publishers of the wildly successful "The Sidewalks of New York." This song, the joint effort of vaudevillian Charles Lawlor and hat salesman James W. Blake, was introduced by Lottie Gibson (known as "The Little Magnet" for her ability to attract superior material) at the Old London Theater on the Bowery. Howley, Haviland also published the million seller "In the Good Old Summertime," which composer and blackface minstrel George "Honey" Evans initially found difficult to market when other publishers feared the song was too seasonal for year-round sales. T.B. Harms, the house that started the trend of mining stage productions for material when it published "The Bowery" and two other numbers from A Trip to Chinatown, had similar success with Harry Dacre's "Daisy Bell." Dacre wrote the song shortly after arriving in New York from England. After generating no domestic interest - Americans had not yet taken to riding bicycles - Dacre sent the tune home and saw it become a hit. By the time "Daisy Bell" worked its way back to New York, bicycles were gaining popularity and the song was quickly featured by vaudeville pioneer Tony Pastor at his Music Hall on East 14th Street and Jessie Lindsay at The Atlantic Gardens on the Bowery.

George M. Cohan, like Pastor a theatrical innovator, saw his first song published in 1891 when he was a 13-year-old member of his family's vaudeville act. For much of the rest of the decade, Cohan plugged songs in the hopes of earning $10 to $25 per song. By 1898 he was writing hits, though these early successes were overshadowed by his creation of the musical comedy format in a string of hit shows beginning with Little Johnny Jones in 1904. These extravaganzas proved the ideal forum for Cohan's bravura stage presence, which included a streak of patriotism that he reinforced by performing "You're a Grand Old Flag" and other songs with the US flag wrapped around his waist.

Cohan's leading protege was Gus Edwards. Born Gustav Edward Simon in Germany and raised in Brooklyn from the age of eight, Edwards began as a boy "stooge" who duetted with on-stage stars from theater balconies, and as a $5-per-week song plugger for the Witmark publishing house. He came under Cohan's influence while a member of the Newsboy Quintet, and left Witmark in 1905 to establish his own 28th Street office. Edwards created the act School Boys and Girls, which at one time or antoher included George Jessel, Groucho Marx and other future stars. School Boy Georgie Price introduced the Edwards hit "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," and School Boy Eddie Cantor made a splash performing "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee" in a melange of Southern drawl and Yiddish in the Edwards production Kid Kabaret.

Yiddish (which was also applied to Albert von Tilzer's baseball ode "Take Me Out to the Ball Game") was not the only multicultural strain shaping the music of the new century. Irish ballads began finding their way into theatrical productions when Chauncey Olcott sang his own "My Wild Irish Rose" in A Romance of Athlone and Nora Bayes performed "Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?" in The Jolly Bachelors. Even more revolutionary were the rhythmic and structural innovations of African-American music, which immediately influenced songwriting practices once astute African-Americans began committing them to paper. Ragtime spread syncopation throughout the music world and became a national craze after Missouri pianist Scott Joplin published his first piano pieces in 1899. Minstrel performer Ben Harney, thought to be white until posthumous research suggested he was actually a man of color who had "passed," popularized the style in New York by performing rags at Tony Pastor's Music Hall. Another Afrocentric craze was launched a decade later when W. C. Handy reworked a political campaign song and published it as "Memphis Blues." Lacking the foresight (and perhaps the bargaining leverage) of a Charles Harris, Handy sold all rights to "Memphis Blues" for $50, then followed up with the even more successful "St. Louis Blues." Mainstream audiences also responded to Bert Williams, the first Negro to be featured with white performers in the Follies of 1910, and to the music of Shelton Brooks, a black entertainer famous for his impersonation of Williams, whose "Some of These Days" became a seminal pop song as performed by blackface-artist-turned-Red-Hot-Mama Sophie Tucker.

Dance steps were another source of Tin Pan Alley inspiration. "Castle Walk" was composed by James Reece Europe for Vernon and Irene Castle, a legendary dance team who also popularized the tango, the maxixe and the turkey trot, which is the "It" in "Everybody's Doin' It." That song is also a noteworthy sign of young Irving Berlin's ear for the new ragtime rhythms - more so than his breakthrough 1911 hit "Alexander's Ragtime Band." Berlin had started out as a song plugger, demonstrating the latest publications of Harry "Mr. Tin Pan Alley" von Tilzer at Pastor's Music Hall. Since Berlin could only play in one key, he employed a mechanical attachment on the piano that allowed him to accompany any singer, and that had to be repositioned mid-performance if a piece was written in more than one key. Another composer with a future, Jerome Kern, was a clerk for T.B. Harms at the same time. Kern and Berlin ushered in the golden era of American popular songwriting, which followed World War I and which is really another story. They were nurtured in Tin Pan Alley, where a piano was a song plugger's ivory pushcart, and where hits were born decades before there were hit records. Bob Blumenthal


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