Tin Pan Alley: Where America’s Recording Industry Was Born


In the future in 1903, Monroe Rosenfeld paid a go to to the block of Manhattan’s West twenty eighth Road between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Rosenfeld, a songwriter and journalist, had come to that neighborhood to name on fellow tunesmith Harry Von Tilzer, one of many day’s best-known songwriters. Von Tilzer saved an workplace in that locale, and for good cause. On each constructing alongside twenty eighth Road indicators marketed the music publishers working inside: M. Witmark and Sons, Shapiro-Remick, T.B. Harms, Leo Feist, and others. By means of open home windows alongside West twenty eighth blared a cacophony of pianos being pounded in a raucous vary of keys and states of tune. Coming into Von Tilzer’s workplace, Rosenfeld greeted his pal.

“It seems like a bunch of tin cans,” Rosenfeld cracked. 

“Nicely,” Von Tilzer replied, “I assume this should be Tin Pan Alley.” 

A number of variations of this anecdote exist, and each Rosenfeld and Von Tilzer took credit score for the nickname thereafter related to that  stretch of West twenty eighth Road. Gotham newspaper legend holds that Rosenfeld, who wrote for the New York World, had a column referred to as “Tin Pan Alley,” however no supporting proof has ever surfaced. However, within the custom of tales too good to test, the phrase “Tin Pan Alley” caught on, first referring to the road alongside which Von Tilzer and rivals toiled and ultimately as a synonym for the favored music trade that sprouted in New York round 1890 and blossomed within the first few a long time of the twentieth century. 

Ragtime, which was named for its “ragged” syncopated model, developed within the late nineteenth century in Midwestern saloons, dance halls, and brothels.

Tin Pan Alley got here into being to serve a marketplace for sheet music, gross sales of which have been indicators of songs’ recognition. Within the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, recorded music existed, first on carnauba wax-coated tubes, then on fragile lacquer disks, however playback gear was pricey. Nevertheless, People have been loopy for pianos, and the music they performed and listened to on pianos at house, in church, in saloons, and onstage at vaudeville homes and music halls got here packaged on paper printed with a quantity’s key, chords, and, if there have been lyrics, phrases. Tin Pan Alley’s songwriters, tune pluggers, and tune publishers made their dwelling making music generate income, and in addition to creating an enormous physique of unforgettable tunes they established what turned the American recording trade.

America has at all times had standard songwriters–within the mid-1800s Stephen Foster had followers buzzing and singing tunes like “Oh, Susanna,” “I Dream of Jeannie with the Mild Brown Hair,” and “Lovely Dreamer,” amongst greater than 200 others that he wrote. In Foster’s heyday, the music trade was a scattershot proposition, dominated by hymns and lightweight, classically inflected numbers. Publishers have been typically music retailer house owners or native printers who distributed sheet music and instrumental instruction books as a sideline, based on Tin Pan Alley by David A. Jansen.

Mass manufacturing of pianos modified the market. Following the Civil Struggle, piano gross sales boomed to as many as 25,000  devices yearly. Sitting within the parlor with kin and buddies listening to and singing alongside to the tinkling 88s turned a well-liked middle-class amusement. Usually pianists required notation to play songs new to them. Sheet music answered that want. Publication in 1892 of the sheet music to “After the Ball” by Milwaukeean Charles Okay. Harris set off a development. Harris’s tune tells a narrative as outdated as time of heartbreak and loss. “After the Ball” bought two million copies of sheet music its first 12 months at round 50 cents per copy, and by the tip of the Nineties had bought 5 million copies. 

Clockwise from left: Gus Edwards, W.C. Useful, Eubie Blake, Scott Joplin. (College of Washington Libraries, Particular Collections, jws16189; American Inventory Archive/Getty Pictures; MPI/Getty Pictures; Hulton Archive/Getty Pictures)

Abruptly, music was a enterprise, and all people needed in. Entrepreneurs migrated from different sectors. Max Dreyfus, head of the T.B. Harms group, began out promoting image frames. Edward B. Marks was a notions salesman. Leo Feist bought corsets. As soon as established within the commerce of constructing musical tastes, these businessmen strove to provide People what they needed to listen to, typically lacking the mark. In 1922, neophyte songsmith Richard Rodgers visited Dreyfus to pitch materials. “There’s nothing of worth right here,” Dreyfus instructed the younger man. “I don’t hear any music.” Three years later, after Rodgers had written the scores of a number of Broadway musicals, Dreyfus invited him again and provided Rodgers a contract, Ben Yagoda wrote in American Heritage.

Together with the publishers got here a brand new technology of songwriters: younger, formidable males, typically the sons of immigrants, who employed on at a wage to churn out songs of all types, from tragedies like Von Tilzer’s “A Chicken in a Gilded Cage” to celebrations of transportation, as in Gus Edwards’s “In My Merry Oldsmobile,” and the regional nostalgia of Lewis Muir’s and Wolfe Gilbert’s “Ready for the Robert E. Lee” to novelty tunes that mocked Blacks, Jews,  and different minorities. A vogue for “coon songs” within the minstrel model started to wither round 1905, when African American songwriters and performers denounced them, but it surely persevered into the `30s. 

Black composers launched novel musical varieties. Beginning in 1909, many arrange store within the new Gaiety Constructing in Midtown. The primary of those genres was ragtime, so referred to as for its “ragged” syncopated model. Ragtime took type within the late 1800s in Midwestern saloons, dance halls, and brothels. In 1899, Scott Joplin, a music instructor, pianist, and composer, walked into music retailer and writer John Stark’s retailer in Sedalia, Missouri. Joplin offered Stark with “Maple Leaf Rag,” which started a nationwide craze. Pianists competed in ragtime “slicing” contests, and the music impressed dance steps. Stark publicized Joplin as “king of the ragtime writers” and revealed extra of the composer’s rags, together with “The Entertainer.” In 1907, Joplin relocated to New York Metropolis, the place he tried with out success to get his ragtime opera, “Treemonisha,” produced. He reportedly suspected Irving Berlin of getting lifted the opening musical phrase of his hit “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” from “Treemonisha,” which Joplin had dropped at Berlin’s writer. Berlin denied this. Joplin died in 1917. In 1921 Joplin heir Eubie Blake made a notable transition from that type to early jazz and present tunes. With accomplice Noble Sissle, Blake produced and wrote the songs to “Shuffle Alongside,” the primary Black musical on Broadway. 

As Scott Joplin was popularizing ragtime, W. C. Useful was pumping up enthusiasm for the blues. Useful, a middle-class Black cornetist and bandleader, had grown up having to cover his curiosity in music from strict mother and father. He persevered and have become an expert musician. In 1903 he was touring via Mississippi with an orchestra whose métier was waltzes, marches, gentle classics, and ragtime, when he heard a guitarist sliding a knife blade throughout his instrument’s strings, taking part in “the weirdest music I had ever heard.” Useful was listening to Delta people blues, whose flatted thirds and sevenths have been what sounded “bizarre” to Useful’s formally oriented ear. Two years later, when Useful and his band have been taking a break whereas taking part in one other Mississippi city, a raggedy string band took the stage and, taking part in blues, bought extra applause than Useful’s extra genteel ensemble. This satisfied Useful that the blues had industrial prospects. In 1912 he bought “Memphis Blues,” titled for his adopted hometown, to a neighborhood writer. In 1914, his new Useful and Tempo agency revealed his “St. Louis Blues.” Useful moved to New York in 1917 and revealed anthologies of conventional blues and spirituals. He referred to as himself “the Father of the Blues.” 

Immigrant and first-generation Jews have been distinguished alongside Tin Pan Alley at a time when anti-Semitism was open and pervasive. Lodges barred Jews, help-wanted advertisements specified “Christians solely,” and schools maintained quotas for Jewish college students. Escaping the ghetto meant changing into as “American” as doable, and leisure was much less hidebound than different trades. Many composers of the period have been Jewish—Harris, Von Tilzer, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen—as have been lyricists like Gus Kahn, “Yip” Harburg, Irving Caesar, and Lorenz Hart. Within the time-honored custom, names modified: Von Tilzer was as soon as Aaron Gumbinsky, George Gershwin was as soon as Jacob Gershowitz, Harold Arlen was Hyman Arluck, Irving Berlin had been Israel Beilin. 

In The Jazz Singer, the primary full-length sound movie, Jakie Rabinowitz, performed by Al Jolson, rebels towards his father, an Orthodox cantor, by changing into the title character, Jack Robin. Actual-world variations on this fictional battle performed out in lots of Jewish households. 

Grinding out songs on wage was primarily a commerce pursued by working-class Jews, most of whom, not like an earlier wave of Landsmen departing German-speaking areas, had immigrated from Russia and Jap Europe. When Jerome Kern, whose father was a profitable German-Jewish businessman in New York Metropolis, noticed that plugging songs was getting him nowhere, he sailed to London, insinuated himself into that metropolis’s West Finish musical theater scene, and used the ensuing contacts to return stateside and succeed as a Broadway tunesmith. Berlin, raised in a basement residence on the Decrease East Aspect, didn’t search such choices.

The unique gauge for songs’ recognition was the determine for gross sales of a given quantity’s sheet music. To catch the attention of an beginner or skilled musician purchasing for new materials to play at house or onstage, publishers relied on illustrations. Library of Congress; Lebrecht Music Arts/Bridgeman Pictures; Sheridan Libraries/Levy/Gado/Getty Pictures(3); Library of Congress; Sheridan Libraries/Levy/Gado/Getty Pictures; New York Public Library; Nationwide Archives)

Some songwriters turned publishers. When Von Tilzer’s melodramatic ballad “My Previous New Hampshire House” turned a success in 1898 however solely earned him $15, he joined an current publishing home as a accomplice. In 1902 he based Harry Von Tilzer Music. He and different Tin Pan Alley denizens relied on tune pluggers who used any means essential to publicize songs. Biographer James Kaplan recounts how in 1902 younger Israel Beilin went to work for Von Tilzer. The tyro’s project was to frequent music halls the place performers have been singing Von Tilzer songs; on the finish of his employer’s numbers, he was to leap up and applaud loudly. Extra refined strategies of promotion emerged. Novice songwriter Jerome Kern employed on at Wanamaker’s division retailer to play a piano positioned on the institution’s gross sales flooring as a strategy to encourage sheet music purchases. Kern went on to hawk sheet music to shops up and down the Hudson Valley, ultimately occurring to nice success as a tunesmith. Gershwin stop highschool in 1913 to flog songs for potential prospects at Remick Music.

Vaudeville was one other medium of tune promotion. Vaudeville theaters booked assorted acts—jugglers, comedians, musicians, singers—that toured regionally and nationally. When troupes performed New York, the performers typically made the rounds of publishers looking for new tunes to freshen their acts. In making a fame for themselves as comedic singers in 1912, the 4 Marx brothers, raised in Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood, paid $27 for “Peasie Weasie,” a tune whose lyrics by no means got here out fairly the identical when the pinnacle Marx, Julius, generally known as Groucho, sang them. Some vaudeville impresarios wrote songs that they assigned to gamers in stage corporations they ran. Gus Edwards, who wrote “By the Mild of the Silvery Moon,” “College Days,” and others, had a “child act” starring him as an exasperated instructor dealing with a clownish class of rising performers akin to George Jessel, Phil Silvers, and Eddie Cantor. Younger Julius Marx additionally apprenticed below Edwards. 

One other song-selling software was the participant piano, akin to the acquainted parlor instrument however capable of reproduce music routinely. Powered by foot-pumped treadles, participant pianos used piano rolls, steady sheets of heavy paper perforated to trigger the keys to strike chords and notes. Mass-marketed beginning within the Nineties and bettering steadily in high quality into the 1910s, participant pianos have been immensely standard.

A musician made a piano roll by taking part in a quantity as a perforating software replicated the music on a grasp sheet used to supply copies. A purchaser fitted the roll into the participant piano and pumped the treadle. This motion moved the roll alongside and pushed air via its holes, working the piano’s keys. Many songwriters embraced piano rolls not solely as a document of their musicianship however as a remunerative sideline. Gershwin’s piano rolls illustrate his breathtaking approach and harmonics; CDs and streamed variations from the unique rolls are a revelation. Eubie Blake’s rolls provide a grasp class in taking part in ragtime and early jazz.

Sheet music covers promoted their content material. Early covers had minimal ornament, however by the 1910s covers have been multicolored and illustrated, whether or not with a picture of the songwriter or a performer related to the quantity, akin to Sophie Tucker or Jolson, a scene reflecting the tune’s content material, or, particularly for novelty numbers, a cartoon.

From left: George Gershwin, Gerome Kern. ( Night Customary/Getty Pictures; Pictorial Press/Alamy Inventory Picture)

Tin Pan Alley proved replicable. Writing within the Chicago Tribune in 1986, June Sawyers defined how the Windy Metropolis’s Tin Pan Alley, which dated to the latter 1800s, counted about 50 music publishers in its Twenties heyday. Most had workplaces downtown, inside two blocks of Randolph Road between State and Clark Streets, close to right now’s Nederlander Theater. Hits originating there included “Down by the Previous Mill Stream,” “When You’re Smiling,”  “Let Me Name You Sweetheart,” and Fred Fisher’s “Chicago, That Toddlin’ City.” However the actual motion was in Manhattan, prompting publishers from Chicago and different cities to  set up department workplaces in New York Metropolis. 

Tin Pan Alley produced superstars. The primary was George M. Cohan—vaudevillian, songwriter, playwright, actor, and producer of Broadway musicals wherein he starred. Cohan got here from a convention of Irish-American musical comedy relationship to the 1870s, when Ed Harrigan and Tony Hart of their “Mulligan Guards” comedies lampooned working-class neighborhood militias. As a youth touring together with his household’s act, the 4 Cohans, George M. Cohan caught the songwriting bug. In George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway, John McCabe tells how the novice songsmith pitched a sheaf of songs at Witmark. The writer purchased solely “Why Did Nellie Go away Her House?” Eyeballing the ensuing Witmark sheet music, Cohan found that every one that remained of his composition was the title. However after his first hit present, 1904’s “Little Johnny Jones,” publishers left Cohan and his compositions alone. He went on to put in writing greater than 300 songs and to supply and star in additional than 30 musicals, composing patriotic show-bizzy numbers like “You’re a Grand Previous Flag,”“Over There,” “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” and “Give My Regards to Broadway.” In 1914, Cohan helped discovered the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), which protects members’ musical copyrights.

One other Tin Pan Alley graduate turned celebrity was Irving Berlin. At 15, leaving tune plugging behind, Izzy Beilin took a job as a singing waiter on the Pelham Café, a Chinatown dive catering to underworld characters and vacationers, and took up piano. In 1907, in addition to altering his identify to Irving Berlin, he bought his first tune, “Marie From Sunny Italy,” which he co-wrote with the Pelham Cafe’s home pianist. In 1908, Waterson and Snyder employed Berlin as a employees lyricist. Biographer Kaplan sketches the scene. Wearing go well with and tie and utilizing a fountain pen, Berlin drafted and crafted lyrics for tunes co-owner Ted Snyder and others created. Berlin discovered inspiration in all places. When fellow lyricist George Whiting stated he might go to the theater that evening as a result of his spouse had gone to the nation, Berlin exclaimed, “That will be a very good title for a tune!” The 2 turned Whiting’s comment into “My Spouse’s Gone to the Nation! Hurrah! Hurrah!” Quickly, though he couldn’t learn music, Berlin was writing melodies. When an concept struck, he’d bang out a rudimentary model on a piano at Waterson and Snyder; amid the chaos, a sharp-eared “musical secretary” would transcribe his plunking into musical notation. Of his 1911 breakthrough hit “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” Berlin stated, “I wrote the entire thing in 18 minutes, surrounded on all sides by roaring pianos and roaring vaudeville actors.”  

Ira and George Gershwin (CSU Archives/Everett Assortment/Alamy Inventory Picture)

After “Alexander,” Berlin continued his streak, forming his personal publishing firm. Enlisting within the U.S. Military as a sergeant throughout World Struggle I, he wrote an all-doughboy revue, “Yip Yip Yaphank.” In 1921, Berlin and Sam Harris, Cohan’s former accomplice, opened the Music Field Theater on forty fifth Road between seventh and eighth Avenues, yearly staging “Music Field Revues.” In 1925, the theater began presenting different productions, musical and theatrical. When Hollywood motion pictures entered the age of sound, Berlin segued into soundtracks. His finest remembered tunes—“At all times,” “God Bless America,” “There’s No Enterprise Like Present Enterprise,” “Cheek to Cheek,” and “White Christmas”—principally date to his interwar and World Struggle II durations.

Not just a few songwriters made the leap from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway, however Gershwin bounded from Tin Pan Alley to the live performance corridor. Classically educated, he had moved in 1918 from tune plugging to composing and writing songs on wage at T.B. Harms for $35 per week. In 1920 Gershwin had his first main success with “Swanee.”  His co-writer, younger lyricist Irving Caesar, previously Isidor Kaiser, knew singer Al Jolson, whose recording of “Swanee” made it a success. That 12 months, Gershwin started to contribute to the annual “George White’s Scandals” revues. For the 1922 “Scandals,” he labored with Paul Whiteman, the last decade’s hottest bandleader, who performed a watered-down model of jazz. Whiteman repeatedly requested Gershwin to compose a “jazz concerto,” and Gershwin lastly did.

The end result, “Rhapsody in Blue,” premiered in February 1924 at Aeolian Corridor on West forty second Road with the Whiteman orchestra accompanying Gershwin on piano. He continued to straddle classical and standard music. He wrote the tone poem “An American in Paris,” and composed the opera “Porgy and Bess.” On the similar time, with brother Ira as lyricist, Gershwin was writing songs for Broadway and Hollywood which have by no means gone out of style: “I Bought Rhythm,” “Embraceable You,” “Our Love Is Right here to Keep,” “Let’s Name the Complete Factor Off,”  and lots of extra.

George M. Cohan (Bettmann/Getty Pictures)

Given standard tune’s ever-changing nature, Tin Pan Alley developed. The primary shift started to be evident round 1910, when music publishers began abandoning twenty eighth Road for the theater district. Moreover reflecting the plain hyperlink between songwriting and musical theater, gravitating to the industrial district round forty second and Broadway was sensible. Midtown’s newer buildings provided profitable publishers who had expanded their staffs past songwriters and pluggers to incorporate gross sales groups, orchestration departments, and help personnel area for all these folks.

A way more vital change occurred after World Struggle I, as industrial radio arrived and recording expertise matured. Lacquer 78 rpm discs had been the usual in recording since 1910—they held extra music and have been simpler to retailer than cylinders. 

Broadcasting, launched in 1920, at first put a dent in document gross sales. Radio stations invited singers and musicians to their studios to play on the air and, starting with New York’s WHN in 1924, aired broadcasts of standard bands dwell from ballrooms, nightclubs, and theaters. Introduction in 1925 {of electrical} recording improved data’ sound high quality, reviving gross sales. 

Radio and data complemented one another—a fan listening to an artist carry out a tune on the air might race to the document store for a replica. Sitting across the parlor piano listening to some uncle warble alongside whereas taking part in “Mom Machree” turned passé. By 1925 document gross sales outpaced purchases of sheet music and by 1927 had climbed from 1909’s 30 million gross sales to 140 million. 

Throughout World Struggle I, Irving Berlin utilized his abilities to patriotic reveals and musical themes. (Library of Congress; Nationwide Portrait Gallery)

All through the ’20s, the masters—Berlin, Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers and Hart—continued to put in writing nice songs. Jazz greats like Thomas “Fat” Waller wrote masterpieces of their idiom. Singer-pianist Waller, who used humor to place his songs over, copyrighted greater than 400 numbers and apparently bought the rights to others for the money. However the ‘20s additionally noticed a development of snappy, frothy songs like “Sure Sir, That’s My Child,” by Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn, “Sure, We Have No Bananas,” by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn, and “Loopy Rhythm,”  by Irving Caesar, Joseph Meyer, and Roger Kahn. 

Tin Pan Alley’s glow started to fade when the films went from silent to sound. Movie studios began buying music publishers, as in 1929, when Warner Brothers purchased M. Witmark, Remick Music, and T.B. Harms, a step towards the institution of Warner Bros. Data. As company items, music publishers went from selling songs to the general public to negotiating with songwriters, documenting and paying royalties, touting tunes to radio station programmers, and licensing their use in commercials and different contexts. The sheet music enterprise withered. Aspiring tunesmiths nonetheless have been understanding tunes on pianos, however now their ambition was to not rack up sheet music gross sales at Wanamaker’s however to get a Russ Columbo or a Bing Crosby or a Rudy Vallee to place out a 78 that includes a tune of theirs. The brand new period introduced a brand new music publishing hub: the Brill Constructing at 1619 Broadway, opened in 1931, which publishers shared with expertise companies, leisure legal professionals, arrangers, and others.

In 1939, after a dispute over charges ASCAP charged radio stations for taking part in songs it managed, broadcasters shaped their very own publishing umbrella, Broadcast Music Inc. ASCAP had a lot of the main publishing corporations and songwriters, so BMI sought artists in jazz, “hillbilly” and “race” music, and Latin. In tandem with small unbiased document corporations, BMI-affiliated corporations have been instrumental within the post-World Struggle II development of country-and-western and rhythm-and-blues.

Neil Sedaka (Bettman/Getty Pictures)

Within the early Nineteen Fifties, just a few years earlier than rock ‘n’ roll broke out, Brooklyn excessive schooler Neil Sedaka was writing songs with classmate Howard Greenfield. Sedaka got here into contact with a veteran lyricist who had made his identify in Tin Pan Alley. In his ebook At all times Magic within the Air, Ken Emerson describes how Sedaka’s Spanish instructor, listening to of his musical avocation, pushed the youth to contact her brother, Irving Caesar. Moreover “Swanee,” Caesar, now in his fifties, had written the lyrics for Vincent Youmans’s 1924 hit “Tea for Two.” In 1935, little one star Shirley Temple sang Caesar’s “Animal Crackers in My Soup,” in her film Curly High, and in 1956 Louis Prima had scored a success with Caesar’s 1929 composition “Only a Gigolo.” Caesar, who had helped discovered the Songwriters Guild of America, was nonetheless plugging away. 

“I met Caesar many occasions,” stated Sedaka, who had his personal first huge hit in 1959 with “Oh, Carol,” and, as a solo artist and in collaborations with Greenfield on the Brill Constructing and elsewhere, turned a stalwart of the pop music scene. “We by no means wrote collectively, however he preferred my voice,” Sedaka stated of Caesar, “and I sang on a lot of his demo data.”

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