- Historic Sites
Lullaby Of Tin Pan Alley
The ceaseless clatter of cheap pianos from a mid-Manhattan side street was once music to all America
October/november 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 6
ONE DAY IN 1922 a young would-be composer named Richard Rodgers paid a call on Max Dreyfus, head of the publishing firm of T. B. Harms and dean of Tin Pan Alley. Rodgers had been there before; three years earlier, Max’s brother Louis had shown him the door, saying, “Keep going to high school and come back some other time.” This time, however, Max himself granted him an audience. “This ascetic-looking titan of the music business sat with eyes half-closed as I played my songs,” wrote Rodgers in his autobiography. When he had gone through his repertoire, Dreyfus spoke: “There is nothing of value here. I don’t hear any music and I think you’d be making a great mistake.”
In 1925 though, when Rodgers had two successful shows on Broadway, Dreyfus summoned him back and offered him a contract as a staff writer. Rodgers was still associated with Dreyfus when the publisher died forty years later. Dreyfus was smart enough to acknowledge his mistakes.
He didn’t make many. His instinctive recognition of musical talent was unmatched in the industry. In 1904, for example, shortly after Dreyfus had taken over Harms, nineteen-year-old Jerome Kern walked into his office. “He said he wanted to imbibe the atmosphere of music,” Dreyfus recalled years later. “I decided to take him on and to start him off by giving him the toughest job I had—selling music.” For a salary of twelve dollars a week, Kern peddled song sheets up and down the Hudson Valley and plugged Harms tunes at local department stores. Dreyfus also bought a few Kern tunes for the Harms catalog, including “How Would You Like to Spoon With Me?” which was placed in the operetta The Earl and the Girl in 1905 and became a hit. According to S. N. Behrman, “This inquiry was brazenly directed to the gentlemen in the front rows by the chorus girls while they were sailing out over their heads in swings.”
In 1912 Dreyfus—along with the publisher GUS Schirmer—commissioned Rudolf Friml, then a Bohemian concert pianist and teacher who had composed no popular music, to write the score for an operetta, The Firefly , a gamble that paid off handsomely. Twenty-two-year-old Vincent Youmans had published but one tune when Dreyfus took him on as staff pianist and song plugger. When Cole Porter was struggling and unknown, Dreyfus sustained him with continual advances. E. Y. “Yip” Harburg, the lyricist for “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” recalled: “Max signed me up when nobody else would. He didn’t give me much, but it was enough to keep me alive when I had nothing.”
And in the winter of 1918 George Gershwin appeared at Harms. He had already been a song plugger, rehearsal pianist, arranger, and piano-roll artist but he had published only a handful of songs. Gershwin played a couple of numbers, Dreyfus was impressed, and the upshot was described by George’s brother, Ira, in his diary; “George has been placed on the staff of T. B. Harms Co. He gets $35 a week for this connection, then $50 advance and a 3 cent royalty on each song they accept. This entails no other effort on his part than the composing, they not requiring any of his leisure for plugging nor for piano-playing. Some snap.”
As Dreyfus put it at the time, “I feel that you have some good stuff in you. It’ll come out. It may take months, it may take a year, it may take five years, but I’m convinced that the stuff is there. You have no set duties. Just stop in every morning, so to speak, and say hello.” What’s more, he accepted two Gershwin-Irving Caesar collaborations on the spot—“I Was So Young (You Were So Beautiful)” and “There’s More to the Kiss Than the X-X-X.”
For the rest of Gershwin’s life the close relationship between publisher and composer remained unbroken: Gershwin followed Dreyfus to a new firm, Chappell & Company, in the mid-thirties, and he dedicated the Second Rhapsody to him.
When Gershwin had his first interview with “Mr. Max”—as he came to call Dreyfus—the metaphysical and portable address known as Tin Pan Alley was at the absolute zenith of its influence. In 1917 more than two billion copies of sheet music—the Alley’s legal tender—were sold, and it had become common for a single title to sell five million. The war certainly had something to do with this: with theaters and cabarets closed, people had to make their own music. But the nation’s addiction to song had been growing steadily for some thirty years. For most of the nineteenth century, the American music-publishing business was an informal, hit-or-miss affair. It didn’t become a major industry until the 1880s, and Tin Pan Alley—so the story goes—was not christened until 1903 or thereabouts, when a songwriter named Monroe Rosenfeld, visiting another songwriter, Harry von Tilzer, listened to all the out-of-tune pianos clashing away nearby and came up with the supremely apt designation.