- 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
Dreyfus, himself, however, was reticent almost to the point of inscrutability. In a business that thrived on hyperbole, he was wispily soft-spoken. Most of the time he was noncommittal about the array of songs that paraded before him. But even when he liked something, Caesar recalls, “He wasn’t the type to throw his arms around a composer and say, ‘Now you’ve done it!’ ” His health was poor, and he was a man of routine—puttering around the office in a pair of slippers and a gray alpaca office coat, and lunching every noon at the Hotel Astor on tomato juice, an egg, and crackers. Such meager fare kept Dreyfus painfully thin. Yet his slight build may actually have aided his career; John Golden, a composer for whom Dreyfus arranged songs in the nineties, said he “used to feel a little protective toward him, thinking he was too frail to make the grade,” and others were probably similarly deceived. In the 1945 film biography of George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue , the bulky, gregarious Charles Coburn played the publisher. Dreyfus’s sole comment was a triumph of understatement: “Did you ever see me wear a top hat?”
Dreyfus’s duties as publisher did not end with signing up the best songwriters. A Tin Pan Alley Maxwell Perkins, he had an uncanny ability to coax the best possible contributions out of his composers and lyricists. And he was an astute businessman; despite his generosity toward writers, he was notoriously careful with his money. He once told Rodgers that since he had no children of his own, he treated his copyrights as if they were offspring, protecting and nurturing them. And when another writer, speaking of a mutual friend whose son had died in an auto accident, said that at least Dreyfus would never suffer that particular misfortune, the publisher replied, “Yes, but I have songs that go into the public domain. ”
Though Dreyfus knew talent as nobody else did, he could not always predict which particular number would become a hit. Russell Bennett thought this was because Dreyfus never really cared for the “Tin Pan Alley stuff. Every week Max and I would go to a matinee at the Met. Max would always follow along in the score. Once we saw a grand performance of Tristan . It was so overwhelming that on the way back to Harms, even though it was about eight below zero, we both forgot to put our hats on. When we got to the office he turned to me, paused, and said, ‘Russ, and still the boys up there want me to like their stuff.’ ”
Many changes were brewing in the music world during the twenties, and few of them were to Tin Pan Alley’s benefit. Kern and his heirs had taken over and with them came a far subtler and harmonically advanced, often jazz-influenced, kind of song. The words were better too: lyricists like Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Lorenz Hart replaced the sentimentality and goodhearted clunkiness of the early Alley days. The musical comedy became the primary medium for song, and writers began producing integrated scores; churning out individual numbers was no longer a challenge.
But the ultimate devastating changes were caused by the phonograph, the radio, and the talking picture. Records, which initially became popular in the mid-teens, had little economic effect at first. Both publisher and writer earned royalties from record sales, so the only real accommodation the Alley had to make was to turn out shorter songs: disks ran three minutes or less, so the typical song had only two and a half choruses. Still, far fewer people were buying sheet music; in the twenties a hit meant one hundred thousand copies sold. After all, why sit around the piano when it was possible to listen to professionals doing a much better job with the same song?
Radio, which began commercial operation in 1920, was “free” and thus created different kinds of problems. At first the stations refused to pay anything for the songs they played, claiming that all they were doing was broadcasting “ether.” The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), presciently formed in 1914 to meet just such a challenge to the economic interests of the song industry, responded with a series of lawsuits. The courts ruled in ASCAP’s favor: radio stations had (and still have) to pay for music, based on a complex monitoring of all the stations in the country. Once again, though, sheet music was definitely marginal. As Isaac Goldberg put it, “When a song is dinned into [people’s] ears around the face of the clock, they have no need of buying the printed form.” In addition, radio devoured material at a fantastic rate. Where once a song’s rise to fame was leisurely, taking months or even years, now it happened at distressing speed: the public could tire of a song within a matter of days.
The Alley had had a long relationship with the movies, beginning, in a sense, with the song slides of the nineties— transparencies illustrating a song that were projected during vaudeville performances. With the popularity of silent films came titles like “Poor Pauline” and “Oh, Oh, Those Charlie Chaplin Feet.” And there were “theme songs,” wordless melodies that accompanied pictures and were repeated so often that audiences presumably developed an addiction and bought the sheet music immediately on leaving the theater.