- 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
WHEN TALKING PICTURES appeared—tentatively in 1926 and resoundingly the next year, with The Jazz Singer —things became still more complicated. The theme song could now have words, and performances of it on the radio provided publicity for the film, so Hollywood began commissioning the songs. Naturally, the title of the film had to be included in the song title, and thus was instituted the still-thriving practice of non-sequitur theme songs. One such was “Woman Disputed, I Love You.”
But it was the Hollywood musicals that occasioned the greatest changes. With the immense popularity of The Jazz Singer and Broadway Melody (1929), a slew of “all-singings, all-talkings” went into production. So Broadway musicals were transplanted to the screen, and when, inevitably, the supply ran dry, the composers themselves were brought west, among them the Gershwins, Kern, Rodgers, Berlin, and Youmans. In fact so many New Yorkers came to Hollywood that one of them, describing a studio’s songwriters’ ghetto, said, “All it needs is a bum on the bench and it’ll look like Central Park.”
The songwriters’ rush to Hollywood was Tin Pan Alley’s downfall.
The songwriters’ gold rush was the publishers’ downfall. After the initial burst of demand for Tin Pan Alley music, the movie companies eclipsed the publishers in importance and in power. Sheet-music sales fell. The studios proved their dominance in 1929 by buying virtually all the important publishing firms. The publisher was now just another hired hand.
Hollywood brought Tin Pan Alley to its knees, but radio dealt the death blow. In December 1940 ASCAP, which handled copyrights for every Alley writer, asked for a 100 percent increase—to $9 million from $4.5 million—in the annual fee paid it by the country’s radio stations. Radio refused, ASCAP retaliated with a boycott, and the stations fought back by opening up the airwaves to non-ASCAP material— songs in the public domain (“Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair” was heard almost hourly) and the blues and country music that had never been heard on national radio before. A new agreement was signed within the year—significantly for only $3 million—but the damage had been done. The Hollywood-New York musical nexus was broken for the first time, and youngsters like Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry began hearing the sounds they would fuse into rock ‘n’ roll.
There is no reason to expect Max Dreyfus to have been immune to history, and he wasn’t. In 1929 Warner Brothers bought Harms for an estimated $8 to $10 million. Dreyfus was a millionaire again, but as part of the package he agreed to stay out of the music business for five years. Warner’s retained him as a consultant, but as he said later: “This was all hooey. Picture people don’t take advice. They give orders.”
But Dreyfus had something up his sleeve. In 1926 his brother Louis had acquired Chappell & Company, the largest music-publishing firm in Britain, and when the five years were up, Max opened up an American office. His boys streamed back—Kern, Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, and the rest. But under the new rules of the game the publisher was no longer king. He had to have a tie-in of some kind with a record company, a star, a movie studio, or with Broadway. Dreyfus chose the last course—he had always been the most Broadway-conscious publisher on the Alley—and Chappell became inextricably bound up with the musical-comedy stage. Such writers as Lerner and Loewe, Frank Loesser, Burton Lane, Jule Styne, and Kurt Weill were added to the roster, as Chappell published and handled rights to nearly every prominent musical.
Max Dreyfus was still the dean of music publishing; the trouble was that music publishing was a less impressive thing to be dean of. But his behavior remained unchanged. He continued his meager lunches at the Astor, his weekends in the country, his careful tending of copyrights, and his devotion to his writers until he died in 1964, at the age of ninety. When his brother followed him not long afterward, the two widows sold Chappell to North American Philips for a reported price of $25 million. The man who John Golden thought was too frail to make the grade had outlived all his competitors, most of his boys, and Tin Pan Alley itself.