tin pan alley and the 78-rpm record -- 2/18/15

Today's selection -- from The B Side by Ben Yagoda. In the 1800s, popular America songs had seemingly endless verses and choruses. But with the introduction of 78-rpm records on 1902, all that changed. The legendary practitioners of this new, shortened form of songwriting were such luminaries as Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Arthur Schwartz, Harold Arlen, and Vernon Duke. This industry of composers was centered around West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, and both the location and industry came to be referred to as "Tin Pan Alley." The origins of the name "Tin Pan Alley" are unclear, but it is generally believed to be a reference to the percussive sound of many pianos used in that era.

George Gershwin

"Early-twentieth-century changes in the way music was delivered generally disadvantaged publishers, favored the songwriters (or at least the best songwriters), and led to creative innovations. The first such change was the 78-rpm wax record, introduced in 1902. The technology had not matured very much by 1909, so when the Copyright Act of that year specified that copyright applied to 'mechanical' reproductions of a musical work, what it had in mind were piano rolls. Nonetheless, the act applied to records as well, and Congress established a system whereby publishers received two cents for each recording or player piano roll. The Victor Talking Machine Company dominated the manufacture of both phonographs and records. The number of records it sold increased by an average of 20 percent each year from 1902 to 1923, from 1.7 million to 40.5 million. A milestone could be glimpsed in two 1920 hit songs ('Whispering' and 'The Japanese Sandman'), which sold two million records each. By 1929, more than 105 million records and 750,000 phonographs were manufactured in the United States, together valued at $100 million.

Irving Berlin

"The Alley had to make one compositional accommodation to the 78. Disks ran four minutes or less, so the old-fashioned song with endless verses and choruses was now out of the question. The slimming down was salutary. The jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman observed in 1926, 'Previous to 1897 every song had to have six or seven verses and each verse had six or seven lines. Now there are two verses of a scant four lines each, and even at that, the second verse counts scarcely at all. The whole story must be told in the very first verse and chorus and usually there is very little to it anyway, the music being what matters.'

"Presently the verse itself disappeared, or at most retained a vestigial presence, often skipped in recordings or performance. The meat of a typical standard song, it became understood, was four sections of eight bars each, most commonly in AABA form, with the B section, known as the bridge or release, sometimes modulating to another key. As Charles Hamm observed, 'The skill and genius of Tin Pan Alley composers (and lyricists) was revealed by what could be done within a tightly constricted formal structure, rather than by flights of fancy soaring to new and complex designs. One is reminded of similar restrictions embraced by writers of sonnets, by the Japanese poets of haiku verse, and by the great American bluesmen.'

Cole Porter

"A characteristic example is Cole Porter's 'I Get a Kick out of You,' from the 1934 show Anything Goes, which is simple in structure yet, in its way, perfect.

My story is much too sad to be told,
But practically everything leaves me totally cold.
The only exception I know is the case
When I'm out on a quiet spree,
Fighting vainly the old ennui,
And I suddenly turn and see your fabulous face.

Chorus (A):
I get no kick from champagne.
Mere alcohol doesn't thrill me at all.
So tell me why should it be true
That I get a kick out of you?

Some, they may go for cocaine.
I'm sure that if I took even one sniff
It would bore me terrifically, too.
Yet I get a kick out of you.

Bridge (B):
I get a kick every time I see
You standing there before me.
I get a kick though it's clear to see
You obviously do not adore me.

I get no kick in a plane.
Flying too high with some guy in the sky
Is my idea of nothing to do.
Yet I get a kick out of you.

"At the upper end of royalties, songwriters got two cents per piece of sheet music sold (three for Broadway show writers) and up to one-third of the publisher's cut of a recording. By the end of the decade, a hit could earn writers $5,000 to $10,000. But only the most consistently successful of them, such as Berlin (who was savvy enough to start his own publishing house), Walter Donaldson, and Gus Kahn, could expect to earn as much as $150,000 in a very good year."


Ben Yagoda


The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song


Riverhead Hardcover


Copyright 2015 by Ben Yagoda


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