At the beginning of the 20th century, New York-born composer William C. Polla (1876-1939) published piano rags and salon music under the name W.C. Powell and ran a Chicago-based publishing house under his own name. He also headed the W.C. Polla Orchestra, which recorded a few sides for Columbia in the mid-1920s. Although his classic “Dancing Tambourine” is one of the most delightful piano novelties ever published, it represents a revolutionary departure from the genre. By the late 1920s, the evolved canon stated that the piano novelty should be written in the key of D major and have a melody that is studded with triplets and voiced in intervals of fourths. Polla bowed to tradition by inserting a triplet in the third measure of the first phrase of the piece, but in other respects, he broke all the rules. The result is an iconoclastic masterpiece that, when new, attracted such pianistic talents as Pauline Alpert (Victor 21251 and Duo-Art piano roll 713430) and Rube Bloom (Okeh 40901). Continued entyhusi9asm for the piece was ensured with its publication as a song with words by Phil Ponce. It was also recorded in orchestral transcription by such dance bands as Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra (Victor 20972) and Sam Lanin and his Famous Players (Okeh 40874).
Moonlight on the Ganges
Since the classical era, Westerners have been captivated by the mysterious allure of the Orient. The “orientalizing” era of Classical Greece was on manifestation of this attraction; the “oriental fox trot” of the early twentieth century is another. “Moonlight on the Ganges” was not the first and certainly not the last song of this genre, but it certainly was the most successful example of its kind in 1926.
“Deep Night” reveals the more melancholy, pensive, and passionate side of the popular music of the 1920s. The song’s lyricist was none other than popular band leader Rudy Vallée, who featured the song on his Fleishmann’s Yeast NBC Radio Show in 1929 and recorded it for Victor (21868) as well. The composer, Charlie Henderson (1907-1970), was a Harvard graduate who studied composition with Walter Piston. He had a successful career as a pianist, arranger, composer, and musical director for radio, film, stage, and television.
Up in the Clouds
Thinking of You
Upon its opening on 10 October 1927 at the 44th Street Theater, Broadway was entranced with the 5 O’Clock Girl, starring Oscar Shaw and Mary Eaton. Running for 280 performances, it was by all measurements a smash hit. The book was written by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson. The song writing team of Bert Kalmar (1884-1947) and Harry Ruby (1895-1974) filled the score with tuneful, up-lifting, and subtly “gershwinesque” songs, of which “Up in the Clouds” is a representative example. “Thinking of You” was the great ballad number from the show.
Few novelty piano pieces ever matched “Flapperette” for sweetness and charm. The classic canons of the form are observed but without descending to mere formula. Native New Yorker Jesse Greer (1896-1970) was largely known as a composer of popular songs, but he also wrote songs for such Broadway productions as Earl Carroll’s Vanities (the 1926 and 1928 editions), Say When!, and Lovely Lady. In the late 1920s, Greer was especially active writing songs hits for such MGM talking pictures as the Hollywood Revue of 1929 and Marianne (1929).
Lee Sims (1898-1966) was a gifted pianist, arranger, and composer whose heyday was the 1920s. He also composed the scores to a number of Hollywood movies such as Dinner at the Ritz (new World, 1927), starring David Niven. Though strictly a solo piano composition, “Meditation” contains the stylistic innovations that distinguished the interpretive approach Sims took to popular songs. Sims employed a successful and faultlessly executed juxtaposition of opposites, e.g., slow and fast; sweet and hot; rubato and a tempo, etc. “Mediation” also reveals Sims’ masterful handling of advanced chord structures and rhythmic patterns, influenced by the music of Debussy, ravel, and Stravinsky.
Zwei dunkle Augen, zwei Eier im Glass!
After arriving in Hollywood in the 1930s, German-born composer Friedrich Hollaender (1896-1976), who Americanized his name to Frederick Hollander, composed the scores for such Paramount films as The Jungle Princess (1936), True Confession (1937), and the Columbia surrealist classic, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953). Hollaender’s greatest international success, however, was the 1930 UFA film The Blue Angel, starring Marlene Dietrich, who immortalized the film’s hit song, “Falling in Love Again.” Prior to this, Hollaender had already enjoyed a stellar career writing songs for the German cinema, the Berlin musical stage, and for cabaret shows. At the age of 18, he had been appointed the associate conductor at the Prague Opera House. The haunting tango “Zwei dunkle Augen, zwei Eier im Glass!,” for which Hollaender also wrote the lyrics, and whose enigmatic title translates into English as “Two dark eyes, two eggs in the glass!,” reveals a satirical and refreshingly self-mocking side of Berlin cabaret life.
Innocent Ingenue Baby
George Gershwin’s (19898-1937) 1922 song, “Innocent Ingenue Baby,” was introduced by John Merkyl and ensemble in Our Nell, which opened at the Nora Bayes Theatre in New York on 4 December 1922, closing after only 40 performances. In 1923, the song was reused in the Empire Theatre, London, production The Rainbow after being renamed “Innocent Lonesome Blue Baby” and given a new set of lyrics by Clifford Grey.
To radio audiences in the 1930s, Muriel Pollock (1895-1971) was the staff organist of the NBC radio network. She was also an accomplished pianist and duo pianist in partnership with Constance Mering. Together, they recorded piano rolls for Duo-Art and gramophone records for Columbia. In the 1930s, Pollock teamed up won the radio with pianist and composer Vee Lawnhurst to form an entertaining duo piano team. In 1921, she joined the Aeolian company as editor, arranger, and recording artist of player piano rolls for the prestigious Duo-Art label. She was also an accomplished songwriter. In addition to composing a number of independent songs, she contributed songs to John Murray Anderson’s Jack and Jill in 1923 and, in 1929, wrote the score for the Schubert revue Pleasure Bound at the Majestic Theatre. The harmonic intricacy and balance of “Rooster Rag” gives ample evidence of Pollock’s extensive classical training. Though rare today, this rag was not entirely unknown in its day, having been recorded by Frank Banta for Duo-Art (1549).
Dancing the Devil Away
“Dancing the Devil Away” was first introduced on 22 March 1927 at the New Amsterdam Theatre by Mary Eaton in the Broadway show Lucky, whose plot centered on the life of a female pearl diver named, surprisingly enough, ”Lucky.” The show closed after only 671 performances. The best song from the show, however, was given a new chance for success three years later in the 1930 Radio picture The Cuckoos, starring the comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey.
Looking for a Boy
George Gershwin’s show Tip Toes opened on 28 December 1925 at the Liberty Theatre and ran for a healthy 194 performances. The star, Queenie Smith, introduced “Looking for a Boy” to the sparkling accompaniment of Victor Arden and Phil Ohman, who recorded the song with their Orchestra in the same year (Brunswick 3035).
In the rush to fill the popular demand for piano novelties, the San Francisco-based publisher Sherman, Clay & Company published a suite of modernistic and tuneful pieces under the striking title, Synco-Thots, from which “Idawanna” has been drawn. The contrast between the “European,” classical, genteel, sparkling triplets of the first section and the “African,” jazzy, bass-driven, but tamed blues of the last section strongly appealed to music-lovers of the day. This combination of these two disparate musical elements formed the essence of the symphonic jazz of the era, championed by conductor Paul Whiteman. Idawanna’s composer, Boston-born Newell Chase (1904-1955), was a classically trained pianist, taking degrees at Boston University, Harvard University, and the New England Conservatory of Music. Like many classical pianists of his day, he delighted in popular music, making a good number of piano rolls for the Duo-Art reproducing piano. In the 1920s, he conducted and played piano for Dance Orchestras such as Perley Breed’s Shepard Colonial Orchestra, which recorded for Gennet in 1924. Chase also served as the assistant conductor for the Capital Theatre in New York, and, in 1928, he went to Hollywood to score silent films. In 1930, he wrote songs for Paramount’s screen adaptation of The Vagabond King, and the Maurice Chevalier musical Playboy of Paris. For this last musical, he collaborated with Richard A. Whiting on the music for the perennial standard, ‘My Ideal.” Leo Robin supplied the lyrics. During the 1930s, Chase wrote for radio.
Two Little Babes in the Wood
“Two Little Babes in the Wood” was first heard in the 1924 edition of the Greenwich Village Follies, which opened at the Sam S. Schubert Theatre in New York On September 16, 1924. The Dolly Sisters starred in the show and the fabulous Orchestra of Vincent Lopez provided the accompaniment. By October, the song had been dropped from the show. Porter reused the song in the modernistic musical Paris, which opened at the Music Box Theatre on 8 October 1928. The star this time was the sophisticated and naughty Irene Bordoni and the featured guest orchestra was Irving Aaronson and His Commandeers. As A Waltz form, it emphasizes the subtle irony of Porter’s “flapperization” of this Hans Christian Anderson tale.
Castilian (Parisian Tango)
Oakland California-born Lee S. Roberts (1876-1939) was an accomplished pianist, equally brilliant playing classical, salon, or popular music. In 1912, he developed the QRS artist-recorded music rolls and catalogue and, by 1919, rose to the rank of vice-president of the company. He made countless piano rolls for QRS, Recordo, Apollo, Ampico, and Artecho. The byline in a QRS advertisement claimed that Roberts was “the world’s leading authority on player rolls.” Roberts was also a prolific composer of salon music and popular songs, being best remembered for his 1918 hits “Smiles” and “Patches.” From 1928 to 1936, he was staff pianist at San Francisco radio stations NBC, KRO, and KFRC. Roberts’ thrilling 196 piece, “Castilian,” typified the tango craze of the day.
Turn on the Heat
As a musical argument in favor of increased amorous activities, “Turn on the Heat” has few contenders. The magnificent production number for the song, choreographed by Seymour Felix, from the 1929 Fox film Sunny Side Up, has already achieved a legendary status among film historians for its enthusiastic phallacisim. The first-rate song writing team of De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson helped make this picture one of the most inventive and original musicals of the year.
With the success of The Broadway Melody (1929), MGM’s first musical picture, composer Nacio Herb Brown (1896-1964) instantly rose to become one of the most respected composers in Hollywood. Before this, though, he was a Southern California real-estate mogul who composer popular songs on the side. In 1926, after Brown had added lyrics to his piano novelty “Doll Dance,” Doris Eaton introduced it in the Hollywood Music Box Revue in Los Angeles. As an instrumental solo, “Doll Dance” has inspired creative interpretations from virtuoso pianists like Pauline Alpert (Victor 21252), Rube Bloom (Okeh 40842), the duo-piano team of Muriel Pollack and Constance Mering (Columbia 1004), orchestra like Earl Burtnett and his Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel Orchestra (Columbia 934), and B.A. Rolfe’s Palais d’Or Orchestra (Edison 52013-R), and even virtuoso banjoist Eddie Peabody (Victor 20698).
There’s a Lump of Sugar Down in Dixie
Since its beginnings, Tin Pan Alley has traditionally ensured success by depending on formula writing. One such formula, into which thousands of songs fit, is the “nostalgia for the south” song. Since all of these songs appear to have been written by hard-boiled New Yorkers, most of whom probably never traveled any further south than Wall Street, one suspects that a bit of territoriality may lurk behind songs that encourage displaced Southerners to go back where they belong. “There’s a Lump of Sugar Down in Dixie” is certainly one of the most compelling songs of this genre published in 1918. The song’s composer, Albert Gumble (1883-1946), masterfully demonstrates how a melody constructed on a simple ascending scale can effectively be used to create mounting emotional intensity.
Me and the Boy Friend
As a genre song, “Me and the Boy Friend” falls into the category of songs whose message is “We may be poor, but as long as we love each other and mind our station, we will be happy.” Lyricist Sidney Clare (1892-1972) transcended the genre and wrote clever lyrics that say so much by saying so little. They form a model of attractively witty understatement that transforms a narrative that in less skilled hands might have repelled refined tastes. At Bring Crosby’s request, the song’s composer, Italian-born Tin Pan Alley veteran James V. Monaco (1885-1945), came to Paramount Studios in 1936 to write the songs for Crosby’s subsequent pictures.
Texas Fox Trot
David Wendel Fentress Guion (pronounced “guy-on”) (1895-1981) was an accomplished pianist and a prolific composer and arranger of original and folk-based art songs, original piano pieces, and, most especially, of remarkable concert transcriptions of western folk songs such as “Turkey in the Straw, “Arkansas Traveler,” and “Sheep and Goat.” Guion studied piano with Leopold Godowsky in Vienna from 1911 to 1914. After his return to Texas in 1915, he was occupied in various teaching posts in Texas and even taught at the Chicago College of Music. Guion’s reputation rests on his sensitive, serious, and artistic settings of Texas cowboy songs and works in the Black idiom. Of these, the most famous are the orchestral suites “Southern Nights Suite,” “Alley Tunes,” “Mother Goose Suite,” and the African ballet suite, “Shingandi” (1929). From 1931 to 1932, he enjoyed a career as a radio personality in Hearing America with Guion and David Guion and His Orchestra, during which he related colorful stories, accompanied singers, and performed his own piano works. In 1936, he was commissioned to write a musical panorama, “Cavalcade of America,” for the 1936 Texas Centennial. The “Texas Fox Trot” is one of the first pieces Guion published. When new, it was recorded at breakneck speed by Jauda’s Dance Orchestra (Edison 50625-L) and as a pretend piano duet by Rudolph Erlebach and the fictitious Dorothy Herzog for Duo-Art (1585).
A Room with a View
On 7 November 1928, the lights of Broadway, or at least those above the Selwyn Theatre, were illuminated with the names of a host of visiting dignitaries from the London musical stage. Noel Coward, Beatrice Lillie, and Florence Desmond all starred in This Year of Grace, for which Coward (1899-1973) also wrote all the music. The show ran for 157 performances and its hit song, “A Room with a View,” has been a popular favorite ever since. The song was also featured in Cochran’s 1928 Review in London.
Chong (He Come from Hong Kong)
Tin Pan Alley composers adored the Chinese musical motifs that figure predominantly in oriental songs such as “Chong.” Ironically, even though the “Chinese” motif instantly and usefully signals Western ears that the song being listened to is about China, such patterns are not really characteristic of authentic Chinese music. Composer Harold Weeks (1893-1967), who specialized in oriental songs, did not concern himself with such trivialities and instead concentrated on giving the public what it wanted. His hits, such as “Hindustan” (1918), “Cairo” (1919), and, of course, “Chong” (1919), satisfied this demand. In conjunction with the exotic cover art produced for the sheet music, songs such as “Chong” evoked an image of the Orient that fascinated the average music-lover of the early 20th century in a way that can scarcely be imagined today.