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Alexander's Ragtime Band

Composer: Berlin Irving

Instruments: Voice Piano

Tags: Song

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"Alexander's Ragtime Band" is a Tin Pan Alley song by American composer Irving Berlin released in 1911 and is often inaccurately cited as his first global hit. Although not a traditional ragtime song, Berlin's jaunty melody nonetheless "sold a million copies of sheet music in 1911, then another million in 1912, and continued to sell for years afterward. It was the number one song from October 1911 through January 1912." The song might be regarded as a narrative sequel to "Alexander and His Clarinet," which Berlin wrote with Ted Snyder in 1910. The earlier song is mostly concerned with a reconciliation between an African-American musician named Alexander Adams and his flame Eliza Johnson, but also highlights Alexander's innovative musical style.
Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" was introduced to the American public by vaudville comedienne Emma Carus, "one of the great stars of the period." A popular singer in the 1907 Ziegfeld Follies and Broadway features, Carus was a famous contralto of the vaudeville era renowned for her "low bass notes and high lung power." Carus' brassy performance of the song at the American Music Hall in Chicago on April 18, 1911, proved to be well-received, and she toured other metropolises such as Detroit and New York City with acclaimed performances that featured the catchy song.
The song as comically recorded by American singing duo Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan became the number one hit of 1911. Nearly two decades later, jazz singer Bessie Smith recorded a 1927 cover which became one of the hit songs of that year. The song's popularity re-surged in the 1930s with the release of a 1934 close harmony cover by the Boswell Sisters, and a 1938 musical film of the same name starring Tyrone Power and Alice Faye. The song was covered by a variety of artists such as Al Jolson, Billy Murray, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and others. Within fifty years of its release, the song had at least a dozen hit covers.
In early March 1911, 23-year-old composer Irving Berlin decided "to try his hand at [writing] an instrumental ragtime number." By this time, the ragtime phenomenon sparked by African-American pianist Scott Joplin had begun to wane, and two decades had passed since the musical genre's heyday in the Gay Nineties.
A tireless workaholic, Berlin purportedly composed the piece while in the noisy offices of a music publishing firm where "five or six pianos and as many vocalists were making bedlam with [other] songs of the day." Purportedly, Berlin composed the lyrics of the song as an ideational sequel to his earlier 1910 composition "Alexander and His Clarinet" which likewise featured a fictional African-American character named Alexander. The latter character had been purportedly inspired by Jack Alexander, a cornet-playing African-American bandleader who was friends with Berlin.
By the next day, Berlin had completed four pages of notes for the copyist-arranger. The song later would be "registered in the name of Ted Snyder Co., under E252990 following [its] publication [on] March 18, 1911." However, upon showing the composition to others, a number of objections were raised: The song "was too long, running beyond the conventional 32 bars; it was too rangy; and besides, it wasn't a real ragtime number anyhow." In fact, the song was a march as opposed to a rag and barely contained "a hint of syncopation." Its sole notability "comprised quotes from a bugle call and Swanee River." Due to such criticisms, many were unimpressed by the tune.
Undaunted by the indifferent response, Berlin submitted the song to Broadway theater producer Jesse L. Lasky who was preparing to debut an extravagant nightclub theater called "the Follies Bergère." However, Lasky was hesitant to the incorporate the pseudo-ragtime number. Ultimately, when the show opened on April 27, 1911, Lasky chose only to use its melody whistled by a performer, Otis Harlin. Thus the song failed to find an appreciative audience.
Fortunately for Berlin, vaudeville singer Emma Carus—famed for her "female baritone"—liked his humorous composition and introduced the song on April 18, 1911, at the American Music Hall in Chicago. She then embarked on a tour of the Midwest in Spring 1911. Consequently, Carus is often cited as largely responsible for showcasing the song to the country and helping contribute to its immense popularity. In gratitude, Berlin credited Carus on the cover of the sheet music. The catchy song became indelibly linked with Carus, although rival performers such as Al Jolson soon co-opted the hit tune.
Berlin also submitted the composition to be used in a special charity performance of the first Friars Frolic by the New York Friars Club. At the Friars Frolic, he performed the song himself on May 28, 1911, at the New Amsterdam Theater. In attendance was fellow composer George M. Cohan who instantly recognized the catchiness of the tune and told Berlin that the song would be an obvious hit.
— The New York Sun, May 1911
Following its initial release, Berlin's song in 1911 "sold a million copies of sheet music" and "another million in 1912, and continued to sell for years afterward." A subsequent phonograph recording of the song released in 1911 by comedic singers Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan became the best-selling recording in the United States for ten weeks.
Berlin's jaunty composition kick-started a ragtime jubilee—a belated popular celebration of the music that Scott Joplin and other African-American musicians had originated a decade prior. The "jumpy" tune was hailed by Variety magazine as "the musical sensation of the decade."
Over night, Berlin became a cultural luminary. Berlin was subsequently touted as the "King of Ragtime" by an adoring international press, an inaccurate title as the song "had little to do with ragtime and everything to do with ragtime audacity, alerting Europe to hot times in the colonies." Baffled by this new title, Berlin publicly insisted that he "didn't originate" ragtime but merely "crystallized it and brought it to people's attention." Historian Mark Sullivan later claimed that, with the auspicious debut of "Alexander's Ragtime Band," Berlin abruptly had "lifted ragtime from the depths of sordid dives to the apotheosis of fashionable vogue."
Although not a traditional ragtime song, the positive international reception of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1911 led to a musical and dance revival known as "the Ragtime Craze." At the time, ragtime music was described as "catching its second wind and ragtime dancing spreading like wildfire." One dancing couple in particular who exemplified this faddish sensation were Vernon and Irene Castle. The charismatic, trendsetting duo frequently danced to Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and his other "modernist" compositions. The Castles' "modern" dancing pared with Berlin's "modern" songs came to embody the ongoing culture clash between the waning propriety of the Edwardian era and the waxing joviality of the Ragtime revolution on the eve of World War I. The Daily Express wrote in 1913 that:
"In every London restaurant, park and theater, you hear [Berlin's] strains; Paris dances to it; Vienna has forsaken the waltz; Madrid has flung away her castanets, and Venice has forgotten her barcarolles. Ragtime has swept like a whirlwind over the earth."
Writers such as Edward Jablonski and Ian Whitcomb have emphasized the irony that, in the 1910s, even the upper class of the Russian Empire—a reactionary nation from which Berlin's Jewish forebears had been compelled to flee decades earlier—became enamored with "the ragtime beat with an abandon bordering on mania." Specifically, Prince Felix Yusupov, an affluent Russian aristocrat who married the niece of Tsar Nicholas II and later murdered Grigori Rasputin, was described by British socialite Lady Diana Cooper as dancing "around the ballroom like a demented worm" and shouting, "More ragtime!"
Hearing of such improper behavior, cultural commentators diagnosed such manic individuals as "bitten by the ragtime bug" and behaving like "a dog with rabies." They declared that "whether [the ragtime mania] is simply a passing phase of our decadent culture or an infectious disease which has come to stay, like la grippe or leprosy, time alone can show."
As the years passed, Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" had many recurrent manifestations as many artists covered it: Billy Murray, in 1912; Bessie Smith, in 1927; Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, in 1930; the Boswell Sisters, in 1934; Louis Armstrong, in 1937; Bing Crosby and Connee Boswell, in 1938; Johnny Mercer, in 1945; Al Jolson, in 1947; Nellie Lutcher, in 1948, and Ray Charles in 1959. Consequently, "Alexander's Ragtime Band" had a dozen hit covers within the half-a-century prior to 1960.
In 1953, Ethel Merman sang the song before a live television audience of 60 million persons (broadcast live over the NBC and CBS networks) as part of The Ford 50th Anniversary Show.
Decades later, reflecting upon the song's unlikely success, Berlin recalled he was utterly astounded by the immediate global acclamation and continued popularity of the innocuous tune. He speculated that its unforeseen success was perhaps due to the lyrics which, although farcical and "silly," were "fundamentally right" and the piece "started the heels and shoulders of all America and a good section of Europe to rocking."
In 1937, Irving Berlin was approached by 20th Century Fox to write a story treatment for an upcoming film tentatively entitled Alexander's Ragtime Band. Berlin agreed to write a story outline for the film which featured twenty-six of Berlin's well-known musical scores. During press interviews promoting the film prior to its premiere, Berlin decried articles by the American press which painted ragtime as "the forerunner of jazz." Berlin stated: "Ragtime really shouldn't be called 'the forerunner of jazz' or 'the father of jazz' because, as everyone will tell when they hear some of the old rags, ragtime and jazz are the same."
Released on August 5, 1938, Alexander's Ragtime Band starring Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, and Don Ameche was a smash hit and grossed in excess of five million dollars. However, soon after the film's release, a plagiarism lawsuit was filed by writer Marie Cooper Dieckhaus. After a trial in which evidence was presented, a federal judge ruled in Dieckhaus' favor that Berlin had stolen the plot of her unpublished 1937 manuscript and used many of its elements for the film. Dieckhaus had submitted the unpublished manuscript in 1937 to various Hollywood studios, literary agents, and other individuals for their perusal. The judge believed that, after rejecting her manuscript, much of her work was nonetheless appropriated. In 1946, the ruling was reversed on appeal.
There are allegations that Berlin purloined the melody for "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (in particular, the four notes of "oh, ma honey") from drafts of "Mayflower Rag" and "A Real Slow Drag" by prolific composer Scott Joplin. Berlin and Joplin were acquaintances in New York, and Berlin had opportunities to hear Joplin's scores prior to publication. At the time, "one of Berlin's functions at the Ted Snyder Music Company was to be on the lookout for publishable music by other composers."
Allegedly, Berlin "heard Joplin's music in one of the offices, played by a staff musician (since Berlin could not read music) or by Joplin himself." According to one account:
"Joplin took some music to Irving Berlin, and Berlin kept it for some time. Joplin went back and Berlin said he couldn't use [the song]. When 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' came out, Joplin said, 'That's my tune.'"
Joplin's widow claimed that, "after Scott had finished writing [Treemonisha], and while he was showing it around, hoping to get it published, [Berlin] stole the theme, and made it into a popular song. The number was quite a hit, too, but that didn't do Scott any good." A relative of John Stillwell Stark, Joplin's music publisher, asserted "the publication of 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' brought Joplin to tears because it was his [own] composition." Joplin would later die penniless and was buried in an unmarked grave in Queens, New York, on April 1, 1917. As writer Edward A. Berlin notes in King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era:
"There were also rumors heard throughout Tin Pan Alley to the effect that Alexander's Ragtime Band had actually been written by a black man, and even a quarter-century later [composer] W.C. Handy told an audience that 'Irving Berlin got all his ideas and most of his music from the late Scott Joplin.' Berlin was aware of the rumors and addressed the issue in a magazine interview in 1916."
For the next half-century, Berlin was incensed by the allegation that a "'black boy' [sic] had written 'Alexander's Ragtime Band'." Responding to his detractors, Berlin stated: "If a negro could write 'Alexander,' why couldn't I? ... If they could produce the negro and he had another hit like 'Alexander' in his system, I would choke it out of him and give him twenty thousands dollars in the bargain." In 1914, Berlin further winked at the allegation in the lyrics of his composition "He's A Rag Picker." The song features a verse in which a "black character" named Mose claims authorship of "Alexander's Ragtime Band."
Although the 1911 sheet music cover drawn by artist John Frew depicts the band's musicians as either white or biracial, Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band"—and his earlier 1910 composition "Alexander and His Clarinet"—employ certain idiomatic expressions ("oh, ma honey," "honey lamb") and vernacular English ("bestest band what am") in the lyrics to indicate to the listener that the characters in the song should be understood to be African-American.
For example, an often-omitted and risqué second verse identifies the race of Alexander's clarinet player:
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