"Tin Pan Alley" was the nickname given to the street where many music publishers worked during the period of 1880 to 1953. In the late 19th century, New York had become the epicenter of songwriting and music publishing, and publishers converged on the block of West 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. There are several stories about how the block got its name. One that is often repeated tells of a reporter for the New York Herald who was hired to write about the new business of sheet music publishing in the city. As he walked down 28th Street toward the publishing offices, he heard the dissonant chords and strings of competing pianos through the open windows. The sound, he remarked, sounded like a bunch of tin pans clanging.
During the period before Elvis Presley made a song's performance more important than its publication--when a song's popularity was determined not by the number of records it sold but by the number of sheet music copies it sold--publishing companies hired composers and lyricists on a permanent basis to create popular songs. The publishers then used extensive promotion campaigns to market these songs to the general public in sheet music form.
Never in the history of American popular music were so many genres centered in one area. Through the 1880s and into the early 1900s, the European operettas were a heavy influence on American songs. This period is referred to as the golden age of the ballad. Between 1900 and 1910, more than 1800 "rags" had been published on Tin Pan Alley, beginning with "Maple Leaf Rag" by Scott Joplin. In 1912, W.C. Handy introduced popular music to the underground sound of the Blues. By 1917, a recording by a new musician, Louis Armstrong, took over Tin Pan Alley and the 1920s were dedicated to the playing and recording of Jazz. Theatre, which had remained the entertainment of choice, fused all preceding stage shows--minstrel, vaudeville, musical comedy, revues, burlesque and variety--to create the spectacular Broadway production. By 1926, the first movie with sound came creating a new outlet for production music. Folk and Country Music was introduced to mainstream audiences in the mid-1930s. Big bands and swing music defined the 1930s and 40s, introducing new accompanying vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. In the early 40's, publishers imported Latin American sound from Brazil, Mexico and Cuba and English lyrics were adapted to foreign themes.
At the close of World War II, instrumental big bands faded behind the popularity of vocal groups and the new modern sound called "be-bop".
In the beginning of the 1950s, radio play and disc jockeys became more prominent, and records were being produced for sale to the public-mostly targeted toward teenagers--rather than sheet music created for adults who bought music for their home. Publishers were no longer in charge of the promotion of a song, and from 1953 to the present, rock and roll dominated the charts.
The collaboration between publishers, songwriters and songwriting teams created the greatest popular songs of our country's musical history. While obsolete now, Tin Pan Alley remains synonymous with the most prolific and diverse period in American popular music.
Chauncey Olcott was born in Buffalo, New York on July 21, 1858. After being educated at the Christian Brothers school, Olcott moved to London to study voice.
In his early professional career, he performed as a singer in minstrel shows and acted in several Broadway shows including Barry…
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