A brief history of Pop Music

by Piero Scaruffi
A chapter of my History of Popular Music

TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.


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(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Popular Music")

The USA up to World War II


New York: Tin Pan Alley

TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

The early British colonists of North America brought with them three kinds of music: religious music, folk dances and nursery rhymes. The function of religion music was amplified by the "camp meetings" that started in 1801 in Kentucky and rapidly spread throughout the Southeast. Thousands of people would gather to listen to Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist preachers and to worship God with psalms that were descendants of the old Calvinist canon.

The first lay songs were patriotic in nature: Yankee Doodle (178#), a rewrite of the Dutch folk song "Yanker Dudel", Philip Phile's Hail Columbia (1798), John Newton's Amazing Grace (1779), based on an anonymous folk melody, Francis Scott Key's The Star Spangled Banner (1814) Samuel Smith's America (1831), based on a German folk song, The Yellow Rose of Texas (1858), by an unknown author, John Brown's Body (1861), a variant on William Steffe's camp-meeting hymn Say Brothers Will You Meet Us On Canaan's Happy Shore? (1856), Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore's When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again (1863), Samuel Ward's America The Beautiful (1882), all the way to Carrie Jacobs Bond's Oh Shenandoah (1901).

In Pennsylvania, Stephen Foster's songs, such as Oh Susanna (1848), composed for a "minstrel show" but soon become the anthem of California's gold rush, Old Uncle Ned (1848), his first song to display the influence of negro folklore, Camptown Races (1850), Old Folks at Home (1851), Massa's in de Cold Ground (1852), another sketch of black life, My Old Kentucky Home (1853), Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair (1854), Old Black Joe (1860) and Beautiful Dreamer (1864) very much introduced a paradigm that would rule America's popular music for a century: a combination of Anglo-Irish narrative structures, negro rhythms and Italian operatic melody.

But the pop stars of the 19th century were Italian opera singers. In fact, the the Italian "bel canto" style would remain the dominant style of singing in American pop music. Most of the sheet music sold in the 19th century was opera, followed by minstrel shows.

John Philip Sousa, the leader of the most popular "marching band", ruled the early charts with Washington Post March (1889) and Semper Fidelis (1890), besides composing Stars and Stripes Forever (1897) and In The Good Old Summertime (1903), as well as the operetta El Capitan (1896).

Paul Dresser's nostalgic stories, such as The Letter That Never Came (1884), On The Banks of the Wabash (1897), Just Tell Them That You Saw Me (1895) and My Gal Sal (1905), seemed to presage the dramatic changes that lay ahead (for both the industry and the nation).

Charles Harris' After the Ball (1892) was the first music sheet that sold one million copies. Its success is normally credited with starting the commercial exploitation of popular music, and thus the music industry itself. Other influential or popular songs of the era include: George Washington Johnson's Laughing Song (1891), whose recorded version (the cylinder, not just the music sheet) was probably the best seller of the cylinder era, Henry Sayers' Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-Der-E (1891), Percy Gaunt's The Bowery (1892), Harry Dacre's Daisy Bell (1892), James Blake's Sidewalks Of New York (1894), Charles Ward's The Band Played On (1895), Theo Metz's A Hot Time In The Old Town (1896), Gussie Davis' In The Baggage Coach Ahead (1896), the first hit by a black songwriter, James Thornton's When You Were Sweet Sixteen (1898), Will Cobb's Good Bye Dolly Gray (1900), George Evans' In The Good Old Summertime (1902), Kerry Mills' Meet Me In St Louis (1904), Alex Rogers' Nobody (1905), Albert von Tilzer's That's What The Daisy Said (1903) and Take Me Out To The Ballgame (1908), Gus Edwards' By The Light Of The Silvery Moon (1909), Shelton Brooks' Some Of These Days (1910), Cecil Macklin's Too Much Mustard (1912), Lewis Muir's Waiting For The Robert E. Lee (1912), James Royce Shannon's Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral (1914),

Harry von Tilzer, brother of Albert, was one of the most popular songwriters at the turn of the century, thanks to I Love You Both (1892), My Old New Hampshire Home (1898), I'd Leave My Happy Home For You (1899), A Bird In A Gilded Cage (1900), On A Sunday Afternoon (1902), Down Where The Wurzberger Flows (1902), Wait Till The Sun Shines Nellie (1905), I Want A Girl Just Like The Girl That Married Dear Old Dad (1911).

Victor Herbert was the first classical composer to create pop music, for example Gypsy Love Song (1898), Kiss Me Again (1905), Because You're You (1906).

Theodore Morse composed Dear Old Girl (1903), Oysters And Clams (1904), Keep On the Sunny Side (1906), Make Believe (1907), M-O-T-H-E-R (1915), and two songs that started a "monkey" craze: In Monkey Land (1907) and Down In Jungle Town (1908).

New York music publishers started renting offices around 28th Street (between Sixth Avenue and Broadway), next to the vaudeville theaters of 27th Street, an area that soon came to be known as "Tin Pan Alley". Sheet music was the primary "product" of popular music and the industry was dominated by music publishing houses.

A technological innovation changed the format, if not the beneficiaries, of popular music. The first sound recording was made in 1860 by the French inventor Eduard-Leon Scott, who used his "phonautograph" to make visual recordings of sound, but the father of the recording industry is the USA inventor Thomas Edison, who built the first "phonograph" (a musical cylinder). In 1887, Emile Berliner built the first gramophone, that played sound recorded at 78 RPM on a flat record (as opposed to Edison's cylinder) made of shellac. The new device proved to be popular with masses that were eager to listen to the voices of the famous opera stars, starting with Ferruccio Giannini singing Giuseppe Verdi's La Donna E` Mobile (1896). Million of gramophones were sold in the first decade of the 20th century. It made the fortune of Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, whose Vesti la Giubba (1902) became the first million seller (record, not sheet or cylinder). In fact, it was his success that turned the gramophone into an indispensable appliance. It also turned countless furniture stores (the place where gramophones were sold) into recording studios for local musicians. Fred Gaisberg (the same man who had recorded Giannini, Caruso and Beniamino Gigli) opened the first recording studio, in Philadelphia, and traveled around the world to make the first "field recordings" of ethnic music (originally meant as marketing stints to promote the gramophone all over the world). Edward Easton had already founded in 1889 the first record label, Columbia, that in 1891 had a catalog of 200 cylinders, and in 1898 began pressing discs. In 1901, Emile Berliner himself founded the record label Victor Talking Machines, specifically for discs. In 1894 the weekly Billboard magazine began publication, offering "charts" of music sales. In 1898 the Gramophone Company or HMV (His Master's Voice) bought the European rights to Emile Berliner's gramophone, and soon became the largest record company in the world.

Len Spencer was probably the first singer to realize that there was a market for recording other people's music. His Arkansas Traveler (1900) was also a best-seller (perhaps also a million seller) and was followed by a string of popular songs, from James Bland's Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny to George Cohan's I Guess I'll Have To Telegraph My Baby, as well as countless "coon songs". Irish tenor John McCormack imitated both Caruso and Spencer, recording both popular music (mostly for the British audience, starting in 1906) and operatic arias (mostly for the USA audience, from 1910) and went on to sell 200 million records.

Henry Burr, launched by Come Down Ma Evening Star (1903) and In The Shade Of The Old Apple Tree (1905), and Bill Murray, who sang most of George Cohan's compositions, became the most famous singer of the early decades of recording (Ada Jones was the most popular among women). Besides solo singers, the other popular format was the vocal quartet, for example the Hayden Quartet and the Empire City Quartet, both of which recorded Sweet Adeline (1904).

Now music had a voice and a name (of the singer), not just a song title and a song composer.

Indirectly, that invention helped establish both white and black rural music, because black music was oriented towards the performer, not the sheet. The first jazz record was cut in New York in 1917. The first records of "hillbilly music" were also cut at this time.

Tin Pan Alley's golden years were the "Roaring Twenties". By 1921, 106 million records were sold yearly in the USA, mostly published on "Tin Pan Alley", but control of the market was already shifting towards the record companies. In 1925 a technical innovation made it even easier to cut records: the electrical recording process was commercially introduced, quickly replacing the old mechanical one. Then the speed of 78.26 RPM became the standard because it was the easiest to obtain using the standard 3600-rpm motor and 46-tooth gear (78.26 = 3600/46). Thus 1926 and 1927 witnessed a boom in recording (particularly of classical music). In october 1926, the first major magazine of recording, the "Phonograph Monthly Review" began publication.

It is not a coincidence that, at about this time, new record companies were created that were to last for a century. In 1921 General Electric acquired the American branch of Marconi Wireless Telegraph and renamed it "Radio Corporation of America" (RCA). In 1924 the Music Corporation of America (MCA) was founded in Chicago as a talent agency, and the German record company Deutsche Grammophon (DG) opened the Polydor company to distribute records abroad. In 1929 Decca was founded in Britain by Edward Lewis, and RCA purchased the glorious Victor Talking Machines. In 1931 EMI (Electrical and Musical Industries), formed by the merger of Gramophone (HMV) and the British subsidiary of Columbia, by far the largest record label in the world (as it will be for the next 50 years), opened the largest recording studio in the world at Abbey Road in London.

Record companies soon realized that the support was not adequate to a mass market. In 1926 Vitaphone introduced 16-inch acetate-coated shellac discs playing at 33 1/3 RPM (a size and speed calculated to be the equivalent of a reel of film because they were originally meant for the soundtrack of Alan Crosland's Don Juan). But they were hardly noticed. This "long playing" format came to be called "album" because, before its invention, long recordings used to be packaged in "albums" of several 78-RPM records.

Another innovation was crucial to the dissemination of music. In 1895 Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi had invented radio broadcasting, but it took a while for people to realize that it could be used beyond the maritime realm (initially, for about 20 years it was mainly used by ships). When the USA entered World War I, the government decided that radio broadcasting was a strategic technology and helped perfect it to the point that, at the end of the war, in 1920, Westinghouse Electric established a commercial radio station, "KDKA". It also played records. In 1921 a radio station made the first broadcast of a sporting event (a boxing match). In 1926 General Electric started the "National Broadcasting Company" (NBC), run by David Sarnoff, and in 1928 the United Independent Broadcasters (later renamed Columbia Broadcasting System, or CBS), run by William Paley, was created by 47 affiliate stations. These American pioneers thought that the money was not to be made by selling the programs (that remained free in the USA), but by selling radios. In 1922 there were only 60,000 radios in the USA, but in 1929 there were more than 10 million. (It was only later that they also started making money with advertising). In Europe, owners of radio had to pay a fee to the government. In the USA, the number of radio stations increased dramatically, whereas in Europe governments controlled radio broadcasting. That was one of the reasons that popular music developed in such different ways in the USA and in Europe.

The effect of the new media and the new distribution channels was dramatic. Tin Pan Alley's music was changing rapidly.

Richard Whiting interpreted the new business mood with his popular tunes: Till We Meet Again (1918), one of the biggest hits of the era, The Japanese Sandman (1920), Ain't We Got Fun (1921), Sleepy Time Gal (1926), Louise (1929).


Influenced by jazz, pianist and singer Hoagy Carmichael was perhaps the first great songwriter of the century (and the prototype of the "singer-songwriter"), as Free Wheelin' (1924), a "hot jazz" piece (recorded by Bix Beiderbecke as Riverboat Shuffle), Washboard Blues (1927), Stardust (1929), styled as a ragtime and reminiscent of Louis Armstrong's Potato Head Blues (1927), Rockin's Chair (1929), a duet with Armstrong, Lazy River (1930), recorded with Beiderbecke, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Tom and Jimmy Dorsey, Georgia on My Mind (1930), Lazy Bones (1933) attest, but much of published music still served the Broadway stages. He was also one of the first white musicians to truly "understand" the rhythm of black music.

Walter Donaldson had some of the greatest hits of the era: My Mammy (1918) for Al Jolson, Yes Sir That's My Baby (1925), My Blue Heaven (1927), that, recorded by Gene Austin, would remain the all-time best-seller for two decades, At Sundown (1927), Love Me Or Leave Me (1928), that turned Ruth Etting into a star, Making Whoopee (1929), My Baby Just Cares for Me (1930).

Fred Ahlert composed I'll Get By (1928), Mean To me (1929), I Don't Know Why (1931), Where The Blue of the Night Meets The Gold of the Day (1931). Jose Padilla's La Violetera (1923) was one of the earliest Latin hits. Other hits between the first world war and the Depression were: Vincent Rose's Whispering (1920) and Avalon (1920), Guy Massey's The Prisoner's Song (1924) and Herman Hupfeld's As Time Goes By (1931).

Johnny Black's Dardanella (1920), sung by Ben Selvin, was the first massive hit by a dance song.

Radio shows and vaudeville shows often presented "blues singers", who were simply white ladies from the South singing melancholy tunes. The Boswell Sisters were a piano-cello-violin trio from New Orleans, who started recording in 1925 but became famous in New York in the 1930s with orchestral numbers, including Sammy Fain's When I Take My Sugar to Tea (1931) and one titled Rock And Roll (1934), a black euphemism for the sexual act.

Sammy Fain, who had already composed Let A Smile Be Your Umbrella (1927) and Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang Of Mine (1929), became one of the first to specialize in songs for films: You Brought A New Kind of Love To Me (1930) for Maurice Chevalier, When I Take My Sugar to Tea (1931) for the Boswell Sisters, I Can Dream Can't I (1938), I'll Be Seeing You (1938), Dear Hearts And Gentle People (1949) for Bing Crosby, Secret Love (1953) for Doris Day, Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing (1955) for the Four Aces, April Love (1957) for Pat Boone, A Certain Smile (1958) for Johnny Mathis.


Bing Crosby, who debuted in 1926 with Paul Whiteman's big band in Los Angeles, featuring Bix Beiderbecke on cornet, was the best-selling singer of the first half of the 20th century, and one of the most popular radio stars of all times (on the "Kraft Music Hall" show since 1935). Crosby's style of singing de facto invented the "crooning" style in opposition to Al Jolson's shouting style. Crooning was derived from the "bel canto" of the Italian opera but focused on nuances rather than power (a fact also due to the electrical microphone, that allowed singers to care about pathos instead of volume). He became a star, suddenly, in 1931, at the age of 28, when he started recording on his own but his repertory was mainly covers such as Al Hoffman's I Apologize (1931), Jay Gorney's Brother Can You Spare a Dime? (1932), Harry Warren's You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me (1933), Silent Night Holy Night (1934), the English version of Austrian church organist Franz Gruber's Stille Nacht Heilige Nacht (1818) of a century earlier, that became a Christmas classic. His vocal skills increased steadily through Arthur Johnston's classics Pennies from Heaven (1936), that remained ten weeks at the top of the charts, Harry Warren's Remember Me (1937) and You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby (1938), James Monaco's I've Got A Pocketful Of Dreams (1938) and Only Forever (1940), Irving Berlin's White Christmas (1941), Jimmy Van Heusen's Swinging On a Star (1944), Sammy Fain's I'll Be Seeing You (1944) etc. Much credit for their success went to his arranger, John Scott Trotter, and his orchestra.

The term "crooner" (thanks to a vocal effect produced via a megaphone) was actually first used to refer to Rudy Vallee, who was the most celebrated star of the 1930s (the first pop singer to cause mass hysteria), although The Vagabond Lover (1929), My Time Is Your Time (1929), Betty Co-Ed (1931) and Herman Hupfield's As Time Goes By (1931).

The first Italian-American stars were Russ Columbo, who became famous in the 1930s with Fred Ahlert's I Don't Know Why (1931) and the first recording of Leo Robin's Prisoner Of Love (1931), and Jimmy Durante, whose many hits included Inka Dinka Do (1934) and The Guy Who Found The Lost Chord (1947).

The biggest hit of the 1930s came from Britain, Jack Strachey's These Foolish Things (1936), originally written for a revue.

Two instruments debuted that were to become the staple of rock bands: Adolph Rickenbacker invented (1931) the electric guitar and Laurens Hammond invented (1933) the Hammond organ. Also important for the future of rock media, in 1930 the first "fanzines" debuted: these were science fiction pulp magazines ("Comet" and "Time Traveller") that allowed sci-fi fans to communicate. They created an "underground" community.

The market for records collapsed during the Great Depression (in 1933 only six million records were sold in the USA). The recovery was slow, but in 1935 the radio program "Hit Parade" was launched, a clear sign of life, and and in 1937 records by the "big bands" rejuvenated the scene.

At the end of the Depression, technological progress also resumed. In 1939 the Panoram visual jukebox was invented, a device that played short films of records, i.e. the first music videos, an idea that would be shelved for about 40 years. In 1940 Disney's "Fantasia" introduced stereo sound.

New York: the Minstrel Show

TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

The minstrel show was staged by itinerant troupes of white actors, mimes and musicians who painted their face black. It became popular during the first half of the 19th century, and assumed a definitive format in 1843 with the New York-based Virginia Minstrels, a quartet of musicians (banjo, tambourine, castanets, fiddle). The minstrel show resembled the Italian "commedia dell'arte" in that the shows gravitated around a number of easily-recognized stereotyped characters: the elderly crippled black slave Jim Crow (created in 1828 by Thomas "Daddy" Rice with the song Jim Crow that became the first international "hit" song ever), the ever-smiling black fool Sambo, the elegant black playboy Dandy Jim aping the manners of a European gentleman. The Christy Minstrels developed the comic routine of Mr Tambo, Mr Bones and Mr Interlocutor, which became a much imitated standard. The minstrel show became a carefully staged event in two or three parts, obeying a canonic sequence of acts, a popular form of entertainment in the city, hosted by several theaters every week. One of the standard routines was the "cakewalk", in which the blackface actors walked around parodying the way the slaves of the plantations walked during formal occasions (the "cake" being the prize awarded by the plantation owner to the slaves who learned to walk more elegantly). It eventually developed into a dance step. The "olio" was the part of the show in which each of the "minstrels" performed its specialty, whether music or comedy. The songs were often "coon songs", racial jokes about blacks (plantation slaves were nicknamed "coons" because they were said to like the mean of racoons) set to the melodies of popular tunes and to a syncopated rhythm. The syncopated rhythm was probably meant to make them even funnier, but ended up being the first exposure of the white audience to syncopation and influenced the entire evolution of black music in the USA.

Daniel Emmett, the fiddler of the Virginia Minstrels who called himself the "Ethiopian minstrel" (and started a whole craze of Ethiopian bands and musicians, all of them white) was the author of their most notorious numbers, Old Dan Tucker (1830) and Dixie's Land (1859), that during the Civil War became an anthem for the Confederates.

Many of the minstrel songs had originated in the southern plantations, but they came known by the name of the white minstrel who performed them. The notable exception was James Bland, a Washington minstrel who was truly black, the first major black songwriter, who went on to compose over 700 songs, such as Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny (1873), In The Evening By The Moonlight (1879) and Oh Dem Golden Slippers (1879), mostly set in the plantations. Gussie Lord Davis' Goodnight Irene (1886) was also originally composed for a minstrel show.


The Georgia Minstrels were the first black minstrel troupe (formed in 1865), and remained the exception until the last decade of the century. Only in the 1890s did the demand for black musicians increase rapidly, and minstrel shows became launching pads for the careers of several black singers and actors.

Towards the end of the century, the minstrel show became more and more extravagant, competing with the circus and variety shows. In fact, the elaborate productions of Haverly's Mastodon Minstrels and Lew Dockstader's Minstrels had few precedents outside of Paris.

At the same time, minstrel shows moved away from the fragmented structure of the early days and towards a more organic presentation, a "plot". The Creole Show (1890) and The Octoroons (1895) were more than minstrel shows: they were musical comedies, whose routines were organized along a storyline. The "narrative" minstrel show peaked with Black Patti's Troubadours (1896), mostly scored by black songwriter Bob Cole.

The music of minstrel shows was based on the banjo, and basically retained the fundamental characteristic of negro banjo playing: strumming the chords with the nails. Until the invention of minstrelsy, the banjo had been an exclusively negro instrument. Minstrel shows were instrumental in popularizing the banjo among white audiences. In fact, the instrument generated a bit of a craze during the 1880s, thanks to manufacturers such as Samuel Swain Stewart that promoted it actively and tried to emancipate it from its African heritage. The result was that the banjo became less of a percussive instrument and more of a guitar-like melodic instrument.

The minstrel shows also fostered the development of tap dancing, that was originally performed with wooden soles (adopting metal plates in the 1920s) and wed Irish step dance and negro dance, a confluence that may have happened on the Mississippi steamboats, a stage that minstrel shows shared with troupes of Irish dancers.

New York: the Revue

TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Not long after the end of the Civil War, the USA experienced a dramatic process of population growth and territorial expansion. Millions of Europeans emigrated to the USA and thousands of Easterners moved West. Cities became metropolis and became cosmopolitan. The USA became the "land of opportunities": cheap labor and capital allowed anyone with a good idea to become a millionaire. One of the obvious opportunities was to entertain those cosmopolitan masses, and the inspiration usually came from Europe. New York was the quintessence of the social phenomenon that was changing the face of the USA, so it is no surprise that the new forms of entertainment were first experimented in New York. The city worked as a laboratory of Darwinian evolution of ideas.

Theaters were still the places where literary works were being performed. Some of them were musical in nature, but the music followed the story. Before the Civil War, theaters were by far the main source of entertainment for the urban population.

Just before the Civil War erupted, actress Laura Keene, who had already staged several successful musical comedies at her Broadway theater, conceived Seven Sisters (1860), a show that was a mixture of farce and opera, loosely based on Wilhelm Friedrich's play Die Toechter Luzifers (1846) and scored by composer Thomas Baker. Its 253 performances set a new record for American theater. Keene had created a truly American version of the British "ballad opera", and the New York audience loved it. (Ironically, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while he was watching one of Keene's musical plays).

Right after the Civil War, in 1866, William Wheatley, owner of the "Niblo's Garden", one of the largest New York theaters, that could seat over three thousand spectators, followed Keene's intuition for a new kind of drama, one that mixed a literary text, dance, music, but that relied on spectacular stage effects more than anything else: The Black Crook. It was based on a mediocre play by a Charles Barras, but it was transformed by Wheatley into a five-hour "extravaganza" (the term that came to define this kind of show) featuring prominently a scantily-dressed Parisian ballet troupe that was touring the USA.

The "burlesque" was an exaggeration of the least sophisticated elements of the minstrel show. It was born around the time when the minstrel show became a respectable form of entertainment (the 1860s) but it was not particularly popular, catering mostly to a male audience of the very low classes. In the Broadway theaters, the burlesques was mainly a parody of the opera, and it was popular with a literate audience that could relate to the operas and poems that were being spoofed. As Edward Rice put it, the burlesque "burlesqued" something. The first major success on Broadway was Lydia Thompson's Ixion (1868), another hit of "Niblo's Garden" whose main feature was the almost naked dancers (all girls who played both male and female roles). Edward Rice scored two of the biggest burlesque musical extravaganzas, as usual staged at "Niblo's Garden" with the usual lavish scenography: Evangeline (1874) and Adonis (1884).

At about the same time, the Americans improved on the British circus by introducing a multitude of rings. The large, lavish, boisterous circus was the invention of Phineas-Taylor Barnum, the owner of the "American Museum" of New York that exhibited midgets and Siamese twins to a morbid audience: in 1871 he opened a mobile circus based in Brooklyn and marketed it as "the greatest Show on Earth". Within a decade it had become just that, touring all over Europe. In 1884 the five "Ringling Brothers" organized their first circus, soon to become a colossal business enterprise.

In 1884 also the first rollercoaster, built by Lemarcus Thompson, opened at the Coney Island amusement park of New York. In 1897 George Cornelius Tilyou transformed the area into "Steeplechase Park", a large ensemble of rides and attractions, that soon drew millions of visitors each year (twenty million in 1909).

The American vaudeville was basically the American version of the British music hall (rowdy entertainment for the uneducated masses) although it probably evolved from the "olio" of the minstrel shows. The "Fourteenth Street Theater", opened in 1881 by impresario Tony Pastor, was the first major venue in New York, but the vaudeville spread throughout America when (1885) Benjamin Franklin Keith and Edward Franklin Albee II partnered in Boston to set up a nation-wide chain of vaudeville theaters. It was probably the first infusion of capitalism into mass entertainment. Starting in 1902 out of Seattle, Greek-born impresario Pericles "Alexander" Pantages built a circuit of vaudeville theatres across the western United States and Canada. In 1905 Austrian-born Martin Beck obtained control of the Orpheum Circuit and proceeded to expand it from its base of San Francisco to Chicago. (When in 1928 the Orpheum and the Keith-Albee circuits united, they formed the Keith-Albee-Orpheum Circuit, or KAO, the progenitor of Radio Keith Orpheum, or RKO). In 1907 Fred Barrasso, based in Memphis, created a chain of vaudeville theaters under what became the Theater Owners's Booking Association (TOBA) that was influential in bringing black music to a white audience, such as proto-blues musicians Baby Seals, the composer of Shake, Rattle and Roll, and pianist Butler "String Beans" May, perhaps the first major black star of the vaudeville, famous for his Titanic Blues (1913).

George Lederer upped the ante by staging his Passing Show (1894) at the "Casino Theater" (opened by producer Rudolph Aronson in 1882), a French-style revue that set the traditional vaudeville acts against the background of a fanciful and lavish scenography, as well as wrapping the characters into fantastic costumes.


Florenz Ziegfeld, who had been produced musical shows for French cabaret star Anna Held starting with A Parlor Match (1896), took Lederer's intuition literally and set out to create the American equivalent of the "Folies Bergere", focusing on scantily-clad feminine beauty rather than on vaudeville characters. His new show, the "Ziegfeld Follies" debuted in 1907 at the "New York Theater", producing popular songs such as Nora Bayes' Shine on Harvest Moon (1908), Irving Berlin's Woodman Spare That Tree (1911), Henry Marshall's Be My Little Baby Bumble Bee (1912), Leo Edwards' "Isle D'Amour" (1913), Dave Stamper's A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody (1919) and James Hanley's Rose of Washington Square (1920), while launching new stars such as Fanny Brice (1910) and Eddie "Cantor" Iskowitz (That's The Kind Of A Baby For Me, 1917). In 1910 Ziegfeld let a black actor, singer and songwriter, Bert Williams, the author of Nobody (1905), Let It Alone (1906) and That's A Plenty (1909), be the protagonist of The "Follies", the first time such a honor was bestowed on a black artist in a white show. One of the greatest songwriters of the era, Louis Hirsch, was employed by Ziegfeld in 1914 and delivered Sweet Kentucky Lady (1914), Hello Frisco (1915), Going Up (1917) and Love Nest (1920), besides being the brain behind many of the storylines and concepts. From 1912 on, Gene Buck was the main lyricist for the Follies. It was probably during the 1913 Ziegfeld Follies that a comedian, Harry Fox, invented a frenetic dance step called "fox-trot" (at the breakneck pace of 160 beats per minute).

A popular star of the Ziegfeld Folies was Russian-born Sophie Tucker (Kalish), the former "voice" of ragtime in blackface make-up (or, better, of "coon songs"), and one of the first openly sexual personas, who scored massive hits with Shelton Brooks' Some of These Days (1911), Ted Shapiro's Red-Hot Mama (1924), Jack Yellen's My Yiddishe Mama (1928).


Among the stars of the vaudeville, Marie Dressler (Leila Marie Koerber) was unique in being a fat woman. The character she inaugurated with Tillie's Nightmare (1909), based on the play by Edgar Smith and scored by Alfred Baldwin Sloane (who in 1903 had scored most of the children's book Wizard of Oz), became so popular that Mack Sennett used it (as well as her) for Tillie's Punctured Romance (1913), the first full-length comedy in the history of American cinema.

The lush, extravagant American revue was exported back to Europe by a French producer, Andre Charlot, in 1912, who then developed a personal touch, most evident in London Calling (1923).


Lee and Jacob Shubert, two Polish Jews, started their business empire in New York by acquiring in 1900 the "Herald Square" theater, where, incidentally, they staged Augustus Thomas' play Arizona (1899), considered the first western. In 1906 they built the "Hippodrome" theater, a better venue to stage extravaganzas, and then the "Winter Garden", where they staged La Belle Paree (1911). Between 1913 and 1924, the "Winter Garden" became the preferred venue for the most famous of the Shubert revues, the "Passing Show", a lavish spectacle that had few artistic merits but an obsession for sexy chorus girls. The "Passing Show" featured all sorts of vaudeville artists (including the debut of singer Marilyn Miller and the second appearance of dancer Fred Astaire). This series was followed by an even more explicit one, "Artists and Models" (1923), whose only attraction was the half-naked girls. The Shubert musical comedies were mostly scored by Sigmund Romberg: The Blue Paradise (1915), with Auf Wiedersehen, Maytime (1917), with Will You Remember, by far the most popular, Blossom Time (1921), based on Franz Schubert's melodies, The Student Prince in Heidelberg (1924), with The Drinking Song.


However, the Shuberts' greatest invention was Al Jolson (Asa Yoelson), a Lithuanian Jew who was a veteran of the minstrel show and the vaudeville. Introduced by La Belle Paree (1911), his first recording was George Cohan's That Haunting Melody (1911). He introduced Gus, the blackface character that he had developed during from his years in minstrel shows, in The Whirl of Society (1912), the first of many highly successful revues. He was as successful in selling records, especially Lewis Muir's Ragging the Baby to Sleep (1912), James Monaco's romantic ballad You Made Me Love You (1913), Jean Schwartz's Back to the Carolina You Love (1914). Robinson Crusoe Jr (1916) spawned George Meyer's Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go With Friday On Saturday Night and Pete Wendling's Yaacka Hula Hickey Dula. At the peak of his fame, Jolson debuted at the "Winter Garden" the classic trilogy of Gus: Sinbad (1918), that spawned two hit songs, Ray Henderson's Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody and Walter Donaldson's My Mammy, Al Jolson's signature song, Bombo (1921) and Big Boy (1924), including Ray Henderson's It All Depends on You. His hits, that always featured in his revues, included Jean Schwartz's Hello Central Give Me No-Man's Land (1918), Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody (1918) and I'm All Bound 'Round With the Mason-Dixon Line (1919), Walter Donaldson's My Mammy (1918), Gus Kahn's I'll Say She Does (1918), George Gershwin's Swanee (1919), Vincent Rose's Avalon (1920), Louis Silvers' April Showers (1921), Abner Silver's Angel Child (1922), Gus Kahn's Toot Toot Tootsie (1922), Joseph Meyer's California Here I Come (1924), Milton Ager's I Wonder What's Become Of Sally (1924), John McCormack's All Alone (1925), Ray Henderson's I'm Sitting on Top of the World (1925), Harry Woods' When The Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin' Along (1926). Jolson appeared in Alan Crosland's The Jazz Singer (1927), the first major "talking" film and largely his own biography. Its follow-up, Lloyd Bacon's The Singing Fool (1928), that included Dave Dreyer's There's a Rainbow Round My Shoulder and Ray Henderson's Sonny Boy, remained the all-time best-seller of cinema for eleven years. Henderson's Little Pal (1929) was his last major hit. Starting in 1932, he became a radio entertainer. Jolson had the unique honor of being a star in all forms of entertainment: minstrel show, vaudeville, revue, record, cinema and radio.

In the meantime, the Shuberts kept acquiring and building theaters so that in 1924 they controlled more than half of all theatres in the USA. And they were among the few impresarios to survive the Great Depression. In fact, they would eventually stage the most successful revue of all times, Hellzapoppin (1938), scripted by two veterans of the vaudeville, Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, and scored by Sammy Fain, a wild merry-go-round of irreverent sketches and specialty acts in the old tradition.

The Shuberts were not the only low point in taste and morals: George White's "Scandals" (from 1919 till 1939) and Earl Carroll's "Vanities" (from 1923) catered to the same audience of peeping toms. The great composer of George White's "Scandals" was Ray Henderson, who penned Birth Of The Blues (1926) and Black Bottom (1926), The Thrill Is Gone (1931) and Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries (1931).

At the other end of the spectrum, the "Palace Theater", that had been opened in 1913 by Martin Beck, debuting Ed Wynn and Ethel Barrymore in that year, represented the top tier of vaudeville entertainment, hosting daily shows that featured the famous European stars (such as Sarah Bernhardt) as well as the New York regulars (Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice). John Murray Anderson's "Greenwich Village Follies" (from 1919 till 1928) was the most sophisticated of the revues.

Producer Lew Leslie staged his Blackbirds Revue (1926) at the "Liberty" theater. It featured an all-black cast (notably singer Ethel Waters and dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson) but it was created by an all-white team, notably composer Jimmy McHugh (I Can't Give You Anything But Love in 1928, Doin' the New Low Down, On The Sunny Side of the Street in 1930, and later the author of I'm in the Mood for Love in 1935 and Have I Told You Lately that I Love You in 1947). In the Blackbirds of 1928, another black revue for white audiences, Leslie introduced Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who had been tap-dancing for black audiences all his life, and finally had a chance to infect white performers with his mesmerizing style.


Chicago-based white vaudeville singer Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards was a humble comedian, but introduced one of the most influential inventions of the era: "scat" singing (wordless vocalizing), first documented in his version of James Johnson's Old Fashioned Love (1923). It came as an evolution of the vocal improvisations that he had pioneered, with which he was basically trying to imitate a jazz trumpet. That is how he injected life into pop material such as Fred Meinken's Virginia Blues (february 1922), Edwin Weber's Nobody Lied (june 1922), Irving Berlin's Homesick (september 1922), etc. This kind of vocal imitation of improvised instrumental music was already popular among white vaudeville performers before the first recordings of jazz, as proven by Gene Greene's hit King of the Bungaloos (1911), one decade before Ukulele Ike.

In the 1920s the vaudeville was still very popular, but was beginning to share the theaters with movies, and by 1930 even the "Palace" had dropped vaudeville altogether and become a movie-only venue. Many of the vaudeville comedians such as Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers simply continued their routines in cinema. Other stars of the vaudeville, such as Bob Hope and George Burns, migrated to the radio and then to the television. Others, such as Jimmy Durante and Sophie Tucker, migrated to the cabarets.

When the popularity of the vaudeville began to decline, the burlesque became more popular because it basically had no competition. Cinema and the radio were now providing entertainment for the masses, but not strip teases and obscene comedy: one could see and hear them only at the burlesque. The music was now merely used to introduce the acts and as accompaniment for the strip-tease.

New York: the Night Club

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The other form of entertainment that survived because of its "forbidden" nature was the cabaret. New York's first cabaret, "Sans-Souci" on 42nd Street, was opened in 1915 by Vernon and Irene Castle, a popular duo of dancers. Condemned by the moral establishment, the cabaret nonetheless attracted a colorful crowd of professionals, businessmen, artists, mingling with prostitutes and black performers. When, in 1918, the USA banned alcohol, the cabaret simply went underground. Its golden age (the "age of jazz") came later. The "Cotton Club" opened in Harlem in 1923 and featured only black entertainers, catering to a white-only audience. The program was scored by professional musicians such as Harold Arlen, the author of the club's biggest hits (some of them originally written for Hollywood movies): Get Happy (1930), Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (1931), I've Got the World on a String (1932), Let's Fall in Love (1933), Stormy Weather (1932), for black singer Ethel Waters and Duke Ellington's orchestra, It's Only a Paper Moon (1932), Ill Wind (1934).

The masses that could not afford to pay the ticket of these clubs had to content themselves with the "speakeasies", the illegal bars (mostly run by organized crime) that defied the law in countless basements and backrooms around the country. The speakeasies resurrected the chanteuse of the original French cabaret, except that they tended to specialize in torch ballads, notably among them Helen Morgan and Texas Guinan.

The "Prohibition" (which ended officially in 1933) was followed by the "Great Depression", during which the cabaret split between the large and expensive halls such as the "Copacabana", opened in 1940 by a former speakeasy operator, Jules Podell, and the smaller and cheaper "supper clubs", basically bars that were forced by the law to also serve some food. The former could afford an orchestra behind the singer, whereas the latter were mostly limited to piano and voice. Max Gordon opened the "Village Vanguard" in 1935, located in the Greenwich Village. One of the most creative night-clubs of the era was "Spivy's Roof", opened in 1940 by the notorious lesbian actress "Madame Spivy", a club that performed works such as A Sentimental Playlet (1946), a puppet play written by Charles Henri Ford, a surrealist poet living in Paris, scored by expatriate novelist Paul Bowles and featuring puppets by Swiss surrealist artist Kurt Seligmann.

For black musicians, the most important theater to open in those years was the "Apollo" (1934), located in the heart of New York's Harlem district, a venue soon to become the testing ground for any new black genre (harmony quartets, gospel, soul).

St Louis: Ragtime

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During the 1870s the piano became one of the most popular instruments, and many dancehalls replaced the string orchestra with a piano player. By the end of the century, pianos had become so cheap that there was virtually no home without a piano. The passion for playing music caused a boom in music publishing. Not only was sheet music available even in the small towns of the Far West, but the player piano had been invented in 1863 by Henri Fourneaux in France, but had remained a curio. In 1897 Edwin Scott Votey developed his "Pianola", the first mass-produced player piano, and in 1901 Melville Clark built the first full 88-key player piano. That invention changed the way music was consumed. It introduced the concept of "music on demand", music that did not depend on the performer to be physically present. By 1910, the industry was producing 350,000 pianos per year, many of them equipped to play "player-piano rolls". Before World War I, the piano was by far the main form of popular entertainment. Whether the house had a pianist who used sheet music or a player piano that used rolls, the family could enjoy music produced in cities far away.

Needless to say, most black musicians did not know how to read music (the European way of playing piano). They simply adapted the piano to their African traditions.

At the turn of the 19th century, the process of urbanization within the American province stimulated the rapid diffusion of casual forms of entertainment, affordable for the local clubs (which usually could not afford professional musicians) and still enjoyable for an audience that was mainly accustomed with folk music. The saloons became the stage for a generation of itinerant pianists who traveled with a heterogeneous repertory of folk songs, marches and opera arias.

The most famous of the marches were John Philip Sousa's Washington Post March (1889) and Semper Fidelis (1890), and Sousa's band was easily the most popular of the marching bands. Sometime before World War I, a new style evolved from the march (2/4 tempo) and the "cakewalk" that was syncopated like jazz music: the left hand would play a fast and monotonous march, while the right hand whould play sincopated melodic figures, often derived from the style of banjo players.

The "coon songs" of the minstrel shows and the cakewalk dance were the first examples of syncopated melodies that became popular among whites.

"Ragtime" was a term derived from "rag" music, the music played by blacks to entertain blacks. By the end of the 19th century, the piano had become an immensely popular instrument (100,000 pianos were sold in 1890) and had replaced the fiddle as the main instrument for such entertainment. Initially, "ragtime" and "coon song" were interchangeable terms. Eventually, the "rag" came to represent the piano arrangement of a coon song, or the setting to syncopated piano of an existing tune. Eventually, "rag" came to refer specifically to syncopated piano instrumentals. Soon pianists were producing syncopated versions even of classical music and opera melodies.

In a sense, ragtime transferred the syncopation of minstrel shows from a naive rural environment to a more sophisticated, decadent and intellectual urban environment.

Just like in Sousa's marching band, the ragtime piece (in 16 or 32 measures) relied on a rhythmic contrast between the two hands of the pianist: the left hand provided a steady beat, while the right hand played the syncopated melody.

The first ragtime to be published was Ben Harney's You've Been a Good Old Wagon (1895), but ragtime pianists were probably already an attraction in Chicago during the World's Fair of 1893. In 1896 Harney relocated from Louisville (Kentucky) to New York City, and in a few years Tin Pan Alley began to exploit commercially this style of humble origins and marketed it as "ragtime". The hit All Coons Look Alike to Me (1896), composed by black minstrel songwriter Ernest Hogan, showed the link with the "coons" of the minstrel shows and was responsible for the brief popularity of syncopated "coon songs". The first published rag, William Krell's Mississippi Rag (1897), was orchestral (and Krell was white); but Tom Turpin's Harlem Rag (1892), published in 1897, was finally an authentic negro piece (the first piano rag published by a black songwriter), and started Turpin's string of hits: Bowery Buck (1899), A Ragtime Nightmare (1900), St Louis Rag (1900), Buffalo Rag (1904).

Despite the fact that it was clearly African in nature, ragtime appealed to a white audience that was willing to experiment with "decadent" entertainment, just like it was willing to attend minstrel shows and all-black Broadway musicals.

If Chicago was were ragtime became a sensation, it was in Missouri (in the red-light districts of St Louis and Sedalia) that ragtime became big business, thanks to entrepreneurs such as Sedalia's John Stark (who published the bulk of classic rags and soon opened offices also in St Louis and New York) and entertainers such as Tom Turpin. Sedalia's saloon "Maple Leaf" was one of the earliest venues, immortalized by Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag (1899). St Louis (where Joplin himself relocated) soon became the capital of ragtime (e.g., Turpin), challenged only by Kansas City, where another black pianist, James Scott, ruled with Frog Legs Rag (1906), Kansas City Rag (1907), Quality (1911), Climax Rag (1914), Pegasus (1920), Broadway Rag (1922). Joe Jordan, who crafted Nappy Lee (1903) and Pekin Rag (1904), was one of the black purists who moved from St Louis to Chicago.

Other significant pieces were James Scott's Frog Legs Rag (1906), Joseph-Francis Lamb's American Beauty Rag (1913), Euday Bowman's Twelfth Street Rag (1914), and Artie Matthews's Pastime Rag No 1-5 (1913-20).

Ragtime was the first major example of the black culture assimilating white technology (the piano) and white musical styles (such as marches and waltzes) to its syncopated rhythms.

Unlike jazz, ragtime was always a "composed" (not improvised) form of music. It was also meant to be played solo (not by a band) and at the piano. Nonetheless, the border between ragtime and jazz was blurred. For example, James Johnson's second recording of Carolina Shout (1921) is ragtime, but boasts a piano solo that is already jazz. In fact, the term "jazz" was used for the first time in the song Uncle Josh in Society, but it referred to ragtime, and for a decade white people thought of jazz as merely a kind of ragtime.


Scott Joplin, the author of the driving Maple Leaf Rag (1897), The Entertainer (1902) and The Cascade (1904), had started his career in the traditional style of marches. His ragtime pieces were actually slow and rather delicate compared with the stereotypes of Tin Pan Alley (or, better, of the coin-operated player pianos that played them at breakneck speed). However, Joplin's repertory already spanned a broad range of styles: the syncopated waltz Behena (1905), the neoclassical Euphonic Sounds (1909), the Mexican-tango serenade Solace (1909), etc. At the peak of ragtime's popularity, Joplin, who had been raised on European classical music and probably didn't feel at home in the dives where ragtime was usually performed, even wrote a 20-minute Ragtime Dance (1902) and two "ragtime operas", The Ragtime Dance (1899), that he presented on a 1903 tour, Treemonisha (1911), a colossal work that was only remotely related to ragtime. His last composition, Magnetic Rag (1914), embodied his classical ambitions.

But the composer who convinced Tin Pan Alley was white, Kerry Mills, whose Rastus On Parade (1893) was the first cakewalk ever published, and who created popular ragtime pieces for mass consumption such as: At a Georgia Campmeeting (1897), Mr Rufus (1899), Meet Me in St Louis (1904), Redwing (1907), Ragtime Dance (1909).

Ragtime was often arranged for string bands, typically clarinet, trumpet, trombone, piano, bass and drums. Well connected with Joplin was William Spiller's band, that was actually directed by his wife Isabele Spiller (perhaps the first black female arranger) and that toured the vaudeville circuit in the 1910s (it also exported ragtime to Britain in 1912). In fact, ragtime pianist may have invented ragtime by trying to imitate on the piano the string bands of the plantations (Stark used to advertise Joplin's rags as "banjo imitations").

Then Tin Pan Alley's publishing industry began flooding the country with ragtime tunes. Ragtime was mainly sold as tapes for player pianos. The first recordings of black artists (1917) came too late to document the original ragtime style.

Such was the popularity of ragtime that all sorts of composers and songwriters started using the term "ragtime" (e.g., Irving Berlin's celebrated Alexander's Ragtime Band of 1911, that is not ragtime at all).


Eubie Blake, a veteran pianist of Baltimore's vaudeville/minstrel-show circuit, penned the Charleston Rag, published in 1919 but originally composed in 1899 (and featuring left-hand figures that predated boogie-woogie), Baltimore Todolo (1909), Troublesome Ivories (1911), Chevy Chase (1914).

There were also white composers of ragtime music, although none was of the same caliber as Joplin and Blake. Ragtime songs were sung by the pop stars of the time: Billy Murray (whose Grand Old Rag of 1906 was perhaps the genre's greatest hit), Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker.

The fad spread to Europe and thus ragtime became the first international musical genre to originate from the USA. My Ragtime Baby (1898) had been the first international hit of black music. It was, in a sense, the first demonstration of the enormous power of black music, a sign of what was to come for the rest of the century.

USA: Ballroom Dancing

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Ballrooms played an important social role in mass entertainment before radio and television were invented.

The "cakewalk", a very syncopated dance for couples, was perhaps the first dance craze. It had existed for decades within the routines of the minstrel shows (so called because the best dancer would be awarded a cake) and was already used in many Broadway revues, but it became popular with the white masses only around 1900. It was the first negro dance to be adopted by the white masses. Its first recording was probably Rastus On Parade (1893) by white songwriter Kerry Mills. It was exported to Britain in 1903 by Will-Marion Cook's musical revue In Dahomey.

The foxtrot, probably invented at the Ziegfeld Follies in 1913, became a sort of generational anthem, a symbol of rebellion against the formal dances of the previous century.

The "charleston", a negro dance that had evolved in the South Carolina's port town of Charleston, was the next dance craze. It was popularized on Broadway by ragtime pianist James Johnson's musical Runnin' Wild (1923), containing the song Charleston, and in Paris by the negro cabaret star Josephine Baker. It was even wilder than the fox-trot (up to 240 beats per minute), the dancers looking positively possessed.

These dances represented a significant shift in popular taste. At the beginning of the music industry (end of the 19th century), the middle class was buying music sheets in order to play a song on the piano at home and sing it along. In the 1910s, the middle class did not want to sing: they wanted to dance. Instead of buying sheets, many preferred to spend their money in a dance club. Black musicians were the main beneficiaries of this new trend. Not a coincidence: the transition from playing a song on the piano to dancing a song in a dancehall was, de facto, a transition from European-style music consumption to African-style music consumption.

Black syncopated orchestras (usually string orchestras sometimes augmented with a piano) became increasingly popular in the "Black Bohemia" (Manhattan's 53rd Street, around the "Marshall Hotel").


To serve this growing market, Ernest Hogan created a black "orchestra", the Memphis Students, that debuted in 1905 on Broadway, with music composed by James Europe and Joe Jordan. This orchestra dispensed with the strings and the woodwinds of the traditional orchestra, replacing them with folk instruments such as guitar, mandolin and banjo. It introduced the saxophone, that had not been used extensively in traditional orchestras. Because of its success, it was the first show to publicize the syncopated music of southern blacks. With the conductor dancing at the rhythm of the music and the drummer entertaining the audience with acrobatic moves, the orchestra introduced the music of the negroes to a wider white audience. The Memphis Students were also the first "singing band" (the musicians sang while they played), and their favorite format of singing was four-part harmony (the style that came to be known as "barber-shop harmony"). Finally, their music was meant for dancing (not enjoyment of the melody), for which it relied on the syncopated rhythms. The result was that syncopated orchestras soon flourished in most cities.

Dance songs composed by blacks sold well in the 1910s and 1920s: Shelton Brooks' instrumental Walkin' The Dog (1916) and Darktown Strutters Ball (1917), John Turner Layton's After You've Gone (1918), Strut Miss Lizzie (1921) and Way Down Yonder in New Orleans (1922). The most successful dance orchestra was led by Ford Dabney, the (black) composer of That's Why They Call me Shine (1910) and Castle Walk (1914), the title of another dance craze (after the name of the inventors, Vernon and Irene Castle).


Several of the dances (including the fox-trot) were invented or, at least, popularized by another famous black bandleader and songwriter, James Europe, who founded the "Clef Club" in 1909 (an orchestra of rotating black musicians that even performed at Carnegie Hall) and who exported black music to Europe when he organized an orchestra, the Hellfighters, to play for the American soldiers at the end of World War I (1918). In 1916 a string band of black musicians from the "Clef Club" (Ciro's Club Coon Orchestra) recorded in Britain songs such as My Foxtrot Wedding Day and Yaaka Hula Hickey Dolla that even sound like jazz. Another influential black syncopated orchestra was conducted by Will-Marion Cook, the composer of the black musicals Clorindy the Origin of the Cakewalk (1898) and In Dahomey (1902), and of syncopated songs such as Lover's Lane (1900). Both Europe's Hellfighters (that played in France in 1918) and Will Marion Cook's syncopated orchestra (that played for British king George V in 1919) exported black music (including jazz) to Europe.

New York was the main center for the dance crazes. Harlem even boasted an all-women orchestra, the Famous Ladies Orchestra, conducted by Marie Lucas. Unlike blues musicians, that at the beginning of the century only catered to the underworld of brothels and vaudeville theaters, black syncopated orchestras reached a more "respectable" audience.


The market for dances boomed before World War I. Dancers such as Vernon and Irene Castle were international stars (they even wrote a manual of the legitimate dance steps, "Modern Dancing", in 1914). They hired both Ford Dabney and James Europe to write original dances for them.

Art Hickman, from San Francisco, is credited as being the first bandleader to arrange music for saxophones, adding a saxophone section to the traditional brass section of syncopated orchestras. The most successful dance band of the Roaring Twenties was the one formed (also in San Francisco) by Paul Whiteman, marketed as a jazz band.

Bennie Moten in Kansas City, Ben Pollack in Chicago, Jean Goldkette in Detroit (in which several white jazz stars cut their teeth), and Ted Weems in Philadelphia were other popular leaders of dance bands of the 1920s. The dance craze that originated in Chicago was spread around the USA mainly by "territory bands" that traveled the circuit of vaudeville theaters and other improvised dancehalls.

Big-band swing jazz became popular towards the end of the Roaring Twenties. In the dance halls that featured that music a new syncopated dance for couples appeared, the "jitterbug", that involved more movement (sometimes acrobatic movement) and the usual negro ebullience. During World War II it spread to Europe.

Memphis: Jug music

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The medicine shows of Memphis spawned a kind of band that became popular throughout the South: the "jug" band (the jug being a poor man's version of the tuba, played by blowing into an empty jug). Typically, around the bass sound of the jug, these bands featured banjo, guitar, mandolin, the "kazoo" (another toy instrument, similar to a comb, that was played by humming into it), the "washboard", and the "bull-fiddle" (a contrabass made of a garbage can, a broom stick and a string). Popular imagination made up for the lack of money.

Whether the craze started in Memphis or Louisville, the most popular jug bands of the 1920s were based in Memphis: Will Shade's Memphis Jug Band (Cocaine Habit Blues, 1930), Jack Kelly's South Memphis Jug Band, Jed Davenport's Beale Street Jug Band, and especially Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers (that also featured, besides Cannon's ferocious banjo, Noah Lewis's harmonica and Ashley Thompson's guitar). The latter's Minglewood Blues (1928) was probably the first nationwide hit, followed by Viola Lee Blues (1928).

New Orleans: Spasm

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"Spasm" was a euphoric kind of black music that originated from New Orleans, and another instance in which poor blacks built their own instruments (banjos made from cigar boxes, percussions made of bones, the "Brownie" bass, built out of a tub by inserting a wire into the metallic pipe, cowbells, coffeepots, and so forth). The line-up of a spasm band, such as the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band, was an ingenious assortment of home-made instruments.

Lafayette: Cajun

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Louisiana, and particularly its "bayou country" around Lafayette, inhabited by the "cajuns" (a slang term for the French "acadiens" or "people of Acadie", Acadie being Nova Scotia, the original settlement of the French colonists that during the Seven-Years war made it to Louisiana) was the site of a unique phenomenon. The French aristocracy that relocated here after the French revolution brought with them the "contredanse" (or "square dance"), the cotillions, the waltz, the mazurka, that, mixing with Anglosaxon, African and Caribbean influences, evolved into "fais-do-do" street dancing and, once transferred to the dance halls (especially after the oil boom of 1901), finally into cajun music. Joseph Falcon, an accordionist, recorded the first cajun single, Allons a Lafayette, in 1928. Fiddle (pioneered in the 1930s by Dennis McGee) and accordion (pioneered in the 1920s by Amedee Ardoin, a black musician) became the basic instruments of cajun music. Lyrics in French and stomping rhythm were the other common elements. The 1930s were dominated by the Hackberry Ramblers and fiddler Leo Soileau. The revival of the post-war period yielded hits that crossed the borders of Louisiana: fiddler Harry Choates' Jole Blon (1946), accordionist Nathan Abshire's Pine Grove Blues (1948), accordionist Ivy Lejeune's Love Bridge Waltz (1951). The 1960s were dominated by accordionist Belton Richard and especially virtuoso fiddler Doug Kershaw, author of Lousiana Man (1960). Zydeco was a blues-based variant of cajun music for French-speaking black musicians (the "creoles"), best represented by accordionist Clifton Chenier in the decade between Squeeze Box Boogie (1955) and Ai Ai Ai (1964), and later by Chenier's former organist Stanley "Buckwheat Zydeco" Dural. Cajun music did not change much over the decades until, starting with Bayou des Mysteres (1976), Zachary Richard successfully blended it with rock, blues and funk.

Texas: tex-mex

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The Mexican-Americans of Texas (the "chicanos") retained their musical traditions and developed their unique sound: the brass-driven "mariachi" music (coined in the 1920s) and the accordion-driven polka-watz bands ("conjuntos") of the 1930s (pioneered by accordionists Santiago Jimenez and Narciso Martinez, popularized for the Anglosaxon audience by accordionist Flaco Jimenez, Santiago's son). Lydia Mendoza, immortalized by Mal Hombre (1934), was the first star of tex-mex music.

London: Mood music

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Instrumental pop music had existed from the beginning of Tin Pan Alley, but it was in Britain that it developed into an independent genre.

British composer Albert Ketelbey was one of the first purveyors of "exotica" with his instrumental "mood music": In A Monastery Garden (1915), In A Persian Market (1920), In A Chinese Temple Garden (1925), By The Blue Hawaian Waters (1927), In The Mystic Land of Egypt (1931), From A Japanese Screen (1934).

In Europe and in its colonies, the vogue of the 1920s was "hotel orchestras" that performed sprightly light music in hotel halls. The most famous in Britain was the Max Jaffa Saloon Orchestra, first broadcast on the radio in 1929.

Ray Noble's orchestra played mellow swing-infected melodies, basically a crossbreeding of the hotel orchestra and the swing orchestra, and conquered the USA with an endless waterfall of hits, mostly composed by him: Goodnight Sweetheart (1931), Love Is The Sweetest Thing (1932), Billy Hill's The Old Spinning Wheel In The Parlor (1933), The Very Thought Of You (1934), Will Grosz's Isle Of Capri (1934), Paris In The Spring (1935), The Touch Of Your Lips (1936), Why The Stars Come Out Tonight (1936), I Hadn't Anyone Till You (1938), Cherokee (1938), Gus Edwards' By The Light Of The Silvery Moon (1941), Jack Lawrence's Linda (1947).

Also in Britain, Eric Coates coined the term "light music" ("musica leggera" in Italian) for the kind of mellow melodic instrumental music that he went on to produce for many years with impeccable taste and sense of orchestration: Four Ways Suite (1925), By A Sleepy Lagoon (1930), Knightsbridge (1933), London Suite (1933), Saxo-Rhapsody (1936), Springtime Suite (1937), Calling All Workers (1940), The Three Elizabeths (1944), and the theme for Desert Island Discs (1948).

The first international star of mood music was Italian-born Annunzio-Paolo Mantovani, also the first British artist to become a star in the USA (Wilhelm Grosz's Red Sails In The Sunset, 1935; Luigi Cherubini's Serenade In The Night, 1936), one of the first artists to prefer the album to the single, and the first artist to sell one million stereo albums. He started in the 1930s conducting his small orchestra (with vocalist) in hotel halls. By the 1950s, he had refined his style of "cascading strings", that led to all-instrumental collections such as Immortal Classics (1954).

In Germany, Burt Kaempfert composed Morgen (1959), Wunderland bei Nacht (1960), Moon Over Naples (1964), and Strangers In The Night (1966),

Orchestral music of the depression

Guy Lombardo's band, from Canada, pioneered the instrumental medley of hits, besides introducing smooth, saxophone-driven songs such as Sweethearts on Parade (1928), A Sailboat in The Moonlight (1937), Powder Your Face with Sunshine (1949). He sold more than 100 million records.

Perhaps the most popular dance band during the dark years of the "New Deal" was Sammy Kaye's (Rosalie, 1937; Loved Walked In, 1938; Dream Valley, 1940), followed by Hal Kemp's (Got A Date With An Angel, 1937).

New York's 1939 World Fair is credited with importing Latin American music into the USA. Soon, Americans were dancing at the sound of rumba, mambo, samba, cha cha, calypso, etc. Their steps were much more sensual than anything the USA had inherited from the blacks. (De facto, rock'n'roll dancing would adopt and exaggerate the body language of Latin dances). Xavier Cugat's orchestra was responsible for popularizing many of these dances, as well as Latin-American tunes such as Alberto Dominguez's Perfidia (1939).

In the 1940s, the scene of orchestral pop music was dominated by David Rose, who composed Holiday for Strings (1944), Calypso Melody (1957), The Stripper (1958).

Canadian-born Robert Farnon, one of pop music's most influential arrangers, created mini-suites inspired to classical music such as Jumping Bean (1948) and Westminster Waltz (1956).

Percy Faith's orchestra was the leader in popular instrumental music from Delicado (1952) till Maybe September (1966). But the leadership sort of moved to France, where Raymond Lefevre, Franck Pourcel and Paul Mauriat competed for the easy-listening market. One of the most successful composers was Andre Popp, the author of Les Lavandieres du Portugal (1954) and especially L'amour Est Bleu (1967), which sold more than 100 million copies in dozens of different versions. Popp also released the madcap collection of Delirium in Hi-Fi (1957), under the moniker Elsa Popping And Her Pixie Landers.

USA: TV Variety Show

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In 1927 Philo Farnsworth invented the television set, the last step of a series of innovations that had made possible the broadcasting of images. The following year General Electric started building television receivers for homes ("tv sets"). But the first public broadcast took place in London, where Marconi-EMI's system was chosen as the British standard. Television broadcast began in 1939 in the USA, but World War II caused a six-year hiatus. At that point there were about seven thousand tv sets in the USA, served by nine stations (four in New York, two each in Chicago and Los Angeles, one in Philadelphia). At the end of the war, television broadcast resumed and, finally, tv sets could be sold by the millions. In 1943 RCA had been forced by the government to divest itself of part of its broadcasting business, and in 1945 that part became a separate broadcasting network, the "ABC" network. Thus there were now three national networks: CBS, NBC and ABC. In 1947 "Kraft Television Theatre" brought Broadway theater into the American households. In 1948 Ed Sullivan started a variety show, "Toast of the Town" (later renamed "Ed Sullivan Show"), followed by the "Perry Como Show" (1948), while the "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts" was transferred from radio to television, and Milton Berle hosted the "Texaco Star Theater" (1948), that soon became the most popular show in the country. These tv variety shows were, de facto, resurrecting the vaudeville for an audience that was no longer local but global. In 1949 a new kind of star was born when an ordinary girl by the name of Betty Furness was featured in commercial spots for Westinghouse refrigerators: she became as popular as comedians and singers. She was one of the reasons that advertisers left the radio and poured into television: the audience was captivated by the live demonstration of a product more than by the traditional "commercial jingle" of the radio. "Your Hit Parade" (1950) and the "Jack Benny Show" (1950) were instrumental in promoting, respectively, music and comedy on television.

The popularity of comic strips had prompted radio stations to create "situation comedies" (or "sitcoms"), that were basically the equivalent of a recurring comic strip without the pictures. The first one aired in 1926 in Chicago. They became very popular thanks to the skills of the comedians who ran them, but they found their ideal medium with television. "Mary Kay and Johnny" (1947) and "The Goldbergs" (1949) were the first sitcoms on tv. In 1950 the "Colgate Comedy Hour" was born, which went down in history as the first show to telecast in color (1953). "I Love Lucy" debuted in 1951. The "Bob Hope Show" moved from radio to television in 1952.

In 1952 Dave Garroway launched the "Today" show, the first early-morning show, and in 1954 comedian Steve Allen launched the "Tonight Show". George Burns and Bob Hope became the most famous comedians in the country thanks to their tv appearances, surpassing any Broadway or radio personality. There were now about 20 million tv sets in the USA. The Broadway revue had simply migrated to the small screen, that could reach millions of people around the country. In the process, it had been forced to downplay the choreography and to emphasize the star (whether comedian or singer or host). Rock'n'roll changed television broadcasting too: in 1957 Ed Sullivan passed all the other shows in popularity.

USA: the Soap Opera

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During the 1920s several radio stations began broadcasting daytime serial dramas that were aimed at an audience of housewives (the audience listening to the radio during daytime hours). These dramas were therefore sponsored by advertisers who targeted housewives marketing products such as soap. These dramas came to be known as "soap operas". They migrated to television almost immediately, "The Guiding Light" (inaugurated on radio in 1937) being the archetype of all future soap operas (it migrated to tv in 1952), and "Faraway Hill" (1946) being the first one specifically designed for television, followed by "Search for Tomorrow" (1951), "Love of Life" (1951) and, in Britain, by the BBC serial "Archers" (1951). Their episodes lasted about 15 minutes. It was only in 1956 that soap operas assumed the classic half-hour structure. Like their radio ancestors, they had a soundtrack that was performed by an organist, drawing from a wealth of melodramatic melodies. Given their target audience, these soap operas indulged in endless intricate adventures, usually of a romantic nature. The goal of each episode was to set the foundations for future episodes, not to reach closure. Many soap operas were telecast for decades, some for more than 30 years. "Peyton Place" (1964) was the first prime-time soap opera (thus targeting a broader audience than just housewives). By that time, soap operas had become part of the collective subconscious of the American youth.

USA: Remaking the Music Business

Founded in 1912, the American Society for Composers (ASCAP) was a union for songwriters. It soon became a monopoly that controlled the radio broadcasts of music. Radio broadcasters fought a battle against ASCAP by establishing their own "union", the Broadcast Music Inc (BMI) that assembled mainly singers. Needless to say, radio stations were more motivated to play the music of singers (who were members of the BMI) than instrumental music (almost entirely controlled by the ASCAP). Even after 1941 (when the dispute was solved), singers maintained a grip on the recording industry that they had never had before. Founded in 1896, the American Federation of Musicians had become a powerful union precisely because the recording industry had become such a huge industry. This union claimed that instrumentalists were hurt by recordings, though. If their music could be reproduced at will by radios and jukeboxes, then there was less need of their physical presence. The union demanded that artists be payed royalties not only for each record sold but also for radio broadcasts and use in jukeboxes. The record labels refused. In august 1942 the AFM banned all recordings of instrumental music, whether classical or jazz. The three major labels (Decca, Victor, Columbia) gave in only in november 1944. Thus for two years virtually no jazz instrumentalist could cut a commercial record. There were two exceptions to the ban. The first one was for vocals-only recordings: singers were not members of the union. Thus the ban helped a-cappella groups get established nation-wide, and, generally speaking, contributed to a bias of pop music towards vocal music that would remain in place throughout the century. The second exception was made for the V-Discs. These were records cut by the government for the troops that were fighting in World War II. They introduced a new format: the 12" vinyl 78 RPM that could fit almost seven minutes of music (as opposed to the three minutes of the traditional 10" record). People got used to hearing an extended performance. It took only three years from the end of the war for Columbia to introduce (in 1948) the 12-inch 33-1/3 RPM long-playing vinyl record (the LP), that allowed recordings of more than twenty minutes per side. At the same time, Nazi Germany had been developing the portable electromagnetic recorder because Adolf Hitler loved to be able to speak to every town without having to physically travel to each one. In 1934 AEG introduced the "magnetophone" that recorded on tapes and the technology was rapidly improved for high fidelity during the war. At the end of the war a USA engineer copied the German invention and turned it into Ampex's first tape recorder (first used in august 1947 to record Bing Crosby). It was now possible to tape lengthy performances of music at an affordable cost. Both the LP and the tape made the old cumbersome "album" (the set of several 78 RPM records) obsolete. This was yet another step in the process that made the live performance less and less essential (after the sheet music, the piano roll, the radio and the 78 RPM record). Each step in this process distancing the listening experience from the actual performance had caused a commercial revolution and further increased the business of music, and the innovations of 1947-48 turned out to be no exception to the rule.

The Origins of the American Domination

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Record labels per se had only limited power to create new demand. They had to rely on radio and tv stations (or musicals or films) to publicize their "products" (artists and songs). That is where the dynamics of the European and American systems diverged dramatically.
European television was controlled by bureaucrats with little motivation to change formats or contents. USA television was controlled by businessmen with strong motivation to continuously try new formats and contents. In the USA, competition led to innovation. Each radio and tv station had to do something different in order to beat the other stations. They were constantly looking for something new.
In Europe, bureaucracy led, at best, to imitation. European radio and television stations, run by the State, kept showing the same kind of programs over and over again, mostly derived from the theaters. In Europe, innovation did not come from the bureaucrats who ran the stations, but from the actors and musicians who visited the USA and brought back new ideas: innovation was bottom-up. In the USA, innovation was top-down, driven by the very management of the stations on the basis of elementary market competition.
The press played the same role in Europe and the USA, except that in the USA it had a lot more to write about.
Because of the language, and of a vibrant underground scene, Britain was faster to absorb USA innovations, but, again, the innovation came from USA stations, not from the BBC.
It may well be that USA music would have dominated the western world anyway because of its unique negro element, but the very way in which music was channeled to the consumer gave American music an advantage.

Transience

When Gilbert Seldes wrote the first comprehensive treatise on USA pop culture, "The Seven Lively Arts" (1924), that examined the features shared by comics, movies, vaudeville and pop music, it was already clear to him that their essential quality was transience. Pop culture in the USA (unlike pop culture in Europe) was very much the product of unrestrained capitalism, that demanded continuous competition. These "lively" arts shared the unremitting pressure to change. And it wasn't gradual change either: success comes with quantum jumps, not gradual change. Thus artists and entrepreneurs are constantly in search of revolutionary ideas. Whereas Bach is "cool" even centuries later, the pop artist is "cool" only for a few years, after which she or he rapidly becomes outdated. Thus the system was set in motion that would yield a century of permanent artistic revolution.
  • History of Pop Music
  • European beginnings
  • Post-war USA
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