Tin Pan Alley and the “Brill Building Sound”

Program note – Showtime is premiering a documentary tonight (2/10/18) called Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars. You KNOW I’m watching that.

Tin Pan Alley gets its name from the tin-panny sounds of pianos that are banged and rattled there by night and day as new songs and old are played over and over into the ears of singing comedians, comic-opera prima donnas and single soubrettes and “sister teams” from vaudeville. The World (New York), 3 May 1903.

Wikipedia: Tin Pan Alley* is the name given to the collection of New York City music publishers and songwriters who dominated the popular music of the United States in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

As noted above, the name came from the sound of piano players plugging their songs to music publishers. The “alley” was actually a succession of locations in Manhattan, all more or less along Broadway. Over the years, the location gradually moved from 28th street between 5th Avenue and Broadway up to between 42nd and 50th streets. It’s probably no coincidence that Broadway musical theaters are now mostly located roughly in the latter area.

Bear in mind that at this point in time, popular songwriting was, to a large extent, like any other job. People went into an office in one of these buildings and churned out songs. This is not to say that popular songwriting didn’t exist before this. Nineteenth-century composer Stephen Foster managed to write some 200 songs well before the existence of Tin Pan Alley and for all I know, wrote those in his study. (And yet fittingly, Foster, a Pennsylvanian, spent the last four years of his brief life in New York City.)

But in the early days, the major output of Tin Pan Alley composers was not records but sheet music. This is due to the fact that “after the American Civil War, over 25,000 new pianos a year were sold in America and by 1887, over 500,000 youths were studying piano. As a result, the demand for sheet music grew rapidly and more and more publishers began to enter the market.”

Nothing was left to chance. Market research was done to determine what was popular and composers wrote to those styles. Testing was done on listeners and performers. Only those deemed to be a hit made the cut. (This reminds me somewhat of Berry Gordy’s quality methods years later at Motown.)

People known as song pluggers were singers and/or piano players who worked in department stores and music stores. “Typically, the pianist sat on the mezzanine level of a store and played whatever music was sent up to him by the clerk of the store selling the sheet music. Patrons could select any title, have it delivered to the song plugger, and get a preview of the tune before buying it.” George Gershwin got his start as a plugger as did Irving Berlin.

There was also a form of song plugging known as booming. The publishers would buy tickets for shows such as cycle races and then would fill many of the seats with their stooges who knew the words to the song they wanted to push.

One promoter recalled a night at Madison Square Garden where “they had 20,000 people there, we had a pianist and a singer with a large horn. We’d sing a song to them thirty times a night. They’d cheer and yell, and we kept pounding away at them. When people walked out, they’d be singing the song. They couldn’t help it.” (Thankfully we’re no longer subject to such aggressive forms of marketing!)

You’re probably getting the idea (correctly) that the music business had – in some instances – quite a bit more to do with commerce than with art. It will probably come as no surprise to you that the guys who became publishers were not songwriters or musicians themselves but had mostly come out of sales. Sales of things like corsets, neckties, buttons and for all I know, magic elixir.

;  Part of Tin Pan Alley today.

And if you wonder where the practice of publishers putting their own name as co-writer of a song came from, wonder no more. If you were an aspiring, unknown songwriter, as likely as not the “price” of your being published included having one of these publishers put his name on it as well. Either that or sorry kid, no sale. Maybe you can go sell corsets.

By all accounts, Tin Pan Alley was, in its heyday, a lively place. Up and down the street were the sounds of pianos tinkling, song pluggers hearing songs that songwriters were writing in offices and then heading off to “make the rounds of dozens of cafes, music halls, saloons, and theaters nightly, pitching songs, getting them sung by performers, and devising creative methods to get the songs recognized (what we would today refer to as promotion).

Singalongs, free sheet music distribution, staged events (whereby a songwriter pretended to be part of an onstage act) – these were a few of the plugging/marketing techniques initiated in the Alley.”

The date or even exact time period of the demise of Tin Pan Alley is not necessarily agreed upon. Some think it ended during the Great Depression with the advent of phonograph and radio but others say its second heyday was in the Fifties with the advent of rock and roll.

The Brill Building at 1619 Broadway is most popularly associated with that latter period but there was just as much, if not more activity at 1650 and 1697 Broadway. (The latter building later became the Ed Sullivan and then David Letterman theaters. Steven Colbert now broadcasts from there. It was built by Arthur Hammerstein, uncle of Oscar Hammerstein II of Hammerstein/Rodgers renown. )

Wikipedia: By 1962 the Brill Building contained 165 music businesses. A musician could find a publisher and printer, cut a demo, promote the record and cut a deal with radio promoters, all within this one building. The creative culture of the independent music companies in the Brill Building and the nearby 1650 Broadway came to define the influential “Brill Building Sound” and the style of popular songwriting and recording created by its writers and producers.

Carole King described the atmosphere at the publishing houses of the period: “Every day we squeezed into our respective cubby holes with just enough room for a piano, a bench, and maybe a chair for the lyricist if you were lucky. You’d sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubby hole composing a song exactly like yours.

The pressure in the Brill Building was really terrific—because Donny (Kirshner) would play one songwriter against another. He’d say: “We need a new smash hit”—and we’d all go back and write a song and the next day we’d each audition for Bobby Vee’s producer.” Paul Simon had an office there as did Phil Spector, Leiber and Stoller, Burt Bacharach and Neil Diamond and many others.

What killed the Brill Building and the culture of what I might call “office songwriting?” It was, as much as anything, the Beatles and the whole British Invasion. Not to mention Bob Dylan. “Tin Pan Alley is gone,” he said humbly. “I put an end to it. People can record their own songs now.”

I recall watching a history of rock and roll a few years back. They were interviewing someone – I think it was Cynthia Weil – and her face fell when she recalled that era. It wasn’t that she and her husband Barry Mann no longer wrote songs. It was just her realization that bands did not necessarily need or want songwriters-for-hire but could, would and should do it for themselves. (Although that said, she and her husband later wrote “We Gotta Get Outta This Place” which the Animals turned into a smash.)

Are there still music publishers in the Brill Building? I don’t know, probably so. But if the Great Depression put a damper on Tin Pan Alley, the Beatles were the final nail in its heyday. Lennon/McCartney’s “office” was Paul’s bedroom, John’s living room, Abbey Road and hotel rooms all over the world.

But the legacy of Tin Pan Alley, some good, some not so good, lives on. A (very partial) discography below:

  • “The Sidewalks of New York” (Lawlor & Blake, 1894)
  • “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” (Joe Hayden & Theodore Mertz, 1896)
  • “Hello! Ma Baby (Hello Ma Ragtime Gal)” (Emerson, Howard, & Sterling, 1899)
  • “Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage” (Harry Von Tilzer, 1900)
  • “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home” (Huey Cannon, 1902)
  • “In the Good Old Summertime” (Ren Shields & George Evans, 1902)
  • “Give My Regards To Broadway” (George M. Cohan, 1904)
  • “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (Jack Norworth & Albert von Tilzer, 1908)
  • “Shine on Harvest Moon” (Nora Bayes & Jack Norworth, 1908)
  • “God Bless America” (Irving Berlin, 1918)
  • “Yes We Have No Bananas” (Frank Silver, Irving Cohn, 1923)
  • “(Potatoes Are Cheaper – Tomatoes Are Cheaper) Now’s the Time to Fall in Love” (Sherman, Lewis, 1931)
  • “Save The Last Dance for Me” (Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman, 1960)
  • “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (Carole King, Gerry Goffin, 1960)
  • “On Broadway” (Mann, Weil, Leiber, Stoller, 1963)
  • “One Fine Day” (Carole King, Gerry Goffin, 1963)
  • “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin” (Phil Spector, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, 1964)
  • “We Gotta Get Outta This Place” (Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, 1965)

   Plaque near the corner of 28th and Broadway

Oh, and of course with a great name like Tin Pan Alley, you just know someone would write a song called that. This was written by a San Francisco songwriter named Bob Geddins in the ’50’s. Totally unassociated with the Alley, he was able to mythologize it as he wished.

And then this dude recorded it:

Spotify link

*Denmark Street in London is sometimes referred to as Britain’s Tin Pan Alley. The Kinks have a song called “Denmark Street” on their Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One album.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Parlor Songs Academy website; A Brief-ish history of Tin Pan Alley; the author’s own memories of plugging songs in the ’20’s.

25 thoughts on “Tin Pan Alley and the “Brill Building Sound”

  1. That’s a quite intriguing piece of music history, Jim, I had absolutely no idea of. Instead, my first thought after seeing the headline was the Stevie Ray Vaughan tune. I was hooked from the first time I heard it in my late teens, which is longer ago than I want to remember!

    The second thing that got my immediate attention was the Clapton documentary. Other than the news/CNN and the occasional movie, and over the next two weeks perhaps some of the Winter Olympics, I hardly watch any TV. I didn’t even know whether Showtime is part of my current cable line-up. All for a sudden, I was very motivated to find out – it is!

    Thanks for flagging – my plans to watch the Olympics this evening just changed!:-)

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        1. I wish I could say the same as enthusiastically. There was some great stuff in it, like the video of Dylan watching the Yardbirds on TV and going ‘wow!’.Where did they get that? And of course all the stuff about Cream, Derek and the Dominos, etc.

          But for me it started to go south right about the whole Eric/Patti Boyd romance thing. It just dragged on way past what I thought made sense given the whole show was only a little over two hours long. And from then on, they almost completely lost sight of his music and it became a soap opera about his addictions and romances. It’s not that those weren’t important – it’s just that there was no balance. During that time he had hit albums like ‘Slowhand’ and ‘461 Ocean Boulevard.’ He still played blues but became something of a pop star. He helped introduce reggae to a wider crowd with ‘I Shot the Sheriff,’ had hits like ‘Wonderful Tonight’ and ‘Lay Down Sally’ and then put out a great blues album. What did they do? Flashed a bunch of album covers on-screen!

          So for me, a squandered opportunity. Tom Petty’s documentary was four hours long why wasn’t this one? They could then have gotten all that in. If someone were a Clapton newbie I would not recommend this doc. Read Eric’s book or find some other documentaries. 2 1/2 stars at best.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. I would say this documentary focused more on Eric Clapton the person rather than the musician, specifically his apparent quest to look for love and trust and the repeated betrayals he felt since his early childhood. Frankly, the fact he came out alive almost borders on a miracle!

          I really loved the first half of the documentary that captured his early musical journey with the Yardbirds, John Mayall, Cream and Blind Faith. The footage with Dylan you noted was priceless, as was were the studio scenes with Aretha Franklin, and where he joined Keith Richards on that a cappella performance with Chuck Berry, reminding Berry of his own lyrics.

          I also dug the footage showing Clapton with his colorful psychedelic Gibson SG – the SG is one of the coolest looking guitars, in my opinion, and all these colors make it even more cool! When I was a teenager learning the guitar, I always dreamed of owning a Gibson Les Paul (instead I had an Ibanez copy that actually sounded pretty good), a Fender Stratocaster and an Ovation acoustic guitar. I still wouldn’t mind owning this gear. But now I think I’d want to have an SG first! 🙂

          Anyway, to me the first half saved it. The one big unanswered question is given Clapton’s horrible struggle with heroin and alcohol addiction, how was he capable to record what I believe are his best solo work in the ’70s? He clearly seemed to have issues during live performances, showing up drunk, cursing at the audience and stopping gigs early. Then again, I suppose you look at other bands like The Stones or Led Zeppelin whose members also were in the throes of addiction, yet it didn’t seem to impact their output. Without meaning to romanticize it, perhaps they couldn’t even have recorded some of their shit without the drugs!

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        3. I think your points are all well-taken. This certainly wasn’t billed as the definitive Clapton bio so I guess if one takes it on face value it was ok. But as mentioned, if Tom Petty whose career was briefer than Clapton’s by some 10+ years deserved a 4-hour bio, so, I think, did Clapton. Had they stretched it out they could (and should) have covered Clapton the man and the musician. I think the filmmakers went in to this with a certain theme – “Artist reaches great heights, struggles to overcome demons, finds redemption.” I would have found it much more rewarding if the theme had been “Warts and all biography of EC’s life as a man and musician.” Oh, well. As you mentioned, there’s still a lot of good stuff. But I’d personally still recommend EC’s own autobio over this doc.

          Liked by 1 person

        4. Agree, Jim, this review sums it up pretty nicely. I also think your point about adding more time, so it could have addressed the post Derek and The Dominoes musical period in greater detail, is well taken.

          BTW, while I had heard the audio before, the footage with Duane Allman and the isolation of his and Clapton’s guitar parts during Layla was another highlight!

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        5. If you want more of that good stuff, I recommend the documentary ‘Tom Dowd and the Language of Music.’ He produced ‘Layla’ and a lot of other great albums.

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  2. Great post, Jim. I love the idea of these old medicine show / magic elixir salesmen hopping into the music business. Good for what ails you and all that jazz.

    There’s no denying that a lot of those songwriting teams churned out a lot of great songs. Closest to something as prolific now is Nashville hitmakers or the pop writers… though the quality of song has diminished considerably. Heart, soul and sentiment replaced by, eh, words that rhyme and lip gloss.

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