There's a nondescript building at 42 West 28th Street where a sign reads: the place where Tin Pan Alley began. I'd bet that few New Yorkers have noticed the placard and not one in a million knows how Tin Pan Alley got its name.
The answer lies in the remarkable story of Harry Von Tilzer, born Aaron Gumbinsky in Detroit in 1872 to a German Jewish beauty store owner and his wife. At 14, Harry left home to become a tumbler in the Cole Brothers circus. He then joined a traveling burlesque troupe and changed his name, grafting a "Von" onto his mother's maiden name, Tilzer, to concoct his new surname.
Arriving in New York in 1892, he went to work as a saloon pianist, with some brothel piano playing on the side. He began to write songs for vaudeville, and in 1898 wrote his first really successful tune, "My Old New Hampshire Home." Two years later, he wrote "Bird In A Gilded Cage," which became a national sensation. Even Teddy Roosevelt described it as his favorite song. When Von Tilzer met T.R., he explained to the president that the bird in the title was a metaphor for a kept woman. Roosevelt said, "Harry, never repeat that story."
By 1905 Von Tilzer had written a bevy of hits, including "On a Sunday Afternoon," "Down on the Farm," "In the Sweet Bye and Bye," and "Wait Till the Sun Shines Nellie," the most popular song of the first decade of the century. On the strength of these hits, he opened his own music publishing company at 42 West 28th Street, and he helped to establish a distinctive American industry, specializing in American popular composers.
Von Tilzer persuaded four of his brothers to join him at the newly established company, all taking the Von Tilzer name. One brother, Albert, wrote "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and "Apple Blossom Time," two of the twentieth century's most popular songs. Soon, almost every famous name in the nation's nascent popular music industry had an association with the Von Tilzer Music Company. Harry continued to roll out his own hits, too—including, in 1911, the famous "I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad."
Before long, the editors of the New York Tribune assigned a reporter—an aspiring composer himself—to write a story about Von Tilzer. When the newsman arrived at the cavernous building on 28th Street, he wrote, he heard a "tinny" sound emanating from several pianos. Adopting a practice Von Tilzer started, songwriters would put newspapers behind piano strings in order to get an odd, high-pitched sound when they played. Cascading from wall to wall, the noise sounded like someone banging tin pans in an echoing alleyway. When the article about Harry came out, it bore the title "Mr. Tin Pan Alley."
The most famous musicians of the twentieth century got their start in that 28th Street building. When Harry met a banjo-playing busker in front of the Bowery Follies, he took a liking to the youngster. Harry encouraged him to rework his 1904 song "Alexander" and to change his name from Izzy Balin to something more distinguished—as Harry himself had done. Balin reworked the song into "Alexander's Rag Time Band" and his name into Irving Berlin.
Another song plugger who caught Harry's eye had aspirations to become a composer. Harry published his first song, "When You Want Them You Can't Have Them; When You Have Them You Don't Want Them"—summing up his philosophy of women. The songwriter became America's best-known composer, George Gershwin.
Hearing a young singer belt out a song in Atlantic City, Harry invited him to appear at a vaudeville show in New York. The young man arrived to discover, to his dismay, a show in progress. Von Tilzer told him that during intermission the audience would leave for drinks. "So you want me to sing to an empty theater?" the irritated singer asked. "No," Harry replied; "get up on the stage as the people begin to leave; implore them to stay in their seats. Get down on one knee; beg them to listen." The young singer tried it, and often thereafter he sang on one knee. His name: Al Jolson.
Harry Von Tilzer is unknown today, despite his fame and fortune while alive. But the spirited contributions he made to popular music remain a vital and enduring part of our culture.