Music on Mondays (3/18/03) — It’s rag time!
On this date in 1911, Irving Berlin copyrighted one of the biggest hits of the early 20th Century.
Prior to digital music downloads, there were vinyl records. They came in four flavors: the LP (long-play album), the 45 single (two songs, one on each side), the EP (extended play, which usually had four songs, two on each side), and the 78 (single or album).
Prior to vinyl records, though, music hits were determined by how much sheet music was sold. People would buy sheet music and learn the music on the piano. Then they would play the music for family and friends, who then would go out and buy the sheet music and learn it themselves.
I admit that I’m not one of those who miss vinyl records. I diligently cared for my records since I had over 5,000 of them at the end of my vinyl collecting career in 1993. Unfortunately, as much as I lovingly cared for them, they were always warping, getting scratched, even cracking or breaking! Whenever I had social events (known as parties back in those days!), I would find records the next morning that had wine, beer, margaritas, even peanut butter! on them. I can tell you that out of those four, peanut butter was the worst.
The song Irving Berlin copyrighted was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
“Alexander’s Ragtime Band” sold over 1.5 million copies during the first 18 months after its release.
Berlin went on to write songs that are much more familiar than “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” most notably “White Christmas,” “God Bless America,” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
Even though Bing Crosby took “White Christmas” and made it an ongoing Christmas classic, with the fame and fortune that such a classic brings, Irving Berlin probably made more money from the copyright royalties on “White Christmas” than Bing Crosby did.
If you remember when Whitney Houston died last year, her songs received a great deal of airplay. Unfortunately, Houston’s estate made very little off of that airplay since she didn’t write her own songs.
Back in the 1950s when rock ‘n’ roll was getting started, there were singers and there were songwriters. That’s why you can look at an old Billboard music chart from the ’50s and ’60s and find multiple renditions on the chart of the same song but by different singers. Singers would buy songs from songwriters and record them, hoping to top the charts with their versions.
In the early 1960s, Paul McCartney and John Lennon of The Beatles were among the first combination singer-songwriters, recognizing that the real money was in royalties, not initial song sales.
I have always loved ragtime music, and the world finally caught on in 1973 when Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in “The Sting.” Music was by Marvin Hamlisch (1944-2012) and featured ragtime music written decades earlier by Scott Joplin (c. 1867-1917). Here are my two favorite Scott Joplin tunes, performed by Scott Joplin on piano:
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