Alexander's Ragtime Band

Alexander's Ragtime Band

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"Alexander's Ragtime Band" is the name of a song by Irving Berlin
Irving Berlin
Irving Berlin was an American composer and lyricist of Jewish heritage, widely considered one of the greatest songwriters in American history.His first hit song, "Alexander's Ragtime Band", became world famous...

. It was his first major hit, in 1911. There is some evidence, although inconclusive, that Berlin borrowed the melody from a draft of "A Real Slow Drag" submitted by Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin was an American composer and pianist. Joplin achieved fame for his ragtime compositions, and was later dubbed "The King of Ragtime". During his brief career, Joplin wrote 44 original ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet, and two operas...

 that had been submitted to a publisher.

Style


"Alexander's Ragtime Band" is not itself an example of the ragtime
Ragtime
Ragtime is an original musical genre which enjoyed its peak popularity between 1897 and 1918. Its main characteristic trait is its syncopated, or "ragged," rhythm. It began as dance music in the red-light districts of American cities such as St. Louis and New Orleans years before being published...

 musical idiom
Idiom
Idiom is an expression, word, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is comprehended in regard to a common use of that expression that is separate from the literal meaning or definition of the words of which it is made...

; apart from some mild syncopation
Syncopation
In music, syncopation includes a variety of rhythms which are in some way unexpected in that they deviate from the strict succession of regularly spaced strong and weak but also powerful beats in a meter . These include a stress on a normally unstressed beat or a rest where one would normally be...

, it has almost none of ragtime's characteristic features. Nonetheless, the lyrics clearly refer to the arrival of African-American musicians on the popular scene with their then-new idea of playing standard songs in a more exciting up-tempo style.

Lyrics


The first lines establish the African-American context:
Oh ma honey . . . ain't you goin' to the leaderman, the ragged meter man


References to "jazzing up" popular music include:
They can play a bugle call
Bugle call
A bugle call is a short tune, originating as a military signal announcing scheduled and certain non-scheduled events on a military installation, battlefield, or ship. Historically, bugles, drums, and other loud musical instruments were used for clear communication in the noise and confusion of a...

 like you never heard before
So natural that you want to go to war
That's just the bestest band what am, honey lamb


and:
If you care to hear the Swanee River
Old Folks at Home
"Old Folks at Home" is a minstrel song written by Stephen Foster in 1851. It was intended to be performed by the New York blackface troupe Christy's Minstrels. E. P. Christy, the troupe's leader, appears on early printings of the sheet music as the song's creator...

 played in ragtime


The new style included new ways of playing traditional instruments as well:
There's a fiddle
Fiddle
The term fiddle may refer to any bowed string musical instrument, most often the violin. It is also a colloquial term for the instrument used by players in all genres, including classical music...

 with notes that screeches
Like a chicken
And the clarinet
Clarinet
The clarinet is a musical instrument of woodwind type. The name derives from adding the suffix -et to the Italian word clarino , as the first clarinets had a strident tone similar to that of a trumpet. The instrument has an approximately cylindrical bore, and uses a single reed...

 is a colored pet

History


Vaudeville
Vaudeville
Vaudeville was a theatrical genre of variety entertainment in the United States and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s. Each performance was made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill...

 singer Emma Carus
Emma Carus
Emma Carus was a contralto singer from New York who was in the cast of the original Ziegfeld Follies in 1907. Her given name was Emma Carus.She frequently sang invaudeville and sometimes in Broadway features...

, famed for her "female baritone", is said to have been largely responsible for successfully introducing the song in Chicago and helping contribute to its immense popularity. It became identified with her, and soon worked its way back to New York where Al Jolson
Al Jolson
Al Jolson was an American singer, comedian and actor. In his heyday, he was dubbed "The World's Greatest Entertainer"....

 also began to perform it.

The song has been recorded by many artists, including The Andrews Sisters
The Andrews Sisters
The Andrews Sisters were a highly successful close harmony singing group of the swing and boogie-woogie eras. The group consisted of three sisters: contralto LaVerne Sophia Andrews , soprano Maxene Angelyn Andrews , and mezzo-soprano Patricia Marie "Patty" Andrews...

, Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong , nicknamed Satchmo or Pops, was an American jazz trumpeter and singer from New Orleans, Louisiana....

, Ray Charles
Ray Charles
Ray Charles Robinson , known by his shortened stage name Ray Charles, was an American musician. He was a pioneer in the genre of soul music during the 1950s by fusing rhythm and blues, gospel, and blues styles into his early recordings with Atlantic Records...

, Bee Gees
Bee Gees
The Bee Gees are a musical group that originally comprised three brothers: Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb. The trio was successful for most of their 40-plus years of recording music, but they had two distinct periods of exceptional success: as a pop act in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and as a...

, Bing Crosby
Bing Crosby
Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby was an American singer and actor. Crosby's trademark bass-baritone voice made him one of the best-selling recording artists of the 20th century, with over half a billion records in circulation....

, Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Jane Fitzgerald , also known as the "First Lady of Song" and "Lady Ella," was an American jazz and song vocalist...

, George Formby, Al Jolson
Al Jolson
Al Jolson was an American singer, comedian and actor. In his heyday, he was dubbed "The World's Greatest Entertainer"....

, Liberace
Liberace
Wladziu Valentino Liberace , best known simply as Liberace, was a famous American pianist and vocalist.In a career that spanned four decades of concerts, recordings, motion pictures, television and endorsements, Liberace became world-renowned...

, Billy Murray
Billy Murray (singer)
William Thomas "Billy" Murray was one of the most popular singers in the United States in the early decades of the 20th century...

, Liza Minnelli
Liza Minnelli
Liza May Minnelli is an American actress and singer. She is the daughter of singer and actress Judy Garland and film director Vincente Minnelli....

, Sid Phillips, Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith was an American blues singer.Sometimes referred to as The Empress of the Blues, Smith was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s...

 and Julie Andrews
Julie Andrews
Dame Julia Elizabeth Andrews, DBE is an English film and stage actress, singer, and author. She is the recipient of Golden Globe, Emmy, Grammy, BAFTA, People's Choice Award, Theatre World Award, Screen Actors Guild and Academy Award honors...

.

The song had a presence on the charts for five straight decades. According to Newsweek
Newsweek
Newsweek is an American weekly news magazine published in New York City. It is distributed throughout the United States and internationally. It is the second-largest news weekly magazine in the U.S., having trailed Time in circulation and advertising revenue for most of its existence...

Magazine:
  • Four different versions of the tune charted at # 1, # 2, # 3 and # 4 in 1911 including one by Arthur Collins
    Arthur Collins
    Arthur Francis Collins was an American singer who recorded a significant number of early records. With tenor singer Byron G...

     which stayed at number one for 10 weeks.
  • Bessie Smith
    Bessie Smith
    Bessie Smith was an American blues singer.Sometimes referred to as The Empress of the Blues, Smith was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s...

    's version made the top 20 in 1927.
  • Louis Armstrong
    Louis Armstrong
    Louis Armstrong , nicknamed Satchmo or Pops, was an American jazz trumpeter and singer from New Orleans, Louisiana....

     made the top 20 with it in 1937.
  • A duet by Bing Crosby
    Bing Crosby
    Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby was an American singer and actor. Crosby's trademark bass-baritone voice made him one of the best-selling recording artists of the 20th century, with over half a billion records in circulation....

     and Connee Boswell
    Connee Boswell
    Constance Foore "Connee" Boswell was an American female vocalist born in Kansas City but raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. With her sisters, Martha and Helvetia "Vet" Boswell, she performed in the 1930s as The Boswell Sisters and became a highly influential singing group during this period via...

     hit #1 in 1938.
  • Johnny Mercer
    Johnny Mercer
    John Herndon "Johnny" Mercer was an American lyricist, songwriter and singer. He is best known as a lyricist, but he also composed music. He was also a popular singer who recorded his own songs as well as those written by others...

     charted a swing version in 1945.
  • Bing Crosby
    Bing Crosby
    Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby was an American singer and actor. Crosby's trademark bass-baritone voice made him one of the best-selling recording artists of the 20th century, with over half a billion records in circulation....

     recorded another duet version, and hit the top-20 in 1947 with Al Jolson
    Al Jolson
    Al Jolson was an American singer, comedian and actor. In his heyday, he was dubbed "The World's Greatest Entertainer"....

    .
  • Nellie Lutcher
    Nellie Lutcher
    Nellie Lutcher was an African-American R&B and jazz singer and pianist, who gained prominence in the late 1940s and early 1950s...

     put it on the R&B charts in 1948.
  • Bob Wills
    Bob Wills
    James Robert Wills , better known as Bob Wills, was an American Western Swing musician, songwriter, and bandleader, considered by music authorities as the co-founder of Western Swing and universally known as the pioneering King of Western Swing.Bob Wills' name will forever be associated with...

     put it on the c&w charts in the same decade.
  • Johnnie Ray
    Johnnie Ray
    Johnnie Ray was an American singer, songwriter, and pianist. Popular for most of the 1950s, Ray has been cited by critics as a major precursor of what would become rock and roll, for his jazz and blues-influenced music and his animated stage personality.-Early life:John Alvin Ray was born in...

     sang it on the silver screen in 20th Century Fox
    20th Century Fox
    Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation — also known as 20th Century Fox, or simply 20th or Fox — is one of the six major American film studios...

    's musical There's No Business Like Show Business
    There's No Business Like Show Business
    "There's No Business Like Show Business" is an Irving Berlin song, written for the musical Annie Get Your Gun and orchestrated by Ted Royal. The song, a slightly tongue-in-cheek salute to the glamor and excitement of a life in show business, is sung in the musical by members of Buffalo Bill's Wild...

    in 1954.
  • Ella Fitzgerald
    Ella Fitzgerald
    Ella Jane Fitzgerald , also known as the "First Lady of Song" and "Lady Ella," was an American jazz and song vocalist...

     scored with it in 1958, and received a Grammy for her Irving Berlin anthology in 1959.
  • Ray Charles
    Ray Charles
    Ray Charles Robinson , known by his shortened stage name Ray Charles, was an American musician. He was a pioneer in the genre of soul music during the 1950s by fusing rhythm and blues, gospel, and blues styles into his early recordings with Atlantic Records...

     recorded it in 1959 for his album The Genius of Ray Charles
    The Genius of Ray Charles
    The Genius of Ray Charles is a 1959 album by Ray Charles. In 2003, the album was ranked number 263 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time....

    .
  • Bee Gees
    Bee Gees
    The Bee Gees are a musical group that originally comprised three brothers: Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb. The trio was successful for most of their 40-plus years of recording music, but they had two distinct periods of exceptional success: as a pop act in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and as a...

     used the music in their tour in 1974, and sang it on The Midnight Special
    The Midnight Special (TV series)
    The Midnight Special is an American musical variety series that aired on NBC during the 1970s and early 1980s, created and produced by Burt Sugarman. It premiered as a special on August 19, 1972, then began its run as a regular series on February 2, 1973; its last episode was on May 1, 1981...

    TV show in 1973.


The tune of the song was played in Broadway Folly
Broadway Folly
Broadway Folly is an animated cartoon by Walter Lantz which stars Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.-Plot:Oswald was driving his uncovered car, heading towards a night club. He parks his car at a sidewalk by the club and goes toward the entrance. As he was reaching the door, Oswald was flagged down by the...

, 1930 Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit is an anthropomorphic rabbit and animated cartoon character created by Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney for films distributed by Universal Pictures in the 1920s and 1930s...

 film.

A 1938 film of the same name
Alexander's Ragtime Band (film)
Alexander's Ragtime Band is a film released by Twentieth Century Fox that takes its name from the 1911 Irving Berlin song "Alexander's Ragtime Band" to tell a story of a society boy who scandalizes his family by pursuing a career in Ragtime instead of in "serious" music...

 was loosely based on the song.

The song is referenced in the Emerson, Lake and Palmer song "Karn Evil 9
Karn Evil 9
"Karn Evil 9" is an extended work by progressive rock group Emerson, Lake & Palmer, appearing on the album Brain Salad Surgery. A futuristic fusion of rock and classical themes, it is regarded by many fans to be their best work...

".

A version of the song set to a disco beat was recorded by Ethel Merman
Ethel Merman
Ethel Merman was an American actress and singer. Known primarily for her powerful voice and roles in musical theatre, she has been called "the undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage." Among the many standards introduced by Merman in Broadway musicals are "I Got Rhythm", "Everything's...

 for her infamous Ethel Merman Disco Album
The Ethel Merman Disco Album
The Ethel Merman Disco Album is a 1979 album by American Broadway legend Ethel Merman. Over the years, the album became a camp classic and vinyl copies were highly sought out by collectors....

in 1979.

A snippet of the chorus of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" can be heard toward the end of Taco's 1982 cover of "Puttin' on the Ritz
Puttin' on the Ritz
"Puttin' on the Ritz" is a popular song written and published in 1929 by Irving Berlin and introduced by Harry Richman in the musical film Puttin' on the Ritz . The title derives from the slang expression "putting on the Ritz," meaning to dress very fashionably. The expression was inspired by the...

", a number 4 hit in the United States.

The song was used in Tennessee
Tennessee
Tennessee is a U.S. state located in the Southeastern United States. It has a population of 6,346,105, making it the nation's 17th-largest state by population, and covers , making it the 36th-largest by total land area...

 politics by Lamar Alexander
Lamar Alexander
Andrew Lamar Alexander is the senior United States Senator from Tennessee and Conference Chair of the Republican Party. He was previously the 45th Governor of Tennessee from 1979 to 1987, United States Secretary of Education from 1991 to 1993 under President George H. W...

, a trained pianist, Governor of Tennessee and U.S. Senator, who performed the song for campaign events, including during his 1996 run for the Republican presidential nomination.

The song was in the White Star Line Songbook on board the R.M.S. Titanic and was played in the 1st Class Lounge early on in the sinking. This is portrayed in James Cameron
James Cameron
James Francis Cameron is a Canadian-American film director, film producer, screenwriter, editor, environmentalist and inventor...

's 1997 blockbuster, Titanic
Titanic (1997 film)
Titanic is a 1997 American epic romance and disaster film directed, written, co-produced, and co-edited by James Cameron. A fictionalized account of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, it stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson, Kate Winslet as Rose DeWitt Bukater and Billy Zane as Rose's fiancé, Cal...

.

The Georgia Tech Pep Band
Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket Marching Band
The Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket Marching Band is the official marching band of the Georgia Institute of Technology...

 plays the song before every men's and women's home basketball games.

Nowadays, Liza Minnelli
Liza Minnelli
Liza May Minnelli is an American actress and singer. She is the daughter of singer and actress Judy Garland and film director Vincente Minnelli....

 tends to open her concerts with the song.

External links