Photo Credit: Harvey Rachlin
Harvey Rachlin

You can hear your favorite songs as well as the latest hits on the radio, on Internet sites like YouTube and Spotify, and in ringtones, movies, and elsewhere. But today’s dynamic U.S. music industry has its roots in a slower and more innocent time, and Jews were among its most prominent entrepreneurial and creative pioneers.

It was around 1880 when enterprising individuals started forming music-publishing companies in New York City that encouraged the creation of commercial pop songs, cultivated a marketplace for them, and exploited them in spirited and enterprising ways.


This new centralized industry began taking shape around the end of Reconstruction, the period that followed the American Civil War when people were looking for new ways to make money in the recovering U.S. economy.

Toward the end of the 1870s – a remarkable decade that saw the invention of the telephone, the phonograph player, and the light bulb – some entrepreneurial young men thought pop tunes could be brought to the masses and money made.

They would be different from music publishers of the past, who specialized in classical and educational music and only occasionally published pop songs. This new breed would actively try to get professional musicians to play their original songs, and then actively promote them to the public so they might buy the songs’ sheet music.

Prominent among this ambitious new lot were several Jews who started music publishing companies. Some had their roots in the second wave of Jewish immigration that started around the 1840s with the migration of Jews from Germany; others who would follow came from the third wave of Jewish immigration, which began in the early years of the 19th century (and lasted until about 1920) from Poland, Russia, Austria, Hungary, Lithuania, and other Eastern European countries. Many of these Jews fled the vicious pogroms of the czars; they sought a better life in the U.S. and a number would settle in New York City’s Lower East Side.

Among the major Jewish-owned music publishers were M. Witmark, a company formed by three young brothers, Isadore, Jay, and Julius who operated in the name of their father, Marcus, because they were minors.

A musical family whose talent was nurtured by their father, their journey into the business world began after 11-year-old Jay won a toy printing press as a prize in arithmetic (Miss Roy, his teacher, declined to give him the customary prize of a gold medal because his behavior wasn’t meritorious enough for that award), and segued from printing cards to printing sheet music.

There was also York Music, run by Albert Von Tilzer, a German Jew who composed the melodies for songs such as “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and “I’ll Be With You In Apple Blossom Time.”

And there was Leo Feist Inc., an eponymous firm owned by an erstwhile corset vendor who would publish the works of Enrico Caruso, popular World War I and armed forces songs like “Over There” and “K-K-K-Katy,” and general hits like “My Blue Heaven.”

And then there were Charles K. Harris, another eponymous firm named after the composer of one of the era’s major hits, “After the Ball,” with over ten million copies of sheet music sold; Shapiro-Bernstein, which had hits with songs like “A Bird In a Gilded Cage”; and Joseph W. Stern, publisher of such hits as the 1896 “Sweet Rosie O’Grady.”

Jewish-owned companies dominated the charts and published some of the world’s most popular pop tunes from the greatest tunesmiths of the day. (Years later, in 1920, the Justice Department brought anti-trust action against a half-dozen music publishers for controlling a majority of the music publishing business; most of the firms were Jewish-owned, including some of the aforementioned.)

Music publishers first set up offices around Union Square in New York City, but as the theater district moved uptown they followed them. Many settled on 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue. The firms sat one on top of the other in the buildings that stretched across the street and it was there that the name “Tin Pan Alley” was minted.

As the story goes, one day a (Jewish) reporter named Monroe Rosenfeld was visiting the offices of Harry Von Tilzer (a composer and brother of Albert) for an article, and the air seemed to be filled with the tinny sounds of pianos reverberating in the building and around the street. Many composers in those days of ragtime and vaudeville favored taking the baseboards off of pianos and inserting strips of paper between the strings to create a unique sound effect.

In his article Rosenfeld called the street Tin Pan Alley, although Von Tilzer would later claim it was he who came up with the name. In any case, the name Tin Pan Alley came to refer not only to this cacophonous thoroughfare that housed many of the top music publishers of the day but also to the style of the music itself.

The ambitious publishers found every way they could to sell sheet music of the songs they printed.

They would pitch their songs to singers and bandleaders who performed in vaudeville theaters, burlesque halls, hotel, restaurants, and saloons.

They would go to five-and-dime stores and on a piano play the tunes their firms published.

They would plant “ringers” in music halls and saloons to sing along when new songs were introduced and thereby get others to join in and help popularize the new tunes.

They would play original songs in nickelodeons before and after the presentation of silent movies and get audiences to sing along with them as the lyrics appeared on a screen beneath pictures of models acting out the song lyrics.

Many songs sold more than a million copies of sheet music, earning small fortunes for their publishers and writers.

Jews weren’t just publishing hit tunes in Tin Pan Alley, they were also writing them – most famously Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers. But there were scores of other Jewish songwriters, not all of whom became household names but whose tunes became part of the music landscape.

A small sampling of these stellar pop tunesmiths includes Harold Arlen (who composed the songs for the 1939 movie classic “The Wizard of Oz); Gus Kahn (“Dream a Little Dream of Me”); Jack Yellen (“Yiddishe Momme”); Al Dubin (“I Only Have Eyes For You”); Gus Edwards (“By the Light of the Silvery Moon”); Irving Caesar (“Tea for Two,”); Billy Rose (“Me and My Shadow,”); Leo Robin (“Thanks for the Memory”); Sammy Fain (“Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing”); and Dorothy Fields (“I’m In the Mood For Love”).

A later group of Jewish songwriters may also be considered part of Tin Pan Alley although they plied their craft through its fading days. These writers included Sammy Cahn (“Bie Mir Bist Du Schon),” Jule Styne (the hit movie “Funny Girl”), Alan Jay Lerner (“My Fair Lady”), Frank Loesser (“Guys and Dolls”), Jay Livingston (“Que Sera, Sera, Sera”); Cy Coleman (“Wildcat”), Jerry Herman (“Hello Dolly”), and Charles Strouse (“Bye Bye Birdie”).

Musical tastes started to change after World War II. Tin Pan Alley faded and a new kind of music with lyrics of youthful rebellion and electronic instruments, aimed at teenagers, came into vogue.

Jews were there, too, at the gate of this emerging form of music: The Polish-immigrant Chess brothers, Phil and Leonard, who started their soon-to-be famous record company featuring such artists as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley; Julian Aberbach and Freddy Bienstock, who published numerous hits of the rock and roll era (the former with his Hill and Range company, the latter as manager of the Elvis Presley Music Company); Florence Greenberg, who started the Scepter and Wand record labels promoting the careers of such artists as Dionne Warwick and The Shirelles; and Sid Bernstein, a concert promoter who brought The Beatles and other top British groups to America in the 1960s.

(Speaking of the Beatles, the man who managed them and was instrumental in their becoming an unprecedented worldwide phenomenon was, of course, a British Jew named Brian Epstein.)

Many of rock and roll’s early successful songwriters/performers were Jewish – individuals such as Mike Leiber, Jerry Stoller, Carole King, Neil Sedaka, Buck Ram, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Neil Diamond, Herb Alpert, Burt Bacharach, Hal David, Jeff Barry, Cynthia Weil, and Ron Miller.

New technology and genres of music emerge all the time. But the basic goal of the business remains what it was back in the formative days of Tin Pan Alley: to bring music as efficiently and economically as possible to the public.

The czars of Russia never imagined that their purge of Jews would result in a cultural revolution across the ocean (and eventually around the world) with music ranging from the sentimental moon-June-spoon lyrics of Tin Pan Alley to the be-bop-she-bop hooks of rock and roll.


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Harvey Rachlin, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is an award-winning author of thirteen books including “Lucy’s Bones, Sacred Stones, and Einstein’s Brain,” which was adapted for the long-running History Channel series “History’s Lost and Found.” He is also a lecturer at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York.