On the Road from ONTARIO to TIN PAN ALLEY

A Canadian Song-writer with Two Big Popular Hits to His Credit

GEOFFREY O’HARA April 1 1921

On the Road from ONTARIO to TIN PAN ALLEY

A Canadian Song-writer with Two Big Popular Hits to His Credit

GEOFFREY O’HARA April 1 1921

On the Road from ONTARIO to TIN PAN ALLEY

A Canadian Song-writer with Two Big Popular Hits to His Credit


RIGHT here at the outset, before I begin feeling tempted to try to turn this into a highbrow discussion of music and its deeper significance, I’m going to keep myself down to earth for the rest of the article by making a real, honest confession as to just how I came to write the first of my two popular songs. And of what happened to it.

The song was Tennessee, I Hear You Calling Me, and it was the one that AÍ Jolson sang for a whole season at the Winter Garden in New York. Getting Jolson to sing a song, incidentally, is a story in itself, believe me. He has as many song writers and publishers continually chasing him as an American President has office-seekers sending in their cards during the first few months of his term in office.

To tell the truth, I had never been within a thousand miles of Tennessee when I first began wanting to write that song. And I never actually got to Tennessee until a long while after the song had gone to the place where good little songs go when the public gets interested in something else.

The fact that a bunch of Southern negroes crossed into Canada at the time of the American Civil War was indirectly responsible for that song about Tennessee. I was born in Chatham,

Ontario, which is only forty-four miles across the line from Detroit, and so many former slaves settled in Chatham that we called their section of town “Little Africa” and they brought a lot of old Southern melodies with them and some of these became popular in the community.

I was raised on one glorious old song of this group—called A Girl I Loved in Sunny Tennessee,

—and as long as I live I will never forget the one particular line in that song that had made me visualize Tennessee as a romantic Paradise.

The line ran “As the moon rose in its glory, then I told life’s sweetest story to the girl I loved in sunny Tennessee.” From the day I learned this song, the mythical, magic place call Tennessee was literally calling to me.

I never quite forgot it, but it was not until one day in 1914, which was a long, long while after I had first dreamed of Tennessee, that I woke up one morning with a taunting, intrigueing snatch of music running through my mind and seemingly inviting the words Tennessee, I Hear You Calling Me to fit it. By this time I had been a professional singer, teacher, and composer for a number of years, and of course the first instinct was to seize paper and pencil and transcribe my dream song into black and white. The I Hear Y ou Calling Me idea was not new, of course, as John McCormack had made the song by that name famous, but the two bars of this song that had so subconsciously wrapped itself around my dear old dream of sunny Tennessee had become but an inconsequential part of a new one of sixty-four lines before I had finished.

TpHE finished A product fascinated me and I kept humming

it over all day and night. I confidently carried it to a big New York publisher—and he turned it down. What a jolt! But I had learned that all sorts of strange things occur in Tin Pan Alley. That, incidentally, is the pet name of a vicinity rather than any individual street in New York, the vicinity of the lower Forties and Broadway, where most of the big music publishing houses have their headquarters, and where you can hear jazzy thumpings from early morning until late at night as you pass along the streets.

I took it to a number of the other big publishers, going back three times to see several of them, and they all said it would make a wonderful AÍ Jolson song and would make a

Did you know that “K-K-Katy” is a C-C-Canadian? Geoffrey O’Hara, born and reared in Chatham, Ont., wrote it. He’s one of the most versatile song writers on this continent and tells here, for the first time, some of the picturesque “high spots” of his career. During the war, he was the pioneer song leader in the United States training camps, frequently leading 5,000 or more at one time.

wonderful hit if he would sing it, but that the chances of getting him to sing it were too small, and that their programs were already filled up for the season. Pretty discouraging for an ambitious young song writer with what he feels sure is his first popular hit!

Finally I ran across Jack von Tilzer, whose “Empire Music Company” happened to be just “between hits” at the moment. He had published a number of well-known songs but at this particular time had nothing on the stocks. It was just exactly the song he wanted, and between us we began to camp on AÍ Jolson’s trail. Everything depended on getting him to sing the song. Even the first pages could not be printed until we found out whether or not he would use it, for if he did sing it the best cover on earth would be a picture of Jolson himself and an announcement that he was singing the song himself.

It was during the summer, and Jolson, we found, had slipped off to Atlantic City for the deliberate purpose of escaping song publishers. We telephoned, telegraphed, and wrote him, never sending the song itself but never being very bashful in telling him what we thought about it as a song particularly suited for his peculiar talents. He did not answer, but when he finally returned to begin rehearsing the Winter Garden’s new show, he came down to von Tilzer’s office on Forty-fifth Street out of sheer curiosity.

out sheer curiosity. When he’d read over the words and listened to the music— it was like waiting for the judge’s verdict while he was making up his mind—he slapped his knee and said he would have sung it anyhow for the sake of his old friend von Tilzer, but that in addition it struck him as being his best prospect for the new season.

It’s Up To AÍ Jolson

TT SOUNDED like that was all there was to it, but it A wasn’t. Jolson started to put the song in the first act during the London scene in which he had to say: “Well, boys, I’m sick of this London and the old mutton chops— wish I was back in Norfolk, Virginia.” He told the stage

manager he was going to change that to read: “Memphis, Tennessee,” and sing my song at that point. The man who had written the words for the verses of the song—I had written the words of the chorus myself—had a minor part in the cast of the Winter Garden show, and when that morning’s rehearsal was over he rushed back to von Tilzer’s office where I happened to be, and

burst in with: “Gee boys, Jolson’s got the song in at last!” Nothing had been certain, of course, and we had been worrying; by this time Jack von Tilzer had put a good deal into the song, and his overhead expenses were high, and this was his only chance at a hit for the season.

Then came a rude awakening. The squad of three or four who had written the Winter Garden show got busy and

wrote Jolson another song called: I Wish I Was Back in Norfolk, Virginia, to sing at this particular point of the first act—and Jolson’s contract required him to sing it.

“Oh, very well,” Jolson reassured us, "I’ll put it in my specialty in the third act where I can sing anything I want to or anything the audience calls for.”

Things looked rosy again. But not for long. Somebody ought to write a play called the “Odyssey of a Song.” There’d be suspense galore. The squad who wrote the play were not staying awake at nights to figure how they could get an outsider’s song in among theirs. Please don’t think I am boasting about “Tennessee” because that won’t do me any good now in any event— but it was natural for said squad to prefer the elimination of any such outside feature. They now re-wrote the first act of the play and jazzed in a big telephone scene which was replete with the phrase: “I hear j ou calling me,” and for good measure threw in a pianologue interpolation imitating John McCormack’s rendition of I Hear You Calling Me. By the time our friendly black-faced comedian got to his third act specialty the audience was going to have enough of the “I hear you calling me” idea to satiate it for a year.

you calling to it for a year. We had'had the song tried out in a few vaudeville houses in the meantime and it made a hit in every case; and Jolson had listened in on the q.t. and had become more confident than ever that the song could be made a hit. Still we could not have it published until he actually sang it at the Winter Garden, and it now looked like the last chance was gone. The Winter Garden show finally opened, and “Tennessee” was nowhere to be found in it. Jack von Tilzer waited nervously to ask Jolson about it.

“Jus’ leave ’at t’me,” consoled Al, in his best nigger dialect. He would not say another word.

The Song Gets in—and a Suit Follows

ALONG, long three weeks» Meantime we had heard that Jol-

son’s song about I Wish I Was Back in Norfolk, Va., was not going at all well.

Then, at the end of the three weeks,

Jolson sang “Tennessee” at the conclus i o n of a vaudeville concert one Sunday night and asked the audience to let him know how they liked it because he was going to put it into the regular show the next day.

The audience was generous.

I was there, and I loved every person

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night Jolson began wishing he was back in Memphis, Tennessee, instead of Norfolk, Virginia, during his first act, and he kept on showing that preference for eighteen months. Inside of two and one-half months we had sold 128,000 copies, and the song was one of the crashing hits of 1914.

Bitter world—the story did not end with the paragraph above. Boosey & Company of London, the publishers of John McCormack’s pet I Hear You Calling Me confided to some friends, who later laughingly told me about it, that they saw a plum tree and were going to shake it. And so they brought suit on account of the two bars of I Hear You Calling Me in the Tennessee song. The' court did not render a decision but issued a temporary injunction against publication of the song for six months. When the case came up again at the end of that time it was thrown out of court. There was still no decision, no judgment. But when we began publishing the song again it was dead as a doornail It was a “has-been” and nobody hates a “has-been” so much as the public.

I really feel that that song would have run to a million and a half or two million copies. It came out at the psychological moment when popular songs were beginning to reach such colossal sales as that. And it was my first big success!

To prevent misunderstanding on the part of those who do not know Tin Pan Alley, I want to emphasize the fact that the attack upon my song was not made upon moral or ethical grounds, but purely for commercial reasons. There were two bars of the other song, as I have said, but you will find much greater plagiarism in Liszt’s rhapsodies and throughout Grieg’s works, to cite just two illusritous examples

Serious Business of Writing Songs

AFTER this I returned to the serious ■ business of writing songs and music of the rather more difficult variety—songs of the type that are used only by professional singers and teachers. I have been fortunate with a number of these, and some of them have reached large sales for music of this type. My song titled There is no Death, for instance, is getting along toward 15,000 copies now, and Give a Man a Horse he Can Ride (used almost exclusively by singers and teachers) has gone somewhere beyond 5,000 copies. But there is this advantage with the songs of this type: the demand for them is more enduring, and the writer’s royalties per copy are much larger. On K-K-Katy, for instance, my second popular song, I received a royalty of one cent per copy. It sold far ten cents a copy. On There is no Death I got six cents and it sells for forty.

As regards K-K-K-Katy—I have often been asked how I “came to write it” And the question always reminds me of the story of the little boy who went fishing and tumbled into the water.

“How did you come tofall in?” apreacher asked him.

“I didn’t come to fall in; I come to fish," replied the boy.

That was the way it was with Katy. I happened to be the pioneer song leader of the American military eamps after the United States got into the war, and, curiously enough, was sent to Chattanooga, Tenn., to make my headquarters there, and to look out for Fort Oglethorpe, twelve miles across the line into Georgia. It was while stationed here for this purpose that I wrote Katy. I let a number of the other camp song leaders have copies of the chorus and it was being sung all over before the first copies went on sale. Katy has run to about one and a half million sales. But Katy is a war song and so, of course, it had to be put away in camphor when we put our uniforms there. With other words, perhaps—but such are the trials and tribulations on the road to and in the vicinity of Tin Pan Alley.

I will be up in Canada for a while again within a few months, and one of the questions I’ll be askea, I know from previous experience, will be“How did you first happen into this song writing game anyhow? So I’m going to answer it ahead of time here.

How I Got the “Music-Writing Itch.”

Í LIVED in Chatham until I was nearly twenty-one, and went to school with the intention of entering the Royal Military College at Kingston, Ontario. In fact I passed my examinations for that school and would have gone but for the death of my father, who was a Chatham lawyer, when I was eighteen. I had always been tremendously fond of music and had naturally drifted towards creation and self-expression in it.'»

However, I went to work as a bank clerk, that being the first job I could get, and stuck at that for nearly three years. Then I decided to make the break towards the work I really liked, and the first sign of an opportunity was a bookkeeper’s job in a Toronto piano store. While working there I turned out a bit of instrumental ragtime called ColoredFireworks, and it was actually printed by a Toronto publisher, although I never got any royalty statements from it. Finally Lew Dockstader’s minstrels came to town. I had been singing as a professional tenor in churches and elsewhere and I made bold to tackle the venerable Doekstader for a job. He hired me, and for a season in the United States I became a travelling black-faced minstrel.

Then followed a short period of light opera at Daly’s theatre in New York. It made me feel like a cog in a machine and I went into vaudeville. Off and on I remained in that for three or four years; then came Lyceum and Chautauqua engagements, songs, lectures, the leading of community singing—of which I have always been particularly fond—finally, the

usual thing, a studio for teaching, though I was still studying under and with others and always will. I decided that I would not make a good teacher—a teacher should be developed in a scientific way, and too many teach who are not so developed. Do you realize that from seventy to one hundred different parts of the body must be brought into play when you sing? The Italians, I believe,have the best instinctive knowledge of beautiful tone and have developed the best methods of training the voice. This is evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of great singers, especially among men, are Italians. They believe in training the voice to grow while the body is growing; Caruso started training at fifteen and was not ready to make his début for seven years.

Incidentally, it was much easier to get Caruso to sing a song of mine than it was to get Al Jolson. But that was due to a “happenstance.” My brother, F. C. T. O’Hara, now Deputy Minister of Trade and Commerce at Ottawa, had a notion in his youth that he wanted to be a newspaper reporter, and tumbled into a job as a cub on the now extinct Baltimore Herald. One of the great friends of this period of his life was Billy Guard, now publicity director

of the Metropolitan Opera Company of New York. Billy, one of the most lovable fellows on earth, persuaded Caruso to sing my Your Eyes Have Told Me for a Victrola record (not to be confused with a later song titled: Your Eyes Hare Told Me So.)

Songs Based on Drummond’s Poems

TWO of my songs, The Wreck of the ‘Julie Plante’ and Leetle Bateese, the latter of which is soon to be published, are based on the beautiful poetry of William Henry Drummond, of Montreal—the original poems appear in his collection grouped under the title of The Habitant.

The song about the Julie Plante was introduced during the present musical season, by Reginald Werrenrath, of the Metropolitan Opera, at a Carnegie Hall recital. Arthur Blight, the Toronto baritone, is among other notable vocalists who have since honored me by singing it, and I look on this new song as one of my pets. Paul Althouse, also of tfie Metropolitan, includes two of my other particular pets in his recital programs: The Living God, and Give a Man a Horse He Can Ride.

But the thing that has got me into the American newspapers most during recent weeks has been the organization called “The Composers’ and Lyric Writers’ Protective League,” which I happened to be instrumental in starting last January. It isn’t exactly a union, but is intended to protect the interests of its members generally, to standardize contracts, etc., in brief, to keep a weather eye on equity. Victor Herbert has become president of the organization, and there are about two hundred members at present, which number includes all of the best-known song-writers in America. Actors now have their “Equity Association,” musicians have their union, the printers and all the others who turn out our printed songs belong to their respective industrial organizations— it seemed wise and proper that we should organize.

Returning to the subject of music again, as opposed to the subject of expediency— I am anxious to find more time, soon, for more work with subjects that are essentially Canadian as regards their source. Franklin K. Lane, the former American Secretary of the Interior, once appointed me as an instructor of native Indian music, which is another of my hobbies, and I hope to do more of this work when time permits. For there’s wonderful elemental music in the Indian tribal songs, and in the old negro melodies, and the haunting musical dreams of the French-Canadian voyageurs.

I love all these things—these essentially North American things—and I have vast faith in the part that North America is ultimately to take in the fine arts. Our musical appreciation leaped forward many decades during the years our young manhood was in khaki. Everybody has voice that is worth training, if we will only learn to seek self-expression instead trying to tie ourselves down with trite formulae, and our people have suddenly discovered that they have, in addition to native love of song, the ability to express themselves in it.

Great things will come of this in time; possibly some one of the children of this very present generation will in his day be the world’s greatest composer. Surprise me? That? I expect it.

Watching a Genius Begin

A RELATIVE who watched Geoffrey O’Hara’s development, from birth to the present, was asked by the editor of MacLean’s for some “verbal snap-shots” of the song writer. Here they are— interesting, human side-lights:

Before he could prattle intelligently, the sound of a piano instilled in his small mind an extraordinary curiosity, and he would creep with the greatest possible agility the drawing-room, and sit on the floor by the hour listening to the music.

He could play the piano well before could reach the pedals.

Notwithstanding the fact that he is professional, wherever kindred spirits were gathered together he would sit at piano and sing, playing his own accompaniments, as long as anyone would listen. He has not the usual excuse of a professional to decline to play or sing.