Alexander's Ragtime Band
"Alexander's Ragtime Band" is a song by Irving Berlin. It was his first major hit, in 1911.
It might be regarded as a sequel to "Alexander and His Clarinet," which Berlin wrote with Ted Snyder in 1910. The earlier song is mostly concerned with a reconciliation between Alexander Adams and Eliza Johnson, but also highlights Alexander's novel musical style.
It is believed by some (especially jazz/ragtime circles in New Orleans, and the Watzke family of New Orleans), that Berlin was writing about a real band and bandleader, who were popular at the time in New Orleans, and actually was known as Alexander's Ragtime Band, after its leader, Alexander Constantin Watzke, Jr. (also known as "King" Watzke or Alex Watzke). From 1904 to 1911 or later, this band was one of the most popular white ragtime and jazz bands in New Orleans.
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Both songs employ certain word choices ("oh, ma honey," "honey lamb") and nonstandard usage ("bestest band what am") in the lyrics to indicate to the audiences of the time that the characters of the song should be understood to be African-American.
The sheet music cover however clearly shows the musicians as being white, as Alexander Watzke's band was. Furthermore, when the song became the basis for a movie, the band leader and members were depicted as white, although the real name and city were inexplicably changed.
The often-omitted second verse describes Alexander's band's nonstandard use of traditional instruments:
- There's a fiddle with notes that screeches
- Like a chicken, like a chicken,
- And the clarinet is a colored pet
In fact, Alexander Watzke the bandleader did play the fiddle, or the bass viol, and there was always at least one clarinet player in the band, oftentimes Larry Shields.
There is some evidence, although inconclusive, that Berlin borrowed the melody (in particular, the four notes of "oh, ma honey") from a draft of "A Real Slow Drag" by Scott Joplin that had been submitted to a publisher.
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Vaudeville singer Emma Carus, 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, and is credited on the cover of the sheet music. It became identified with her, and soon worked its way back to New York where Al Jolson also began to perform it.
The song has been recorded by many artists, including Byron G. Harlan & Arthur Collins, Victor Military Band, Ted Lewis & his band, Boswell Sisters, The Andrews Sisters, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Johnnie Ray, Bee Gees, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, George Formby, Judy Garland, Al Jolson, Liberace, Billy Murray, Liza Minnelli, Sid Phillips, Don Patterson & Sonny Stitt, Sarah Vaughan & Billy Eckstine, Jorgen Ingmann, Bessie Smith and Julie Andrews.
The song had a presence on the charts for five straight decades. According to Newsweek Magazine:
- Four different versions of the tune charted at # 1, # 2, # 3 and # 4 in 1911 including one by Arthur Collins which stayed at number one for 10 weeks.
- Bessie Smith's version made the top 20 in 1927.
- Louis Armstrong made the top 20 with it in 1937.
- A duet by Bing Crosby and Connee Boswell hit #1 in 1938.
- Johnny Mercer charted a swing version in 1945.
- Bing Crosby recorded another duet version, and hit the top-20 in 1947 with Al Jolson.
- Nellie Lutcher put it on the R&B charts in 1948.
- Bob Wills put it on the c&w charts in the same decade.
- Donald O'Connor sang it on the silver screen in 20th Century Fox's musical There's No Business Like Show Business in 1954.
- Johnnie Ray recorded his version in 1954.
- Ella Fitzgerald scored with it in 1958, and received a Grammy for her Irving Berlin anthology in 1959.
- Ray Charles recorded it in 1959 for his album The Genius of Ray Charles.
- Dick and Dee Dee released a version of the song on their 1963 album, Young and in Love.
- Judy Garland performed it in the opening of the fourth episode of The Judy Garland Show in 1963.
- Chet Atkins released it on his Our Man in Nashville album in 1963.
- Bee Gees used the music in their tour in 1974, and sang it on The Midnight Special TV show in 1973.
- The Grateful Dead refer to it in the lyrics of "Ramble On Rose".
- On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant (Ed Asner), Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) and Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper) all sing the song in the season 3 episode "Lou's Place."
A 1938 film of the same name was loosely based on the song.
In popular culture
The song was used in Tennessee politics by Lamar Alexander, 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's 1997 blockbuster, Titanic.
The Georgia Tech Pep Band plays the song before every men's and women's home basketball games.
In 1998, this song was added in Kidsongs Adventures in Biggleland: Meet the Biggles.
- See also Wikipedia article "Alex Watzke" or "King Watzke" This information is a long-standing oral tradition in the Watzke family of New Orleans. Refer also to the family genealogy websites www.watzkeandduncan.tripod.com and www.david.watzke.tripod.com
- Hardie, Daniel (2002), Exploring Early Jazz: The Origin and Evolution of the New Orleans Jazz Style, Writers Club Press, pp 178-9, available on Google Books.
- See Hardie, Daniel, op.cit.
- Berlin, E. A. King of Ragtime, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 210.
- Bergreen, Laurence. As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin (Viking, 1990) p. 67.
- Dick and Dee Dee, Young and in Love Retrieved May 2, 2015
- Guest. "song listing for Bee Gees appearances on The Midnight Special". Ioffer.com. Retrieved December 1, 2011.
- Dodd, David. "The Annotated "Ramble On Rose"". University of California at Santa Cruz. Retrieved June 20, 2013.
- "Mary Tyler Moore" Lou's Place (TV Episode 1973) - IMDb Retrieved May 18, 2016
- "The Walter Lantz Cartune Encyclopedia: 1930". The Walter Lantz Cartune Encyclopedia. Archived from the original on May 14, 2011. Retrieved April 24, 2011.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Irving Berlin Alexander's Ragtime Band.|
- "Alexander's Ragtime Band" performed by Billy Murray (Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project)
- "Alexander's Ragtime Band" from Historic American Sheet Music: 1910-1920 - The Digital Scriptorium
- "Alexander's Ragtime Band" Centennial Tribute