Louis Alter (June 18, 1902, Haverhill, Massachusetts – November 5, 1980, New York City, New York) was an American pianist, songwriter and composer. Alter was 13 when he began playing piano in theaters showing silent films. He studied at the New England Conservatory of Music under the tutelage of Stuart Mason.
Alter played in vaudeville houses as the accompanist for headliners Irène Bordoni and Nora Bayes. He appeared with Bayes from 1924 until her death in 1928, touring the United States and abroad. Since he had previously written some songs for Broadway shows, Alter decided to concentrate on songwriting after Bayes' death. His first hit was "Manhattan Serenade" (1929), originally an instrumental that later became the theme music of the Easy Aces radio program. There are numerous recordings of "Manhattan Serenade," and it was featured prominently in Nancy Groce's book, New York: Songs of the City (Watson-Guptill, 1999). Alter recalled:
- I was a great fan of Whiteman when I first came down here from Boston. He was the first big name I actually followed around and met. I was having a love affair with New York when Whiteman commissioned me to write a tone poem. I walked around this city for six months absorbing the sights and sounds. And then suddenly it came to me. Once I plunged into it I finished it in two hours.
Films and Broadway
In 1929, Alter moved to Hollywood, where he wrote songs for films, beginning with The Hollywood Review of 1929, and he continued to provide piano accompaniment for various singers, including Beatrice Lillie and Helen Morgan. His contributions to Broadway musicals included songs in Sweet and Low (1930) and Ballyhoo (1931).
His first song hit was "Hugs and Kisses" in 1926. In 1928, Alter composed the music and wrote the lyrics of Paris (1928 musical). Other top tunes by Alter include "My Kinda Love," "You Turned the Tables on Me," "Nina Never Knew," "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" (for the 1947 film New Orleans), "Blue Shadows" and "Rainbow on the River." He wrote "A Melody from the Sky" and "Twilight on the Trail" for The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936). His collaborators included Oscar Hammerstein II, Charlotte Kent, Raymond Klages, Sidney D. Mitchell, and Jo Trent.
World War II and later years
In 1941, Alter signed on with the United States Air Force, performing for troops and also coordinating shows and other entertainment at various West Coast air bases. As a piano soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he performed at the Hollywood Bowl. In 1942, "Manhattan Serenade" once again became a hit after Harold Adamson added lyrics.
Alter also composed large-scale pieces for piano and orchestra, including American Serenade and Metropolitan Nocturne. In later years, Alter lived in New York and maintained a summer residence on Fire Island.
At age 78, he died of pneumonia in New York's St. Clare Hospital.
After Hurricane Katrina, his song "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" took on a different kind of meaning in 2005–06 and experienced a revival due to its use in various post-Katrina documentary films and TV shows. It was used for strong emotional effect in Spike Lee's four-hour When the Levees Broke (2006) and an equally moving dramatic sketch by Billy Crystal on HBO's Comic Relief 2006.
- American Serenade
- Jewels from Cartier Suite
- Manhattan Masquerade
- Manhattan Moonlight
- Metropolitan Nocturne
- Side Street in Gotham
- "Blue Shadows"
- "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans"
- "Give Trouble the Air" (1927)
- "Hugs and Kisses" (1926)
- "Manhattan Serenade"
- "A Melody from the Sky"
- "My Kinda Love"
- "Nina Never Knew"
- "Rainbow on the River"
- "You Turned the Tables on Me"
- Jazz violinist John Frigo playing Louis Alter's "Nina Never Knew"
- Tommy Dorsey: "Manhattan Serenade"
- Laurie, Joe, Jr. Vaudeville: From the Honky-tonks to the Palace. New York: Henry Holt, 1953. p.326–7.
- Automatic Musical Instrument Collectors Association, April 1975.