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All You Need is Love: Episode 7: Always Chasing Rainbows: Tin Pan Alley

Ben Fong-Torres

Ben Fong-Torres

Posted to Artist Spotlight on March 27, 2014

With a musical about Carole King, called Beautiful, just beginning its journey to Broadway (it’s set to open in January, 2014), I’ve been thinking about Tin Pan Alley. That’s partly because I wrote an article about Beautiful for the San Francisco Chronicle, including interviews with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, the songwriters who worked at 1650 Broadway, in the tiny office next to the equally compact one occupied by King and her husband, lyricist Gerry Goffin. Between those two couples, of buddies and competitors, the music scene got hundreds of classic songs. To name just a few: “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Up on the Roof,” “A Natural Woman,” and “Chains” (recorded by the Cookies, then by the Beatles). Those were Goffin-King tunes. “On Broadway,” “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” “Uptown,” and the most-often aired song in pop history, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” All by Mann (music) and Weil (words).

They worked as the generation after the original Tin Pan Alley, cranking out songs alongside a dozen or so other composers at 1650, near the Brill Building, where still other songsmiths toiled.

All this made me want to see the episode of All You Need is Love, the Tony Palmer-directed series here on Qello, that’s devoted to Tin Pan Alley.

There’s no rock and roll in it, but lots of history, insights into the craft of songwriting, the massive popularity of songs, which were heard first from vaudeville stars, and then on the radio by live performers (Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby), and then in the earliest “talking pictures,” and, finally, on recordings., Early on, Americans snapped up millions of copies of sheet music of the most popular songs, playing them at home on the piano. That was entertainment in the ‘20s and ‘30s.

Palmer tells the story nicely, with a huge assist from Ian Whitcomb, a pop star (“You Turn Me On”) who has published several books about Tin Pan Alley.

Whitcomb, who appears on camera to talk and sing some real oldies, provided the basis for the script. Palmer dug up plentiful vintage footage and snared some great interviews, including Hoagy Carmichael (he wrote “Stardust” and “Georgia on My Mind”), Bing Crosby, and E.Y. Harburg, a lyricist (“It’s Only a Paper Moon”) who harps on how payola was part of the music scene from the start. “The whole thing is based on money,” he says.

That’s one of several reminders that music, like life, is cyclical. One scene about the early movie houses shows song lyrics appearing on screen with bouncing balls, so that audiences could sing along. Not so unlike karaoke. New songs were pitched to publishers by song pluggers, and one plugger, after being rebuffed, starts singing again. How many times have we seen that in the American Idol auditions?

And, at the close of this episode, a musician, probably from 80 years ago, pounds away at a piano that has been set on fire. He plays until the whole thing collapses.

Great balls of fire!

Even if you weren’t reading Rolling Stone magazine in the late '60s /early '70s, you might still know who Ben Fong-Torres is from the movie “Almost Famous.” Ben Fong-Torres is the legendary Rolling Stone Senior Editor who was characterized in the Cameron Crowe movie and now,… More

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