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Alexander's Ragtime Band

Written: 1910-1911

Words and Music by: Irving Berlin

Written for: Independent Publication
(not written for a Broadway show, revue,movie, etc.)

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Topsy Chapman and Vernel Bagneris
with the Jim Cullum Jazz Band


"Alexander's Ragtime Band"

at the historic Pearl Stable, San Antonio Texas
for the public radio series "Riverwalk Jazz"
October, 2009

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"Alexander's Ragtime Band"

Critics Corner || Lyrics Lounge

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1910-1911: The beginnings of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" are told in a number of varying narratives. The points of agreement include that Berlin wrote or at least began to write the melody in 1910 but the lyric was not completed until the winter of 1911. The song was published and copyrighted, March 18, 1911. Pretty much everyone agrees that the song received its first proper performance, the one that started it off on the road to immortality, from Emma Carus when she sang it (or as has been reported, "belted it out") on April 17, 1911, at the Big Easter Vaudeville Carnival at Chicago's American Music Hall.

Source: Joel Whitburn, Pop Memories, 1890-1954, Menomonee Falls, WI: Record Research Inc., 1986.
For later recordings, see the Cafe Songbook Record/Video Cabinet.

Early Recordings that made the charts
(year and chart #)

Arthur Collins (baritone) and Byron Harlan (tenor), 1911 (1); Bill Murray, 1911 (2); Prince's Orchestra, 1912 (3); Victor Military Band, 1912 (4); Bessie Smith, 1927 (17); Boswell Sisters, 1935 (9); Louis Armstrong, 1937 (12); Bing Crosby and Connee Boswell, 1938 (1).


Movies in which "Alexander's Ragtime Band" has been featured.

Alexander's Ragtime Band, 1938 (movie) performed by Performed by Alice Faye with Tyrone Power on violin, Don Ameche on piano,
Jack Haley on drums, and others.

There's No Business Like Show Business (1954) song performed by Ethel Merman, Dan Dailey, Donald O'Connor, et. al. Click here for complete film data at IMDB.

Titanic (2002) song played in background by Salonistii. Click here for complete film data at IMDB.

Frank Sinatra Selections from a voice on air
Frank Sinatra
A Voice on Air
(4 CD / 100+ track set of Sinatra on the radio
and in rehearsal)


"Alexander's Ragtime Band," a rare duet

Frank Sinatra and Irving Berlin gab on Frank's radio show
and perform together one of the composer's earliest songs:
"Alexander's Ragtime Band," with Axel Stordahl and his orchestra, c. 1947.

Critics Corner

Michael Freedland, Irving Berlin, New York: Stein and Day, 1974.

Although Berlin's biographer Laurence Bergreen, and the scholarly team of Robert Kimball and Linda Emmet give different accounts of the evolution of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" from Irving Berlin's mind to the song we all know, Michael Freedland, in his 1974 biography of the composer traces the song's path through a performance at the Friars Club in New York City on the occasion of Berlin's induction into the organization at the Hotel Astor in the sprint of 1911. Freedland claims (without documentation and contrary to other accounts) that this was the first time the words to the song were heard in public. Moreover, the great George M. Cohan was there to hear it, in fact, making a speech welcoming Berlin into membership:

Irving Berlin is a Jewboy who named himself after an English actor and a German city . . . . Irvy writes a good song with a good lyric. It's music you don't have to dress up to listen to, but it is good music. He is a wonderful little fellow, wonderful in lots of ways. He has become famous and wealthy without wearing a lot of jewelry and falling for funny clothes. He is Uptown but he is there with the old Downtown hard shell. And with all his success, you will find his watch and his handkerchief in his pocket where they belong.

"With that 'Irvy' played the piano again-- 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' of course," the lyrics for which Freedland says Berlin had just written for this very event (Freedland, Irving Berlin, pp. 36-37).

Laurence Bergreen, As Thousands Cheer The Life of Irving Berlin, New York: Viking, 1990.

Laurence Bergreen, in his biography of Berlin stops short of saying the song Berlin sang at his Friars Club induction was "Alexander's Ragtime Band." He concerns himself with "Alexander" as a song that produced a major change in the form of American popular song. Before Berlin, he says, the "English influenced compositions of Stephen Foster ["Berlin's favorite composer"], such as "Beautiful Dreamer," were based on a sixteen bar chorus. The chorus was

constructed in four sections of four bars each. It was this latter form—simple, symmetrical and inevitable— that served as the model for popular songs at the time Berlin entered the field. And it remained the standard until Berlin smashed the mold with his ground-breaking hit, 'Alexander's Ragtime Band,' with it's chorus of thirty-two effervescent bars. (pp. 39-40).

Bergreen quotes Berlin as attributing the success of "Alexander" to its melody having "started the heels and shoulders of all America and a good section of Europe to rocking," and the lyric with its repetition of "Come on and hear" issued "an invitation . . . to join in. . . . an idea pounded in again and again throughout the song in various ways." This, for Berlin, "was the secret of the song's tremendous success" (Laurence Bergreen, As Thousands Cheer, pp. 68-69).

Robert Kimball and Linda Emmet. The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin. New York: Alfred A. Knoph, 2001/Applause Theater and Cinema Books, 2005, paperback edition.

Robert Kimball and Linda Emmet state, "Alexander's Ragtime Band" is simply "one of the greatest successes in the annals of American popular music and the song that made Berlin famous all over the world."

Kimball and Emmet quote a 1914 interview with Berlin in which the composer recalls how the song was born: "The melody came to me right out of the air. I wrote the whole thing in eighteen minutes surrounded on all sides by roaring pianos and roaring vaudeville actors." Apparently Berlin "was not impressed by it when the melody first came to him. In fact after playing it over a few times on the piano, he did not take the trouble to note the melody on paper" only writing it down later when he had to kill some time before catching a train for a winter get-away to Palm Beach in 1911. (Kimball and Emmet, The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin pp. 30-31--paperback edition.)

Click here to read entire article by Benjamin Sears and Bradford Conner.

"Irving Berlin famously worked at night as he found it hard to sleep during what were usual hours for most people. So, it was overnight in March that he wrote "Alexander's Ragtime Band," submitting it for copyright on March 18, 1911 (presumably the day the composition was finished). Or did he? The song's original form and creation remain topics of debate. One version of the story, which Berlin himself supported, was that he wrote it as a piano solo first, perhaps as early as 1910. It does seem that in the summer or fall of 1910 he transcribed at least the basic tune, if nothing else. The March 18, 1911 copyright card states "words and music by Irving Berlin," so however long it took to create both those words and music, they were done by that date. A later version was submitted for copyright on September 6, 1911 as a piano solo."

(from "Alexander's Ragtime Band" at (Nearly) One Hundred"
by Benjamin Sears & Bradford Conner)

Alec Wilder, American Popular Song The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Alec Wilder differentiates Irving Berlin from Jerome Kern in terms of how Berlin's music got to be less European and more American sooner because of how the two of them grew up.

One sees how Kern's contemporary, Irving Berlin, a product of Lower East Side poverty, should have arrived at an American sound much sooner then Kern, simply because he was directly exposed to it in its rawness. There was no sophisticated musical home life, no money for study, no time for anything but work. But no matter how arduous that must have been, Berlin was at least out in the street where it was all happening. "Alexander's Ragtime Band' was no accident. He'd hear what was in ferment around him and use what came naturally"(Alec Wilder, American Popular Song, p. 87--paperback edition).

William Zinsser. Easy to Remember The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs. Jaffrey, New Hampshire: David R. Godine, 2001.

William Zinsser makes Wilder's point about Berlin's Americanness a little differently:

Strictly speaking, "Alexander's Ragtime Band" wasn't a ragtime number, like the many ragtime tunes that Berlin actually did write when he was starting out—songs with a 'ragged' or syncopated beat, which influenced the young George Gershwin. But the song did have a high-octane American energy, especially in its opening theme ('Come on and hear . . .') and its radical jump into a higher key after four bars. Berlin had an immigrant's ear, tuned to every scrap of music and rhythm in the air of his adopted country" (William Zinsser. Easy to Remember, pp. 104, 106).

Philip Furia, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America's Great Lyricists,
New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Philip Furia confirms Wilder's and Zinsser's points but specifically in relation to the American vernacular of Berlin's lyric: "What ragtime did for song lyrics generally during the early years of Tin Pan Alley it did for Berlin as well. It licensed the vernacular as a lyrical idiom and forced the lyricist to construct a lyric out of short, juxtaposed phrases marked by internal rhymes and jagged syntactical breaks.

Ain't you goin',
Ain't you goin',
to the leader man,
ragged meter man?
Grand stand,
brass hand,
ain't you comin' along?"
(Furia, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, p. 49).


Listen to Susan Stamberg trace the history of Alexander's Ragtime Band on NPR Music.

Mary Ellin Barrett, Irving Berlin A Daughter's Memoir, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

"Alexander's Ragtime Band" was created at the beginning of Berlin's career. It was also of significance at the mid-point of his life when, as his daughter puts it, her father "had given himself, or been given by Darryl Zannuck, in Alexander's Ragtime Band [a Hollywood movie salute to Berlin's songs], as fine a fiftieth birthday present as a songwriter could ask for." And, finally, the song was in his awareness at the end of his life, because one of the last things the composer heard before he died (at 101) was his daughter telling him "that his two-year-old great-grandson Peter liked to dance to 'Alexander's Ragtime Band'" (Barrett, Irving Berlin A Daughter's Memoir,pp. 159, 299—hard cover edition).

Mary Ellin Barrett, Irving Berlin A Daughter's Memoir, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

book cover: Gary Marmorstein "A Ship without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart"
Gary Marmorstein
A Ship Without A Sail:
The Life of Lorenz Hart
New York: Simon and Schuster,

Lorenz Hart would come to be a songwriting peer of Irving Berlin from the mid-twenties through his premature death at the age of forty-eight in 1943. But before Berlin had ever heard of his younger colleague, Hart, as budding lyricist, was paying tribute to the older songwriter.

On the occasion of his parents' silver wedding anniversary, November 6, 1911 (the year "Alexander" was published), sixteen year old Larry Hart helped his father and mother celebrate by composing and performing his own words to Berlin's already enormously popular song "Alexander's Ragtime Band." According to Hart biographer Gary Marmorstein, Hart's "version probably qualifies as his earliest surviving lyric."

So clink your glass,
Each Lad and Lass,
For Max and Frieda's wedding day.
Put on a Smile,
Make life worthwhile--
Let each wrinkle shout hooray!

Marmorstein also notes that "in this anniversary song, Larry is already employing the tools he would use for the next thirty years: warmth . . . ; gallantry . . . ; repetition when it's called for; a reference or two to booze; [and] colloquial English and German that landed easily on the ear." (Marmorstein, p. 31).

Howard Pollack

George Gershwin: His Life and Work
Berkeley: Univ. of California Press

George Gershwin biographer Howard Pollack sees Alexander's Ragtime Band, despite its title, being more of a jazz song than an example of ragtime. He uses this distinction to more or less dismiss those commentators who claim the song exploits the popularity of ragtime while not being a rag. They, Pollack writes, "largely miss the point; the song's significance resides precisely in its distance from ragtime songs of the turn of the twentieth century."

Berlin's intention, in using the term "ragtime," Pollack explains, was to signify a much wider class of music that was about to be called jazz. He goes on to point out that numerous discussions of this new music, including Gershwin's own, took "Alexander's Ragtime Band" as their starting point. Their common intent was to show that Berlin's song was crucial in helping to "inaugurate what might be called, more simply, the new popular music" (p. 48; Pollack cites Charles Hamm on this in his book, Irving Berlin: Songs from the Melting Pot: The Formative Years, 1907-1914).

Lyrics Lounge

Click here to read a version of the lyrics for
"Alexander's Ragtime Band," as sung by Ella Fitzgerald (without the verse) on the album
Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook, Vol. 1.

The verse:
Oh ma honey, oh, ma honey,
Better hurry and let's meander,
Ain't you goin', ain't you goin',
To the leader man, ragged meter man?
Oh, ma honey, oh, ma honey,
Let me take you to Alexander's
Grand stand, brass band,
Ain' you comin' along?

To hear the verse sung, listen to, among others, the Bessie Smith or Michael Feinstein version.

The complete, authoritative lyrics for "Alexander's Ragtime Band" can be found in
Robert Kimball and Linda Emmet.
The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin New York: Alfred A. Knoph 2001
(Applause Theater and Cinema Books, 2005 paperback edition).

Click here to read Cafe Songbook lyrics policy.

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The Cafe Songbook
Record/Video Cabinet:
Selected Recordings of

"Alexander's Ragtime Band."

Albums shown below include a track of this song and are listed chronologically by original recording date of the track.
Wherever possible a YouTube music video with either the same performance of the song or another performance of it by the same artist is included.

Performer/Recording Index
(*indicates accompanying music-video)

Arthur Collins and Byron Harlan
This is the first known recording of
"Alexander's Ragtime Band."

Album: Vintage Ragtime Classics

Amazon iTunes

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Bessie Smith

Album: Empress Of The Blues Volume 2: 1926-1933 (CD A,

same track as on album referenced above

Amazon iTunes

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The Boswell Sisters
with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra

Album: The Best of the Boswell Sisters

Amazon iTunes

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Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra

Album: Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra: Heart Full of Rhythm

Amazon iTunes

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Billy Taylor Trio
album: Billy Taylor 1945-1949

same track as on album referenced above

Amazon iTunes

Notes: "Many jazz fans don't realize how long ago Billy Taylor began his career; this French anthology assembles five separate sessions that he led as a young man between 1945 and 1949, as well as one date as a sideman. In 1945 he shows the influence of both Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson in the lightly swinging take of 'Night and Day,' while his campy approach to 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' is rather refreshing. His lyrical solo interpretation of 'The Very Thought of You' from 1946 demonstrates his considerable growth as a pianist. . . ." ~ Ken Dryden (from CDUniverse.com)
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Sarah Vaughan/Billy Ekstine

Album: Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine Sing The Irving Berlin Songbook

Amazon iTunes

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Ella Fitzgerald

Album: Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook
(arranged and conducted by
Paul Weston)

Amazon iTunes

Notes: "Though the 1956 tributes to Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hart that launched [Ella's songbook] series found her vocal approaches to the material fairly close-to-the-vest, the Ellington sessions the following year encouraged the singer to spread her jazz wings and take flight. That confident jazz sensibility is again fully evident — if tastefully subdued when the material requires — on this compendium of highlights and lesser-knowns from the vast Irving Berlin canon." (from iTunes review)
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Ray Charles
album: The Genius of Ray Charles

same track (remastered) as on album referenced above

Amazon iTunes

Notes: "Neither pop nor jazz, once again Charles is hard to categorize even though many of the musicians have strong jazz credentials; Paul Gonsalves, Clark Terry, Zoot Sims and Bob Brookmeyer, for example. The album's strength (in addition to Brother Ray) lies in the choice of classic songs matched with lush orchestration. Ray's soulful voice will break hearts on 'Don't Let The Sun Catch You Cryin,' 'Just For A Thrill' and the ultimate song for hopeless romantics, Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen's starry-eyed 'Come Rain Or Come Shine.' The excellent recording, particularly with Ray's up-front vocals, is the work of Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Bill Schwartau" (from CDUniverse.com).
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Sammy Davis Jr.

In a TV special, Sammy performs a one man history of the song beginning with an imitation of the early twentieth century African American vaudeville/minstrel show entertainer Bert Williams doing "Alexander's Ragtime Band" followed by a traditional "Alexander" and concluding with a 1970's disco version, -- live.

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Mandy Patinkin
album: Mandy Patinkin

Amazon iTunes

Notes: "Patinkin has reserves of emotion that seem boundless on this tour de force collection mainly given over to show songs. Employing a vocal range that begins in a clear high tenor and plunges to a gruff baritone, Patinkin is able to act and sing duets with himself or sing beautifully alone. But feeling -- sometimes overflowing feeling -- is the core of his sense of interpretation. As a result, some very old songs sound newly written in his hands." ~ William Ruhlmann

"Just in case you haven't yet made up your mind about whether to love or hate Mandy Patinkin, you should be able to decide after hearing his solo debut. Released in 1989 near the height of his Tony-winning fame, the album is as wildly eclectic as the actor himself. In a torrent of emotion he wears his heart--and seemingly the rest of his organs--on his sleeve. The oft-neglected verse to the opener, "Over the Rainbow," is tenderly delivered in his sweet tenor before giving way to a bombastic close that was memorably spoofed in Forbidden Broadway's "Somewhat Overindulgent." And so it goes: beautiful standards ("I'll Be Seeing You," "Pennies from Heaven") and Stephen Sondheim ballads ("No More," "Anyone Can Whistle," a multitracked "Pretty Lady"), Gilbert & Sullivan, and near-manic versions of Carousel's "Soliloquy" and Gershwin's "Swanee." It's all here, just as Patinkin is all here, laying himself before you. Love him or hate him, but you won't ignore him." --David Horiuchi
(Both commentaries above from CDUniverse.com)
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Travelin' Light
album: Makin" Whoopee

Amazon iTunes

Notes: Recorded in the Commandry Room, Masonic Auditorium, Cleveland, Ohio, July 13-14, 1992. Sam Pilafian (tuba), Frank Vignola (guitar). Additional personnel: Ken Peplowski (clarinet), Don Keiling (rhythm guitar), Joe Ascione (drums), Andy Kubiszewski (percussion).
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2002 release
Michael Feinstein

Album: The Michael Feinstein Anthology
(arranged by David Ross, Conducted by John Oddo, Michael Feinstein, vocal and piano)

album cover: "The Michael Feinstein Anthology"


Maude Maggart

Album: Maude Maggart
Sings Irving Berlin

album cover: "Maude Maggart Sings Iriving Berlin"


"Maude Maggart's renditions of these Irving Berlin songs are wonderful...Though she's particularly good on the ballads, her version of 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' is a gem. I saw her in person a couple of years ago, and this album (though a studio recording) captures the same intimate quality of her 'live' renditions." (from Amazon reviewer David Garnes.)

Willie Nelson and sister Bobbie
album: Dedember Day: Willie's Stash

Amazon iTunes

Notes: "Central to December Day is the collaboration of Willie and Sister Bobbie. From Willie's earliest years in his native Abbott, Texas, Bobbie, two years his senior, was a part of his musical upbringing; the duo learned to read music and play instruments at an early age under the tutelage of their grandparents. Playing together in bands early on in their careers, Bobbie has been a key highlighted member of Willie's Family Band since its inception, and their bond as siblings and musicians a bond that reflects years of both practice and spontaneity is palpable throughout December Day.

"December Day features new versions of gems from Willie's extensive songwriting catalog 'Permanently Lonely' 'My Old Peculiar Way')and some eclectic covers (Irving Berlin's 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' and 'What'll I Do' with some sprinkled contributions from other Family Band members, including harmonica player Mickey Raphael and the late Bee Spears on bass" (from Amazon Editorial Review).
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