The Tunesmith: The Musical Journey of M.K. Jerome

There was long an impression, fostered by such elegiac biopics as Rhapsody in Blue and Till the Clouds Roll By, that the creation of popular songs was a mystical and arcane process. The crafter of ballads was somehow apart and above the mass of humanity, being touched with divine fire. His muse would practically break down the door to deliver inspiration, which could come from the rhythm of the rails, the cries of street peddlers, the newest catch-phrase that was on everybody’s lips, or even offhand words spoken in conversation. The songwriter would scramble for a pencil and manuscript paper, hurriedly jotting down his creation before the muse fled to visit the songwriter down the block. The song would of course become a hit—a million seller!—as soon as he could barge into Mr. Witmark’s office and commandeer the piano. You all know that song; your mother used to sing it to you.

The Tunesmith by Gary May follows a somewhat different trajectory—that of a songwriter as a salaried worker, whose creation was dictated to him by a director in search of a specific type of song for a star to sing or a piece of music to play during dramatic action.

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Maurice Kraus emerged into the world of the Lower East Side of New York in 1893. His immigrant family struggled to gain a foothold in that world, but brought a piano into the house. Moe turned out to be a musical prodigy who blossomed into an accomplished pianist with several years of lessons, ultimately giving a recital at Knabe Hall. He left school at 13, working to help his family as a movie-theater pianist. He was soon to be hired by Irving Berlin, a role model for an aspiring songwriter if there ever was one. Moe plugged songs for Waterson, Berlin, and Snyder for twenty-five dollars a week. Still in his teens with a wife and a young son to support, he began to write and pitch his own music.

Moe’s first published song was “My Eskimo Queen” in 1912. His first few pieces were published under his real name, but by 1914 he was using “M. Kay Jerome”—Jerome being his son’s name. He worked assiduously, publishing numerous compositions over the next several years, but finally achieved a breakout hit in 1917 with “Just a Baby’s Prayer at Twilight (For Her Daddy Over There).” This was in large part due to Belle Baker making the song the centerpiece of her vaudeville act. It was a sensation; “Baby’s Prayer” became the second-biggest song of the decade.

Over the next ten years, there were more hits for M.K. Jerome that will be familiar to sheet music and record collectors: “Jazz Baby,” “Jinga Bula Jing Jing,” and “Old Pal, Why Don’t You Answer Me?”—made infamous as the song murderer Carl Wanderer sang from the scaffold in 1921.

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Everything changed in 1929 when the New York song publishers (and their catalogs) were bought by Hollywood to provide musical content for the talkies. Moe Jerome signed a contract with Warner Brothers, and a muse that visited on her own schedule was a luxury he could no longer afford. He was on the clock along with his inspiration, writing songs to order. He wrote such pieces as “If I Could Learn to Love” to be sung by French prizefighter Georges Carpentier in the Warner extravaganza The Show of Shows.

When his Warner Brothers contract expired, Moe was briefly relieved to sojourn again in what remained of Tin Pan Alley. The respite did not last long before he was called back to the West Coast.

By 1935, Moe was punching the clock again at Warner Brothers composing not only songs (with lyricist Jack Scholl) but background music for scenes. He made good money but worked long, hard hours and frequently vomited upon returning home from the studio. Even as he toiled he still wrote hits: “Thru the Courtesy of Love,” “My Little Buckaroo,” “The Old Apple Tree,” and “Some Sunday Morning.”

Jerome and Scholl wrote the “Little Johnny Jones” sequence for Yankee Doodle Dandy, but received no attribution because only George M. Cohan could be credited. On the other hand, they were credited for Casablanca (“Knock on Wood”) and Herman Hupfeld, composer of “As Time Goes By,” was not. The pay was regular but due recognition was spotty and the grind was wrecking his health.

Author Gary May has a unique perspective on M.K. Jerome. May was his grandson, and spent countless hours talking with him before his death in 1977. The last few chapters take on the character of a loving memoir, as is entirely fitting.

Nauck

Moe Jerome would smile at the knowledge that one of his creations-for-hire, “As Easy as Rolling off a Log” used in Over the Goal Line (a Warner B picture) and Katnip Kollege (a cartoon), would be revived in 2020 by singer-songwriter James Taylor in his album American Standard. Taylor heard the song in the cartoon as a child. Who could have foreseen it?

The Tunesmith:
The Musical Journey of M.K. Jerome
By Gary May
Bear Manor Media
bearmanormedia.com
garymayauthor.com
6×9 in.; 298 pages
Paperback: ISBN 9798887711515, $28.00
Hardcover: ISBN 9798887711522, $38.00

Andy Senior is the Publisher of The Syncopated Times and on occasion he still gets out a Radiola! podcast for our listening pleasure.

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