Whilst ‘Tin Pan Alley’ wasn’t a specific address or time period, it captures an era of prolific composers in 20th Century America. In this article, Chicago-based singer and Nerd Mountain host Christy Bennet, looks at the sometimes-forgotten women who were responsible for many of these popular songs.
Tin Pan Alley was never a specific address or time period; it described an era (1886-1956 for the purposes of this article) where one could hear song demonstrators playing out-of-tune pianos from every startup publishing house in New York City. As if each building was filled with people banging on tin pans.
When searching through music history books about this era, one can rarely find mention of the women who were part of the industry that created most of the songs in the Great American Songbook.
Despite the fact that the publishing decision-makers were white men, several women did break through the glass ceiling. Many of their songs are well-known and regularly performed today, yet their stories and their names go unheard.
Here are ten women whose names you should know as well as Gershwin, Cole Porter and Rogers and Hart…
Bernice Petkere (August 11, 1901 – January 7, 2000)
Bernice Petkere was born in Chicago, Illinois. She began her career at a very young age performing in an act with her aunt called the Baby Dolls.
She studied voice at the Henshaw Conservatory of Music. After graduating, she became a piano demonstrator for the publishing house Waterson, Berlin & Snyder. She married Edward Conne and began writing music.
In 1931, she wrote her first hit song, Starlight. Bing Crosby was the first to record it, and Irving Berlin, now running his own publishing house, published it. She continued to compose popular music in the 30s.
In 1938, she divorced her first husband and married singer and CBS music director Freddie Berens a few years later. The couple moved to Los Angeles, California, hoping to get into the movie industry.
The first film Bernice composed music for was “Ice Follies of 1939,” featuring Jimmy Stewart and Betty Davis. Bernice continued to write music for the rest of her life.
Bernice Petkere songs
Lullaby of the Leaves
Close Your Eyes
Ann Ronell (December 25, 1905 — December 25, 1993)
Ann Ronell was born Ann Rosenblatt in Omaha, Nebraska. She attended Ratcliffe College and wrote music reviews for the school paper while there.
Her first big break came when she interviewed George Gershwin, who was so impressed by her work that he told her to look him up when she graduated and moved to New York.
She took him up on the offer, and he helped her get work as a rehearsal pianist for Whoopie and The New Moon.
From there, she continued to write for musicals, operas, and films for the rest of her life.
Ann Ronell Songs
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf
Willow Weep for Me
Baby’s Birthday Party
Irene Higginbotham (June 11, 1918- August 27, 1988)
Irene Higginbotham was born in Worcester, Massachusetts but grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. She learned piano early in life and took music and composition lessons in high school. She moved first to Worcester and then to New York after graduating high school.
Early on in New York, she got involved with a movement to help black songwriters get better pay and have their music performed more regularly. She wrote songs with Louis Armstrong, J.C. Higginbotham (her uncle), Nat King Cole, and Andy Razaf, among others.
Irene Higginbotham songs
Good Morning Heartache
No Good Man
Evil Gal Blues
Irene Kitchings (1908-1975)
Born Irene Armstrong in Marietta, Ohio. She moved to Detroit to live with an aunt when she was thirteen. Four years later, she moved to Chicago, where she began performing as a pianist in the city. Soon she got connected with many of the business’s biggest names, including Billie Holiday. She met pianist Teddy Wilson and was married after a short romance.
When Wilson left her for another woman, she began composing music with lyricist Arthur Herzog Jr. She moved to Cleveland to recuperate after the breakup. Unfortunately, she was diagnosed with Eale’s disease shortly after. She began to lose her eyesight and stopped performing and composing. She met Elden Kitchings while in Cleveland and was married. Her health improved, and she began playing piano at church but never published another tune.
Irene Kitchings Songs
Some Other Spring
Ghosts of Yesterday
I’m Pulling Through
Mary Lou Williams (May 8, 1910- May 28, 1981)
Mary Lou Williams was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs in Atlanta, Georgia. When she was four, her family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and her mother taught her piano.
A child prodigy, she began performing professionally as a pre-teen, and it wasn’t long before Andy Kirk picked her up to play with his group, the Clouds of Joy. Mary learned to write music with the group and began arranging music for the group. This laid the foundation for a long composing, arranging, and performing career. In 1954 she took a three-year hiatus from performing due to exhaustion and frustration with the industry.
When she returned, she became a musical ambassador appearing on television programs and educating black Americans on their rich musical heritage. She performed at Carnegie Hall multiple times, received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and became the artist-in-residence at Duke University.
Mary Lou Williams Songs
Miss D. D.
A Fungus Amungus
Maria Grever (September 14, 1885 – December 15, 1951)
Maria Grever was born in Léon, Mexico. Her family moved to Europe and traveled extensively when she was three. After her father passed away, the family returned to Mexico. Grever met her American husband when she was 22 and had three children. During their years together, she began composing music. When the Mexican Revolution started to endanger her young family, she moved with her two children to New York.
Maria continued composing music and performing as a vocalist. Her compositions continued to garner attention worldwide, and she joined ASCAP in 1935, becoming the first Mexican songwriter to join. She wrote for Paramount Pictures, composed the score for the musical comedy Viva O’Brien and continued to teach for the rest of her life. She was awarded the Union of Women of the America’s “Woman of the Americas 1952” and was given the keys to Mexico City.
Maria Grever songs
What a Difference A Day Makes
Kay Swift (April 19, 1897 – January 28, 1993)
Kay was born Katherine Faulkner Swift in New York City to very musical parents. Both her mother and father were pianists, and Kay was surrounded by music throughout her childhood. Her father became a music critic and brought her to the shows he reviewed. She played piano from an early age and eventually went on to study at the school that would become Julliard. After graduating, Swift toured with a couple of classmates and met her future husband, James Warburg, while on tour.
Warburg’s family was a wealthy banking family, and the marriage freed her up to pursue her musical interests. The two became parts of the flourishing New York art scene and frequently hosted parties at their home.
At one of these parties, Swift met George Gershwin and began a relationship that changed the course of her life. Gershwin encouraged her to compose and helped her secure a job as a rehearsal pianist for several Broadway musicals. From this experience, she began writing songs with Warburg. In 1930 she became the first woman to compose the music for a full-length Broadway musical with their show Fine and Dandy.
She went on to compose music for George Balanchine’s first ballet, Alma Mater, became the Director of Light Music for multiple World’s Fairs, compose music for the Rockettes weekly performances and write an autobiography which would be made into a film.
Kay Swift songs
Can’t We Be Friends
Fine and Dandy
Up Among the Chimney Pots
Doris Tauber (September 13, 1908- January 1, 1996)
Doris Tauber was born in New York City and studied music as a child with Professor David Kalish. After making an impressive showing with her compositions, she started working at Mills Music Publishing and began performing regularly on the radio. Later, Tauber became Irving Berlin’s musical secretary.
She accompanied him at performances and rehearsed with famous singers like Ethel Waters and Ethel Merman when they performed his songs. She also began composing music with lyricist Sis Willner.
In 1944, Doris left Berlin’s offices to join what would become Warner Brothers Publishing. Tauber worked as a vocal coach, arranger, and accompanist throughout her career.
Doris Tauber songs
Them There Eyes
I Was Made to Love You
Ruth Lowe (August 12, 1914 – January 4, 1981)
Ruth Lowe was born in Toronto. After moving to California with her parents, she returned to Canada and began working as a demonstration pianist at a music store. When bandleader and singer Ina Rae Hutton came to town and her pianist became ill, Lowe auditioned. She got the spot and began touring with the group immediately. In 1938, Lowe married a Chicago music publisher she met on tour, Harold Cohen. She stopped touring with the band. About one year into their marriage, Cohen died suddenly in a routine surgery. Inspired by her grief, Lowe composed the song that would become her first hit and start her career as a songwriter, I’ll Never Smile Again. She would continue to write popular music throughout her life.
Ruth Lowe songs
I’ll Never Smile Again
Put Your Dreams Away
Dana Suesse (December 3, 1911 – October 16, 1987)
Dana Suesse was born in Kansas City. She got her start when she was only four years old, performing in vaudeville circuits, dancing, and playing piano. In 1926, she and her mother moved to New York City to make a break as a classical composer.
While she struggled to get her classical compositions published, she quickly began getting popular music published. In the 30s, the press started calling her the “Gershwin Girl.” Paul Whitman even commissioned her to write and debut a piece at Carnegie Hall. Suesse composed “Sonata in Three Rhythms” and performed as the featured soloist with Whitman’s orchestra.
She continued to write for theater and, in the 1960s, began writing plays and books for musicals, although with less success than her previous ventures. Finally, in the 1970s, through the help of Peter Mintun, she completed a concert at Carnegie Hall featuring new arrangements of music from her past.