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I Worked For A Hack Writer

by Aletha Robinson

Note: The following item, which reveals a bit of Mrs. Robinson's background as a music business professional, appears in the liner notes to Document Records' Piano, Blues, Vol. 3 (1924-c.40s), a compilation CD which includes a half-dozen numbers on which the singing of her husband Bob Robinson is backed by boogie-woogie piano giant Meade Lux Lewis:

The five originally-issued records on which Meade Lux accompanied Rob or Bob Robinson are standard hokum fare with the usual barrage of double meanings. 'Sittin' On Top Of The World' perhaps didn't fit this marketing strategy [i.e., it went unreleased at the time]. Robinson was the husband of Aletha Dickerson, secretary to [Paramount] A&R man Mayo Williams and pianist and arranger in her own right. Despite this, he remains a shadowy figure who sings on a number of hokum records. On these records there can at least be no doubt that he is actually present!
Mrs. Robinson's position at Paramount may have been what got her foot in the door as a working composer and musician, as it put her on the inside of one of the prime centers of the blues recording world. Further research shows many important credits for her, as pianist on or composer of many essential 1920s blues sides, including co-compositions with Ida Cox and Ma Rainey.

from Songwriter's Review, February 1950

When you're down to your last dollar, you can (1) starve to death; (2) ask for charity; or (3) do the kind of work you do not want to do, but are forced to do it if you want to continue eating regularly.

Back in 1935, the depression was at the very peak, and it hit us hard. We were in Chicago, arranging, and looking for work. Lester Melrose, former music publisher, recommended us to his father-in-law, and it turned out to be one of the Richard Bros. We learned later that Leo and Hector Richard Bros. were one of the big "pay-me" melody setters in the U.S.A.

When we knew the Richard boys, they were both so old that, as the guy used to say on the Fred Allen show, "they're not long for this world." Leo was in his late 60's and he also was deaf to a great degree. He had a hearing aid, but seldom used it. He preferred to force everyone to shout while he spoke in a quiet and cultured tone.

The office was composed of three small rooms. When business was good, several stenographers -- sitting so close they almost touched -- worked in one room. Hector used a room for his office, and the outer room was a double reception and storage room (for thousands of piano copies).

Overflowing Profits
We accepted the job of copying music and it was quite an experience! Richard would pay only 50¢ a copy, and you can tell how bad things were when we had to accept it. Some of the songs were 96 measures long! And he wanted it to appear as though it had been printed. Later, he raised the rate to the munificent sum of $1. Sometimes he'd make a mistake and send along the letter from the customer and we'd find out that he was charging $35 to set music to those awful lyrics, and "Publication" ran as high as $125.

We agreed to do the overflow work, and you can see how much work Richard Bros. was doing when we'd get as much as 65 copies a week of "over-flow." After the price went up to $1, he cut down on the amount of work to us.

One day I was in his office and saw a man who, to my astonishment and disgust, had spent train fare to come from Wisconsin to talk to his publisher -- Richard! I've seen worse lyrics than this man wrote, but, frankly, I don't know where. They were long enough to be used for a book, and he was insisting that all of them be used. And Hector was agreeing! That's what burned me up. The purpose of these "music to words" services is, apparently, to agree with the customer no matter how screwy the customer is, and GET HIS MONEY!

I mentioned this to Hector several times, and he told me he HAD to put their lyrics in as they wished, to be within the law, otherwise he wouldn't be able to get statements from these writers that the work was satisfactory!

A great deal of correspondence used to pass between the would-be-writer and Richard. A sort of rough copy of the music was sent to the writer, and he, invariably, wrote back saying that he LOVED the way the song was going to be arranged and he LOVED the melody. And -- that's that. Richard had a letter to prove to any investigating authorities that they were NOT gyping anyone and all the customers were very satisfied.

We -- my husband and I -- copied, at one time, several songs titled "Mother" and "My Mother," as well as numerous other duplicated titles -- but all for very different writers, yet with the exact same title!

There was one exceedingly humorous incident during this time. Shortly after we began doing copy work, Leo Richard called me up and asked me to come to his office. As we were still having some money trouble, I only had bus fare to his office. I went, and when I reached there, he said he wanted to talk to me about making up melodies to some of the lyrics. He would pay, he said, $1.50 to me for each melody. Also, all of the melodies had to be written in HIS own particular style.

Well, I practically blew a fuse. I grabbed one of his "masterpieces" and started playing it on the piano, yelling as I did so, that they were rotten. Then I told him I wouldn't write HIS style if I died of starvation and that I wouldn't be caught dead in the same room with some of those lyrics, and that he was running a gyp company. He said, "Melrose told me you needed money and I thought I'd help you out by giving you this extra work."

I yelled: "I don't need money that badly now or ever!"

After I quieted down, he said he admired my spunk and we both agreed to forget this matter of putting music to those awful lyrics. Then I remembered that had no money and I had to ask him for bus fare back home!

For a while he had an arranger up in Syracuse making the arrangements for him, but this arranger did too good of a job for Richard Bros., and so they stopped sending him work!

Those regular published copies that the company turned out used to be kept around the office except for those that were sent to the writer. The brothers tried to circulate some, and tried like mad to get Melrose to record one. At that time Melrose was a talent scout for Victor Records. But the story I got was that Melrose said he couldn't use any of that junk. The brothers told me I could take any of the copies home that I desired -- "as many as you like" -- and I said: "Are you kiddin'?"

Worthless Dreams
Last year a publisher friend of mine at 1674 Broadway, New York, showed me an envelope full of these Richard Bros. "hits." He used the back of them for scratch paper. In the meantime, the last day I was in their Chicago office, these published copies of Richard Bros. "pay-me" tunes had grown so they were stacked up almost to the ceiling. Just enough postage is spent sending copies to legitimate publishers to prove that Richard Bros. is "trying" to get the numbers going! But the rest of the copies that these poor foolish people have paid for to have published do represent the dreams of people who thought they were writing "hits" -- but they sounded more like nightmares. It was a shame to see the stacked copies.

My years of experience as a music publisher's arranger (as well as one who has done a lot of arranging for new songwriters) leads me to believe that people LIKE being gyped, and I've lost a lot of customers by being brutally frank. After you warn writers of the shark pitfalls, they listen and then say, "Well, I'm going to try it, anyway."

They try it, lose their money, become disheartened, and believe that everyone in the music business is worthless.

Songwriters must learn the facts of songwriting, what to do and what not to do. They should be extra careful of the contracts they sign. They should listen to good advice. And above all: DON'T PAY TO HAVE A SONG WRITTEN!!!

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