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John T. Hall -- The Creator?

by Phil Milstein

John T. Hall may or may not have invented the song-poem form. The advertisement reproduced at right, from the August 1913 issue of System: The Magazine Of Business, claims that at that time he had been in the industry for 16 years already. If this is true, it would place his involvement as having begun circa 1897, or four years earlier than any other evidence we have for the dawn of song-poem music. However, as should be clear to us all by now, song-poem ads should never be taken at face value; in other words, maybe Hall really was in the game as early as 1897, but it's equally likely that he too didn't become involved until after the turn of the century.

Either way, his story is virtually a blueprint for the early days of the song-poem business (and the pattern has scarcely wavered since). Born John T. Newcomer in 1875, Hall experienced success relatively early, composing the popular waltz "The Wedding Of The Winds" around the turn of the century and then scoring the well-known comic opera The Queen Of The Moulin Rouge. But, unable to sustain his legitimate career, he slid into the shady practice of coaxing dollars from the pockets of over-eager amateur lyricists. (By this scenario, he didn't get into song-poem music until well into the new century, but it is possible that he was working his legit career simultaneously with his sharking operations, and thus might have been sharking as early as 1897, as claimed in his ad.)

In 1909 Hall, a New Yorker, filed for bankruptcy, declaring liabilities of $4,867 and assets of $0. At the time he was operating John T. Hall Music Publishing; it's not clear whether this was a legitimate publishing company or a song-poem gambit, but clues in his bankruptcy filing lean toward the latter. He was back on his feet a few years later, forming the Knickerbocker Harmony Studios, undoubtedly a song-poem service. (In trying to fix the time of Hall's drift into song-poem music, another possibility is that he only turned to sharking following his bankruptcy, as a last-ditch solution to the hard times upon which he had fallen. If this is the case, then perhaps the "16 years" mentioned in the ad above refers to his length of service in the music industry in total, rather than the duration of his song-poem enterprise.)

Hall's song-poem operation was brought down in the 1913-14 Post Office crackdown on the industry. Trade publication accounts of his arrest and conviction provide us a closer look at his practices. The charges against him centered on one particular promotion, a fiendishly clever bogus songwriting contest designed to draw a large school of fish into his range, which he could then simply drag all in with one net. The quicker and smarter ones might get away, but Hall was banking on the premise that there'd be plenty of slower and dumber ones, and he was right.

The "Popular Song Writer's Contest" ran in the summer of 1914. The three best songs were to be professionally published, and would receive a cash prize of $250, $150 or $100. People who entered a poem or lyric received a swift response leading them to believe that their song had won and that one of the prizes had been set aside for them, but only if a melody were first written for their submission. (The basics of this scheme might ring familiar to anyone who's ever received mail with Ed McMahon's picture on it.) Next thing the poor sap knew, Knickerbocker Harmony Studios -- which name had been conveniently omitted from the initial ads -- was offering to do just that, to set a melody to the "winner's" poem for the rock-bottom price of $10 (a deep cut from Hall's typical fee of $35 to $50). The contest ad had brought in 6000 initial submissions, and the follow-up letter from Knickerbocker Harmony led to 1500 paying customers, a 25% rate of return almost unheard-of in the direct mail industry!

Hall, along with associates J. Victor Green and Harry B. Kohler, was arrested in November of 1914 and tried in U.S. District Court a year later. Circumstantial evidence suggests that Green and Kohler might have pled guilty to lesser charges in exchange for testifying against Hall. At trial, the government called over 100 song-poets to read samples of their lyrics as evidence that Hall had defrauded them via false praise and fraudulent promises. These recitations, said an item in The Music Trades, "kept the court convulsed with laughter." Although the song-poets, "who seemed greatly impressed with their own ability and importance," were likely humiliated by the mirthful outbursts, the strategy -- that comments strongly fostering the possibility of success for poems that were so laughably awful could only be criminally deceptive -- worked. Hall was convicted and sentenced to two years in the federal penitentiary at Atlanta.

[More on Knickerbocker Harmony Studios.]

An interesting aside found in accounts of Hall's case touches on a scam very similar to the song-poem game. Hall employed 18 office girls to handle the huge load of mail generated by his song contest. Some of these ladies also worked for a man named E. Berry Watt, who at the time was wanted by the same Post Office investigators on mail fraud charges. Watt's spin was scamming amateur playwrights in a "scenario" (a story idea developed somewhere between plot outline and full script) rip-off. One wonders whether Hall and Watt had been comparing notes.

Years later Hall graduated to film work, reconstituting The Queen Of The Moulin Rouge as the basis of a 1922 movie of the same name featuring doomed starlet Martha Mansfield. That, though, seems to have been his singular success in the motion picture industry. John T. Hall died in 1954, at age 79, at New York's Bellevue Hospital.

The following piece is taken from the December 3, 1914 issue of The Presto, a showbiz trade journal. It is an amusingly bitchy critique of one of Hall's promotional pamphlets -- even Irving Berlin is left to wither under the anonymous author's stinging wit. Hall at the time was rather an easy target, having been busted just a few weeks earlier.

Comments in brackets and italics are mine; any other "appropriate parenthetical remarks" are as per the original. The term "come-along," by the way, equates to the slightly more modern "come-on," or "something offered to allure or attract; inducement."

Thanks to Sol Goodman for his research on Hall, and to David Jasen for passing Goodman's findings along to us.

One of the "goats," after telling us all about how he had been "stung" by reading a beautiful story of an independent publisher, said publisher being the only one who made a straight royalty proposition without any "string" to it, but who now says: "I have found the string after I had swallowed hook, sinker, bobber and all."

Lest the reader lose interest, we will say we are speaking of remarks made about John T. Hall's latest philanthropic proposition, which is all contained in a book 3 x 9 inches, well printed. illustrated with a half-tone of the illustrious Hall himself; the Hall that just made a haul by means of the book aforesaid. which we commend as a great work worthy of a better purpose.

The introduction is about Hall. The foreword is about "America's Most Reliable Publishing House" -- Hall also.

The third chapter is "Song Writers Receive Fortunes in Royalties." And to prove this statement he quotes the life work and sayings of Irving Berlin, and it appears that Mr. Berlin has written the story of his life for the publication referred to as follows (page 4, center):



We will not dispute this assertion. Some of his work seems to prove it. But. then, we never did believe it was Berlin's particular genius that made him a hit writer. We have always had the idea that Berlin's success was due to Waterson's money and the "hypnotic control" that was had upon stage and commercial output. But by the gospel according to Hall, Berlin makes $100,000 a year, and for that reason you should send your song poem to John T. Hall & Co. (Blest if we can see why or how Berlin has anything to do with it, except to make people think less of him for allowing his name and fame to be used to head a lot of "come-along" stuff.) If it was used by Berlin's knowledge and consent, Berlin should be prosecuted as an "accessory before the fact."

Then follows in close succession the autobiography of Louis Muir and Jo Goodwin [sic -- the actual spellings are Lewis Muir and Joe Goodwin. The former was the composer of two 1912 smashes, "Waiting For The Robert E. Lee" and "Ragtime Cowboy Joe"]. After which we have a tabulated list of the many "hundred thousand dollars" profits made by song writers on certain songs. Page 8 is a summary of what has gone before, so if you didn't get it the first time, you had it all there in tabloid doses. Page 9 has to say that "New York is the recognized musical center of America." For "Song Poems Wanted" we had the idea that the center was Washington, D. C., that beautiful city governed by Congress alone, which may account for the immunity granted the Washington song poemers. [I don't quite get this reference, as the D.C. song-poem companies, being conveniently located under the noses of the Post Office's lead investigators, suffered most in the 1913-14 stings.]

The chapter on page 10 is "Caution," wherein you are warned not to go to Jerusalem from Jericho and perchance fall among thieves, which is really good advice, but evidently was not taken.

It's A Caution.

And under the caption "Caution" you are warned to contribute your donation to those only that have sold "Millions of copies and paid thousands of dollars in royalties" which is true according to a four-page affidavit enclosed and duly sworn to (and we may safely infer "sworn AT" also).

Pages 12 and 13 take a fall out of Hit Alley [apparently an alternate term for Tin Pan Alley.] and condemns the system and the stuff of "house writers" (evidently Berlin did not see page 13, as he is a "house writer" and consequently is a "hog" with a "soft thing" in the hands of a disreputable publisher who will not let budding genius shine by accepting song poems).

We get down to business on page 14 and learn that "The music published by John T. Hall Co. is handled by practically every music dealer in the United States"; that it is from the "one class" of publishers only that wholesale dealers will buy music from, and of course Hall is in that "class." Then, to make a whooping big popular demand, they mail "FIFTY" professional copies. We know of writers of good stage stuff that have mailed 5,000 professional copies. But what good did that do except that the addressee had more mail matter? We are also informed that Hall will advertise every publication they issue in the leading theatrical publications. We have made a business of keeping track of these "leading theatrical journals" and we have not seen one ad of one song yet, and we are inclined to think that lie could not get his advertising in ONE leading theatrical journal. We understand he tried and was "trun out."


Then this page 17 -- "Your song bearing this imprint will be at once recognized as a STANDARD PUBLICATION." We have had eight of the songs bearing this imprint submitted to us for review. Almost without exception the writers advised us that they were "stung," and the prints were cheap, undersized renditions of doggerel and notes and some of the covers looked like a badly smeared up inspiration for a cubist sunset.

Then we have "John T. Hall -- His Accomplishments," in which are not reported his ability at writing "come-along" advertising. But why is he so modest? For in our humble opinion this is where he excels all other "Song Poems Wanted" manufacturers.

And when we get to page 23 we note that "I will write all the music to your poem myself." If this were the fact, how did 6,000 manuscripts get into the hands of a subsidiary company to write the music for $10.00 each, cash in advance? [The author might be mistaking the initial mailing of 6000 for that many returned and paid for, which actually totalled 1500.]

And we must pause to quote the maxim of Puck: "What fools we mortals be." We can think of another one, toc: "There is a sucker born every minute." While David Harum says something about "doing others" and "doing them fust."

All design and uncredited content of this website ©2004 Phil Milstein