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"Song Requirements Of Talking Pictures"

The AS/PMA has acquired an unusual artifact, a 36-page song-poem promotional booklet from 1930, published by the New York-based Walter W. Newcomer & Assoc. Despite the intriguiging title, Song Requirements Of Talking Pictures turns out to be nothing more than an extended come-on brochure, yet another minor twist on the tried-and-true method of coaxing anyone with a verse in his heart and a buck in his wallet to sending them the song shark's way.

Many -- if not most -- movies made during the silent film era were accompanied by live music, but having a soundtrack electronically imprinted directly on the film itself, beginning with the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927, was a whole new ballgame. For one thing, it allowed for movies and pop songs to become integrally associated with one another, and gave Tin Pan Alley another medium needy of its wares. The vast sums of money that could be made from writing songs for successful films was not lost on the general public, and that notion inspired the dreams of average Joes and Janes who yearned to be on the inside. The title and cover illustration of the Newcomer booklet make hay of this film/music link, although by 1930 the link had already passed from novelty to craze to common acceptance.

My initial reaction to seeing the cover illustration was that it was blatantly racist, but I've since come to regard it as merely a bad rendering of a motif -- Jolson in blackface from The Jazz Singer -- that signaled "songs for film" to the average person. The text of Song Requirements Of Talking Pictures is the usual muddleheaded song shark gibberish, this time drawn out over 30-plus pages, only a few of which actually address the featured point. A section entitled "'Talkies' Promoting Song Sales" occupies nearly two pages with a detailed plot synopsis ofThe Singing Fool, Jolson's 1928 follow-up to The Jazz Singer. The concluding paragraph of that section will give you an idea of the form and thrust of Newcomer's booklet:

While ["Sonny Boy"] is without question a good song, it did not put all previous songwriting efforts to shame so far as actual merit is concerned. It owes its great success mainly to the unusual opportunity it was afforded through the medium of the talking picture, and serves to demonstrate the tremendous organ for publicity into which the motion picture has developed. Patronized by the entire country, a new and more wonderful scientific achievement, "the picture that talks like living people," and sings as well, has created a greater interest in this form of entertainment.
Another chunk of pages is eaten up with dry descriptions of some of the various categories of movie songs: The Mother Song, Home Songs (such as "My Old New Hampshire Home" or "My Indiana Home"), The Rustic Song, The Irish Song (where Newcomer states, "It is not to be expected that a song writer who was born and bred on the lower East Side of New York City, of Russian parents, can express the thoughts, sentiments and aspirations of the Irish people," overlooking the fact that George Graff, Jr., the lyricist of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," was of German descent, and a fellow song shark to boot), The Novelty Song, Flirtation Songs, Town, City and State Songs, and Special or Spot Songs. From there the book further disintegrates into a standard-issue run-through of some basic lessons of commercial lyric writing, not altogether different from the Top Records brochure found elsewhere on this site.

Another common element of the song-poem brochure is the itemization of the shark's own credentials, which always look impressive but few or none of which will actually ring a bell with the reader. One of Newcomer's claims for this section is particularly sophistic: "The arranging of any style or class of music for any instrument or combination of instruments is my specialty." Sure you haven't overlooked anything there, Walter?

In 1915 a song shark named John T. Hall, proprietor of New York's Knickerbocker Harmony Studios, had been convicted of mail fraud and sentenced to two years in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. In the course of his legal proceedings, it was revealed that Hall's real name was John T. Newcomer. It is not known whether the two Newcomers were related to each other or not.

Many thanks for help with the Newcomer project to eagle-eyed field reps Michael Greenberg and Lou Smith.

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