"Alexander's Ragtime Band" is a song by Irving Berlin. It was his first major hit, in 1911. There is some evidence, although inconclusive, that Berlin borrowed the melody from a draft of "A Real Slow Drag" by Scott Joplin that had been submitted to a publisher.
The opening lines establish the African-American context:
Oh ma honey . . . ain't you goin' to the leaderman, the ragged meter man
If you care to hear the Swanee River played in ragtime
The new style included new ways of playing traditional instruments as well:
There's a fiddle with notes that screeches
Like a chicken
And the clarinet is a colored pet
Vaudeville singer Emma Carus, famed for her "female baritone", is said to have been largely responsible for successfully introducing the song in Chicago and helping contribute to its immense popularity. It became identified with her, and soon worked its way back to New York where Al Jolson also began to perform it.
The song has been recorded by many artists, including Byron G. Harlan & Arthur Collins, Victor Military Band, Ted Lewis & his band, Boswell Sisters, The Andrews Sisters, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Johnnie Ray, Bee Gees, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, George Formby, Al Jolson, Liberace, Billy Murray, Liza Minnelli, Sid Phillips, Don Patterson & Sonny Stitt, Sarah Vaughan & Billy Eckstine, Jorgen Ingmann, Bessie Smith and Julie Andrews.
The song had a presence on the charts for five straight decades. According to Newsweek Magazine:
Four different versions of the tune charted at # 1, # 2, # 3 and # 4 in 1911 including one by Arthur Collins which stayed at number one for 10 weeks.,
Bessie Smith's version made the top 20 in 1927.,
Louis Armstrong made the top 20 with it in 1937.,
A duet by Bing Crosby and Connee Boswell hit #1 in 1938.,
Johnny Mercer charted a swing version in 1945.,
Bing Crosby recorded another duet version, and hit the top-20 in 1947 with Al Jolson.,
Nellie Lutcher put it on the R&B charts in 1948.,
Bob Wills put it on the c&w charts in the same decade.,
Donald O'Connor sang it on the silver screen in 20th Century Fox's musical There's No Business Like Show Business in 1954.,
Johnnie Ray recorded his version in 1954.,
Ella Fitzgerald scored with it in 1958, and received a Grammy for her Irving Berlin anthology in 1959.,
Ray Charles recorded it in 1959 for his album The Genius of Ray Charles.,
Bee Gees used the music in their tour in 1974, and sang it on The Midnight Special TV show in 1973.,
The Grateful Dead refer to it in the lyrics of "Ramble On Rose".,
The tune of the song was played in Broadway Folly, 1930 Oswald the Lucky Rabbit film.
A 1938 film of the same name was loosely based on the song.
The song is referenced in the Emerson, Lake and Palmer song "Karn Evil 9".
A version of the song set to a disco beat was recorded by Ethel Merman for her infamous Ethel Merman Disco Album in 1979.
A snippet of the chorus of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" can be heard toward the end of Taco's 1982 cover of "Puttin' on the Ritz", a number 4 hit in the United States.
The song was used in Tennessee politics by Lamar Alexander, a trained pianist, Governor of Tennessee and U.S. Senator, who performed the song for campaign events, including during his 1996 run for the Republican presidential nomination.
The song was in the White Star Line Songbook on board the R.M.S. Titanic and was played in the 1st Class Lounge early on in the sinking. This is portrayed in James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster, Titanic.
The Georgia Tech Pep Band plays the song before every men's and women's home basketball games.
In 1998, this song was added in Kidsongs Adventures in Biggleland: Meet the Biggles.
Nowadays,Liza Minnelli tends to open her concerts with the song.
^ Berlin, E. A. King of Ragtime, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 210.,
^ Bergreen, Laurence. As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin (Viking, 1990) p. 67.,
^ Guest. "song listing for Bee Gees appearances on The Midnight Special". Ioffer.com. Retrieved December 1, 2011. ,
^ Dodd, David. "The Annotated "Ramble On Rose"". University of California at Santa Cruz. Retrieved June 20, 2013. ,
^ "The Walter Lantz Cartune Encyclopedia: 1930". The Walter Lantz Cartune Encyclopedia. Archived from the original on May 14, 2011. Retrieved April 24, 2011.