The Lost Intro Verses of Tin Pan Alley

The phrase Tin Pan Alley refers to New York City-based songwriters and music publishing companies responsible for much of the United States’ popular music from the late 19th century to the 1950s. Unless you are familiar with the repertoire, there is a unique characteristic shared by many of the songs composed during that period, including those written for the musical theater: the intro verse.

To clarify this, think of the popular Christmas song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” The first verse begins with:

You better watch out, you better not cry…

And then, the song continues with:

He sees you when you’re sleeping…

And so forth. 

But the song features an intro verse that is seldom performed:

I just got back from a lovely trip along the milky way
I stopped off at the north pole to spend the holiday
I called on dear old Santa Claus to see what I could see
He took me to his workshop and told his plans to me

Don’t try to make these words fit the melody for “you better watch out,” etc. They won’t. The intro verse serves more like an overture or prelude to a song. Why were they composed as such? That was the trend at the time. What seems fascinating is that in many recordings, these intro verses are omitted to the point that they are now almost forgotten. For example, Michael Bublé does not sing the intro verse in his version, but Ella Fitzgerald does.

For that matter, one of the wonderful things about Ella’s recordings is that more often than not, she performs the songs as written, intro verse included.

Some intro verses are easier to remember if they were featured in films. For example, take the intro verse for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Sixteen, Going on Seventeen,” from The Sound of Music:

You wait, little girl, on an empty stage
For fate to turn the light on
Your life, little girl, is an empty page
That men will want to write on

Why concern ourselves with intro verses? Why not! Some of them are incredibly clever, for example, take Cole Porter’s self-referential intro verse for his hit song, “It’s De-Lovely,” originally featured in his 1936 musical, Red Hot and Blue:

I feel a sudden urge to sing
The kind of ditty that invokes the spring.
So control your desire to curse,
While I crucify the verse.

This verse I’ve started seems to me
The Tin Pantithesis of melody.
So to spare you all the pain,
I’ll skip the darn thing and sing the refrain.

Here’s English singer-songwriter and entertainer Robbie Williams’ take on the song, and how nice to see young performers research the repertoire and perform songs in their entirety:

What prompted this post, you may ask. I recently came across a new recording of Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s ballad, “Over the Rainbow,” for the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. The song is performed by French singer and actress, Marie Oppert. It is nice to hear the verse performed, as it was even omitted from the film:

When all the world is a hopeless jumble
And the raindrops tumble all around
Heaven opens a magic lane

When all the clouds darken up the skyway
There’s a rainbow highway to be found
Leading from your windowpane

To a place behind the sun
Just a step beyond the rain

Here’s a video of 23-year-old Marie Oppert’s new recording of “Over the Rainbow.” Established singers such as Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett have performed in its entirety, but, again, it’s nice to hear new generations of performers honor the repertoire by performing it in its original form:

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