Berlin's first Alexander song was co-written with his boss Ted Snyder, but he wrote the new one by himself, and it became a massive hit, the one that really launched the ragtime craze, even though there were already over a hundred in print when Scot Joplin published his first rag in 1899.
"Alexander's Ragtime Band" was not Berlin's first hit, nor was it the first to attract international attention, but it did attract more publicity than any other song of the decade, selling a million copies of the sheet music in the first year; Berlin bought his mother a house out of the royalties, which eventually topped thirty thousand dollars. Over half a million copies of the sheet music were reputed to have been sold in England in 1913. According to the 1911 census, the population of Great Britain and Ireland was a shade under forty-five and a half million, so if this figure is correct it gives some idea of just how enormously popular Berlin's song was.
In spite of its name, "Alexander's Ragtime Band" is not strictly speaking a ragtime song. It was registered under the name of Ted Snyder Co following its publication on March 18, 1911, and was popularized by Emma Carus on the vaudeville stage.
Numerous recordings were made including by Billy Murray (on Edison Blue Amberol, 2048), who also recorded Noël Coward's big hit "A Room With A View." Another early recording was made by Stella Mayhew.
Unsurprisingly, Berlin wrote a series of songs in the same vein, but none was anything like as commercially successful as the first.
Controversy also surrounded its origin; it was suggested that the song was written not by Berlin but by the black pianist Lukie Johnson, which Johnson himself denied. Later, Scott Joplin claimed Berlin had stolen the music from his opera Treemonisha; the two men do appear to have met, but that is as far as it went. Treemonisha was registered for copyright two month's after "Alexander's...", but this did not deter Joplin, who died in 1917 convinced his work had been plagiarized. Towards the end of his life, Scott Joplin suffered from a degenerative illness which affected his mental powers, so the assertion must be treated with caution. His biographer Edward Berlin has made a careful study of this claim, but although, he says, there are similarities between "Alexander's..." and "A Real Slow Drag", this is hardly surprising, as a great many songs and instrumentals were written in the same style at that time.
Berlin himself became incensed at some of the claims being made about the supposed origins of the song. Although ragtime was superceded by jazz, the title was eventually used for a film. The 1938 extravaganza by Twentieth Century Fox featured no less than twenty-eight Berlin songs including of course the one that had inspired it.
Suggestion credit: Alexander Baron - London, England, for above 3
This made an inauspicious debut as an instrumental in the cabaret show Folies Bergere. After notching a string of hits, Berlin returned to the song and added lyrics.
Arthur Collins, known as "King of the Ragtime Singers," along with his frequent partner Byron G. Harlan, was one of the first artists to record this in 1911. His version stayed at #1 for 10 weeks. Three other renditions landed in the Top 10 that same year. Bessie Smith revived it in 1927 and landed at #7.
Bing Crosby charted twice with duet versions: a #1 hit with Connee Boswell in 1938 (a year after Louis Armstrong's cover cracked the Top 20) and a Top 20 collaboration with Al Jolson in 1947. Jolson was no stranger to the tune: It was a hot number at his minstrel show in New York around the time Emma Carus was performing it in Chicago.
This was included on the 1958 album Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Song Book. Fitzgerald took home the Grammy Award for Best Vocal Performance, Female for her work on the anthology.
Ethel Merman recorded a disco version for her Ethel Merman Disco Album in 1979.
This was one of the songs played by the orchestra on board the doomed Titanic.
Berlin on the song's popularity: "The melody... started the heels and shoulders of all America and a good section of Europe to rocking. The lyric, silly though it was, was fundamentally right. Its opening words, emphasized by immediate repetition - 'Come on and hear! Come on and hear!' - were an invitation to 'come,' to join in, and 'hear' the singer and the song. And that idea of inviting every receptive auditor within shouting distance became a part of the happy ruction."
Tyrone Power plays an aspiring ragtime singer named Alexander in the 1938 film Alexander's Ragtime Band. The title tune, along with a handful of other Berlin songs, is also featured in the movie.