Percy Wenrich, ca. 1910
"The Joplin Kid"
If you were a visitor to Carthage, Missouri in 1901, you would have found plenty of entertainment. A town of barely ten thousand, the streets and stores of Carthage were often crowded beyond what would seem possible for a town of its size. The elegant Harrington House Hotel was home to noted travelers from around the world. Strolling through town, one could visit the new Delphus Theater and see both vaudeville and the newest silent films. A number of saloons provided comfort for the thirsty visitor and music to soothe the soul played by itinerant, but noted entertainers of the era. Of all things, a music school could be found here and the new fangled electric trolleys could be found to transport you across town or to nearby towns and mining camps. A short trolley ride away was Joplin where you could stop by the House of Lords saloon to hear pioneer ragtimers competing at the piano. At the Lakeside pavilion you could hear the sparkling music of the keyboard wizards of the time and if you were lucky, you just might spot "The Joplin Kid" playing ragtime. Just beginning to gain notice, "The Joplin Kid", Percy Wenrich went on to become one of America's greatest popular song composers.
Born in Joplin Missouri on January 23, 1887, Percy Wenrich was the son of the town postmaster. His mother was an accomplished amateur pianist who gave him his first introduction to and lessons on the piano and organ at an early age.
It was not long before young Percy began writing his own melodies for which his father provided lyrics. Many of these songs were used locally at political rallies and conventions. He continued to be interested in music and enrolled in the Chicago Musical College to be trained as a "serious" musician. In spite of that, he continued his efforts in writing popular song and while in Chicago, succeeded in having two of his works published, Ashy Africa and Just Because I'm From Missouri. Interestingly perhaps, both titles were suggested to him by Frank Buck, a Chicago music publisher who went on to become a famous producer of African travel and adventure films. Working for McKinley Music Co. in Chicago during this time, Wenrich wrote melodies to verses sent to McKinley by would-be songwriters. He also composed various works as required including waltzes, songs, intermezzi and rags. For a while, Wenrich also worked as a song plugger in a Milwaukee department store where he published another song, Under A Tropical Moon.
Though he did write in a variety of styles early on, it was his rags that were immediately most successful for him. His first major hit was Peaches and Cream in 1905, published by Jerome Remick. Though not considered his best rag, his biggest ragtime hit was The Smiler, in 1907. We have featured The Smiler a number of times including our September, 2001 feature of Wenrich songs. Around this same time, Wenrich met the charming and beautiful Dolly Connolly. Connolly was an already successful vaudeville performer and Wenrich was captivated by her and soon they were married. Connolly continued her career throughout their marriage and Wenrich wrote many songs for her and supported her career, sometimes to the detriment of his own. He toured with her for several years. His 1911 Red Rose Rag featured in our June, '01 feature on Ragtime was perhaps the greatest of his songs written just for her.
In 1909, Wenrich and Connolly moved to New York where Wenrich became a staff writer for Jerome H. Remick. In 1908 along with Alfred Bryan, he wrote Rainbow (see our September, '01 feature) and Up In A Balloon with Ren Shields. It should be mentioned that "Balloon" was a pioneering song on the subject of aerial navigation. Though Up In A Balloon had some success, it was the Indian song Rainbow that put Wenrich on the map as a song composer. As successful as Rainbow was, it was nothing compared to his next major hit, Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet in 1909. With lyrics by Stanley Murphy, the song sold over two million copies and propelled Wenrich to the top of the charts. When Wenrich first wrote "Bonnet", he sang it for Remick and Remick rejected it, feeling it lacked popular appeal. A few days later Remick called Wenrich and told him the tune kept running through his head. He supposedly said;
"Any song that even I can't forget must become a hit."
That song of course became a favorite of vaudevillians and has been in continuous performance ever since.
Once the floodgates were opened, the hit parade from Wenrich's pen never stopped. In 1911 he followed up with some additional rags and another hit Indian song, Silver Bell with lyrics by Edward Madden. It was Madden who also wrote the lyrics for The Red Rose Rag mentioned above. George Burns sang the Red Rose Rag in performance throughout his career, it was one of his favorites. In 1912, Madden and Wenrich penned an even greater and longer lasting hit, Moonlight Bay, featured in our April, '01 feature on Moon music. During this same period he also wrote Ragtime Chimes, Egyptian Rag, Sunflower Rag and Southern Symphony.
As many successful songwriters did during that time, Wenrich teamed up with Homer Howard to form his own music publishing house, the Wenrich-Howard Company. Together they published a number of his songs, including, Kentucky Days, Whipped Cream Rag and Snow Deer in 1913. Within only a year, Wenrich gave up the publishing business as it was taking him away from song writing and performing. So in 1914, he gave it up to devote all of his time to composing and performing with Dolly in vaudeville. He connected with Leo Feist that year as his publisher and that same year he scored what may be his greatest hit of all time, When You Wore A Tulip And I Wore A Big Red Rose. For several years, perhaps fifteen or so, Connolly and Wenrich toured vaudeville singing mostly his songs. Connolly's success also carried over to recording and she became a huge star recording songs for Columbia.
In 1916, Wenrich and Connolly had yet another hit with Sweet Cider Time When You Were Mine. During the war, Wenrich also penned a number of war related songs including Where Do We Go From Here?, in 1918. Connolly and Wenrich continued to tour successfully till around 1929. Wenrich continued to compose but his last hit song was All Muddled Up in 1922. A completely versatile composer, Wenrich also wrote scores for a number of musicals and plays including Crinoline Girl (1914), The Right Girl, 1921, Castles In The Air (1926) and Who Cares? 1930.
Around 1930, Wenrich retired from composing and vaudeville and lived out his life in New York City till his death on March 17, 1952. Tragically, Dolly's health surely played some part in his retirement at a time when he was still more than capable of composing. Committed to a New York sanitarium in the late 1940s by Wenrich, Connolly was released following his death in 1952. She spent the remainder of her life living with her sister in New York, supported by an ASCAP pension until her death in 1965 at the age of 77.
The array of talent displayed by American popular music composers is awe inspiring. During the golden age of American popular song, thousands of composers emerged who wrote fantastic songs, many of which have remained popular to this day. Many of those composers established themselves as masters of certain song styles. Charles K. Harris gave us the "tear jerker", Scott Joplin refined the rag for us and Irving Berlin gave us ballads that will last forever. A few of the songwriters showed a versatility that went beyond any single style. Even fewer were successful in virtually any style. Percy Wenrich is among the fewest of the few. A composer of prodigious talent who was able to freely flow from genre to genre and write hit after hit in virtually every popular style, Wenrich deserves a special place in the history of American popular music.
Over the years, we have featured 19 of Wenrich's songs here at ParlorSongs. In addition to the eleven featured in our September '01 salute to his music, you can see the covers for and hear the music to the following Wenrich Works on our site:
Auto Race, February, '01 article on Collecting Sheet Music,
(This list compiled September, 2001 check our catalog or issues after that date for other published titles by Wenrich)
ParlorSongs, September, 2001
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