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.
of Joplin Missouri, 1910
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
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
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,
Kentucky Days, January,
Where Do We Go From Here, November,
The Chicago Express, February,
I Ain't Got Weary Yet, December,
Silver Bell, April,
Red Rose Rag, June,
Moonlight Bay, April,
(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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