The Globe-Democrat Magazine, September 5, 1926
HE Landed in St. Louis Broke
but TROMBONED His Way
Larry Conley, whose name will suggest to SUCCESS
many popular song hits, now owns his
ownpublishing house and is known as
the Irving Berlin of Grand
Boulevard. His first job as
a dishwasher in a circus paved
the way for him to join
Globe-Democrat Staff Writer.
It was not so many years ago that a tousled-haired, barefoot boy of about 9 years (corrected to 12 years in the Keithsburg News version. Later, using Census data, it was found that he was actually 14 years old.) sidled up to the manager of a circus that was then playing Muscatine, Ia. and asked for a job. Now, ordinarily there would be nothing much around a circus playing Muscatine, Ia. for a boy of 9 to do, but it so happened that one of the dishwashers had just chucked the job and there was a vacancy in that necessary, but unattractive department. The boy was put on steady at a weekly wage of $1.50 with board and sleeping quarters found - and there in the cook tent of this circus that wandered many miles in subsequent months from Muscatine, Ia. did Larry Conley learn to play the trombone which, after all, was the main reason why he joined the show.
Larry Conley was not much of a trombone player to start with. In fact he was such a poor trombone player that as a purely protective measure he was soon made part of the clown band under strict orders to confine his blasts on the slip horn to such moments as the clown band should be on parade. Thus did a sagacious management insure itself against the monotonous and doleful practicing that had been Conley's routine in the cook tent until he was promoted.
Conley has made quite a leap upward and forward since those Muscatine days and there are those who say that his trombone playing has improved considerably. In the 21 years (corrected to 18 years in the Keithsburg News version. Actually 16 years using Census data.) that have elapsed since he ran away from home to join the circus he has run the gamut of experiences that abound in the Hard Knock School, but his friends in St. Louis who see him today as the head of his own music publishing company are boosting him now as one of its most conspicuous graduates.
Go to the Shubert-Rialto Building on Grand Boulevard, ascend to the third floor and there you will find Conley's office. Enter and you will find a young man, probably pecking at a piano. In an adjoining room there will be a stenographer or two at work. An expressman enters and lugs away some packages. The young man has a pencil and as he drums on the keys with his left hand he writes and scratches out queer looking hieroglyphics with his right. The young man is probably in the throes of writing a song, and he is probably being hard put to make something other than "dove" rhyme with "love". The young man you see is the erstwhile trombone player of Muscatine, Ia, although his status is somewhat changed. He is now the president, owner, manager and everything else of Larry Conley, Inc. Music Publishers.
Larry Conley today is, so far s is known, the only St. Louisan who is making his living publishing his own songs. He is the Irving Berlin of Grand Boulevard, known not only in this city, where he has appeared in numerous theaterand hotel orchestras as a featured trombonist, but elsewhere as the composer of song hits and the writer of ballads that are phonograph staples. He still trombones a bit, but largely for the sake of "plugging" his own songs, and he casually refers to the dozen or so branch offices that he maintains in the leading cities of the United States as necessary adjuncts of a business that within the past months is showing remarkable signs of animation.
Those who know popular music will recognize such titles as "Cryin' For The Moon", "My Sweetheart", "A Little Bit Bad", "One Stolen Kiss", "Easy Melody", "Honolou". The name of Larry Conley appears on each one of these songs, either as the writer of the lyrics or the melody or of both. Some of the songs he has published himself. Others have been given to other publishers and Conley has been content with the royalties that accrue from the sale of sheet music and from the mechanical copies such as phonograph records and piano rolls. "Easy Melody" has sold over 480,000 copies alone and has been recorded by every phonograph company in the United States, not once but several times.
The road over which Conley has traveled to his present admittedly high position in the world of popular music has given the boy trombonist the experience of heart and soul that the successful song writer must possess. It has not all been beer and skittles for him, and even now, when the publishing business is getting well established and on its feet, he has just suffered what he adequately describes as "the toughest break yet". That was just a few weeks ago. But the story of that "break" will be related in due time, because for the moment you are asked to go back once more to Muscatine, Ia. where the dishwashing trombone player is found applying himself assiduously in the cook tent.
Conley was born in Peoria, Ill. just thirty years ago. When he was 3 years old both his parents died in a hotel fire and he went to live with his grandparents in Keithsburg, Ill. When he was 8 years old his grandmother died and her successor in the household was not to the lad's liking, so at the age of 9 Larry Conley shoved off for himself. And he's never been back. (The corrected story in the Keithsburg News reads: Conley was born 30 years ago in Keithsburg, Illinois. When he was just three years old he lost both parents and he lived with his grandparents. When he was 12 years old, he ran away from his grandparents and he's never been back.)
"Ever since I was old enough to walk I wanted to play a trombone." he narrated My grandfather wanted me to be a piano player, but to me the man who plaed the slide trombone in a minstrel band had just about the best job on earth. Out in front, you know, leading the procession."
"I heard there was a circus in Muscatine so I bummed my way over there and got a job washing dishes. Paid me $1.50 a week and board. I slept on a blanket on the ground or in a flat car. My ambition, you know, was to play the slide trombone in the circus band. I saved my money and within a few weeks was able to buy a second hand brass horn that was pretty well battered but nevertheless was a slide trombone. So when I wasn't washing dishes I was blowing on the horn. Didn't know a note of music. Didn't know a thing about the horn, but I sure could make a lot of noise."
"Within a month I was a regular in the Clown Band. You see, the main idea of a clown band is to make noise. Music is not an essential. In fact, it's not wanted. I sure fitted in there. I could outblow any of them. Later, I discovered that the real reason why I was put in the band was to keep me from practicing in the cook tent. The management was getting tired of receiving kicks from the trapeze performers who said they never could get a wink of sleep."
Then I met Daddy Smith. Dear old dad. He played bass horn in the regular circus band and he sort of took a fancy to me and when he learned what my ambition was, he taught me all he knew about music. Which wasn't much, but it was a beginning for me. Within a few months I was playing third trombone in the circus band---but I was still carried on the pay roll as a dishwasher and my wages were still $1.50 a week and board.
"I was with the circus three seasons and became a band regular. Then I got another 'break'. You may remember that in the old days every circus carried what it called the 'privilege car', where everyone attached to the circus could gamble and drink between jumps. We had just finished up in London, Ontario, and were waiting to pull out for Duluth. Minn.,when I ambled into the privilege car where card games, faro, craps and roulette were in full swing. Up to that time I had never gambled a cent in my life but when I saw all the men free with their money, I got the fever and I started out playing nickle roulette. Will you believe me when I tell you that I ran my $2 up to $1600? Luck of a lifetime."
"Well, of course, I was excited. I had all the money in the world and I was a little put out when Daddy Smith called me to the door just as the train moved out and threw me bodily off the train. I was ready to fight him when he jumped down beside me, but what he told me made me realize that he was my friend. My phenomenol luck had just about busted the privilege car and it seems that daddy heard there was a plot afoot to take my money away from me and then kick me off the train. So he beat them to it by kicking me off while I still had the money."
With $1600 in his jeans the Conley boy and his friend, Daddy Smith, sent to Chicago where the boy was placed under the charge of Frank Fitzgerald, one of the best known instructors of wind instruments in the country. Under him Conley learned harmony, composition, directing and the higher phases of good slide tromboning. Then he got his first real job. It was with the Chicago Ladies' Orchestra., which was doing a turn on the Chautauqua Circuit. He was the only man in the crowd and was paid $25 a week for his trombone solo work.
Fortified by such an experience he struck out for himself and within a year was in Dallas, Tex., where he joined the Jack Gardner Trio, a musical organization that was reputed to be the crack dance aggregation of the Southwest. A venture of his own failed and in 1912 Conley came to St. Louis with a trifling sum of money in his pocket and his one asset, his horn.
As he sits in his office in the Shubert-Rialto Building today, he can laugh at the sorry plight that brought him to this same building just fourteen years ago as a four-flushing actor who was attempting to keep from starving by doing "bits" on the stage, his much-prized trombone at the time reposing in a pawnshop. Those days were tragic.
"When I drifted into St. Louis in 1912, I had an idea that I would join up with the Symphony Orchestra," Conley explained. "But I couldn't make connections and what is more to the point, I couldn't get a job any place. I had a few dollars so I went out on Webster street where and got a place where I paid $7 a week for room and board. Every day I tried to get on with an orchestra, but the best I got was rehearsals with the Junior Symphony Orchestra, which kept me in practice, but didn't pay me anything. Then came the day when the landlady wanted her rent. I didn't have the money, so I hocked my horn."
"Things looked pretty blue and I was just about to go back to my old job of dishwashing when I read in the paper that the Rialto Theater was going to open and that there was an opening for an experienced actor to do "bits". Odds and ends, you know. Well, I had never been an actor in all my life, but I got the job and fooled 'em for two weeks before they fired me. Then I went to Oklahoma City and was an actor again for three months. I never did get my horn out of hock, but things began to break better for me and before long I was on my feet again, playing with an orchestra."
The "breaks" as enumerated in sequence by Conley consisted of having his orchestra at the Latin-American Club in Juarez, Mexico, one day when Pancho Villa decided to raid the town. The orchestra was told to keep on playing and the change of government in Juarez was made to the accompaniment of American jazz. He also tells of his experience during the war, when he ws a bandmaster attached to the air service, being a first-class sergeant and stationed for some time at Mineola, N.Y. He recalls how one night his band was ostensibly ordered overseas, was placed on a boat and he as bandmaster was told to have his men going at top speed as the boat left home. Twenty miles out there was a battle with a submarine. He later learned that his band had been the bait for the submarine. There was also the time he took his orchestra to Mexico City and overnight popularized a cafe that had been in the doldrums for years. Fact is, at one time he had seven orchestras playing in various cities in the Mexican Republic, but times were none too good and he came back to the states, to Chicago.
Conley says that he started writing music when he was 12 years old and "Easy Melody" is a product of that early period, although it was not produced until five years ago. How many songs he has written --- either words or music or both --- since that time he doesn't know.
"I have two trunks full of manuscripts." he said. "How many hundred of them there are I don't know. But some day I hope to have my businessaffairs so arranged that I can browse through these trunks and revive old acquaintances."
The ambition of every song writer is to write a "million copies" hit. --- s song that will sell a million copies or more. Conley has no idea that he will ever touch that mark, because, he says, such days are gone forever, except in such isolated cases as "Yes, We Have No Bananas" and the "Prisoner's Song," They have gone big because they are freaks, and Conley does not write freak songs.
"The music publishing business has changed during the last few years." he explained. "In the old days a publisher probably put out four songs a year. Now he probably puts out twenty-five or more. He isn't selling many more copies than he did, but he is spreading the product. I got into the game because I felt I wasn't making as much money out of my songs as I should. By royalty agreement I got one-third of what the publishers made, but by putting out my own stuff I get all there is above expenses. At that I don't print all I write, and at present I have some twenty-seven songs in the hands of other publishers, on which I am drawing royalty.
Writing a song, either words or music, is largely a metter of inspiration for Conley. A catch word or phrase may be the title for a song and around it he writes the lyrics or the music. For instance, "A Little Bit Bad" was born in the Chase Hotel while Conley had his orchestra there. A couple he knew well at that time were engaged and later were married. One night as they danced by the orchestra the young woman slyly reached over and kissed her escort, thinking that the palms and the soft lights were her protection. Conley saw her and laughingly reprimanded her.
"Oh, I'm not so naughty," she said. "I'm just a little bit bad."
The phrase stuck. Conley conferred with Al Eldridge, his piano player. Eldridge wrote the music, Conley the words. It was a hit.
When there is music to be written Conley pecks out the tune on the piano, jots down the chords and then turns it over to an arranger who whips it into shape. Lyrics are written to either fit the tune or the tune is written to fit the lyrics.
Which brings us to telling about the "toughest break of all" that Conley experienced a few weeks ago. It has always been his ambition to write a musical comedy. His chance came recently when Jerome Kern, who wrote the music for "City Chap", decided to take its two hit songs from that production and put them in "Sonny." Conley was commissioned to write two replacement songs. He did it, but before they were incorporated into the show, it closed in Chicago --- and his song hits were wasted, that is for the time being.
How he wrote "Poor Little You," his best contribution to "City Chap," is typical of how he has written other songs. He had seen the show and had been waiting for an inspiration. One night he gave a dinner to some friends in Chicago. While the merriment was at its height, one of the guests remarked to another, "Poor Little You." Like a flash came the inspiration. Conley excused himself, hailed a taxicab, rushed to his office and in thirty minutes had written the words and roughly blocked out the music. He returned to his party before he was missed.
"It popularizes a song to get it on the air," he explained. "A man with a radio may hear a number he likes. He remembers the name. He might try all night and never get it again. What does he do? He goes to the phonograph shop and buys the record and he can have that number every five minutes if he wants it."
Prohibition has made better dancers and better dance orchestras, in his opinion. Why? Conley reasoned thus:
"When a man's pretty well tight he doesn't take pains with his dancing. He's more interested in his bottle. Now, I don't mean to insinuate that there isn't any drinking done these days, but there's not as much as heretofore. Therefore, when people come to a cafethey really want to dance. As a consequence, the orchestra must keep on its toes. Its last selection must be as good, if not better, than its first. The result is a better plaing bunch of musicians."
Larry Conley, at 30, hasn't so many years to view in
SONGS OF LARRY CONLEY