An Irish Ball
The greatest Irish balladeer of all time was not an Irishman at all, but Ernest R. Ball of Cleveland, Ohio, who wrote “Mother Machree" and scores of other popular melodies reeking of The Old Sod.
As St. Patrick's Day approaches, the 1/64th bit of Irish in me asserts itself and revels in wearing the green. Old Irish tunes - mostly composed and sung by American entertainers in the early1900s - give honest employment to young tenors.
A succinct account of Ball's astonishing output of sing-able songs was recorded back about 1975 in a series of public-service advertisements by the TRW Automotive Safety Products Corporation.
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Next time you walk through the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, stop by the replica of the old-time music studio of Ernest Ball.
Clevelander Ernie Ball was the nation's most fantastic composer of popular songs. His lightning talent showed when he sat down to write his songs.
A poker game in Tin Pan Alley had been in progress several hours when the Irish tenor interrupted to remind Ernie their night out with the boys was supposed to be a song-writing session.
It was Ernie's turn to deal, but he passed the deck. “Then we better do it. "
In 20 minutes, they jotted down some notes, tried them on the upright, added some lyrics and decided it was just right.
The song was “Mother Machree. " When translated into 18 languages, it was the world's most universal tribute to motherhood.
Ball wrote it with his own mother in mind - Nannie Maria Ball, widowed when he was 14 months old. Ernie called her Spike, “because she's my best buddy. "
Ernie was a skinny, rough-housing kid who wanted to be a boxer or a baseball player. But his mother, who raised him here in Cleveland at 1541 E. 30th, also detected music in the way he walked and talked.
She couldn't afford a piano, so Ernie practiced next door on Mary Corr's piano.
By the time he was 13 in 1891, Ernie was supporting his mother by giving piano lessons for 50 cents.
He saved enough money to attend the Cleveland Conservatory of Music. Professors John Underner and Franklin Bassett kept him at the piano eight hours a day insisting he concentrate on classical music.
After graduation, he married Jessie Mae Jewett of Oberlin, Ohio, and with $700 in cash they headed for New York City.
The big city already had too many concert Pianists. So, to be close to music, Ernie became a stock clerk at Mills Music Publishing Co. earning $10 a week and trolley fare.
Two years later, he doubled that pay at the Witmark Brothers publishing company by playing songs for prospective buyers. When he wasn't playing for others, he composed new tune.
For Ball, composing a tune in his mind was amazingly easy. The hard part was putting it on paper. A lot of his good songs were heard only by friends.
During his career from 1903 to 1927, Ernie published over 400 songs.
And what songs! Ball had a gift for crystallizing public sentiments. Not a year went by without one or more of his tunes topping the popularity charts. In some years he had over a dozen hits. In 1912, he had 18.
Many of his hits, starting in 1906 with “Love Me And The World Is Mine, " were translated into every language.
When Ball was in mid-stride, the nation was in love with being Irish. Even though Ball wasn't Irish, we could hardly have St. Patrick's Day without his songs “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, " “Rose of Killarney, " and “A Little Bit of Heaven. "
It's something of a phenomenon that a half century after he passed away, we can still walk up to the band and request “Let The Rest Of The World Go by, " “Will You Love Me in December As You Do in May?" and “One More Day I'll Forget You. "
Ernie's final curtain call came May 3, 1927 (at Santa Ana, Calif. ) following a benefit concert for Mississippi flood relief. After eight clamorous curtain calls, Ball held up his hands to stop the applause.
"Please! I just can't come out any more. " Backstage, he rested his head on his make-up table. That was the end of the song. A heart attack at 48.
Ernie's pallbearers included six of his boyhood friends, plus Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan and Sigmund Romberg. They brought him back home in Cleveland's Lakeview Cemetery.
Gene Buck, president of ASCAP - which Ball helped create - tossed a rose on Ernie's casket: “So long Ernie, You were the greatest minstrel of us all!"
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There are a few more details worth adding.
Ball did compose a few songs at first, which he described as “flops. " But his style changed after teaming up with N. Y. State Senator James J. Walker, later the flamboyant Mayor Jimmy Walker of New York city.
Walker handed Ball a few verses that he felt could be turned into a song. Ball dashed off some notes for: “Will you Love Me In December As You Do In May?" It was a great hit.
Ball realized his early songs were uninspired, while his first hit “came from the heart. " Thereafter he determined to “write honestly and sincerely of the thing I knew about - and that folks generally knew about and were interested in. "
He is best remembered for his collaboration with lyricist Chauncey Olcott for “Mother Machree" - now a classic Irish ballad. This was followed by “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" with lyricist Rida Young. His last song published, in 1927, was “The Rose Of Killarney" with lyrics by William Davidson.
February 14, 2004
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