Recently I’ve had the great privilege of corresponding with Annette Palazzo. Annette is a talented rock photographer who has taken pictures of some of the biggest acts in music: her shots of Led Zeppelin, the Police and XTC on stage in New York are just amazing. Better still, for lovers of bad music, Annette is the niece of the late James ‘Jack’ Covais, founder of the Tin Pan Alley song-poem company, and she and her mother have been kind enough to not only share their memories with me but to allow me to share them with you.
A quick recap: Busy since the early 50s, and now with a reputation among serious doo-wop collectors for the quality of some of the company’s earliest output, Tin Pan Alley churned out hundreds of singles over the next three decades – so many that no-one has yet managed to pull together a complete discography: given the company’s confusing cataloguing system (especially in their later years when they introduced the imprints TPA and Pageant Records) that’s hardly a surprise. Tin Pan Alley was founded, initially as a sheet music operation, in 1941 by Jack Covais a songwriter who, unable to hook up with an established publisher, wound up self-publishing instead. By 1943 he was already dabbling in song-poem publishing and by 1952 Tin Pan Alley had become a full-blown record company: their first release came out on both 10” 78 and 7” 45 that year, with both sides penned by Covais himself. Initially the company began by providing custom pressing and musical arrangement work for small bands and artists keen enough to get a record out to self-finance the project. It’s some of these records (by acts like the Melloharps and Teacho Wiltshire) which can now fetch hundreds of dollars and, because of that, have been widely bootlegged.
jack, it should be noted, was pretty serious about his business, forming his own publishing company (Juke Box Alley) and copyrighting his compositions. He was not adverse to taking the big boys to court either if he felt his copyright had been infringed: in 1957 he sued Atlantic Records over their Laverne Baker hit Tra La La, which he claimed copied his own Check Your Heart and CBS over their tune I Hope You Don't Know What You're Doing which, he believed, ripped off his composition What's It Gonna get You. Litigious he may have been, but it didn't seem to bother the Brooklyn-based Covais too much that there was already an outfit called Tin Pan Alley, run by Frank Capano in Philadelphia, which issued its first recordings in 1946.
Says Annette: “Jack Covais, who owned Tin Pan Alley, was my uncle through marriage. He was married to my dad's sister Lena. As a kid, my Aunt Lena would give all her adult siblings, as well as her nieces and nephews, Tin Pan Alley 45s.
“It was difficult to gauge what my aunt actually thought about these songs, she was a woman of few words, though I do remember that the family would always put these recordings on for a laugh during the Holidays and for family get-togethers! There are some real doozies in the TPA catalogue: Are You Willing/Working Overtime by Teacho Wiltshire (TPA 142/3) was a particular favourite of mine. ‘Performing the One and Only Rock 'n' Roll Waltz!’ was added to the A side!
“When I got older, I'd make mix tapes for work, adding on some of the Tin Pan Alley tunes. Teacho worked with King Pleasure, Solomon Burke and Wilson Pickett, it was clear Teacho was a professional, but not from the sounds of this recording! He was more of a band leader and pianist, than a singer. Since Teacho is the only one listed on this single, the assumption was that he was the singer, whoever was singing on this 45. We LOVED these songs at work; they really got us through the monotony of the day and 'working overtime'! When I Found Love, by Phil Celia (TPA 279), is another awesomely horrible tune; a guy at my former office would croon along when I put on the tape. I always wonder, had my Uncle Jack lived longer, perhaps he would have worked with Weird Al or some other music parody artist, because I still cannot believe Jack truly thought these inept recordings were serious, well-made pop music!
“My work colleagues could not believe what they were hearing! They thought these songs were from a parody record, or from a recording by The Bonzo Dog Band, Spike Jones or songs off the Golden Throats series of actors and actresses 'singing'. My work colleagues were shocked to find out these releases were legit recordings. I'd switch Working Overtime on when we worked overtime, hilarity ensued. At one point everyone in our art department knew the words! I always wondered how these Tin Pan Alley songs would sound if they'd been interpreted by some real singers with a great band.
“My Uncle Jack, who died around 1964, actually worked with some famous musicians. He recorded a song with R'n'B singer Pearl Woods. It was called My Donkey Wouldn't Walk (TPA 149/150; the B-side, by Pearl Woods, was You’re Getting Old, Charlie). There was a rumour that Jack Covais actually wrote Paper Roses, a hit for Marie Osmond, but no one in the family ever verified it (he didn’t. Paper Roses was written by Fred Spielman and Janice Torre and, before Marie Osmond’s 1973 version had been a hit in 1960 for Anita Bryant).
“My understanding is that Jack's nephew, Sal Covais, who took over the TPA family business, remained in the music business. I'm not sure in what capacity nor the time frame. According to information from my father, Jack Covais died in 1964 in Richmond Hill, New York, definitely not in Fort Lauderdale in 1991, as reported on the American Song-Poem Music Archive website. I think there was some confusion, because, Jack, at one point, ran the TPA business with one of his brothers. Jack was a fairly young man when he died, he was either in his late 40s or early 50s; my dad doesn't remember his exact age, although he remembers he died of cancer. His son Jack Jr. was a young teen when Jack died.
“Since both Jack and Lena Covais, as well as their daughter Carolyn Donato, have passed away, we no longer have much contact with that side of the family. His son Jack Jr. is still alive, but we only see him at weddings and funerals. As far as I know, Jack Jr. never worked in the music business.
“Hope you enjoyed my personal Tin Pan Alley story! I always get a huge laugh when I see one of those TPA 45s for sale on eBay!”
Since this first email, Annette and I have continued to correspond. Although she has asked me not to reprint her other emails in their entirety (lots of personal family detail) she does confirm, via her mother, that Jack must have passed away in either 1964 or 1965, not in 1991 as previously believed. This would explain why his name, ubiquitous on the early TPA releases, suddenly disappears from the label around 1965. Annette’s mother, now in her 80s, is still in touch with one of the Gugliotta Sisters, one of the many acts that recorded for Tin Pan Alley.
Annette, I know I have already thanked you personally for sharing these memories with me, but thank you once again for allowing me to pass them on to other Tin Pan Alley fans here at the World’s Worst Records. And thanks for the photo of Andy Partridge on stage at the Ritz too!
Here, for your enjoyment, is a selection of some of my favourite Tin Pan Alley releases: I Never Knew by Verle Clapper and the Sunset Boys, which was written by Jack Covais and issued as the very first Tin Pan Alley release; Goody, Goody, Good! by Fran Gold (co-written by Jack Covais); from the company’s later years I Tried John (Joan), a slice of silly sub-Dylan nonsense from Mike Yantorno, and, especially for Annette’s mother, Nina and the Gugliotta Sisters with Teenage Rock And Roll. Enjoy!