90 Years of “Top 40” Music: It Begins (1925)

On Christmas Eve 1906, wireless radio operators on board ships from the North Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico heard something startling through their headphones. Normally, the radio men would listen through the static for the dots and dashes of Morse code, but on that night a century ago, they heard something different. They heard music.

American RadioWorks: Hearing America – A Century of Music on the Radio

If you were a rich, white, young American in 1925, it must have seemed like the 20th Century was finally arriving. Hi-tech inventions like cars, airplanes, records, movies and radio were all over the place, and engineers were coming out with new amazing things all the time. There was even talk of being able to send moving pictures over the radio someday! Even President Coolidge was sworn in, live, on the radio.

Europe was a wreck after World War I, but that just meant American industry was the only game in town. The Stock Market was soaring. After surviving the Great War and the Spanish Flu Pandemic, it was time to party.

Sure, it was illegal to buy alcohol, but you could get around that if you wanted. For the first time, it wasn’t just the super rich who could afford some luxury. A lot of young people had the means to spend money on entertainment. You could catch a movie and see an epic like Ben-Hur or the great comic, Charlie Chaplin, in The Gold Rush. You could bring your favorite artists, like the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and Eddie Cantor into your living room and play their music any time you liked, thanks to the Big Three record companies: Edison, Victor and Columbia.

By comparison, radio was still a baby. In 1925, despite being around for 20 years and with stations popping up everywhere, the general public was just starting to buy receivers. They were big, ugly things, but the prices were coming down to the point where you could get a surplus production leftover AR-812 from RCA for $10 (about the same as $135 today).

So, what would I have heard on one of them newfangled boxes?

Well, assuming I could find a station that wasn’t simply news or classical music, there was both a ton of variety and a ton of repetition. Tin Pan Alley was in its prime, so there were plenty of the catchy tunes in the Top 40, like Irving Berlin’s tearjerker, All Alone, and Maceo Pinkard’s hot jazz tune, Sweet Georgia Brown. Many songs, like the aforementioned “All Alone,” were so popular that multiple versions were hits. There are versions of that song by Al Jolson, Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra, and John McCormack all in the year’s top hits.

However, there were no radio networks, yet, and no one to tell stations what “format” they should follow. So, among the perfectly enunciated phrases and rolling “R’s” of the classically trained singers, I heard Bessie Smith belt out St. Louis Blues with Louis Armstrong on cornet and Vernon Dalhart’s twangy folk songs, like Wreck of the Old ’97 and The Prisoner’s Song, and Ernest V. Stoneman’s Sinking of the Titanic and the amazing George Gershwin with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra and Rhapsody in Blue. There seemed to be lots of ukulele, too, as in the year’s #1 hit by Gene Austin, Yes, Sir That’s My Baby or Cliff ‘Ukulele Ike’ Edwards in Paddlin’ Madelin’ Home (which also contains some pretty wacky scat singing).

I was also surprised at the number of songs that I knew from childhood like “Sweet Georgia Brown” (the Harlem Globetrotters theme), Tea For Two, and If You Knew Susie Like I Know Susie, The song Collegiate was adapted by Chico Marx in the movie Horse Feathers in 1932.

Overall, we’re off to a pretty good start. There’s variety and memorable tunes. The recording technology wasn’t the greatest, but spending a day listening to 1925’s top 40 songs isn’t the same kind of aural agony I seem to remember living through in 1974.

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