Harlemite Paul Dresser, born April 22, 1857 – January 30, 1906, was a singer, songwriter, and comedic actor of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
He sold his songs through sheet music publishers in New York City’s Tin Pan Alley and became a partner in the music publishing business.
Dresser grew up in a large family (including his brother, novelist Theodore Dreiser) and lived in Sullivan and Terre Haute, Indiana. He had a troubled childhood and spent several weeks in jail.
Dresser left home at age sixteen to join a traveling minstrel act and performed in several regional theaters before joining John Hamlin’s Wizard Oil traveling medicine-wagon show in 1878.
Dresser composed his first songs while working for Hamlin. He settled in Evansville, Indiana, for several years while continuing to work as a traveling performer and musician.
Eventually, he became a nationally known talent and traveled with a number of different acts, including The Two Johns, A Tin Soldier, and The Danger Signal, among others. Dresser wrote songs featured in these shows, sold his songs to other acts, and published his music.
In 1893 Dresser joined “Howley, Haviland and Company”, a New York City sheet music publisher, as a silent partner. He later became an active partner in other music publishing companies.
At the height of his success, Dresser lived in Harlem, New York as a wealthy entertainer, successful songwriter, and sheet music publisher.
At the height of his success, Dresser lived in Harlem, New York as a wealthy entertainer, successful songwriter, and sheet music publisher. He was generous, especially to family and friends, and lavish spending.
The turn of the century brought him financial distress when his music fell out of style. In 1905 his music publishing business declared bankruptcy and Dresser’s health declined.
He died penniless in New York City a year later.
Although Dresser had no formal training in music composition, he wrote ballads that had wide appeal, including some of the most popular songs of the era. During a career that spanned nearly two decades, from 1886 to 1906, Dresser composed and published more than 150 songs.
His biggest hit, “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away” (1897), became the second best-selling sheet music of the nineteenth century. Following the success of “Wabash”, many newspapers compared Dresser to popular composer Stephen Foster.
“On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away” became the official song of Indiana in 1913. The Paul Dresser Birthplace in Terre Haute is designated as a state shrine and memorial. Dresser was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.
He was born Johann Paul Dreiser Jr. on April 22, 1858, in Terre Haute, Indiana, the fourth son of Johann Paul and Sarah Mary Schanab Dreiser.
By the age of twenty, he had changed his surname to Dresser.
His father, a German immigrant from Mayen, was a weaver and dyer who eventually became the manager of a woolen mill in Indiana.
Dresser’s mother, born near Dayton, Ohio, was a Mennonite who was disowned after her elopement and marriage. After Dresser’s three older brothers died in infancy, he became the eldest of the family’s ten surviving children.
One of Dresser’s sisters nicknamed him “Pudley” because of his “chubbiness.”
Dresser’s younger brother, Theodore Dreiser, would become a noted author.
In July 1863 the family moved to Sullivan, Indiana, where Dresser’s father became foreman of the newly opened Sullivan Woolen Mills.
Although his father worked in other woolen mills in Ohio and Indiana, he was not a successful businessman or manager of a mill.
During Dresser’s youth, the family struggled with periods of poverty and misfortune. In 1865 Dresser’s father temporarily lost his job after a fire destroyed the Sullivan mill; a year later he suffered a work-related head injury.
In 1867 his father and two partners purchased and operated a new mill, but the business lost its roof in a storm and the men sold it for a loss.
As a young boy living in Sullivan, Dresser may have seen his first minstrel groups and medicine-wagon shows. The town was frequented by bands that played many of the era’s popular and patriotic songs at numerous carnivals, festivals, circuses, and fairs.
By 1871 Dresser’s family had returned to Terre Haute, where his father secured a job in another woolen mill.
Education and rebellion
About 1870, Dresser’s father, a devout Catholic and known for his “religious zealotry” according to his son Theodore, sent his eldest son to St. Meinrad Seminary in southern Indiana to study for the priesthood.
While living with his family in Sullivan, Dresser was befriended by Father Herman Joseph Alerding, a local priest who was a St. Meinrad graduate. Alerding may have taught Dresser to play brass musical instruments and influenced the decision to send Dresser to seminary school.
Dresser quickly found the Benedictine seminary too strict and confining and decided to leave. Dresser would later claim to have gotten into trouble with the priests for teaching the younger boys “tricks of various kinds.”
Although his family had moved to Terre Haute, Dresser returned to Sullivan after he left St. Meinrad. He stayed with family friends while working on local farms from the summer of 1871 through the summer of 1872.
The fourteen-year-old Dresser then returned to Terre Haute and worked a series of odd jobs to help support his family.
Dresser continued his education at the St. Bonaventure Lyceum academy in Terre Haute and took piano lessons from a local music teacher, his only formal musical training.
During this time the relationship between Dresser and his father quickly deteriorated and the teen may have had run-ins with the local police. Whatever the reason, Dresser returned to Sullivan to work on a friend’s farm, away from the city.
After his return to Terre Haute in 1874, Dresser and his father resumed their hostile relationship. Dresser also resumed to his old habits of spending time with delinquents and drinking.
At age sixteen Dresser took a job as a teacher and musician at a Catholic church in Brazil, Indiana, but left after less than a year.
Shortly thereafter, Charley Kelly, a traveling minstrel, hired Dresser to join his act as a piano player. The two traveled around southern Indiana, playing wherever they could to earn a meager income.
After a few months, Kelly disappeared with their money during a show, leaving Dresser with no funds to pay their lodging or food bills. Dresser spent two days in jail as punishment.
After his release, Dresser went to Indianapolis in search of work and was reunited with his mentor, Father Alerding, who had been recently moved to the city.
Although Dresser was only a teen, Alerding gave him a job as a teacher at St. Joseph Catholic Church. In 1876, after he had taught for a full year, Dresser returned to his family in Terre Haute.
Almost immediately he resumed his old way of life and spent most of his savings on liquor at a local bar. As his money ran low, Dresser turned to crime, robbing two saloons of whiskey and cash after they had closed for the night.
Dresser was jailed for ten weeks before his trial, convicted, fined, and sentenced to another month of jail time. Released in June 1876, Dresser, who was not yet twenty years old, returned to his parents’ home in disgrace.
In 1876 Dresser secured a job as an organist and singer with the Lemon Brothers, a traveling minstrel group from Marshall, Illinois. Dresser stayed with the group for more than a year, performing as an actor and singer, before they disbanded near the end of 1877.
Next, Dresser went to Chicago, where John Austin Hamlin hired him to sing and perform in his traveling shows marketing Wizard Oil, a patent medicine.
Dresser composed his first songs while working for Hamlin. They were marketed as the Paul Dresser Songster (a songbook of sheet music) and sold to audiences after his performances.
Few details are known of Dresser’s life between 1878 and 1880.
Around 1878 Dresser may have taken a job with Barlow, Wilson, Primrose, and West, a prominent traveling minstrel group that was among the most famous in the nation at the time.
After traveling with minstrel shows, Dresser went to New York City around 1879. According to an 1898 interview, he hoped to find work in Augustin Daly’s theatre.
By 1881 Dresser had returned to Indiana and took a job at the Apollo Theatre in Evansville.
At the Apollo, he occasionally acted but normally provided music for the plays.
In Evansville, Dresser honed his skills as a musician and eventually became a nationally renowned talent. He also wrote a “humor-and-advice” column for a local newspaper, the Evansville Argus.
By the time he left Evansville in 1886, he was “a local favorite” who toured the country giving performances.
In March 1881 Dresser went to Chicago, where he headlined his own act. He also starred as one of the featured acts in a benefit concert for Daniel Decatur Emmett (the composer of “Dixie”) at the Chicago Academy of Music.
Dresser’s act was a success and he was able to secure appearances in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City as well as a number of smaller cities, including Indianapolis, Louisville, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh.
Between shows, Dresser returned to Evansville, where he had purchased a home. In 1882 he visited his family, whom he had not communicated with within more than three years.
Through correspondence, Dresser learned they were in a desperate financial situation.
His father and the family’s older children were living in Terre Haute, while his mother and the younger children worked on a farm in Sullivan.
Known for his generosity, Dresser sent his mother a substantial sum of money and arranged for his three youngest siblings to move into his Evansville home and took care of their needs.
Because Dresser kept no diary, most of what is known about his personal life came from his brother, Theodore. While living in Evansville, Dresser began a long-term relationship with a local woman, whom Theodore identified as Annie Brace, the proprietor of Evansville’s most prominent brothel.
Her professional name was Sallie Walker and she may have been the subject of one of Dresser’s most famous songs, “My Gal Sal”.
“Paul Dresser, My Gal Sal”:
Historians believe that Annie Brace and Sallie Walker may have both been aliases for Minnie Holland, although this has not been confirmed. The relationship continued for several years, but the couple never married.
In 1889 they had a falling out because of Dresser’s frequent affairs with other women, including prostitutes.
In the early 1880s, Dresser worked with a group of vaudeville performers, including James Goodwin, John Leach, and Emma Lamouse. Their shows in Chicago attracted very large audiences, in part because the theater’s owner kept admission fees low.
In 1883 Dresser had his first songs published as sheet music since his time working with Hamlin. “Essie, over the Sea”, “See That No One Plucks the Flowers from My Grave”, and “My Mother Taught Me How to Pray” were supposedly published by Arthur P. Schmidt; however, one of Dresser’s biographers reported that “1886 is the first year in which a published Dresser song can be documented.”
Few details are known of the period from late 1883 to the summer of 1886.
In 1884 Dresser claimed to have an undisclosed illness. For two years he remained in the “south”, away from his family and career. His brother Theodore speculated that Dresser may have had an affair and possibly fathered a child or he contracted syphilis.
Dresser’s song “The Curse”, written in 1887, may have referred to this period in his life.
Its lyrics refer to a dead child and a lover turned enemy.
Whatever the case, Dresser did not return to his family or resume performing for the public until 1886, when John Stewart Crossy approached him to act and sing music in his comedy, The Two Johns. Dresser agreed and resumed traveling the show circuit.
Dresser continued to compose music during the height of his performing career. Between 1886 and 1893 he published nearly fifty songs, including “The Letter That Never Came” (1886), “I Believe It for My Mother Told Me So” (1887), and “The Pardon that Came Too Late” (1891).
These early successes may have encouraged Dresser to pursue songwriting rather than performing. In addition, he may have realized that publishing music would provide even more financial success than composing or performing.
Move to Tin Pan Alley
By 1888 Dresser believed his songs would have popular appeal to a national audience. He stopped selling his songs through midwestern publishers, moved to New York City, and turned to Willis Woodward and Company, a New York City music publisher located in the area that later became known as Tin Pan Alley. Woodward and Company printed “nearly three dozen” of Dresser’s songs.
Dresser continued traveling with The Two Johns show until the end of 1889 and composed music after the show season ended.
In 1890 Dresser began performing in A Tin Soldier. Managed by Frank McKee, the Charles Hale Hoyt production was in its fourth season when Dresser joined the twelve-member cast.
Dresser, who had been large since his youth and weighed nearly 300 pounds, performed as a jolly plumber in the nationally acclaimed show.
“Days Gone By” and other Dresser songs were included in the show.
He began to have a dispute with Hoyt over the use of his songs, and Hoyt’s refusal to acknowledge him as the composer. Dresser left the act in April 1891 and traveled the country performing in The Danger Signal.
Dresser also began to sell his songs to other acts for use in their performances. After they made his songs famous, Dresser would then publish the sheet music and sell them through the firms on Tin Pan Alley. Dresser’s songs and acts were usually sad and melodramatic, but a few were romantic and silly.
Howley, Haviland, and Company
At the height of the Panic of 1893, Dresser formed a partnership with Frederick Haviland and Patrick Howley as a silent partner in Howley, Haviland, and Company.
The New York City firm published Dresser’s works, while he recruited new songwriters and encouraged singers to perform the company’s songs.
Dresser stopped traveling and performing during the summer so he could focus on composing music and promoting the new company.
In 1894 he invited his younger brother Theodore to join him at 203 West 106th Street (near Amsterdam Avenue) in Harlem, New York.
In 1894 he invited his younger brother Theodore to join him at 203 West 106th Street (near Amsterdam Avenue) in Harlem, New York.
Theodore went to work for Howley, Haviland, and Company as editor of the firm’s trade journal, Ev’ry Month, which promoted their newest songs.
Theodore later became a nationally known novelist. During their time together in New York, the brothers frequented Broadway theaters, popular restaurants, and hotel bars as well as the city’s brothels and saloons.
In the mid-1890s Dresser began composing his most famous songs, including “Just Tell Them That You Saw Me” (1895).
Dresser’s songs, along with others published by Howley, Haviland, and Company, were included in the top minstrel acts and shows around the country.
Dresser’s success continued with “We Were Sweethearts for Many Years” (1895), “Lost, Strayed or Stolen” (1896), and his most famous hit, “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away” (1897), which took Dresser’s career to its pinnacle.
Photo credit: 1) Paul Dresser. 2) Dresser’s younger brother, the famous novelist Theodore Dreiser. 3) “On the Bank of the Wabash, Far Away”.4) Paul Dresser, My Gal Sal. 5) The disputed sheet music cover of The Letter That Never Came.
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