Can you hum the melody to one of the biggest hits about Atlantic City? Most songs about the seaside resort have been buried in the sands of time.
ATLANTIC CITY — Seventy-five years ago, then Atlantic City Mayor Charles White decided to sponsor a songwriting contest. The prize was a cool $1,000 — pretty big bucks in those days — and the mission was to write a song about Atlantic City.
Composers and lyricists — some professional, some amateur — from across the country entered, including several from a special New Jersey division, which included many city residents trying their hand penning songs.
Most of the songs entered in that separate statewide contest, the finals of which were held at the Hotel Traymore on June 3, 1936, have long been forgotten. The song that won, “Sing a Little Diddy About Atlantic City,” written by Ocean City resident Walter Doyle, didn’t even make it into the semi-finals.
On June 21, 1936, the overall contest winner was selected by judges at the Steel Pier. Composer Dorothy Dick and head of Irving Berlin Music Publishing Company, Harry Link, chose the song “Sittin’ in the Sand A ‘Sunnin,” attributed to Ted Shapiro. A controversy, however, erupted and by the next morning, many of the resort’s hoteliers met with mayor at length. They told him that they thought the song was “too jazzy,” according to reports, and persuaded the mayor to nix the win in favor of a song that better expressed the dignified spirit of the city.
Aside from the winning song apparently being terrible, as the mayor himself admitted, there was a sense that the win was rigged and that the $1,000 prize spawned a few corrupt folks from New York’s songwriting central, Tin Pan Alley (where the judges came from) to enter and rig the contest.
Ultimately, a song called “Atlantic City by the Sea,” penned by Atlantic City residents and musicians Alma Price and Vincent E. Speciale was deemed the city’s official song and “Sittin’ in the Sand” was soon washed away with the tides.
Many other songs have been written about Atlantic City — as well as other Jersey shore towns, such as Ocean City — most notably, Bruce Springsteen’s sparse 1982 track “Atlantic City,” from his Nebraska album. Another song of the same name was also introduced during the early stages of the city’s casino era, written by local resident and musician Eric Madison who played with the band the Magnets. It too has faded with the shifting sands of time.
Included among many earlier efforts is the “Atlantic City Rhumba,” written in 1949 by local bandleader and accordion instructor Pedro Albani; “The Atlantic City Pageant,” written by John Philip Sousa in the 1920s; “The City by the Sea” from 1888, a song played by a Philadelphia minstrel band; “Atlantic City by the Rolling Sea,” published in 1941; 1912’s “Atlantic City All The Time”; and the song that garnered the most popularity of them all (aside from Springsteen’s), a little ditty called “On The Boardwalk (In Atlantic City),” from 1946’s 20th Century-Fox musical Three Little Girls in Blue, set in Atlantic City.
Another A.C.-centric classic? “Why Don’t You Try (The Rolling Chair Song).”
See the sheet-music covers on this page to see more regional songs of yesteryear, many of which can be found at Princeton Antiques in Atlantic City — at least for your perusal.
Maybe it’s time Atlantic City had another songwriting contest.
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