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A LOOK BACK: Happy Days Are Here Again

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Jack Yellen as he looked about the time he bought Melody Meadows in Mortons Corners.

By Derek M. Otto

The Heritage Building is opening soon— happy days are here again!  I’m sure Joel Maul’s and Don Tober’s wives will be singing that tune when the Heritage Building finally opens next Saturday.  Of the people working on the build, those two have spent countless hours at home and at the Heritage Building prepping and building. So happier days will be coming.

Those words though were penned by a man of national fame and will be one of the highlights of the Heritage Building displays when it opens to the public.  The man was none other than Jack Yellen: the sports writer turned lyricist that chose the Town of Concord as his own.  Many know him for his catchy lyrics and national prestige as president of  ASCAP, the organization that protects copyrights and royalties of singers and songwriters.  However, he spent the majority of his life here in Concord as a gentleman farmer.

Yellen has a great story of the American Dream. Born in Russia in 1892,  his family fled Russia, now Poland, to escape the gulags of the Romanov Dynasty for a better life.  The family eventually settled in Buffalo and ran a small store in the front of their home.

In high school, Yellen wrote his first song. It was for a contest to rewrite the school song for Central High in Niagara Square.  He won, and his prize was the relief of suspensions that the principal was going to impose on him  for chronic tardiness.  At least that was according to Yellen, who wrote a short autobiographical series of articles for the Courier Express in 1970.

He would further go to tell of the some of the hardships he had as writer. One of my favorites is when he was still selling songs for five dollars to local publishers.  Yellen teamed up with his friend Will and wrote a nice little love song about Yellen’s girlfriend.  Instead of selling it for five dollars, they borrowed thirty dollars from Will’s father to publish 500 copies themselves.  When the music arrived, Yellen went to show his girlfriend the sheet music. Guess what? Instead of Yellen’s girlfriend on the cover, it was Will’s girlfriend.  To say the least, the relationship ended and so did the songwriting team.

Yellen would send out songs even after he graduated from the University of Michigan in 1913 and took a job as a sportswriter with Courier Express.  He would still partner with different songwriters and sell them for five dollars. One song, All aboard for Dixieland, Yellen wrote with George Cobb. It was on the advice of his friend, Marion Healy, the music counter pianist at the former Kresges Department store in Buffalo, that he would get some advice.

Healy told Yellen to sell this song to the big publishers in New York, so he did. He was rejected several times.  But in the end, it was Bill Kelly, his editor at the Courier Express, that introduced him to Elizabeth Murray, a popular vaudevillian singer, who was performing at Shea’s.

Miss Murray heard the song and said “that’s for me” and took it to New York with her.  A few weeks later, they got a letter offering $100 for the song.  She advised them to wait , as she hoped she could get them more.  According to Yellen, the amateurs thought $100 was great and sold the song and rights to Fred Helf publishing.

As Murray performed the song across the country, it became very popular.  The song All aboard for Dixieland was a national hit. Fred Helf sold the song for $25,000 to Remick Publishing, the largest publisher in country at the time.  All Aboard for Dixieland was his first national hit.

He and Cobb wrote other songs in the 1915-1917 era.  Another was Are you from Dixie? Cobb quickly sold off again on one hundred dollars.

At the time, Yellen was still working as a sportswriter and was assigned to travel with the Buffalo Bisons. On the advice of Pat Donovan, manager of the Buffalo Bisons, he sent the check back. Yellen  then received a check for $500. Donovan said send it back and he did until he received the $1,000 he was looking for to buy his parents a house on Cedar Street in Buffalo.

As Jack said,“He wanted to buy his parents a house that didn’t have a shop in front of it.”   This was in 1915, that he wrote Are You From Dixie?

In 1974, Yellen won Best Song of the Year , CMA Award for the song. Yellen regretted selling the rights and royalties for the song after hearing it played continuously for 55 years.

So what does this have to do with Springville? During the 1920s, Yellen became very prolific as his own publisher, became the songwriter for Sophie Tucker, and was working as a Hollywood songwriter.  In 1930, when the effects of the depression were being felt in Concord and nationally, Yellen bought a farm on the corner of Kaiser and Mortons Corners for steal at a foreclosure auction.

Yellen made the Springville farm home for many years. He even had Sophie Tucker (she was the Lady Gaga of her day) come to Springville in October 1938 to perform at the Springville Country Club!

Also in that month, disaster struck the Yellen farm.  He just received a shipment of prize cattle and other livestock when he was returning to Hollywood.  As Yellen departed to Buffalo, he was stopped in Hamburg and told the barn had burned and the new livestock was destroyed.  Yellen almost gave up the farm.  Thankfully, Yellen didn’t and by 1940, the newly named Melody Meadows would serve as very large chicken farm.  He found success selling eggs to restaurants and hotels in Buffalo—so successful was he that in 1956 he netted over $36,000 in egg sales.  That’s a lot of eggs in 1956!

He remained part of community for many years.  He even wrote the lyrics to the 1962 Concord sesquicentennial, “When the Fiddlers Fiddled on Fiddler’s Green.” Many people remember Jack and his second wife, Lucille, as they were part of our community.

Mr. Yellen suffered various health issues after a stroke in 1977; however, his resilience kept going when he died in 1991 at the age of 99.  The Yellens were part of our community until her death in 2010.

It will be interesting to see what the Concord Historical Society has to honor Mr. Yellen.  The Grand Opening is Sept. 30, 2017 at noon.

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