Max Kortlander

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Along with ex-president Gerald Ford, composer Max Kortlander is one of the most significant figures to emerge from the hinterlands of Grand Rapids, MI. Kortlander was writing and publishing ragtime by…
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Along with ex-president Gerald Ford, composer Max Kortlander is one of the most significant figures to emerge from the hinterlands of Grand Rapids, MI. Kortlander was writing and publishing ragtime by 1917 -- he even wrote a "Funeral Rag," perhaps for the type of corpse that won't lay still. Entertaining titles dot his catalog, including the "Felix the Cat" theme song and a portrait of a sizzling "Hot Tamale Mollie," possibly leading to the unfortunate situation described in "I've Lost My Heart to the Meanest Gal in Town." The "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" philosophy was foreshadowed in 1924 by Kortlander's "I'm a Good Gal, But I'm a Thousand Miles from Home."Yet this composer's most famous song could well be his most serious: the philosophical "Something to Live For," originally published in 1940, was recorded by singers well known for their melancholy interpretations, among them Billie Holiday and Judy Garland.

Kortlander came from a family that was well established in the liquor business in Grand Rapids. Musical talent seemed to be uncorked from his mother's side of the family -- she was a locally active singer and her sisters were all piano teachers. There were said to be a total of four grand pianos in the Kortlander family home. Part of his mother's teaching regimen was to have the boy write two original songs each day. While not thrilled with technical practice, the lad did truly enjoy creating his own music. He rebelled against the classical repertoire his family was known for and started writing pop music. Following high school he studied at both the Oberlin College Conservatory and the American Conservatory in Chicago, performing in the evening at supper clubs and other venues. Through subsequent connections he wound up both arranging and performing the material on player piano rolls for one of the largest American firms up until and beyond the second half of the '20s when radio, phonographs, and movies began to replace the player piano for entertainment. Some of the piano rolls created by Kortlander were released under the pseudonyms of Ted Baxter and Jeff Watters.

Kortlander's original songs had always done well for him. In 1919 the songwriter collected a heaping 100 grand for a foxtrot entitled "Tell Me," reportedly the highest up-front payment for a pop song to date. These resources helped put him in the position to buy the piano roll company outright when it seemed on the verge of failing, relocating it back in his hometown. Kortlander in fact reversed the downward business trend by creating a highly appealing catalog and developing the spinet, a small keyboard that worked either manually or automatically. Indeed, the piano roll industry was actually on the verge of another upswing when Kortlander died at work in the early '60s.