In 1946, a songwriter and conductor named Gordon Jenkins all but singlehandedly invented the “concept album.” At least that’s the term later applied to this particular means of musical expression. His pioneering work released that year was titled “Manhattan Tower,” and it was a collection of original songs, linked together with narration and instrumental music, that told a coherent story in a manner that had obvious connections to musical theater but also used techniques from radio and film. “Manhattan Tower” was slow to catch on. But within two years, by the time that long-playing record technology had been introduced, it had become a huge hit—paving the way for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Pet Sounds” two decades later.
Heard today, “Manhattan Tower” is an amazing mixture. Parts are hip and funny (like its best-known number, “New York’s My Home,” later performed by Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr. and Buster Poindexter, among others); others are unbelievably hokey (like nearly all the narration). But, overall, this unique work still sounds innovative and fresh.
In 2016, “Manhattan Tower” is celebrating both its 70th and 60th anniversaries: The original version was released in 1946; 10 years later, Jenkins recorded an expanded edition, this time in hi-fi and as a 12-inch LP, that included several new songs (most famously, “Married I Can Always Get”). Both versions are available in the digital age, on CD and from the streaming services. (Jenkins’s third recording of the work, from 1964, featuring Robert Goulet, is also on Apple Music. Pop diva Patti Page made her own version in 1956.)
Culturally and structurally, “Manhattan Tower” is a very forward-looking work. Its overall structure is unlike anything that had come before, and even the individual sections are rarely in the standard, 32-bar AABA format of most popular songs. But what really makes “Manhattan Tower” something to ponder is that its content is just the opposite of cutting edge: It’s grandly sentimental to an almost absurd degree, at times hysterically corny—as when the narrator describes the key that opens the door to the tower as “Aladdin’s Lamp.” But it’s an absolutely sincere and even passionate kind of corn.
In that sense, “Manhattan Tower” has a lot in common with “Oklahoma!”—although in reverse. The score to “Oklahoma!” represents what two street-smart, Broadway wisenheimers, Rodgers and Hammerstein, presumed was going on in the souls of pioneer folk (people who say things like “feller” and “winder”). Conversely, “Manhattan Tower” is a love letter to Manhattan of the kind that only a somewhat naive but hugely talented young midwesterner from Webster Groves, Mo., could have conceived: a corn-fed notion of East Coast sophistication. Perhaps that’s one of the things that makes “Manhattan Tower” so powerful: The hero is gazing up adoringly at his Manhattan Tower with farm boy mud (and worse) still all over his shoes.
By 1949, “Manhattan Tower” had grown so popular that Jenkins was able to stage a live production of it at Broadway’s Capitol Theater and four years later at the Thunderbird in Las Vegas; in 1950, he performed selections from the work on the Ed Sullivan show. In 1956, NBC-TV produced an all-star spectacular, starring Peter Marshall and Helen O’Connell, based on the new “complete” version of “Manhattan Tower.” The live telecast was long thought to be lost, but the second half has recently surfaced in the Library of Congress; Ethel Waters steals the show, singing Jenkins’s gospel-style setting of Emma Lazurus’s “The New Colossus.”
Even after 70 years of concept albums, “Manhattan Tower” remains sui generis. Jenkins continued to create original song/story suites like “The Letter” (for Judy Garland), “The Future” (for Frank Sinatra), and “Seven Dreams” (one song of which inspired Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”). But none of those later works had even a fraction of the original magic. There’s simply nothing like “Manhattan Tower” anywhere else in music.
Mr. Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for the Journal.