Dolly Connolly (born Chicago December 16, 1888 – died New York November 30, 1965) was perhaps the most beautiful of the famous ragtime singers and had marked out a steady career for herself in vaudeville when she met up and coming composer and accompanist Percy Wenrich, a handsome but rather shy and nerdy fellow who became a pop music genius. The unlikely couple hit it off instantly and became inseparable, living as well as touring together and Wenrich began to write music for her including the 1911 mega-hit Red Rose Rag which became one of Dolly’s signature songs along with Alamo Rag, also written by Wenrich.
Dolly had a contralto voice which allowed her to go down for some rather low notes while still having considerable power and she also possessed a wide vocal range. She could sing melodies precisely and exactly on pitch which was essential for vocal versions of rags. She didn’t impose too much emotion in her songs and never did scat singing or even fairly simple deviations from the melody but preferred to sing the music as written, especially when written by her husband who was writing for her range and vocal character.
She also was stunningly beautiful and always dressed in the latest, most elaborate fashions of the time, similar to a Ziegfeld star such as Lillian Lorraine and was not above posing in a saucy manner smoking a cigarette and hiking up her skirt to show off a little leg. After her marriage to Wenrich she continued her career and actually expanded it as her fame grew and she and her husband became a major vaudeville attraction as either he or she or both put out hit after hit. In 1912 Wenrich and lyricist Edward Madden put out Moonlight Bay, which was an enormous hit and made the Connolly-Wenrich team an even bigger attraction in vaudeville.
Wenrich was from Joplin, Missouri, a surprisingly fertile music town of only 10,000 total population. He was born January 23, 1887 and his father was the town postmaster, his mother a great lover of the piano and his early teacher which led him to study seriously at the Chicago Musical College. But it was popular music of all different kinds that attracted him and led him to take work with one of Chicago’s leading music publishers: McKinley Music Co.
He served as a song plugger for the company and also wrote some modestly successful tunes for them, particularly rags, and around this time he somehow ran into Dolly and they were married after a whirlwind courtship. As part of the marriage agreement, they would become a team and she would not give up her career for love as women were normally expected to do at this
time. The result was many hits and a successful touring life for the team for at least three years on the vaudeville circuit where he became known as “The Joplin Kid”. Some of his songs were among the very biggest hits of the early 1900s and included such standards of the time as Put On Your Old Great Bonnet and Moonlight Bay.
Percy and Dolly were becoming so popular in the 1910s that a limited edition sheet music parody of them was put out in 1913 by cross-dressing entertainer Julian Eltinge. The sheet music had the usual picture of Percy Wenrich at the lower right within a little circle and normally the main picture on the music would be Dolly in elegant clothing. On this sheet music however Julian Eltinge dressed himself up elegantly in women’s clothes and labeled the sheet music with Dolly Connolly’s name under his drag
impression of her. That sheet music is rare and we are fortunate to have a copy in the University of Arizona collection. Apparently Wenrich and Connolly were in on the joke and found it very amusing to “deceive” the sheet music buying public in this manner. They were in fact old friends as Percy had contributed songs to several of Eltinge’s Broadway successes.
In the 1920s Percy devoted himself to creating and contributing to Broadway shows both with and without Dolly with some success, the operetta Some Party, a strong performer in 1925 but without Dolly in the cast. Although Dolly had a successful career with Columbia Records and was continuing in vaudeville, her star had faded by the later 1920s (although she and Percy toured in vaudeville up to 1929 and Dolly and Percy hit Broadway with several shows in which she starred with mild success) with changing musical tastes and Percy also retired from composing and performing in the 1930s, apparently to care for Dolly who suffered from an undisclosed illness, apparently Alzheimer’s Disease, which caused Percy at first to limit their theatrical and radio performances and then to confine her to a sanitarium in 1947 where she stayed until his death in 1952. In 1939 Percy had put together a revue featuring classic songwriters which was called Songwriters on Parade but that seems to be his last venture into major entertainment. Dolly lived with her sister until her death in 1965 at age 77, by that time long forgotten by the general public.
To hear one of Dolly Connolly’s big hits, Red Rose Rag, from 1911,composed by Percy Wenrich listen here:
The University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection has a good number of Dolly Connolly and Percy Wenrich tunes including:
Mandy, How Do You Do? 1909 – Known as “Dolly Connolly’s Mandy Song”, this one was a minor hit but features a beautiful photo of the lovely Dolly with her beautiful flaring hair. Unlike many of her contemporaries she was very slender and was closer to the newer vaudeville stars of her era such as the Dolly Sisters and later Irene Bordoni. Usually, if a Connolly song was featured, she would appear prominently on the sheet music cover.
Alamo Rag 1910 – Percy Wenrich, Ben Deely. Cover Dolly Connolly. This was an early hit and started the vogue for putting his portrait at the bottom in a little circle and herself prominently featured in the center. Percy was always content to have her be the public star and to be her accompanist while at the same time devoting himself to turning out huge numbers of melodious hits. She was known for her bubbly personality and expressive dancer’s movements while singing.
The Red Rose Rag 1911 – Percy Wenrich, Edward Madden. A huge hit selling over a million musics, this one features the famous cover photo of Dolly staring laughingly and candidly at her audience while smoking a cigarette and sitting with her skirt hiked up, very daring for a major star in its day. The song was especially suited to her precise on-pitch singing and ability to hit notes widely scattered apart with ease. This was the most successful of all of the duo’s rag songs together but Dolly also sang pop.
Somebody’s Eyes 1913 – Percy Wenrich, Jack Mahoney. Terrific cover photo of Dolly with her more up to date 1913 hair-do permanent was shot by White of New York, photographer to the stars. This song is notable not for its success which it didn’t have but for it being one of the few publishing ventures of the Wenrich-Howard music publishing company which was only in business for a little over a year until Percy gave it up and sold his business to Leo Feist for whom he began composing some more successful tunes.
Cotton Blossom Time 1914 – Percy Wenrich, Jack Mahoney. Lesser known music and our example lacks the insert page. The cover poses Dolly in photo onto a drawn background by the Rose Artist (we don’t know his or her name) of a levee with river boats, and bales of cotton waiting to be shipped. Black cotton pickers play with a dog and dance in the background!
When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose 1914 – Percy Wenrich, Jack Mahoney. Cover Dolly Connolly. Again photographed fetchingly by White of New York and surrounded by art of tulips with male and female faces, Dolly became known above all for this delightful tune that sold over two million copies of music. With this song and their renewed vaudeville touring, Dolly and Percy were at the height of their careers. The song was popular all over again when sung by Judy Garland and Gene Kelly in the 1942 movie For Me and My Gal.
You Picked Me, When I Picked You in Berry Pickin’ Time 1917- Percy Wenrich, Jack Yellen. This one contains photos of Dolly and Percy both and was an attempt to follow up on the success of Sweet Cider Time When You Were Mine by switching to Berry Pickin’ Time. Although it says it was “introduced with tremendous success by Dolly Connolly”, it wasn’t.
Keep On Building Castles in the Air 1922 – Percy Wenrich. Cover image of Dolly Connolly. Published in Chicago, this one features Dolly ever in high fashion with her pearl necklace and wearing one of her typical wide-brimmed 1920s hats.
All Muddled Up 1922 – Words and music by Percy Wenrich. “The New Fox-Tune”.
Lindy Lady 1923 – Percy Wenrich. This lovely photograph is the same as on Keep On Building Castles in the Air but in color and made by Straus Peyton.