The American composer, George Cobb (1886-1942) is best known today for his novelty ragtime piano compositions. His most famous work is the Russian Rag (1918) – a ragtime version of the opening chord progression from Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C sharp Minor.
The story goes that Cobb was ‘dared’ to try and make a rag out of the piece at a restaurant. He took the challenge, went to the piano and began to play the rag. To his surprise, Rachmaninoff was also in the same restaurant. He walked up to Cobb after he finished playing and said, ‘Nice rag, but you’ve got the wrong rhythm.’
Though it had a slow start, the sheet music for the Russian Rag eventually sold well over a million copies – thanks mainly to performances on Broadway of an arrangement of the piece by the Six Brown Brothers Saxophone Sextet. Although reportedly nonplussed by Cobb’s original piano version Rachmaninoff is said to have enjoyed the Brown Brothers’ rendition, as recalled by the band’s leader:
“Sergei Rachmaninoff heard us play the adaptation of his work and liked it, considering this a method of popularizing real music. We play such adaptations to attract attention and we find that the public takes to adaptations better because familiar melodies appeal. That’s reason enough.”