THE COMING OF THE CROONERS
By Ian Whitcomb
Certainly they’ve gone, like a murmur in the wind. Today in Australia shopping malls are cleared by the playing of crooner tunes. At least, that’s what I caught the TV newsperson reporting in a comic-relief item at the end of the usual litany of worldwide death and destruction:
In Sydney, Australia the malls have solved the problem of teenage loitering
after closing-time: Bing Crosby records are broadcast at maximum volume
and the result is a mad kid stampede for the nearest exit.
How low has the once-mighty crooner fallen! Time was, in the early 1950s, when he seemed still secure as the staple of pop music—almost a quarter of a century since the start of sweet nothings murmured into a mike for mass public consumption. The year 1925 has seen both the triumph of pop song (as a way to sell product on commercial radio) and the advent of the intimate singer on record due to electrification. By 1955 the crooner was still at it: draped around the mike mooing a tried and tested balladry—the old tale of love gained or lost, of love unrequited or requited, romantically speaking. Offering up the same old thirty-two bars supported by the familiar wailing saxophones, squashed brass, and ever lightly tished and brushed percussion, crooning was the drooping tailgate of the Big Band era. It provided comfort to shop-girls and secretaries as they mooned around on the dance floor. It was also the bane of the old-time British songwriters, men who had written for big-chested Music Hall entertainers and trained vocalists who reeked of the great outdoors.
My great-uncle, Stanley Damerell, wrote such songs. He could never match the best of the American material, although in the early 1950s he did enjoy belated success when Perry Como revived a couple of his 1930s numbers, "Unless" and "If." Stanley’s attitude towards the Yankee invaders was the same as the one expressed by his colleague Ralph Butler, a songwriter who specialized in stuff about farms and hiking. Butler would express himself earnestly to those who were near (and far) in his favourite London pubs: "This imported drivel is no more than the lugubrious lamentations of a disappointed lover! His tirade was delivered in a big and roast beefy voice, a stentorian instrument echoing his forebears in the days of Nelson or Drake. If my great-uncle was present he’d lift his beer mug in agreement and chime in with something like: "Exactly, old man, these crooners simply won’t do! They’re not real men. They’re sapping the national virility!" Of course, he and butler and a host of other interested parties had been mouthing off this sort of sentiment for donkey’s years—at least since the early 1930s when Crosby had almost boo-boo-booed them out of business.
A change was coming, however, which would wipe them all—crooners and disgruntled songwriters—off the face of pop: rock ‘n’ roll. It was heralded by Bill Haley, the one-time square dance caller who turned prophet with the success of "Rock Around the Clock." The arrival of genre’s messiah, Elvis Presley, with all his wonderful, tingling fresh gargling and hiccuping, assured that things would never be the same again.
I remember it all so well. I brought Haley and Presley on 78 and LP. I withstood the jeers of the jazz fans at my school. I couldn’t express what it was exactly that attracted me to the rock and rollers. They weren’t saying anything that seemed important, but they shouted it with great excitement and managed to keep rolling along.
When Elvis released "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" following his hitch in the U.S. Army, I immediately fell for this stylistic shift: the sweetly descending melody, the solid supporting chords, and the sincerity of his voice, especially the narration. The King of rock ‘n’ roll had sold me on a 1920s ballad, the soft underbelly of the Jazz Age. I didn’t realize the antiquity of the song at the time, not until I discovered—in the family collection of 78s that accompanied boating trips and picnics on summer days before World War II—the work of Gene Austin. A milestone in my life, his voice massaged me with the most glorious oil through those uneasy last years of adolescence when anything my elders said annoyed me. When I lashed out at them—accusing them of rampant capitalism and racism—I would be rightfully banished to my room. There, putting the needle on the battered old disc of "The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi," I knew I was in for what would later be called an "instant high."
While haunting the second hand shops for more Gene Austin discs, I came across the work of his brethren: "Whispering" Jack Smith and Ukulele Ike. This search continued when I arrived in America in the early 1960s and grew apace even as I passed through a swift life as a rock ‘n’ roll star. In fact, the rock that followed my era—replete with whining and finger pointing and the polemics of Bob Dylan and the other inheritors of the Woody Guthrie protest tradition—turned me even more towards the balladeers of the late 1920s, the pioneer crooners.
In my research for this book chapter, I made the surprising—yet reassuring—discovery that Gene Austin, the first million-selling crooner, had employed a Tom Parker as advance man (i.e., publicist) for his tent show tours of the South. This was the same Tom Parker who would become while known as the "Colonel" while managing Elvis. Maybe that was how Presley came to record "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" Undoubtedly, Parker knew the worth of the solid old songs and their low-breathing interpreters, thereby helping forge a continuum between rock and the crooners of yesteryear. Provided the right vehicle, Presley was able to transform the anguished ouch of rock, the rant and the roar to be heard above the crowd, into the still sweet voice of calm.
I hope, by now, I’ve established, for you the reader, my love of pioneer crooners. Like everything good and rare this ethereal music scene had a butterfly life; stagnation set in during the 1930s, followed by deterioration in the 1940s and, as already noted, decimation in the 1950s. By and large, the crooners of the 1920s were free spirits, splendid individualists who were generally permitted to go their idiosyncratic ways, Art Gillham and Little Jack Little being notable examples. And kinds of odd characters were allowed to record, including some who struggled to summon up wobbly notes, bolstered with ample injections of pizzazz (witness Gillham and Biff Hoffman).
The high tide of these early crooners came in 1929, just before the Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression that followed. In the deep night of the 1930s the big show-biz corporations took over, providing homogenized entertainment for the masses in something approaching assembly line fashion. But for that brief prior time the setting was ideal: the songs were still simple and peppy, the bands were jaunty, and the records sold in the millions. True, it was an ingenuous time in that the crooners had not yet become standardized and the bands not yet steamrollered into the flat chug of Swing. It was a time of plenty; a violent and corrupt world perhaps, but also one in which the crooners were able to play a pacifying role. This included restraining musicians who, given half a chance and a pint of hooch, might break out with nasty toots of boiling hot jazz and thus mutilate the melodies and rock the boat to death.
Musically speaking, the crooning era represented the first appearance of what would later become a pop formula; that is, the process of squeezing diversity through a strainer of familiarity. The giant produced by this tradition, Bing Crosby, effectively wiped out the eccentrics. By 1932, he was well on his way to becoming arguing the most successful entertainer of the twentieth century; lord of the airwaves, the top motion picture industry draw, and savior of the record industry. His astounding success begat a host of little Crosbies, all groaning and trilling and whistling. Although rhythm and blues and bebop jazz percolated through the sludge a bit in the 1940s, the crooner-clones held sway until the rise of the wild and unruly rockers. However, Presley’s popularity gave rise to a host lookalike sound-alike teen idols, and the process had once again come full circle. This is how modern day popular culture works, aided and abetted by the mass media.
Thus far we’ve been traveling the high road overlooking the plain of sweeping statements; it’s now time to descend into a lush valley of detail. The story begins in the nineteenth century, where the world of drawing rooms and minstrel shows propelled American vernacular singing into the twentieth century. Modern technology—most notably, the phonograph, radio, and the cinema—transformed pop music into a commodity which still retained the musical and lyrical sentiments of the Victorian romantic tradition. With the microphone becoming a totem pole of the early crooners, the crooning phenomenon would become international in scope. The natural American voice, conversational in tone with a touch of gentility, would become lingua franca of popular music.
This is a significant development. The American accent would, like Italian phrasing in opera, become the basis of a classic tradition. Even today, few will accept a love song sung in, say, a cut-glass British or Cockney accent. In nineteenth century America the problem was too much of the Italian operatic school and not even nativism in the local pop music scene. Society, imitative of the Old World on most fronts, urged singers to develop big and loud voices with lots of ornamentation—appogiature, mordents, portamenti, trills, etc.—and to exalt in virtuosity and exhibitionism, forgetting that early Italian opera had been plain and simple, a sort of speak-singing.
Not only was there no native American school of singing, but nineteenth century society tended to view natural, untrained singing as low culture, something associated with lower class laborers as well as saloons and drunken revelers. It is documented that Charles Dickens couldn’t abide the street musicians who sometimes gathered below his window; it was fine if they followed their muse within the music hall, but in such close proximity they were undermining the bourgeoise refinement of his drawing room. Respectable Americans reflected European thought regarding pop singers; that saloon warblers, wandering minstrels, ballad mongers, and street singers were to be despised as barbarous and destructive.
The seeds of destruction, however, could be discerned beneath the surface of the American popular music scene. The experience of British entertainer Henry Russell, one of the more successful parlor singers of his age, helps shed light on this situation. Although he possessed a range of only five notes, they were pearly ones derived from years of formal training. From 1833 to 1841 he worked the genteel circuit, finding considerable success with songs such as "A Life on the Ocean Wave" and "Woodman, Spare That Tree." Like many of his European contemporaries he was shocked by instances of American barbarism such as comments by rustics that classical music performers spent the entire concert "jest tunin’ up." In New Orleans he allegedly was shown up by a "nigger fiddler." Venturing into a Negro church service in New York, he was startled to hear an apparently leaderless choir swiftly garble an old-world psalm into a brand new melody ("The original tune simply ceased to exist!"). As for the Red Indians he came into contact with, they were beyond the pale. He found their songs "hideous noises."
For Louis Frederic Ritter, the Alsatian author Music In America (1883), the defining question was: "Are the Americans up to European standards? Can they emulate us?" His investigations failed to turn up a national folk music. "The American landscape is silent; the American country people are not in possession of deep emotional power." And yet many later accounts would describe an extremely active folk scene. These observers would describe a bubbling crucible of ragtime, blues, and jazz. Country music was undergoing dynamic growth with string music in the hills and jews harps all over the place. There was a vogue for revivalist tent meeting songs. Then there were songs from mining camps, hobo campfires, sea shanties, railroad shouts, the call-and-response of the cotton fields, the cowboy ballads of the cattle trail, and songs of the anthricite and bituminous industries. And one mustn’t forget the singing societies, the serenaders with their mandolins, the barbershop quartets, and the seven-note shape singers.
What of the singing styles? We read that the country people of hill, mountain, and range sang plainly without affectation. They stood straight and sang down the nose, often with their eyes shuts in modesty. (Saloon culture, of course, was another matter!) The Hutchinson family from New Hampshire, for example, were a popular touring folk group, singing together in simple harmony. The specialized in a morality ranging from the sanctimonious, through the sentimental, to the downright humorous. Their political agenda included temperance and Negro rights. As was pointed out at the time, they "vibrated to every popular breeze."
In the early years of the twentieth century the straightforward, unadorned singing style—the plain truth approach—was to be harnessed for the dissemination of revolutionary socialism. Joe Hill, the songster martyr of the Wobblies (Independent Workers of the World), appropriated the sing-along approach as an instrument for building a new world out of the ashes of the American political system. For Hill and his colleagues, songs were the weapons of change. His Little Red Song Book was full of tinder ("to fan the flames of discontent"), and he wasn’t squeamish about seizing a current Tin Pan Alley (capitalist) hit and grafting on politicized words. In this fashion, Irving Berlin’s 1910 ragtime composition, "Everybody’s Doing It Now," was modified to become "Everybody’s Joining It—One Big Union." Such songs reflected the power of song as polemic; Hill would note that "a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over, whereas a pamphlet is never read more than once." The Utah authorities executed Hill in 1915 and he soon became a folk legend, exerting a profound influence on Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and other leaders of the urban folk movement.
At the outset of the twentieth century the voices described above were operating by and large in the underground, the music neither recorded nor in print. The story of American pop, however, has generally been focused on the urban arena. In the parlors and drawing rooms of the late nineteenth century one was likely to find a piano, its bench stuffed full of sheet music. This material was supplied by a burgeoning music publishing business, based in New York City, soon to be designated Tin Pan Alley.
These published songs included ballads peppered with "thees and "thous," and lines "When Aurora empurples the morn"; numbers advertised as "tender, elegant and chaste, and designed to produce a sob." Ladies—mostly younger women—bought the music and sang it at social gatherings. There were also raunchier items for the males, perhaps acquired as a souvenir of a recent night on Broadway; e.g., "If You Ain’t Got No Money Then You Needn’t Come Around," "All Coons Look Alike to Me," "Who Dat Say Chicken in De Crowd?" What all of these songs had in common was the incorporation of the street vernacular—its colloquialisms, quaint phrases, and vulgarities. They reflected the vitality of urban centers, the throbbing, jostling mob babbling in countless unknown tongues. This was the real America, not a stilted copy of European high culture.
To meet the demand for this new type of song, the Tin Pan Alley writers created material which caricatured the immigrants comprising the new America; for example, "Marie From Sunny Italy," "Happy Heinie," and "The Yiddish Society Ball." The most widely depicted character in the American pop music, however, was the stereotypical African American. Since its origins in the 1840s, minstrelsy had depicted the black man as a social outsider. Because he was denied the main playing field, he could indulge in the sort of fun and games which resulted in ostracism by one’s peers within mainstream white culture. A nation in search of instant mythic heroes (e.g., the frontiersman) and anti-heroes would rapidly assimilate such caricatures as Zip Coon, a black version of the man about town, and Old Black Joe, the folksy plantation hand.
The slang utilized in the minstrel song became the basis of the coon songs of the ragtime era beginning in the late 19th century. At the same time, the love ballad enjoyed comparable status with ragtime. Stephen Foster—composer of such classics as "Beautiful Dreamer" and "Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair"—was the spiritual father of this genre.
In the early years of the twentieth century evidence would suggest that the only crooning going on was that of mammy to child on the old plantation. The lyrics of many songs immortalized this picture; Al Jolson, the best known singer of his era, was still mining this vein in the World War I era with the hit recording "Rockabye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody." As to whether singers actually crooned—that is, sang softly in a person-to-person mode—scant documentation exists due to the abrupt intrusion of a mechanical device which converted most Americans into listeners, rather than performers, of music. The phonograph significantly altered the way music was presented to the public; the virtual indestructibility of recordings has also assured that historians receive a somewhat biased view of the past. We will never know first hand what the slight or tender of voice sounded like in those days. The recording horn of the pre-1925, acoustic era required leather-lunged belters accompanied by vibrant instrumentation (e.g., brass instead of violins in operatic arias).
Many recording executives had initially assumed that American consumers in the hinterlands would embrace recordings by opera singers and symphony orchestras. They soon learned, however, that the most bankable commodities were the shouters of coon songs and ragtime, including May Irwin, Len Spencer, Collins and Harlan, and Sophie Tucker.
Mention must be made here of Gene Greene, the self-styled "Ragtime King." His recording of "King of the Bungaloos" revealed little respect for the composer’s ink, tearing the printed sheet into ragtime tatters and providing the example of scat singing on disc. In no way does he anticipate the smooth artiface of the crooner. Like the other horn blasters, he feels the impulse to bleat and bluster. His true originality lies in the asides; between the phrases he roars "zumm-zumm," like an exalted African ruler riding across the Nile on his very own crocodile, and "uh-huh!" with all the subtlety of a motorcycle engine. He indulges himself in an orgy of odd sounds made for their own sake, vocal flourishes that reel and rock us with delight, the very essence of what true jazz should be.
In the second chorus Greene proves he is far from finished, employing a sort of Pig Latin ("When I ri-ger-dide across the mighty Niger-dile") followed by a flurry of pure blather ("Im-bong-bung-bung zoodle-um-bo…") punctuated by what seems to be his own taxi horn impressions. He also mentions "eefin," the word later used by Cliff Edwards (a jazz-scatter-cum-crooner best known as "Ukelele Ike") to describe scat singing.
Greene was a vaudeville headliner during the heyday of the ragtime craze (the decade prior to America’s entry into World War I). He was particularly popular in England where he starred in London music halls and recorded extensively for Pathe. Always energized, never sentimental, his easy—if eccentric—flow of language comes across as particularly modern; note the pronunciation of fire as "fie-yore" and desire as "dee-zi-yore" in a 1913 recording of "Oh, You Beautiful Doll," by the American Ragtime Octette. The Octette singers, like many of the theatrical ragtimers, seemed unable to shake the European conservatory style of the nineteenth century.
Greene is notable in that he sings squarely in the American vernacular, albeit within the hide-bound conventions of the minstrel show. He owes little to European influences. His gurgling hustle-bustle breaks through the grim castle walls of the recording machine, revealing that true personality could be registered on an acoustic record.
Greene continued to battle to be noticed into the late 1920s, when the jazz age was giving way to softer sounds. Although his approach had fallen out of fashion in the major urban centers, he could still find fans in the South who remembered "The Ragtime King." He toured the Dixie states in a large auto painted with a sign which read "The Human Singing Machine." By then an old vaude dog had to bark for attention and there was Greene, telling skeptical theater managers how he’d fill their houses to bursting point. On the stage he gave his all, laughing uproariously, strutting in a tried-and-true outfit of straw hat, blue blazer, and white trousers, testifying to the supremacy of anything below the Mason-Dixon, underscoring points with his cane.
One Billboard critic wrote that his act was "old and decrepit" and in need of updating. This was the general consensus in the late 1920s when electronic entertainment media—radio, sound recordings, the talkies—were in the process of destroying vaudeville. In 1930 Greene was appearing at New York’s Grand Opera House as "The Western Al Jolson"; however, there was only one Al Jolson, and he too would soon be having box-office troubles.
In the middle ground included crisp renditions of all manner of contemporary pop songs by expert mimics like Billy Murray, who combined the lyrical qualities of a nightingale with a machine gun vocal delivery in his comic specialties, and Henry Burr, who applied a trained, dulcet voice to sentimental ballads in the best drawing room tradition. They were both throw-backs to the post-Civil War stage tradition which tended to feature Irish-American tenors celebrating the Annie Rooneys and Sweet Rosie O’Gradys.
Twin pillars of the acoustic era, Murray and Burr interpreted everything Tin Pan Alley had to offer in workmanlike fashion, varying little from the composer’s ink. The talking machine loved them, and they made thousands of recordings which reflected the many strains of the era’s pop music.
If a little subtlety and variety was lost in the studio, then so be it. Theirs was a tough job, with lots of stamina needed for the vocal hurling. Murray was directed to make as many as forty versions of the same song. Accordingly, his characteristic "ping" and sharp accent on certain words, which cut nice thick grooves in the wax, was understandably subject to flagging and even ennui. This was mechanical work in the worst sense of the word. Singers would face a cold horn projecting from the black wall of the studio and try to inject some degree of excitement and conviction into the song material. A stiff band—jammed into the background space behind the soloist or vocal group—would attempt to coordinate its efforts with the general proceedings. When the number was finished, there would be neither clapping not any other form of encouragement, for fear of ruining the master. No wonder that very few personality quirks come through on the disc. Murray would tweak up the ends of phrases and every so often break into speech, as if to show that the recording process had a human dimension.
The American march king, John Philip Sousa, held views regarding the phonograph which ware shared by many of his contemporaries. In a journal article entitled "The Menace of Mechanical Music," he argued that talking machines were no substitute for the true-to-life sound of a nightingale’s song. "It is the living, breathing example alone that is valuable to the student and can set in motion his creative and performing abilities." He added that these machines, while ingenious, "offer to reduce the expression of music to a mathematical system of megaphones, wheels, cogs, discs, cylinders and all manner of revolving things." Amateur music-making in the home will wither and die, "until there will be left only the mechanical device and the professional accountant." Working himself into a righteous frenzy, Sousa inquired, "Then what of the national throat? Will it not weaken? What of the national chest? Will it not shrink?" He even addressed our major topic of concern: "When a mother can turn on the phonograph, will she croon her baby to slumber with sweet lullabys, or will the infant be put to sleep by machinery?"
Women—at least those within the entertainment world—were not in the vanguard of the crooning movement. The leading female vocalists, most notably Irwin and Tucker, were to continue coon-shouting until it became known as jazz singing. They, not their male counterparts, best symbolized the energy of the Roaring Twenties. Miss Patricola would sing that she was ready for the "Hot Lips" of a dusky southern dude called "Lovin’ Sam." Margaret Young countered with claims about the prowess of "Dancin’ Dan" ans how "He May Be Your Good Man Friday (But He’s Mine on Saturday Night)." Marion Harris, who often performed material written by African Americans, recorded "I Ain’t Got Nobody" and "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."
Why were female vocalists, who had previously tended to follow the European art song model, now shrieking in such an indecorous manner? Leaving aside the limitations of acoustic recording (which required a stentorian approach), the answer resided outside of show business.
The aftermath of World War I saw the enfranchisement of women after nearly a century of political agitation. These gains provided a more liberal social arena within which women might express themselves. This new breed of females were symbolized by the flapper—so named from the way she flapped her elbows in jazz dances such as the Charleston—who sported knee-length skirts, taped-down breasts, and short hair. Flappers more directly assaulted public mores by smoking, swearing, and putting on lipstick in public. In 1922, when flappers, vamps, and shebas seemed to be on every movie screen, in every novel and newspaper, and the subject of countless songs and theatrical presentations, an editorial in The Pittsburgh Observer spoke of "a change for the worse, during the past year, in feminine dress, dancing, manners, and general moral attitudes." Clearly, after decades of reticence and the self-sacrifice demanded in the recent war effort, the gentler sex was ready to push for a change in social mores. Few women had forgotten that members of their sex had been arrested in the previous decade for turkey-trotting, smoking, and failing to wear a corset in public.
Outright rebellion, however, was not the force driving this new breed of American female. The flappers of the early 1920s would soon settle down, ready to become consumers in a nation that worshipped at the altar of Big Business. A New York Times article appearing in July 1922 prophesized this development:
She’ll don knickers and go skiing with you; she’ll dive as well as you,
perhaps better….Watch her five years from now and then be thankful
that she will be the mother of the next generation, with the hypocrisy
fluff and other "hokum" worn entirely off. You’ll be surprised at what
a comfort [she] will be in the days to come!
By 1927, the year that Gene Austin’s "My Blue Heaven"—a hymn of praise ti the joys of domesticity—became one of the biggest selling records of all time, the flapper was consigned to the pages of history, replaced by the housewife presiding over a realm filled with creature comforts. In addition to marriage and children, her life now included beauty parlors, electric irons, washing machines, and hot water heaters. For entertainment her hand was on the radio dial and the electrically-recorded orthophonic discs she would play on the electric phonograph.
Women were now the major consumers of consumer goods, and nearly one quarter of the national income was being spent on leisure activities. Females were paying the piper and, by the late 1920s they were favoring high-voiced pipers with honeyed voices, men who gently persuaded from radio and record as if whispering mash words into your ear while dancing cheek to cheek.
These gentle souls reflected the growing urbanity of American life. The frontier had disappeared from the continental United States, and only one citizen in four lived in rural areas. Now that white collar professionals outnumbered manual workers, Americans looked for more sophisticated role models within the entertainment world. A Yale graduate with a sweet and sexy voice was one of the first to fill the bill. When Rudy Vallee opened at New York’s Heigh Ho Club on January 8, 1928, he took his first step toward superstardom.
It’s important to consider yet another element in the rise of the crooner—the technological dimension. This world—populated by transmitters, amplifiers, patch bays, line equalizers, modulators, and enunciators—would provide the vehicle for putting crooners across to the general public. Occupying the central place in this universe of gadgetry was the enunciator, the term for the microphone of radio’s infancy. The microphone became the instrument by which crooners developed a revolutionary set of singing rules.
At radio’s beginning, however, there were no mellow tones, only a storm of crackle and whistle and hum. Radio evolved out of the wireless, which functioned as a form of telephone for ship-to-shore communication and similar operations. In the World War I era a number of observers noted the potential of the wireless. For example, one broadcasting technician predicted that the airwaves were likely to become "the ultimate extension of personality in time and space." Three years earlier, in 1919, David Sarnoff, a Marconi employee who would later go on to build the Radio Corporation of America into an media empire, wrote a memo to his superiors describing a vision he had had about developing the radio into a "household utility" much like the piano or phonograph. In essence, he viewed the radio as an instrument for cultural advancement: "The idea is to bring music into the home by wireless. The receiver can be designed in the form of a simple radio music box…" He added that high culture would be brought to the masses everywhere with the result that "the oldest and newest civilizations will throb together at the same intellectual level and to the same artistic emotions."
While Sarnoff exhibited a firm grasp of the medium’s potential for disseminating music programming, he missed the mark regarding the types of music that would ultimately dominate the airwaves. By 1922 there were a considerable number of radio sets with reasonably good speakers capable of pumping out sound which approximated the live concert environment. However, serious music based on European models such as the compositions of Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, and Gustav Mahler not only placed excessive technical demands on the emerging medium, but failed to resonate with the majority of American listeners.
The trial-and-error process of the early 1920s revealed that a natural type of voice—rather than a classically trained one—was best suited to radio microphones. An everyday, casual, off-the street and in-your-living room voice. So it was that all manner of folks were invited to step up to the radio mike. Strolling singers—rank amateurs at best—were sometimes hauled in off the street. If the scheduled professional performers failed to show up, then the engineer might fill in by singing the latest pop hit to his own ukulele accompaniment. Radio, it was soon discovered, didn’t require either the skills of the concert hall or the vaudeville stage. Rather, it preferred friendliness.
The carbon mike responded best when the voice was projected from about six inches away. Accordingly, talk programs and pop singers who employed a gentler mode of presentation soon became radio staples, along with the inevitable salesman. By 1925 radio sales and revenue exceeded that of the recording industry, and the programming framework had become standardized. At virtually every station one heard friendly announcers, promoting the benefits of goods that listeners hadn’t realized they needed, before executing a smooth segue into a soft ballad.
While Vaughn De Leath could rightly claim to be "The Original Radio Girl’ (she had participated in test broadcasts from inventor Lee DeForest’s laboratory to an audience of wireless operators at sea as early as 1920), she did not initially reap the benefits of this medium. First to profit were song pluggers and demonstrators who took to the new medium like little boys to lollipops and, in doing so, fashioned a new kind of American vernacular singing which had little in common with the jazz, folk, and minstrel traditions then dominating the popular music scene.
The first singer fitting the crooner mold who enjoyed a notable degree of commercial success was Jack Smith, "The Whispering Baritone." Smith was a tall fellow with almost saturnine features, a dark hair slicked back from a well-defined widow’s peak. He was known for his winning smile and full evening dress, but it was his deep-dish voice of quiet authority that impressed the New York area radio audience in 1925. Exuding an amiable unctuousness, he could sell a song or product like soap without leaving a trace of oil. He talked and sang with such an insinuating seductiveness that female listeners allegedly couldn’t tell where the song ended and the sales pitch began.
Smith may have been born a baritone, but it was a German gas attack in World War I that made him a whisperer. His parents, ironically enough, were German immigrants; it wasn’t until after the war, when he was an entertainer-at-the-piano in New York cafes and cabarets, that he had his name changed from Jacob Schmidt to Jack Smith. His widowed mother had worked hard as a laundress to pay for his piano lessons. It is not known from whence the perfect diction, clipped but rounded, originated. Undoubtedly, the absence of public address systems and mikes was a factor; as a result, singers possessing "small voices" found it necessary to project with a high degree of enunciation. It is said Smith’s diction was so well developed that he could be heard clearly not only in intimate niteries but in large theaters as well.
To make ends meet Smith landed a job as a song demonstrator at a relatively new music publishing house owned by Irving Berlin. In a little booth, at a studio piano, he plugged songs in-house to selected members of the music trade. His presentations exuded a sly and subtle charm, a technique diametrically opposed to the hard, passionate selling of an Al Jolson. In order to keep the customer’s attention trained on the words and melody—rather than the dance possibilities—of the song in question, Smith would limit his piano playing to the right hand, using the left hand to cup the cheek of his face, thereby presenting an image of good-humored nonchalance.
This simple performing style was deemed perfect for the simple type of song being developed for broadcasting needs. Radio executives informed Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths that a range of no more than five melody notes around the middle of the keyboard was most suitable for quality radio phonics.
Vaudevillians, a major source of pop singing talent, were either too loud or too expensive for radio. On the other hand, Jack Smith became a regular performer on New York’s WMCA in the spring of 1925. Here, in a studio the size of an average drawing room (and decorated like one, too), he would start work by removing the mike from its normal place atop a raised flower-pot stand, then placing it on the closed lid of the baby grand. When the broadcast light came on, with right hand on the approved keyboard range and left hand on the mike, he’d lean in ever so close and start confiding his songs punctuated by references to other wares.
The popularity of "The Whispering Baritone," particularly among housewives and working girls, impressed Eddie King, manager of the Victor label’s popular music division. Sensing the profit-making possibilities, King called Smith in for a recording session utilizing the recently developed electrical process. After almost a month of trial-and-error, the first Whispering Jack Smith sides were issued, beginning with "Cecilia." This song consisted of just a vocal and piano accompaniment along with a crisp sibilance that could be heard above the ubiquitous disc hiss.
At this point in time, with crooning still something of a specialty (and not yet referred to by name), Smith had a head start over song pluggers possessing similar stylistic deliveries in other cities. His dapper manner and polished urbanity also represented strengths; he was to become something of a celebrity, albeit short-lived, featured in radio and films. His stardom spread to Europe; his clipped accent and trim piano accompaniment struck a particularly responsive chord in London, where he regularly performed in addition to recording with the Bert Ambrose Orchestra.
Off the record Smith seemed haunted by demons of one sort or another. He found it necessary to seek solace in the bottle, becoming the despair of his manager. At one point, in the early 1930s, he threatened to leap from the top of a skyscraper. Saved in the nick of time by his manager and valet, he promptly disappeared, only to return drunk as a lord and behaving much worse. Was this behavior caused by the coming of Crosby & Co.? Or was it something far deeper, an insight into the ultimate chaos of life? The sly humor punctuating Smith’s svelte and steady delivery offers only slight clues to the sinister undercurrent in his life.
Another song plugger had made his mark as a radio performer in the hinterlands even earlier than Smith. Art Gillham was a casual, rather eccentric presenter of song and patter. Although carrying on like a wandering minstrel of yore, he utilized the new technology in canny fashion. He was the first radio voice to carry the "Whispering" appellation, but his remoteness from New York City kept him from making an immediate jump to national celebrity.
Gillham had impressive musical roots. He was raised in St. Louis, then a hotbed of ragtime. By his late teens, he’d moved beyond his classical music training and was intent on mastering a gut-bucket piano style. In 1914, at the height of the ragtime dance craze, he joined a traveling band. The next year found him in Louisville where, years before, ragtime’s first star entertainer, Ben Harney, had fashioned hit songs from scraps of old Negro refrains. He played a part in publishing a version of "Hesitation Blues" in direct competition with W.C. Handy, the chief stenographer of the blues, an art form built around three flattened notes and three chords which was then bursting upon the public consciousness.
Dedicated to following commercial trends, Gillham tempered his blues with humor (e.g., "I had a sweet mama, so bashful and shy, when she mends her underwear she plugs the needle’s eye") and image making. In 1919, while based in Los Angeles, he formed Art Gillham’s Society Syncopators, and had them pose for publicity photos in crazy positions much like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band who were then enjoying huge record sales as trailblazers in New Orleans-styled jazz.
In 1922, he landed a position as song plugger and demonstrator for the Ted Browne Music Company of Chicago. One of his responsibilities consisted of dropping by radio station WDAP in the Drake Hotel and demonstrating the latest Ted Browne song sheets at the piano live on the air. In December 1922 the staff singer failed to show up at the station. Gillham, on a dare, took it on himself to fill this void. While aware of the fact that he couldn’t really hold a note, Gillham nevertheless set the mike on the piano, got real close and effected an informal singing style. He seasoned his songs with humorous patter (e.g., "C’mon fingers—percolate!").
The listening audience responded positively and he became a regular broadcast fixture. Gillham would talk his way into each new plug as if the song he was performing had come to him on his way over to the station. His easygoing asides had the effect of creating an on-the-air persona; he would exclaim, "I’m a broken-down piano player jest tryin’ to get by," or "I’m a fat and bald old fellow who wants his coffee." After a piano vamp redolent of of Midwestern prairie ragtime, he’s launch into a piece like "I’m Drifting Back to Dreamland." Nostalgia for the old folks would be followed by something hot and saucy for the younger set; e.g., "The Deacon Told Me I Was Good" (told from the perspective of a young maiden after a closed session with her minister), with Gillham inserting a little scatting—"Doo-di-do-doo!—during the instrumental break.
At the time, the radio craze was peaking and it seemed that everyone was intent on establishing a broadcasting outlet. In 1923 individual stations were owned by newspapers, department stores, drug stores, hospitals, and dry cleaning concerns. With network hook-ups still in the future, Gillham—with Ted Browne’s blessing—set off on a tour of independent stations, ranging from big beamers to one-lung operations. This heightened exposure helped him land a job with WSB, an Atlanta-based giant, in early 1924.
The WSB staff were taken aback by Gillham in the flesh. He was neither fat not bald, and was certainly no slave to coffee. In reality, he was thick-haired, trim, and well-dressed. Orange juice was his beverage of choice. And far from being a loser in affairs of the heart, he was a married man.
Gillham had further reason to be happy; he’s recently been appointed Sales Manager of Ted Browne’s company. As the head song plugger he was favorably situated to make hits. His biggest success from this period was "I Had Someone Else Before I Had You (And I’ll Have Someone After You’re Gone)."
Mr. Lambdin Kay, director and chief announcer at WSB, recognized a fellow operator in Gillham. Known to his listeners as "The Little Colonel," he was in actuality neither little nor a Colonel. He was, however, a shrewd promoter of anything falling within his range of self-interest which, in the mid-1920s included Gillham. While serving as radio editor for The Atlanta Journal, he published a piece on Art entitled "The Whispering Pianist." Gillham proudly adopted the appellation; while other "whisperers" would follow, he made a point of telling people that he was the first.
Although not adverse to a little outside help, Gillham possessed sufficient intelligence and ambition to further his own cause. After arriving in New York City in August 1924, Gillham and his wife sent telegrams to every recording manager with the news that a popular radio performer—whose resume included appearances on more than fifty U.S. stations and a listening audience as far away as New Zealand—could be heard on half hour programs starting at noon and 9 p.m. for a week on WJZ.
Pathe and Okeh made inquiries, but the best offer came from Frank Walker at Columbia. Gillham’s acoustic were pleasing enough, but switch to the electric process enabled the Gillham intimacy to come through in all its quirky splendor. "Cecilia," a 1925 release, was particularly effective, featuring a Gillham lisp during the comic chorus.
Gillham’s success was undercut to some extent by Victor’s efforts to copy his style. Hot on the heels of Gillham’s "Cecilia" came a version by Jack Smith, billed on the label as "The Whispering Baritone." When Smith went on to fame and fortune, Art was accused in some quarters of imitating the imitator. He would write a letter to The Music Trade Indicator protesting this state of affairs: "I have received word from good authority that this new artist was ‘dug up’ and promoted for the prime purpose of competing with me and affecting the sales of my phonograph records." Obviously, there was big money to be made in the new "confidential" style. Art needn’t have worried unduly; while Smith would achieve considerable success with the cocktail set and British audiences, he would remain dear to rural audiences, particularly in the Deep South.
A third member of this radiophonic band of ex-song pluggers was Little Jack Little. Born John Leonard in London, England, he spent most of his youth in Iowa. In Chicago at the same time as Gillham, he demonstrated for local publishers (as well as contributing many of his own compositions) before becoming a radio song salesman. As previously noted, the carbon mike responded best when the singer got up close, and Leonard almost caressed it with his lips. A slow exhalation of breath would preface his interpretation of some standard ballad, the sort of stuff cut by the yard. The music and radio trade appreciated his tongue-in-cheek approach to the cliches of the genre. They were especially impressed by his economical piano playing punctuated by occasional bursts of agitated phrases and titillating cross-hand thumb melodies on the bass keys.
He was soon going by the moniker of "Little Jack Little, the Friendly Voice of the Cornfields," and established himself as a Midwestern radio staple. Like Gillham, he coined a number of signature catch phrases in order to distinguish himself from the clamoring voices already jamming the airwaves. One of his presentations always opened with "Here ‘tis" and ended with "Yours very truly, Little Jack Little." He was best known, however, for composing and introducing a string of hits to the broadcast medium, beginning with "Jealous" in 1924.
His recordings captured a rather hyper-accentuated personality, with a pronunciation so precise it seemed a breakdown was on the immediate horizon. His extraordinary reading of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" revealed him at his most impish, leaning on his letters, tilting them just for fun, and displaying a pianistic split personality with a legato, lower register melody being attacked by cascades of chromatic notes. It was Jack who was lonesome to the bones. He eventually committed suicide in his Pal Springs home.
While the recordings of Gillham, Smith, Little, and other pioneer crooners revealed many quirky, often comic, delights, within a couple of years they were being directed to straight ballads in order to satisfy a demand created by Gene Austin’s enormous record sales. The great tenor of the Southland may have started his recording career with scat singing, near-yodeling, and bird chirping effects (e.g., his duet with Aileen Stanley on "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street"), but following his massive success with "My Blue Heaven" in 1927, he was guided to romantic material like "Ramona" and "Girl Of My Dreams" and told to bridle his desire to be a white bluesman. Domesticity, love, and marriage were the primary themes for the recording industry in the midst of the economic boom of the 1920s.
Although these early crooners hailed from the street rather than the salon, in their efforts to bring a conversational style to American singing, they aimed at being model gentlemen. They eschewed the courser hillbilly, cowboy, and blues-shouter approaches, coming across instead as a kinder, gentler side of the Jazz Age, an antidote to the red-hot mamas. However, these pioneers—with their soothing voices, clear diction, and off-beat personalities—would be pushed aside by the lover-boy triumvirate of Vallee, Crosby, and Columbo.
The first wave of crooners were unceremoniously swept aside on the airwaves by the sudden rise of Rudy Vallee, a real-life Ivy League gent with a voice that exuded sex-appeal—something noticeably lacking in Gillham, Smith, et al. Although Vallee would later mature into a first-rate comic character actor, in his days as a crooning sensation he kept a poker face and let his wavy voice match his wavy hair. Off the record, he claimed his sex appeal consisted of a phallic quality in his singing. Be that as it may, it was obvious his voice—originating in his upper head and proceeding down his nose—projected through the mike with all the authority of lavender and lace. With his band starting as a radio "remote" from a New York club, he was being networked around the entire country by 1930. As a national institution, he elicited sighs from women and derisive snorts from their husbands and boyfriends. He was the first swooner-crooner; yes, the word "crooner" was at last in the everyday vernacular to describe this new radio sensation.
By 1932 a backlash had set in against crooners. Rudy Vallee was one thing—a civilized fellow you could invite to the club. Crosby and Columbo, however, came from more humble stock. Furthermore, a legion of copycat vocalists—indiscriminately modifying melody lines by means of scoops and swoops and adding silly little trills and boo-boos—dominated the airwaves. And Mr. and Mrs. America obviously considered radio to be an essential appliance; it seemed that most would sell their bathtub before doing without this trusted window to the world at large.
The press had a field day disseminating the attacks on the "crooning boom" by moral authorities. In January 1932 they quoted Cardinal O’Connell of Boston: "Crooning is a degenerate form of singing….No true American would practice this base art. I cannot turn the dial without getting these whiners and bleaters defiling the air and crying vapid words to impossible tunes." The New York Singing Teachers Association chimed in, "Crooning corrupts the minds and ideals of the younger generation." Lee DeForest, one of radio’s inventors, regretted that his hopes for the medium as a dispenser of "golden argosies of tome" had become "a continual drivel of sickening crooning by ‘sax’ players interlaced with blatant sales talk." De Forrest could have been referring to our own Whispering Jack, who sonorously pitched a medicated cream for seniors afflicted in their private parts before sliding into a the question, "Can you remember back a few years when I sang this?"
The splendid RCA skyscraper—a "Cathedral of Commerce" situated in downtown Manhattan, still the show business capital of the world—housed the office of radio mogul David Sarnoff. Sarnoff could remember the old days when the medium was a crazy-quilt of too many stations and too few receivers with decent loudspeakers. Those vintage radio boxes had horns which made broadcasts sound no better than a phonograph. As for the murmurings, whisperings, groanings, moanings, etc., of the likes of Crosby and Company, Sarnoff didn’t give a fig. In fact, he never listened to the invention he’d steered into the marketplace and, from there, into the homes of the masses. The fact that they hadn’t taken to classical music was a pity, but one couldn’t overlook the tendencies of the marketplace. Let them wallow in the soppy schlock peddled by crooners and their ilk. Although he’d played a major role in establishing the NBC radio network and the purchase of Victor Records in 1929, Sarnoff was already looking ahead the commercial potentialities of television.
During the early years of the Depression, the crooners continued to be winnowed out until only those fitting the Crosby mold were left to provide the soft soap needed to ease the nation through the harsh everyday realities. The pioneers did, of course, soldier on. Gillham’s story represents a case in point. In 1932, a lucrative year for radio, record sales hit an all-time low. Gillham was still listed in the Columbia catalog, but only by a hair, with the aptly titled "Just a Minute More To Say Goodbye." Perhaps sensing his time had passed, he remarried and settled in Atlanta. There he went on to become head of a business college and owner of an office space rental firm, The Representative’s Center.
Jim Walsh, music researcher and contributor (from the early 1940s through the 1980s) to Hobbies—The Magazine For Collectors, provided much of the information we have about Gillham. In 1957 he began corresponding with Gillham, who was now retired and residing in an Atlanta suburb with longtime wife Gertrude. This was the peak year for classic rock ‘n’ roll with notable releases by Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry , Jerry Lee Lewis, and other giants of the genre. But it was also a time for mellow balladeers like Pat Boone and Connie Francis (her hit, "Whose Sorry Now?" was originally a 1923 Tin Pan Alley hit). Austin himself managed to dent the Billboard charts after a two-decade absence with the self-penned "Too Late." Gillham or Smith—who’d died in 1951—would have been perfect as a narrator on "The Shifting Whispering Sands," one of the top smashes of 1957.
Gillham came across as hale and hearty in Walsh’s Hobbies portrait. In his first letter to Walsh he expressed surprise that anybody would be interested in "my corny recordings." Noting the quality of 1957 releases, he added, "When I hear the beautiful jobs that are on the market now, I just don’t tell anyone that I made records back in the dark ages." However, he did proudly point out that he was the artist—and composer—on the "first released electronically-recorded record, No. 328-D for Columbia," "You May Be Lonesome But You’ll Be Lonesome Alone."
These phonograph records remain important as the only documentary evidence of the pioneer crooners. Somebody paid good money for each one at the time of release when the recording artists could have been heard for free on the radio. However these records were put to use, the crooners—an irritant to inventors and radio entrepreneurs, denounced in the press and pulpit—were viewed as a passing fancy, a mere fad. In 1932 the New York Times reassured its readers: "They sing like that because they can’t help it. Their style is begging to go out of fashion….Crooners will soon goo the way of tandem bicycles, mah jongg and midget golf."
So much for ephemeral radio. But those black shellac 78 r.p.m. discs, with their appetizing graphics, can live forever. It handled with loving care, these material objects mature, displaying wise old facial lines in their grooves. You can’t see the sound of a CD so how can you be sure it isn’t just magic? Grooved discs testify, and not only when revealed by a needle; many are worn and scarred by years of giving pleasure—joy, comfort, laughter, tears—so that they now present the listener with a monster bacon-and-egg fry-up. Clearly, somebody loved them. I do so wonder who.
Walsh, in the September 1957 issue of Hobbies, gives us a glimpse of one such record lover. He recalled a conversation with a "veteran record dealer" about how silly girls were getting over Elvis the Pelvis. "Did I ever tell you," smiled the dealer, "about the girl who had a crush on ‘The Whispering Pianist,’ Art Gillham?" It was a summer morning in 1929 when she came into his store, asking to audition "a syrupy thing," a new Gillham release. In the stifling air-tight booth she played that record over and over, from nine o’clock until two-thirty in the afternoon, coming out one or twice for water. "I thought I’d go nuts!" said the dealer. The title was "I Love You—I Love You—I Love You, Sweetheart Of All My Dreams."
Now I happen to particularly like this version of the song. There are several recorded versions of this straight-forward, no-conditions-attached declaration of utter and complete love. Rudy Vallee’s interpretation enjoyed the greatest commercial success, while Johnny Marvin did a workmanlike job, applying his light, lyrical tenor voice to a bouncy rhythm accompaniment. Gillham’s approach, however, is most captivating because, in his usual manner, he winsomely pleads for your attention. He clearly got one girl’s attention on that summer day in 1929, and he gets at the entrance of the new millenium.
The song is an impressive example of how Gillham works his art. With the violin taking care of the melody, Art is free to mold the rather mundane verses into an inspired monologue—a plea that only the most hard-hearted of listeners can refuse. The personal touches render his entreaties more believable: "Listen sweetheart, why are you sad and blue? Please come over here dear….Sit down real close to me….Let me tell you how I feel…." He then moves on to the chorus, his trademark quavering notes made acceptable due to the sincerity of his delivery. A supple guitar line supplies Gillham with all the sweet harmony that is needed. Then suddenly, in the last chorus, he shifts into a special patter lyric, doubling the word flow, pledging to love her morning, noon, and night, promising to let her do anything she likes and, what’s even more important, to say anything she likes. Note that Art keeps his love talk down to earth (e.g., he employs the phrase "real close" rather than the more grammatically correct "really close") in keeping with his disc persona as a friendly down-home Mid-westerner of the old school who, though full of pre-war pathos, can nevertheless play some pretty peppy barrelhouse jazz piano. In such a manner, the Jazz Age was made to embrace the old verities.
Gillham’s claim to the contrary, apparently nobody knows for certain when the first electrics appeared; I’m not about to risk a surmise only to be raspberried at a later date by some dedicated sleuth armed with facts and figures to prove me wrong. Somehow I want to trust Art; perhaps it’s the cracker barrel honesty he exhibits within the shellac grooves.
A number of facts, however, can be ascertained regarding the evolution of "ortho" recordings. (To me, "ortho" means sound that shoots like an arrow straight to the heart; it is "right" in the ethical sense of "faithfulness" and "honesty." The Victor label, which coined the phrase "orthophonic" sound, may have inferred a different meaning, but to me it is synonymous with the well-recorded electrical 78s of the late 1920s. They provided a warmth often missing in later recordings, no matter how high the fi is reckoned to be. But then, perhaps the secret of the warmth lies in the human sound box rather than through the science of mankind.)
It appears that the first electric recording was made in Great Britain in 1920 for Columbia under the supervision of two engineers, the Honorable Lionel Guest and Captain H.O. Merriman. Their offering was "Abide With Me," performed by a choir, congregation, and the band of His Majesty’s Grenadier Guards, at Westminster Abbey. I have no idea how the record sounded; I only know what it looks like and that they used a telephone mouthpiece rather than a microphone. That may have been a fatal mistake. Suffice it to say that the British effort led to no further progress along these lines. (This was perhaps due in part to the fact that, as upper-class Englishmen, they were amateur explorers rather than professional enntrepreneurs.)
In the United States, however, at the Western Electric research division of Bell Telephone Laboratories, part of the mighty A.T. & T. combine, scientists took note of the British experiment. The trick was to convert real sounds into electrical impulses via the medium of the microphone, and thence, through an amplifying vacuum tube (like radio), and finally back to real life auditory information. Sometime in 1924, with the sales of both records and sound reproduction equipment plunging to unprecedented lows, the scientists demonstrated their electric test discs to Victor executives. The latter were undoubtedly astounded; for the first time you could hear the high end of the sound spectrum (a little shrill, it is true) and gut-shaking bass (a little boomy, for sure). Above all, the sound was amazingly loud, and brimming with energy; the scientists noted that their electric discs reproduced 5 ½ octaves as opposed to the mere three of the then-current acoustics.
At the time Victor had tons of acoustic hardware and software sitting in warehouses (not to mention stock in retail outlets), so they hummed and hawed. While Victor procrastinated the scientists took their formula to Columbia Records. A licensing deal was struck and Columbia was recording with the new process by the fall of 1924 (presumably Gillham was one of the first artists brought into the studio). Victor was forced to come aboard. The other record industry giant, Edison, gamely stuck to its trusted acoustic process. Owner Thomas A. Edison operated with a hands-on policy, preferring the phonograph to all his other inventions.
Edison loved music more than the money-making process associated with the record industry. Even as electronics and corporate-sponsored research were engulfing his less complicated Victorian world, Edison would state: "Of all the various forms of entertainment in the home, I know of nothing that compares with music. It is safe and sane; appeals to all the finer emotions; tends to bind family influences with a wholesomeness that links old and young together. If you will consider for a moment how universally the old ‘heart songs’ are loved in the homes, you will realize what a deep hold music has in the affections of the people."
Edison professed to know what the people ought to like—the very same parlor songs he’d known and cherished going back as far as the Civil War, including "Beautiful Dreamer," "Silver Threads Among the Gold," and "I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen" (he’d requested this one for his own funeral). These were songs of nostalgia for a better time and place, far from the 1920s madcap cash chase to a syncopated rhythm.
Edison’s decision to stay with the acoustic process—as well as cylinders—brought pleas from his employees to reconsider. A Mr. Miller wrote him in Memo #749, "Don’t you think we could make some royalty arrangement with A.T. & T. for the use of this system?" The old gent scribbled his reply onto the note, "I could have taken this up without paying anybody….They cannot record without distortion." He chose instead to concentrate on marketing beautifully-crafted cabinets such as the Louis XVI model in Circassian Walnut and the development of long-playing Diamond Discs.
Edison would eventually surrender to the blessed vacuum tube, but shortly thereafter his company went broke, the fatal blow issued by the October 1929 stock market crash. The electric process, perfect for hot dance bands and the intimate crooners, represented a trend that couldn’t be bucked; nevertheless, I admire the old man for his tenacity and moral stance. I’m sure that if he had worked closely with a Gillham, Smith, Little, or Austin, he would have succumbed to their mother’s milk music. After all, they—like his nineteenth century favorites—were offering simple, clear melodies, with the added dimension (thanks to electricity) of a deep bedding of harmony, accented by a prominent bass line.
Electrical recording couldn’t have come at a better time. The record industry, which had enjoyed peak sales of 100 million discs during 1921, was mired in a frightful slump by 1925. Why buy a tinny sounding record when you got better fidelity on the radio, and for free? By spring 1925 the first electric releases from Victor and Columbia were on the market, but existing phonographs made them sound harsh, strident, and muddy. New hardware was the order of the day. Victor led the recovery, proclaiming November 2 as "Victor Day." Long lines formed early outside stores for the heavily-advertised demonstrations of the Orthophonic Victrola. Record sales started rising once more, continuing an upward swing through 1929, albeit below the 1921 high-water mark. Radio was the mass medium of preference, with the Talkies coming on strong.
The recording managers and their assembled vocal talent immediately recognized that it was a whole new ballgame. The embryonic crooners began developing a new array of hitherto hidden talents. Once of the veterans of acoustic recording, Frankly Baur—enjoying considerable success as first tenor of the mellifluous close harmony group, The Revelers, by the mid-1920s—expressed his relief over the turn of events: "The strain on the singer is immeaburably eased. A record can be made in exactly one-third the time it used to take, and no longer is it necessary for us to nearly crack out throats singing into that hated horn." Nor would there be any more of the physical humiliation of the old days, when singers had to duck down during an instrumental passage or by pushed by the recording director so as to be close to the horn for low notes (and then pulled back for the high ones).
Veterans of the recording horn, who had served the labels well, didn’t deserve such rough treatment. The recording studio managers—never known for gentleness and consideration in their handling of artists—now had a new reason to goad and intimidate their charges. Victor’s Eddie King exerted such pressure on the venerable Billy Murray during the "Roll ‘Em Girls" session that the latter had remonstrated, "Heck, I’m no crooner." Unfortunately, the results proved him right; Murray was obviously holding back, a self-bridling horse used to being frisky, and the result sounded unnatural.
The failure of Murray, the most successful acoustic era singer, revealed with grim finality that the heyday of the leather-lunged Irish-American tenors—booming out sentimental ballads as well comic songs of the ethnic and minstrel variety—had passed. Industry insiders tended to downplay the impact of the electrical recording process. Victor bandleader Nat Shilkret noted, "Tenors gave us plenty of grief for a while. At first they sounded rather thick, like baritones; at times they were hollow. But all voices were finally conquered. However, the conquest by condenser, vacuum, and amplifier revealed in stark fashion that certain veteran voices were married for life to the horn; no amount of play-acting could endow them with the geniality of a Gillham, Smith, or Little. An electric Murray sounded like an acoustic Murray; the only difference was that the band provided a fuller ambience, while Billy appeared to be a rail-thin pixie trapped in a box.
Musically speaking, it must have been galling for Henry Burr—with his perfect intonation—to be outsold by Gillham with his trail of wounded notes. The Whispering Pianist’s small voice and limited melodic range, however, were assets as far as the all-important female customers were concerned; here was humanity, here was vulnerability, here was a fellow clearly suffering (e.g., the 1928 Columbia release, "Nobody’s Lonesome But Me") and in need of succoring. In contrast, Burr—with his concert platform manner and publicity photos in a wing collar—did not sound convincing singing "I Found A Million Dollar Baby (In a Five and Ten Cent Store)" (Victor; 1926).
While some acoustic era artists seemed ill-equipped to make the transition to electrical recording, others were liberated by the new conditions. Frank Crumit was a case in point; he began recording in 1919, belting out songs with the best of them.
With the advent of the microphone, he underwent a metamorphosis, exuding a suave, silky charm. His subtle phrasing and pleasing timbre spanned the sentimental ballads of Stephen Foster and the sophisticated Tin Pan Alley fare produced by the likes of George and Ira Gershwin. Crumit went to become a major radio personality, co-starring with his wife, singer Julia Sanderson.
Although he enjoyed only modest success on the airwaves, Gene Austin also made a smooth transition to electrical recording. Although exhibiting an affinity for the blues, ragtime, and country and western music as a youth, his voice—perhaps the most lyrical of any of the crooners—was best suited for caressing the microphone. Austin’s considerable success as a recording artist—he probably sold more records than any other performer during the latter half of the 1920s—underscored the universal appeal of his relaxed and gently articulated mode of delivery.
Cliff Edwards also negotiated this stylistic shift with the greatest of ease. Unlike the other early crooners, he possessed strong jazz inclinations. His improvisational bent consisted of breaking into nonsense syllables, a technique he referred to as "eefing," which probably dated back at least as far as the 1890s when Ben Harney was introducing ragtime songs onstage at Tony Pastor’s vaudeville theater in New York City. His eefing effectively complements a portrait of domestic bliss in "Halfway to Heaven" (Columbia; 1928). He sings about a cottage, surrounded by flirting butterflies, which includes a little lady, cooking behind a kitchen curtain, and peering out the window for his return, which is signaled by his guttural moaning, or eefin. Unfortunately, the lovely landscape Edwards depicted on record was not reflected in his own life; like Austin, he had a string of unsuccessful marriages and a lifelong fight with alcoholism.
None of the early microphone masters seemed to pay more than passing attention to the sex appeal factor. It was apparent that the masculine ideal had changed considerably since the turn of the century when the muscular type held sway over women’s hearts. By the 1920s the male star prototype had softened, melting from He-Man into Dream Boy, from the George O’Brien look into pretty Buddy Rogers. Variety, which made a point of keeping abreast of such trends, attributed the rise of the softer image as an effort to "compensate for the hard sexiness of females, on-screen and off."
Pop songwriters began poking fun at the androgynous American landscape; i.e., girls with boy’s short hair, boys in billowing bags falling just short of skirt-dom. Edgar Leslie defined the situation in succinct terms with his 1925 hit, "Masculine Women! Feminine Men!" He noted that Sister Susie is learning to shave, while her brother absolutely adores his permanent wave: "Once you used to kiss your little sweetie in the hall—Now you’ll find that you are kissing her brother Paul." Leslie’s Alley associate Con Conrad—composer of "Margie" and "Ma! He’s Making Eyes At Me"—enjoyed considerable popularity as a provider of saucy songs for the proliferating "drag" and "pansy" entertainment circuit of New York and other major cities.
There had been a general open-mindedness in urban centers with respect to the more outlandish aspects of homosexuality going back at least as far as the Victorian era. "Fairies" and "sissies" were acceptable—and even "worthy of mercy"—so long as they were openly visible. In the New York of the 1900s drag halls had even operated at Madison Square Garden, attended by high society, including the Astors and Vanderbilts. In the 1920s a vogue existed for "pansy" clubs and revues, highlighted in 1927 by Mae West’s theatrical extravaganza, The Drag, which featured forty chorus boys tossing off such one-liners as "When I walk up 10th Avenue, you can smell the meat sizzling in Hell’s Kitchen," and describing a gown as "trimmed with excitement in front." In mainstream vaudeville Frank Fay and Jack Benny used the limp-wrist and undulating walk effect for laughs and, in Benny’s case, for character creation.
This is not to imply that America as a whole was turning gay (in fact, a backlash was imminent during the 1930s); rather, I am simply setting the scene for the social acceptance of high-pitched male singers even as the microphone rendered deeper and wider tones more pleasing. This might help explain this golden age of upper register tenors; the heaven-stroking sound of a Nick Lucas or a Morton Downey. But then the high voice had long been the hallmark of both the Italian bel canto (Lucas) and Irish vernacular (Downey) styles.
These factors, however, do not completely explain the grip that Rudy Vallee had on millions of American females, as 1929 sank from an everybody-happy high through the stock market crash and into the Great Depression. His success caused newspapers to warn of the "Vallee Peril" caused by this "punk from Maine" with the "dripping voice; mounted police to be called in to beat back crowds of screaming, swooning females at his vaudeville shows; the theatrical trailer for his first film, The Vagabond Lover, to exclaim, "Men Hate Him! Women Love Him!"; and entertainer Jimmy Durante to complain, "He became an epidemic or national calamity or something, because your girl friends were always wondering why you don’t croon the way he does."
Martha Gellhorn—who later married Ernest Hemingway, that paradigm of macho—argued, in a 1929 magazine article entitled, "Rudy Vallee, God’s Gift To Us Girls," that the gift was inherently non-threatening. In his popular radio program, which began with his floating greeting, "Heigh ho, everybody," beamed in from a New York City night club, he stood like a statue, surrounded by clean-cut collegiate band musicians and cradling a saxophone in his arms. He would then commence crooning—almost keening—with eyes closed and head up at the sky. He was, he liked to tell reporters, "pouring out his soul" in the process of delivering a song to his audience.
Wholesome in appearance, there was nothing sexy in his face, hair, or body. The allure lay exclusively in that supremely radiophonic voice, a perfect match for the mikes, amps, and speakers of the time. So Rudy happened to be in the right place at the right time. This point was underscored by a 1929 Literary Digest article entitled, "New Rudy Vallee Voice Is Catnip." In the piece William Bolitho effectively described how the catnip worked its magic:
By the divine accident or miracle, that is what makes arts nearer religion
than science, the voice that starts its strange journey at the microphone hardly
more than banal fills the air at its destination with some sort of beauty, and
with that rarest charm of beauty—uniqueness, novelty.
The sweeping success of the Vallee novelty voice inevitably leveled the popular singing field. The quirky Gillhams and Smiths fell back to the sidelines. The void was filled by a host of soft modulators, all following the lead set by Vallee and his well-bred, almost bland, vocalizing. They included Chester Gaylord, "The Whispering Serenader"; Eddie Walters, who insinuated a somewhat campy aura; Les Backer, a singer capable of convincingly updating old chestnuts like "You Tell Me Your Dream"; and Bostonian Jack Miller, whose "From Sunrise To Sunset" was creamy croon perfection. Veterans were also made over to fit the new mold; Nick Lucas, for instance, was now billed as "The Crooning Troubador." There were also songwriters with little of no vocal training now being billed as crooners, including Fats Waller’s writing partner, Andy Razaf; Freddy Rose, later a partner in the pioneer Nashville publishing firm, Acuff-Rose; Sam Coslow, who had demonstrated for Edison and would go on write Crosby anthems; and Sammy Fain, composer of sentimental ballads like "Wedding Bells (Are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine)."
Women were far less likely to be heard by the late 1920s. Of all those brash babies of the early Jazz Age, Sophie Tucker was one of the few still standing. She had been around since the "coon shouting" vogue. Her 1929 hit, "I’m the Last of the Red Hot Mamas," showed her unwillingness to bend to the then-currently crooning craze. Her aggressive style took no prisoners. Her collaborations with males required that the latter take a submissive role. Tucker’s accompanist Ted Shapiro, for instance, would sometimes hum and murmur along to her solos, like a little sailboat bobbing beside a battleship.
Another ragtime-cum-jazz-baby veteran, Blossom Seeley, also employed a male vocalist as a back-up. A Vitaphone short shows them at work; Seeley is demonstrative and brassy while husband Benny Fields fans her admiringly, singing his answers in a crooning manner. His husky, easy-going delivery had much in common with Crosby’s signature sound; both operated in a deeper register than that characterizing the 1920s tenors. However, his manner--both live and on film—was emasculated in tone, much in keeping with the early crooners.
The hits of the day continued to speak of male submission; for instance, "I’m Confessin’," "Guilty," "Just One More Chance," and "Prisoner of Love." Furthermore, one Ellen O’Grady, in a letter to The New York Times responding to the news that President Hoover had invited Vallee to "sing a song to chase depression," claimed crooners were creating a "depression of spirit." In her opinion, this was not surprising in that Webster’s Dictionary defined crooning as "a continuous hollow sound, as cattle in pain; to bellow."
The effete male image subsided with the advent of the 1930s. The transition was most obvious in Hollywood; the gangster genre depicted James Cagney squashing a grapefruit in his girl’s face because she talked too much and countless close-ups of the Humphrey Bogart sneer.
Leaving the bigger picture to social historians, it is time to focus on the next wave of crooners, tracing how and why the public preference shifted from high tenors to baritone huskies. By early 1932 a crooning triumvirate was generally acknowledged to dominate popular music. Dick Robertson’s recording, "Crosby, Columbo & Vallee" (Romeo, 1931) satirized this state of affairs, noting that bachelors and married men must "stick together" and fight these "public enemies" who, in dominating the airwaves and "singing of "couples beneath stars above" and such "nonsense," are "stealing all our blondes" and "breaking up our happy homes." In the days before radio ruled the home, according to Robertson, you threw a gigolo out into the alley, but "now you can’t say a word."
By this time it was evident that Vallee was not the man to spearhead this shift in public taste. The picture of a soulful youth with golden hair and blue eyes mewing in a garden stage setting with classic columns and a splashing fountain represented a hangover from the late 1920s. In contrast, Crosby and Columbo looked and sounded like they might have the right tools for plumbing the depression. They did not pretend to possess a Park Avenue background. They didn’t sport fancy French names complete with accent grave, nor claim Ivy League credentials.
Columbo hailed from a working class Italian Catholic background. His violin playing could be excused in view of his manly physique.
As a sideman with Gus Arnheim’s Orchestra in the late 1920s he had obediently played his assigned role in a vocal trio—a then fashionable adjunct to a nightclub band—warbling like a trained canary. When Crosby struck big in the early 1930s, however, he’d lowered his voice to sound husky and hunky.
Crosby, of course, never seemed to bother about changing anything. Training was not in his line. Unlike Gillham. Austin, Smith, Little, Vallee, or Columbo, he played no instrument—unless you count the kazoo and sock cymbal. He never bothered to learn to read a note of music. He never rehearsed a song all the way through. He was truly natural in manner and, as such, he appeared to be an average all-round good guy. The men could identify with him, whereas Vallee was just too high on that damned Greek pedestal.
Bing (what a sensibly low-falutin’ name!) was Irish Catholic and, like Columbo, possessed common origins. Yes, he’d been to college, but unlike Vallee, who’d obsessed over the classical meanderings and ragtimey novelties of saxist Rudy Weidoft (even taking the man’s first name), Bing had followed the more masculine pursuit of hot jazz. He and his pal Al Rinker (later his partner in Paul Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys) had bought every eefing Cliff Edwards record immediately upon release. In their vaudeville act Bing scatted the "bop-bop-de-do-do" like a wild and crazy jazz boy should do. Off-stage he behaved likewise, boozing it up and running into cop trouble. The avant-garde crowd at Berkeley—where Crosby regularly performed with Rinker—loved his music and stage manner. He belonged to the vanguard of "cool" and "laid back."
In late 1927, Rudy Vallee—then gigging as a Ben Bernie sideman—noticed Crosby’s special insouciance. It was a debutante party at a Baltimore gym and the Bernie band was taking a break, letting the Rhythm Boys entertain off on the side. Nobody was paying much attention until Bing stepped into the center of the gym and sang a solo ballad. There was no mike, no megaphone. Vallee would later write: "When he had finished, there was a deafening roar of applause which would have called for at least one or two encores. Instead, he walked off the floor past where we sat, his classic features expressionless, his patrician nose just a bit up in the air. You might have thought him deaf, so unaware he seemed of the sensation he had created."
Crosby’s walk may have seemed snooty, but clearly he had the common touch. After a stint with Gus Arnheim at the Cocoanut Grove in Hollywood (which he lived up to his nickname of "Binge" with hoarse readings of ballads spiced with ribald interpolations, most notably on "What Is It"), he went on to radio network fame, movie stardom, and most importantly, a pivotal role as one of the saviors of the record industry. By the late 1930s, Crosby had established his image as a family entertainer. Gone were the late-night melodramatic cries for "Just One More Chance"; now, the world was presented with a carefully packaged, happy-go-lucky fellow who liked sports and wore sloppy clothes. Everything he approached—be it Christmas, Irish, Hawaiian, Dixie, or Western songs—emerged with his distinctive touch. He would become the king of World Music, tourist-style. And whatever the lyrics, "Der Bingle" placed them in the easy listening category—with a touch of jazz phrasing, a relic of his crazy days. Much like eating at McDonald’s in Moscow, with Bing you could be sure of receiving the normal standard fare.
Crosby’s greatest accomplishment was to transcend the confines of the crooning school, something none of his contemporaries had been able to do. In later years, comfortably established as a musical institution, he would poke fun at his crooner-sensation years; e.g., the "hot mush" in his throat often contained too many frogs due to late night carousing, insisting he was nothing special because "most people who’ve ever sung in a kitchen quarter or in a showerbath sing like me." At the time, though, he was shrewd and tough enough behind the scenes. His Rhythm Boy pals were discarded when not needed and reporters were treated with kid gloves. When asked for advice on breath control and intonation by a neophyte singer, "The Groaner" answered, "Sing from the belly—that’s where the money." This relaxed public manner took its toll; private rooms where Crosby had stayed awhile were littered with broken or chewed pencils.
As a vocal heavyweight and acceptable Average Joe in the Depression, Crosby was saved the humiliations suffered by Vallee. The press could imagine Crosby and Columbo as working stiffs—hell, they never took singing seriously, did they? But Valle and the high tenors exhibited all the earmarks of drones. Could they mend a fuse or change a tire? On January 23, 1931, The New York Times reported, with considerable zest, that Vallee had been a "target for two large grapefruit that had seen better days" during a concert at a Boston theater. The perpetrators, the reporter was happy to state, "got off with a police lecture." The number that had triggered the incident was "Oh, Give Me Something To Remember You By." Had the guilty parties, allegedly Ivy League undergraduates, been offended by the dangling preposition, of by the preposterous figure of Vallee, limp of bearing and singing like a contented nanny goat, performing piffle while the world whirled into an abyss?
Vallee would later reflect on this event in his memoir, My Time Is Your Time, "I was pretty damn shaken I can tell you." He ordered the show to go on, noting, "I launched into an all-out impression of Al Jolson, theorizing that my previous vocalizing perhaps had been lacking in virility and masculinity." He appeared intent on demonstrating that, if unconvincing as just one of the guys (in the manner of Crosby), he was at least a real guy." But what the hell, there were other ways to make a living, and Vallee was to prove it through a subsequent career as radio host and character comedian. A listen to some Crosby recordings later in 1931 evidently convinced him that "this young man was going to push Pappy Vallee right off his throne."
Vallee would go on to stake a place in real world by contributing a recording of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Crosby would compete with his own version in 1932, the year when, along with breadlines and bank failures, the sale of records hit an all-time low. On the whole, however, the crooners left social commentary to comedians; it was a crooner’s job to take people’s minds off bad times by singing of romance amidst moonlight and roses rather than drumming up a polemical People’s Music a la Woody Guthrie. The crooners were undoubtedly comfortable operating within their assigned framework. They were part of a powerful show business industry which, in the 1930s, had the moral and market imperative to help its audience forget its real-life troubles.
When Columbo died suddenly in 1934 the field was wide open for Bing. The subsequent swing era would be littered with crooners, virtually all of whom paid homage in the media and on the bandstand. One notable exception was the South African-born singer, Al Bowlly, who recorded over 1,000 sides between 1927 and 1941 before dying from an air raid bomb which hit his London flat. His material ranged from standard Tin Pan Alley fare to the comparative exoticism of Africaan and Jewish numbers (and even a couple of Shakespeare sonnets). His voice had a steady quality all its own, and women in particular seemed quite susceptible to its charms. A simple soul who loved to box and always wore a gold crucifix, Bowlly reportedly was so moved by some of the ballads he was assigned to record that he’d dissolve into tears during the recording session.
My stated goal of imparting the essence of the crooning tradition to you, the reader, would not be complete without a reference or two to the passionate friendship I had with these frozen voices of long ago. It started shortly after World War II, when the vice-headmaster of my prep school allowed me to (carefully) place the tone arm of his radio-gram (a beautiful piece of polished walnut furniture, flowing in front with names like Hilversum and Moscow, and from the back, should you crawl there, from a humming yellow ochre forest of vacuum tubes that we knew as "valves") onto a fragile 78 r.p.m. disc which revolved placidly on the turntable. The magic would begin as you sat back and wallowed in the warmth of the tubby sound. More often than not the singer would be Frank Crumit (pronounced "Croom-it" in England, and beloved by all classes there) accompanied by his guitar; the romantic tale in "Riding Down To Bangor" pulled the listener in, but not half as much as the singular, silky lure of that voice. Outside the weather was typically "inclement" (to use the preferred word of vice-headmaster Captain T.D. Manning), but the dinning of the rain on the corrugated iron of the study only reinforced the siren call of the recording, calling me far away from the bitter, sighing coast of Seaford, Sussex, in 1949.
On a summer afternoon some years later, I am lying at the bottom of a punt on a little man-made lake near a holiday village by the Suffolk coast. The lake water laps arounds me, but I’m not paying attention. A portable windup HMV gramophone plays Bing Crosby; "Galway Bay" backed by "Home on the Range." Both places sound appetizing and a lot more comfortable than being an overweight teenage schoolboy enjoying none of the perks associated with a growing sexual awareness. Where did Crosby and Crumit live? Inside the gramophone, of course, behind the curtain.
At the outset of the 1960s, confronting the question of what on earth to do in life after compulsory schooling. Go back to school, I decide, to Trinity College, Dublin. Gene Austin inspired the move, singing from a snappy electric Dansette portable located in our thick-walled, thickly-carpeted family flat on Putney Heath, London: "Each sweet co-ed like a rainbow trail…" ("The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi").
The crooners even accompanied me in the midst of a rock ‘n’ roll career as a "One Hit Wonder," singing the same old story of love under the moon and the stars, in the still of the night, in a shady nook, by a waterfall, in a gypsy tea room, in a little hula heaven, in a shelter from a shower, on a little dream ranch, by the seaside where the waves are whispering goodnight so sweetly I’ll forget that they’ve changed my name to a number…
Encounters in the 1970s with real-life crooners, combined with random personal experiences, helped temper my dangerously mawkish attachment to this music. On one occasion, a girl friend, Vicki, and I were walking along a beach and, as was usual for me when there was nothing pressing to say, I softly murmured the words to an old song—in this case, the chorus of "You Were Meant For Me." I had reached "You were all the sweet things rolled into one" when Vicki stopped dead in her tracks, looked me straight in the eyes and said, "You really meant that! How sweet!" I was stunned and embarrassed, all the while wondering if the next move expected of me was an engagement proposal. This episode warned me of the danger inherent in unrestrained crooning.
Around that time I also had the opportunity to spend a day with Rudy Vallee in the course of researching my book, After the Ball—Pop Music From Rag to Rock. While staying in Hollywood with friends in the music business, they suggested I simply ring him up; his number, after all, was listed in the phone book. He’d been in the papers as a result of his campaign to get the name of his street changed from Pyramid Drive to Rue de Vallee. My friends laughingly remarked that when the authorities refused his request Vallee threatened to change his name to Rudy Pyramid.
When I rang him up, he responded in hearty fashion, inviting me up to his house for tennis and dinner. Arriving at the wild and wooded estate located on top of one of Hollywood’s hills, I saw no sign of The Vagabond Lover. I figured he must be out and about, living up to his name. I wandered around, under the watch of Latino servants, admiring the garage’s revolving driveway and the tennis court perched on the edge of the hilltop, over the Rudy Vallee museum. I also noted the public pay telephone kiosks and the metal signs stuck in the flower telling smokers to mind their manners.
Eventually the crooner, accompanied by his glamorous blonde wife, made his entrance. He was fresh from ocean cruising and ready for champagne and caviar. Following this snack we knuckled down to some tennis. Vallee made his own rules, generally in his favor. He did, however, gracefully offer me a few points. Afterwards, he took me on a tour of the archives under the court where he lectured me on the collection of megaphones and saxophones and stacks of scrapbooks documenting every known reference to the Vallee name in print.
Inside the house there was more champagne, followed by a one-man show starring my host, telling how he’d made love to some great silent screen siren on this floor, tooting a saxophone, singing a bawdy verse about bedding Dolores Del Rio, reciting "How Fights Start in Bars," and ending with a virtuoso performance of "The Old Sow" accompanied by realistic pig noises. Rudy, his wife, and I finally had dinner at a table that seemed a mile long. Rudy and I were situated at opposite ends of the table; I knew he was there because his red plaid jacket shone brightly and I could make out assorted bits of gossip. When I heard snoring I knew it was time to leave, negotiating my way through a pack of dogs on the way out.
Many years, and a number of dogs, later I inherited a delightful mixed breed from Vallee’s widow. Inspector had been Rudy’s favorite, I was told, and had been at his master's side, licking his face, when he died watching his old friend Ronald, Reagan, delivering a presidential speech on television. Inspector came with meager belongings: a red leather leash and collar, a packet of frankfurters, a megaphone, and a portfolio of pictures showing him munching tapes of Vallee’s radio shows, observing the star slumped in an armchair, and attempting to terrorize a pants-suited Dorothy Lamour. He showed no interest at all when I screened The Vagabond Lover.
My relationship with vintage crooner Nick Lucas was warmer, albeit much less grand. We met in professional circumstances at the Mayfair Music Hall in Santa Monica where we were both appearing as performers. He always struck me as sprucely dressed, clear-spoken and chipper in spirit. In 1975 I arranged for Nick to be filmed as part of a television series on which I was working, a British-made history of popular music entitled, All You Need Is Love. It went so well that I was able to get him into an Irish documentary on Hollywood; we filmed him in the garden of his apartment house, a suitable spot for tiptoeing through the tulips. In addition to his signature song, "Tiptoe," he sang "Baby Face," inviting me to join him with my ukulele on the second chorus. "Remember to play the right chords in the sequence," he whispered as the clapper was posed to come down on its board.
A few years later we were on the same bill at the Variety Arts Roof Garden in downtown Los Angeles. Again, he invited me to play along with him; again, he admonished me to play the right chords, especially tonight as we’d be doing "Tiptoe." "Lots of folks don’t play the right chords, you know." But I did okay in his show and he gave me the wink. I was touched by his on-stage reference to not minding Tiny Tim’s version because "I smile every time I go to the bank." You see, as a songwriter I knew that he hadn’t received any royalties because his name wasn’t on the sheet music. Nor had he taken a cut-in, a common practice in the Tin Pan Alley heydays (Rudy Vallee and Gene Austin were known to accept cut-ins in exchange for exposing a new number).
Compared to the splendor of the Vallee lifestyle, Lucas lived quite modestly and apparently had to continue working in order to make ends meet. I believe he had a lady admirer who lived out in Hemet; I know he used to go there quite often. Every now and then we’d meet for lunch at the place of his choice, a cafeteria patronized by senior citizens on limited budgets. Over chicken pot pie or Salisbury steak I’d pepper Nick with questions relating to his glory days. But he never seemed particularly interested—he wasn’t forthcoming and couldn’t remember dates (I had to supply them)—and expressed only mild surprise when I informed him that his guest slot during the early days of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry had helped make him tremendously influential with later generations of country and western performers. Nick turned the table talk to more pressing things like how much I was currently being paid for gigs at the Mayfair or Roof Garden. The last time I sang with him was outdoors at a Republican rally of some kind or other on the lot of a Ford auto dealership in a rather unsalubrious part of Hollywood.
I glancingly ran across Sam Coslow (a side-of-the-mouth quintessential crooner in his day), but by this time—the early 1970s—he was a wealthy retired music executive and multi-hit songwriter living in Florida and traveling regularly to London. We were having cocktails and canapes when I congratulated him on having written one of the first druggie songs, "Marahuana," for the 1930s Paramount picture, Murder at the Vanities." He looked dumbfounded. What was I talking about? And then he changed the subject. Bout he was very kind to me later when, back in Hollywood, I got on the wrong side of the editor of an expose news rag and was threatened with a sharp sleaze attack. I called Sam in Florida and he arranged for some heavies to pay a visit to the muckraker. Nothing more was heard, nor did I ever see or hear from Caslow again. I wish I’d asked him more questions about those crooning years.
I wish I’d known that Cliff Edwards was located just down the street from me, living in virtual poverty. He died in July 1971, a charity case, at the Virgil Convalescent Hospital, in Hollywood. Likewise, I wish I’d known that Gene Austin lived in nearby Palm Springs, entertaining at the electric organ of his mobile home. He would die in January 1972; Nick Lucas was one of his pall bearers. These artists and others of their generation could have helped put me straight, wised me up, and dressed me down. I could have learned something.
Now I’m something of a lone contender in a silent ring. Of course, the recordings of the deceased masters lie waiting and ready to prove their point while I battle on as a live performer, singing in a similar, conversational, confidential manner. I try to avoid slavish copying, rather expressing myself in a manner best accommodating my own limited skills.
Is crooning an art in the aesthetic sense? Is it a thing of beauty and universal appeal, possessing an extraordinary significance? Without presuming to have the definitive answer, I can say that I do keep coming back to the singers and songs of this tradition whenever I’m brimming over with happiness or sadness. Fortunately, sadness rhymes with gladness, and jolly with melancholy, and so on. This quaint little self-contained world—archaic, no doubt, and far from the rant and the cant and the bland and the brown of today—continues to hold me, for better or worse, in peaceful captivity.
When I try—in repose—to conjure up the essence of that world, I start with a memory from years past: It is a muggy summer night North London, just after a quick storm, streets slippery with grease and lined by rows of nondescript attached houses, and I’m hurrying to a tube train to take me home. Weighed down with old records just purchased from local dealer buffs, I pass by men of uncertain age wearing stained clothes and meal remains on their faces and beards. Glancing quickly to my left, through an open door and into a parlor, I spy an old woman sitting in profile on a sofa. She’s leaning forward, hands clasped in front, listening intently while nodding and smiling, to music from a wind-up gramophone facing her. I recognize the voice of Al Bowlly but I don’t know the song. From the shadows I watch her behavior in what appears to be a moment of time recaptured. The lyrics have something to do with a past longing at a dance. When the waltz tune comes to an end she turns around and stares out the front door, into the wet and steamy street, straight through me. She is silently crying. I hurry on, moved and not a little embarrassed over this scene. I make a mental note to check up on this recording.
I later determine the identity of the song: "I’m Saving the Last Waltz For You," written by Joseph George Gilbert and Horatio Nicholle (the pen-name of publisher Lawrence Wright). The piece was recorded in London on July 1, 1938 by Felix Mendelssohn & His Orchestra with a vocal refrain by Al Bowlly. It’s a catchy tune in a time-honored pattern, with warhorse words like "arms" and "forsake" as well as two redundant uses of "just" and a pseudo-poetic line construction ("In your arms I’m just longing to be"). So says the critical self.
But the emotional self—the one that unabashedly accepts love, pity, and nostalgia—knocks aside the critical self and takes in the sincerity of Bowlly and the poignancy of the song’s scenario: he’s been looking at her all evening through as she dances with everyone but him. Even so, he’s saved the last waltz especially for her. Yes, the critical self gets up off the floor and asks why Al didn’t simply go over and ask her for a dance much earlier in the evening. However, that is beside the point in the world of the sentimental song. When you’re enraptured you don’t reason why, you go simply go with your emotions to that ineffable place from which you hope never to return.
(1) Art seems to have been in Louisville at this point in time. However, the 1915 version
of "Hesitation Blues," published by Gillham’s pal, Billy Smythe, credits only Smythe and a certain Scott Middleton. Reputedly, Smythe and Middleton later accompanied Gillham to California, but there the trio’s trail disappears. Smythe turns up playing piano on Gillham’s last commercial release, a Bluebird record made at a hotel in San Antonio, Texas in 1934. In the meantime, Gillham’s name was added to the writer credits of "Hesitation Blues" when it was republished by the Jack Mills Company of New York in 1924. (Mills, whose brother Irving co-wrote "Lovesick Blues" and went on to manage Duke Ellington, specialized in the blues and black music in general.) Gillham first recorded "Hesitation Blues" via the acoustic process for Gennett, a Richmond, Indiana-based label best known for recording jazz, gospel, hillbilly music, and Klan anthems. Since no copies have even been found, it would appear that this recording was never released. In February 1925 he recorded the song again, this time as an electric for Columbia. The release—a rollicking version full of amusing couplets backed by a cracking good piano—reveals that Gillham modified the approach called for in the 1915 Billy Smythe score. The fact that it also differed from W.C. Handy’s rendition would seem to indicate that "Hesitation Blues" ("Hesitating" according to the Handy version), like so much early, roots-oriented pop, was a "floating" folk song of no known authorship. Performers, amateur and professional alike, contributed their own lines and melody switches to the tried-and-true blues, a form which evidence suggests surfaced at the turn of the century as a ribald "slow drag" dance-song accompaniment to staged movements of sporting house ladies.
Variations of "Hesitation Blues" can be found in collections of black folk songs published in the middle 1920s; these songbooks state that the material was found in the American South between 1915 and 1917. Did these southerners learned "Hesitation Blues" from the published versions, or were they re-creating by polishing, and then presenting their creation to the world in the time-honored folk process—a process devoid of copyright and royalty considerations? My guess is that Gillham and Smythe picked up a version of the song while they were living in St. Louis in 1914. "Hesitation" waltzes were the rage and, therefore, their composition appears to have been a commentary on the dance fad. Evidence indicates that Gillham met Smythe shortly before 1914; at the time, Art was enrolled at St. Louis University and Billy worked as a local music publisher (he enjoy modest success with the release of his "Ten Penny Rag" in 1911). It is possible that Smythe, the older and more experienced of the two, taught Gillham how to rag at the piano. Billy was an active in the St. Louis scene as a pianist; the city was at the forefront of ragtime innovation. Early pioneers included composer and performer Tom Turpin, who ran a popular saloon in the 1890s, and John Stark, a publisher whose clients included Scott Joplin, moved his business there in the early 1900s.
(2) Ted Brown’s real name was Fred Fred Brownold. He’d been a ragtime composed in turn-of-the-century St. Louis when John Stark published his "Manhattan Rag" (1905). Two years later he wrote "That Rag," a collection of melodies that had been floating around the ragtime world of saloons and sporting houses. Later, he moved to Chicago and started his own publishing company. The trail of Browne, Smythe, and Gillham shows the connection between Victorian ragtime and Jazz Age electronics, from sheet music to radio airwaves.
(3) Mrs. Louisa Canada Gillham had won fame as a coloratura soprano with the San Carlo Opera Company.
(4) This surmise is compromised somewhat by the fact that Edison had no ear for harmony. Sam Coslow, later to become an arch-crooner (with a way mooing out of the side of his mouth) and composer of the Crosby hit, "Learn to Croon," said as much based upon his stint as Edison’s song-scout in the early 1920s. He related that the great man judged a new song by its tune alone; harmonies were forbidden. The pop standard, "Carolina in the Morning," for instance, sounded so see-saw monotonous as a naked melody that Edison rejected it, just as he’d rejected Rachmaninoff for playing too loudly and Al Jolson’s brother Harry as a "Jew trying to sound like a Negro."
(5) Victor soon replaced Murray—both as a premier solo artist and Aileen Stanley’s singing partner—with crooning pioneer Johnny Marvin.
(6) Crumit’s delivery on "My Honey’s Lovin’ Arms" (Columbia; 1922) reflected a self-conscious effort to mimic the big-voiced acoustic era singers. He is dead on the beat, military style, rolling his r’s, and exhibiting a pronounced nasal tone.
(7) A Paramount musical short from that period featured Frances Williams gaily singing of problems with her current boy friend who keeps demanding, "Let’s don’t and say we did." John Gilbert, then a handsome screen idol, is her delight, but "It seems my boy friend likes him, too."
(8) In the 1933 movie, Broadway Through a Keyhole, a young woman intently appraised Columbo during a nightclub scene as he led the band, fiddle tucked underneath his arm. Approvingly, she delivered her verdict: "He doesn’t look like a crooner."
|Back to The Crooners/Tin Pan Alley Pop Tradition||Back to Table of Contents|