THE FIRST CROONERS

Volume 3: 1935-1940

by Ian Whitcomb

 

Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

 
You can find Ian's main website at
ianwhitcomb.com

 

By the late 1940ís, all those who song pop songs professionally were labeled "crooners." There was nothing to the left or right Ė rhythm & blues and country and western were in segregated sections untouched by the general public. It seemed that the world was divided into either moon-eyed shopgirls sighing for their velvet-voiced and action-shunning vocalists or else an army of ex-soldiers and mature adults snorting against these crooners, who appeared to be nothing more than malingerers clinging to their microphones for dear life.

The golden age of the Big Bands had deteriorated into a sludgy music scene topped by the anemic piping of cookie-cut crooners. A change was inevitable. The vanguard was led by evangelical belters Frankie Laine and Johnny Ray, shadowed by the cold water country stylings of Hank Williams and "Tennessee" Ernie Ford. And then suddenly, in the middle 1950ís, the floodgates opened and rock & roll crashed in, drowning out almost completely the murmuring of the well-mannered and neatly-dressed crooners who, through skillful and restrained use of voice and mike, had dominated pop singing since the early 1930ís.

In volumes 1 and 2 of this series, we covered the early years of crooning when the art of the electric recording and microphone technique were new and thus experimentation was acceptable. Art Gillham, "Whispering" Jack Smith, "Ukulele Ike" -- personalities full of quirkiness and animation were allowed to provide a brightly-colored and varied soundscape. This left little room for the stentorian stage singers of the acoustic era and soon most of them (except for a few stand-cuts like Al Jolson) were consigned to the shade.

Out of this gloriously free field of conversational singing styles there emerged, in the late 20ís, the first crooning sensation: Rudy Vallťe, well-bred, collegiate and without threat or eccentricity. He picked his songs carefully and made his band keep a reliable beat. In keeping with the approved range of the period, his voice was quite high. But with the coming of the Great Depression he was eclipsed by an easy-going fellow with a deeper voice and a more potent bedroom manner -- Bing Crosby, the new sensation, was to create the model for subsequent pop singers. Ready-made crooning was established.

Thus, in our 3rd volume we find crooning settling nicely into an early middle age, providing the vocal emollient necessary to tide the world through troubled times. Male vocalists, doing their duty, kept their female fans buttoned-up and sedated, suggesting an off-the-bandstand life of golf, bridge and cocktails. Notice that most of these singers step up to the mike from the ranks of the dance band -- they are members of a tight organization, performing their vocal chorus and then retiring into the ranks. Not until World War II and the emergence of Frank Sinatra as a freewheeling, free-thinking, free-speaking (and sometimes cantankerous) personality does the crooner break away from the institution of the Big Band. And after that itís time for the belters and rockers, as we have seen.

Let us look at the contributors to this volume, a select and discreet company, arranged alphabetically as behooves the chivalrous gentlemen of that period.

LEE BENNETT, in a manly and sub aquatic voice, takes us into a pastoral setting similar to a romantic landscape painting: whippoorwills, bluebirds, a pleasant breeze Ė nature is providing the melody and itís a coupling beloved by songwriters. Jan Garberís orchestra provides our ride through the landscape with a tidy bounce supported by melodiously mooing saxophones. In contrast, we go to England where in a cavernous restaurant AL BOWLLY sits alone at a table and begs the dance band leader to play anything but a waltz -- because his late love was crazy about them. Bowlly, who hailed from South Africa, had a light voice and is here accompanied by a loose band led by Lew Stone who was known for his jazz elements. A lady-killer in his day, Bowlly was a prolific artist and, though he was killed by a bomb in the blitz, his work is in even more demand today, preserved on a slew of CDs.

From Denmark, and with a Knighthood, comes CARL BRISSON singing with dramatic precision and without a hint of jazz. Paramount signed him to a picture contract and no macho American dared tag him as a limp-wristed crooner: Carl had been the European middleweight boxing champion. Here he wears kid gloves and likens a broken romance to cigarette ashes. Pop songs had a tendency to be literary in those days. CHICK BULLOCK came from the wilds of Montana to enter the dance band world where his virile voice was to be heard on more discs than any other singer of the 1930ís. He was not a man for languorous love-making on a couch. He was more a man on the move, to a jazzy accompaniment, and in Two Sleepy People heís given superbly vernacular lyrics by Frank Loesser which include nice details like enjoying wishbones from the fridge.

In BUDDY CLARK we have one of the great unsung voices of the 30ís and 40ís cut off by a fatal plane crash just as fame come knocking. Clark had an excellent straightahead style, with careful enunciation, and was much in demand not only on radio but also as a ghost for film actors in singing scenes. Benny Goodman featured him in his "Letís Dance" radio program and for years he was a regular guest on "Your Hit Parade". For us he demonstrates the tragic wit of lyricist Lorenz Hart -- the girt is just too beautiful, therefore she canít be for him alone. From tragedy we go to a dash of comic impishness at the expense of that stately old classic I Wonder Whoís Kissing Her Now. PERRY COMO, casual boy singer with the Ted Weems orchestra, blowing gently as if coaxing bubbles, is backed vocally by the musicians with their tongues-in-cheeks but their instruments firmly in cheerful Dixieland. Rosy McHargue, clarinet, did the arrangement and at 97, at this writing, he can still be seen blowing up a storm in a Santa Monica pub, I know because I am a member of his band.

By 1938, BING CROSBY was a film star and light years away from the bandstand. He had influenced the likes of Como and company to the extent that they all sounded as if on the verge of an afternoon nap. Veteran Alleyman Jimmy Monaco provides a workmanlike tune and Bing puts in his usual reliable job -- in a surprisingly high voice, for a change. Brother BOB CROSBY wanted in on the act and was able to carve out a niche as a dixieland band leader with his Bob Cats. As a singer heís an interesting personality with a voice characterized by a fast wobble. Heís been given a classic song by Rodgers and Hart, a number that was shoved from production to production until finally finding its place as a simple pop number.

SKINNAY ENNIS is similar to Bob Crosby Ė men who make the best of their vocal limitations and thus emerge with individual contributions to the art of singing. This may not be trained art singing but itís nevertheless satisfying and comforting -- pop art at its best. Ennis started as a drummer but in the 30ís became best-known for his unique crooning with the Hal Kemp Orchestra. Heís very breathy and close to the mike, almost making love to it, as he shapes the Irving Berlin song while the band trots along in a friendly manner like so many sweet outfits of those days -- an antidote to the growing frenticism of Swing.

Ennis died in the land of easy-does-it and EDDY HOWARD was born and bred there -- in Woodland, California. Both have that husky, ear-intimacy way with a song, whispering sweet nothings like practiced boudoir creepers. In this case Howard is interpreting high-class material -- sophisticated artlessness from Cole Porter in which a nightís lovemaking is suggested by the line youíd be "so sweet to watch the day awaken with" and "so nice to sit down to eggs and bacon with," and thus the wit waters down the sex.

After the lush saxes, muted brass and melody grand pianos that support most of our 30ís crooners, it comes as a welcome surprise to hear the simple and cleanly plucked solo guitar of NICK LUCAS. He was a pioneer pop singer-guitarist in the 1920ís who successfully made the transition from the rather effete tenor mannerisms of those years to the more masculine and laid-back vocal requirements of the 1930s. I played ukulele with Nick in the 1970ís and he was a stickler for having the exact chord as written, especially on his signature tune of Tiptoe Thruí the Tulips.

On St. Patrickís Night a few months ago I happened to catch TONY MARTIN at a Beverly Hills pub and he was rendering Galway Bay as if it was grand opera. But on our record heís tripping along ever so lightly in the persona of a movie publicist treating his girl as if she was a coming attraction. Martin is another Californian -- itís interesting how many of our crooners were born on the West Coast or retired there. I suppose being laid-back and relaxed (a California quality) is an essential part of successful crooning.

RED McKENZIE, on the other hand, was all East Coast and, in his early days, all vitality and raunch. His instrument then was comb-and-paper and he could scat like nobodyís business. But in the 1930ís he settled into being a band organizer, becoming a key figure in the swing craze. On this Ira Gershwin song about a playboy whoís been everywhere and done everything, McKenzie has toned himself down and is on his best behavior. Still, for legitimacy of tone and barrel-chested bel canto, itís hard to beat VAUGHN MONROE. A graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, he went on to play trumpet in the early 1930ís for the Austin Wylie and Larry Funk bands. Next he settled with the Jack Marshard organization, then led society bands in the Boston area. He gives this Cole Porter number a right royal treatment.

RUSS MORGAN went from the unusual position of coal miner to all-round musician: a pianist, trombonist and hit songwriter (Somebody Else is Taking My Place), he arranged for Victor Herbert and John Philip Sousa. He knew his jazz too: Fletcher Henderson and Louis Armstrong employed him as an arranger. But in our period he became famous for an unadorned and tripping band manner featuring muted brass. On Midnight Blue his light and relaxed vocal is answered by a rather testy horn, growling as if disputing the facts of the matter.

DICK ROBERTSON, singer on a host of records, was a journeyman who could tackle anything from sweet to hot. He was also adept at novelty and on this rain song heís zapping us with sunshine as he zips along to a sprightly dixieland accompaniment. DICK TODD, the "Canadian Crosby", takes us back to the lower chest region with his fine, vibrating baritone on a 1930ís number that is now associated with the heartbreak of World War II. My mother, for example, could not be in the some room as this song. The popular song has the power to act like an instant time machine.

ARTHUR TRACY was a living time machine. When I met the famous "Street Singer" of the depression years, he was in his nineties but acting like a an eager-beaver song plugger. He insisted on demonstrating how one should sell Pennies from Heaven--) -- "Give a big finish, making sure you look every woman in the audience firmly in the eye!" He sang with sincerity in vaudeville and music hall with his accordion. Tracy wouldnít have cared to be called a crooner but he certainly knew how to win the hearts of the ladies. DICK WEBSTER, a violinist with the Jimmie Grier orchestra, occasionally pitched in with an effortless and well-mannered vocal refrain. The song is a number from Friend and Franklin, two Alleymen well-versed in all the tried and tested tricks and phrases. The result is a satisfying piece of period pop.

And so we reach the end with the crooner who started the craze that turned into a long-lasting style. RUDY VALL…E was no simple ladies delight -- he was an astute talent scout, a fine comic and also a hit song spotter. He was particularly good at importing songs from Britain e.g. Goodnight Sweetheart. Harbor Lights is another import and a tune that seems to ooze the nostalgia of regret. It is as if our ship is leaving the snug and safe harbor of the 1930ís dance bands and taking us into a sea of danger. Soon war clouds will engulf us and things will never be the same. And yet when all the guns are silent, the music rises again and goes on and on, soothing us with its everlasting unguent.

 

Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

 
You can find Ian's main website at
ianwhitcomb.com