The Voice That Had Them Fainting
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
If Rudy Vallée had wanted to become a pop culture icon he’d have been his own worst enemy. Mention the crooner to most show-biz scribes and buffs today and they’ll scoff, telling stories of a buffoon, of an artist you couldn’t take seriously, a king of camp. Like the Ancient Mariner our star had a nasty habit of stopping total strangers -- to tell tales of his sexual dirty deeds, particularly of the secret sex weapon concealed in his mouth ("That’s why the women liked my records").
But, in truth, Rudy Vallée was a master comedian-crooner, and, like many great artists, he concealed his art, even belittled his achievements -- which were many: He was an accomplished saxophone player, songwriter, bandleader, radio show host and talent scout, stage and screen actor, autobiographer, and tireless head gardener of the Rudy Vallée archives (housed in a bunker under the tennis court of his hilltop Hollywood home).
He was also, of course, the World’s First Successful Crooner. There had been other crooners before him -- Whispering Jack Smith, Art Gillham, Frank Crumit -- but none of them could flutter the ladies hearts like Rudy Vallée and none of them became the pop sensation of the late 20’s that was "The Vagabond Lover", he of the wavy hair and the wavy voice. Without so much as a wiggle, let alone a wriggle, Rudy Vallée was the first modern pop star, creating a fan fever whose tradition was to be carried on by Frank Sinatra, Johnny Ray, Elvis Presley and The Beatles. And this from a debonair, well-mannered Yale man!
Herbert Prior Vallée, born 1901 in Vermont but raised in Maine, was the son of a druggist. At ten he took to the drums (ragtime drumming then coming into its own). Around 1919, when the saxophone was becoming the sexiest instrument in pop and the sax-dominated dance band was emerging, the kid Vallée blew sax. It wasn’t till he’d been exposed to the recordings of Rudy Wiedoeft, maestro of this much-maligned bastard child of Adolphe Sax, that Vallée started studying the saxophone seriously. Wiedoeft, with a sweet tone that was the antithesis of jazz, became Vallée’s idol. The lad practiced to Wiedoeft records for six hours a day.
At the University of Maine in 1921 his devotion to the Rudy Wiedoeft style gained him the nickname "Rudy". The students might have been joshing but Vallée kept the name, and kept the faith. He never pandered to the then-popular jazz bleating and blaring; he kept to the good and narrow path of sweet dance band playing (a route originally laid out in the late teen years
by pioneering bandleader Art Hickman); he believed in melody over quasi-evangelical joy- shouting or blues-moaning. He believed in sweetness and light in a century that was soon to become black and blue.
Transferring his studies to Yale in 1922 Rudy was soon bandleading on the side, paying his way through college. He took time out to go play sax in London with a top dance band, The Savoy Havana. So far, no singing, but much playing, much studying of public taste, much hard work.
Back at Yale he was bandleading for football games, and for the lucrative country club scene. The ladies were becoming impressed -- a novelty: a real gentleman conducting a dance band.
After graduation Rudy decided that in order to make it in the pop music world he had to move to New York, world centre of show-biz. By this time he was a seasoned musician, bandleader, and organizer. It wasn’t, thus, luck alone that landed him the job of providing a house band for a new club, The Heigh-Ho, catering to the debutante set. Rudy Vallée & His Connecticut Yankees were formed. And that might have been that if Vallée’s astute manager had not talked WABC radio into hooking-up The Heigh-Ho Club into the homes of their listeners. Rudy and his band were soon a hit. The fan mail came pouring in: who was this nice-voiced fellow, the one who did the announcing and that ever so dulcet singing? (Rudy had been experimenting with casual song delineation for a year or so).
Soon Rudy was broadcasting all over the place. He understood the power of radio, how it could almost overnight make you a star. His band specialized in soft but swingy music, never interfering with the more important things in life, gently massaging radioland with medleys of choruses, no verses, and the gracious sex appeal of the Vallée voice.
This civilized but saucy voice seemed to begin somewhere deep in his head. Then it travelled down his nose and out. A journalist of the day recognized the art of this first "radiophonic" genius of the air (Rudy recognized it too, quite often): "By the divine accident or miracle that makes art 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." This dripping voice of lavender and old lace, without a trace of hot jazz ranting and without a trace of the big belting affected by earlier radio singers, was by 1930 a National Institution.
At air-time, card games stopped and the women clasped their hands as their menfolk snorted. Rudy was not without his male supporters, though, for businessmen in his hometown created a "Rudy Vallée Square". Other males who approved of the crooner were song publishers and songwriters -- for he consumed music voraciously, breathing out upon the airwaves perfumed melodies and clearly enunciated lyrics that were pure joy to the manufacturers. They’d had quite enough of jazz mangling.
The Vallée formula also included a strict tempo for correct dancing (The Dancing Masters of America recognized this beat by giving him high honors). The musical secret was two pianos for a rhythmic pianola effect, plenty of lilting strings, and a drummer who brushed busily behind his leader’s relaxed nasal vocalizing -- like a valet working on his master’s shoes while the master sits ultracool, polishing his nails.
Our compact disc presents Vallée during his first decade of stardom. Most of these selections are from the early and mid-30’s at the height of his musical powers. In this period his voice is pleasantly mellow, more so than on his earlier recordings in the 20’s. On one song he throws in a radio touch, mentioning the young fellows who wrote the song for him. Ever the gentleman announcer. For the most part song verses are eliminated because it was the leader’s theory that the public wanted to get straight to the meat of the melody with no messing about. Vallée took his fan mail very seriously.
And so he prospered all through the 1930’s. Making movies, doing vaudeville, tossing out the records. But broadcasting always remained his forte; gradually he became more a presenter, less a bandleader. Came World War II, however, and into the breach stepped our star as director of the forty piece Coast Guard band. In peacetime he was to be known to a whole generation as a character actor on screen and stage (He was strikingly good in "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying"). By the 60’s he was well into a role as a megaphoned symbol of the Roaring Twenties, a figure of campy nostalgia.
But what did he care? He’d blazed trails, in the politest manner, and now he could sit back and relax in his luxurious Hollywood home. It was here that I spent a most entertaining day in 1970.
I was researching for my book, "After The Ball--Pop Music from Rag to Rock", and Rudy Vallée heartily agreed to let me come up and quiz him. Did I play tennis? Could I stay for dinner? I was delighted and stunned. Just after my arrival on the hilltop estate, Mr. Vallée made his entrance, with his gorgeous wife: they’d just come off a cruise and were ready for champagne and caviar. After that snack we got down to the tennis. He made up the rules as we went along. However, I did manage to win one or two points. Then he toured me ‘round the archives under the tennis court and I saw all his saxophones and megaphones. There were endless scrapbooks containing every mention of Rudy Vallée ever printed. In the house there were pay telephones and signs advising smokers to mind their manners. There was also more champagne and a terrific one-man vaudeville turn by my host: now playing the saxophone, now telling a tale about some long-dead sweetheart, now reciting the splendid monologue of "How Fights Start In Bars". Finally we had dinner, at a table that seemed a mile long, and there were only Rudy, his wife, and I. It was impossible to really see my host because he was so far away and the lights were low. But I could hear the stories and songs. When I heard the snoring I knew it was time to go. There were a lot of dogs to negotiate my way through as I exited.
And speaking of dogs -- isn’t it fitting that sitting at my feet right now is Rudy Vallée’s favourite dog? Inspector, of mixed breed, was at his master’s side the night he died in his chair, the third of July, 1986. Through a mutual friend I have inherited this dear animal, now eight years old, and he brings my wife and me nothing but pleasure and undying loyalty. As the world’s lost crooner I am particularly proud to be the owner of the dog beloved of the world’s first crooner. And whenever I sing "I’m Just A Vagabond Lover" the dog Inspector goes into his finest howls and the world is connected once more.
You can find Ian's main website at ianwhitcomb.com