Volume One: The Twenties

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


My ideal is to be in a swell but cozy night club, snug in a comfy wall-hugging booth, nursing a cocktail, wrapped in embalming cigar smoke. On a little stage a demure dance band is wheezing pleasantly -- plenty of throaty sax, a touch of lead fiddle, and hold the brass -- when all of a sweet sudden up glides a tall man, a gentle-man, in full tails with patent leather hair glistening and with a winning smile. Jack Smith, "The Whispering Baritone", has an air of quiet authority, commanding the room with such subtlety that nobody’s aware of the microphone’s magical art in making the whisperer’s voice so God-like.

He sing-speaks of baby faces and glad rag dolls and lachrymose oceans of unrequited love in a whiskey hush of a voice (but with perfect enunciation) which wipes away any traces of street sordidness, which calms and soothes and comforts without incurring the expense of a Freudian analyst. He spreads a pop peace which passes understanding, particularly of the storm gathering in the outside world.

It is 1929 and the great whisperer, the very ultra in classy crooning, is at his height and I am in seventh heaven.

Jack the Fearless, Jack the Bold -- but also Jack the Reassuring and Unflappable. This friendly delineator of song, a musical chatterer, is just the fellow to be with in a crisis, to go into the jungle with. Of course, it’s only a dream. A profligate life style coupled with a public’s fickle taste will be toppling Jack Smith from his throne in the early Thirties. Still, this is the gorgeous picture I receive from his records. This is the reason I love, and take spiritual strength from, those pioneer crooners, that band of eccentrics, who murmur electrically through the ages.

1929, the year of my ideal dream and the main year of this collection, was indeed a dream time for the crooners. Songs were still peppy and simple, the bonds were jaunty, niteries abounded, and records sold in the million. The mighty mike allowed the tiniest breath of the crooner to be wafted over the air to flutter the hearts of rich and poor in a democratic manner.

It was an ingenuous time, for the crooners hadn’t yet been standardized into "boo-boo-buboo" merchants and the bands hadn’t been streamlined into sludgy monsters of Swing. It was a time of plenty, of money and booze and broads: a violent, corrupt time perhaps -- but also one where the best crooners played a becalming role, firm hands on the dance band tiller, holding back musicians who, given half a chance and a quart of hooch, were dying to toot hot jazz. It is this precious period that we celebrate.

The story of relations between singers, bands, and records is a curious one. During the teen years of this century singers were in demand. Their records ran the gamut from opera to vaudeville but they had one thing in common: large lungs -- because acoustic recording required loud voices. The band’s sole requirement was to trot along in accompaniment.

But in the 1920s, with electrical recording and the hegemony of the dance band, the singers took a back seat -- reduced to one miserable refrain and often warbled by a bandsman in a throwaway manner. During the early 1930s, with crooners as big money-makers, the singers re-established themselves -- only to be overcome by the riff-chasing blare of the Big Bands. However, one of the pleasanter aftermaths of World War Two was the demise of the Big Bands and the return of the singers as record stars. Ironically, many had learned their craft within the band business (e.g.: Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, etc.). All seemed plain sailing until suddenly in the middle of the 1950s rock & roll charged in. The rest is rock history.

It must be admitted that by the 1950s crooning had become tired and bland, cut to the same cardigan pattern, originally modeled by Bing Crosby. But B.C. -- as you’ll hear -- crooning was not yet a settled style was not homogenized. In fact, "crooning" had not even been thus labeled. The pioneers, pop singing John The Baptists, were recruited from disparate spots: Gene Austin from vaudeville and the circus, Sam Coslow and Sammy Fain from the songwriting cubicles of Tin Pan Alley, Art Gillham and Jack Smith from the song-plugging road, Rudy Vallée from Yale, and many of the others from the freewheeling fields of the Old South. Only Charles King and Irving Kaufman came from the Broadway stage, where stentorian voices were a requirement.

The embryonic art of crooning involved singing from the back of the throat and the top of the head rather than the lungs and stomach. There was much scooping and swooping, notes were dive-bombed and zoomed onto -- very different to the accepted legitimate vocal style based on opera and bel canto. In fact, crooning was a return to what good songstering should be: natural, unadorned, seemingly artless, conversational. Exactly what good jazz should be!

The recruiter for this easy-going style was radio. In the 1920s the burgeoning of commercial radio led to a demand for inoffensive entertainment, especially smooth love songs to a gentle beat performed with suavity and class. Those were the days when society looked up to its betters for good example, when etiquette books were bestsellers, when radio voices were required to dress up in tuxedos. The radio moguls knew that their audience was largely made up of families -- and matriarchal at that. By the late 1920s the roar of jazz had worn out the public ear, and married women, dedicated to all-important domestic tasks, were keen for sanity in song, with a touch of romance. In 1927 they had awarded their good housekeeping seal to Gene Austin’s honeyed hymn to domestic bliss, "My Blue Heaven". This was the first vocal record to sell over a million copies, a far cry from the kinetic jazz band records which had previously held that record. The music business has always madly followed a sensation and "My Blue Heaven", coupled with radio’s requirements, ushered in our singers of sweet nothings to a race course which had recently witnessed the clang and clatter of Hard Hearted Hannahs and Dapper Dans. Oddly enough, while the ladies continued to shout and moan and carry torches, the new gentleman singers poured on a soothing balm via voices that murmured, whispered and gently persuaded. Voices which seemed small and rather high-pitched, barely even manly, compared to the Sophie Tuckers and Jane Greens and other strapping female belters and rolling pin wielders.

Where had the early crooners learned their craft? From outside of mainline show business, from night clubs, cabarets, roadhouses -- vocal regulation-free venues where no raised stage distanced them from their audience, where the act, (if act it indeed was) melted into the merry throng of eaters, drinkers, lovers, and where there was no need to fire off notes for the hitting of rear stalls or high balconies.

When the music business become electrified these casual sketchers of song were made. The technology plus the social climate spelled big money for a short while.

Let’s now turn to specifics about the singers on this CD. Many of the vocalists are presented within the confines of the ubiquitous fox-trotting dance band, but unlike the 1930s these bands still kept up a jolly rhythm and were not yet reduced to chug-chug monotony. Nor were the vocalists deep in a trough of boo-boo-bubooing...

Gene Austin, born in Texas and raised in Louisiana, was a decent jazz pianist and jazz singer. On "Sentimental Baby" he’s accompanied by a jazz-based band, yet they hold back and keep to the pretty melody, reinforcing it with a nifty beat (Ben Pollack had a superb jazz pedigree). Sadly, Austin faded from popularity in the 1930s, possibly because he was avuncular rather than sexy. And he was a tenor. The women of the Depression demanded, for the most part, deeper-voiced crooners.

Sam Coslow, a quintessential crooner, made his music from the side of the mouth and through much of the nose. He made his money out of songwriting becoming, in the 1930s, a pillar of Hollywood where he co-wrote such movie hits as "Just One More Chance" , "Cocktails For Two" and "Learn To Croon", a satirical number that, ironically, was special material for Bing Crosby. In 1970s London I met Coslow, by then a retired financial adviser, and I asked him about his achievement in writing what must be the first pro-marijuana song (featured in the movie "MURDER AT THE VANITIES"). He expressed complete bewilderment and changed the subject to cricket – sensible man.

Sammy Fain, another Tin Pan Alley worker who found fortune in movie songwriting, I met at a Harry Warren tribute. I had just finished an a cappella version of "Home In Pasadena", due to my pianist being drunk and incapable. Fain congratulated me, his eyes glittering: "You’re a true son of the Alley, a man for all seasons!" He’d been a writer for all seasons, having crafted hits ranging from "Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang Of Mine", through "By A Waterfall" and "Be Seeing You" to Doris Day’s "Secret Love".

The silver screen was instrumental in the making of Bing Crosby’s stardom. With pinned-back ears, a clever wig and a tight corset, Crosby’s limpid and languid face and easy-going manner won him big box-office, "Gay Love" dates back to his pre-star years when he was just another up-and-comer, a crazy jazz-scaffing kid burning the candle at both ends before briar pipes and golf clubs claimed him.

Red McKenzie, Willard Robison and Segar Ellis -- all from the Mid-west or South where life was less frenetic -- were steeped in jazz and thus avoided the theatricality of Charles King or Irving Kaufman. Art Gillham too surrounded himself with jazzers when recording. He grew up in St Louis, hotbed of ragtime and home of Frankie & Johnny. He sang in a quavery, faltering voice and confessed to being the "world’s worst pianist". But he was a joker: in fact, he had a nifty, folksy touch and a quirky, wry personality. "Hollywood" is more than a cautionary tale -- it became the music to a later hit: "Goodbye Blues". Gillham wisely knew when his time was up and in the 1930s he became head of a business college in Atlanta.

Nick Lucas was born in New Jersey with an Italian name. He sang like a transplanted gondolier and instead of a pole he manipulated a guitar -- and with what wizardry! His guitar instruction book, published in the early 1920s, was the first of its kind and countless future country music stars learned to play from the Lucas tabulature. In the late 1960s he enjoyed a revival due to Tiny Tim’s version of the old Lucas hit "Tip Toe Through The Tulips" . Many times I performed with Lucas and he was as precise with his chording as he was with his diction. He tailored his repertoire to all tastes, keeping up with the times. On stage he’d proudly tell of how much money he made whenever Tiny Tim sang "Tip Toe", but I knew -- being a songwriter/publisher -- that this was a bluff. As merely the song’s performer poor Lucas, like so many other crooners, received not one penny from media exposure of that hit. Songwriters are much better rewarded than performers.

Jack Smith, too, never received his just rewards. In the 1920s he was riding high with his clipped crooning -- a true diseur -- of hits like "Me And My Shadow". But by the 1930s his distinctive, paternal style may have seemed a bit mannered. There was the drinking as well. Like Gene Austin he was a little on the heavy side and not a real heart throbber, whereas Dick Powell and other kid crooners could make breasts tremble and lips quiver.

Rudy Vallée had initiated such sexual excitement with his radio broadcasts. He was the first crooning sensation. When I met him in the 1970s he ascribed his sexual powers to his having a figurative phallus deep in his throat. But, as a historian, I have to believe that his success was due to a combination of his being in the right club on the right radio station at the right social time. His gift of the gab was amazing -- a tireless self-promoter. As a radio host in the 1930s he was second to none. He was also a fine comedian.

He lived to a grand old age, high on a hilltop in Hollywood, playing tennis over his Rudy Vallée museum, drinking champagne at breakfast, telling jokes and tooting his sax to anyone who’d listen. I listened for hours. And while Jack Smith died in obscurity at age 50, watching a TV ball game in his little New York flat, and Gene Austin ended up in a trailer called "My Blue Heaven", Rudy Vallée died happy in an armchair in his mansion cheering at a TV appearance by his buddy Ronald Reagan.

The crooner’s dog Inspector was at his side, licking his master’s face. Today that very dog lives at our house and lies next to me on stage when I, carrying on the grand tradition of crooning, strum my uke and tell of moons and Junes and endless honeymoons. The song goes on forever like a air of slippers that never wear out.


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