Volume Two: 1930-1934

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


"Sweet melodies of love inspire romance" sang Sam Coslow, chief architect of the 1930’s croon-song. But he could also pin-prick any balloons of pretension by enshrining in cartoon frame the catch-chant "Boo-Boo-Boo". Like all good things in life nothing should be taken too seriously. Welcome to the vanished world of crooning...

In the beginning, back in the prehistoric mists, there was a mother soothing her baby with the murmur of sweet lullabies. By medieval times "crooning" had been established as a (secular) chant and, as of old, the husband home from the field could be assured of peace; wifey had lulled the little man into dreamland by the rocking and regular rhythms of melodic sweet nothings.

Crooning was thus a woman’s job, a soft option. By the end of the Victorian age, civilized man prided himself on being a macho meat-eater with a steady eye and a hearty handshake. Men were men, women were women, and a good cigar was a smoke. Popular singing styles reflected this beefy masculinity: the balladeers of stage and saloon sang from deep in their chests, giving forth in stentorian tones capable of glassbreaking. Apart from matters of masculinity there was also a practical reason for such a noise. In those pre-electric amplification days it was necessary for artists to belt, bellow or even shout in order to be heard at the back of the theatre. Nobody slept when Al Jolson was razoring his voice all around the house. Even such motherly figures as Sophie Tucker could, and had to, belt with the rest of them. Crooning was confined to the nursery.

Then, in the middle of the jazz age 1920’s, a funny thing happened. A band of male singers started singing softly, going girly. Technology called the new tune. Up to the new-fangled microphone stepped a new breed of gentlemen. Confidential conversationalists, easy-going fellows with a certain bedside mannerism in their restrained voices. We celebrated such bold pioneers in Volume One of "The First Crooners" – song delineators like "Whispering" Jack Smith and Art Gillham, "The Whispering Pianist". With nonchalance they effected a pop revolution by bringing out that hitherto repressed feminine side hidden under the tough hide of the All-American brute-male. Our crooning revolutionaries suggested an alternate male world of soft collars, shirts, hats, and also courtliness in the modern manner. They were the new troubadours, offering up medieval romanticism in an age of flappers, vamps and machine gun gangsters. They were the civilized side of the jazz age.

While there were snorts of protest from the old brigade -- the reactionary raw-steak-faced men of steel -- their womenfolk and daughters went crazy for this seductive new sound, oozing out of the radio ether and from the whirling disc on the electric phonograph. Leading this well-dressed warbling army was Rudy Vallée, an Ivy League man trailing the perfume of class and breeding. Like his pioneer brethren he sang in a high-pitched, almost ethereal manner and his diction was clear and precise. In the early 1930’s Vallée’s supremacy was challenged by Bing Crosby, a reformed jazz fan, who developed a deeper and more robust sound. A little sexier, perhaps. Also weighing in for the crooning contest was Russ Columbo, one-time violinist in dance bands. His voice was even manlier and with the suggestion of rugged vulnerability -- as if he was recovering from being bonked on the conk in the boxing ring. Or perhaps simple suffering from a cold. At any rate, this triumvirate ruled the airwaves and even had a song written about them. There were a lot of jokes too concerning these groaners and moaners who seemed to be suggesting a life of slacking rather than the rolled-sleeve hard-digging required by the ever-worsening Depression. There was more than a suggestion from these effete entertainers that they were men of silk pajamas, reeking with self pity, submission, and even posing as prisoners of love.

In Britain the cultural watchdogs were particularly alarmed by the popularity of the blasé Yankee Invaders. Local songwriters, steeped in the music hall tradition of healthy songs about boiled beef and carrots, kippers, wives and mother-in-laws, complained (via their spokesman Ralph Butler, writer of songs concerning forms, food, and the outdoor life) that the Yanks were too preoccupied with the "lugubrious lamentations of a disappointed lover" and that their song topics were too narrow, dealing with "affairs of the heart invariably conducted on a couch and behind closed curtains".

No doubt the crooners and their writers dealt with adult love expressed in baby talk with a steady sprinkle of tears, but their song settings -- at least in this collection -- are very often out-of-doors, in a beautiful garden of love. We are among flowers and birds, under the moon and the stars, and we are building up, ever so politely, to that big goodnight as dawn is breaking.

Let us examine our songs, singers, and accompaniments in a little detail. Our crooners are, for the most part, light-voiced and sing quite high. Their diction is generally excellent, a far cry from the jazz and blues singers of the 1920’s (and, of course, the coming horde of screaming rockers in the 1950’s). Curiously, though, a few crooners have a habit of clipping off their G’s (as in "singin’"). Perhaps this was a demotic gesture to show that they were regular guys under the sophistication. The musical accompaniment must not be overlooked. Sensitive and subdued, never intrusive or competitive, the bands belle the misconception that the 1920’s was all hot jazz and the 1930’s was all hot swing. There are violins galore and plenty of sweetly-plucked guitars, the old Neapolitan in the new cosmopolitan.

I need not go into detail about the well-known singers on this CD. Plenty of books and liner notes deal with their lives and art. Rather, I want to throw a little light on some of the lesser known artistes. It is fitting that our record begins with Gene Austin, the Texas tenor, for it was his 1927 recording of "My Blue Heaven" which become the first vocal million-seller. Gene was a rolling stone, a rounder, and a keen jazzer, but the ladies liked him for his voice of relaxed charm and his ability to hit heavenly notes. "Blue Kentucky Moon", a haunting waltz is off-the-peg perfect for Austin as "The Voice Of The Southland". Walter Donaldson (who had composed "My Blue Heaven") provides a harmonic bed of unusual minor to major chord changes, a trademark of this ace tunesmith of Tin Pan Alley, a fellow forever looking for new wine to put into old bottles.

Donaldson, who had written his first hit back in the century’s teen years, was more than holding his own in the so-called Tired Thirties. "Hello Beautiful!", full of vaudeville ragtime, is given a dainty treatment by Nick Lucas, the first guitar-playing pop singer and the first Interpreter of "Tiptoe Through The Tulips". Another pioneer wizard of the strings was Cliff Edwards, better known in the Roaring Twenties as "Ukulele Ike". Here, however, he waxes romantic and high as he sings to the stars with a gorgeously rich tune by Joe Meyer, the man from Modesto, California, who wrote what became his state’s anthem, "California, Here I Come". Art Gillham, another holdout from the jazz age, was an oddity among the smoothie crooners -- he made fun of himself as the world’s worst performer. But his eccentricity, sincerity, and vulnerability are winning. "Confessin’ That I Love You" is typical of a time when American males were prone to feeling guilty and to taking a masochistic delight in transgressing the laws of love as laid down by the ladies. Crooners continually pleaded and begged but they were often "Out In The Cold Again". Or else pandering up to their goddess to blurt out "You’re My Everything". Sometimes they offered sage advice in the love stakes. When the little woman seems discontent with her lot as homemaker all you have to do is "Fry A Little Tenderness". This song, still going strong today, has been known to make feminists go up in blue smoke.

What do we know of such singers as Chick Bullock, Jack Miller, Charlie Palloy? What were these crooners when they descended from their electric Mount Olympus? Bullock hailed from the dreary wastes of Montana, escaping to record hundreds of songs for bands both jazz and dance. His private life was a mystery. We do know he ended up on the West Coast dabbling in real estate, wise man. Jack Miller, a Bostonian, was a self-taught pianist and singer who eventually became a busy conductor-arranger in network radio. Charlie Palloy is a real obscurity. Obviously he modeled his style on Russ Columbo, but all we know is that he played guitar, led a band for a while, and recorded for the short-lived Crown label. His careful pronunciation of an "s" borders on the sibilant.

Smith Ballew, on the other hand, was a name in his time. A smooth-as-satin heart-throb with matinee idol good looks, he was also much respected as a band leader by his fellow musicians. Later, this tall Texan exchanged his tuxedo for cowboy costume to star as a Singing Cowboy In a B picture series. British-born Little Jack Little was another band leader of his day, enjoying his short burst of fame as the sensation of swell hotels, delighting fans with his characteristic chinesey tinkle piano and whiskey-husky voice. He composed the standards "Jealous", "A Shanty In Old Shanty Town", and "Hold Me", and so his life should have been all plain sailing. But something went awry and in 1956 he killed himself. Still, we can always relish the comforting presence of Jack Little in movie shorts as he glides effortlessly from piano to mike, crooning out of the side of his mouth, caressing the totem of the mighty mike.

Another who worshipped at the mike was Singin’ Sam (note the ubiquitous clipped "g"). Indeed, Sam let his face be obliterated by a huge saucer-shaped mike in a series of movie shorts where he was accompanied by that lyrical bouncing ball. Perhaps he was hidden because of his lack of sex appeal (Gene Austin suffered from this, too). On radio Sam thrived (his real name was Harry Frankel) where he was known as the Barbasol Man and as a great pitchman for Coca Cola. He has a personable low voice and was everybody’s favorite uncle. He made too few records and his "Evenin’ Sun" song is a delight, a switch on the gloomy-doomy St. Louis Blues stuff about hating to see the evening sun go down. Sam is keen to commute quickly home to be with his love, to guard her from this evil old world. Domestic bliss was a hot topic in ballads of the period. No boogie-woogie jiving for these stay-at-homers!

Also in the deep-sea voice category is Conrad Thibault. Despite a name redolent of Ruritanian romance on the operetta stage Conrad was a true-blooded American, born in Northbridge, Mass. With his classically-trained voice he reinforces the rather sniffy lyrics of "Paper Moon" with its disdain for a tinsel world of honky tonks and melodies played in penny arcades. Surely such cheap music constituted the very bread of pop song? Heaven help us -- we don’t want the Wagnerian entering our cosy world of crooning!

From the actual seat of romance -- Europe– came the Danish Carl Brisson. Although he performed with the precision and elegance befitting a gentleman who had been knighted by the King of Denmark, he had also been European middleweight boxing champion -- so there were to be no jokes about effeminate crooners when Carl was around. "Cocktails For Two", a topical song about the end of Prohibition, was specially written for Mr. Brisson by Paramount Pictures staff writers Sam Coslow and Arthur Johnston. It’s a nice change from songs about moonlight and roses. The same team also contributed "Boo Boo Boo", a gentle poking of fun at crooning, now a burgeoning international craze. And the chief moaner himself, Bing Crosby, performs this joke at his own expense with relish and good humor.

Sam Coslow was no mean crooner himself, an expert at singing out of the corner of his mouth in the Jack Little manner, with the added benefits of a certain amount of music from the nose. He was also blessed with latinate good looks and thick shiny hair, plus an ability to work wonders with financial matters as well as words of love. "Learn To Croon" is a text book guide to becoming a modern troubadour, a knight of the boudoir. Sammy Fain, too, was a songwriter moonlighting as a crooner. Back in the 1920’s he’d written "Wedding Belts Are Breaking Up That Old Gong of Mine", and he later created the music for "I’ll Be Seeing You" and "Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing". Here he renders a number dripping with self-pity, albeit covered with muslin. Nobody’s fooled by the title "Don’t Tell Her What Happened To Me" -- we all know the forlorn lover wants her to hear what happened, wants to drench her in his tears. A very dramatic reading by Mr. Fain of this obscure gem from the team of DeSylva, Brown & Henderson.

England, known as the land of the emotionally buttoned-up, produced one world-class crooner in Al Bowlly. Actually, Bowlly was born in South Africa but he came to fame in the dance band and night club scene of London’s West End in the early 1930’s. Ray Noble, bandleader, arranger, songwriter, and recording studio czar, put Al on the map by employing him to sing vocal refrain on hundreds of HMV recording sessions. "Love Is The Sweetest Thing" created a demand in America for the refreshing sweetness of the Ray Noble orchestra, and for the sexy stylings of Bowlly, by all accounts a hell of a ladies man. Ray Noble wrote a lot of good songs, including our Russ Columbo selection, "Goodnight Sweetheart".

Our crowning artiste, the man who started the swooner craze, also got mileage out of "Goodnight Sweetheart". Rudy Vallée, he of the wavy hair and wavy voice, performs a number written by two South African brothers, famous on the British variety stage for their rapid-fire gags, culminating in a sentimental song, "Without That Certain Thing" -- the word "thing" seems to have been often on the songwriters’ minds -- takes a philosophical approach to the props of the crooner garden of love: birds, flowers, spring, skies of blue, wedding bells and wedding rings -- there’d be none of these things without that big, eternal over-hovering, ever-throbbing other Thing: Love.

As I have written in other liner notes for Take Two, I have a special relationship with Mr, Vallée. I inherited his favorite dog, Inspector, who now sits at my feet and barks whenever he hears a crooner.

For, even today, I am carrying the torch for this mellow manner of singing, performing the old ballads on any stage which will have me. And Inspector lies with me, yawning and barking, in the raucous clamor of today we more than ever need the soothing balm of croon. And it’s a safer bet than Prozac, or Valium, believe me.


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